First Field Trip into Kampala

I got to take my first field trip, visiting a teachers college in Kampala that has one of the Digital Drums distributed by the UNICEF office here.  As in any job, it is always nice to be able to get out of the office and see how things are in the real world. The trip started with the ride in the official UN/UNICEF vehicle.  Fortunately, there was no convoy involved; that would have felt just a bit weird, particularly for a trip across town that took only about 15 minutes.  The trip back took longer, but that’s because we came upon a parade or a demonstration or something that blocked the road for a time.  It was very near the electoral commission, which is often accused of corruption and manipulating elections, so perhaps that was the delay.  There are several political posters up with candidates’ pictures, so it is also possible that this was a political rally of some kind.  We weren’t close enough to read the signs and banners or to understand the chants so who knows what it was really all about.

The look of the city definitely changed in getting out of the central business district, which also seems to house a lot of the ex-pats (it has been referred to also as the luxury part of town).  I noticed in particular the way the shops were arranged.  In the districts I’ve been in, there have been mostly shopping centers with the streets of businesses being mostly just in a couple of areas.  In these other neighborhoods, rows of shops line the streets. I didn’t really see a residential district, so it’s hard to know how they might differ.

Like every other complex I’ve entered here other than shopping centers, the teachers college had a gate.  This gate wasn’t manned, though, which did surprise me a bit.  We were greeted when we entered the school and then made our way to the location of the Digital Drum.  We got a chance to talk with a student who had used the drum and one of the staff members about their experience with it.  The student in particular had clearly enjoyed using the machine, although it wasn’t currently working.  We’re ensuring someone gets out to figure out what’s wrong and fixes it.

This particular student hadn’t started with any computer skills but had learned to use the machine by watching a friend of his use it.  For the things he’s already found, he’s confident he can find them again, but he still was unsure if he had browsed the extent of the content available.  He was particularly interested in history (primarily regional history, including stories of different countries’ paths to development), mathematics, and science.  My high school chemistry teacher would have been pleased with how interested this individual was in the periodic table of the elements.  I can only assume he is training to be a science teacher.

The current deployments of these devices do not have Internet access continually and some don’t at all.  When asked, the student said that Internet connectivity was important, although when pressed his major request was for current sports scores. The staff member seemed less convinced of the need for the device to always be online.

I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to talk to someone actually using and interested in the content for these systems.  It is all too easy to sit in our offices and ascribe to people a set of requirements and features that don’t actually correspond well to their current circumstances.  There’s a particular risk to this when introducing technology that isn’t yet commonly used.  Many of the teachers, students, and the future teachers in this country are currently unfamiliar with computers, browsers, and the reality of the web.  We must tread carefully in introducing this technology to them to not bias our content presentation and interfaces based on our perceptions of their skills and needs rather than their articulation and the reality of their skills and needs.

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First Weekend in Kampala

Not only did I survive my first week; I also survived my first weekend in Kampala.  Thanks to the hospitality of my colleagues and their partners, I had three very nice home cooked dinners, followed by a nice home cooked meal from my room mate.  Thursday and Friday evenings were basically the extended team eating together, cooked by Seth and Annie.

Saturday evening the overall UNICEF representative for Uganda and his wife hosted a party with some UNICEF folks as well as others in their circle.  He has an amazing garden, including lots of vegetables and herbs.  I knew of different kinds of basil, but I hadn’t heard of black basil before.  It is apparently the main base for pesto, at least was at one time, and it is incredibly fragrant.  I wonder if it grows in Seattle.

