Volunteer IT Consulting in Kiribati

As I mentioned recently, I had recently had the privilege to visit Kiribati, and do some volunteering – helping the Kiribati Family Health Association (KFHA) with a couple of nerdy things.  It would be extremely selfish of me to not share some of those experiences.

Not only are technical skills scarce in Kiribati, there’s also a desire to stay up with current trends both in technology and methodology.

Some Context – “The Work”

The main points of interest I want to share are centered on a workshop I ran, but before we get into that it might help if I briefly frame-up the wider “engagement”.

KFHA is a great organisation – lots of passion directed at meeting local Kiribati needs regarding family planning, sexual and reproductive health, HIV testing, and more. Importantly, that passion is also backed up by some real skill, all the medical staff are top-notch and are regularly developing their skills.

The IT department consists of one, a chap by the name of Toani.  His background is in networking – which is great since mines not; they needed help with some data collection and their website – areas that happily I can help with.

First off ,they collect a bunch of data around people who visit their clinics – both the single “static” clinic which also houses the main office, and mobile clinics which operate across all of the 22 inhabited islands spread across the 3.5 million square kilometers of Kiribati waters.  The data is collected by hand, with information hand-written by a nurse into a form, The IT department (i.e. Toani, when he’s not fixing the internet) is then entered into a spreadsheet.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0349b“Toani’s the man, he can fix the internet”.  “Adrian’s the man if you need sunblock, see how much he puts on his face”.

There’s not a lot to talk about as far as the clinic data solution is concerned – basically I just did the usual: talk with a few stakeholders about what they actually did and why.  I then tightened up the spreadsheet by rationalizing the schema, designed new data capture forms that were print friendly, adding some data validation, added bit of a data dictionary, added some other random bits of goodness, and a pivot table (and chart) to handle the analysis and reporting basics.  I then rounded this off with a 12 page design doc and 19 page user guide.  Completing this all just minutes before the farewell party held in my honor was a relief and immensely fulfilling – especially given the 30+ degree heat (and the humidity).

The Website

The brief I got for the website was not a 158 page request for RFP, but something more along the lines of “We think it’d be good to do something with our website, but we’re not sure what.  What  ideas do you have?”

Their site at that time was arranged along the ‘classic’ lines – i.e. our services, about us, etc.  Definitely not a bad start, but in immersing myself in the culture and talking with locals a few things became clear:

  1. Internet performance in Kiribati is not impressive.  The site had some great images and content but the overall load-time in Kiribati was sub-optimal.  Given KFHA’s primary objective is to serve locals this seemed like an important issue.
  2. The site is written in English, and although English is not uncommon content aimed at locals really needs to be in the Kiribati language.  Many of those who most need KFHA’s services come from a impoverished background – meaning there’s less of a chance they’ll speak English (true, they might not also have internet access, but KFHA need to be as inclusive as possible).
  3. Internet access is on the rise, especially amongst Kiribati youth, and most of that access is via mobile phone.

The Workshop – Inception

After mentally getting to this point I ran my ideas past Toani, and then the Executive Director, Norma.  I floated the idea of a workshop, which she said was a great idea, and so it was arranged.

My objectives were… what were they?  Actually I had a few of them, to get my head straight I did some architectural diagrams and mind-maps, and then put together an agenda and eventually a PowerPoint deck to really get my thinking clear.  I had no idea if we’d be able to get hold of a projector, but I knew I could improvise with paper if I had to.

So, objectives:

  1. Regardless of what I do, KFHA need to be as self-sufficient as possible.  I’m certainly happy to support them long-term, but the less I have to do the more sustainable it will be for me.
  2. I needed to get KFHA mentally onboard with my high-level concept for the website, specifically:
    1. Tailor the sites structure, content and tone for those who need it, i.e. focus on local I-Kiribati.
    2. Optimize for mobile, low-bandwidth internet access.

The Workshop – Kick Off

Anyone familiar with Pacific island culture in general may be familiar with “island time” – the time vacuum created by the ocean’s presence.  Given the heat it’s not hard to imagine why.  I often thought about my time in Singapore and how much the GDP would fall if all the air-conditioners failed, office productivity would surely plummet.

Anyway, we were initially delayed for reasons that need not be discussed, but eventually “Ok, let’s start”.  I think we were only 45 mins late in starting, which by some measures means we actually started early, ha ha.

So I stood up and kicked the session off, about 5 seconds after I did this 4 of the 6 attendees started video-recording me on their phones!  This is not something that usually happens when I facilitate workshops with government departments in Wellington.

I introduced the workshop agenda as an “I-Matang” (foreigner) agenda, and invited them to change the format if they wanted.  Of course just because you make offers like this does not automatically mean that people will take you up on them – particularly in cultures that are more conservative.  There’s also aspects such as gender to consider; as with many other cultures men tend to dominate in Kiribati (although that is slowly changing), and so the women might not volunteer suggestions to the floor due to the fact that a man is leading the meeting and other men are in attendance.  In the event everyone seemed okay, perhaps even enthralled by the prospect of an I-Matang agenda, so I just forged on.

