23 2 / 2014
As of January 25, the second Tech in the World trip has come to an end. However, the experiences gained by the Fellows and the learnings from Tanzania will live on in the future of the Tech in the World program. This report will first give a summary account of the 2014 trip and the key outcomes.
Tech in the World seeks to provide a global, hands-on experience for top computer science students to learn how to apply their technical expertise to solve critical issues in international development.
During last year’s pilot program in January 2013, we assembled four top computer science Harvard undergraduates and partnered with APHFTA (Association of Private Health Facilities in Tanzania) to work on their electronic membership database and maternal health reporting software. A full report can be found at http://blog.techintheworld.org/post/42449470289/tanzania-pilot-conclusion-and-summary.
Since Tech in the World’s inaugural trip, the Tech in the World Fellowship Program was integrated into Harvard College Developers for Development (D4D), an undergraduate student organization founded in 2012 with the mission of building a community of students at Harvard applying technology for social impact in international development.
Alisa Nguyen and Victoria Gu, both co-founders of D4D, took over directorship of Tech in the World 2014. We expanded the size of the fellowship program by 50% and continued building on the partnerships and connections that last year’s team developed. The Tech in the World 2014 team was comprised of six students: Alisa Nguyen (Computer science ‘15), Andrew Liu (Math ‘15), Erik Schluntz (Electrical Engineering ‘15), Ramya Rangan (Computer science ‘16), Ruth Fong (Computer science‘15) and Victoria Gu (Computer science ‘15). These students were selected through a very competitive application process (15% acceptance rate) with three rounds consisting of two technical skill screenings, a pair teaching activity and an assessment of interest in international development. Current and past Fellows’ bios can be found at www.techintheworld.org/team.
In Tanzania, our three main achievements were:
- The majority of our time was spent with researchers and developers at the Ifakara Health Institute (IHI) to develop a mobile vital statistics data collection, web-based verbal autopsy diagnosis tool and data analysis and visualization tool, used by doctors and field staff.
- Based on the partnership built last year with the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT), we continued the relationship by teaching technical workshops on topics ranging from web security to basic algorithms and engaging in cultural exchange with university students.
- We held a hackathon breakout session with local entrepreneurs at technology incubator TANZICT and met with many expatriates working in development in Tanzania to build more context for our project, and program mission.
We held a comprehensive two day pre-departure orientation in December in which the Team learned a bit of Swahili, met with key experienced figures in the development field such as Jackie Stenson, founder of Essmart, and Michael Gordon, Director of MIT’s Global Startup Labs and discussed current problems in global health and international development, as well as our role in working towards a solution.
Thank you to our donors, supporters, and partners, without whom none of this would be possible. We would like to especially mention Isaac Lyatuu, our main partner at IHI and overall great mentor who welcomed us into his family.
and andWe raised a total of $2450: $300 from corporate sponsor Intuit, $1065 from 20 individual donors through crowdfunding site Causes.com and $1085 through private donations.
Plans are already under way for the Tech in the World 2015 trip, and we will keep you updated on this blog. We hope you will continue to st connected with us in the future! Remember, we can always be reached at email@example.com.
16 2 / 2014
Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 2, on the Difficulty of Doing Development
Note: This piece was originally posted on Andrew’s personal blog. Thanks to 2014 co-Fellows Ruth Fong, Victoria Gu, Ramya Rangan, and Erik Schluntz, as well as Tech in the World co-founder Brandon Liu, for reading drafts of this.
For most of January, I worked in Tanzania as a Tech in the World Fellow. Many people have asked me about my reflections on it and how my life changes after it, so I’ve written up my reflections here in Part 1 and this post.
Tech in the World has a stated mission: “to expose top computer science students to underserved needs in developing communities and the various ways technology can be applied to address these global issues.” Certainly there is something more underlying that mission; why expose computer science students to developing nations? So that those students will work there and help make an impact on an area of the world that is impoverished and could greatly improve in quality of life.
So if you want a final assessment on Tech in the World and whether it is achieving this ultimate goal, you will ask the question, “Andrew, how do your future plans change after doing development work in Tanzania?” For some reason, I found this question quite hard to answer the first few times I was asked, but then simplified the question by envisioning two (among many possible) post-graduate futures for myself. The first has me working as a technologist and problem solver in Silicon Valley, surrounded by people I admire and learn from, and solving a problem interesting both technically and in terms of the “business” questions surrounding the value my company can provide, my long-term strategy to achieving my mission, etc. Ideally, I am riding an innovation “wave” in a slow but important industry that is just beginning to accelerate, such as government, education, or energy. Let’s call this future “Comfortable Future.”
The second future has me in Tanzania doing (and rising in) software, global health, investment, or really any type of work that improves the state of human and economic development in the country (see Part 1 for concrete examples of development problems to be solved). I may be working within an institution like Ifakara Health Institute or starting my own, and of course I’ll be living in Tanzania with both my favorite and least favorite aspects of its culture, climate, and daily facts of life (such as electricity outages). Let’s call this future “Uncertain Future.”
