Too Scared to Dive into Data

Putting everything that is “life” aside I look at my PhD journey, the quest for finding answers. Answers to a burning question, or too many burning questions. That’s probably how every PhD journey is like. Or maybe not. To each their own.

But I am sure we all can agree, everything in life is pretty much scary and confusing and all the other things we cluster into the word complex.

Probably because things go way beyond human comprehension and language.

With all that in mind, I have been thinking a lot on why I have been really scared to dig up into my data and do the needful to push my PhD project forward. One of the answers I found while looking back at all the conversations in person, online in Aid communities and in general is.

People. Emotional. Personal.

(That’s really not an answer but..)

The simplest way to put it would be, listening to people’s stories which are very personal and very shaking. Things they say when they put their trust into you. Things they say when they share their insecurities, fears and vulnerabilities.

As story tellers, I believe, we have to ensure utmost respect to our subjects as equal human beings. Honour their humanity and dignity, yet somehow maintain their privacy at the highest level to ensure that their stories are still being told. I think that word would probably be integrity.

As a rule, I do not engage in discussions about my research, which is specifically about the Aid Industry, with Non-Aid Professionals or Researchers. Like any other industry, it is a very specific with its own set of concepts, terminology and reality. On an abstract level, well, that’s another line of discussion.

On and off, one tends to get into a territory that you get drawn into someone’s curiosity and get lost in the critical line of reasoning. Just for the sake of “talking”. And since, one is passionate about the topic, one gets emotional.

Being passionate can come off as judgemental, aggressive or just plain rude. Which is why my first principle, do not discuss the topic with people who do not work in the area. But we are all humans, and we are all inherently curious. Curiosity also killed the Cat.

I had few such encounters during my travels and it was getting tiring at one point. People like to believe what they believe. But that made me realise, that the last few discussions I have had with would be of two kinds. First kind would be people who just started to work in this industry after finishing their Bachelors/Masters  (or just Voluntouring the third world, teaching English) and are trying to make sense of everything. The other kind, who are just curious about the sad state of affairs and poor people in some third world country and feel the need to do something about it.

Keeping all judgement aside, one gets in tricky waters when discussing such topics which circle around power, privilege, money, dignity etc. We all learn and see the world, through our own lived experience. To each their own.

There is plenty of advice available on “Importance of Data” or “Importance of Data Analysis” in the area of Qualitative Research and Social Sciences. But irrespective of the discipline, I imagine we all know that without looking at our data, you are never finishing your thesis.

So my data, is obviously conversations with people. Real people. Real Stories. Their Perspective. What would you do when someone shares a very sad, shaking personal story that shakes all your reality and the way you look at the world?

You get scared. You don’t want to do it.  You are too scared to listen to those audio files again.

In a qualitative research class, I asked the Professor conducting the lesson on Research Methods this question. How do we do justice to the subject, the data, and the story and yet not sound like investigative journalists?

(c) jorge cham – PhD Comics

Recently, after listening to a talk from our Professor, one of the audience member asked this question. “I think investigative journalists would do a better job than (social science) researchers”. Apparently it’s a very common question, and the answer given was. The academic community has another audience to answer to, apart from the general public. The academic community, which is entrusted with the task to tear our research, assumptions, biases, limitations, representations etc. all apart. Journalists, have a different set of audience to hold them accountable. Obviously there are boundaries and people cross those boundaries, think: inter-professional in the lines of inter/multi-disciplinary.

All that gave me a little hope to address the challenge: fear!

So I went home, cooked myself a good meal, took a shower. Then I open up the folder “Fieldwork” and said, “I am ready to plunge into the pool of Data. Even though I am still learning to swim.”

(c) jorge cham – PhD Comics

Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.”







Berlin: Encounter with a street artist

I haven’t been open about this aspect of my life and this has been restricted mainly to my personal conversations with people who know me and are close to me. I have been in Europe now for around 6 years and people have asked me a lot of questions. If only I knew the answer, I am still figuring that out.

But here’s a story that might highlight the point I am trying to understand and express. This revolves around the words: dignity, humanity, charity, altruism, religion, faith. The three main points I want to communicate in this story are:

  1. I have seen two kinds of people doing charity. One who do it, but do it anonymously without showing it off or being visible. Other do it in a more visible way. Which one is the right way or the wrong way is not important here. We can’t judge, you choose what suits you best.
  2. Every human being has dignity. For the sake of simplicity, “Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it.”
  3. Every human being is capable of empathy.

It makes me very uncomfortable whenever I see someone trying to look down upon someone. So when I hear people talking about homeless people in the same way, I get irritated. But now I try not to react and care less.

