Archive for December, 2009

Before I went to El Salvador in 1991 (read why in my earlier post here), I had never traveled outside the US. I had read lots of articles about the country’s Civil War and intense poverty in the LA Weekly, a lefty newspaper in Los Angeles where I went to school.  I imagined El Salvador as a somber, high contrast black and white photo, with some thick red paint dripping down it to represent the bloodshed and suffering of a noble people being crushed by US Imperialism.  (yeah, pretty dramatic)

To my surprise, El Salvador was more of a bright, animated 3-D movie with endless layers of depth and detail.  The poor, simple, suffering, downtrodden people I had imagined I would live among in San Salvador were in reality intelligent, active, politically savvy individuals who listened to a lot of loud cumbia music (and some Rock en Espanol), privately followed politics with a passion, piled into a pickup truck on Sundays for soccer games, and bustled around with intensity.  There were meals to make and bills to pay in spite of the sporadic skirmishes outside of the capital, the possibility of being outed as an opposition supporter or recruited forcibly into the military, and the lack of free speech in the company of certain individuals and in the media.

Kids went to school, played marbles, laughed and flew kites.  Although lack of money was an obvious issue and there were scary soldiers with machine guns on every street corner downtown, people lived their daily lives pretty much like people do everywhere, dealing with the good, the bad, and quite a lot of the petty.  There were no noble sufferers.  There were no simple portraits.  Life was not a black and white photo.  Rather there were people living within intricate layers of economic, political, family and personal relationships, adapting skillfully to an ugly cold war reality.

Like everywhere, each individual was complex, as was every set of relationships.  The man who beat his wife would step aside with a gracious smile to allow you to pass on a narrow sidewalk. The woman who offered to help you carry your basket from the market might also be the one burying effigies and lighting candles to bring down business at the local tienda out of envy.  The guy who handed out cash to the kids to buy a soda was likely also the one who was informing the government of the names of people who sided with the opposition.  And (as I found out on this trip) the midwife’s daughter, who accompanied your children’s births along with her mother, might one day go to prison for being part of her husband’s organized crime group. These situations were all open secrets to everyone in the Barrio.

The “80% of people living in poverty” statistic (or whatever the number was at that time) didn’t mean a lot once you dug into it. Those newspaper photos of the impoverished, suffering people were a very thin reading of reality.  Behind them there were layers and layers of economic hierarchies and social depth.

About 3 years after I moved to El Salvador I started my first NGO job. One of my responsibilities was accompanying delegations to see different community projects. In many cases, as soon as we’d arrive to the communities, people would approach me and unleash the litany of their troubles and poverty, sometimes wringing their hands or their hat, asking for help, painting themselves as victims because I was white, had arrived in a 4×4 with an NGO logo on the side and a group of foreigners, and could translate their pleas for help.

I must have seemed pretty heartless, but it was hard to see people prostrating themselves when they lived in similar conditions to the ones my neighbors and I did in the Barrio, and no one in the Barrio saw me as someone who would fix things for them.

It probably seemed to the foreign visitors that a terrible thing had happened to me.  I had become “immune to the suffering”.  But what I think was really the case is that I didn’t feel sorry for people. I had no illusions that I could solve anyone’s problems and I felt really uncomfortable in this unfamiliar hierarchy.

My biggest work-related take-away from my time in El Salvador is an awareness of the hidden community dynamics and of what I represent when I visit different communities wherever my work takes me.  I’m acutely aware that there’s a lot happening under the surface that I know nothing about, and can’t know about, especially if I don’t speak the language or live in the community for a really long time or develop close and familiar relationships with several people so I can hear different viewpoints. (Perhaps that’s the anthropologist in me).

I’m hyper sensitive that I need to stay in the background. Community members, community organizations and local staff need to take the lead.  And when I see that there is a seat for me at that table up in front of the community assembly, I die a little inside.  When possible, I grab my camera as an excuse for not sitting there and roam around taking photos (of the non-black-and-white-with-dripping-red-blood variety).