Which future looks better as I close my eyes to imagine each? If “Uncertain Future” means graduating and immediately pursuing work akin to my Tech in the World experience prolonged for several years, everything else constant, then I would prefer “Comfortable Future.” This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy my Tech in the World experience—given the same choice back in the fall with the hindsight I have now, I would certainly still have gone. Rather, I initially feel uncomfortable with the idea of being one of the very few Harvard (math and CS) graduates, technologists, people from the United States, and people from my friend group to dedicate several years of my life struggling to solve problems in Tanzania’s pole pole culture, being almost alone in my decision to go there in the first place. After trying to break down this discomfort in terms of my values of personal growth and world welfare (note how this has evolved from previously named “memorable achievement”), I can imagine changes to the “Uncertain Future” scenario that would make me prefer it over “Comfortable Future.” I think that these changes actually illustrate some of the reasons that many peers and I hesitate about doing development work despite knowing about the significant problems to which they could contribute.
I would prefer “Uncertain Future” over “Comfortable Future”…
1. If I were no longer personally growing in “Comfortable Future.”
For example, if I found that in 20 years, I had learned all I cared to learn about Silicon Valley—developing my software and hardware engineering expertise, having extensive experience leading a company or two in different industries, seeing a wide variety of problems, learning to work with all types of people (within Silicon Valley, that is), and building relationships and community with shakers and movers—then I would prefer the new challenge and growth opportunity offered by “Uncertain Future.” My desire for personal growth is like the American obsession with expansion of the frontier during manifest destiny, always pushing boundaries into the unknown and untested parts of me and improving (aka colonizing) those parts. This scenario is pretty conceivable.
2. If a bunch of people I admired and wanted to learn from decided to start working in “Uncertain Future.”
Even if this happened right after graduation, I think I would go for “Uncertain Future” in a heartbeat. Unfortunately (based on the anecdotal evidence of my friends and network at Harvard and MIT), I see a much higher concentration of people I admire and can learn from following “Comfortable Future” instead of “Uncertain Future.” These “people I admire” include several highly visionary, charismatic or empathic, and/or brilliant friends I have met in college or while working, as well as leaders who inspire the entire communities I come from—Silicon Valley and Harvard. (From Silicon Valley, such leaders include leaders of recent visionary enterprises like Google, Microsoft, Khan Academy, Udacity, Palantir, Dropbox, Asana, Cloudera, OpenGov, as well as Silicon Valley legends like Xerox PARC, investors like Peter Thiel, and innovators like Elon Musk. From Harvard, such leaders mainly include academics like Amartya Sen, Niall Ferguson, Steve Pinker, Doug Melton, Joe Blitzstein, Ed Glaeser, and Paul Farmer.) This higher concentration of people I admire mainly doing work in entrepreneurship, technology, academia, and (to a much lesser extent) finance and consulting doesn’t seem to be spilling over to work in international development, and I sense this is a chicken and egg problem in which the people who I think I could learn from are not in development because they themselves want to be surrounded by people they admire, and of course not many of them are willing to go do work in Tanzania without having their circle of mentors and high-achieving peers around them. There are many exceptions to this generalization: of course many of the leaders I mentioned and my inspirational friends and co-workers do impact world welfare via philanthropy and charity, whether they are my roommate Ben Kuhn (who runs Harvard Effective Altruism), tech giants like Dustin Moskovitz (who started Good Ventures with his wife Cari Tuna), former Bridgewater analysts like Holden Karnofsky and Elie Hassenfeld (who founded GiveWell), and of course Bill and Melinda Gates through their grant-making foundation.
But I can point to fewer people I want to learn from who have actually done development work themselves beyond making or optimizing donations (not to trivialize donations), and even fewer who are doing it at the time I graduate. A few exceptions I know of include Dimagi, the growing expat community in Tanzania (thanks to Ruth for pointing that out), and some of the leaders at MIT’s D-Lab. However, there aren’t many exceptions, and if more greats were to start doing development work, I would happily join them so that I would be learning from people better than I and personally growing while achieving world welfare. (If you are an effective altruist pointing out that you might have more comparative advantage making lots of money and donating it instead of doing the development work yourself, please see my thoughts on that below .)
3. If there were more social and economic support for “Uncertain Future.”
By social and economic support, I mean that I have close friends (and perhaps family or a significant other) nearby who are positive, curious, and compassionate people; and some source of income that meets a modest standard of living but enables me to freely pursue interests and projects without feeling my agency restricted. Assuming I don’t have a family when I decide to work in developing nations, I think both having close friends and a good income are quite possible (i.e. I can make new friends, try to convince old friends to join me, and make a reasonable income), but the point I want to make is that when I first pictured working by myself post-graduation, I briefly (and irrationally) pictured the lack of social and economic support I have just talked about (i.e. not having friends and not living with enough money), even though the lack of friends would be solved by Tanzanians’ friendliness and the lower income solved by lower cost of living. I believe many people who have not been to Tanzania will seriously picture a lack of social and economic support when you ask them to imagine doing work there, and this might cause the gut discomfort with “Uncertain Future.”
