Sunday, October 9, 2011

Life In Motion

Greetings from Cambridge! I haven't decided yet whether to continue writing this blog, but seeing as I no longer work for Google and no longer live in Africa, at the very least, I thought it was fitting to come up with a new name. Why "In Motion"? Over the last year, I've done a fair bit of travel, and I've discovered that it's the one state that feels more natural than any other to me. It's the sensation of a plane lifting off the ground, the road speeding beneath my wheels, the wind rushing past me at furious speeds. I live for motion, alway pushing forward, looking back only to remember past joys and learn from old mistakes.

These last few weeks in Cambridge have been incredibly, absolutely hectic. We'll see once things normal out whether I can still find interesting enough things to say to put here. Until then...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

One Year Ago...

One year ago today, I landed in Africa for the first time. Looking back at my journal, I arrived at my hotel, discovered I had no hot water, went to the office, and ate some chicken with jolof rice. Pretty typical day in west Africa, really, but it was anything but typical for me. I've come a long way since then, establishing an entirely new life and lifestyle for myself.

In short, some of my greatest accomplishments this year:

  • Visiting 2 new continents and discovering a newfound love for parts of the world I hadn't even thought of before.
  • Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and visiting my friend Alma in Rwanda after over a year of planning.
  • Hitting 20 countries in the span of 12 months, many of them for the first time, and many of them more than once.
  • Expanding my culinary comfort zone by eating all sorts of unusual ethnic dishes (see Nigerian giant land snails).
  • Discovering frequent flyer miles and learning how to sleep on planes.
  • Becoming comfortable taking bucket showers and surviving without proper toilets or electricity.
  • Finally achieving platinum status on the Starwood Preferred Guests program (I'm actually way too proud of this given the fact that it just means I've spent way too much time living out of hotel rooms).
  • Making friends with some pretty extraordinary people.
  • Learning that I am in fact good at the work I've wanted to do for several years.
  • Coming to understand a lot about myself, what I value, and what kind of life I want to lead.

Here's to hoping that this coming year holds just as much growth, fun, and adventure as the last!

Friday, September 2, 2011

New Beginnings, Once More

Today is my last day at Google. Actually, to be more precise, today is my third last day at Google. After all these years, you might think that, by this point, I'd be used to coming and going, and yet, it's still pretty hard. It's been an incredible 12 months. Since I started this job last August, I've made my way to 20 countries, met so many fascinating people, and made some truly extraordinary friends.

And yet, one year later, I'm also ready for a change. The flip side of moving around so much is that I haven't had much of a home this last year, or more figuratively, much of a real place in the world. Living on the extremes of life has been profoundly eye-opening. Before I started traveling a few years ago, I had no idea that this type of nomadic, high-flying lifestyle was possible. Now I've lived it, and I can appreciate it for what it is. Many of my friends have commented that my life seems to be endlessly exciting and glamorous, and to some extent, it has been, though they miss the parts when I'm throwing up from food poisoning or stranded against my will in a strange city. But it's also been somewhat isolating. It turns out that the lifestyle I had growing up has some merit to it too: seeing the same group of friends more than once every few months, having a place to call home, feeling like you actually belong. These are the things I look forward to becoming reacquainted with next year at Cambridge.

Cambridge, approaching fast on the horizon. For the last few days, I've been receiving a barrage of emails about all of the places, activities, and people that await me. I wish I could express my excitement. If I decide to keep this blog through this next step, I think I'm going to have to change the title though... Suggestions welcome.

Until the next time, my friends.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Turkish Airlines: Worst Customer Service Experience Ever

An open letter to Turkish Airlines customer service:

Dear Turkish Airlines,

In the past, I've flown exclusively on your airline whenever there's been a TK option on my route. I'm sorry to say the flight that I just got off will be the last.

I booked a ticket from Tel Aviv to Nairobi with your company, despite the fact that there were cheaper and faster options available. When I got to the airport in Tel Aviv, the flight was delayed and they tried to reroute me. This was strike one. I had two more legs on my journey that I would miss if I didn't make it to Nairobi on schedule, costing me several hundred dollars.