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I come up against a nagging question when I’m thinking about mapping, when I’m talking about the projects I’m involved in, or when I’m working directly with staff and youth in rural communities using participatory mapping methodologies….

Why is this kind of map:

(source:  MapKibera, on Wikipedia)

better than this kind of map?

(Source:  Plan project in Kwale, Kenya)

Well… is it actually better?  And if it is better, when is it better, for whom and why?

I understand how useful mapping information is for big picture decision making, trend spotting and knowledge sharing at different levels.  Mapping in various forms is incredibly useful for program and advocacy work, and there are many examples of how crowd sourcing, digital mapping, and information geo-visualization can be done successfully (mapping stockouts, elections monitoring, human rights incident reporting, crisis management, public health). The potential is huge and exciting.

But when I’m sitting around with a group of people in a rural community without many services, it can be pretty hard to remember or to explain the benefits of digital mapping over low tech map making. Why should people make a digital map if they only have sporadic electricity and internet access (if at all) and not many smart phones.  How will they access that digital map on a regular basis once they make it?  Does the fact that they could make a digital map, necessarily mean that they should?

I guess my key concern is around how digital mapping is directly useful for the folks who are inputting the information, building the map.  The “what’s in it for them” question.

As I was pondering this nagging question, @NiJeL_mapping posted something on Twitter that caught my eye and helped spur along the idea of working through these thoughts.  He was at the Mobile Data for Social Action in the MidEast conference, hosted by UNICEF Innovations and MobileActive.  He tweeted:  “what data are we going to collect, how will we collect it, and from whom?” Then he tweeted:  “Again, the push for technology w/o any knowledge of the intended outcome is frustrating” And a last tweet “overhearing whispers about how we need to focus on the technology, but impossible w/o knowing info to collect”.  This really reminded me that you need to have clear objectives and reasons for collecting data before you decide what cool new technology will be used to do it.  A few days ago I read JD’s blog post giving an overview of the whole conference. The key point for me was that the ‘target’ population delegation “felt overwhelmed by the host of tools and projects presented to them and were unsure how any of this could benefit them”. Luckily, he said, the conference organizers realized this and quickly altered the course of the event.

Well, if you have ever asked yourself a question, it’s pretty likely that someone else has asked it too, and you can find some answers online. So I went digging around for thoughts from 4 initiatives that I’ve been following over the past year or so: Ushahidi, MapKibera, Wikimapa, and now NiJeL too.

In very quick summary, Ushahidi is often (but not exclusively) used as a crisis mapping tool for rapid crowd sourced information, decision making, and trend analysis. Map Kibera and Wikimapa both use mapping and user-generated media for social inclusion, community voice, community media and community planning. NiJeL works with participatory mapping, bringing it to the web for a variety of geo-visualization uses such as planning, resource allocation, impact visualization and advocacy.

Mine must be not be a unique query, because I found that Erica from Map Kibera answered it pretty directly a couple weeks ago in a blog post called Maps and the Media “…the question about benefit to those who aren’t online misses the point. The digital divide is a fact and needs to be addressed, but when it comes to community information there is also a need for expression outward and collaboration within Kibera. Something like the Kibera Journal or Pamoja FM allows Kibera to talk to itself, while putting facts and stories online allows it to speak to the rest of the world (including wired Nairobi, politicians, national press).”

The objectives of Map Kibera seem similar to those of the
YETAM project, the initiative that has taken up most of my work hours over the past couple years. YETAM’s  main goals are engaging youth in the local development process and helping them develop the skills and tools to communicate and advocate for their rights and their ideas with local, national and global audiences.  The project starts off with map making to visualize community profile, community history, community resources, and risks to child rights and protection. Group discussions ensue, issues are prioritized by the youth, and they then create art and media around those issues.
The arts and media materials that youth produce throughout the project are shared with community members, district officials and national authorities to generate dialogue. They’re also plotted onto a digital version of their map and uploaded to the web for the global audience.