Another contributor to this (unfounded) gut discomfort might be the cultural and lifestyle differences between developing nations and the United States (thanks to Ramya for pointing this out). On the trip, we experienced unfamiliarities like doing hand laundry in a bathtub, humidity and heat, and exposed sewage on the streets, but actually experiencing these things (as opposed to imagining more extreme versions of them from the United States) reduced our concern for these lifestyle differences. Another example of a lifestyle difference that a few Fellows (including me) were overly concerned about pre-trip was safety, but in Dar es Salaam we actually felt incredibly safe.
Note: The social support barrier is much more significant if I have a family, although on the trip we met one entrepreneur with a family splitting his time between Tanzania and the United States (thanks to Erik for pointing this out). So it’s possible to strike a compromise.
4. If my comparative advantage were strongly in favor of “Uncertain Future.”
This is where my world welfare value comes in (notice that the first three concerned personal growth). You might think that, on the world welfare criterion, “Uncertain Future” of improving the health of an impoverished nation clearly wins over “Comfortable Future” of solving a problem in the wealthy United States. For me, seeing the developing world completely without sickness is more important to me than seeing everyone in the United States with a proper education. But the other question I must ask myself for the world welfare criterion is about my comparative advantage—i.e. on which problem does my choice to work on it (versus not working on it) make the biggest difference? For a person with a problem solving, getting-things-done, people, and narrowly technical skillset (in data analysis and software engineering), I can see that I still have some comparative advantage in “Comfortable Future” (although I think I would be replaceable in the “Comfortable Future” setting). My comparative advantage in “Uncertain Future” highly depends on the problem I am working on. If I am trying to solve one of Tanzania’s bigger problems in electricity infrastructure or drinkable running water, I lack any technical comparative advantage but could still contribute as a generalist in terms of enterprise strategy, attracting technical talent, or executing on projects. If I were building applications for mobile phones, then I would have technical as well as other comparative advantage. The reason I think “Uncertain Future” is not winning significantly on this criterion is because the problems I would have lots of comparative advantage on in Tanzania (e.g. problems involving data and software) do not impact world welfare much more than similar projects out in Silicon Valley (e.g. I could work on online education here in the United States, with implications for the rest of the world), and the problems that have high welfare impact in Tanzania (such as electricity or water infrastructure) are not ones I have comparative advantage in.
Back to the Question
So how does this answer the original question of how my future plans change after Tech in the World? I think conditions 1-4 will happen at some point in my lifetime, perhaps within the next 25 years, and at that point I will prefer “Uncertain Future” to “Comfortable Future.” Tech in the World has helped me consider the possibility of “Uncertain Future” at all and characterize what is holding me (and I believe, many of my peers) back from doing impactful work in development problems ranging from providing drinkable running water to teaching more effectively in schools.
Because of Tech in the World, I am significantly more likely to do more impactful work in the developing world in the future.
 One note on the effective altruist argument that, depending on who you are, your comparative advantage in maximizing world welfare might be to make a lot of money and donate it instead of doing the development work. I used to buy this argument strongly for myself, but being in Tanzania has made me reconsider this (although I can’t generalize to other nations). The claim that I should spend my time making a lot of money and donating it instead of doing development work myself (whether medical work, broader health research, technology development, or education) assumes that my donations cause multiple people to go in my stead, who combined are more effective than I alone would have been. Then (depending on which kind of people I want) I would guess that spending my time increasing the incentives to do development work and breaking down the barriers mentioned in this blog post (e.g. by starting a scalable version of a program like Tech in the World) is a more effective way to cause people with medical, health research, development ecnoomics, technological, and pedagogical background to do development work. (This assumes you want to solve problems that need people with these kinds of technical expertise and motivation.) Effective altruists—what do you think about the problem of getting more people into development work?
15 2 / 2014
Quick reflections on Tanzania: Part 1, on Development
Note: This piece was originally posted on Andrew’s personal blog.
Now we’re back in school—what a change of scenery to be submerged in the Boston snow after four weeks in 90-degree Tanzanian weather! It’s helpful to take a step back from the rush of school (yes, including getting used to being surrounded by hundreds of peers) and think about my experience in Tanzania. In this series of blog posts, I’ll talk about the big things I learned, and then (the harder and more interesting question of) what changes in my life and my plans now.
