Archive for January, 2011

I was in a global strategy meeting at the organization where I work last week. We had people from various disciplines present from across the organization and the goal was to chart a path to 2015 and beyond.

For the first couple days it seemed like a lot of talk and a lot more talk. We had very bright, very capable people representing different aspects of our work in the room. This can make things quite messy and tiring, and it can feel like everyone is talking in circles because there are so many perspectives and angles and factors that need to be considered in finding shared ground. Sometimes we are so participatory and complicated that we get in our own way. But by the 3rd and final day the perspectives had come together into a much clearer view of where the organization is headed, and we had the beginnings of a shared plan for how to get there.

We worked in a few main groups, and I participated in the Communications group. Much of our discussion centered around integrating better communication in all aspects of our work rather than seeing the role of Communications (and the Comms Team) as designing one-way messages out to the public. One colleague described this as ensuring ‘built in’ rather than ‘bolted on’ communications.

For me the discussions and end decisions were great, because there was a shared push in the group to move the organization towards things that I think are very important.

Some of the aspects we talked about included:

Communicating within programs

  • the critical role of Communications within programs – eg., Communications shouldn’t only happen at the end of a program (press releases, events or media work to share what was done); rather communication is a critical tool within programs to help reach program and development goals at various levels
  • the role of information and communications tools (new and old ones, high and low tech) at the community level to improve impact, efficiency, reach, engagement, decision-making, transparency and accountability
  • the need to strengthen our ability to better integrate information and communication tools into program efforts, measure the impact of different tools and efforts, and share experiences around this
Communicating with ‘the public’ (our ‘stakeholders’)
  • ensuring consistency in what we do and how we talk about what we do
  • space for children and young people to tell their own stories both behind the camera and in front of the camera, as producers of media not as objects of or consumers of media
  • reaching people through the ‘heart’ (which we are quite good at) as well as the ‘head’ (which we need to get better at)
  • communicating evidence of impact as well as anecdotal and personal stories
  • using different information and communication tools to communicate at varying levels of complexity and technicality to different ‘audiences’
  • using various kinds of media to tell a deeper and more complex story than is currently told
  • finding the sweet spot between a) talking to ourselves in boring technical language and b) over-simplifying or ‘dumbing down’ the complexity of people’s lives and the work that we’re involved in
  • having a strong and unified global goal so that each team or office can move towards that shared goal, but allowing the flexibility to take the path that makes the most sense locally
  • good communication at every level — community, district, national, global, ‘North’ and ‘South’, internal and external, networked — to involve people (including ‘beneficiaries’, ‘supporters’, ‘advocates’ and any other ‘stakeholder’) in community development work and in achieving child rights
  • opening the channels and lessening hierarchical controls on communications so that staff can feel more confident about communicating and using social media both internally and externally
  • using a combination of communication channels to reach our goals; eg., community radio enhanced by SMS; television programs enhanced by use of web and vice versa
  • new communications technology to facilitate connections among the network of people we reach (the ‘participants’ and the ‘supporters’ and all those in between)
Communicating for decision-making and accountability
  • the role of communications in knowledge sharing and knowledge management, internally and externally
  • creating better feedback and accountability loops to enable communities and the children and youth that we work with to have more of a say about the work we are doing and how we talk about it
  • using new technology to better organize, share and use the information that we already have, both internally and externally
  • using info-graphics to visualize information so that we can make better decisions about programs and to be more accountable to the public and to program participants
Even more important than ‘talking about’ the topics above, we worked on plans to actually do them…!
Note: this is not an official meeting report but rather my own take-aways from the workshop.

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This is a summary of the January 20th Technology Salon. It’s cross-posted from the Technology Salon blog.

Using GPS in Kwale, Kenya

At the Technology Salon on “How to Incorporate ICT into Proposals”, we discussed some of the challenges and solutions for proposal writers when they try to incorporate information and communication technologies into future program design. (Sign up to get info on the next Salon)

Problems with Incorporating ICT into Proposals

Essentially, short time frames for preparing proposals don’t allow for participation and end-user involvement and feedback during development of technology solutions. Donors often want details about a technological solution within a proposal; however, in order to define details, more knowledge of local context, a participatory local communications assessment, end-user testing and more need to be done.

