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Archive for October, 2009

I got into Maputo (capital of Mozambique) around 3 on Friday and stopped by the Plan Mozambique office to meet the staff on the way to my hotel. The office here is small. Plan’s only been working in Mozambique since 2007 and in one province only so far. Maputo is absolutely gorgeous.  It’s calm, not at all crowded, and on the coast.

I’ll be here for about 3 weeks working on the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) project in a community near Maxixe, which is a 50 minute plane trip north. The coordinator for the project in Mozambique is Pedro, the IT Director, and we had a nice discussion today over lunch.

Pedro is from the IT sector and used to work for a government ministry and came to Plan right when we opened here.  He’s convinced that “Plan is not in the IT business.  We’re in the business of community development, so our IT has to be in service of community development, not just the office.”  So ICT4D is high up on his list of interests, and he’s hoping that over the next few weeks we can share lots of ideas.  We discussed how just like media, ICTs are becoming more easily accessible for people, so a good ICT person should know how to support and train other people, to take the mystery out of ICT.  He or she also has to know how to see the trends coming down the line to stay ahead of the game.

Aside from lunch, we spent most of the day installing software on the computers that we’ll be using in the media project.  We got the anti-virus going on all of them – a lesson learned and never forgotten on my part.  We also got the Nokia phones and laptops synced so we can use them for mobile internet while in the community.  Pedro said that mobile internet is a huge eye opener.  “If it works there, communities will know that if they can get the phone, they don’t need to go all the way to the city to access the internet.”  I’m crossing my fingers that the signal will be strong enough to make this a reality.  We shall see….  That social media session I have planned will not make much of an impact if we can’t get online.  Which reminds me how great it always is to get your feet back on the ground and adjust ideas to reality.

Related posts:

It’s all part of the ICT jigsaw: Plan Mozambique ICT4D workshops
Inhambane: land of palm trees and cellular networks


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I’m on the train to NYC on the first leg of my journey to Mozambique, toting my new solar FLAP bag and a suitcase full of gadgets. I seem to be somewhere in the middle of nowhere, the rain’s pouring down outside and I’m surrounded by red and gold leaves.  The best thing about my insane day so far is that the orange juice I spilled on my keyboard this morning seems not to have done much damage….  But now I have a few hours to stop and reabsorb PopTech.

What an experience, really. You’re in a room of brilliant people in an environment that promotes sharing of ideas across domains.  Not only are the people on stage presenting a cross-section of the most brilliant ideas on the face of the planet, but every person sitting around you is brilliant as well.

Some major “Oh!” moments for me were related to design and innovation (surprise):

Design. I realized I’ve been totally unaware of “Design” (or is it “design” with a small ‘d’?).  I’d understood design to be about fine art or architecture, or coming up with products to sell.  I’d never thought about the relationship between design and the participatory community planning process that we (Plan) support and facilitate in hundreds of communities around the world in which communities design their own programs.  I want to learn more about the intersection here.  What can the non-profit sector learn about participatory design processes that are born in other sectors? We seem to wrestle with some of the same issues:  Do you focus on quality or quantity?  Eg., do you design something humble, elegant, good quality for a niche need, or do you go for broad, widespread, shallow, without so much meaning?  Seems to be the question of scale and how we measure impact.

I’ve been recommended to read Liz Sanders, Participatory Design Methods, check out the Design Research Conference at IIT, and read Interactions magazine for some insight – thx Jon Kolko (@jkolko) from Frog Design.  Also, check out Jon’s book Thoughts on Interaction Design.

Innovation. It’s hard to attend Pop!Tech and not feel humbled by the brilliance around you.  As Erica Williams tweeted while Neri Oxman was presenting “Did you ever think you were kinda smart and then realize that you’re not?”  I’m known for being innovative in my own circles, as someone who’s ahead of the curve.  But that idea gets shaken up when I’m in a roomful of people with the same reputation, who are really hard core innovative, or who are innovating in areas that I know nothing about.  The take-away for me here is the importance of constantly being exposed to new areas and people you wouldn’t normally be around so that you can be stimulated in your own innovation and motivated to keep moving.  In the Pop!Tech environment, it was easy to see how things all fit together, how innovators at different levels can work together, or can work with non-innovators to improve existing things, and the sum is greater than the parts.  This cross-pollination of people, fields, domains, ideas, ages, and sectors is exactly what makes the experience so useful.

Now comes the urge for action and the desire to see the connections we traced out in our minds while listening to someone speak or on paper during dinner become a reality.  For me, that means being a bridge between the different programs that Plan supports on the ground and the people involved in them, and the new ideas I’m carrying with me from Pop!Tech.

