Updates from the Field 2

10 May

People don’t lean out of vehicles to ask for directions here, as they did in Nairobi. The security guards, when they exist, lounge in chairs and ask questions rather than standing, mostly silent, with automatic weapons. But like Nairobi, meetings can start (and end) hours late due to traffic, to tardy risers, to rain that causes traffic, to conversations running long, to torn-up infrastructure (that causes traffic), to slow service for your lunch meeting. Tardiness is sometimes used as a sort of posturing card to play – whether or not someone gives you a meeting, and how prompt they are, as sorts of indicators of status.

Everything we’ve done here has required status strutting in order to gain speed. Those plates I told you about? Only people with yellow plates get pulled at traffic stops, because they won’t be diplomats, or military, or donors, or government. If you get stopped, it’s easier for everyone if you just hand the officer money rather than pay the huge fine for driving illegally. Which most are. And because we don’t want to slow down our project, nearly every introduction is “and this is Willow, from MIT.” Which is great and all1, but as someone who prefers to be affiliated with institutions for access to incredible brains and the space to consider at length, rather than constructed legitimacy, it makes me feel like I’d be prettier if I just smiled2.

Those same posturings and rerouting the system means there’s a fear of transparency here. Entire systems here are built up around being opaque. People across all walks of life ignore the floods for fear of being blamed for what happened, being put out of a job. This means any transition into transparency will require safe space. No “we’re coming after you” attitude, but a “we have been operating to the best of our abilities within the structure we have. Now that the structure is changing, we get to change as well!” But it seems enough people into open data and transparency have done it with a vindictive streak that everyone balks these days, and it’s a slow, gentle process.

Two and a half days into an 8 day trip, we’d chatted with NGOs, World Bank3 employees, the Ministry of Water, UNHCR, and no people who actually live the experience this technology would change. And as much as I trust all of those people (and my hosts) to know what the status of their work is, I needed to go see things. Establish ground truth. Everyone gets caught up in paperwork, rhetoric, image, and email, and so seeing it for oneself is always imperative. Mark, an amazing guide and cohort as always, got us out to Tandale a full day early for the sake of my patience and sanity.

On the way there, Msilikale leaned forward to ask the bajaj driver to drive like he does, not like we’re tourists. The roads had washed out from the recent floods, full of pot holes and rubble to negotiate and lurch over. Tandale is a slum in Dar es Salaam, and is a place to live, just like anywhere else. We walk with a man who has lived there, him taking us past houses with water lines up to our mid-thigh, insides still covered in silt, to the river running by the open defication area (ODA here). Kids run by with make-shift toys, and young women peep out to ogle my hair (or Mark’s size)4. As we stand by a washed-out bridge, our guide explains context.

The river divides two areas, one has most of the markets and the other is mostly houses. There’s no grid system (it’s an informal settlement), and so paths are highly reliant upon available bridges, and new structures are based on those paths. IE, functionally ad hoc labyrinthine. And when the floods came, the bridge washed out, and there are still people learning about that and figuring out new routes home. No one is responsible for the bridge – the government won’t come fix it, and the man who built it and had lived nearby died awhile back. No one takes responsibility, either.
It’s not just the bridge getting washed out – it’s the height at which the water rose, and that the ODA is not much higher than the river on a regular basis anyway, and it’s certainly lower than the water marks. So all the trash and bodily functions and such from the ODA get caught up in the river, which means it gets clogged up (as do the drains in the area), which means standing water, which means more mosquitos, and mosquitos are bad news bears. That’s besides all the things in the ODA also flooding into the houses with the rest of the river water.
Flooded or not, the water from the river (and the wells around it) is used to wash, cook, and sometimes drink. This is only for people who can’t afford the water out of the water points – which can be salt or fresh. For half price, you can get jugs of salt water to wash with, and sometimes for cooking. For full price, you can get fresh water. The water is delivered out of water points – giant containers, raised up off the ground, from which people purchase water. These are privately owned, though installed and supplied by the government, and few enough are stocked and working at any given point that there are queues for the resource.

