19 02 2013

I am currently taking a program planning and evaluation course and one of our assignments is to read the American Evaluators Association daily blog (aea365) and find 3 useful posts that describe “a hot tip, a cool trick or a rad resource” and then share it with our classmates. This week it was my turn, and I have decided to also share them on this blog.

Here are the three useful things I found on the aea365 blog:

Chelsea Heaven on Why Graduate Students Interested in Evaluation Should Consider Volunteering Aug 13, 2012 Link:

Rad Resource: Volunteering with Statistics Without Borders

Everyone’s heard of Doctors Without Borders right? Or even Engineers Without Borders… but what about Statistics Without Borders? Chelsea Heaven, fellow public health graduate, posted last year about her great experience with volunteering with them, and recommending it to other grad students as a way to work with real ‘messy’ data and evaluation professionals in collaborative teams of 4-5 people on real world problems such as health policy in East Africa. She recommended joining and then checking out SWB.

Susan Kistler on Great Professional Development and a Great Blog May 19, 2012 Link:

Hot Tip: Consider subscribing to Karen Anderson’s blog: On Top of the Box Evaluation.

According to Susan (the American Evaluation Association’s Executive Director and aea365 Saturday contributor): “Karen is a (relatively) new professional, a graduate of AEA’s GEDI program, and an all around wonder woman”. Some of Karen’s posts that I enjoyed were “What Evaluation Hat Are You Wearing” and “What Evaluators Can Learn From Politics” – which talks about making your information ‘sexy’ and appealing to policy-makers.

Susan Kistler on 25 Low-cost/no-cost Tech Tools for Data Visualization and Reporting Nov 3, 2012 Link:

Rad Resource(s): The slide notes for a presentation on 25 low-cost/no-cost tech tools for Data Visualization and Reporting

Susan Kistler provides her viewpoint on some of the many data visualization tools available online, or as Susan so aptly put it in her post: “tools that hopefully help us to merge truth and beauty”. These tools include both paid and free ones and range from the aea365 blog itself, to prezi, to storify, pinterest and lovelycharts. You can download the full slidedeck from the AEA public eLibrary. Susan also suggests downloading the pdf version (posted below) with the notes that include the URL links for each item, cost information, and tips.

Data Visualization Tools PPT overview review

**This one was my personal favourite – it is always a challenge to find resources which are both comprehensive AND concise!

The Global Health Hub (.org)

3 02 2013

As a master of public health student, I often find it difficult to try and learn about everything that is going on in the world of public health, although one of the major reasons that I love my field of global health in particular, is that it is continuously and rapidly evolving. I’ve recently discovered a new information platform for keeping up with this busy and ever-changing field:

Screen Shot 2013-02-03 at 8.31.24 PM

I learned of this website through their twitter feed, which someone suggested that I follow. I decided to go and check out their actual site and found an amazing array of useful tools and information stored there. [I was also thrilled to discover that I have a master in public health degree in common with the founding editor Sarah Arnquist (@sarnquist), who has her degree from Johns Hopkins University.] is 100% volunteer driven, and provides news updates, guest editorials, links to other global health blogs, job postings, resources, and my personal favourite feature, an open-source global health and development timeline! Be sure to check it out.

– Sarah Topps 2013

New Innovation: Gravity Lights!

18 01 2013

Happy 2013! We made it past the end of the Mayan calendar cycle.

One of my biggest passions in development work is low-cost technology. There are so many amazing small ideas out there with BIG impact potential. Here is my latest favourite:

The Gravity Light



Imagine how many ways this technology can have an impact… evening classes, reduced lung cancers from inhaling kerosene or smoke, an endless supply of energy, reading after a long day, being able to continue to work after it gets dark, finding your way back to your home from the toilet, a couple could give kids a safe space to play outside at night…

They have already beat their original funding goal of $55,000 by ~800%, having raised almost $400,000! They are currently working on the second model.

Keep up the great work Martin Riddiford and Jim Reeves!
– Sarah Topps 2013

Free Global Health Courses!