After checking my passport in the system, the TK employee at the counter told me that there was no way to get to NBO that night, and that my best option would be to fly to Istanbul and TK would put me up for the night until the next flight. I asked if there were any way I could upgrade to business since the delay was costing me a day's travel and a great deal of money. The employee said there was none left, despite the fact that there were several empty seats in business when I got on the plane. Strike two.

When I finally got to Istanbul and went to the desk to sort out the hotel and flight for the next day, they informed me that my travel agency had not confirmed my ticket, and as a result they wouldn't put me up for the night. "Are you kidding?" I asked, "An employee from your company promised me a hotel room when I got here. If I hadn't been promised a room, I wouldn't have gotten on the plane." "The man at the counter must not have checked your ticket," he replied. I asked him if it was my fault that a TK employee had screwed up when he checked me in, and the fellow kindly informed me that it was in fact my fault. I kid you not. Strike three. This was, hands down, the worst customer service I have ever received in my entire life.

Now here I am, loyal TK customer, and I'm stranded in Istanbul with no hotel, no ticket out, and no help from any of your representatives. I have to say I'm sorely disappointed. I thought loyalty counted for something in this business. I guess I'll just have to find another airline for whom it does.

Sincerely yours,
Benjamin Cole 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Watching and Calculating, African Governments Learn From the Arab Spring

It's no secret that Africa houses some of the longest-serving and most repressive dictators on the planet. Even among the states that have progressed past authoritarian rule, many governments still restrict basic rights with heavy-handed and often violent tactics. It's also no secret that Africa has the smallest Internet penetration of any continent, though it also cannot be denied that the advent of cheap, web-enabled phones has been precipitating broad changes in the continent's Internet landscape. Up until recently, these two facts may have seemed only peripherally related. Most governments had taken a pretty laissez-faire approach to the Internet; it wasn't enough of an issue for most leaders to take the time to learn about, let alone address with policy. But as the Arab Spring continues to roar just a stone's throw North, tremors have rippled well into the heart of the continent. In response, many African governments have begun taking strong stances on Internet freedoms, even before most of their populations have had the chance to experience the free and open Internet as it was originally formulated.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Encouraging Online Freedom of Expression in Sub-Saharan Africa

Our mission as a company is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful - it is therefore in our interest for free exchange of information to flourish online. As access to online information continues to grow in Africa, and in the aftermath of the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, we are beginning to see governments crack down on dissent in order to prevent free expression both online and offline. There is a growing need to raise awareness about the complex issues surrounding new technology and social media tools that are used for activism.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Umbono: Jump Starting the Internet Ecosystem in Africa

Greetings from Cape Town, South Africa! To preemptively answer your question, no, I'm not on vacation – I'm here to help set up a new program called Umbono, Google's new start-up incubator that will be located here. But before I delve too deeply, let me briefly explain what a start-up incubator is. While the concept of incubators is relatively common in the US, when I've told folks in South Africa what I'm doing here, I often get a look of confusion – "An incubator? Isn't that something you put eggs in?" Well, yes, you could say that...

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mobile Money: African Panacea?

Alternatively titled "My Obligatory M-Pesa Post". Mobile banking/payments is the topic I get asked about most often by people who have just begun to scratch the surface of tech in Africa. "Oh, you work for Google in Africa... I just read about this fascinating mobile banking system in Kenya! Perhaps you've heard of it?" And while I do grow a little tired of fielding the same question again and again, it is the first question I get asked for good reason! The mobile banking phenomenon is an innovation indigenous to Africa, and a perfect illustration of African ingenuity.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

One Year Later: Reflections on a full year out

Another significant milestone came and quietly passed for me yesterday. It was the one year anniversary of my graduation from college: one year since I said my teary goodbyes to my alma mater, to my friends, and to any semblance of life as I had ever known it. It's been quite a year since. I've explored more new places than I care to count; I've met just about as many new people as I did in my first year of college, and at some points, each week seemed to feel like an entire lifetime. In that sense, I've lived an awful lot in the last 12 months, perhaps more life than I lived in the first 20 years of my life. Here are a few of the lessons I've taken away.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Diagnosing malaria? There's an app for that.

