Archive for June, 2010

I’m in Bamenda, a beautiful, cloudy and cool, mountainous area of Cameroon, to support some training this week. On the drive out, my colleagues revealed that they’d booked me into ‘a very nice hotel’, whereas they would be staying at the ‘Family Hotel’. I asked why we were staying at different places and it became clear that they’d be staying with relatives and friends or at hostels they didn’t think I could handle to save their per diem. The nice hotel is indeed nice – not fancy, but brand new with clean, quiet rooms, fluffy white comforters, decent pillows, a hot water shower and most importantly – there are no mosquitoes. I would have protested, but my luggage didn’t arrive and I don’t have my mosquito net for at least another couple of nights, so I let it go.

I went down to breakfast this morning and there were a couple of older guys, maybe in their 60s, waiting to be served. We greeted each other with typical pleasantries. They said they were in Bamenda to recruit students for a school they run in the UK. I waited for about 15 minutes for some acknowledgement from hotel staff that there was going to be some kind of breakfast, but nothing. Pretty soon a few obviously wealthy Cameroonians affiliated with the 2 UK guys came in. They were clearly not used to waiting and began berating the kitchen staff to hurry up and get us all some breakfast. I apologized and asked for just some hot water to take to my room to make coffee, as the driver was going to arrive shortly.

Tonight I went down to dinner. I am not a soccer fan but thought I’d watch the Brazil-Chile World Cup match since I didn’t have anything else to do, mobile internet was slow, and there was a TV on in the bar area. I ordered a Guinness and asked if there was any dinner. The hotel is pretty much food made to order based on what’s available in the kitchen since there are very few customers. The cook I had bonded with over the soccer match and my dinner selection last night suggested he stir fry up some eggplant and zucchini with garlic and ginger. Fabulous. I timed my order so that I could eat at half time. Then I realized that I was making him miss the whole first half of the game because he was cooking my meal. And I don’t even care about soccer.

My 2 UK hotel-mates from breakfast arrived back to the hotel just as I started eating, and set up at the bar. Friendly chatting ensued about my meal. The first UK guy said he’d bring his own food and spices next time and cook his native Indian food in the kitchen since hotel staff were so slow. There was a young Cameroonian woman with the second UK guy. He was tickling her in a suggestive way. The finely dressed Cameroonian guy with them said to the first UK guy “Don’t worry, your ‘drink’ will be here in 30 minutes. You know what I mean, your ‘drink’?” How obvious.

Brazil was dominating at 3-0, but I decided to wait around in the bar for the game to be over just to see how old this guy’s ‘drink’ happened to be. I was glad to see that at least she was clearly over 18. Makes me wonder what kind of ‘school’ these guy are involved with. I suppose if you were a poor family in Bamenda and some wealthy looking guy from the UK offered to take your son or daughter to study over in the UK, you’d be cool with it. Or maybe I’m reading into things.

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While writing my last post on amateurs, professionals, innovations and smart aid, I was also thinking about why organizations or institutions offer volunteering, voluntourism and exchange visits as an option for their donors, students, constituents, and why people (including US volunteers and overseas communities or organizations that receive volunteers/visitors) participate in them.

As another mental exercise, I came up with 4 categories that these programs fall into (feel free to differ or add others if I skipped over something, this is in no way scientific research or a desk study, just thoughts based on my experiences and observations):

Relationship building, cross-cultural learning, solidarity

  • Some initiatives are primarily aimed at learning, engaging with the world outside a person’s home country, strengthening cross-cultural relationships, and building links and global movements. These programs tend to stem from a core belief that in order to achieve a better and more peaceful world, we need to reach out and strengthen relationships across cultures and countries; enhance our understanding of one another; better comprehend our global interconnectedness; and build global movements around  particular themes to push forward change. This kind of program is sometimes also heavily funded by governments as part of foreign aid (Peace Corps, development education programs funded by USAID, ‘democracy strengthening’ exchange programs) with a goal of improving relations, transferring skills, and showing that Americans really are nice, helpful, friendly people and that democracy is the best form of government.
  • Those that sign up for these initiatives are often highly engaged with a particular cause (solidarity movement, peace, environment, religious, women, political viewpoint). They may be going overseas to show their solidarity, share knowledge and skills, or connect around issues they are passionate about.  Or they may simply want to travel abroad and have an interest in global issues and a desire to help. Volunteering, voluntourism and exchange programs offer a way travel and/or live abroad in a non-touristy way. These types of programs can be very attractive for youth and people late in their careers or retired.