I ask questions. How do people know that one is broken? I wonder about where knowledge of what is going on would be hosted and shared. Is there a town center where things are posted, or is it all word of mouth? No center, just neighbors telling neighbors. No bulletin board system. I saw a vanishingly small number of feature phones while we were out. Only government and donor officials and contractors smart phones. Which, to me, makes me wonder how to get maps built of the water system back to the people in the area5. And given the level of corruption in the country, that data being only accessible to groups already in power is fraught with peril. Mark, aware to not ask questions about anything that won’t have a guaranteed resource response, waves me off asking more specific questions of how points break, and how to track response, what would next challenges and steps be, etc6.

Night threatening and malaria mosquitos7 lazing about, we walk back towards the main road. At a bodaboda station, we negotiate with the fliers. I feel like I’m choosing who to be auctioned off to, having to dismiss the enthusiastic and be wary of the most aloof. Msilikale shoos off the most invasive, and I’m glad of a native Swahili speaker friend and a friend who’s 6’6”. That negotiated, we take a rather epic dive-bomb through traffic route home8, avoiding jams and vehicles traversing the median to gain a clearer route. Only one or two of the passing bike riders make kissy faces and eyebrows at me. Mosquitos die on my visor, and mud splashes on my boots.

And I stare at the bathtub in the hotel room, and think about not finishing my dinner when I was young and knowing most parents referred to starving children in Africa. But the issue then, and with this, is in supply chains and politics around them.

1. Waves MIT flag.
2. Institutional objectification. Which is at least different from institutionalized -isms.
3. Yes, of course I wore my “/capitalism” pin, why do you ask?
4. Please forgive my tense-shifting.
5. A core ethic when obtaining data. See also this blog entry.
7. Dhengi for day, malaria for night.
8. Sorry, mom.
9. Inside joke.

Updates from the Field

9 May

6.5 hours from JFK to AMS, and another 11 from there to DAR. Woobly from hours on planes, binging on movies, and clandestine email response; I stood in a pen full of anxious people waiting to regain their passports. I watched the processing, detecting patterns but not defined process – most passports and paperwork went in one window, in a pile, often added to the bottom of a stack but not always. Person there did something, often interrupted, passed on passports in single or in aggregate, not in the same order received. Then passed on to one of 3 other people, who did… something else. Of the two windows which kicked the passports back out, one would use a mic and announce your name, the other just held up the passport and people would see their image (or not). Those unclaimed, plus.. other ones? to be distributed were carried through the pen of passport-plebes1 with names shouted or mumbled. Finally escaped, Mark and Rav met me past customs, and we crammed into a car with a misfit axel, grinding gears though city streets. Traffic lights were blatantly disregarded, motorcycles passed on either side, and we attempted conversation over the loud and the heat. We got to the hotel, one of the few that’s approved for World Bank staff2 to stay at in Dar es Salaam. I showered the 20+ hours of travel time off, well aware that many people in Dar don’t have access to water3.

Monday I headed out to meet Mark at COSTECH’s innovation space4. Could I walk? Ha ha, no. Was there public transit? Not worth mentioning. So another cab ride, the driver and I talking about corruption, and family, and why he loves living in Tanzania. There’s no war, it’s peaceful, he doesn’t worry regularly about being killed. “How long has it been peaceful?” I ask. “Seems like from independence.” “50 years?” “Our independence was in 1961, so 53.” “Congratulations.” “Thank you.” He rolls up the windows when we come to lights, pointing out people on the side of the road, says they will try to take my watch or bag or phone, because I am mzungu. Do I know what that means? “White bread?” He laughs. “Your hair, though, it is blue.”

