[Editor’s note]: The creature above is the Kakapo. As the late Douglass Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy explained it:

The kakapo, the old night parrot of New Zealand, is a bird out of time. If you peer into its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know it probably will not be. It is an extremely fat bird and flying is completely out of the question. Sadly, however, it seems that not only has the kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently, a seriously worried kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it flies like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground.

The world’s largest, fattest and least-able-to-fly parrot. Found only in New Zealand, it is as affectionate as a dog and as playful as a kitten, can inflate itself with air to become the size and shape of a football, smells like a musty clarinet case, and only comes out at night. The male’s song consists of a body-trembling, reverberating boom, rather like a heartbeat. It carries over huge distances but is so incredibly deep that it’s really hard to tell where it is coming from – which must be something of a shortcoming in a mating call.

The story of the Kakapo is a sad tale of what happens when human beings thrust themselves on nature and it’s potential demise, while seemingly inconsequential, is a sad reflection on us all.


Sometimes I get frustrated that technology, an incredible potential enabler of some pretty amazing societal changes, often gets used to come up with the best take on a laundry service, a music recommendation offerings, or a chance to share pictures of cats. I mean pictures of cats are OK and all (actually, retract that, I hate pictures of cats) but compared to helping fight disease, deliver clean water, or make the lives of people in Sub-Saharan Africa better… yeah, it doesn’t really cut it.

For the longest time I have been hoping that, beyond the marketing initiatives and token gestures, we’d see technology applied for good purposes. A recent example of my frustration occurred only a few weeks ago. I was helping lead a group of young students on an environmental leadership program and we were being presented to by a staff member from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation, the organization tasked with helping protect this country’s amazing flora and fauna.

For those who didn’t realize, until 1000 years or so ago, New Zealand had no mammals. The result of which is that evolution did its job and created a bunch of beautiful, albeit hapless, animals including birds that have lost the ability to fly and simply walk around waiting to be breakfast for the variety of introduced species we have – rats, possums, stoats, ferrets, weasels etc. Anyway, as the DoC worker so correctly pointed out, if saving native flora and fauna carried a commercial gain with it, it’s a fair bet that Silicon Valley, with all of its incredibly smart people, would have worked out efficient and effective means of predator control long ago and we could return to being the island paradise we once were.

Unfortunately, many of those brains are busy trying to create the ultimate spin (pun intended) on a subscription-based laundry service.

Le sigh.

Actually making a change

So given my frustrations, it was awesome to see an announcement of a partnership between IBM, the United Nations and the international arm of the American Red Cross. Also joining the initiative is the Linux Foundation, the organization charged with furthering the interests of open source software.

According to the various partners, the Call for Code challenge will be the largest and most ambitious effort to date to unite developers around the world to solve societal problems.  This year’s challenge is aimed at creating technology-led solutions to mitigate the impact of natural disasters – with the ultimate goal of saving lives. On top of their combined smarts, IBM (which, in fairness, I have been very critical of on a number of levels in the past, but in this case deserves my praise) is investing $30 million over five years as a kick start to the program. Hinting at some of the same frustrations about the inequities between investment in commercial versus societal problems, Bob Lord, IBM’s chief digital officer commented that IBM:

…harness(es) the power of technologies to address some of the biggest opportunities and challenges in business. Now, with Call for Code, we are calling on all developers to join us and use these same leading edge technologies to help people, their communities and society.

Bravo! The partners have already worked on some ideas of how developers might address natural disasters. Examples include:

  • Alerting pharmacies to increase their stocks of antibiotics, insulin, bottled water, and vaccines based on predicted weather-related disruptions.
  • Transferring and distributing recorded educational materials from those who have experienced disasters similar to the ones that pose a risk to the current community.
  • Gamifying global awareness of humanitarian crises by rewarding those who can inspire the greatest donations via their social networks.

Program details…

  • Developers will register for the Challenge starting on Thursday the 24th – the challenge begins on June 19 and runs through August 21.
  • More than 50 hackathons and Call for Code events in cities around the world, including New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
  • After the hackathons, a team of technology luminaries, including Linus Torvalds and others will judge the developers’ ideas and choose 30 semi-finalists.
  • From there, the judges will pick three finalists and the winner will be announced during an October benefit concert event in New York City.


Human beings have created so many problems over the years, and have created so much knowledge that could be used to solve these problems. All too often, however, it is instead used for purely selfish commercial gains. There is a big, green, hapless parrot in the deepest reaches of New Zealand that really needs technology’s help. Meanwhile, kudos to the Call for Code for helping with other issues.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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