Career development, field study and gaining experience

  • Some programs are offered by academic institutions, non-profits (or perhaps private companies) whose work is focused on or in the developing world, and who believe their students (or employees) need experience in the developing world in order to do quality work that is well adapted to the cultures and people that they will deal with/serve/sell to in the future.  These are programs that offer career development, internships or study opportunities via NGOs, universities, etc.; language learning; resume building and experience for future careers in a variety of fields; opportunities to live with and learn about or research a particular culture or field; a chance to better understand the poor and design products and services for/with the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP); insight to build social enterprises, etc.
  • Those looking for these types of experiences are often university students, recent graduates, missionaries, foreign language students, or adventurers looking for a way to live abroad. For many in this group, overseas experience is a key factor that will set them apart; build a skill set; allow them to progress in their chosen field of work; and help them be more effective in the types of processes, services and products that they eventually develop. There is pretty much no way to get this kind of experience outside of volunteering, overseas interning or doing an exchange trip during a semester, a vacation period or a summer.

Cultural belief in community service and charity

  • Another common reason that organizations offer these opportunities is belief that volunteering is good, charity is an important value, we should appreciate what we have and give back. In the past 10 years or so, mandatory volunteering and community service is growing in US schools as a way to build certain habits and values in young people. Many teachers and parents believe America is the best country in the world, and want their students/children to ‘experience poverty’ so that they will ‘realize how good they have it.’ This type of program sometimes comes from a charity mindset (donor/recipient, rich/poor, us/them, developed/developing) and is based in beliefs about philanthropy that are prevalent in the US (and apparently in Canada, Australia, Europe and some other places too). These kinds of programs seem to be the most common and the easiest to sign up for.  (See @TalesfromthHood’s series on American Culture 101, 102 and 103 and related discussions.)

  • Those who participate here are often students that need to fulfill community service requirements for graduation. They may also be from church groups or other organized groups that do volunteering as a part of their culture, their way of being, and their belief structure. Many people in the US feel guilty that they are spending money on a vacation and want to alleviate their guilt by doing a bit of ‘service’. Or they are at a time in their lives where they have the means to ‘give back’ and they want to do it physically and personally, in the ‘poorest’ of places, and/or where it’s most convenient for them (like while they are on vacation). There is a belief in the US that giving money is ‘not enough,’ is too easy, and that if you really care, you will go and do. People are often not satisfied with ‘just giving money’ and really have a desire to try to know and understand the people that they are ‘helping’, but they don’t have a lot of time, and don’t want to become professional aid workers.

Donor engagement, fund raising, brand awareness

  • Organizations are aware that philanthropy is changing. Articles abound in philanthropic journals about how major donors are tired of bureaucracy; want to ‘do development’ using for-profit models; want to start their own organizations and get directly involved in managing projects they are funding. Organizations are also aware that younger adults, say 18-40, may not have a lot of money to give, but they are at a critical juncture where they are forming ideas about philanthropy, as well as bonds and alliances with the organizations that they will give to in the future.  NGOs are aware that Americans believe that it means more to do than to give, and that doing is a richer personal experience for donors.
  • Many organizations have programs to engage donors in ways other than giving money. They have volunteer programs; use social media to stimulate community and loyalty; build advocacy programs where donors can engage by clicking and sending something on-line or ‘like’ something to show their support. Voluntourism, exchanges and hands-on volunteering are another way to engage donors. The main goal here is not so much the advocacy or the ‘help’ that the volunteer gives, but rather the opportunity to gain an email address and build a relationship over time that turns into a loyal donor who gives what organizations really need in order to carry out their programs:  cash donations, major gifts and bequests. Advocacy and volunteering/voluntourism have an added benefit that they can also build brand awareness and PR for the organization.
  • Those that participate in this type of program are similar to those in point 3 above, and don’t want only a financial relationship with an organization. They want to do something direct and meaningful aside from giving money.

What do communities want?

I haven’t directly asked any communities or found any ‘poor’ communities themselves blogging about volunteers, voluntourism, exchange visits or amateurs.  From being involved in different negotiations around volunteers and exchanges and donor visits/trips over the years, however, here are some of the things I’ve seen, heard and experienced.

Communities (considered here as geographical or cause-based communities receiving volunteers, voluntours, exchange visits or hosting small new NGOs) that participate in these programs often hope to

  • receive funds locally to support their work
  • maintain a link to a broader movement or cause that benefits them
  • be invited to spend some time outside of their community/country in return
  • make social, financial and political connections through volunteers and visitors
  • get concrete support for a particular area or build knowledge and skills by learning from those who are volunteering
  • get some financial or other kind of direct benefits back through a project or program related to the expertise or study area of the volunteer or organization that sent the volunteer.