At COSTECH, Mark and I chat with other people. The local developers who worked on Taarifa a few years ago, have continued to develop and map. A Fin from TANZANICT joined us, and Mark talked through the ecosystem of water projects5, my drawing furiously to keep up. From there, we hopped in a bajaj speak to a large NGO which has been in the area for a few decades. During the ride over, Mark points out license plate colors – blue for diplomat, yellow for private cars, white for public – my dark humor latching onto the hierarchies embedded in such a visibly manifest way. It makes me want to actively avoid the shortcut of institutional credentialing.. but we don’t have time to not take them. At the NGO, we sit for awhile doing email, the African-pacing of time reminding me of Rob’s laptop sticker and conversation I went to Kenya – There is no Hurry in Africa. I drink sweet coffee we chat about Swahili having at least 3 ways of saying “I’m sorry,” my suggesting that and the side of the road driven on as main indicators of English colonization.

We finally chat with the folk at the NGO – for hours. Both groups circling the other, Mark being performative in his role with World Bank, Rav as backup in stitching things together, myself trying to pick up on social cues and attempting to not speak too quickly. We talk about accountability, transparency, scaling, and survey fatigue. If we ask people, again, to provide information, what do they get in return? So many maps have been built, so many initiatives have blown through, and life still sucks. What we possibly do that is any different? Can we work with the local municipalities and national water ministry to enforce the fixing of the points? We’re working on it. Can we make the information visible to the people who live somewhere, provide material and structure to advocate for themselves? That’s a long and difficult journey, but possible. We circle each other for awhile, uncertain of if the other party “gets it,” from the social responsibility or the data possibility sides. Finally seeing that we do, we agree to send a draft MOU, and we head out in another bajaj. This time with Mark, Rav, and myself.

Now, these things are tiny, just big enough for two people plus some wiggle room. Here we have 3 of us, of whom one is over 6’6”. In the strange layering of apologizing, stubbornness (from all parties), and negotiation of money, we make our way back into town to have dinner and pile through emails. We walk home (hooray!), Mark stating time and time again “not a tourist” in Swahili. We get freshened up and head out to see a friend. As it’s rush hour, we pile onto a bodaboda, or a motorcycle taxi. Both of us. Making three people. We ride like this for awhile, Mark asking passing motos if they are also bodabodas, offloading onto an available one, us easing between lanes of traffic and narrowly avoiding potholes. Sometimes we ride on the sidewalk. When we arrive, we drink beer on a balcony, talking about teaching coding and entrepreneurship, discovering what patterns work across places and what must be thrown out. I find a difficult conflict in myself, between a growing awareness of levels of corruption, and my deep need to defer to people who live the reality of this place. I think back to conversations I had with Lorraine over lunch at Theorizing the Web, about how people are able to use any system to still do good, and you disrupt them as well when you shift systems. And then a car ride to dinner with assessors of programs. Amazing Indian food, and conversations around baselines and statistically predictable incongruities, and how to learn from things even as you fail from them. And beer in a place called Cuba, which we joked I couldn’t get into. And then finally back to the hotel to sleep.

The people in the local offices seeing people like me, who are just coming in for a short period of time, like some sort of Starship Troopers, shouting about how someone else fucked up while things they don’t understand happen. I try, as always, to provide scaffolding for others to see things in new ways, rather than complete deferment or frustrated attempted mandates. The local groups here are doing incredible work, and it reminds me of spanning mutual aid and specialized response. Here, in practice, are many things I spend brain cycles on – philanthropy as unsustainable, colonialism and aid, organic discovery and institutionalized knowledge, and digital divides.

1. Done more for alliteration than social commentary. Yes, I realize how self-referential and socially (un)aware this comment seems to be.
2. Not the IMF. The World Bank. Mark does good work there, and it’s who has contracted me for this trip as well.
3. Cognitive dissonance jazz hands.
4. Which I needed to get to, on my own, without data, in a place I’d never been. I sat with my anxiety over loss of control, of the possibility of getting lost, and hugged that part of myself to acknowledge it.
5. As always, a mirror for my own reflection as well. The pace at which Mark moves, trying to loop people into the understanding of a complex system of technology, people, and politics in his head made me think about what I expect of people and how I express those expectations. It’s like when I speak about either of my friends called “case” – one of which is spelled that way, the other of which is spelled “qais,” and the difference between them is so clear in my self that I don’t think to differentiate them for the person I’m speaking to.