This causes proposal writers to sometimes put unrealistic goals in proposals in order to secure funding or because they don’t have information about the local context and actual feasibility of a proposed technology solution; implementors may find later that they are unable to deliver

The issue is compounded by the real lack of organizational buy-in to allow for testing and iterating, for trial and error, and even failure, in organizations and within projects to learn what works and what can be scaled up through proposals and donor funding.

Solutions to Including ICT in Proposals

Overall, organizations that want to integrate ICTs in their work need to plan ahead, strengthen their staff capacity on the ground, and have a clear understanding of the steps to follow when integrating ICTs into proposals. And rather than detailing an exact tech solution into a proposal, the proposal writer could offer a few options, say that “a solution could be” or “might look something like this”, or be clear when negotiating with the donor that an idea will be tested but may change along the way when participatory work is conducted with end users, and as it is tested and adapted to the local context.

This can help remind donors that digital technology is only one way to innovate, and technology needs to be seen as one tool in the information and communication toolbox. For example, SMS might be just one communication channel among many options that are laid out in a project or program, and the most appropriate channels (which might also include face-to-face, paper, community bulletin board, phone calls, etc.) need to be chosen based on a local situation analysis and end-user input.

For staff, integrating ICTs as smaller aspects in programs can offer opportunities for small trial and error and learning; eg., using SMS as one channel of communication in an education or health program and comparing results with a program that didn’t use SMS could allow an organization to test small ICT efforts and slowly learn, modify and integrate those that work. (See How Plan Kwale has been using ICT in their programs since 2003)

When staff experiment with and experience ICTs in one program, they may be more likely to innovate with technology in another program. As ICTs become more commonly used in communities and by local development practitioners, space for innovations grows because innovation can happen right there, closer to the ground rather than being designed in an office in DC and parachuted into communities in other places.

Experimentation with youth programs is a good place to start with tech innovations because youth tend to be more literate (if they are school going youth) and they pick up technology skills easily in many cases. Adults need not be left out, but the learning methodology may need to be different. Engaging the community in detailing potential protection and privacy risks in data collection is key to finding ways to minimize risks. (See 8 Elements for a Positively Brilliant ICT4D Workshop)

The Plan Example

Plan Finland with support from Plan USA commissioned the ICT Enabled Development guide (PDF) to better understand and document the ICT4D context in several of the countries where Plan is working in Africa. Country offices wanted to strengthen their capacities to strategically incorporate ICTs into their work and to ensure that any fund-raising efforts for ICTs were stemming from real needs and interest from the ground. Plan offices were also in the process of updating their long-term strategic plans and wanted to think through how and where they could incorporate ICTs in their work internally and with communities.

The report process included 2-day workshops with staff in 5 countries, based on a set of ICT distance learning materials and discussion questions. The idea was to combine background and situational research, learning about ICT4D, and further input from Country Office colleagues into this process to come up with a realistic guide on how and where Plan could begin integrating ICTs into its work directly, strategically and indirectly (See 3 ways to integrate ICTs into development work).

The report team worked by Skype and email with a point person in each office who planned and carried out the workshop. The report team also developed the multi-media training pack with materials that the point persons used to support the workshop, and compiled the ICT-Enabled Development guide based on the experience.