Communities may also take and house volunteers as a favor to an organization or institution that they are working with and as their contribution to a partnership relationship. They may genuinely enjoy the company of volunteer groups who bring a burst of energy and excitement into the community. Often projects that volunteers come to work on (eg, infrastructure, certain types of specialized training over the long term) would not be funded or available if it weren’t for the volunteer set-up or small non-profit, and communities are aware of this, so they gladly take an infrastructure project with some volunteers.

In a few cases, local people and organizations might be looking to take advantage of naive volunteers, inexperienced non-profit starters, and voluntourists. [Not forgetting here that volunteers, voluntourists, investors and non-profits can also do harm to a community and the people who live there, either intentionally or unintentionally, if they have bad intentions or don’t know what they are doing].

How is success defined?

You can tell a lot about the real reasons an organization or institution offers these programs if you can find out what the stated program goals are, or how they are measuring/defining program success.

Are they measuring…

  • development outcomes and sustainability at the community level? (eg., school attendance, quality of education, health indicators, etc.)
  • successful and sustainable entrepreneurial initiatives at the community level?
  • the number of schools, latrines, houses, etc., built in a community?
  • success in terms of a particular advocacy issue or broader movement around an issue?
  • changes in attitudes about something?
  • the number of students/volunteers/donors who enroll and complete the program/tour/exchange visit?
  • community satisfaction with the program?
  • profit from the actual volunteer/voluntour/exchange program? (above and beyond costs to run the program)?
  • the number of emails they get that they can add to their list for sending out appeals?
  • funds and donations raised during/after the program directly for the participating community?
  • funds and donations raised during/after the program for the organization’s work in general?

Who is volunteering/ overseas exchange mostly about?

I realize that there is no category above where the end goal is ‘providing communities with particular skills that only an overseas volunteer can offer’ or ‘providing necessary (unskilled, inexperienced) support in emergency situations.’ I suppose I don’t believe that organizations and institutions really have those goals for their volunteer programs, but feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

I’m pretty sure that if you did some research, you would find that in the short term, volunteer and exchange programs are almost always mostly about the volunteer or the organization’s goals, not about the outcomes and impact at the community level. In the long term, however, they may be directly or indirectly beneficial to communities or the world at large.

I would be interested to know what, if any, is the long-term direct positive impact of volunteering/ voluntourism/ exchange visits

  • on ‘poor’ communities (do their development indicators rise?)
  • on political and voting tendencies of volunteers (do they vote for candidates who make decisions that favor the poor overseas? do they participate in direct advocacy with the US Government on issues related to their experiences?)
  • on business practices (do business owners who have volunteered implement better business practices? do they have fairer practices and policies toward developing countries?)
  • on world views (do participants see the world as more interconnected? does that impact on their personal actions and lifestyle choices?)
  • on fundraising for the organization’s general programs or for participating communities

Finally, to be honest about it, some volunteers/voluntourists/exchange visitors might not even care what the real reasons are that an organization offers these programs. They just want to travel and feel good that they are ‘helping’.

[Update: I’ve been traveling and behind on my reading – I didn’t see A View from a Cave’s entire great series on Volunteering until now. Highly recommend checking it out!]


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Amateurs, professionals, innovation and smart aid

Mind the gap

The elephant in the room

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I’ve been following the debates surrounding professionalism, amateurism, innovation and good practice in aid and development work on the blogosphere and Twitter for awhile now.  In their most extreme and exaggerated form, they go something like this:

Extreme side 1: Amateurs are evil

Aid is about the poor.  Amateurs and would-be overseas volunteers should stay home, give money to experienced international organizations, volunteer locally, and stop getting in the way of professionals who are trying to get some serious work done. Aid and development are complicated and there is no silver bullet. They require experience and expertise. Amateurs, voluntourists and unskilled volunteers do more harm than good — they are clueless, showing up with no experience or concept of good aid or development processes. They bypass coordination structures, create confusion and duplication, repeat mistakes and don’t follow known best practices or proven ethical and industry guidelines. You may be a brilliant designer, marketer, manager or engineer but if you don’t have experience in aid and development, please use your skills elsewhere.