From a purely cultural perspective, there were two highlights to that evening.  The first highlight was clearly Sharad’s art collection.  In his career with UNICEF, he’s working in places like Iran and Afghanistan and he has some stunning pieces of local art from these areas.  I like his philosophy about the pieces he collects;  he wants them to have a history (which he wants to know about) and ideally he would like to actually know the artist.  The second highlight was the Eritrean coffee ceremony, which is apparently quite similar to the Ethiopian coffee ceremony.  This ceremony involves roasting the beans over a small fire (in the living room no less), and then grinding the beans.  The coffee is made in a specially shaped jug that allows the grounds to remain in the jug while the coffee is poured in small, espresso-sized cups.  Multiple rounds of coffee are made, with obviously each of the successive rounds being less strong.  I went for rounds one and three.  There were five rounds total, which was a bit more caffeine after dinner than I was prepared for, but it was delicious coffee.  The incense got to me after a time; it actually reminded me a great deal of the incense used in high masses in the Episcopal and Anglican churches I’ve attended over the years.  I am happy to report that there were no embarrassing moments of illness or fainting involved, but I will admit to being very glad to get out into the fresh air at the end of the evening.

Apparently, Eritrea and Ethiopia have a very troubled past and current relationship.  There is much I still need to learn about African geography, African politics, the various alliances in Africa, etc.  In some (if not many) ways, I am rather embarrassed about how little I know now.

Other highlights from the weekend were the brunches Saturday and Sunday mornings (for some definition of morning that is).  On Saturday we had a delightful brunch at “the Belgian Place” (I must find the proper name).  It’s a shopping complex consisting of a restaurant, a patisserie, a wine shop, a meat and cheese shop, and a pharmacy/chemist style shop.  Pastries, coffee and soda water were a fantastic addition to the good company and the fascinating views of the rainstorm moving over and around the surrounding hills.  Kampala, as I may have mentioned, is identified in many ways by the different hills that make up the city.  There are certainly prominent landmarks associated with many of the hills.

Exercise was not to be denied, and we did a couple of walks up Kololo hill, the hill in Terra’s neighborhood, going past EU, Danish, African and US diplomatic residences along the way.   The Danish residence is highest up the hill, apparently because of the level of their aid to Uganda.  Of course, I made no attempt to independently verify that statement. Sunday’s walk was to end first at the used bookstore and coffee shop, which were both unfortunately closed for summer break.  So, we headed instead to Eman Pasha, a very nice hotel, spa and restaurant where we had a lunch of sandwiches for our brunch.

There was certainly a lot of activity over the weekend evenings (and even during the day).  One of the taxi drivers told me that weekends used to be one long party.  All that changed with the bombings, but people are starting to go out again.  Some of my colleagues even did a dry run for a new pub crawl.  The results were a bit mixed, I was told.

I am beginning to learn my way around, although I am still sometimes startled when we arrive at our destination.  I am also learning more about the city and how to get along.  The roads in the city are pretty well marked, but the potholes are unbelievable.  Traffic often slows and gets disrupted simply because cars have to slow for the potholes or swerve around them. Lanes seem to be more of a guideline than a rule here in Kampala. Uganda is almost exclusively a cash culture, and in Kampala there is only one bank that accepts debit/ATM cards that are with MasterCard.  Visa is much more broadly accepted.  The only other place I’ve seen this is in Paris, where only EuroMasterCard is accepted at places like a train station, for example.  I didn’t even know there was such a thing as EuroMasterCard that was distinct from MasterCard.

Security is still very visible, with guards at the entrances to shopping centers, etc., checking for bombs under the cars and sometimes in the trunk.  Entry into many restaurants and shops requires a check for metals with a wand, although some of these seem pretty perfunctory.  It also appears that men are checked much more closely than women, even if the person with the wand is a woman.

So, week one is finished.  So far no stomach or digestive trouble, although I’ve not hit one of the pork stands yet, apparently a local must see/eat.  My consumption of diet coke is way down, for which I am sure my system is grateful, although there must be consternation at Coca Cola corporate headquarters.  I doubt I will become a long term coffee drinker, but coffee is my main source of caffeine here, and I am drinking lots of (bottled) water.  South African wines are prevalent here, not surprisingly, and I’ve had some very nice meals here so far.  The people are friendly, the traffic frenetic, the climate temperate, and the scenery lovely.  The adventure continues!