From the report and this experience, Plan produced a 10-step process for integrating ICTs into development initiatives:

  1. Context Analysis: what is happening with ICT (for development) in the country or region?
  2. Defining the need: what problems can ICT help overcome? what opportunities can it create?
  3. Choosing a strategy: what kind of ICT4D is needed? direct? internal? strategic?
  4. Undertaking a participatory communications assessment: who will benefit from this use of ICT and how?
  5. Choosing the technology: what ICTs/applications are available to meet this need or goal?
  6. Adjusting the content: can people understand and use the information provided for and by the ICTs?
  7. Building and using capacity: what kind of support will people need to use and benefit from the ICT, and to innovate around it?
  8. Monitoring progress: how do you know if the ICT is helping meet the development goal or need?
  9. Keeping it going: how can you manage risks and keep up with changes?
  10. Learning from each other: what has been done before, and what have you learned that others could use

See the 3-page “ICT-Enabled Development Checklist” for more detail on how to go about integrating ICTs into a development proposal and be sure to download the ICT Enabled Development guide (PDF).

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On January 11, 2011 from 11-12am, TechChange and I co-hosted a tweet chat on ICT for Development (ICT4D) distance learning. The idea came up after Ernst Suur and I spent a few months lamenting the irony that we couldn’t find any good on-line training around ICT4D, nor did we see ourselves being able to quit our jobs or reduce our work-related travel, move to where a university offering ICT4D is located, and accumulate a huge debt by going back to get an advanced university degree the traditional way. We wrote a post asking “Where’s the ICT4D Distance Learning” and had a few conversations with the guys at TechChange and a few others who are working on developing some solutions to that issue.

During the Twitter chat, we asked a set of questions about topics, timing, accreditation, skills, and delivery models to get a sense of what might appeal to potential learners. We had almost 60 people participate in the chat, and apparently our hashtag, #ICT4DDL, was even a top trending topic in Washington DC at around 11:30. Here’s the archive.


I had a chance to meet in person with Mark, Nick and Jordan from TechChange last week while I was in DC and these guys are smoking! They are seriously moving on creating visually attractive, stimulating and engaging e-learning in the area of ICT4D. I’m looking forward to collaborating more with them as they develop courses and methodologies that can help people from different backgrounds and with different needs to access ICT4D training and learning. I like their approach of involving practitioners, looking at ICT4D strategically (eg, integrating it to achieve goals, learning how to choose the right technology and decide if technology is necessary at all) and supporting on the practical side (how to use specific ICT tools) and I think this type of training, if all goes well, will be a great opportunity for us all to get trained up in those areas we feel we are still missing.

Mark wrote up the following summary of the themes and highlights from the chat [the original post is here on TechChange’s site: Recap of ICT4D Tweet Chat (#ICT4DDL)].

Course Topics: Some of the most popular ideas for courses included: social media for social change, sustainability, mobiles for development, and a course on ways to create and sustain collaboration through an online community. It was pointed out that users needs would be different based on access to and familiarity with technology. @fiona_bradley mentioned the need for strategic thinking and project planning for veteran change agents, because “tools change fast”.

Delivery: There was a desire expressed for blended learning models (face-to-face and online) and a sentiment that ICT4D face-to-face training was important. (list of existing ICT4D programs). There was also a feeling that experienced practitioners should be part of the course experience and that more needs to be done to engage them (@ICT_Works). Others stressed the fact that distance learning is the only option for those working in remote areas.

Credit vs. Certification: People generally preferred courses for credit, but some acknowledged that they had neither the time nor the funding for a full university degree course. Shorter-term certificate courses on specific topics appealed to many in the group.

The feedback we received throughout the tweet chat was quite useful, and as expected there was a wide variety of opinions expressed. As TechChange moves forward, we look forward to tailoring our courses to the needs of these and other users. We’re in the process of developing a 10-week online flagship course on Technology for Social Change. Everyone will be able access Unit 1 for free. From there we will develop more specialized courses and certification programs on subjects such as Technology for crisis response, Social media for social change, mHealth, and the Future of mobile devices for development. We are also working with individual organizations such as FrontlineSMS to create learning tools tailored specifically for their applications.

I’m really looking forward to taking some of the courses that TechChange comes up with and helping develop materials for some of them too.