As A, I Want, So that.

The first “real” exercise we did was based on Agile user stories.  I wanted them to start thinking about who was actually coming to their website, why, and what they were trying to achieve.  My assumption was that once they understood this they’ll be in a better position to form a good site structure and create content.

I introduced the concept of a user story, and gave some examples.  I then explained why I wanted them to think in this way and how it would help them conceptualize the site and it’s content.  We also spent some time talking about the “so that” and why that part can be really hard and so crucially important – because often the reason why people want something isn’t as straight forward as how it first appears (i.e. the five whys).

“As A…”

We then explored who they thought actually needed to come to the site.  I gave them some examples to get them started and then pushed them firmly to go beyond the easy answers.  Some of the user groups identified were interesting:

  • It transpires that the bus drivers are a special interest group because the role they play in society puts them in frequent and direct access with young women attending school, and because they can leverage this role with the young women.  I’m not sure if calling this a “barter economy” is appropriate but that certainly seems to be the result based on what we discussed.
  • Another group was the Toddy manufacturers / sellers.  Toddy is an alcoholic beverage that can be naturally produced off coconut trees, the links between alcohol consumption and social issues needs no elaboration.
  • Finally, there’s an array of traditional and cultural leaders that are pivotal to sustained family planning activities in Kiribati.  These leaders include what you might call tribal leaders and heads of household; and almost without exception these roles are held by men.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0269bImprovisation is a valuable ability to possess when working in developing nations, matching wallpaper and shirt is optional.

The next exercise was around prioritization – “You have all these user groups, but are we going to treat them all equally (which is fine, you just have a lot more writing to do straight-off), or are you going to prioritize some?”  To do this I introduced the exercise where everyone gets to spend $10 on what they think most needs it the most.

It took a little bit of cajoling to get everyone up to the wall, but they did it and quite enjoyed it too.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0272b

For anyone unfamiliar with this technique, all you do is tell people they have $X dollars (can be any amount) of pretend money to spend on any of the items listed.  They can spend all their money on one item, evenly across several, or any other combination they choose – but they can only spend the amount you give them.  Once they have done this you simply add up the totals and see where the most money was spent.

They quickly got the idea and said they can see themselves using the technique for some of the work they do (same for the user stories).

The Affects of Catering

Then it was time for lunch.  As you can see by Abby’s face (he leads their youth programmes) they were really disappointed in having to stop for a free catered lunch.  Yes that was sarcasm.  Toani told me they don’t often get catered lunches like this and encouraged me to tell Norma we needed to hold some additional workshops.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0277b

You can probably guess what happened next.  Think about it… its hot, we’ve just had a big lunch and its early afternoon.  Yep, people got a little lethargic.  As I am a consummate workshop facilitator, and addicted to dark chocolate, I had a private stash on hand that I dipped into before energizing the room for a final push.

Following traditional western workshop protocol, we then used this post-lunch-should-be-taking-a-nap time to tackle the most mind bending part of the agenda: “I want, so that”.

Actually it wasn’t too hard to get the group going – mostly because they are all very passionate about what KFHA does and the importance of the website.  As you can see from the photo below there was some very deep thinking going on, which yielded excellent results.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0280b

Another indication that value was being unlocked was the nature of the discussion; most of the time things were discussed in English, but sometimes the discussion obviously became deep, complex and impassioned – because they  switched to Kiribati and spoke really really fast.  In these cases I’d just let them thrash it out and wait until some sort of decision seemed to have been reached, and then probe in English.

The Farewell Party

On big projects you might have a go-live party, but I’ve never had a formal farewell party “for me” before at the end of a 10 day, part-time engagement.  And by party I don’t simply mean food, drink and some music playing off someones phone…

In accordance with cultural norms we started about an hour late – which was fine with me as it gave me time to finish writing the user guide for the clinic visitor data solution!

Abby was the MC (surely his true calling if life, sometimes I think he views people at gatherings as his personal play-things “OK, just two more songs” [first song is performed] “OK, just three more songs).  To cut to the chase it was a full-on affair with speeches, songs, cultural items – and of course food.

As evidence of the songs, we managed to record my favorite (Onga Te Bwanaa) on my wife’s Dictaphone:

The song is performed as a group, everyone stands in a circle and sings with some simple movements which include clapping your hands with the person next to you (one face up, the other face down).

The event was then concluded with the obligatory photo shoot, including “free-style”.

kiribati-jan-2017-b-0331b

I can’t remember doing any volunteering before – certainly nothing even close to providing IT consulting in a developing country, but I’d definitely recommend it.  There’s plenty of deserving places in the world that could do with some help if you can spare the time, and the rewards are rich even if they aren’t financial.  There are some things money just can’t buy.

 

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2 thoughts on “Volunteer IT Consulting in Kiribati

  1. Pingback: A Short Introduction to Kiribati | Peruse Muse Infuse

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