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Week one completes and more info on the projects

Well, I survived my first working week here in Kampala.  It wasn’t actually a full week as there was a national holiday declared for Wednesday because of the death of the former president Binaisa.  He was apparently the last remaining ex-president alive and is also the first ex-president to die while in Uganda.  I’m still learning a lot about the history and the politics of this country, so stayed tuned.

Perhaps to make me feel more at home (as in working on a national holiday), we ended up having a couple of business meetings anyway, but it was still a relaxed day.  Also, the working day on Friday ends at 2pm at the UNICEF offices, so I had time to read and relax Friday afternoon as well.   A typical day begins between 8 and 830 am, and we head back between 5 and 630 in the evening.

This week has been spent mostly meeting people and learning about the projects that are underway to understand how I can best contribute to the efforts here.  I’ve met the heads of the various sections.  T4D (Technology For Development) is one of the cross cutting groups, as are, for example, Communications for Development (C4D), some data collection groups and the various operations and logistics groups.  The office here has an internal organization around three focus areas:  Alive, Safe, and Learning.  UNICEF’s mandate is focused at children’s issues, which includes maternal health, and these three focus areas refer to the various broad outcomes UNICEF is targeting for children in Uganda.  These focus areas overlay the more traditional areas of health, education, water and sanitation, nutrition, HIV/AIDS targeted programs, and child protection.

The T4D projects I will be mostly involved with are in three broad areas:  mHealth, many utilizing the RapidSMS platform (; Social Monitoring, also using the RapidSMS platform, but this initiative focuses on broader aspects of availability of social services; and the Uganda Portal, an effort to bring information to even remote locations using rugged computing devices, both connected to the internet and providing offline content regarding health, education, and services.

I’ll put together separate blog posts for each of these broad areas, but it appears my initial focus will be for the Uganda Portal, looking at issues of configuration management and remote maintenance of the devices, scaling of the network, the full content management life cycle including content organization and delivery, and issues around profile management, personas, personalizations, including security implications.  T4D is looking to outsource the development of the content management piece, although another important aspect of my efforts will be to help with capability development.

The social monitoring program has the potential to empower individuals to influence policy by providing visibility into the status of infrastructure and availability of supplies, water, and even teachers.  With the number of cell phone subscribers (I’ve heard the number 8 million quoted several times), there should be some interesting scaling issues both surrounding data collection and data analytics.  Visualization of this data is crucial to providing the needed visibility to the data that can result in the policy impacts.  Hopefully my status as one of the world’s least visual people (pictures are not worth a thousand words – give me the words please) will not hamper this effort.

The various mHealth initiatives are in various stages of development.  Many discussions are currently surrounding a program to speed up and reduce the cost of birth and death registration.  This program also utilizes the RapidSMS platform, with the VHTs (Village Health Teams) sending SMS messages with the necessary information.  This initial message results eventually in, for example with a birth, the printing of a birth certificate at a facility close to the birth.

So, week one completes, with plans for some field trips over the next few weeks, both here in Kampala and further afield.  It also looks like I will be speaking at some local user groups here during my stay.  I also expect more meetings with potential donors and partners on the various projects underway here.  Some things are the same across all kinds of organizations; someone needs to make sure the money is there.

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Predictably Irrational

Roy went on a behavioral economics kick some time last year, and at that time I at least made it through Nudge and Sway, leaving Predictably Irrational and a more academic book on the subject on the pile and collecting dust.  Well, I finished Predictably Irrationaltoday.  The book does have a lot of interesting experiments providing insights that are sometimes amusing, often disturbing, and certainly worth examining for their ramifications.  I was struck at times, though, by the somewhat naive solutions the author proposed as a way to deal with the world as it really is. I would tend to agree with his oft-repeated assertion that the model of the rational decision maker that is so central to traditional economic theory is inadequate to say the least.  However, I am less convinced that he has a more realistic view on aggregate.

