There exists in Cape Town, South Africa a small group of people taking bold risks by investing in people ambitious enough to change the world through openness. I only came to know about the Shuttleworth Foundation in 2012 while we were looking for funding sources. It’s founded and funded by entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth .
On the surface the Foundation looks like part venture capitalist and part foundational grant institution. It’s an accurate description but to say that’s all the Foundation is would be a gross understatement.
Bi-annually the Foundation gives up to 3 years of fellowship to individuals working on something in an open manner . That includes openness in education, science, data, government, software and more. The Foundation measures success not in dollars but in positive social change.
My fellowship for Trovebox
My fellowship was for Trovebox (originally OpenPhoto). We set out to make possible the preservation of digital photo archives for posterity. Openness is innate to solving that problem. Ideas like data ownership and portability need to be cornerstones; not an afterthought. Our approach of open sourcing our software and experimenting with distributed storage for digital media are what made it a good fit to receive a fellowship.
A mix of funding and community
The Foundation provides over $1,000,000 in funding over 3 years. It takes a lot of resources to do big things and the financial support provided by the Foundation is critical. But it’s the less interesting of two components.
I came for the money and stayed for the community. – Me
It’s impossible to know how the community plays into a fellowship until you arrive at your first Gathering. The Foundation has bi-annual Gatherings where every fellow, current and alumni, converge in a single location. It’s a week crammed together in a room talking about everyone’s projects or around a dinner table discussing everything from the lack of transparency at large corporations to putting educational materials into the hands of the poor in South Africa .
I’ve been surrounded by brilliance at many points in my life but I’ve never been inspired like I am when I’m with this group of people. The support system between fellows was unparalleled.
Experimenting is in the DNA
Each fellowship is unique despite sharing a common thread of openness. The Foundation understands that to get from point A to point B you might have to go through point C. And some of those times you end up at point Z which was more interesting than point B in the first place. I appreciated that they were always supportive of experimenting and changing course as a result.
I recall my fellowship and some of the changes we made which led me to feel we weren’t making any progress. The Foundation remained patient and supportive as I eventually found my way back to where I started. But this time I arrived equipped with a war chest of knowledge and a completely new and novel approach.
It took us 3 years but it had to take us three years. - Me
Most amazingly I remember talking to Helen and Karien in Budapest at the Gathering in May of 2014 about my contemplation of not applying for a third fellowship. I was excited about what we learned and the new approach we had at making permanence of media archives possible. At the same time I was exhausted and couldn’t see the path to sustainability. I’ll never forget Helen’s response urging me to apply again. That’s not the type of commitment or support you come across often.
Ultimately I decided not to apply; one of the most difficult decisions during this journey.
Becoming an alumni
By now I’ve been an alumni for just over a week. The Foundation published Arthur and my exit from the fellowship program on their site today. Reading that page and watching the video made the transition from my fellowship to the next chapter quite concrete.
It’s hard to put into words how much my fellowship meant to me and how much I learned as a result. As I continue towards our original goal of permanence for digital media I’ll do it with more openness, more ambition and with the support of a small army of people around the world.
Once a fellow, always a fellow.