Ready or not… Meeting up with Techfugees

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I’m now puttering about in Washington, DC. In the early mornings and late evenings I help out with the digital marketing of my cousin’s startup in Australia. In-between I spend some days seeing friends and former colleagues for meet-ups. And then there are also Meetups, which I’ve been doing an average of two a week, mostly tech-related ones.

The last one I attended last Thursday is called ‘Techfugees‘, a portmanteau of the words ‘technology’ and ‘refugees’. It was the first meeting of the group, and most definitely not the last one given everyone’s enthusiasm and commitment to their work in assisting refugees in or from conflict/post-conflict areas. About 20 participants (meetupers? meetlovers?) showed up, which wasn’t too shabby given there was thunderstorm earlier that afternoon. It fwas a good mix of non-profit and tech folks who are in one form or another working with the Syrian refugees here in the US. Their work range from providing digital literacy classes or developing an app for children to improve their psychosocial development, while others are looking for ways to communicate effectively via SMS.

I’m interested in the topic myself given my previous engagement in humanitarian work- not in a conflict zone, but still in an environment just as disrupted- in a post-disaster setting, when I worked on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) with the UN-FAO on its Typhoon Haiyan Emergency Response and Rehabilitation. I want to get a better grasp of how technology can facilitate aid in all its forms, be it providing food, water, shelter, and other emergency supplies, to improving refugees’ living conditions or expediting the movement of people.

It got me into thinking of the technology already available out there, or how it could have played a role in my previous work, with the affected people and emergency responders in mind. So I came up with the list below, roughly arranged according to what’s crucial as soon as a powerful earthquake jolts a city or a conflict erupts. The information below is by no means exhaustive, but I hope will be just as useful.

  1. Robots. They now exist in Japan as big and clunky life-savers. But soon they’ll be as small as cockroaches.
  2. Satellite phones. Communications are usually brought down intentionally or as collateral damage in emergency situations, that’s why satellite phones, or sat-phones, are a staple in many bigger organizations that can afford it. But I learned from experience there are also times when their signals can be jammed, like that time when some VIPs visited the project site I worked in.
  3. CB radios. In hindsight, it seems this more humble cousin of the sat-phone, wasn’t used that often except for communication by security teams, or at least that’s what I observed.
  4. Radio. Call it old-school, but AM radio was one way farmer-beneficiaries learned of seed and fertilizer distributions that were going to be held in their villages. And the other ways? Word-of-mouth and town-hall meetings.
  5. Firechat or GoTenna. Users of Firechat create a virtual mesh to allow mobile communication via bluetooth or wifi, even when there’s no cellphone network for some reason (see point 1). It has gained some modest traction in some cities in the Philippines, although I’m not sure why this app hasn’t gone mainstream given its potential especially in areas where communication gets cut-off (see point 2). Is it the lack of any admin rights to the conversation, or the sense of urgency to install the app? Let’s not wait for an emergency to happen before it catches on. I haven’t used GoTenna myself, which acts like a CB radio for texts, but the concept also looks promising.
  6. Data-gathering/surveyed instrument apps. I was envious of a university friend who also happened to be working on M&E in another international non-government organization (INGO). They used tablets and a data collection app for their surveys. It’s faster and eliminates one layer of data input, yet it still poses issues and challenges. Meanwhile, we conducted our surveys with ol’ trusty pens and papers.
  7. Drones. They have taken off (no pun attended) in the past years mostly for video recording. I can imagine it useful for visual monitoring and transporting medicines and other portable emergency supplies.
  8. IDs. I saw one beneficiary whip out an ID with a barcode given by an INGO, possibly for monitoring the benefits she has received from them. We couldn’t honor the ID because it’s not a government-issued one (but I did get envious again).
  9. Mobile cash transfers. Cash transfers are a popular intervention because it stimulates the local economy just right after a disaster situation. For a country which has a high mobile penetration such as the Philippines, there is an opposite trend in the use of mobile cash transfer versus other developing countries, say, Kenya. Despite my country’s inclination to mobile technology, it’s still largely a cash-based economy. I’ve seen endless lines outside banks and pawnshops which participate in cash transfer programs to dispense money on designated days of the week. Many factors impede the adoption of mobile cash transfers, a few of them include perceptions of trust on telcos, technological literacy, or dealing with lost cellphones (and numbers) that ars supposed to ‘receive’ the money.

Wish list

Here’s my list of technology- both hardware and software- that I hope would exist soon and could prove very useful in humanitarian response situations. Many are very feasible and within reach, and I won’t be surprised if they actually do exist already.

  1. Mobile communication kit. A cellphone that can be recharged via solar power would be ideal for communication to continue in the event of downed power lines. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, temporary mobile networks were up in less than a week, giving life to cellphones. and easing communication lines, until their batteries ran out.
  2. Slack for cluster coordination. One of the mechanisms established in emergency situations are so-called ‘clusters’- groups made up of different organizations working on the same areas such as WASH (water, sanitation and health), agriculture, housing, and other sectors. Email is still king when it comes to communicating to multiple people. But in conflict and disaster areas where urgency is the name of the game, Slack can fill that void for sending quick-fire messages that can’t wait, provided there’s internet connection.
  3. Emergency kit with tracker. In addition to supplies like food and water, emergency kits can be equipped with senors, which are triggered to track people (or at least, the kits) who could get buried alive inside collapsed houses or buildings in the event of bombings or earthquakes (as suggested by Julieane Camile Lacsina).

Use of technology in refugee situations has a huge potential, both as means to facilitate communication and coordination, or as a product itself that could save lives. Many of these technologies- be it hardware or software- are already out there. Personally, I’m looking for systems, platforms or norms/protocols that create additional value by taking advantage of existing yet fragmented tech to facilitate communication and coordination in post-conflict or disaster settings.

Do you have anything to add to the list? Let me know by leaving a comment or tweet me @jadz.

Watch your language… and wallet

This was first published yesterday through my newsletter. To get first dibs on my writing and other updates, subscribe here.

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The past weeks I have been busy with work and some personal writing. And in the coming ones I will be, like some of you, job-hunting! Do you have some tips for me this time?

Here’s some reading to munch on over the weekend…


Remember when I wrote about learning and including the jargons in the area and sector in your statement of interest, which I termed bureaucratese. The New York Times recently featured a study on how the World Bank’s use of language has evolved, from using precise words to more amorphous language like cooperation and more recently, governance. Here’s an example:

“Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.”

Now let me go back to mainstreaming the graduation model into the global development agenda. Moving forward…


On a related note, here’s 10 tricks to appear smart during meetings in your development organization.


One of the reasons people are attracted to working in development is the cushy compensation. Do you really know how much expats earn? My eyes went O_O the first time I heard about out some years back. A local aid worker asks whether this is justified given similar (or at times, better) skill set of the national staff than the international hire. Don’t forget to browse the comments section.


I consider myself mostly lucky when it comes to my career. What role does luck play in landing awesome jobs and getting ahead in life? A big one, apparently. Just something to keep in mind when the going gets tough and that dream job application falls through. And I’m saying this based on personal experience.


I had a good chat via Skype with one reader from Bangalore who’s now interning for a research institute. Among other topics we discussed, he asked me about my day to day tasks in my previous and current work, which I hope to write more about in the future.


Have a good weekend!

How to write a cover letter

This was first published yesterday through my newsletter. Edited for style and updating of timeline. To get first dibs on my writing and other updates, subscribe here

I got a flurry of email requests to review cover letters and CVs over the weekend. Apparently the deadline for submission of applications for the World Bank Analyst Program is coming up, as in today, 05 April. I try my best to respond to all requests but alas, I’m only human and unable to do so. So I muddled through my slush pile and plucked out this (draft) quick guide on how to write a cover letter. Or at least it’s the guide I’ve been using all these years which has lent me varying levels of success (and countless rejections, too). Like most advice and things you read online, take them with a grain of salt:

You should treat the cover or application or cover letter as precious real estate. Keep it to a page, if possible, and do yourself and the hiring manager a favor. I believe the application letter should try to illustrate three things: your language proficiency, thought process and how you structure concepts, and knowledge and skills. Below I try to describe the paragraphs that make up the cover letter and what each should generally contain. Feel free to add a paragraph or two if the letter warrants the introduction of other themes.

Paragraph 1 is the opening paragraph where you introduce yourself, and try to grab the attention of the reader. It could be someone from the HR, the hiring manager, or even the head of the organization itself. What you want to convey is that you’re the right person they’re looking for to perform the job. Cramming that information in the shortest paragraph in a job application letter sounds like a tough job (no pun intended), yet at a closer look it isn’t. Here you just state the position to which we’re applying and how you learned of the job posting, although the latter is really optional. The second sentence encapsulates your areas of expertise and skill set which you deem are valuable for the job and to the organization, plain and simple. Here you set the tone of the letter, and introduce our reader to what you have up our sleeve in the succeeding paragraphs. In these three to four lines of text your aim is to prime and hook the HR guy, showcase your abilities, that you’re the the best candidate for the job.

Guide question 1: Why are you interested in and what makes you qualified for the position? 

Paragraph 2: Establish your expertise in support to the first paragraph. Here you drill down on work experience and skills you have gained through the years, while linking them to the job requirements all the time. It is easy to dump all the jargons and get lost in the writing. But you have limited real estate. In this case, limit it ideally to a page. So every word counts and has to be relevant to the job. This is important to not to loseyour  focus in what you’re writing. Here you should also show that you speak their language-bureaucratese. It may sound like a jumble of technocratic jargon to those outside the field of international development, but this is really how they speak. In the world of search, without the right keywords, you won’t be found. This is not to say that you could and should lie in your cover letter by including terms and phrases you don’t really know about. Once we had a talk wth a senior HR staff, and he said one of the few grounds of termination is false declaration and falsification of documents. So keep that in mind. Simply review the job description and pick out technical and action words, and show how you have performed them in your previous work.

Guide question 2: What knowledge and skills do you possess, and how do you show that I am the perfect candidate to the job?

Paragraph 3: Boast about your other valuable skills that could set you apart from other candidates. It could be skills you have been learning from a side project. If you are applying for a research post which requires data crunching and bending, have you made a couple of coding tweaks on Stata to smoothen your data or improve your workflow (no, not to influence the result)? Did you render any volunteer consulting service for a non-profit school to improve their operations? Or maybe you’ve started a blog, and give tips to freelancers on how to find clients. This would be a good time to highlight those, but make sure the skills you will feature are relevant to the job.

Guide question 3: What other special skills have you acquired that will pique the interest of your employer and set you apart from other applicants?

Paragraph 4: Time to wrap things up. End your story with your educational background. I am putting this toward the end because a diploma from a pedigree school can only get you too far. While some hiring managers may still put a premium on the school one went to, I believe it’s only valid two or three years down the road, and its value diminishes thereafter. Moreover, most likely the best of the applicants will have more or less similar education, so this shouldn’t figure into and be a clincher in most hiring decisions., unless it’s a research-heavy job, where certain universities may have a tradition of quality researchers. I would hire someone from an OK university who has been doing interesting work and with a multi-faceted personality, than someone banking on the prestige of a top university. If you’re both, then you’re the golden unicorn your soon-to-be employer has been looking for. As I write this, I just realized maybe I should stop mentioning my education background altogether, and stick to my own advice and use the free space to summarize how my knowledge, skills, and previous work experience will be of value to the organization.

Guide question 4: To summarize, how can you perform the tasks at hand, and be of value the team/department, and overall objectives of the organization?


Got more tips on how to write a cover letter? Do let me know. Good luck to all applicants and keep me posted how your application goes.

Odds and ends: Previous jobs not written on my current CV

Untitled designModesty aside, I usually wow people when I mention that I have worked for this brand-name organization or studied in that university at home and abroad. Whether I’m really making good use of my education is still up for debate. It makes me feel uneasy and look for ways to respond appropriately. Though most of the time, I only manage an aw-shucks smile, because, truth be told, these people I meet outside of work seem to be doing far more interesting things, like running a tech startup or directing an art gallery.

My CV shows a well-manicured collection of job titles, development acronyms and bureaucratic jargons which, ironically, and I’m afraid, so far-removed from the people we’re trying to serve. But beneath the collection of development-esque and poverty-see language are small gigs and odd jobs I have done to earn an extra peso/euro or two. A few have fell through the cracks of my work history on purpose, scrubbed off my resume and replaced by more impressive job titles accompanied by arcane descriptions, while others will never see the light of day, or in this case, a line of space. Here they are in chronological order:

Telemarketer. For a few days one university summer break, three of my high school buddies and I worked the phones in a small corner office of a pharmaceutical company in Makati. We got the gig through one my friend’s sister-in-law who worked in the same company. We rang up drugstores to update a database containing their contact information. This was in early 2000 before the BPO boom. It was my first taste of the working life, daily commute and all. We were thrilled to have found a ‘summer job’, which were scarce back in the days. We also felt rich with our daily wage of PhP500 (About $10 back in 2001). It’s the one and only job in a private company that I’ve held down so far.

House cleaner. Once tapped into the Filipino expat community in Freiburg, I met many a Filipinas who seem to be mostly working as cleaners. Over merienda one time, one of them (I can’t recall her name now) asked me if I’m interested in a cleaning job at her parent-in-laws’ house. I said yes. We agreed to meet there the next Friday, where she showed and helped me clean the house. And for a few months every Friday at 10 in the morning, I went to the elderly couple’s house just outside the city center to vacuum the floor and carpets, wave a feather-duster on the antique furnitures, and pick-up old, stale bread from the kitchen counter and wipe it clean of crumbs. Yes, the cleaning included scrubbing the toilets. For two hours of work once a week I pocketed 20 Euros (this was above ‘industry’ rates, where the going rate is between five to seven Euros), half of which was spent right away that evening on Weisswurst and a glass of Railer or two.

Restaurant cleaner. Waiting tables is a popular student job in Freiburg, but I never got to do one. One summer, the same lady who offered me the house-cleaning job asked if I was interested to clean in the Thai restaurant where she waited tables. For 7 Euros an hour for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday, I wiped chairs and tables, swept and mopped the floor, and cleaned the toilets before the restaurant opened its doors. I only remember doing it for a couple of weeks, and just stopped getting a call back one day. Looking back, I realize I was laid-off from my job for the very first time, and I hope it will also be the last.

Research assistant. Over wine during one gathering hosted by graduate program, I chatted with the head of the head of the sustainability unit of my university. I told him of my own background on sustainability, and a few days later, got an email from him offering me a research assistant post in his department. The work paid about 11 Euros an hour. I held down the job for about a semester, until I had to write my Master’s thesis.

University blogger. Perhaps inspired by my blog and the emerging new media opportunities at that time, our program coordinator asked me if I wanted to write for a blog led by the university admin, with the aim of promoting my program and the university. I didn’t think twice, of course, and was soon employed part-time as a student assistant. Unfortunately, I can no longer find links of what I wrote.

Editor. Probably the most one I enjoyed doing, I edited thesis manuscripts for ten Euros per hour. Friends and classmates who hired my service got a discount, of course.

Have these jobs helped me in building my career or personal growth? But if you ask me if my apartment any cleaner, the answer is no. Am I a better data collector? Maybe. I mostly worked to earn extra or because I was very interested in writing. On those times I got lucky they were both. I can only think of two take-aways from these experiences. First, friends and acquaintances can open up job opportunities, however odd they are. Second, after working as a cleaner, I am now repulsed by lemon-scented cleaning agents. What about you? What odd jobs have you done, or are you currently doing?

Anyone up for a webinar?

If there’s enough interest (say, five?), let’s hold a one-hour webinar to discuss your questions on job applications, interviews, and internships. We can use an AMA (ask me anything) format and keep things informal and fun.

If you’re up for the webinar, or at least interested to join, simply subscribe to my new newsletter.

In the future, I also hope to give my newsletter subscribers a sneak peak of my on-going projects and other career updates before they make it to this blog.

Hope to hear from you soon! Cheers.

In case you missed it, ADB internships

I have to edit this because apparently the link to the filtered internship openings is not working. Also I found out a quirk of the filtering system, which could potentially ‘hide’ older openings that are still actively accepting applications.

Some of you have asked about internships at the ADB. Right now there’s 24 of them. If you’re only applying now, you might miss it. ADB recently migrated to a new job application management system, and I just realized there’s some filtering maneuvers you have to do, otherwise you might miss some job postings. Vacancies that are still active but posted more than a month ago might no longer show up because you might choose the wrong timeframe under the ‘Posting Date’ filter (I don’t know the default settings anymore). To view all the internship openings, do the following:

  1. Visit the ADB jobs page
  2. Focus your attention on the filters on the left-hand side column
  3. Under the first filter, the ‘City’ under the ‘Location’ filter should have no boxes ticked.
  4. Under the second filter, ‘Job Field’ and ‘Staff Category’, click ‘Internship’. If it’s not showing up, look for it by clicking ‘See all job fields’.
  5. Under the third filter, the ‘Posting Date’ should be blank. This is the critical part. Otherwise, if you choose one of the other options, it will only show ‘newer’ vacancies that have been posted, and there are none for internships.

Deadline is in two weeks, 15 March. Say hi when you make it to Manila.

What do you think of the new ADB jobs board and application system?

 

Road trip: How I deal with SLEx on a bus

After moving back to Metro Manila, and to shield myself from the stress-inducing snarling traffic, I’ve pretty much given up on mass transit. I’ve setup a routine, and by way of extension, a life, where I try to avoid all modes of wheeled transportation- even a car- if I can help it.

My daily commute is a seven-minute walk, door-to-desk. For those times I have to go somewhere farther- home in Las Piñas or an aunt’s house in Manila (the city) on weekends- I rely on Uber. Without a driver’s license, a car, and the skills to drive one, it’s the only way to get around in the metro. Taxis, with all the haggling, crime, and grime involved, are now a far, second option. This of course limits my mobility. Save for a jaunt to Singapore in January and to my mother’s hometown in Sorsogon over Christmas, the farthest trip I managed last year was to Los Baños in Laguna, just 68 kilometers south of Manila.

Just recently, I renewed extra-curricular ties to my university, which means making more frequent visits to Los Baños this year. I’m exploring to volunteer in an elderly care program, and have been recently elected as an officer for the college-affiliated professional organization that I helped establish.

More than a decade after graduating from university, I still make that trip south every now and then, just to take a breather from the city. I arrange ‘official’ excuses to go back. I attend alumni meetings in my college, a fiesta farther south in San Pablo City, or do a day trip to Nagcarlan and Pandin. Facebook check-ins garner likes from university friends and other fellow alumni. For sure they would click the ‘envious’ emoji if there was one.

It’s easy to travel to Los Baños. Hop on a bus going to Sta. Cruz, Laguna along EDSA, Buendia, or Alabang and about two hours or so later, voila, you’re in Los Baños. If I’m lucky, I’m able to hitch a ride with a friend who would go home on weekends. Going back from a meeting, for sure a fellow alumnus is driving somewhere to Manila. Otherwise, I don’t have any qualms (and choice) taking the bus.

As a university student, I would travel home on Saturday afternoons after our military training, and be back on Sunday evening or early Monday morning in time for my first class. It was a weekly ritual, a route I know all too well, now hardwired in my body’s internal GPS.

The bus provides few forms of entertainment enough to kill the half-hour stretch of the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx). Most air-conditioned buses have a TV (and recently WiFi), which is good and bad. Good because there’s something to alleviate the humdrum of the trip. Bad, because I never got to start or finish whatever is playing. Most of the time, a movie is already playing when one gets on the bus. Sometimes I partly get lucky when the bus conductor starts playing the movie as soon as the bus hits the expressway, only for me to get off an hour later as the movie is about to reach climax. This was right before the time of the iPods and Spotify, when on-demand music meant burning your favorite playlist on a CD.

I recently visited a college friend in San Pablo, further south of Los Baños, who has turned into a regular weekend bus commuter when he started working in Manila full-time. He said you meet all sorts of people on a bus. I encountered one of them that morning.

A time-tested way to while away the time is to sleep, if you have the tenacity to do so. I had planned on sleeping on the bus after a rough night. I could get at least a good hour of shuteye from the two-hour bus ride once I have paid my fare, or so I thought. The lady seating on the opposite side was holding a talkfest. She was already deep into her conversation with her companion as I got on the bus along EDSA in Ortigas. She talked non-stop all the way to Calamba, where she and her companion finally got off. She talked so much that I barely remember hearing the voice of the guy she was with. When they got off the bus, a guy moved to their vacated seats. This time, he was singing along in a deep monotone to Whitney Houston’s ‘The Greatest Love All’ as he looked out the window. Sleeping on a bus is not easy to achieve, and that morning it wasn’t happening to me. I started singing along.

Upon leaving Metro Manila, Calamba is the first city that greets motorists at the southern tip of the expressway. It’s the last exit of the SLEx, the gateway to Laguna’s more rustic parts and all things calm and green, past the urban sprawl that has engulfed parts of the province closer to Manila. It signals ‘one more hour before arrival’ to my ultimate destination. The Calamba-Los Baños stretch used to be shorter. The volume of vehicles has unfortunately given way to predictable choke points in Calamba Crossing and the junction going into the UP Los Baños campus. A third one exists in summer, in Pansol, where Manileños troop to swimming pool resorts to cool down.

For someone who has visited six out of the seven continents, I can’t say I’ve always been, or already am, a good traveler. I feel anxious at the thought of air travel. As a child, I would feel nauseous after seating for a while in a moving vehicle. My mother made sure she had a barf bag with her in the unfortunate event that I needed one, which was quite frequent. At times, even up till now, a whiff of a musty taxi or pine-scented air-conditioned bus still triggers childhood memories of motion-sickness, projectiles, and plastic bags.

Memories of traversing the SLEx are nothing but a blur, like a necessary purgatory one has to go through to escape Manila and reach the gates of provincial Laguna. Most times I simply tune out and get lost in the time-space abyss. It’s transit in a trance.

I still squirm at the thought of long land travel, just sitting there in limbo, neither comfortable nor productive, neither here nor there. But for a couple of hours away to escape Manila en route to my happy place, I deal with it.

If you’ve taken a specific route countless times, you more or less can estimate where are you are depending on the time and speed of the vehicle, even with your eyes closed. Approaching Calamba exit, the driver releases the gas pedal and slightly applies the break. The bus slows down as it rounds the exit ramp, the centrifugal force pushing me lightly to the left. I then feel a rush, as if I’m on a plane preparing for landing, banking, gradually descending and raising its flaps to aid its deceleration and finish off with a smooth soft landing. It’s a gentle wake up call to tell me I’m approaching a familiar destination, now one that is part-holiday, part-business, but always like home. It’s a nudge I recognize, a unique one just for this particular bend in the road.