The order of certain technological developments in Tanzania (at least Dar es Salaam) is different than those same developments in the United States. Cell phones are very popular now, and the order of developments in Tanzania has been widespread 3G and cell phones (even though only 20 percent of the country has electricity), then accessible personal computers, then widespread electricity and Ethernet/WiFi. Compare this to the almost opposite order in the United States. It’s interesting to think that many Tanzanians quite likely will never even use personal computers as their main devices for communication and other needs like transferring cash (see M-Pesa), instead defaulting to their phones (as Dave Morin has emphasized before). There are already many entrepreneurs and problem solvers, many of them local Tanzanians at incubators like TANZICT, who are taking this to heart and developing applications for the old Nokia mobile phones (not smartphones). Here is a likely opportunity to influence Tanzania’s technological development in the next 10 years.
Beyond the technological view on development, there is a lot of room to improve the general quality of life. In the next 20 years, it seems certain that Tanzania will need drinkable running water, cheap and well-distributed anti-malarial treatment (especially in rural areas), and a public transit system (since the traffic congestion is terrible enough that it is possible to waste 3 hours to drive 20 km to get to the airport). I am not as certain about the future of other possible improvements to standards that we have in the United States—such as a “modern” education system focused on teaching students how to think instead of the current pattern of taking tools/skills (e.g. Java) from the West and trying to adapt them to the students. Compared with the needs to stay hydrated, stay healthy, and get to places, the need for education is less well-defined; it’s clear that the purposes of the first three are critical to life, but the purpose of education—whether vocational training or cultivation of good citizens—is something that is still not even settled in the United States and thus could lead to a completely different form of “modern” education than the system in the United States today. Even just a hundred years ago, the United States and major European powers all had different purposes for education, which manifested in university systems that looked completely different:
[Speaking about 1890-1940:] Universities had long existed in Europe, where they took several forms: the classical studies of British universities, the scientific training of French grand ecoles, and the graduate and research institutes of Germany. The modern university of the New World, however, was a different creature than its European counterpart, for it served a far broader clientele of students and the state, yet increasingly strove to be a research center. 
I am very interested to see how the education system in Tanzania develops just as I am learning that different countries have potential to develop in completely different ways (which relates to cultural differences such as the lack of private space and ownership). Just as Tanzania is skipping personal computers to using mobile phones, and just as Estonia skipped from no internet infrastructure following Soviet collapse to using the internet to vote, do tax returns, and issue prescriptions, I expect the Tanzanian education system to skip to some of the cutting-edge work in education—including the use of online resources like Udacity—by virtue of not having an inertial university and secondary education system. And I’m especially excited about the creative solutions to be devised in Tanzania because it’s pretty clear that the rest of the world hasn’t exactly solved education yet. As my friend Jacob Cole pointed out, creative businesses like Habari Mazao (a website that Tanzanian consumers and farmers can visit to get fair prices for crops), which emerged from the first Tanzania-MIT Tele-Hackathon, would never have been thought of in the United States.
It seems that comparatively studying development, both in the economic and social sense, could be fruitful for shedding light on how to predict the trajectory of a country like Tanzania, which we couldn’t just say is where the United States was in the past, partly because Tanzania is starting from a different place in time and culture, and partly because she is surrounded by modernized countries that have already developed (but not finished) their own solutions to problems like education, energy and the environment, and effective governance. Studying comparative development might help one think about this problem and give useful case studies, but I am afraid that the lack of sufficiently many data points regarding development of different nations would lead to unhelpful generalizations. Who knows? I’ll have to take a look.
Action Items from Part 1, on Development
- Look into research and classes surrounding economic development at Harvard.
- The Shaping of Higher Education: The Formative Years in the United States, 1890 to 1940. Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz. The Journal of Economic Perspectives , Vol. 13, No. 1 (Winter, 1999) , pp. 37-62. Published by: American Economic Association. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2647136.
13 1 / 2014
TITW with Dar Institute of Technology
Habari! Over the past week, we’ve started spending time with computer engineering students at Dar Institute of Technology (DIT). The team has really been looking forward to this chance to exchange ideas with tech geeks like us here in Tanzania.
Professor Moses, who has been wonderfully helpful in connecting TITW with DIT, had given us an overview of Tanzania’s education system and the types of classes that computer engineering students at DIT took. Without meeting with the students, though, we really couldn’t know what aspects of computer engineering excited them: that’s what we wanted to figure out during our first visit to DIT. After greeting the students with a Mambo! on our first day, we described our interests in topics like cryptography, bioinformatics, and machine learning, and we split up into groups to hear more from them. One thing that struck me immediately was that the students at DIT were building software for entirely different types of problems than many of the students I talk to in the US. There’s so much for us to learn from each other.
Our first visit to DIT left us with a lot to think about. As a team, we started discussing our overarching goals with DIT: did we want to help the students build confidence in their coding ability, or did we want to teach them specific computer science topics that interested them? Since we only have a couple weeks with these students, we decided that getting them coding and thinking in new ways would be better than trying to saturate them with specific computer science knowledge. I think that decision made all of us structure our teaching modules more interactively than we would have otherwise.