Overview Video

8 May

Taarifa Hacks Series

8 May

We’d like to invite you to come hack on data, software (front and back end), hardware, and all the bits between in Cambridge at MIT’s Little Devices on May 7th and 8th (bit.ly/taarifabos), in London May 24th and 25th (bit.ly/taarifalondon), and in Dar es Salaam (bit.ly/taarifadar) May 31st and June 1st.

The Challenge

There’s not much in the way of access to clean water in Tanzania. In the informal settlements, there are a bunch of water points, but many of them are broken. Rather than a continual process of putting in new ones, the local water engineers want to fix the existing ones – but they don’t know where the broken points are. This also prevents large-scale response organizations from accurately deploying resources (and seeing what initiatives are already working).

Our Approach

Through a combination of participatory mapping across a few groups, and water sensors, we think this situation can be bettered. The incoming information would not only feed into the repair cycle and communal awareness, but also into larger governance decisions.



The Software

Taarifa is an open source web application for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. It allows people to collect and share their own stories using various mediums such as SMS, Web Forms, Email or Twitter, and then the stories are placed as reports into a workflow. At the event, we will be building out its capabilities and localizing it to Dar es Salaam.

Things we might work on with the software:

  • documentation (tutorial, installation walkthrough, waterpoint demo)
  • general testing (unit, integration, ..)
  • modern UI / dashboard design and development (UX, d3, ..)
  • dummy data generator
  • pretty report generator
  • SMS reporting
  • demo phone reporting app
  • access control & user management (what is needed? how to best implement?)
  • explore relevant standards (e.g., open311) and decide what is useful to support
  • auction model for work/support contracts
  • how to subscribe and notify people of changes to ‘their’ report (Twilio useful?)
  • how to integrate sensor readings? data model?
  • how to deal with report attachments (images, videos, …) currently not supported
  • nice continuous integration setup & auto deploy to heroku when pushing to master
  • exploit linked data for reports, locations, people, and resources where possible

Would also be useful if we had a second use case (besides waterpoints) to double check assumptions and architectures and test the dev experience. Promise tracker?

The Hardware

We’ll be playing with the Riffle (Remote, Independent, and Friendly Field Logger Electronics), a low-cost, open source hardware device that will measure some of the most common water quality parameters, using a design that makes it possible for anyone to build, modify, and deploy water quality sensors in their own neighborhood.

Why This is Different

I tend to be wary of social good hackathons. At Geeks Without Bounds, we run 1 to 5 internationally every month. Many of the projects are a learning experimentation for the people who attend – which is awesome and worthwhile. Few social good hackathons are for production, however. This one is. Taarifa is already deployed in Ghana and Uganda, and we have a place to deploy in Tanzania. People will use this tool: the few people with feature phones and connectivity, the water engineers and camp staff, and aid organizations.

Where you Come in

We need your skills, questions, and energy. The project is clearly defined, as are the times to work on it. We want you to join us at an event if possible, remotely if you can’t make it in person, and to continue to be a part of the community even after this round of open-source hacking.

We’ll have a call-in this Sunday at 19:00 EAT (worldtimebuddy for conversion). Bring your questions about the project, what you need to prepare for the hack weekends, or just out of general curiosity. Register for the hangout here.

Taarifa featured as a Random Hacks of Kindness project at Google Zeitgeist 13

21 May

Dirk, Simon and Florian spent a very interesting and inspiring two days at Google Zeitgeist 13, representing Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) and Taarifa. We had been invited to show delegates and speakers from all over the world what these projects are about, what they can do for the world and what motivates us to invest our spare time to develop applications for social and humanitarian good.

Dirk demonstrating Taarifa to a delegate

Dirk demonstrating Taarifa to a delegate

We really got to experience Zeitgeist, listen to the talks broadcast in the demo area, try out Google glass and meet the other sandbox projects MaKey MaKey, 3Doodler and LifeWatch.