One example proposal of his illustrates my point here.  He argues that, rather than dividing up the bill amongst all parties when a group dines together, the group should adopt the “one person pays and this rotates” strategy.  While I can buy this for a very small group that often dines together and knows each other well, I think it breaks down pretty rapidly.  Even his example of four payers to me seems too large to work effectively.  While he acknowledges the risks of people moving away or the same people not coming or other problems with the idea, he still thinks it deserves more serious consideration.  Perhaps he just isn’t the one who would normally feel compelled to pick up the check if no one made a move for it, even if I had paid the last time around.

I do also somewhat question how broadly one can reason  from the conclusions of his experiments.  While they are certainly well designed experiments, by their nature there is little opportunity for group behavior to emerge or for the effects of time to be taken into account.  His group behavior is really more the sum of the individual behavior rather than there being much opportunity (with one exception) for individuals to influence the behavior of others in the group.  To me, both of these characteristics play an important role in reasoning about behavior in economic systems.  However, I think he makes several points about our tendency towards trust, fair play, dishonesty, procrastination and our unrealistic assessment of costs and benefits that more traditional economists should at least attempt to incorporate in their models.

Of course, one experiment that I thought had its original source in this book wasn’t there.  Now I have to try and find it for someone somewhere else.  Sigh.

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My Sabbatical Reading List (for starters anyway)

One of the hoped for benefits of a sabbatical so far seems to be panning out.  My book pile that has grown way too large is finally getting some serious attention.  The books I brought with me, both in the old fashioned form and on the kindle, include the following (not listing the fiction):

  • Predictably Irrational
  • An Introduction to  Behavioral Economics
  • The Ethical Brain
  • Three Scientists and Their Gods (Thanks Neal)
  • From Poverty to Prosperity
  • Complexity: A Guided Tour
  • The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms Schools and Societies
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

Since arriving, Sean has added Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars to the pile.  Terra is worried that since I just finished my first book on the pile (Predictably Irrational), I might run out of material.  Fortunately, I return to the states for a week in late September, so I will be able to replenish my stash, assuming of course that there aren’t too many additions from here.  My pile in Seattle is certainly capable of sustaining me for quite some time. However, in case I need it, there is a good used book store not far away, so I need not fret.

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First Day at the Office!

Monday 9 August saw my first day at the UNICEF offices in Kampala.  However, Monday began with my first morning waking up to the local noises.  I still vividly remember my first morning in Orlando, FL after I moved there in 1994.  I had driven about 2000 miles in 2.5 days, alone, in the summer, in a car with no air conditioning.  By the time I had arrived, all I could think about was sleep.  I checked into a Holiday Inn Express in (what I thought was) the middle of Orlando and collapsed in sleep.  I was rudely awakened by what I first thought was a hallucination.  Was that really a rooster crowing outside my window?  Well, actually it was, since I wasn’t smack in the middle of the city, but in a part of town that still had a bit more of an outskirts feel to it between Orlando and the eastern edge of the city towards the university.

I had much the same feeling this Monday morning.  At least this time, though, Terra had warned me about the rooster, and the dogs that howled at the rooster, and the muezzin’s call to prayer; at least I didn’t have to worry that I was hallucinating.  Add to that symphony the use of open windows rather than central air conditioning, and no alarm clocks were needed, even given how tired I was after the flights.  Welcome to Kampala!

The drive in that morning in a taxi gave me my first glimpses of the city.  Terra’s place is located in quite a nice area of town called Kololo.  The UNICEF offices are quite near to the central business district.  The city itself is a series of hills; the office shares a hill with a (incomplete) tall hotel.  Traffic was quite a bit like India (Bangalore being my prevalent experience) without the cows or the motorized rickshaws, but with significantly more potholes, many of the car-swallowing variety.  Note to self: get the contact numbers for several different taxi services; the world does not need me driving on the streets of Kampala.