Since the local audience is the main one for the media and arts that youth produce during YETAM project activities, followed by district, national and global audiences, it would seem then that the same is true for the map. It must first speak to the local audience, to the community.  It should be first useful to users and producers of the information, as a learning/discussion tool and as a decision making tool, and secondly be useful to a national and then a global audience. Perhaps this will be the case for many of the initiatives that Plan supports and facilitates, given Plan’s child-centered community develop approach and the fact that we use participatory mapping methodologies in our community work all the time. So we need to find a way for the hand-drawn map to be transformed into a digital map (this is what we’ve been doing up to now in the YETAM project), or find a way to make a digital map attractive and useful to local people. Or we could also keep doing both the low-tech and the digital versions.

[Update:  “Paper rocks!”  Mikel from Map Kibera (read his comment below) shared some additional tools that Map Kibera uses to ensure that information collected is available in the community.  One is called Walking Papers.  It is a paper based GPS where you print the map, re-draw it or add details, scan the new version and it automatically geo-rectifies the paper.  They will also be printing and distributing paper maps, and considering forums around the paper maps to increase participation from people who don’t use computers.  Also Mikel commented that drawn maps like the one in the image above can be stored and/or made available to the community using Map Warper.  Here you scan and upload a map, set control points, and then get a geo-rectified version for use online.  Excellent.  This gets better all the time.  :-)]

The Wikimapa Brazil project (paraphrasing from their website) aims to promote social inclusion using virtual and mobile mapping in low-income areas and slums, since available mapping services have not offered information from these marginalized areas.  The project aims to democratize access to information and raise low-income youth’s social participation from simple consumers of information to providers of information and change agents promoting local development and broadening perspectives and creating new cultural and geographical reference points.  In this case, the project goals are similar to YETAM and Map Kibera, but the project is primarily aimed at reducing marginalization and exclusion within available mapping services.  Therefore it seems relevant that on-line mapping is chosen as the mapping methodology.  It may also be the case that residents in the project area have easy access to internet, meaning they would be able to continually use and benefit from the on-line maps.

Patrick Meier from Ushahidi and the Harvard Humanitarian Institute talks specifically about the concepts of participatory mapping, social mapping and crowd feeding during this 30 min video. He comments that the information that’s collected via “crowd sourcing” needs to go right back to ‘the crowd’ who provided it (crowd feeding).  One way that Ushahidi is doing this in communities that do not have regular access to internet is by allowing people to subscribe to SMS alerts when a crisis event hits a particular area where they have a special interest.  Another way to ensure that map makers have information returned to them, he says, is to use transparencies in a manual approach to GIS where information is made more compelling by laying thematic transparent layers over a base map to show dynamic changes and trends.

Patrick points to Tactical Technology Collective’s Maps for Advocacy booklet which documents a number of different mapping techniques and mapping projects and how they have been used for advocacy.  So, I would conclude that in the case of Ushahidi and crisis mapping to see trends in time and space, to have immediate and up to date information, and to manage a broad set of information for crisis decision making, it also is logical that an online map is the primary mapping methodology.  In this case, the information is crowd sourced, so it comes from many, and it’s processed and aggregated on Ushahidi to go back to many.  Because the information in a crisis situation is changing rapidly, it would be difficult to use a static map, a hand drawn map or one that is updated less frequently.

In the case of Plan, as part of the Violence Against Children (VAC) project we are planning to pilot incident reporting by SMS of violence against children and subsequent mapping of the situation in order to raise awareness among families and community members, and to advocate to local, national and global authorities to uphold their responsibilities and promises in this aspect.  The question here will be how to make both crowd sourcing and crowd feeding something that is easily accessible by the participating youth and communities as well as to the other audiences in order to have the desired impact and reach the desired outcomes. The participating youth have already been trained on violence against children (VAC), its causes and effects, and ways to advocate around it.  Now the key will be training them on the technology so that they can discover and design ways to use it  to meet their goals.  A key point will be evaluating whether the outcome is a reduction in VAC.

