Hello, I’m back!

I am back from Freetown, freezing in Leeds. I’ve spent today trying to get software working including reinstalling Chrome (which started marking all words as misspelled) and Word Press which inexplicably started hanging.

I’ll write a note, maybe this weekend, about what I was doing in Freetown. It was fun, and we got a lot accomplished, so it’s a worthwhile story to tell.

Locations Database in Gnome

There’s a nifty feature hidden in Gnome that’s interesting to play with. Click on the date in the upper right. You get an applet with a calendar. Below the calendar is “Locations”, click on that. Nifty little map showing the line where sunset and sunrise are. Click on edit, and you get to add your favorite locations to the map. But not just your favorite timezones, you get to pick from a huge list of geographic places. My hometown, little Roseburg Oregon is in there. African capitals are in there, though sadly Monrovia got missed. And when you add the clocks, you get weather too!

I went searching to see where this geo-database is stored, to see if I could use it for my own nefarious purposes. It is part of gWeather, and is stored in /usr/share/libgweather/Locations.xml (it is a 900 kb XML file, which might give you an idea why Gnome is such a memory pig). According to the handy DTD stored next to it, you can get this kind of data out of it:

  • Regions, Countries, State, City, Location
  • Timezones
  • ISO code
  • FIPS code
  • Preferred language
  • Radar
  • Coordinates

Strangely, the coordinates are stored in a non-XML field, a pair of floating point numbers. As a database, the whole thing is a gluttonous pig. But it’s interesting to think that every Ubuntu laptop is carrying a little geo-mapping database with it, isn’t it?

An Interview with a DVD-man

Rare is the dinner in an expat restaurant in Africa which is not (politely and quietly) interrupted by a DVD-man. They have a stock of DVD’s in their backpacks, and work their way through the restaurant giving you a chance to peruse their wares. You have to see the DVDs to believe them, they are made up of several pirated Hollywood movies, with many different versions, all on one disc, enclosed in a professional-looking full color envelope. They have titles like “Segal vs Chan”… a DVD full of Steve Segal and Jackie Chan movies. Another great title is “Superhero Schoolwork”, including Spiderman, Superman, and Wonderwoman (and all the sequels thereof). The DVD’s are billed as “50 in one”, though it requires some clever counting to find 50 movies on one disc. Typically, there are more like 12 movies on a DVD — in itself an impressive achievement of DVD mastering and compression-algorithm optimization.

Today, at lunch, I was talking about an idea with Steve for how how to coopt the media in Africa. At that instant, a DVD-man came up to the table to offer his wares. I took the chance to do some market research, to figure out how his business works to feed in some ground-based-reality into my scheme.

The young man is named Mohammed. He is alone now, his father was has last relative and he died in 2005. Years ago (perhaps 5 or so) he met a woman on the beach. She was an Indian, a visitor to Sierra Leone. She worked for a bank. They started talking about his school, and how to raise enough money for his school fees. She decided to “invest” in Mohammed by giving him a gift of 100,000 leones (in today’s currency, about USD 30). With that, he bought movies and started walking around after school selling them.

After Steve and I had talked to him a while, I asked him for the “financials” of his business. It should be noted, at the beginning of our conversation, he was reluctant to talk about his business, I suspect out of fear that we were investigating piracy. Here’s how it works out… the DVDs are available one at a time from a wholesaler for SLL 8000 per disc. He sells them for SLL 10000, for a profit of SLL 2000 per disc. Mohammed keeps a stock of around 50 discs right now (“51”, he proudly told me!). His inventory has gone as high as 81 discs. He started his business years ago with 25 discs, bought using the initial capital from his Indian benefactress.

Perhaps there is a discount for buying in bulk, but Mohammed didn’t mention it. I suspect he rarely has the capital to replenish his stock. Instead, Mohammed’s business model is just like any extremely small business: he constantly balances how much money he can take out of his business to pay for school fees with how much he needs to reinvest disc by disc to replenish his stocks. I found it interesting as well that he remembered his exact highest inventory with pride — for Mohammed, his inventory is his life’s savings. Can you imagine the risk and the burden of carrying your life’s savings on your back? What if they are stolen? What if the price of DVD’s collapses?