There are three major sources of transportation in Kampala (other than private vehicles, that is): the special hire taxis, the boda bodas (mostly motorcycles), and the matatus, which apparently have regular routes much like buses do in the US and are vans.  I think I’ll be sticking with the special hire taxis myself.  Apparently some companies suspend insurance coverage if you ride a boda boda; this does not sound like fun to me.

As luck would have it, this particular Monday was the right one for the MMM (formerly Monday Morning Meeting and now Monthly Monday Meeting).  Thus, I got a chance to be introduced to many of the folks here in the Kampala Office that I will be working with.  Everyone I’ve met here so far has been very friendly and welcoming.  When I consider the lifestyle choices these individuals have made, this doesn’t surprise me.  I am hoping I’ll remember all of the names, as this has never been one of my strengths.  So far so good, though.

Following the meeting was a day filled with hearing about the various projects on the go here and starting to figure out how best to insert myself, and most importantly where I can be most helpful.  We seem to be settling around aspects of three major initiatives: 1) the Uganda Portal, which will provide access to information (initially around health, education and items of interest to youth) across the country; 2) Social monitoring, an SMS based reporting system collecting information on a wide range of issues like malfunctioning water points, teacher absenteeism, availability of medications and/or power in medical clinics, etc. with a dashboard overlaying a map to show how services vary across the country and 3) a variety of m-Health initiatives, also primarily utilizing SMS.  I’ll describe each of these projects in more detail over the next several posts.

I’ve already got a couple of field trips planned to different parts of the country, and possibly even a trip out of the country to Nairobi.  I guess I don’t have to worry about being stuck in an office for my entire trip.  I am already starting to learn about the different regions of Uganda, but I still have a lot to learn.  Like remembering names, geography hasn’t been a strong suit either.  Experiences like this go a long way towards making us sometimes painfully aware of our limitations.

The end of the day found me dragging from jet lag but exhilarated from work.  In many ways, this day was like the first day at a new consulting client. There are the usual issues of where to sit, where the ahem facilities are, along with all the new people to meet and the logistics of connectivity and building access and the list goes on.  I am still very sure, though, that this experience will be an education for me.

That evening, I didn’t even realize that I didn’t eat a proper dinner, but I was at least able to sleep soundly.  Tuesday 10 August among other things will include an initial apartment-hunting trip.  The adventure continues!

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The Travel Odyssey to Kampala

The trip from Seattle to Entebbe, Uganda was every bit as tiring as I’d feared it would be. I had at least been reassured that Entebbe was the right airport through which to arrive in Kampala, one of those many niggling worries I had in the final few days.  It is amazing how hard it is to pack for 90 days.  Even though Kampala is a major urban area and thus I could likely replace anything I really needed, somehow missing packing something essential seems so wrong.

When the seatbelt sign went off after my 27.5 hour travel odyssey, my first thought was “Oh my what am I doing?”  Fortunately, that feeling passed quickly.  The Entebbe airport looked like most other airports, and as I was led to expect, getting the visa was a straightforward process.  I am now the proud owner of a 60 day visa for Uganda.  Since I am returning to the US in late September for the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, I will have the chance to get another visa and not have to worry about getting into trouble with the Uganda immigration authorities.  I consider this a good thing. J

Arriving at night meant that I didn’t get to see much on the 40-some odd kilometer drive from Entebbe to Kampala, so my first real view of Kampala came the next morning on the drive into the UNICEF office, but day one at the office will be the subject of the next post.

I am currently staying with one of my new colleagues at the office while I look for someplace to live here.  She’s got a beautiful back garden and we’ve already had some very pleasant and relaxing evenings on her back porch sipping wine, looking at the foliage, listening the birds and insects, and enjoying the temperate evening weather.

Next up, day one at the office and morning one, in all its (at least for the morning loud) glory.

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