A small step will be taking a solar Flap bag to Mozambique next week.  We heard 2 weeks ago from staff in Mozambique that power is one of the main challenges at the community level.  However, who knows if a solar bag is the right solution. (As I heard Emily Pilloton from Project H Design say – “we’re not designing a bridge, we’re designing a way to get across the water”) Will people like it?  Will it fit their needs?  Will it power what they want it to?  What improvements to it would they make?  Are they even interested in it at all? Is it yet another cool thing someone brings from the outside, or would they see it as something they could take, use, and own?  Do they see it as a part of their daily life?  I will ask them.  And while I’m at it, what do they think about paper diagnostics being available to them?  What about using SMS to improve their healthcare?  Or a virtual SIM so that they can have their own identity on a shared mobile phone?  Maybe I can hook them up! :-)

Related posts:
It’s a light, it’s a bag, it’s a charger…. it’s FLAP!
FLAP power for the basics: illumination and communication

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Plan Mozambique’s team has been discussing ICTs in their work using the distance learning packet that my colleague Mika (at Plan Finland) and I put together with lots of support from Hannah Beardon. This is part of our ICT4D research and training initiative in 8 countries (Senegal, Togo, Mali, Cameroon, Ghana, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda) that will conclude near the end of the year.

This initiative is two-fold –

1) to consolidate some information/research on what’s currently happening in each country (in Plan programs, by other organizations, general ICT landscape, government policies) that staff and managers can use for making decisions around ICT in their programs and other work; and

2) to offer a methodology whereby local staff can identify existing information and communication needs, means, mechanisms and flows on the one hand, and learn about new technology on the other hand to see if any of the new tech is a fit (in its current state or in an adapted state) to meet the existing needs.  One really important aspect is offering ways for local staff to look at the context in which they work every day and see what tools would be useful or even usable (here I like to think of those 4 C’s of successful ICT deployment -connectivity, cost, capacity, and culture).

The end goal is to improve program impact on the ground by strengthening staff capacity to look at their programs with an ICT lens.

Our distance workshop materials (which are pretty amateur — power points with accompanying home-made videos, downloaded videos from other sources, skype calls to expand the discussions) got good feedback from staff.  (This is likely due to my colleague Mika’s great sense of humor more than anything!) We’re thinking of making a few new modules to cover new tech that we’ve heard is being used in Africa or elsewhere, or that we find out about (at workshops, via Twitter, via staff in other countries, from blogs and other sources) so that interested countries could program additional ICT4D days to continue discussions and learning about new tools.

Today we got feedback from Plan Mozambique staff. The main learning/points that came out of the workshop were:

  • Demystifying ICT. “For some of us who are only NGO workers without formal training in ICT, we get scared, we think of megabytes, how info flies, all those things.  But we found that all of us use ICT – our cell phones, our gadgets, the things we use daily, internet, intranet — it’s all part of the ICT jigsaw.”
  • ICT is not stand-alone. “It was quite a useful exercise to see how we can incorporate ICTs in our programmatic interventions.  Again- we realized that all this is now linking up with the rights based approach, with our child centered development approach.  So today and yesterday we’ve seen how ICT can serve in this perspective. Especially today it was very directly apparent how ICT integrates into these approaches. ICT is not a straight alone aspect.”
  • Learning how to map communications networks, identify local communications needs, see what added value Plan can give by improving it directly, strategically or indirectly. “This was a good way for discussing ways to address information and communication needs and ways to bring about better impact in development programs using our current rights based approach,” as one staff put it.
  • Opening windows of opportunities and identifying existing challenges. “We need to map available ICT tools and see what is appropriate in our context to apply.  Some of the common ICT tools in the Africa context are still a challenge. We don’t have electricity in most of our rural communities.  During the mapping exercises on ICTs we need to take that into account. To find the means to identify the tools that are most appropriate. Mobile phones still need to be charged. We can solar charge, but I’ve yet to see this myself.  We can use other ICTs in our programs, but mostly things like radio, TV, particular videos. These tools are already available in the community, everyone in the community has a radio. TV is a challenge. Mobile phones are challenge still.  Mobile phone could add costs to the community leaders, and later would not be sustainable. This needs to be looked into to see what kind of solutions we can find to overcome it.”
  • Gaining insight into ICT4D, its dynamics and uses in communities. “It’s important to understand that we are still a very primitive country.  Different colleagues have raised the question of infrastructure. Yet there is a huge opportunity for us to create space for growth. It’s difficult for us see – we want to really engage community members but wonder if they would feel out of place due to their levels of understanding. We feel they can deal with technologies like mobile phones but when it comes to computers it would be much more difficult. But this workshop was an eye opener. Technology is not so mysterious.  We need to try our best to make technology something simple that can be used by anyone, just like mobile phones, small children can use them. If all other technologies could be that simple it would be great.”
  • Balancing possible/feasible and creative/innovative. “We’ve seen some tools that can help us with new ideas as well as with existing programs. One thing we need to address clearly is guidelines on social media to set up a basis for those who are trying things out. Also thoughts around content management and delivery.  How can countries capture information and communicate it out in a way that gets the message across best. We can also do more learning from others about ICT4D programs, especially about their context and what is the process leading into these projects, what conditions were in place.”
  • Greening our ICT4D.  “Another thing we need to really consider is equipment which with time becomes obsolete – how can we recycle equipment and put it to better use?  Green equipment – how to stop generating trash in communities. Renewable energy sources – solar was mentioned, tapping wind energy also – how can we look at that and enter into that as well.  And what about other appropriate technologies that are not IT.  There are innovative irrigation pumps that are very effective and cheap.  Magnetic torches that don’t use batteries which come in very handy.  There are many things we could adopt and incorporate.”

