A Look at Field Life for Tool Makers

I have recently been talking with some folks about IT tools for humanitarian aid workers. I gave a real-world reality check to them, not to discourage them, but to make sure they knew their audience as well as possible. After all, what good is a tool that looks good in demos, but fails with the users? A good step towards avoiding abject failure is to sit with your users and watch them work. That’s not so easy with humanitarian field workers. A tolerable substitute is to collect testimonies from them with the same kind of data, and try to design a system that has a chance of working in the context.

One of the guys I was writing to asked me to post my experiences publicly. Ok! No problem! And hopefully I can find a few more people to post their own, and we’ll link them together so if a tool-maker can find one, she can find all of them!

My experience was in Liberia, as the log for an MSF-operated basic health care project in a stable post-conflict context. Our security rules limited our movements to either a handful of pre-approved places inside the city, or pre-planned movements. The rest of the time we were in our compound (our curfew for all people and vehicles was sunset). We had twice-weekly car trips to the capital city, which was 6 hours by car away.

My day was not the crazy 20 hour day you live on a vaccination project. Instead, my day started at 7am with a normal breakfast. From then on, I chased technical details (security, food inventory,
vehicle maintenance, construction management) and human resources
problems until 5pm, with a solid hour and a half of quiet time around
lunch. I worked 10-15 hours a week after hours on accounting work. I chose to work this way because of the workload, and because these tasks requiring concentration are best accomplished in the peace and quiet of the evening. Also counting thousands of US dollars with extra people around the office is discouraged by the security rules (and common sense).

Once a week or so we would have a movie night where the guy from Action Contre le Faim next door came over and shared their 80 gigs of DIVX movies with us. This was the maximum extent of inter-organization data sharing! I slept 8 hours a night, except 2 nights a week on average when I was awakened for an hour or so for some problem (generator, transport problem, freight arrival). I spent 4 hours a week helping MSF nurses with their data entry into (brain damaged) Excel worksheets. Having a better health metrics system, and trained users, would have reduced the stress of monthly reports on everyone.

I had a GSM phone on the global network (in/out to USA and Europe as
easy as: 00 country-code local-number). I had reliable e-mail
connectivity via satellite with a bit rate of around 100 kbit/sec. I
could not do HTTP nor HTTPS. I submitted my reports and did “offsite
backups” by burning a CD and sending it on a car to Monrovia. We used Windows 2000 on Thinkpad laptops. We used Thunderbird for e-mail, Microsoft Office tools, VLC for playing movies. We had a projector, which we used for showing training films and presentations, and for movie night.

I think I would have had some time and attention available (perhaps 3 hours a week) for IT-based mapping tools and some data entry, especially when it could generate instant gratification in our local area of operations. We did not have the resources to debug stuff, download patches, or write programs. I could not use Google Maps, let alone Google Earth. It would have been easy for me to receive GeoRSS-formatted e-mail attachments and see them rendered, but only if I had a local map drawing system.

If other field workers would like to give a short description of their work environment to set the stage for tool makers, I would be happy to host your comments here, or to link to them if you put them on your own website.

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