Saturday, September 24, 2005
Friday, September 09, 2005
Three stories - once ancient, one from last week, one from yesterday - about stupid uses of great technology. (1) Many years ago, I travelled to Mexico to manage a proposal for a large cadastral project. The idea behind the project was as follows - with the new government bringing in a new political framework, families who had worked for generations on a piece of land (latifundia) now would finally have ownership rights to a part of this land. At last! While in the country, I was meeting with various government bureaucrats about the use of satellite-imagery geographic information systems for the purposes of this project. There was one meeting that I will never forget. While waiting in the lobby for this minor bureaucrat, I had been reading some of the brochures that were prepared by another government department for this project. Because a sizeable number of people in the rural areas cannot read, or, if they can, only a small number read Spanish, the instructional booklets about the new program are prepared in comic-book form. That afternoon's bureaucrat was sold on this initiative! As a matter of fact - he suggested - let's show each family a satellite photo of the land that they had been working on. If they can identify, on the small grainy image, where their plot of land was located, then they will be granted ownership rights! Otherwise, the land reverts to the state! I kept a brave poker-face while I explained to him that if the people can't read, chances are they have never seen their land from above - let alone be able to discern it from a satellite's point of view. I don't think that he could understand this. Or that he wanted to. (2) During the Katrina disaster, the following was posted to Metafilter: ...the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to ask evacuees to call (800) 621-3362 or browse to www.fema.gov to start the process of filing a claim for disaster assistance was greeted with disbelief by most relief workers we talked to, who noted that most of these people don’t have ready access to telephones. It turns out, according to a Red Cross worker here, the response is even a bigger Catch-22 than I realized. It turns out, according to the worker, who like the other aid workers spoke on condition of anonymity, that the call to the FEMA number does not open a claim; it results in a package containing the claim form being mailed to the address of the evacuee. Since the evacuee is in a shelter, mail service has been suspended in many of the hardest hit areas and some of the homes are likely still under water, it seems clear that those claim forms won’t be mailed back any time soon. (3) Earlier this week, I attended a meeting in a well-known local teaching institution, with presentations from faculty about new projects. One of the faculty was very enthusiastic about a new web site that he was creating. During his younger years he had worked with CUSO (in the US a similar organization is US Aid). He had helped African villagers fix water wells, and was particularly interested in solutions to detect the presence of iron/rust in drinking water. So this person's project was a mentoring web site, where fellow experts and he could share their water management expertise with villagers in Africa. In particular, this web site could be used as a mentorship tool, to teach the villagers to help themselves and monitor their water for toxic substances. Didn't it occur to him that the villagers do not have access to the Internet? "But there are internet cafes everywhere" he countered, and added: "I've been around!" Hmmm, perhaps. However, do the villagers know how to read? And, when they do - can they speak English? Research and development departments are replete with great technological innovations. But if the human element is missing, or if they are targeted to the wrong audience, they are destined to fail.
Posted by seawallrunner on Friday, September 09, 2005