Amateurs make major mistakes and get themselves into trouble, and then professionals have to waste their time dealing with them instead of on the people in most need of help.  They parachute in ideas and technologies designed from afar that have no basis in reality because they don’t have any experience in aid, development or the developing world and they don’t listen to past experiences or lessons learned. They come up with stupid ideas, take away paid jobs from local people, create hand-out schemes and other unsustainable and inappropriate models of helping, and then leave. In no other field are amateurs allowed to go in and muck around in other people’s lives with no preparation or experience just because they have good intentions, so why are they allowed to barge into poor communities and bumble around just because they feel guilty about their own wealth and privilege or think it’s their right to help? The poor deserve better than that. Aid should be left to professionals who know what they are doing.

Extreme side 2: Aid and aid workers are evil

There’s no point in talking about professionalism because aid workers and aid and development in their totality have been an utter failure, regardless of how professional aid workers think they are.  Aid is aid, how hard can it be? We need to get things done! Everyone can and should get involved in helping, because it’s everyone’s right and responsibility to help. How will things advance if new ideas and innovations aren’t tested? And by the way, my latest product/ invention/ idea would easily solve that issue that aid workers have been struggling with for centuries…. I just need a place to test it out, got any communities? Volunteers and people with good intentions can do just as good a job as professional aid workers, who have made a total mess of everything anyway with their outdated models and bureaucratic, slow, top down procedures.

New ways of doing things and ideas brought in by youth, volunteers, design students and for-profit innovators from different sectors are beneficial to aid, which is currently stagnated and ineffective and needs an overhaul, or better yet, total annihilation. Aid workers drive around in giant SUVs and don’t have any commitment to local people because they live in fancy ex-pat houses with servants, getting rich off of the backs of the poor they profess to help. It’s just a big business that is perpetuating itself and preventing the poor from developing.  On top of that, the only way you can get into it is to start as a volunteer, but volunteering is discredited by those same aid workers. The dying field of aid and development is a closed and exclusive club. Aid should be abolished, and/or bypassed by small groups of dedicated, good-hearted, every-day individuals and/or social entrepreneurs and capitalists with good intentions who really care about people in the developing world, and can bring in new ways of working and innovations.


I’m finding the arguments really interesting.  A little mixed up and too generalized sometimes, but both sides resonate with me because I’ve seen concrete examples of a lot of the above.  (By the way, I hope no one takes offense at how I’ve portrayed the sides – this is just an exercise here – I love you all).  So I was trying to step back and look at the discussion.

It struck me that the arguments sound a lot like the old media – new media arguments.  New media is less professional, less rigorous, and sometimes unethical and low quality. But it often it brings innovations and truths that old media misses. It’s quick, accessible, open, less controlled and often pretty freaking amazing and right on.  Old media is solid and has a long history of quality and impact, but it’s also slow, unresponsive and conservative at times. Old media that’s not finding a way to integrate and learn from new media is dying.

So how might old aid, old development and new aid, new development work together? What can traditional non-profits learn from traditional media outlets that have embraced new media or morphed their old models into something that is still solid and proven, yet offers a space for participation and innovation by the public?

What general standards and knowledge need to be out in the public to help amateurs or people from non-aid and non-development backgrounds who want to engage avoid pitfalls and known errors, and avoid breaking laws or forging forward unethically or foolishly, and doing damage? Can old and new come to terms and work together? What examples are there of this already happening in a way that both old and new agree is working?  Or are these two sides totally incompatible and doomed to work against each other?

[Update] See Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges for a Part 2 to this post.

For more background….

Update:  Penelope has written a great post called “On Entrepreneurship and NGOs

Saundra over at Good Intentions are not Enough does a great job of sharing standards, practices and educating on how to select good charities/organizations, and has published a “Smart Aid Wish List” you can add to.

Check out this excellent chapter (.pdf) by ALNAP on Innovations in International Humanitarian Action (thanks to @talesfromthhood for sharing).

[update] Michael Keizer at A Humorless Lot wrote a great response post here:  The professional volunteer (impossible in aid?) and how about the salaried amateur?

Check out the #smartaid and the #1millionshirts hashtags on Twitter.

Follow some of the bloggers on my blogroll — they pretty much span the different sides of the issue in less extreme and more nuanced ways than I’ve done in my exaggerations above.

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Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges

Mind the gap

The elephant in the room

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I went to get my car tuned up a last week and ended up having to leave it at the shop for a couple of days while I figured out how I was going to pay for it: over a thousand dollars of work in order to pass state inspection. The car shop had their man, Jack, drive me home. He was 70-something guy, probably a smoker, with the kind of Rhode Island accent it took me awhile to get used to when I moved here.  Jack tried to make small talk but I wasn’t in a chatty mood, absorbed in figuring out what I was going to juggle around to pay for the repairs.