On Saturday, we headed back to DIT, spending most of the day teaching and talking to the computer engineering students. We talked about algorithms, web security, web development with frameworks, and arduinos (Erik got a lot of attention from the hardware-focused students for this). In the algorithms module, I loved the moment when Victoria and I showed the students a graph of the runtimes of two different Fibonacci algorithms. I think the students were impressed by how much more efficient a good algorithm can be compared to the first solution we usually come up with, and hopefully that’s will get them thinking a bit differently when they code.
We had planned to teach our modules in the morning, but plans change and pole pole (slowly, slowly—the unofficial motto here in Dar), so we ended up going until 2:30 pm without lunch! Suffice to say, we headed straight for the canteen when we wrapped up (after taking a few pictures…):
The team really enjoyed our conversations with DIT students over lunch, both on Saturday and during our first visit. With some of the standard Tanzanian dishes in front of us (wali na maharage for me), we talked about school life, cultural differences, entrepreneurship in Dar, what we do with our free time, and much more. It was especially interesting to hear about the challenges students here face when starting a business. We got to walk around to see the students’ dorms,
soccer football field, and favorite music videos… there’s really so much that connects us. I regret that our time with the DIT students has been so short, but our Google group will hopefully keep us talking even when we’re far from Tanzania! Kwa heri from Dar!
05 1 / 2014
Reflections Time: Our Second Day of Work
Habari za jioni! Good evening!
Today, we began designing our website for IHI’s SAVVY project (read more about our project on our previous blog post).
Contrary to popular beliefs about hacking coders (encouraged by movies like the Social Network), the best software engineers think first, grabbing a pen before a keyboard. Following in suit, the bulk of our day was focused on drafting a design document that outlines our project, its users, and high-level technical details about our implementation. Given the brevity of our trip (only 19 days left!), we felt pressure to hit the ground running and nimbly worked together to hash out details and churn out what we thought to be a thorough design document. However, in the hustle to “move fast”, we lost sight of a bit of the context in which we were operating.
During this evening’s team reflection, Alisa reminded us that IHI has been working on the SAVVY project for several years now, while we will only be here for a few weeks. Yet earlier in the day, with all six of us eager to work, it became easy to think with the framework of our project instead of IHI’s project, and, while making design decisions, we jumped to use technologies we knew well and could use to quickly develop a website instead of considering what IHI is familiar with and could more easily maintain after we leave.
Andrew also pointed out that we had a tendency to talk over one other and as a result did not integrate the present IHI employees into our design discussions as much as we should have. Before our trip, we met at Harvard in Quincy’s Spindell room to set “standards for teamwork” and established two rules: communicate and be reasonable (these principles were taken from ground rules that Erik and I have with our Harvard roommates). Perhaps we should have been more specific. We realized that we might have been subconsciously operating with a “hackathon” mentality. In contrast to the perpetual hustle and bustle of Harvard, the Tanzanian pace of life is often described with the Swahili phrase “pole pole” (translation: “slowly slowly”). Because one purpose of this trip is to expose us to a different culture than our own, we all agreed to adopt the “pole pole” attitude and be cognizant of when were imposing instead of assimilating.
We also resolved to prioritize the sustainability of our work over its scope and treat our budding relationships as equal partnerships. Regardless of our final decision concerning technologies, we plan to “pair program” with the software developers at IHI and code with them on the project as much as possible, so that they can confidently continue to maintain and improve upon our website even after we leave. Not only would this provide us quicker feedback on our website and the opportunity to learn more about the technologies they use (I am not much of a server person, so I am excited to learn more about the Tomcat servers that IHI uses), but increased interactions with some of these fantastic folks grants us the opportunity to learn much more about Tanzania.
Reflecting a bit personally, I am thankful that tonight’s reflections period helped us re-evaluate our priorities for this trip and am most eager to learn more about Tanzanian culture (and in particular, learn more Swahili!).
Back to the Swahili books and audio CDs!
04 1 / 2014
Orientation Day: Our First Day of Work
Chakula kiko wapi? Where is food?
Ni begani? How much is it?
Today was the first time we were truly “on our own”.
From fellow airplane passengers teaching us bits of Swahili like “Mambo?” (translation: “What’s up?”) to the friendly Father of our home for the next month - the Passionist Father’s House - orienting us in our neighborhood, many local friends have smoothed our transition to Dar. However, among all our new friends, Isaac deserves special recognition. A research manager at the Ifakara Health Institute (IHI), our main partner organization for this trip, Isaac and his wife Bridget accompanied us on our Zanizbar trip, haggled fair prices for us throughout (defending us against aggressive tour operators and food vendors), and ensured our general well-being and safety during our first 72 hours in Africa.