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Last year, I spent some time in Benin piloting an SMS reporting system to track and respond to Violence against Children (VAC). After almost a year developing the idea and thinking it through to see if it was potentially feasible (see 7 or more questions to ask before adding ICTs), in February 2010 we conducted 2 workshops with youth, staff and local authorities in Couffo and Atacora, Benin, to design a system with their input (see Finding Some ICT answers in Benin). The main pieces of the reporting system are FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi. A few months after, staff reported back on some of the challenges with implementation (see Tweaking: SMS Violence Reporting System in Benin).

Romeo Essou, project coordinator

Since then, many of the issues have been resolved, and we’ve improved outreach so that communities are more aware of the SMS reporting system and how to use it. We’ve also been looking at the system itself, continuing testing, and seeing what improvements are needed. We didn’t have resources to dedicate someone fully to the program at first, but after seeing the potential, Plan Benin assigned Romeo (see photo) to manage the pilot project full-time in Benin. It’s been quite a pleasure working with the team there, and Romeo is no exception. Having someone dedicated full-time to working with communities and staff in the two districts has really made a difference. From November to mid-January, several additional violence cases were reported and a good number of them have been followed up on and closed.

Last week, Romeo shared what we still need to find solutions for. Some of these are issues that we’d identified last year and others are additional things that Romeo has suggested as he’s gotten down to business.

Some people still call instead of texting, or they send “call me back” texts

Cases are now coming in

  • The team is fairly certain this is due to illiteracy. Plan will involve more school-going youth in the initiative because they have higher literacy levels and can support others with reporting if needed.
  • Romeo and the team will continue doing outreach and education on how the system works both at community meetings and via radio broadcasts in French and local languages.
  • To address the calls that may continue to come in, a voice mail will be set up on the phone that links up to the FrontlineSMS laptop, with a message explaining that people have to send in a text. Romeo will do some research to determine which languages to use in the message for the best result (French and the 2 main local languages….).
  • If that doesn’t resolve the issue, Romeo and the staff will call back anyone who phones in.
  • Cost of an SMS continues to be a discouraging factor for people in terms of reporting. Often when Romeo or other staff visit a community, community members take advantage of their physical presence to report additional cases of violence.  This is not necessarily negative, considering that we want to increase the number of incidents reported and followed up on; however, if it turns out that awareness around violence is high but the cost of the SMS is a deterring factor in reporting, more inexpensive channels to report also need to be offered. We are still negotiating with the local operators to get a free SMS line.


  • Some 50 spams a day are coming in. This is an issue on all mobile phones in Benin. Much of the spam comes from the mobile service providers themselves.
  • If the spam is coming from the same number, it’s possible that a workaround script could be written up at the point where FrontlineSMS forwards to Ushahidi. The messages can also be marked on Ushahidi as spam, but they will still be arriving via FrontlineSMS, unfortunately, unless numbers can be blocked somehow.
  • Needs further thought on how it might be overcome.

The Violence Tracking Platform (Ushahidi):

Ushahidi platform

  • We need to be 100% sure that any personal or identifying information coming in via the SMS reports is scrubbed so we do not put any children or witnesses at risk or falsely accuse anyone of violence against children by publishing the reports to the Ushahidi platform.
  • Romeo will develop a Privacy and Protection Checklist and train those administering the Ushahidi system to be sure to remove identifying information thoroughly before allowing it to be published on the Ushahidi site.
  • The identifying information still needs to be stored somewhere on the system to support with follow-up on the cases that come in. We may need additional development work on the platform to allow for that.
  • We hope to integrate the Ushahidi map into the Violence against Children website, which has educational material, videos and cartoons done by youth, and a discussion forum. However if the information poses a risk to anyone, we may decide to make the Ushahidi site private and keep it as a management tool rather than a public site.


  • The staff who administer the Ushahidi website are not always clear which type of violence an incident should be categorized as (physical violence? sexual violence? psychological violence?).
  • Romeo will create short guidelines to help people to categorize the incidents properly. He’d like these to be incorporated into the Ushahidi platform.
  • Often a reported  incident can fit into more than one category – eg., both physical and sexual violence. If it’s categorized in two categories, then we lose the sense of how many incidents there have been overall, and we’re unable to properly chart the data. We need to find a way to manage this on the system so that we have proper statistics.