Florian exchanging his glasses for Google glass

Florian exchanging his glasses for Google glass

Scott Harrison gave a very stirring review of the story behind charity: water and the struggle to bring clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries. It would be great to learn from their raving success and discuss potential applications of Taarifa for water mapping.

Silicon Valley Inspiration Tour with IDEO.org

25 Apr
The Sanitation App Challenge winners in front of the Zynga headquarters

The Sanitation App Challenge winners in front of the Zynga headquarters

We spent an exciting and inspirational week in the Bay Area with Molly and Matteo and our hosts IDEO.org, the non-profit branch of the global human centered design consultancy. They had a dense program of workshops and company visits lined up for us. We got insight into Zynga, who told us about measuring player engagement in online games, Google, who toured us around their Mountain View campus, The Hub Bay Area, who gave us their take on collaboration and how it’s a core value for the global Hub movement, Airbnb, who discussed different notions of trust, Indiegogo, who advised us on launching successful crowdfunding campaigns, and Facebook, who discussed how to reach . Airbnb have a large crowd of photographers they send into people’s homes to get high quality, standardized and certified photos for their listings, which makes them more trustworthy and more likely to be rented. This inspired us to reach out to photographers and ask them to take photographs of infrastructure – or the lack thereof – in the communities where we would like to deploy Taarifa in order to get higher visibility and a better feel for the status quo. Wednesday evening we met a number of San Francisco based development organizations at a happy hour at the offices of FSG, a non-profit consultancy, who were asking how they might use Taarifa in some of their future development projects.

Fayaz and Dimas interviewing WholeFoods as part of the human-centered design workshop

Fayaz and Dimas interviewing WholeFoods as part of the human-centered design workshop

The highlight of the inspiration tour were the workshops IDEO folks led at their offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto. On Tuesday we got an introduction to Human Centered Design and applied it straight away with conducting interviews and prototyping and application to reduce food waste at IDEO and other companies. This made us realize the importance of getting concrete and first hand feedback from users before starting to write any code. We hope we can apply this methodology when redesigning Taarifa to better serve the people in the communities. In another workshop on Thursday on branding we had another opportunity to reflect more on Taarifa’s core mission and values and worked out concrete milestones and areas on which to focus next in the further development of the platform.

Molly Norris from IDEO.org giving us very detailed feedback on our app at the last day of the inspiration tour

Taarifa announced as “Grand Prize Winner” of the Sanitation Hackathon

20 Apr

Taarifa was one of over 70 projects to enter the Sanitation HackatHome App Challenge following the Sanitation Hackathon in December 2012. Judges seemed impressed and we were shortlisted among the ten finalists. On April 19th the World Bank announced the three Grand Prize Winners and Taarifa is one of them!

Fayaz and Florian receiving the “Grand Prize Winner” certificate on behalf of Taarifa

The prize was awarded at a “A Matter of Life: Investing in Sanitation – a Conversation with Jan Eliasson, Tony Lake, & Global Decision-Makers” as part of the World Bank spring meetings at their Washington D.C. headquarters. Florian and Fayaz travelled to Washington from London, UK and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to receive the price on behalf of the global Taarifa team. Following the panel discussion with panelists Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary General, United Nations, Anthony Lake, Executive Director, UNICEF, Rachel Kyte, Vice President of Sustainable Development, World Bank Group and Jim McHale, Vice President, American Standard, we had the opportunity to showcase our apps to attendees.

Fayaz demonstrating Taarifa

Later we set off to the OpenGov Hub for the ICT4Drinks: Sanitation Hackathon Edition happy hour. The evening kicked off with introductions by  Chris Vein, Chief Innovation Officer at the World Bank and former White House Deputy CTO, Jae So, Manager of the Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, and John Kluge, co-founder of Eirene and Toilet Hackers, followed by a short presentation of our apps by each time and Q&A. Afterwards there was time for casual conversations and engaging discussions with the attendees, many from the D.C. developer scene.

Sanitation Hackathon Grand Prize Winners with Chris Vein and Jae So