A couple days later the car place arranged for Jack to pick me up, early in the morning, to get my car back. It was a gorgeous spring day. The birds had woken me up early. The shock of the thousand dollars was a little worn off. On the way back to the car place, Jack and I conversed about life and business ethics. He was a former used car salesman who’d left the business because ‘well, ya know, things change, an’nat’s all I’m gonna say.’

“I use ta just tell people, even if they loved a ca’ cause it looked good onna outside, ‘I’m not sellin’ it to ya.’  The people who came in widda lotta money, well, they always wanted the best deals, but me, I useta give the best deals t’da people wit the least money, and I wouldn’t let ‘em walk off widda bad ca’.”

I got out of the vehicle at the shop feeling happy. ‘Salt of the earth’ as they say in this part of the country. Good people. And goodness is catching. I waved good bye to Jack, drove off, in a sunny mood, and realized I needed some gas.

The car place is about 40 minutes south of Providence, out near the Rhode Island beaches, small towns and organic farms. I pulled into the nearest gas station and got out to pump. The attendant, a smallish, roundish, oldish man with the sweetest smile in the world appeared immediately, ready to give me a hand. ‘Oh, you’re full serve?’ He grinned at me, ‘Oh yes young lady, there’s the sign.’ Indeed, there it was: We pump your gas. ‘Just relax and I’ll get you all settled.’

I sat back in the car, all smiles, the breeze blowing through the windows. Vittorino, the attendant finished up and came over to the car window. “There, you’re all set now.” I signed the credit card slip. ‘See, we take good care of you here. We even give you fresh herbs.’ I couldn’t tell if he was flirting with me now or teasing me. I perceived an Italian accent but his smile made me wonder if he was putting it on or if it was real. I was kind of in a daze. I didn’t know if I was misunderstanding this bit about the herbs, or if he was pulling my leg. I flashed him another big smile and thanked him again, and started up the car.

‘So you don’t want any parsley? You wait – I give you some fresh parsley.’ So he was for real. I turned the engine off, and he walked with a slight limp over to a bed of parsley, picked off a few bunches and came back.  ‘How about some oregano?  It’s Italian oregano.’  Most definitely.  ‘And here I got flowers too.  Marigolds. They are just starting to come up but they’ll be beautiful soon.  Come back again. I give you flowers. And tomatoes.’ Another huge, flirtatious exchange of grins. Vittorino handed me my Italian oregano, gave me a wink and I was off.

I spent the sunny, breezy drive home thinking about the gentle, kind and good-hearted old men that I have encountered in my life….

There was Dr. Yen, originally from Kunming, China, ‘in the mountains, where we are tall’ as he liked to say. He was in his 60s, leading the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Southern California. He hired me for my work-study job in college. I showed up for the interview with spiky blue hair, wearing all-black clothing from the Goodwill and a nose ring. Dr. Yen ignored my appearance, asked me if I could type, and hired me on the spot. I worked for him for 4 years.

He treated me like a daughter, counseled me, guided me, and bounced ideas off me about how to handle his graduate students. He’d eat traditional foods at lunchtime, and then laugh if I’d catch him with his chopsticks. “Ah Mrs. Yen, she doesn’t like me to eat this. She says it’s Buddha food.” He co-signed for me on my apartment when I moved off campus. He let me take time off work to get married in my senior year and told me he’d help me out if I needed anything. He helped me find a job with another department on campus my first year out of college when I had no idea what I was going to do with myself.

And there’s Bert who lives across the street from me.  He is in his 80s by now, originally from Scotland.  When I moved to the States with my kids in 2001, my mother-in-law came up with us from El Salvador for a couple months. She had no English whatsoever, and would spend her days alone in the house, cleaning and tending the yard while the kids were at school and I was at work. Bert would come over in the mornings and give her a smile and a wave and a brown bag full of tomatoes from his garden. He made her feel welcomed into the neighborhood through a language she understood well. It was often the highlight of her day.

I think of both my grandfathers, one quiet and reserved, one flamboyant. My mom’s father, a soft spoken Chicago Cubs fan, collected stamps and raised show pigeons in a coop in the garage. The smell of lots of pigeons always takes me back to my childhood and my grandpa.  He liked to tease us by grabbing our shoulder blades and saying “Look at those wings! They’re growing pretty fast. By the next time you come to visit, you’ll be ready to fly!” Or he’d grab our bare toes on summer evenings and sing “Stinky feet from Eddy Street”.