After we returned from Zanzibar yesterday, we quickly realized exactly how helpful they had been in the procurement of sustenance. Today, with grumbling stomachs, we began the trek towards the nearest grocery store. However, after walking for a mere ten minutes in the humid weather, fatigue set in. Living on the outskirts of Dar, very few establishments are within walking distance of our hostel. This lead to the discovery of my newfound favorite form of transportation: the “bajaji” - a motorized rickshaw that comfortably fits three adults (we fit all six of us; proof in picture).
After fumbling to bargain for our bajaji ride in Swahili, we finally arrived at Shopper’s Plaza, where we ate lunch and purchased groceries and miscellaneous items like sun screen and a laundry soap stick (for hand-washing our clothes). Once fully satiated, we then headed into the IHI office for the afternoon, eager to begin working!
Like Andrew mentioned in the previous post, although we corresponded with Isaac over email and tried to skype him while we were in the States (a power outage in Tanzania prevented our call), our understanding of IHI and the SAVVY project only solidified when we met with him in-person today.
The awkward acronym for “Monitoring HIV/AIDs through Sample Vital Registration with Verbal autopsy”, the SAVVY project is a multi-year study that collects birth and death rates throughout Tanzania and partners with Tanzanian physicians to determine the causes of death for each reported death. Currently, because the data collection process is largely paper-based, it can take over a year from first receiving a reported death to determine potential causes of death. Our specific project focuses on expediting this process so that researchers can concentrate on analyzing death trends and quickly reacting to those trends to more effectively apportion aid. Various key members of the study are needed to initially report births and deaths (key informants), conduct verbal autopsies (district coordinators), determine causes of deaths (physicians in Dar), and oversee the study (IHI employees). Yet currently, communication and information exchange between these parties are disjointed, error-prone, and simply slow due to the decentralized, paper-based management of the study. So, over the next few weeks, we will be designing and implementing an integrated web portal to allow the various project members to digitally submit their respective contributions to the study as well as providing researchers the ability to generate dynamic graphs from the aggregated study data.
Through this project and our partnership with IHI, we hope to contextualize our understanding of developing countries and learn more about the process of designing technical solutions for real global health problems. IHI’s hope is that, if the SAVVY project is successful and proven to be cost-effective, the Tanzanian government will adopt and implement it nationally as they have with other similar programs.
After chatting with Isaac and a few other IHI employees today, I am super excited to get started and to learn from our time with IHI. Thanks for following along with us on our journey! We really appreciate your support.
"Asante sana!" (translation: "Much thanks!")
04 1 / 2014
Journal: Week 1 in Tanzania
A e i o u
Hizo ni herufi kuu
Tamka kwa sauti kuu
A e i o u
In the basement of Stone Hall in Harvard’s Quincy House, the six of us chanted this Swahili children’s song to learn how to pronounce vowels in Swahili. After one hour with our Swahili instructor Chambi, we were out of the basement, onto our next session of pre-trip preparation.
The important things we did during our pre-trip preparation—whether learning Swahili, getting dinner with Tanzanian students at Harvard, buying travel books, meeting MIT professor and development expert Michael Gordon, or watching documentaries about “doing no harm” in Africa—could never have given me more than a approximation of what I have learned this past week about living and doing development work in Tanzania. For example, nothing I read, heard, or watched would have helped me predict that the January heat and humidity would cause my Macbook to fail to turn on by causing its temperature sensors to overheat (we solved this problem by putting the Macbook in front of an A/C unit for a few hours!). Nor could I have anticipated and fully appreciated the beautiful blueness of the waters of Zanzibar, the extent and history of Arab influence on coastal Tanzania (in particular, Zanzibar is 99 percent Muslim), the number of unemployed Tanzanians selling shoes and souvenirs on the streets, or the wonderful spirit of helpfulness—undugu—demonstrated by the Tanzanian people. (Look how blue the water is!)
We had our first taste of Tanzanian cuisine with chips mayai—an omelette stuffed with fries—the night we arrived, and since then we have met a diverse set of Tanzanians and travelers including a Tanzainan business student inspired by Mark Zuckerberg to start his own business, a Catholic priest running a low-budget hostel, and even a PhD student from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine working with Ifakara Health Institute. (Below, our mentor Isaac (rightmost), his wife Bridge (leftmost), and Joe Wockeez (the business student).)
The common thread I have noticed in the people we have met is an optimistic enterpreneurial attitude despite the difficulties of working in Tanzania. The lack of consistently strong WiFi (to the point that access to google.com is inconsistent), occasional power outages (as often as every few days; note that only 20 percent of the country has electricity), and in general a slower way of life—affectionately called pole pole by Tanzanians (literally, “slowly, slowly”)—can make the work of such doers frustratingly slow. Yet these same people face these challenges with smiles, calmly overcoming each barrier in a steadfast, no-panic manner. The constant deficiency of WiFi internet is solved by buying modems that link to 3G (which blankets Tanzania), and homes and businesses install generators to compensate for power outages, even knowing which appliances to shut down to avoid overloading the generators. We even met a German social entrepeneur yesterday who is addressing the high cost of electricity by selling cheaper solar installations to Tanzanian households. Although these solutions may not seem novel or particularly difficult to envision, I have learned something new each time I have witnessed one of these moments of problem-solving. Even pole pole slowing down the pace of work has been “solved” to some extent by institutions like the Ifakara Health Institute (which brings together a group of people motivated to solve health-related problems in Africa) and by adoption of technologies such as smart phones and digitization of documents, which accelerate communication and work. (Below, a woman carrying dozens of eggs.)