If you're familiar with Africa at all, you already know that malaria is a tragic and monumental problem here. Every year, almost 800,000 people due from malaria worldwide, with just about 90% of those deaths coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria is a curable, preventable disease, but the lack of trained medical professionals, diagnostic tools, and prescription drugs in Africa make it a seemingly insurmountable issue. To try to take the malaria problem, a team of computer scientists from across the US built an app that allows for simple malaria diagnosis with a (slightly tricked out) smart phone.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Very Ghanaian Passover

Holidays this year have been interesting to say the least. My first holiday abroad, Thanksgiving, I spent  alone in my Lagos hotel semi-miserably working and eating room service (though it was fortunately followed a couple days later, by a belated celebration at the home of a random expat couple who happened to be friends of friends of friends). I spent Christmas exploring Bangkok with my dear friend, Kathy, and we reigned in the New Year at the infamous Countdown Party on Koh Phangan. For my birthday, I made very certain to travel back to lovely New York to be with my family and friends for the first time in months. But after all of this, I have to admit, Passover has been the most interesting of all.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Web As a Spotlight: An Alternative Look at Technology in the Arab Spring

Since the spring of 2009, scholars and pundits alike have been debating the role technology has played the spate of uprisings across the Middle East and Africa. From Iran in 2009 to Egypt in early 2010 to the uprisings still taking place today, the web has clearly played a new and central role, in effect differentiating these revolutions from any that have come before. To date, most of this debate has focused on how important so-called social media services have been in organizing and carrying out these protests, with prominent minds on both sides of the argument. But while this debate continues to rage, I'd like to focus on a completely different aspect -- a feature that has been largely ignored. I'd like to look at the web as a metaphorical spotlight, casting attention on people and parts of the world all too easily overlooked before.

Friday, April 8, 2011

What Technology Brings to the Developing World

When I decided to move to Africa, I did so with the goal to do good. I had spent four years in college studying algorithms, building software and even having fun, but when all was said and done, I craved to do something meaningful. I came to Africa because I wanted to see a different side of life, to broaden my way of thinking, and to make a positive impact where I could. Now just how I would manage to do that was less immediately clear. How could I use my skills to make difference?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Personal Update: Plans for Next Year

Those of you who have been following my adventures closely will know that I set out on this journey to Africa with the intent for it to be one year long. The plan after that was to do graduate school. Well, it's been quite a ride since I first set off, and I've since been blessed with many extraordinary opportunities to pursue when this year comes to an end.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Back in Ghana: Home, Sweet Home?

After 4+ months of nonstop travel, I'm finally back in Ghana for more than a week at a time. Home, sweet home, eh? It's a strange feeling being back. It's strange to be anywhere for more than a few days, but strange here especially. I remember when I left back in mid-November. I went out to a local jazz club the night before and met a few new expat friends. "Will be you be my insta-friend?" one girl asked who was still new to Ghana. That's how it had been. In the months leading up to this massive trip, I had met so many people from all around the world, and none of us knowing anyone else all became fast friends. Some of those friendships became full relationships and others remained fleeting acquaintances, but when I left, I left a life behind. Settling in again some 19 weeks later, I realize the life I left no longer exists.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Black Waters of Makoko

The waters of Makoko ran black, luminous, like oil. Large swaths of the land were littered with trash, and the ground sank beneath you with each step. We were in one of Lagos’s notorious water slums, built on stilts above the Lagos Lagoon and populated by the poor and desperate. Some eighty or ninety thousand people live this way.

When I had told my friends in Ghana that I was planning to visit Nigeria, the reactions I got were almost the same. “Good luck, man; I hope you come back,” one said, only half-jokingly. I had been living in Ghana a few months already; how different could Nigeria really be?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Voice: The Obvious and Yet Unutilized Tool for the Web in the Developing World

Practitioners of technology in the developing world have long accepted that the "normal" ways of interacting with the Internet, the ways that we Westerners have become accustomed to, don't always apply in the developing world. Mobile is a central and critical aspect to any well thought out technological offering for the developing context. At Google, we focus on it relentlessly. The numbers are clear: mobile penetration outstrips traditional Internet penetration by at least an order of magnitude in Africa. This picture becomes even more revealing when we look at the types of phones that people have. The majority of African mobile users don't own smart phones or even feature phones; the majority rely on phones with only basic calling and messaging services like SMS and MMS. So if we're going to reach the vast majority of Africans, we need to focus there. To this effect, a lot of work has been done around SMS. Google has launched its Health and Agriculture Tips, for instance, but SMS has a number of serious contextual limitations: illiteracy, lack of functional literacy, and local languages not supported by phone keyboards. But there's also another route that hasn't been so explored: What about voice? What about voice as a tool for interacting with the Internet?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Political Turmoil and the Internet in Africa