Recently I visited Berlin in the quest of finding some answers and I had a random encounter. I was walking down the street alone and I heard someone playing the flute. I love the sound of flute so I slowed down to hear instead of walking away. Coincidentally, the guy was playing just outside an Indian restaurant. People walked past him and nobody was paying attention to him. When he finished playing, I walked up to him and said, “That was really nice. I stopped just to listen to you. I love the sound” He had a big smile on his face and said, “Are you from India?” I hoped the next words to be something stereotypical like I do Yoga Tantra too, or whatever version of India, Berlin is smoking. But thankfully, he said: “My guru who taught me flute was from India. Where in India are you from? Are you from Kolkata?” I said, “No. But close from Kolkata. Actually that’s the reference point I use to tell people here where I am from. I am from a city near to Kolkata. When I say near, I mean just 500 kilometres.”

Selfie - Tibetan Flute Performance by Street Artist, Berlin
Tibetan Flute Performance by Street Artist – He says Hello!

For the record, I didn’t think he was a homeless person, I just thought he was a street performer. So after our friendly chat, I asked him if he could play again and let me record. He happily obliged and put up a show for me. I got a solo performance, and he got a dedicated solo audience. Some people smiled as they saw me watching and listening to him as they walked past. He played a Tibetan Mantra that he loved, for me.

After the performance we talked a little more about him, his family, how he got into this whole music thing. He also knew how to play Tabla, and complained that he is unable to get the real deal here anymore. I said, well you can ask someone going to India to bring it for you. I asked to take a picture with him, and we had this photo together. After which he asked me, “Do you have one or two euros for me?” I handed him a few coins which I had in my pocket and we said goodbye.

So I was having this discussion last year with a student on a topic around homeless people. The topic was centred on, “Giving a Bag full of essentials to homeless people?” And I had a question for them: “Would you give a homeless person a mobile phone, if he/she asks for one?” My discussed also had follow up questions: “Why do you need a phone? Which phone do you have?” But the main point I was trying to communicate was, keeping in touch with family, friends or loved ones is an inherently human need. We all have that. So instead of food or medicine, if a homeless person asks for a mobile phone, many of us would respond like this student did. “Mobile phone is not a need, its luxury” Oh well. I will let the #CommIsAid people defend that.

I wanted to use this example of an alcohol smelling street artist to try and understand the points above. He could very well be mistaken as a homeless person, at least judging by the looks of people passing by and avoiding him. You could drop the coins, hand over your change and walk away. You could also stop by, talk, and listen. Or just, ask for their name and try to spend some time. Time and Attention are probably the only two valuable things we have. Money is probably something we created to make things easy or difficult or maintain order.

The other question I ask around people who feel sad about homeless or poor people is:

“Have you ever tried to talk to one? Or sit with one and chat, have tea or eat/share food with them?”

That’s where things get a little uncomfortable and people walk away.

The point is very simple, the ability to see the humanity in people is inherently human as well, I guess the word is empathy. When you make eye contact with a passer-by, you acknowledge the person’s existence. When you talk to the person beyond politeness and courtesy, you make a personal connection, which is an inherent human need as well.

These people have a name, a story, a family, their own life and circumstances. Just like you.

So my final question would be, “What’s the difference between you and a homeless person?” And once you have answered the What, dig into to the Why and keep looking. Don’t tell me, figure it out for yourself.

And then the next thing I need to work on is Dignity<->Money connection. But for now, here’s the flute performance video.


“Little children, let us love not in word and speech, but in action and truth.”

We need plastic bans in villages to protect our agricultural infrastructure

During one of my fieldwork visits last year, I was doing a daylong interactive discussion with NGO staff and community representatives. At some point we had a tea break, and the tea arrived in plastic cups. Obviously, I was not an expert in how plastic can damage our environment and all the ill effects of having that around us so prominently, because as an Indian, I was accustomed to seeing plastic being used for everything. From protecting our TV remotes, to covering anything possible with plastic as a mechanism to protect it from dust. Then it hit me that, this is a sacred land. India is what it is today, primarily because of our agricultural revolution in part. The land is also sacred, because it is where our food comes from. Moreover, the farmers are the protectors of these lands and the caregivers, not just the caretakers, of our land. These lands are also the main source of income and livelihoods for our farmers, either who own these lands or are just working as labourers to feed their families on a daily basis.

