Tanzania day 5: Internet! (ish)

Woken at 4am by mosquitoes – I left the bathroom door open, and the insect screen only works so far.  None of the hotels here have mosquito nets, so I spend an hour listening and swatting before going back to sleep.  I breakfast on scrambled egg and bananas: my substitute for all the bread products I keep being offered.  The team is here: I watch them do a soil type analysis (using a flowchart: seeing if they can form muddy balls from the soil samples, seeing how long a ribbon of mud they can make (1cm? 2? more?) then finally rubbing in their hands to see if it’s “gritty” or not.  Most of the soil we collected is clay or sandy loam.  It rains.  Msofi and I swap British and Kiswahili words for different types of rain (we both have many of these). I watch the team do rapid roadside…


Tanzania day 4: Field Trips

We saw a lot of schoolchildren in uniforms yesterday – in the afternoon, they were walking past carrying hoes.  We go shopping for a cable to charge my phone and  camera: I’ve lost one cable and broken the other, so it’s off to the local shops, each of which points us to another one: general store, electronics shop, phone shops, camera/video shops, some in buildings, others in plywood shacks. Finally have two colourful cables with smiley faces on the ends (the powerstrips in the shape of hearts are tempting too). Avery buys fruit from a lady with a huge basket on her head: it takes 2 of us to the lift the basket back up.  We check the cable: it’s the car adapter that’s broken, not the cable: the team lends me an adapter for the ride.  Add to field shopping list: car chargers, and lots of them.  The car…


Tanzania day 3: Welcome to the Jungle

Today we go into the field.  Woken by laptop charger fizzling – electricity is available but a bit variable here.  Breakfast with sweet milky tea – the tea in it is grown and picked here in Mafinga.  We drive past tree plantations – pines, for their wood. I ask about the rice; Tanzania is a major rice grower, and much of it comes from Morogoro.  I meet the rest of the team, and explain Ushahidi and my own skills to them, as asked, armed with a notebook, pen and much arm-gesturing.   We drive off to the site; on red mud roads, fast.  The team truck has a snorkel and I worry they might be using it.  Finding routes to the sites is an issue, and the gps units fill up if the team trys to track roads: we talk about roadmapping using their GPS-connected tablets and Funf, and about OpenStreetMap…


Tanzania day 2: the Safari Commute

Today I meet the team: we breakfast, talk about the plan for the week (travel, measure, measure, rest, travel) and set off on the road to Iringa.  I’ve now been in 2 of the “big 5” wildlife countries and so far have seen: 1 dog.  I’m hoping we might see something else in the parks.  The road is very quiet – most of the traffic has stopped because of the traffic jams around the flooded bridge, which is great in terms of having the road to ourselves, but no so great in terms of being the only car around for the traffic police to stop.  They stop us and show the radar gun (the most common sensor that I see around here) – speeding.  We stop next to one of the communities making woven baskets – I’m tempted to go shopping but know that would just increase our chance of…


Tanzania Day 1: how was your day at the office?

Day 1 – not going well. 5am start in Nairobi – check.  Flight over Kilimanjaro – check. Car waiting at airport – check. Takes credit card as promised – nope. Hack Tanzanian cashpoint to get enough cash to pay.  Buy sim card: simple, but not instant (forms!). And off.. to mall to get cheap camera and supplies.  Cheapest camera = 220000 ksh ($130).  Asked $80000ksh for bugspray and sunblock. Decide to buy supplies in tourist area upcountry.  But first, driver1 has forgotten the car’s id docs – an issue on a road with policement every mile or two. And so we get into the first traffic jam (10 mins): the president’s mother lives nearby, and visits his mother every weekend (even presidents aren’t immune to this).  Everything stops as his cavalcade drives past – except today it’s the vice-president visiting.  Second traffic jam: 10 minutes for a busy traffic junction in…


Writing an Ignite Talk

Ignite talks are the standard format of events like ICCM and other GIS-focussed events. They look great on stage, and might seem impossible to do if you’re not used to speaking. But it’s not that bad really. You too can write and present and ignite talks! So what *is* an Ignite Talk? An ignite is a 5-minute talk where you supply 20 slides. Each of those slides is shown for 15 seconds before automatically moving to the next one. 5 minutes. That’s not too bad. How do you start planning an Ignite talk? Here’s how I do it. This isn’t the “right” way – it’s just one of many – but it’s a place for you to start. First, know what you want to talk about. For instance, I want to give an ignite talk about giving ignite talks. You know the general area of the event (e.g. “crisismapping”) –…


Future cities

Cities are apparently the future. All the predictions I’ve seen for the next few decades show the world\’s population concentrating in cities, but our development indicators and policies are still listed by nation state. Perhaps they should be wider, for instance by including developing cities on the lists. I said “developing” there – which begs the question “how are these cities developing?”.  This isn’t just a Las Vegas-style spreading of suburbia across the desert: many of the cities I’ve visited in the past year have shanty towns, and these appear, at least from outside, to be where a lot of the city development is happening (btw, I wanted to use a less emotive word than ‘slum’ here: although it’s what Slum Dwellers International uses, there’s still a lot of negative feeling about it).  From Lagos to Guatemala to Haiti, I’ve seen dozens of homes and businesses under tin roofs looking…

Data Science

Creating humanitarian big data units

Global Pulse has done a fine job of making humanitarian big data visible both within and outside the UN. But it’s a big job, and they won’t be able to do it on their own. So. What, IMHO, would another humanitarian big data team need to be and do? What’s the landscape they’re moving into? Why should we care about humanitarian big data? First, there’s a growing body of evidence that data science can change the way that international organisations work, the speed that they can respond to issues and degree of insight that they can bring to bear on them. And NGOs are changing. NGOs have to change. We are no longer organizations working in isolation in places that the world only sees through press releases. The Internet has changed that. We’re now in a connected world, where I work daily with people in Ghana, Columbia, England and Kazakhstan….


Lessons from mapping Sahel

We needed an example problem set for our current version of Hunchworks (note that this is a very early, i.e. pre-alpha version of the code and a lot of the cool Hunchworks features aren’t in it yet). The UN’s main use for Hunchworks is to gather up the weak signals that people put out about emerging development crises – those small hints that something isn’t right that appear all over the world before they coalesce into ‘obvious’. Awareness of development crises can happen very quickly. One minute there are whispers of a potential problem – a chat here, an email or text asking for a bit of data there. And then a tipping point appears and there’s suddenly data everywhere. And we have a great example of this happening just at the time that we’re demonstrating Hunchworks to the UN General Assembly. We had one of these serendipitous test sets…

Augmented Intelligence

Strata talk on hunchworks technology

I try not to put too much dayjob stuff here, but sometimes I need to leave less-tidy breadcrumbs for myself.  Here’s the 10-minute (ish) talk I gave at Strata New York this year. Intro I’m Sara Farmer, and I’m responsible for technology at Global Pulse. This brings its own special issues.  One thing we’re passionate about is making systems available that help the world. And one thing we’ve learnt is that we can’t do that without cooperation both within and outside the UN.  We’re here to make sure analysts and field staff get the tools that they need, and that’s a) a lot of system that’s needed, and b) something that organisations across the whole humanitarian, development and open data space need too. <Slide 1: picture of codejammers> We’re talking to those other organisations about what’s needed, and how we can best pool our resources to build the things that…