He was a gold beater and worked in a little artisan’s shop near the house on Eddy Street that he’d grown up in. He’d buy gold, boil it down, cool it and beat it into delicate, thin gold leaves.  At the shop and at his workbench at the house, where my grandmother would often spend her evenings, there were little packs of tissue paper and round leaves of beaten gold. My grandparents had a tool to cut the fragile, finely beaten gold into perfect squares. Then they’d lift each square carefully onto stack with special tweezers, add a square of thin tan tissue paper in between and make packs of gold leaf, ready for shipping out.  The gold was used to cover fine mirrors or gold domes on fancy buildings. My grandfather was the last known person in the US to hand-prepare gold leaf, and was featured once in National Geographic as one of the last artisans of his kind in the US. He was always referred to as ‘a fine, fine man.’

My dad’s dad was loud and boisterous; an engineer who loved music and theater, especially when he was starring in it. He would play jazz and swing at top volume in the downstairs of the house in Freeport, Illinois, whistling and scatting to the music. Family stories abounded about his brilliance. He was ambidextrous and could write two different sentences at the same time. I remember one Christmas as a child, I woke up around midnight and snuck downstairs. My grandfather was in our front room and the television was on, and it was now in color. Such was the legend of my grandpa’s amazing abilities, I imagined he had turned our black and white television into a color one.

My grandmother got Lou Gehrig’s disease when she was about 70. She slowly became paralyzed from the feet up, and my grandfather became her fulltime caretaker. He’d set her up in a chair at 5 p.m. for their habitual evening cocktail.  A scotch sour for my grandmother and a whiskey sour for him.  He’d put a straw in my grandmother’s glass so that she could drink it without help. She hated being dependent.  By the end, my grandfather had to help my grandma with the slightest thing.  She’d wake him in the middle of the night to help her move her legs into different position because they’d become painful. Over time, he had ceded the center of attention to her and moved himself to the background.

My own father too is becoming an ‘old man’. (Sorry, there’s no way around it, Dad). With age, his kindness also grows. He’s been there for me on countless occasions, when I couldn’t tell anyone else what was going on with me. I love to watch him with my kids, his patience and sweetness expanding with the years as he settles into his age.

So this little post is dedicated to these men and all the other ‘old men,’ the salt of the earth, who’ve passed through my life in one way or another, expecting nothing in return, and making the world a kinder and gentler place.

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Yesterday my colleague Mika Valitalo at Plan Finland sent some information about mGeos, a cool project that Pajat Management (a Finnish company), Plan Kenya, Plan Finland, Helsinki University of Technology and University of Nairobi have been collaborating on for the past year. Note: Mika and Pertti Lounamaa from Pajat gave me written permission to share this info.

The idea? To develop easy-to-use GPS-based mapping software that runs on low-cost mobile phones.

Detailed map information is missing from most of the 'developing' world

What needs is mGeos responding to? Being efficiently able to provide health, education and humanitarian aid or even most industrial services is critically dependent on knowing where to provide these services. Basic location information about points-of-interest (POIs), routes to them and areas to service are missing from the countries in most need of public service improvement. In ‘developing’ countries especially, critical map and location information is largely incomplete, outdated or missing. For example, in the image here, you can see small town map details available for Finland (left image) vs for those for Kenya (right image).

Earlier experiences in a few program countries as well as responses to a questionnaire conducted with Plan Kenya staff showed a desire and clear need to use location data more effectively. There is also a need to make it available on low-cost phones that are more accessible.

Stefanie Conrad (my awesome boss) for example, sees it like this:

“Geographic analysis of the distribution of social services such as wells, hospitals, telecommunication facilities, broadcast services, schools, etc. is essential for Plan’s program work in order to have a sound understanding of the best way to provide access to those services. In reality, most of our country offices work with non-geographical systems, for example, lists of communities. In many countries, the government itself does not have sufficient mapping of communities in place. Decisions on where to put something to guarantee access to populations often becomes a thing based on best guess.

Mobile phones with GPS could support more equitable and technically sound placement of basic services. Digital pictures and maps could be used with communities in order to facilitate discussions about where to best place a well, for example. This can often be a difficult process, as usually community leaders try to get these types of services to be conveniently placed as close as possible to their own homes….  Many of our offices also have difficulties producing the maps needed for corporate communications (area overviews, local area maps, etc) – this would become possible with GPS.”

