I missed DEFCON. I couldn’t afford to go. I couldn’t justify spending the money to fly from Africa. It made me feel unplugged from things… or should I say MORE unplugged. I’ve tried for years to connect the skill of the hacking community to unmet needs in the NGO / charity world. I’ve yet to figure out how to do it, and that frustrates the crap out of me.
I’ve had hundreds of people tell me that HFC is a “great idea” and that they want to help, and short of bringing them to Uganda to work with me on the ground, I have nothing to offer them. My stock answer is “send money, get on the mailing list, and spread the word”. I get asked all the time if we can use excess gear. Here in Africa, I can use it, but taxes and shipping stress our tiny budget to the limit. I’ve often said, “Yeah, hold on to that gear. I’m going to find a way to get it to local charities that need it.” Somewhere, I imagine people are hoarding equipment in the hopes that I’ll come through on that statement, but I haven’t. I don’t even remember who had what or where they were.

I tried a kind of forum (thanks for the effort, Zate) that sorted “charities” and “hackers” and that project fell over, mostly because I wasn’t available enough to help push it.

We’ve gotten a couple of shipments through (thanks Tim, Chris, Dean, Keith, Nathan) and that equipment (and HFC cash donations) culminated in a training center and two classrooms, but the training center is an abject failure, and is bleeding money because we don’t have enough customers and our prices are too low (free is a variant of low). People are learning and getting access to training that should (but won’t on our watch) cost six months wages, but we’re headed for bankruptcy as a result.
I recently learned about “Random Hacks of Kindness” (RHOK, http://www.rhok.org). An organization that uses “hackers” to “develop software solutions that respond to the challenges facing humanity today”. I read about their international “hackfests” where developers created software solutions to “save lives and alleviate suffering”.  In their short time on the scene, they’ve gone international, pulled together hundreds of coders and done something… collaboratively. They’ve garnered quotes from none other than Vint Cerf:

“Random Hacks of Kindness goes to the heart of what we believe at Google, that the creative and cooperative use of technology can help make the world a better place. Collective intelligence is strength, and if you supply free food, developers will come.”

They have none other than Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, NASA and the World Bank as “founding partners” and these organizations have put their collective weight behind a “hacker” charity.

Don’t get me wrong. It seems they are doing good stuff. “Well done,” I say. But their success is somehow like sand in my underpants. Technically speaking, they’re using the word “hacker” properly. So that’s not what bugs me. It’s just that their success shines a bright light on the fact that despite our (my?) popularity in the “real” hacker community, HFC has done little relative to our collective capability.

We can throw an 802.11 signal a world-record distance of 275km using junk hardware. We can rootkit Android before it’s released, hack GSM, hijack global DNS, pick every lock on the planet, beat international news agencies to the punch, and weed our way into previously untrodden shadows of the digital world. There is amazing skill in our community. We build robots just because we can, and tweak just about every technology on the planet to unbelievable ends. We are motivated and brilliant. We are self-organizing and ultra-productive when assaulting “impossible” projects. We break, bend, and then re-create the rules. But can we really, honestly do some good in the world? My answer used to be a resounding “YES!” Now, my answer is a much-too-passive “Maybe”.

Yes, with me and my family on the ground here in Uganda, some positive things have happened (http://www.hfc-uganda.org). But is that work reflective of the power of our community? Hardly.

I accept the lion’s share of the blame for that. I’m not an organized person. I don’t have big, sweeping, clear visions of the future. I’m just a guy that went completely off the rails when I saw first-hand how valuable my skills were in a developing country. But that was then. These days, with my skills atrophying and my relevance in the community waning, I’m afraid I’ve just become another oddball character in the tome of hacker history. I wish I could have figured out the magic formula to cash in my visibility and popularity in the community for a movement that would be much bigger than the sum of it’s parts. I wish that after a year here in Uganda I could point to one project, regardless of how small, and say, “There! Look at that! See? It’s working! We’ve done it!” I wish I could point to one person and honestly say that HFC improved the quality of his or her life. But I really can’t. Success by that definition utterly eludes me.

On a personal note, our rent in Uganda just doubled. The increase will take intense financial “creativity”. I mention that only because it’s another element of why I’m scratching my head right now… wondering what, exactly we’re supposed to be doing.

So here I sit. And wait.

Psalms 62:5 all the way.

I hope I can mentally quiet down long enough to hear a thing or two.

Oh, and I launched a forum.

It was reflexive, and probably pointless.