Another defining aspect of Tanzanian culture is undugu-the spirit of helpfulness. In particular, our mentor from Ifakara, Isaac, has done everything from helping us adjust to daily life here in Tanzania to teaching us Swahili, to debriefing us on his project and the extent of vital statistics collection here. Isaac and his wife Bridget accompanied us for three days during our time in Zanzibar, helping us find places to eat, negotiating prices for us so that we would not pay foreigners’ prices, teaching us about the local culture, and being generous with their time. We have also experienced many other instances of undugu—strangers pointing us in the right direction and returning money we overpaid, and bajaji drivers willing to fit the six of us into one bajaji, even at the risk of their own safety. Undugu is one part of Tanzanian culture that I really appreciate since it is more pronounced here than in the United States (especially since most Tanzanians have so little of their own); it is a spirit that we are trying to reciprocate toward Isaac, our partners at Ifakara, and anyone else we encounter.
We are starting to build our vital statistics application today! Given all the surprises we have encountered living in Tanzania, I am expecting (and looking forward to) many more surprises of working and doing development here. We have come a long way since learning how to pronounce Swahili vowels from the safety of a Harvard dorm.
01 12 / 2013
2014 Program Overview
Thanks to everyone for supporting us through the 2013 pilot program of Tech in the World - we are now ready for our second trip, with a new team of 2014 fellows! Read more about the amazing group at www.techintheworld.org/team :) They were chosen through a competitive application process including two technical interview rounds that tested critical thinking, teamwork and teaching ability.
We would first like to introduce ourselves, the 2014 co-directors. We are Alisa Nguyen and Victoria Gu, both 3rd-year undergraduate computer science students at Harvard. Following in the footsteps of Brandon and Josh, we started planning the 2014 project in July, and since then have been forging continued partnerships with Tanzanian based organizations, establishing our presence on campus under the student organization Harvard College Developers for Development and putting everything together for this winter’s trip.
2014 Tech in the World Trip Overview
Trip Dates: 12/27/13 - 1/24/14
Pre-departure Orientation: 12/06/13 - 12/07/13
Project: More detailed information can be found at www.techintheworld.org/proposal, and the following is a brief summary of the work we plan to do.
1. Ifakara Health Institute (IHI) SAVVY Project: The SAVVY (Sample Vital Registration with Verbal Autopsy) project is our main focus for the 2014 trip, and its goals are to accurately collect vital statistics (birth and death information) from all the regions in the country. Currently, the IHI and CDC collaboration involves an inefficient mix of manual data input, paper based recording methods, and tablet based data collection - and diagnosing a cause of death through the current process may take up to a year. We will be working with IHI to create a centralized hub for all the data from the different input and output needs, streamlining the system. The hub will be used so that (a) community health workers can report the occurrence of births and deaths in rural villages; (b) field workers may arrive to collect details of the event; (c) doctors in the city can make the appropriate diagnosis (e.g., cause of death); and (d) research scientists to access and use the data to further health policy work.
2. Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) workshops: We are planning to hold weekly workshops with DIT students covering a range of technical topics as a part of an overall process of cultural exchange.
3. APHFTA SMS Reminders Application: Building off of the work of 2013 Fellows Josh and Christian, we hope to complete the SMS Reminders App project that began with Dr. Kaushik at Hindu Mandal Hospital and deploy the project with Dr. Sam Ogillo at APHFTA. The goal of the SMS Reminders App is primarily to increase attendance rates of severely ill patients who may often forget about follow-up appointments.
4. Capacity-building. We have contacts with local entrepreneurs at TANZICT, a technology incubator, as well as expats working in development in Tanzania. We plan on meeting with them to better understand their work and to get a better sense of the environment.
Feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions, comments, or just want to hear from us. We’ll be updating the blog regularly during our time in Tanzania, so be sure to check back at the beginning of January to hear about our continued adventures!
26 5 / 2013
2013 Tanzania Pilot Documentary
After returning from our pilot program in Tanzania, our documentarian Mateus Falci put together a film documenting our work in Tanzania, in collaboration with the Association of Private Health Facilities in Tanzania, Bienmoyo Foundation, and the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology.
Credits to Mateus Falci for filming and producing.