Related Posts:
I and C then T
ICT ideas from Plan Cameroon
ICT4D Kenya: ICT and community development is real
Modernizing birth registration with mobile technology
In Kenya brainstorming on mobiles
Chickens and eggs and ICTs

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This is the ‘after-lunch’ part of my last blog about the cool geo-visualization tools I had the chance to learn about at the Google Partnership Exploration Workshop.  (See the Before Lunch portion here for some background).

The first things we saw after lunch were Google 3-D and Google Sketch-Up.  With Google Sketch-Up can make whole 3-D cities and lay them on top of Google Maps.  Sketch up comes in 14 languages and works off-line.  Aidan from Google has used it with autistic kids and made this cool video about it to get you started.  My first thought with this was how cool would it be to use something like this when we’re working with kids or communities to design infrastructure projects.

Next after Sketch-up we went through a whole gamut of Google Map applications:  My Maps, KML, Maps API, Map Maker and Google Earth.  It was so hard to keep all of them straight with their different features that we needed a chart (see below) to keep them straight.  I am a huge fan of maps, but I mostly work with communities using hand-drawn, participatory risk/resource maps.  I’d love to see all these community maps from around the world somehow uploaded and shared.

Anyway, there are at least a million (I am not even exaggerating) things that you can do with these maps alone, together, in conjunction with data and spreadsheets, mashing them up with photos, videos and all kinds of things.  For some of this you need to be a developer/coder, but for a lot of it you could figure it out yourself and just get on with it.

Map Maker for instance is a way to crowd source map making in places that are not mapped out yet.  (I’m really interested in this one).  174 countries so far are making their own maps here. There is a system for trusted users and verification to ensure the maps are correct.  The entire data set for Africa is fully available for download by non-profits, government agencies and individuals to create and enhance their own non-commercial map-related projects.

After the amazing mapping presentations, Ed from Google led a discussion on what they could do to support the needs and work of the agencies that were present.  He started by saying that the impact of today’s GIS stuff could be as big as the printing press in mapping terms. “What we do today used to be very very difficult…. The creation of enthusiastic communities that want to work together to achieve a goal they share has only recently been possible”

So Google asked us:  How can we help you make the most of this new world that we live in? How can our infrastructure be accessible to you so it works for what you want to do?

The responses included requests for:

  • Integrating mobiles and off-line use for those who don’t have electricity or internet
  • Getting layers of information onto maps that can be used by partners who don’t really have impetus to share information; keeping semi-private information so you won’t embarrass governments with it but it can still be shared with some to be useful.
  • Use the Flu Trends model to predict/track disaster trends
  • Improved Google Earth editing tools
  • Feature to add icons in bulk to maps
  • Bring up the concept and need for crowd sourcing and social media usage at the next higher ups emergency management meeting — many at the top levels don’t understand this, we need to lobby
  • List of developers who can help us to do some of this
  • Importance of crowd feeding as well as crowd sourcing — that information needs to get back out to people for local ownership, verification and management

Following that brainstorm, I did my own short presentation on how Plan is using mapping with community youth and media, and how some program offices have been using GPS and GIS to create local maps on which to base their program decisions.