Recent reports of physical violence, sexual violence, forced marriage and exploitation

Follow up on reported cases:

  • We still want a way to track response and follow-up on cases within the Ushahidi platform, as often a report requires more than one verification visit.
  • We need someplace within the platform to store this type of information to keep records of follow-up.
  • This will require work by a developer, but it might be helpful for other institutions using Ushahidi as well. It’s also possible that FrontlineSMS Medic could be used for case management rather than Ushahidi, but it might prove confusing for staff to have to store and act on the same kind of information using two different tools.

Names of villages, hamlets, etc:

  • We would like to have a listing on the map of the various hamlets, villages, etc. They do not currently appear on the map since there is no record of them on Open Street Maps or Google Maps. Plan has this detailed information in its internal systems and we want to add it to the base maps so that it’s easier for administrators to locate the incident in the right community.
Coordination and outreach:
  • In addition to the technical work on the system, Romeo will continue to coordinate and share information with local partners and other organizations working on violence against children. There are similar initiatives already in place and we don’t want to duplicate efforts. Combining and sharing help line numbers and taking reports by both phone and SMS is one option.
Related posts on Wait… What?

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This is a post by Jo-Ann Garnier-Lafontante. Jo-Ann and I go back a long way. We worked together on a few youth media and participation programs in the past and became friends. She and the youth that I met through her were the first people I thought of when I heard about the earthquakes in Haiti last January. It’s people like Jo-Ann and the youth she works with who are bringing Haiti back to its feet.

On January 12th at 4h53pm I was in my third-floor office at Plan Haiti, meeting with Guerdy the Human Resources Manager and talking about staff issues and projects for the New Year. Suddenly the ground seemed furious with us. I can still hear the sound of heavy concrete collapsing and people screaming. After I saw the toilet literally explode in front of us, I told Guerdy “We’re going to die.” I saw images of my family before me. I tried to call them, but I could not get through. I was terrified. My husband worked in a 6-story building and I could not reach him…

Between three violent aftershocks Guerdy and I managed to get out of the building and into the parking lot. I remember seeing several shoes my colleagues had lost in the stairs while running out of the office. I saw my other colleagues horrified, crying and trying desperately to communicate with their loved ones on their cell phones. I saw this little girl, maybe she was 12, who had come to hide in our parking lot. I had never seen her before… she smiled at me. She told me she lived in the neighborhood, that she escaped from her house and the rest of her family was still missing. She was wounded, the features of her face hidden behind dust.

Four hours later, my husband miraculously appeared in our parking lot, sweating and breathless. I had tears in my eyes when I saw him.  He told me about the things he saw on his way to Plan’s office and we started the journey home together. It was awful. We saw people either walking like zombies, screaming, crying, carrying injured people or dead bodies—or desperately looking for loved ones. When we got home, my mother, my 1-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son were in the street in front of our house…stunned and speechless. I grabbed them and held them so tight. I heard that my father and nieces were stuck downtown but they were okay. Now… what about the rest of the family, friends … we could only wonder.

I remember the funerals of my aunt and my grandmother. My father had to remove his own mother from the rubble that had been her home, after six days of digging. We had gotten my aunt out of her collapsed home after two days of digging but she died on the way to the hospital—and then her body was lost among the other bodies and we never found her again.

I remember seeing so many people around Port-au-Prince queuing for burial ceremonies for their loved ones. I thought Haiti had died.

On the last day of 2010, I sat at a meeting at Plan’s new office in Port-au-Prince. It was for the children’s and youth event we are planning for the anniversary of the earthquake. I was amazed at the change since last January. At the meeting we talked about celebrating life. We talked about a new beginning for Haiti and how the engagement of children and youth is essential to its success. I felt our excitement. I feel so proud to be a part of this.