The fact is that plastic waste is a known hazardous material not only for the health of humans and wildlife, but also nature in general; that includes our land, rivers, air etc. When I go out to buy food, vegetables or just have a cup of tea at the local tea-shop in the village, I see plastic everywhere. It is cheap, I get it, which is why it is very popular and the supporting industry around it goes well for the same reason. Local shop owners find it cheap to buy it and give it to their customers, and customers find it easy to dispose. Because you can just throw it anywhere and it automatically disappears. Maybe that is why India decided to ban plastics in its capital city of Delhi. However, my concern is to draw attention to the villages, and especially those agricultural lands that feed not just the people in the region but the whole nature. Then go a step further, in incorporating behavioural change in the use, disposal of plastic waste in the villages. When I walked around the people settled around the rivers that come down from Nepal to India, one could see disposed of plastic bottles or bags here and there. The amount of waste obviously increased the moment you went to the more populated areas, which was a bigger hub for everything from markets, to local bus stops to doctors. However, even in the remotest part of our civilisation, plastic made its way. I felt that our modern and developed lifestyle of the cities is corrupting the innocence and vitality of the villages. In addition, the recent ban in Delhi makes one applaud the move as it is a problem in the most polluted city of India, but what about the villages?

Earlier I was attending state of Bihar’s attempt of formalising the United Nation’s Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction into its state DRR strategy i.e. the DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 endorsed and formalised by the state government. If you look at the document, the section on “WASH & Waste Management” probably fits for the problem I am talking about. Also the recent national campaign for clean India drive i.e. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan compliments the commitment top this problem and raise awareness across the country talking about issues like open defecation which speaks to rural India too. So it was really nice to see the inclusion of this strategy in the DRR Roadmap of the state talking about implementing it down to the village (Gram Panchayat) level.

“Include the WASH and waste management related actions in the GP planning through the Standing Committee, Village Health Nutrition and Sanitation Committee and partnership with civil society organizations.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 78)

What I wanted to understand is that, “Can we consider agricultural land, rivers or our natural resources as part of critical infrastructure?”

Going back to one of the targets of the Sendai Framework,

“Substantially reduce disaster damage to critical infrastructure and disruption of basic services, among them health and educational facilities, including through developing their resilience by 2030. ” (Sendai Framework – Targets)

and connecting it to the DRR Roadmap’s 10 point commitment #7:

“Resilience of critical infrastructure and delivery of essential services will be ensured, including restoration of functionality and continuity, in case of disruptions.” (DRR Roadmap 2015-2030 pp. 10)

I understand that conceptually the mention of critical infrastructure is not used in the same sense and context that I am proposing. What I am merely suggesting is that, maybe there is a need to address adequate attention to our natural resources as something critical, especially when it concerns with a multitude of problems that are man made. And when our government can take such measures like banning plastic in Delhi or other bold moves like banning currency or internet censorship, it shouldn’t be difficult for the government to make a blanket ban on plastics in villages too, to protect agricultural land? In disaster prone areas, especially in chronically flood prone areas like Bihar (multi hazardous pp. 47); havoc of nature can cause damages in a flash. Probably a small change like a plastic ban, would have large scale impact or at least not add to creating more hazards (Ref: Chennai Floods). Maybe this requires more thinking on my part.

Questioning technology and its implementation

Reflecting on some of my past projects, and trying to study the thought process of some of the projects that I have worked on, I thought of laying out some questions which can act as a set of “tips” for my future projects.

  1. Invest some time to understand the problem & hear it directly from the concerned parties or communities.
  2. Ask yourself: Is technology really needed here? Or is there a solution lying elsewhere?
  3. Study what technologies are already lying around or have been used by “concerned parties” or communities and how they are currently using it.
  4. Can your solution be built using existing technology that the people(“concerned parties” or community) already use? If not, try to spend a decent amount of time to find the answer to this question again. Chances are, it’s possible.
  5. Keep in mind that your solution should require minimal (or no training) i.e. The focus should be on a lower barrier to entry & a decreased learning curve. [If answer to 4 is still no]
  6. Build your solution in a way that you wouldn’t be needed at all after the implementation.

1. Invest some time to understand the problem & hear it directly from the concerned parties or communities.

When you are told about a problem that possibly requires a tech solution, you might start immediately with brain storming in your head(alone) and maybe search for existing solutions that have been tried and tested elsewhere in this world. While that might seem to be a good thing to do, I feel the first thing should be to have an open mind and just try to understand the problem statement at hand. That should be done by direct interactions with everyone involved in the process that involves the problem. For an NGO, it could be project staff, administrative staff, the community or volunteers. Technology enthusiasts often let invention be the mother of necessity. They think of the new thing on the block and then force it to work as a part of the solutions, even when it does not fit the context they are working within.  So having an open mind that isn’t clouded by the next big thing that you’ve read about in the technology world or any other special tool that you fancy, helps in coming up with a more just approach to finding a solution to the problem.

2. Ask yourself: Is technology really needed here? Or is there a solution lying elsewhere?

Start by asking those involved, “What if there was no technology available?” How would they then, solve this problem? In any case, technology is mostly just a tool and real solutions are only aided by technology. So in a parallel universe, where no form of technology exists, how would this problem be fixed? I think that if a significant amount of time is spent trying to find answers to the above two questions, things would become clearer as to whether the solution should have anything to do with technology or not. If the answer is in the negative, as a technology practitioner, it’s best to move on and call it a wrap.