So in conclusion I would have to say that one map is not better than the other map.  They are both amazing  tools and need to be selected depending on the situation. There is no one size fits all. It goes back to the point of having defined objectives and outcomes for the initiative, knowing what information will be collected, why, with whom, by whom, and for whom first, analyzing the local context as part of that process, knowing about what tools exist and finding the right tool/technology/information management process for the goals that people want to reach based on the context. It’s also about keeping the end-user in mind, and ensuring that those who are producing information have access to that information. I think I will have to keep my question in mind at all times, actually.
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The FLAP Bag is a project that was initiated at PopTech, together with Portable Light and Timbuk2 (join the discussion on FLAP bags here)  The FLAP is a messenger bag, designed by Timbuk2, which incorporates a removable flexible solar panel made by Portable Light.  The solar panel can be left on the bag and charged on the go (i.e. while you walk around in the sun) or removed and laid out flat to absorb the sun.  Connected to the solar panel is a battery that feeds into a small light, useful for walking/riding a bike at night, and a mobile phone charger. Photo: FLAP bag.

For use at home when there is no power, the light can be hung up or set up to reflect off the silvery back side of the solar panel for increased reach of its brightness.  A day of charging gives 10 hours of light.  Phones can be plugged into the USB port on the battery.  The phone charger (I learned) is direct charge – i.e., it charges through the battery only while in the sun, not from the battery after sundown. Photo:  FLAP bag with reflective side showing.

A few weeks ago I wrote about taking the FLAP bag to Mozambique to see what people thought of it.

While there I also got a few reactions on video (3 mins long).

Note:  I didn’t embed the video here because you can’t watch it with subtitles if it’s embedded, so you’ll have to check it out via this link.  To turn on the captions/subtitles, click on the lower right hand triangle of the video player.  That will show you a “cc” box. Click on the “cc” box to turn it red, and that will turn on captions/subtitles.  To the left of the “cc” is another little triangle. Hover over it, and you’ll see the language options.  (And for something really cool – then check out how you can translate the captions! but that’s another topic…)


After my month in Mozambique with the bag, and based on some conversations sparked by my last blog post, my thoughts are:

How the FLAP worked for me

I charged the panels up a few times in Mozambique and at first had trouble getting the light to turn on. I emailed Portable Light and they explained that you need to keep the button pressed down for a bit for the light to come on.  Bingo, it worked fine then.  We had a week of steady rain the 3rd week I was in Mozambique and the power was out in my room at the hotel.  I was able to use the light for 4 consecutive evenings for a couple of hours and the battery held the power even though I wasn’t recharging the panel during the day.  For some reason I wasn’t able to get my i-phone to charge, so need to figure out what’s going on there.  I didn’t realize at first that phone charging has to be done via direct sunlight, not stored power, so maybe that is the problem. Will keep trying.


It’s a great idea and meets real needs:  light and mobile phone charging. People love the idea. It turns heads and the bag is very nice.  Everyone wants one, as you could see from the video. I liked the poetic quote that the FLAP gives you power for the fundamentals: “a telephone to communicate and a lamp to illuminate.”

Openness to testing.

I love that the FLAP folks are open to feedback and adjustments to the idea to develop something that’s localized and works for different populations/situations.

USB port.

Most people in the rural communities where I tend to travel don’t own or have access to computers and their phones come with wall plugs, not USB cables. So I think the USB port needs some kind of adaptor.   I tested the few USB cables I was able to find, and they only transferred data, not electricity (they didn’t charge up while connected to either a computer or the FLAP battery).  This includes the fancy Nokia E63 that I use when I travel.  So either I’m missing something (highly possible!), or the bag needs to come with a cheap universal electricity/USB cable, or if the system is built locally, cables for the most popular phone types could be included or manufactured as an accessory.  There are also different ways that people charge locally that could be looked at (though these are probably imported, worth a look?), for example, the universal charger in the photo above, which I’ve also seen in Senegal. You can connect a camera or phone battery directly.  Perhaps an idea to think about.  Another option might be something like this universal charger that was announced in October 2009, though it may not be compatible with existing phones that people already own.