According to what I have witnessed over the past year, Haiti’s promising future is guaranteed because of the potential inside its children and youth. After the earthquake, I saw how young people were so keen and motivated to support their peers. Now I see them mobilizing again to raise awareness about cholera and saving lives.

The earthquake devastated Haiti, but it also provided a chance for this country to be reborn. Children and youth immediately understood their role in this reshaping—they played a key part in the emergency response and they have told us from the beginning that they are ready to do whatever it takes to help reconstruct their country. We adults—and especially the decision makers among us—should listen to their insights and follow in their footsteps and do whatever it takes to fulfill our responsibilities to this country. In the near future, I think there should be a group of young advisors standing behind the President and each Minister.

Today I weep for my aunt, Gagaye (this is how we called her), and my grandmother, Nini, and so many other family members and friends whom I am missing, and also for those I did not know and who left us too soon. But today I also celebrate life. I celebrate the strength I see in the communities where Plan works. I understand the wise person who said “a country never dies…” I now know this is true more than ever because a country like Haiti can count on its children and youth to keep it alive.

Jo-Ann narrates the video below about the work she’s been involved in over the past year. It’s worth a look.

Related posts on Wait… What?

Haiti through our eyes – an uplifting series of photos by Haitian youth

Children and young people’s vision for a new Haiti – 1000 youth input into Haiti’s reconstruction plan

Children in Emergencies: Applying what we already know to the crisis in Haiti – lessons learned from past disasters

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Every January as I’m signing up for the gym, I feel the need to tell the person at the desk that I’m not one of those people who sign up as a short-lived New Year’s resolution. I get the urge to explain that I play capoeira year-round and that I normally run outside and am only coming to the gym now because it’s cold and icy. I want to let that guy at the desk know that if I do happen to stop showing up, it will likely be because I am traveling somewhere or because the weather got warm, not because I bailed on a New Year’s fitness resolution.

‘Oh man, we been full on,’ the guy at the counter says to the other guy coming on shift today as I stand there filling out my registration forms. ‘New Year’s rush. We signed up 88 people since yesterday.’

I resist the urge to launch into an explanation about how that isn’t my situation. I stop myself from casually informing him that if he’s assuming I’m one of the New Year’s resolution people, he is wrong.

I doubt he really cares. And really, what does it matter to anyone other than me?

I do my time on the treadmill and watch other people doing their gym thing. I start wondering how many of the statistics that we collect in our jobs in aid or development or public health or education aren’t really what we think they are. But I also start thinking about how we all believe that somehow our own little stories and motivations matter in the larger scheme of things.

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My experience trying to get to and from beautiful and restful Costa Rica for a family holiday using Orbitz has been entirely depressing. Flying these days is akin to trudging across a barren desert full of rattlesnakes and mirages, only made mentally and emotionally possible by holding firmly in your mind the hope that you might finally reach your destination. It didn’t used to be this way.

What used to be the ‘friendly skies’ is now more commonly referred to by most of my peers and colleagues as ‘airport purgatory’. I can remember back when you were treated like a paying customer. Nowadays once you enter airport purgatory you’re treated like a potential criminal/potential terrorist and a burden that needs to be schlepped from one side of the world to the other as cheaply as possible without much regard to your own comfort. It’s sad. If I could get to where I need to go by horseback, train, bus, bicycle, boat or foot in a reasonable time I certainly would.

Before entering airport purgatory, you have to spend some time in the ‘antechamber of airport purgatory’: purchasing tickets. Oftentimes, due to weather or some other issue, you have to make changes to the ticket, and you go swiftly from the antechamber, to airport purgatory, to full on travel hell where you have to deal with ‘customer service’. You wish you could stab yourself in the eyes with a corkscrew rather than be held there listening to hideous music, pre-recorded messages, attempts to up-sell you something, and travel hell agents who don’t really help you with anything.

For the past 10 years or so, I’ve allowed Orbitz to guide me through the antechamber of airport purgatory. I’ve gotten my tickets through them. It’s been fine as long as nothing out of the ordinary happens — eg, if the weather is fine, there are no delays, plans don’t change, and I don’t miss any connections. Unfortunately, things out of the ordinary do happen, and increasingly it seems I’m spending a lot of time with Orbitz in travel hell. That’s what happened on this last trip.