The mGeos project aims to respond to these identified needs. A 3-month field pilot is planned to take place in Kilifi, Kenya, in July.  I’ll be in Kenya in July and if the pilot goes forward then, I am hoping to be able to see personally how mGeos works!

What are mGeos’ key features?

  • mGeos service platform

    Supports collection of structured data as numbers, text, exclusive and multiple choice and images; and also location data including points of interest, routes and areas

  • Multiple front ends:  standard internet browsing for laptops and large screen smart phones and mobile browsing (xHTML/WAP)
  • Dedicated application for GPS enabled mobile phones
  • Authoring tool for defining forms and corresponding database model for storing the collected data
  • Open API for accessing stored data
  • Based on a SaaS (software as services) model

What does the mGeos system consist of?

  • client software which runs on low-cost S40 GPS enabled mobile phones (eg. Nokia 2710)
  • server running a database where all the collected information is stored and accessed
  • portal i.e. webpages which show the collected Points of Interest (POIs) on Google maps (or other maps) and allow browsing, exporting and sorting of the collected data.

What would mGeos look like in action?

Say a field worker named Victoria arrives to the Kilifi District Program Unit in the morning. She’s planning to visit Kujemudo community. Before leaving for the day trip, she takes a GPS enabled mobile phone from the office and downloads the latest updated ‘Points of Interest’ (POI) list from the computer to her phone.  The POI list has been created by Victoria and her colleagues by gathering location data while visiting different communities during the past couple of months.  Today Victoria also wants to map important POIs in the communities, among many other tasks.

After arriving to Kujemudu and having a meeting with the local community based organization, Victoria rides her motorbike over to a school building in Ezamoyo village, takes her GPS enabled mobile phone in hand, and starts the mapping application.  The she chooses ‘add POI’ from the menu, selects the POI category of ‘school’ and adds the name of the school. After that she also types in the additional information such as the number of pupils and teachers, ownership of the school, etc.  Finally she takes a photo of the school, attaches it to this record and saves the information to the phone memory to be transferred later to the computer server.

Next Victoria visits Mkombe village where the location and information of the school has already been entered into the database by her colleague Peter a few weeks earlier.  Victoria uses the POI browsing feature to find the right school (browse by POI category).  When she finds the existing data record, she chooses ‘edit’ in order to update the information. Because part of the school has been reconstructed, she takes a new photo of the school and replaces the outdated one. Also, since the number of students has increased, she edits the ‘school population’ field to match the current number. Finally she saves the record.

While visiting Mabirikani village the next day, Victoria checks one of the wells, because she has heard that it has collapsed due to recent floods.  Since this is clearly the case, Victoria takes the mobile, searches the well from the data base and marks the record as deleted.

mGeos web screen shot

The next day, Victoria arrives to the Kilifi District Program Unit, connects the phone to her computer, and uploads all the new records and changes. Then she sends them to the mGeos webpage, which gets updated (i.e., now all the users can see the Ezamoyo school building, the updated information from Mkombe, and will notice that the well in Mabrikani is no longer in use).

When Victoria sees the new information in the system, she notices that she has mistyped the number of pupils in Mkombe school.  Since she is the author of the information, she can also edit the record in the mGeos webpage to correct the information. After checking that all the other information is OK, she leaves the phone in the office and continues with other work tasks.

When will it be tested? We plan to fully test the application in Kenya in July. Plan Kenya/Kilifi District Program Unit has identified a number of  POIs ( schools, health facilities, water points, trading centers etc.) they would like to map. They have also listed additional information each POI should have. For example, for schools they would collect information on: name, type (special, integrated, non-integrated), level (primary, secondary…), numbers of pupils, availability of water and sanitation services, etc. etc.  This information would be entered into mobile phones running mGeos software and later transferred to the server for sharing, analysis, editing, reporting and exporting.

Once the pilot has run, and user input is collected, the system will be adjusted and improved so that it can be fully launched.  I’ll keep following the mGeos story and post more as it’s tested and rolled out!

Update:  For more information see these later posts:

mGESA: Mobile GEographical Services for Africa

Mobile Date Collection through Points of Interest in Kenya (on Mobile Active)

The final application is called PoiMapper (see www.pajatman.com). Give it a try by downloading it and installing it on your mobile!

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Four years ago, I was working on a youth participatory video project in Togo. Charlie, a videographer from the US, was with us, supporting with the training. We would split into small groups each day and film in the community, according to topics and priorities that the youth had identified. The kids were secondary school students from rural communities, living with relatives in the district capital. They were between 12 and 18 years old, and most spoke their native Kabye, French, and a bit of formal English.