Cost at ‘BoP’.

The cost is currently too high for people at the “Bottom of the Pyramid” (BoP).  It probably needs to come down to $5-$10 for the solar panel/battery/light. Research on income, similar products (if available), current phone charging costs/costs for candles/other light sources, and perceived value would help to find realistic price point.  People don’t normally carry bags where I was, except for backpacks for school, made out of very inexpensive plastic/vinyl. Some ideas that people had on where to put a solar panel included: on school backpacks, curtains, cloths, parasols, clothing, foldable panels that can be taken out and set up at the market or while doing outside work during the day, or something to set in a back window or on top of a car. Photo: Common style of school backpacks in Mozambique.

‘Cost per beneficiary’/ROI at NGOs.

One person at a large global NGO read my recent blog post and got very excited about the possibility of children having light to study by at night.  When I revealed the cost, however, even at $50, the ‘cost per beneficiary’ that many NGOs adhere to due to internal rules or donor expectations was too high.  It would be interesting for FLAP to find/do/publish some research on the benefits of light in education, learning, future income, etc., or cost saving in other areas by having solar light. This could be combined with research on economic benefits of mobile phones and the costs for charging locally (eg., in Mozambique this is about 10 MTs/day or USD $0.40) to make the case for FLAP. (Maybe this is already being done).   I’m not sure if most NGOs currently include environmental benefits as a main factor when measuring ROI, but these kinds of numbers would be helpful to inform decisions.

‘MoP’ Uses.

The bag in its current form at a mid-range price (e.g. $30-45?) could be widely used at the “Middle of the Pyramid.”  NGOs already spend on camera batteries, bags, etc. for staff as part of normal operations, and if they were manufactured locally they could generate local business.  In the case of Plan (where I work), for example, staff take lots of photos for sponsorship and program operations.  Using rechargeable digital camera batteries and FLAP, savings over time could potentially offset the costs, and could be one concrete way to start reducing negative environmental impact.  So a good entry point for FLAP could be NGO workers, university students, government workers who spend time in communities and need to keep their phones or digital cameras charged up for mobile data gathering or collecting data, surveys, etc. in ‘the field.’  Another possible link would be with the Peace Corps or other large organizations that equip their volunteers or staff with essential gear before sending them to live/work in rural communities.

Note on who I was talking with:

In order to qualify things, I did a little unscientific research.  While everyone at our workshop was together in the same room, I read 6 statements, and asked them to raise their hands if the statement was true.  We had around 45 kids in the room, roughly 75% male/25% female, between the ages of 12 and 20, attending secondary school and living in communities within a 1 hour radius (by public transportation) from the school.  The school is located along a main road, put in 3 years ago, and the communities/commerce along the road are growing.  Also in the room were 10 adult teachers/local NGO partners/folks from national radio stations living in the district.  I suppose you would consider the students “poor” by typical global standards, however the fact that they are attending secondary school means that they are not the poorest of the poor. Teacher salaries are around 3,000 MTs/month or about $100.  Photo:  The phones that were at the workshop.

The results:

· 34% had their own mobile phones (more than half of this % were adults)

· 100% of their families had mobile phones

· 25% of personal or family’s phones had a USB cable

· 25% of the phones can connect to internet

· 24% had used the internet at least once before the workshop

· 43% have electricity at home

I asked everyone in the room to put their phones on the table (photo above).  You can see that the most popular types of phones are the Nokia 1100 or 1200 (which do not come with a USB cable, though I believe they do have a 5-prong USB jack).


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