I can only remember 2 other instances that I’ve felt as dis-empowered and pent-up angry as I did when dealing with Orbitz this time around:  1) when visiting someone in prison and 2) when working with immigration officials in a country under a military dictatorship. (Coming in a close third is being on the phone with Dell’s customer service about a faulty computer….)

This recent experience in full on travel hell with Orbitz, combined with lesser annoyances throughout the past couple years has me so totally done with the airline system and its intermediaries that I do anything in my power not to fly. Unfortunately that impacts on my ability to do my job so I’m not always successful at avoiding it. Not even the environmental movement has been able to move me as emotionally far towards flight avoidance as the airline system and all its corollary parts.

Since I’m still really pissed off at being royally screwed by Orbitz, I thought I’d write down a few things that I wish I had done to avoid the pain of travel booking with them. I just sent off a long email to Orbitz and will be contacting them on paper too, so I will spare you the details. It’s probably not productive anyway to re-hash it all. I’d rather try to make something positive out of this to add this to my ‘Travel Tips for my Female Friends‘ post as an additional tip from someone who spends a lot of time traveling and arranging travel logistics.

The problem with Orbitz:

1) Orbitz doesn’t seem to keep any record of their interactions with customers. This means that every time you call, you have to re-explain your whole story. I used to work in customer service and we had a system where we stored notes and details on each call so that if a person called a second or third time, there was a record on file and anyone on the team could help. I’m blown away that each time I called Orbitz, they said they had no record of anything and I had to start over explaining from zero.

2) Orbitz treats the customer as if the customer is always wrong. They try to make it seem as if they are actually helping you on the phone, when in actuality you could do the same thing for yourself by calling the airlines directly. In the process, they keep saying they are ‘very sorry’ but never actually resolve anything for you. If you press them, they actually become rude. When I worked in customer service, and even back in high school when I was working retail at the mall, we were not allowed to deal in a less than friendly way with customers unless they were yelling or swearing at us. It’s bad for business. We were trained to be calm and polite. Not the case with Orbitz. I was not yelling or swearing or being unreasonable, and I spent no less than 14 hours on the phone with them in the past few months trying to resolve different aspects of the same tickets (not to mention time on emails, time wasted in airports and the night my kids and I slept on the cold floor at the entrance of the San Jose airport). That plus the fact that I have had an Orbitz account for over 10 years and I book tickets through them several times a year should flag me as a customer to treat with care. Apparently none of that matters to Orbitz. They were still rude to me.

Prepare for my trip? You mean the one that was cancelled back in October?

3) Orbitz’ systems are not synced with what is actually happening with your tickets and the airlines. With this one trip from Boston to Costa Rica, lack of synchronization caused me major problems and ended up quadrupling the cost of my trip – something I was not prepared for but didn’t have any way around by the time I was stuck with 2 kids in San Jose on New Year’s Day. First, I was informed by automated email repeatedly in August and September that my tickets were being refunded due to an airline going out of business. Each time I called customer service about it I was told that only one leg of my trip was being cancelled and refunded and not to be concerned with the other portion, it was still good. I was advised to purchase a one-way ticket to make up for the portion from the airlines that went bankrupt. This in the end was not true, the round trip ticket had actually been cancelled and refunded, and I ended up with the 3 one-way return tickets I had purchased and no outbound flights [Note: this happened while the tickets were under the auspices of http://www.cheaptickets.com. I found out, after going up the ‘customer service’ ladder and being referred over to Orbitz, they are owned by and share ‘customer service’ with Orbitz]. Orbitz subsequently seemed to get this all worked out. But then they continued to send “Prepare for your Trip” emails for cancelled tickets on the same flight path, same date and same airline as my valid tickets, causing confusion over what our actual flight time was. Due to this confusion, we showed up at the airport for a flight that had been cancelled and refunded months ago instead of for the earlier flight we were supposed to be on, and Orbitz was not willing to do anything to help us get on another flight unless we bore the total cost and waited up to 3 days for available flights on the original airline.