One night at dinner, Charlie confessed that he’d made a small blunder and was trying to delicately remedy it. There were about 4-5 kids in the group that he was accompanying. He’d noticed a bit of friction between them and was mulling it over. He suddenly realized that after each bit of video work, he had been gathering the group together and saying ‘good job!’ or ‘great job!’ or ‘you did a really nice job,’ and giving them a thumbs up.

It dawned on him that one of the kids in the group’s name was ‘Job’ and that the whole group, including Job himself, thought that after each shoot, Charlie was singling out Job to praise him, and him alone for the good work. The mentoring relationship between Charlie and Job was incredible, perhaps due to this misunderstanding, and Job eventually went on to pursue journalism. Charlie began using other congratulatory language with the group to try to make up for his unintentional error. I wonder what other kinds of blunders happen every day in our work that create this kind of unanticipated response and impact?

One day, about a year after the Togo video training, a colleague working in our donor relations department forwarded me an email.  It was from Job and he was answering a direct email appeal he had received from our marketing department, asking him to please give a monthly donation to support a needy child. Somehow Job had gotten onto our email list for potential donors.

Job responded, in very good English, directly to our Executive Director (whose signature was on the email) that he would really like to be able to help children to improve their lives, but that he was still a youth himself, and he didn’t have any spare money to help others at the moment. He went on to say how he himself had benefited from our organization’s support. He had been able to complete secondary school, had learned to become a journalist and was writing articles, and had access to internet via a multimedia center that our organization had started for youth. He attached some samples of his writing, and said he hoped more children would be supported as he had been.

I was a bit mortified by this situation, thinking about what a direct appeal and the kind of language normally used in this kind of mailing might sound like to Job. I wondered how he’d gotten onto our email list. And what would communities in general think if they saw the kinds of marketing appeals that go out in their names. As the mother of 2 ‘brown’ children who were born and raised in a ‘developing’ country, I’m bothered by these kinds of appeals, imagining a photo of my own children plastered on a ‘needy children’ billboard or direct mail piece somewhere, thinking about what that might do to their self-image or my image of myself as a capable parent. As internet usage continues to grow, organizations are really going to have to think hard about how they portray the people they work with.

I am pretty sure that Job didn’t realize that email wasn’t supposed to be for him, it was supposed to be about kids like him. But he didn’t identify as a poor needy child, and I love that. The more I think about it, the more I second Charlie: Good Job!

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So, a few weeks ago I came across this fabulous article by Jay Rosen called “How the backchannel has changed the game for conference panelists“.  It was perfect timing because I had just been discussing how much I had enjoyed the public/private tweeting and live commenting happening during a live stream event I was watching, and how Twitter allows for a totally different and very engaging experience at these things than we used to have before.

I had no idea that there was actually a name for this phenomenon:  the backchannel; coined by Victor Yngve in 1970 and made famous in 2002 at the PC Forum conference (thank you Wikipedia!).

Rosen notes that “The popularity of the backchannel… has empowered those in the audience to compare notes and pool their dissatisfaction during a performance that misfires…. Especially at risk are ‘big name’ speakers whose online or offline status is such that they may complacently assume their presence alone completes the assignment and guarantees success.”

He goes on to give 10 tips for how to avoid getting killed in the backchannel. These tips are a good read for famous types who speak at conferences or panels. But they are also a good read for the rest of us, as a lot of it is still relevant. For example, I liked the idea of “blog it first” to get early reactions to what you are going to present so that you can tweak it before your actual presentation.

Now, I’m obviously the non-famous type, and I doubt the ‘audience’ will be harsh, but in mid-June, I’ll be in Karlstad, Sweden presenting at the 6th World Summit on Media for Children. My presentation is on one of the projects that I’ve been involved in over the past couple years: Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM). I actually refer to it a lot in this blog, though I haven’t really written a summary post on it.  I normally refer people to this nice overview posted on the Communication Initiative website or to this post on the project’s overall methodology.

So, I thought I’d post my presentation here for the 99.9% of people I’m acquainted with who won’t be at the 6th World Summit, and of course as part of my plan to avoid any negative backchannel tweeting while I’m presenting!  Enjoy, and would love to have any comments to, you know, tweak it before it goes super live, just in case there are any hardcore backchannellers there….

Note: if you are reading on Google Reader, it seems the presentation doesn’t appear, so try clicking through to slideshare here…. or [NEW!] watch or download the file with notes here (if watching with notes, resize the .pdf document so that you can see the notes underneath the slides).

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