We learned about Google Latitude, where you can track people (who allow you to) by the GPS on their phones.  And then we saw a short presentation on the GeoCam Disaster Response Toolkit which is being developed by Google and NASA. GeoCam is a mobile phone application that lets you take a photo, annotate the image, select an icon to go with the photo and save.  Upon saving, the data goes into a cue and uploads. It goes to a central server which has a maps like interface which shows where the photo was taken and from which direction.  This looked like another cool mobile data gathering option that could be used in disasters — it’s been tested during some of the recent California wildfires.

And on that note – Day 1 was over.  Day 2 was equally as educational. As my co-worker and I got schooled on coding for dummies, some of our more advanced colleagues were uploading data sets that would help them make real-world decisions when the returned to their offices on Monday.

Yes, I saw the future of geo-visualization!


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Last week some 40 people from more than 20 different organizations with national and global humanitarian and relief missions attended a Google Partnership Exploration Workshop in Washington, DC, to share information in an interactive setting and explore how the organizations and Google geo & data visualization technologies can further each others’ missions.

Lucky me – I got to go on behalf of Plan.  Much of the meeting centered on how Google’s tools could help in disasters and emergencies, and what non-profits would like to be able to do with those tools, and how Google could help.

The meeting opened up with a representative of FEMA talking about the generally slow and government centered response of FEMA, and how that needed to turn into a quick, user generated information network that could provide real information in real time so that FEMA could offer a real, people centered response.  I loved hearing someone from government saying things like “we need to look at the public as a resource, not a liability.” The conclusion was that in a disaster/emergency you just need enough information to help you make a better decision.  The public is one of the best sources for that information, but government has tended to ignore it  because it’s not “official.”  Consider: a 911 caller is not a certified caller with a background check and training on how to report, but that’s the background of our 911 emergency system. Why can’t it be the same in a disaster?

We also heard about the World Bank’s ECAPRA project for disaster preparedness in Central America.  This project looks at probabilistic risk assessment, using geo-information to predict and assess where damage is likely.  The main points from the WB colleagues were that for SDI (Spatial Data Infrastructure) we need policies, requirements, and mandates, yes, but this is not sufficient – top down is not enough.  We also need software that enables a bottom up approach, aligned incentives that can drive us to open source agenda.  But not just open source code software, we’re talking mass collaboration – and that would change everything.  So then the challenge is how we help civil societies and govts to share and deliver data that enables decision making?  How do we support data collection from the top down and from the bottom up?  The WB is working with developers on some collaborative data collection mobile applications that allow people to easily collect information. In this system, different institutes still own the data but others can update and add to it. WB hopes to embed this within Central American national disaster planning systems, and to train and support the national systems to use these tools.  They will be free to use the elements that most link with the local situations in each country.  Each country is developing these open source applications themselves, and can choose the tools that work best for them.

Google stepped in then to share some Google Visualizations — Google Fusion TablesVisualization API, Chart API and Motion Charts (Gapminder).  With these applications, different sources can share data, or share some data and keep other data private.  You can compare data from different sources.  For example, there is a chart currently residing in Google Fusion Tables that pulls GDP data from the CIA Fact Book, the World Bank and the IMF, and allows you to compare data across countries from different sources.  You can then use that data to create your own data visualizations, including maps, tables, charts, and the fabulous Gap Minder/motion visualization charts (first made popular at TED by Hans Rosling). These can all be easily transferred to your own webpage.  If you have public data that deserves to be treated separately you can become a Google trusted source. (Click on the “information for publishers” link to see how to get your data made public) For a quick tutorial on how to make your own cool Gap Minder chart check out this link.  *Note Gapminder is not owned by Google. Gapminder is a foundation of its own, totally independent from Google. Google bought the software [Trendalyzer] to improve the technology further.

Next up was the American Red Cross who shared some of the challenges that they face and how they use geo-spatial and information mapping to overcome them.  Red Cross has a whole mobile data gathering system set up and works via volunteers during disasters to collect information.  They also have over 30 years of disaster data that they can use to analyze trends.  The ARC wants to do more with mapping and visualizations so that they can see what is happening right away, using maps, charts and analyzing trends.  What does the ARC want to see from Google?  A disaster dashboard – eg using Google Wave?  Inventory tracking and mapping capability.  Data mining and research capabilities such as with Fusion tables.  They want people to be able to go to the ARC and see not what the Red Cross is, but what the Red Cross does.  To use the site for up to date information that will help people manage during disasters and emergencies.

Wow, and this was all before lunch!

—————

Related posts:
I saw the future of geovisualization… after lunch
Is this map better than that map?
Ushahidi in Haiti:  what’s needed now

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