26 3 / 2013
How We Select Our Partner Organizations
The partner organizations we work with are one of the most critical parts of the Tech in the World fellowship. They are our fellows’ generous hosts during their stay abroad, our collaborators in tackling important issues in global health, and the ultimate caretaker of the software solutions that we develop for them. The selection of good partner organizations and cultivation of strong partnerships are essential to a successful and rewarding fellowship trip.
Realizing this, we invested a fair amount of time into developing our selection criteria for partner organizations, to maximize both the learning experience and opportunity for impact. We want to share our current thinking, so that our selection process is both understood and transparent, and so that other humanitarian efforts (especially related to technology) may benefit from our thinking. Of course, these criteria will surely change over time as we continue to learn more from our experiences.
Our approach to partner selection is heavily influenced by our philosophy on technology for development (ICT4D). We believe that the actual technology development itself is only a very small component of the entire process of applying technology to development issues. Before technology development, great efforts must be taken to fully understand root causes, develop a theory of change, and assess available resources, among other preparations. Once the technology has been developed, much time and energy must be invested into maintaining the technology (e.g., bug-squashing and server administration), growing adoption, managing deployment, and so on. We recognize that what comes before and after the development of technology is more important and significantly more difficult than building the technology — in our experiences, we find that the vast majority of failed ICT4D projects do not fall short on creating a functional technology, but on the other crucial aspects of ICT4D. We are determined to do the best we can to avoid the same pitfalls.
The most valuable resource that Tech in the World fellows bring to the table is the ability to develop software technologies quickly. Our most limited resource is the amount of time we have on the ground. Due to our short stay, we do not have the bandwidth to conduct needs assessments or long-term maintenance. Regardless, we would prefer these to be handled by local organizations, for a more sustainable impact. Thus, we want to collaborate with partner organizations whom we believe have both the local understanding and an accurate needs assessment as well as the resources (technical and otherwise) to maintain the technology. This framework of thought leads us to our guidelines and criteria for evaluation of potential partner organizations.
- Locally based, with local staff. We prefer to work with local organizations, who have a strong understanding of local conditions and needs. We also believe that local organizations will afford a more rewarding experience for fellows, as they will have more exposure to local conditions.
- Moderate size and history. This is a heuristic for the stability of the organization. We seek long-term partnerships to build upon each year’s efforts, and a stable organization gives us greater confidence in the value of investing in a long-term relationship. A partnership with a more stable organization overall will have less risk.
- Existing understanding, appreciation, and usage of software technologies. It is important to us that our partner organization (or a close affiliate) has a strong understanding and appreciation of technology, so that they can intelligently determine feasible projects and identify effective uses of technology. Without this, it is far too easy to propose technological projects that are either infeasible or unlikely to be effective.
- Proposal of well-defined, close-ended software projects. We want to work with partner organizations who already have a good idea of what projects they would like to have completed. Our fellows do not have the bandwidth nor the local understanding to identify these projects for our partners. The projects must also be well-defined such that there is a clear completion point, so that we can accurately assess development costs and ensure that we complete the projects during our stay.
- Resources and commitment to long-term maintenance. It’s crucial that our partners have both the means and the desire to actually make full use of whatever software we develop for them.
At this point, we will take the opportunity to explain the extent to which our partners for the Tanzania pilot met these criteria. The dual partnership with the Association of Private Health Facilities in Tanzania (APHFTA) and Bienmoyo Foundation proved to be excellent. APHFTA was local organization that provided the perspective
- APHFTA is a local NGO based in Dar es Salaam, with regional offices around the country. They are the largest network of private health clinics in East Africa and host gatherings like the East Africa Health Care Federation Conference. The staff is entirely local, and so had a strong understanding of local conditions and needs.
- APHFTA has been around for nearly 20 years, and manages a growing network of over 550 clinics in Tanzania.
- Bienmoyo has been working with APHFTA closely over the past two years to develop mMaisha, a electronic medical record system for maternal health for APHFTA’s clinics. Bienmoyo’s Executive Director, Lushen Wu, has both software engineering expertise and a deep understanding of APHFTA’s needs (having lived in Tanzania for much of the past two years) while APHFTA’s staff has learned much from managing and deploying this software system.
- Lushen, our primary point of contact before arriving in Tanzania, was able to identify a number of feasible projects for us to complete during our time there. The membership database we managed to complete was something that APHFTA had wanted for a while — they had even approached a local software development firm at one point to get a price quote (too expensive)!
- Lushen and Bienmoyo Foundation provided the necessary technical expertise to maintain the software and deployment servers after our departure. Furthermore, we had strong commitments from Dr. Ogillo, CEO of APHFTA, and Dr. Kaushik, CEO of Hindumandal (a large hospital in Dar es Salaam) to push the adoption of our SMS reminder application (although admittedly, these commitments were not obtained until the actual pilot program rather than during the selection process).
We hope that this information may provide useful for both understanding our thought process at Tech in the World and for planning partnerships for other similar endeavors. Please do contact us or leave a comment with further questions or comments!