If you could ask just one question [5]

Segbwema, South East Sierra Leone
Wednesday, June 14, 2017—Dispatch 5

By Randy Thomas Jones


It is typical of this kind of fieldwork that keeping a daily log of activities is a challenge. I’m actually writing this a week delayed, attempting to capture the mood, but to also share all-important introduction for those who are not initiated into the complexities of the world of humanitarian work and conflict response. I am one of those people myself, though I’m forced to play a fast pick-up game to get up to speed as quickly as possible; the demands of working on a project like this force everyone involved to become multi-faceted and interdisciplinary.

Ivan Gayton, the project originator and CEO, is able to move seamlessly through the varying demands on his attention and knowledge. He’s got internal radar for so many of the things that to me, as an outsider, would demand attention, discussion, and thoughtfulness. It is not that he doesn’t give thought to the various issues that arise, it is just the fact that his experience is so broad, it often looks to an outsider that he doesn’t even have to consider what to do in any given situation. Add to that a native drive for action, and by Saturday morning, less than 48 hours after we have arrived, a crew is assembled at our guesthouse for training on the surveying process.

We manage to get an independent off-line local server operational, at least temporarily. It is a small gadget (called an “Intel Edison”) that easily fits in the palm of a hand, which functions as a repository of the ODK (Open Data Kit) software that we use. Ivan is able to ignore the chaos that surrounds the scene much better than I. News of our presence has already travelled, and even though we are only offering about 4 or 5 positions for surveyors, attempting to state clearly that anyone who wants to apply must have an Android phone which will successfully take a GPS point, there are at least another ten people milling around who it seems do not have phones, or at least do not turn up in our verification process.

The first step to filling out an Open Data Kit Android phone survey

Anyone who has a phone is instructed to download the app ‘ODK’ from our Server, and then fill out our “Surveyor Registration” survey. Open Data Kit: for data collection of all sorts worldwide. It is a wildcat procedure—part of the test is whether a potential candidate can focus on the instructions and complete them. It is not completely Darwinian; Ivan is more than happy to help if someone gets in the queue and asks for help. (In fact, that is one hallmark of a likely good candidate, we are happy to contribute time to training, but there is a limit to the amount of energy that can be devoted to it). The experienced surveyors help also to get the phones loaded up with ODK and the registration survey.

Ultimately, the surveyors will go out with a similar form to fill out on their phones, one that has been designed by us using the background development tool, XLSForm, and that is how we will gather information about the all-critical proper village names and locations. Since the GPS is critical, the surveyor registration form includes the task of gathering a GPS point. Not all of the phones are able to complete the task properly, and discussion ensues about the possibility of showing up with a working phone and continuing. Yes, some allowance for this will be made, but it had better happen fast, we are planning to get on the road on Monday for our first field test.

Through the Open Data Kit survey software, and its associated support, what shows up on a mobile device (Android based only) is a simple form than can handle much more complexity than we need for this project. For our purposes, we are only attempting to disambiguate place names for the purpose of healthcare. In fact, Ivan will repeat himself several times over the following week in various meetings: “We are a public health project using mapping, not a mapping project. I love maps, but what I care about is saving lives.” The ODK software has been around a while (and there are also other versions with slightly differing specifications since it is an Android software), and it seems whenever anyone is doing a project, everyone has a curious desire to get an extra question added to the survey.

Ivan resists as best he can all comers. His general answer is a polite reminder that the phone number of the village chief is one of the critical pieces of data that we are gathering. When the data is uploaded, humanitarian agencies will literally have the ability to give a phone call to any of those villages, which, much more often than not, will have a skilled English speaker available. He has to bow good-naturedly, of course, to the Red Cross request to add a question about the presence of village markets. MSF likewise gets a question added about the availability of working water pumps. In my enthusiasm, after the first field day and we accidentally discover a story about the meaning of the name of the village, I argue to include that as a question as well. Our colleague Rupert Allen, who will be joining us shortly, has an academic interest in the way people are dealing with new technology. He would like to add a few questions as well, Ivan gives him one, he is not, as it turns out after all, a complete ogre!

Back at the training day, there are enough people who have sent a form with a correct GPS point to the Server (which can immediately be verified y reviewing the database as it emerges) to begin training. It is not a completely logical step-by-step process, but once the basics are introduced, everyone gets a copy of the real survey and we begin practice. Just as the survey design is critical, or perhaps why the survey design is critical, the asking of questions can’t be a completely rote process—some attention is given to explaining the intention behind the questions and the idea that people’s point of origin coming to a health facility will be a good thing.

Our general instruction is to ask for a knowledgeable villager (often the village chief). This is not as pompous as it might sound, it is simply a paying respect similar to the idea that you probably wouldn’t immediately walk into someone’s back yard in a Western context, you would knock at the front door and introduce yourself first—the chief is the front door of the village. This provides an opportunity to do some role-playing, with one of the experienced surveyors playing the role of the chief, and the other two coaching on the side.

After about three or four rounds, it is starting to go fairly well, and I offer to step in as temporary chief, planning secretly to mix it up and cause a little trouble to test the resilience. I know Stanley, Alberta and Richard can handle it.

The first task is saying hello and explaining briefly that we are trying to make the map accurate because it is kind of insulting that the villages are not even known to exist in the outside world. It is mostly going to be an easy sell, but during the Ebola outbreak a few places had to be forcibly quarantined, we have to account for the possibility of refusal, and indeed, consent to the process is a gold standard. My first response in the role-playing is to proclaim that I don’t want my village mapped, and to tell the surveyor prospect to leave the village! This causes a little laughter, but there is also a good kind of confidence, “Can I just explain what we are doing?” says the surveyor-in-training. “Yes, that is acceptable,” I reply. With a bit more chance to explain, the chief gets convinced, the survey can proceed, but I am not out of ideas to stir up a little trouble yet.