My recommendations of how to avoid getting screwed by Orbitz:

1) Don’t ever try to fix anything via Orbitz after you buy your ticket. You will call Orbitz expecting them to help you since you paid them a fee already for booking. They will put you on hold and call the airline and tell you the same thing the airline would. Sometimes the airline can actually do something for you that Orbitz can’t. So just book directly with the airline and deal with the airline directly. You may not get any better service but at least you are working directly with the company not an intermediary. Don’t bother with Orbitz. Be sure to have the international number of the airline with you when you travel.

2) Use Orbitz to find flights but never book via Orbitz. Once you book, Orbitz will pass everything over to the airline anyway, but then the airline can blame Orbitz for screw ups, Orbitz blames the airline, and you get stuck in the middle. It’s probably better to deal directly with the airlines as they have more information anyway about their own flights, and may want to retain you as a customer.

3) Just skip Orbitz altogether and find flights on Kayak, then book directly with the airline or via a real live travel agent in your area who you can hold accountable. Pay the travel agent the $30 instead of Orbitz. You’ll be helping the local economy and you know who they are when things go screwy. It kills me to say that since I do everything online and it’s so easy to find a ticket and click “purchase” but I’m realizing it’s worth the extra time at the beginning to save the time and increased costs later.

4) If you ever have a question or a claim for Orbitz, talk to them by chat and save a copy of the chat session. Then when they tell you something different each time, you can let them know that you actually have a copy of what was discussed as backup, and that you’re happy to share it with them to prove your point. This has gotten me further than working by phone where you have no way to keep a record of what they are telling you.

In the end, air travel will probably continue to be some variation of hell. The ticket wars are heating up lately as Delta and American Airlines are pulling their flights off of sites like Orbitz, and Expedia has fought back by allegedly making American flights difficult to find on their site.  They all purport to be ‘thinking of consumers,’ but that seems like a load of bull to me. They are thinking of their own piece of the pie. Maybe they could think about offering a decent experience to travelers and drawing in customers that way?

In 2011, I predict that purchasing airline tickets and getting to your destination will continue to suck. But maybe you can make it a little better by taking a few of the precautionary steps above.

Update: Ahhh, wonderful response from Orbitz to my lengthy email and a generous $50 voucher for my troubles. They say that I contacted the airlines directly (not true) and that “Orbitz was never notified of these cancellations, and therefore, was unaware.” That’s funny, considering the email below:

Uh huh... "Orbitz was never notified of these cancellations, and therefore, was unaware."

Update #2: Ah lovely lovely Orbitz. After appearing that they were going to help me and getting my hopes up, they’ve come back now and “for my confusion” they are giving me three $100 vouchers to use on, yes you guessed it, Orbitz. They “deeply regret each of my disappointing experiences.” I feel oh so much better. Not.

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Travel tips for my female friends

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I’m on my way home from 10 days in Costa Rica with my extended family. We stayed at my mother’s house, and biked over to a big stretch of solitary beach every day.We cooked together, read books, saw monkeys and crocodiles, walked the beach, watched movies, talked and sometimes just sat in silence listening to the birds and the waves. It was nice to take a break and get offline for a while. I finally stopped dreaming in email and twitter.

One of the coolest things on the beach in Costa Rica was the snail trails.

If you walked on the beach after the tide went out, you could see extensive areas full of twisty, winding, seemingly directionless patterns in the sand that crisscrossed into a beautiful curvy pattern along the shoreline. Snails just doing their thing.

2010 was a full year. One of the most satisfying things for me was being part of a diverse and brilliant global network of people, each following our own trails but learning, discussing, disagreeing, and building on ideas and initiatives together when we cross paths along the way. A huge thanks to you all for enriching the world with your thoughts, your actions and your work. I look forward to more in 2011!

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