3. Study what technologies are already lying around or have been used by “concerned parties” or communities and how they are currently using it.

The keyword here is “observe”. What exists around? Radio? Computers? Mobile Phones? What kind? What make? How do they use it in their daily lives? What is the extent of their usage? Are they able to use all the features of a mobile phone? What Operating System are their computers running? What tools/software do they use frequently? How do they power these devices? We should observe the behaviour of the people who are supposed to be part of the solution as well, because in the end they are going to use whatever you propose to them. So studying their current level of knowledge in using technology & general behaviour is useful to understand the user experience aspect.

4. Can your solution be built using existing technology that the people(“concerned parties” or community) already use? If not, try to spend a decent amount of time to find the answer to this question again. Chances are, it’s possible.

The idea here is to include existing technology as a part of the solution if possible, or to understand the extent of effort that might be required in case something new is proposed to them and then match the training aspect with their current behaviour so that it saves time and effort later on and learning becomes easy.

5. Keep in mind that your solution should require minimal (or no training) i.e. The focus should be on a lower barrier to entry & a decreased learning curve.

I read somewhere that “the best technology is” that which is “invisible“. It’s something that we should keep in mind always, from the usability perspective, when designing solutions. I tend to focus on decreasing the time and effort I need to spend in training people to use the solution I design for them. How does one achieve that? The best way would be to include existing skills that have already been trained to them(by their own self or otherwise). If they know how to make a phone call using their mobile phone – let’s try to think if we can do something using their mobile phones which just involves making or receiving a phone call. If they know how to write an SMS, maybe we setup an SMS system and interact or communicate with them using that. What if the staff only knows how to use Excel and to check their email? Then maybe, I’d design a web form simple enough to do their task.

6. Build your solution in a way that you wouldn’t be needed at all after the implementation.

If people are still calling you with questions on using the system or with some problem they have, quite frequently, chances are that the job was not well done. Implementation includes training well, troubleshooting and hand over the system to its users. Of course there will be problems, but the idea here is to minimise that by training the ground staff completely.

This post also appeared on ICTWorks in 2012:

A kid asks: What is empathy?

For all those who have kids do know that they can ask a lot of questions to you. Some are difficult to understand while some difficult to answer.

Empathy, they say, is something similar to putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to understand and feel what they are going through.

But that might be a difficult thing to explain to a kid. I thought I’d give it a try:

One fine evening, while its getting dark you are trying to get home and its raining slowly. You have an umbrella to protect yourself from the rain and walking down the road in your chappal. With the condition of the roads here, you are trying hard to ensure that you avoid stepping on one of those deceptive water-logged chunks, whose depth is unknown.

A car comes honking whose owner seems to be in equal hurry to get home and is speeding. The car drives past you splashing a whole chunk of mud water on you. (Hold that thought)

On the next day, you are driving your dad’s scooter and passing by the same road. The water logging still exists, and you see a couple of school girls heading to school.

Empathy is making sure that you don’t splash mud water on them while driving past because you know and can understand how it feels.

What do you need the most? Knowledge and Education.

Its been over an year now since I started working at, what they say, grassroots level on projects around livelihoods in Rural India. Well mostly UP and then Bihar, Rajasthan. When I look back at my very first interaction with the villagers on a project I was assigned the picture in my mind is still fresh mostly because of the conversation I had. It remains firmly etched in my memories.

May 26, 2010: I went on to meet the people of Ramkola Village, which happens to be surrounded by water on all 3 sides and gets submerged (read: flooded) with water every time there is heavy rain or a flood situation. Its like a “for granted” situation for them which they have accepted as their fate every year. They also have their own coping mechanism and mostly survive the after effects of flood each year.

I went to meet the men, women, elderly and kids to understand the situation there to plan and implement an “Early Warning System” which I had been assigned. I interacted with them as an outsider so that they could feel free to talk and share complains about the organisation I worked for, in case they had any (fortunately they didn’t 😉 only complaints about the government).

After the hour long conversation with the group, I happened to ask one question to them in the end.

“What is it that you need the most here?”
The First Interaction
Response from one of the male members (around late 30’s or early 40’s) who appeared to be the smartest or wisest,  was

“अब क्या बताएं, यह बाढ़ वाढ़ से तो हम निपट ही लेते हैं॥ हमें तो चाहिए ज्ञान और पढ़ाई लिखाई॥ उसी से हम सबका भला हो सकता है और तरक्की हो सकती है हमारी”

Translation: We know how to deal with floods each year. All we need is education, knowledge. Its the only thing that can really help us develop and bring good to our families.

Knowledge. Education. They know how to survive and cope with floods and they don’t really need help there. They understand where there real upliftment lies in.