Steve bought a DVD, “Harrison Ford Mega Pack”. That’s SLL 2000 more profit for Mohammed, but not enough to pay this week’s school fees. Here’s hoping he sells some more discs today…

As an aside, Mohammed told us that you can buy DVD’s mastered and manufactured in Nigeria for only SLL 6000. Theoretically, you can sell them for SLL 10000, just like the ones that Mohammed sells, which come from China. But Mohammed says that the Nigerian discs are lower quality and though they offer double the profit, if you sell them to a customer and it does not play right, then you lose a customer. He prefers to sell the lower profit and higher quality merchandise from China.


Steve and I were thinking about it a bit, and it’s true: when you buy these DVD’s on the street, in the marketplace, or in a restaurant, it’s just a throw of the dice if it will work. On our travels, we’ve both bought DVD’s that didn’t play right. There are certain brands of pirated DVDs that look good, and in practice prove to be good. One brand that looks particularly good is “UPS”. The pirates just took the UPS logo and slapped it on their discs, and it works! It looks professional, and it turns out the pirates professional enough to pirate a logo as well as the content, make good discs! Mohammed is right; customers prefer the Chinese discs.

This is field economics at it’s best. What a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon in Freetown!

Hello from Freetown

I started a two week trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone yesterday. I am here as an IT consultant for the Health Metrics Network, part of the World Health Organization. We are taking a bunch of random hardware that the government bought with a not-quite-complete architecture and putting in place a foundation for IT services related to the Health Information System. Of course, the HIS relies on lots and lots of low tech forms and paperwork “up country”, but there’s also a need for a datacenter in the capital.

I probably won’t post much from here, since I’ll be really busy.

I’ll just say a couple of brief things: it’s great to be back in West Africa, the humidity is not so bad when you get used to it, I enjoyed Star beer and jollof rice for dinner last night.

A message…

…from America, reaching out to every corner of the globe, into the hearts of those who have watched us struggle and fail to meet our potential over the last 8 years:

Yes We Can!

Like a drug-addled celebrity, we’ve hit rock bottom, and now we’re ready to turn our lives around and meet our potential.

Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to go celebrate the near destruction of the English parliament. (Guy Falkes was clearly a democrat.) Another example of why England is backwards: normal people rejoice at the idea of blowing up their corrupt and greedy legislatures. Bonfire night is unfortunately apparently about celebrating that the plot was foiled!

Baby Season

Marina is doing a project right now in her Public Health class where she has to make a project proposal (the whole thing, with the Gant charts, the budget, etc) for a Maternal Health project in a fictional health district in a fictional country in Africa.

As we were discussing it, I came up with a question… what is the variation in pregnancy over the course of a year? Is it seasonal? If so, in which cultures yes and which cultures no? Why?

It’s important because if you expect 52 complex births a year and each mother needs 7 days in a bed, do you need one bed in your hospital or three? At that scale, it doesn’t matter so much, but add a zero or two onto the end of the figures, and the question of “10 or 30 beds” makes a great deal of difference to budget, logistics, HR, etc.

So you can imagine how I chuckled when this came into my mailbox:

HAITI. The team is struggling to respond to needs of women giving birth these days, as it is the yearly peak resulting from Carnaval festivities in February. For example, yesterday 158 women were in labor at Jude-Anne hospital (60 bed hospital). This means that women were giving birth in every available corner of the hospital property, from the rooftop and stairwells, to the triage space outside. The family caregivers could not enter the hospital due to lack of space and frenetic activity. Also local health structures in Port-au-Prince are still not fully functional, as they are either without proper medical equipment or on strike. This means that MSF is the only hospital functioning in the city for women giving birth. It also means that MSF cannot refer patients to these structures.

(This is from an internal report that I am not normally allowed to forward. But seeing as this information is not security sensitive, I feel comfortable bending the rule this one time.)

At first glance, the idea of carnavale making so many babies they have to be born on the roof sounds a little funny… you imagine a yearly baby boom and who doesn’t smile at the thought of a hundred cute newborn babies?

But to understand why this situation is sad and dangerous for Haitian mothers, you need to understand this: Worldwide, the vast majority of births are not done in a hospital. They are done at home, or perhaps in a health post. Only complex pregnancies (perhaps 10%) need to be seen in a hospital setting. The maternity ward in a resource poor context is only occasionally a scene of joy with beautiful new babies popping out of healthy mothers. More often, it is a scene of fear, uncertainty, pain, and loss. Women who end up in the hospital as a result of a pregnancy have drawn the short straw and are at risk of losing their baby, their future fertility, or even their own life.

If I’ve rained on your parade too much, go visit The White Ribbon Alliance and watch one of their movies. You can get cheered up by hope and strength and get educated at the same time!