On December 17, a young Tunisian college grad, frustrated by his inability to find a job and the harassment he received from the police, publicly set himself on fire and, in effect, set off an explosive chain of events that would change the political landscape of his country forever. In just the last few months, there has been an unprecedented surge in the continent's political instability. The dictator of Tunisia has been ousted; the former president of Cote d'Ivoire hanging onto his post despite calls from a united international community to step down, and the most recent anti-government riots in Egypt calling for the resignation of the country's leader. Technology has played an pivotal role in each of these situations, whether by its innovative use, as a tool for governmental oppression, or by its notable absence. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Atop the Great Firewall of China

When I was in Shanghai last month, one of the first things to hit me was just how prevalent Internet censorship is in China. Dubbed the Great Firewall, China's Internet restriction policies are widespread and, arguably, the most extensive in the world. In fact, one of the main reasons there were no new blog posts from that period was because Blogger is blocked. For that matter, so is Facebook, Twitter, and a whole host of other commonly used online tools. Speaking of Facebook, someone from my old team there created a stunning data visualization of Facebook friendships around the world that illustrate the Great Firewall quite well.

As many commentators have pointed out, there's an awfully glaring hole in this world map: China's nowhere to be seen. In addition to general censorship of the Internet, China also employs a small army of "Internet police", rumored to number over 50,000, who "guide discussion" in online forums, or to put it more bluntly, disseminate propaganda. The government also monitors the Internet activity of individual citizens, specifically ones suspected of dissidence. To this point, Amnesty International points out that China has actually imprisoned more journalists and cyber-dissidents than any other country in the world. As an American, I have to admit it was quite jarring to all of a sudden not have the same liberties that I've grown up with. I wonder how the actual inhabitants of the country come to deal with the restrictions or if they even have an impact on people's day to day lives. Perhaps I'll just have to go back to find out for myself...

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Year in Review: A Look Back at 2010

365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, one year. To think, if it weren't for a few natural laws, these numbers would be nothing more than that, just numbers. And yet, we each use these constants to measure the progress of our lives. How much have we grown in the past year? How much have our lives changed? In a way, I'm grateful for this cyclic nature of life -- it forces us at certain intervals to step and reflect.

Growing up, my plans for the future only ever went up to the year 2010, and even that always seemed impossibly far away. 2010: The year I would graduate college, the year I would enter this "real world" I had heard so much about, the year I would be forced to be independent, and in many ways, the year I would have to say goodbye to those last vestiges of childhood. Sounds kind of terrifying, doesn't it? Well it was. 2010 was a year of many emotions: fear, yes, but also love, wonder, happiness, anxiety, and so many others.

Just before January 1 of last year, I found a present for myself in a random bookstore in New York. It was a five-year journal. Each page is assigned a day of the year, and seven lines of each page is allotted to each of the five years. (Complete the first seven lines on each page in your first year, start from the beginning going through the second seven lines, and so on.) I knew that the year ahead would be one of the most memorable of my life, and so I've been very persistent at keeping up with it, bringing it with me everywhere I travel, and even defying the laws of my personal nature by not losing it. It chronicles a number of monumental experiences that this last year has encompassed: exploring eastern Europe with Robyn, living atop a bookstore in Paris, visiting friends in the UK, spring break in Cancun, my final semester at Cornell, senior week and graduation, backpacking through Europe yet again, starting a new job, moving to Africa, and traveling the world over. I did the calculation the other day, and in one year, I've managed to spend time in 20 countries spanning 4 continents. During my travels in Asia, I heard an old Chinese proverb that seemed to relate particularly well to this past year. Roughly translated, it says "to go 1,000 miles is to have read 10,000 books". In that case, I've done pretty well for myself this year.

Here are some of my most memorable entries from 2010: