Commemorating 9-11, 16 years on

I learned about the tragedy almost 12 hours later, already a Monday morning in the Philippines. I must have been busy studying for a test when it happened. This was B.F. (before Facebook, but during Friendster) when there was still no instant notification, ubiquitous wifi, and phones were dumb. My main source of news was the newspaper (paper!) from my college’s reading room, and the occasional prime time news on TV. On my way out to class, I saw my dorm-mates in the common room huddled around the TV. I went in to find out what the commotion was about. I must have been the last person to know about it. I recognized the news anchor, and searched confirmed there was an on-screen graphic logo. It can’t be a movie.

What a horrible news, I thought. Then the news cut forward to the towers being engulfed by black billowing smoke. Then one tower crumbled. And then another.

It’s one of those tragedies that has occurred in my lifetime, that changed and defined (and has been defining) international affairs, world power, and terrorism and security.  Living in Washington, D.C. now makes all these more pronounced with New York City just a few hours away and the Pentagon right in our backyard. It’s difficult not to be paranoid at times. Things are now back to normal, but will never be normal.

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Wet weather in Washington

The rain was relentless the previous two days. Yesterday was the worse of the two when it felt like one of those monsoon rains in Manila. I zipped (Lyfted?) around town when I could have taken a bus back to my apartment or walk to a small theater last night. I’m hosting a cousin from Australia, and asked me if this is typical summer in the city. Sort of.

The District is not really known for its wet summers. But it’s not the first time I’ve experienced extreme weather in the District. Philippine summers can be debilitatingly hot and humid, but the heatwave back in 2011 was the hottest I’ve experienced ever outside of Las Vegas.

The sun teased us with its presence this morning, before finally coming through just before sundown. The air is crisp tonight, and the forecast in the next three days looks promising. I hope to make the most out of the good weather touring my cousin and meeting up with a friend visiting from India before I head back home in less than a week.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Signing-up for the March for Science

18056736_1325941194126810_7354717257702260811_nThe Earth Day 2017 celebration coincided with the March for Science yesterday. And marched we did, along with thousands others. The crowd was a far cry from the mediocre turn up on the Earth Day rally I witnessed five years ago (when a right-wing media-watch organization also swiped my photos).

I had tentative plans of attending because it fell on a Saturday, and my weekends are sacred. and I’ve done my fair share of rallies even way back as an undergrad. But after my roommate invited me to an impromptu sign-making workshop at Artomatic, I didn’t want my sign- and training in science- be easily discarded and just go to waste. So yesterday afternoon, under DC’s grey and rainy skies, armed with our signs, umbrellas, and rain coats, off my roommate, her mom, and I went to the march. We knew it would be a wet day and we were prepared for it, because, science!

I’m still recovering from the past days’ activities. There’s another march scheduled next Saturday called the People’s Climate Movement. I’m still unsure if I’ll go, but here I am already brainstorming ideas for a sign.

March for Science Capitol

Cherry Blossom Kite Festival 2017

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It’s that time of the year in Washington, D.C., when tree branches puff a pink cloud. It’s a special time of the year that signals spring- so special that a festival was created around the occasion- The Cherry Blossom Festival.

One of the activities lined up each year is the kite festival, which I wasn’t aware of, until my roommate/landlady told me about it a few days earlier. I usually just go to the Tidal Basin, and gush about the flowers for the rest of the year.

Back in late March, I attended a one-day workshop to learn the basics of smartphone filmmaking offered by Docs in Progress, a non-profit that promotes documentary filmmaking based in Silver Spring, Maryland. What better way to put my budding (no pun intended) filmmaking talent to good use by shooting a fun event like the kite festival held last Saturday. And here’s the result. It’s not worthy of an Oscar, but at least a like or retweet or two. Enjoy!

 

Adulting advice from a book author

Tips on how to get your act together from a writer who has been there and done that

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When I was in grade school, I envied my other classmates who were better off than my family. My brother and I studied in an exclusive school for boys in grade school, where many of my classmates came from well-off families. Our blue and white school uniform did not disguise the Game Boy and Nike Air Max other students brought to school. It was easy to be better off compared to our family. My parents only earned enough to meet our day-to-day needs. But there were even times they had to borrow and pool money to pay for our tuition so the school would allow us to take the quarterly periodic tests. I fantasized of being born into a different, well-off family (which reminds me of this meme). I imagined being chauffeured to and from school (we got our first family car when I was 23). During Christmas breaks, I also wanted to have travel plans, wore thick sweaters, and visit Disneyland. But the closest I got to my dreams was a visit to a local theme park with questionable safety standards and the cold AC of a shopping mall.

You’d think I would outgrow this feeling of envy as I got older, but my wants and wishes turned more elaborate yet more professional. My mom was a public school teacher, and I wished she had the right connections to set me up for any well-paying job. My father had left the country. What if they were doctors and lawyers, so choosing a career would have been as easy as taking over their practice? They let me take up a major in college that no one among us knew of the future career odds and options. I was an early version of a free-range kid out of necessity, because they didn’t have the means to put up that fence that could give me a sheltered life.

I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and neither knew the right questions much less have the gumption to ask. Unlike meals I’ve had with other families, eating on the dining table was an act of nutrition and not discussion.

When I went to grad school in my early 20’s, I realized all these fantasies and what-ifs were just that- unhealthy and irrelevant ruminations that stem from comparing my life with that of others. It’s a waste of time and energy, better harnessed for working with what my parents have been able to provide, and carving my own niche in life. We always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I’m forever grateful for that. They’re easy for me to say now in hindsight. But who’s supposed to teach us these nuggets of wisdom when we’re young? From whom, and how can we learn them sooner rather than later?

Margaux Bergen in her first book “Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me” could be that person. She addresses these thorny life questions, and so much more. I met her in person during her book reading and signing last Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Brookland. She read excerpts from her book, which dishes out lessons on school, jobs, and relationships. The book is difficult to categorize given its breadth of topic. It’s self-help, parenting, career advice, and memoir all rolled into one. The book, written over a span of ten years, was originally addressed to her daughter when she went to college, which explains the crossover themes of the book, and the tender prose and intimate voice in which it is written.

I arrived early at the book event and got the chance to chat with the Margaux. We talked a bit about her book, our love for writing, and careers. I felt an affinity for her when I learned that at one point she also worked for the World Bank, where where I work now as a consultant. Showing motherly concern, she gave me unsolicited and simple advice on how to get a staff position.

I bought a copy of Margaux’s book that I picked up right off the display showcase beside her. I asked her to sign and address the book to a friend who has been asking me for career tips, and worrying about not finding a job once she finishes grad school next year. She comes from a humble background, has paved her own career path, and is now studying on a scholarship here in the US. Hopefully she benefits a lot from the book, beyond the advice I’ve been giving her born mainly out of my own experience and decisions, some of which have not necessarily been the best I have made. I plan to give it to her as a Christmas present, although I could use one for myself. I hope she won’t notice the creased spine and the broken-in look of its edges by the time she reads it.

Returning to live in Washington, D.C.

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The National Mall taken from the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

I’m more than a month into juggling two jobs as a consultant, one at my old office doing some web and comms work, and another with the Climate Investment Funds on climate change and organizational learning. It’s amazing how things fell into place, how one lunch led to two coffee meetings, and then two contracts a couple of months later. I had an open plan when I came to the US- reconnect with family and friends, attend a writing workshop, and meet some old colleagues. If nothing came up in the work front, I was ready to pack and move on. But I only realized how much I missed the District as soon as I came back, and thought it would be nice to stay here for a while and find something to do.

“How long have you been in DC?” I often get asked when I reveal I’m not originally from the area, to which I have prepared a spiel of my DC 1.0 circa 20112013, and how I ended up again in the East Coast this time around. This bitemporal experience makes me appreciate this city all the more. I now look at the city with fresh eyes looking with delight at my old haunts, curiosity with new shops and buildings, and nostalgia with those that have closed down. Many of my fellow former JPAs have left, moving on to do their PhDs, or back home. People, just as with places, have come and gone.

Before I lived in Foggy Bottom steps from the World Bank and near the White House during DC 1.0, I’ve now moved farther to a friend’s house in the North East about half an hour’s commute downtown (that is, if the Metro is working- I’m looking at you, Red Line). But I get to work from home, or make that work from Brookland, where there are cafes and more dining options. I’ve established a daily routine: I wake up early and start working, walk to the hip neighborhood around 10 or 11 in the morning to grab an early lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon at a café at a bookstore, then try to be back home before it gets dark. Weekends are spent on more walking and exploring other nearby neighborhoods or towns.

I make it sound like I’ve got this adulting all sorted out. Yes and no, depending on how you define “sorted out”. My work is far from stable and cushy contrary to how others may perceive it. And that’s fine. With these social and professional changes also come personal ones, mostly on realizing what matters to me: going for long walks, exploring interesting neighborhoods, keeping in touch with family and friends, and defining and redefining personal values and lifestyles. Whereas I only used to treat Washington DC as the city where I lived to work, it has become a more meaningful place where I live to live.

Woah, that’s a lot of introspection. Something to get us back to reality: Donald Trump just got elected President of the United States of America.

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.