19 12 2012

Phew! Finally finished my crazy semester… to put things in perspective, a full time graduate studies course load is 2 classes (3-4 credits each), and 3 classes is considered to be a 100% course load. Most of my fellow students took between 2 and 3 classes this term, with a few hard workers doing 4 (not counting not-for-credit seminars and lectures). Since I was working full time for the first year of my MPH degree, I was somewhat behind my cohort, leaving me with the option to either graduate later than most, or take on an insane course load this year. Of course, being a go-getter, I chose the latter and nearly killed myself with work this term doing… not 5… but SIX classes! (i.e. a 200% courseload, but hey… who’s counting?)

The grades are still coming back, but so far I’ve still got a pretty solid GPA. It looks good…

As a result of this crazy workload, I have become used to spending several hours a day just learning new things, and it seems that after 4 months of this, my brain actually can’t deal with just doing nothing. I took several weeks off to travel (I’m still travelling, in Reykjavik currently – more updates on that soon!) and after about 5 days, I needed to leeaarrnnnn (picture this in a zombie accent), and thus I discovered the incredible Global Health eLearning Center. I am now completely addicted.

The Global Health eLearning Center is a completely free online resource put together by USAID Bureau of Global Health that allows you to take free online courses and receive a certificate of completion for each one from USAID and John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health! There are even certificate programs in certain areas such as Child Health and Health Systems.

Certificate example

The courses are free to access and straightforward to use, not to mention a great way to update your skills and knowledge in a variety of global health areas – go check it out!

– Sarah Topps 2012

Back to Grad School

5 09 2012

As many of you know, these past few months have been hectic as I prepared to leave my full-time job to return to graduate studies. With luck and sweat and tears, I hope to finish a whopping course-load of 6 classes this semester and 4 next semester in order to complete the coursework part of my Master of Public Health degree by April 2013. Following that (and assuming I survive it all) I will be heading abroad to undertake a 14 – 26 week health-related practicum somewhere in the wide world.

Note: I am searching for an amazing practicum experience, so if you have or know of a program/project/organization outside of Canada that would be interested in taking on a master’s student for several months, please feel free to message me. I have several ideas, but I don’t have to choose until December.

The one cool thing about returning to school is that people suddenly seem to think you are interested in “the issues” again, and start adding you to listserves and forwarding interesting articles and websites and book suggestions and thoughts to you. Some of them are useful, many of them are not, but I appreciate feeling included in the discussion again nonetheless.

For those of you looking to get into the health and development field, I give you this week’s interesting and useful website, the new Beta version of Healthy Reads – a collaborative website where users can share and rank health related news much like Reddit or StumbleUpon, but in a newsfeed format. It’s free to join, and as with all social media sites, will become more useful the more people use it. Please join us!

Living Vicariously…

5 07 2012

My friends Sarah and David are traveling through Europe this summer and writing about their experiences… I wish I was too!
They have spent the last 6 years dreaming about this trip, and they finally departed for Frankfurt on Canada Day.
Check out their blog!

I wish you guys safe, happy and memorable travels!

Tough Mudder Whistler 2012 – Completed!

25 06 2012
Tough Mudder is a challenge,
not a race.
And boy, what a challenge!

Over 12 miles (20km) of mud, mountains, ice, snow, and 22 major obstacles such as 14 foot walls and belly crawls under barbed wire and running through live electric wires…

Over 14,000 participants signed up to run the course in Whistler Olympic Park in June 2012. The first official Tough Mudder in Canada, and Canadians sure proved our famous cold-bravery by running, jumping, swimming and crawling through the freezing/frozen conditions of some of the obstacles!

More details coming soon – we are processing the pictures and waiting for the official ones to be posted.

We had a team of 12 brave Mudders wearing kilts! Check us out below!

And here’s me on one of the last obstacles.. stay focused!


I was SO proud to finish Tough Mudder 2012 in Whistler, BC.
-Sarah Topps

Canada’s Really Big…

19 06 2012
To quote a Canadian band, The Arrogant Worms, “Canada’s Really Big

I work in the travel and tourism industry in Canada, and one of the things that baffles me over and over again, is that people from other places really don’t seem to grasp the sheer SIZE of Canada before they come here.

Every day, I get people coming to my desk, asking how long it will take them to get to Tofino/Banff/Toronto/Niagara Falls etc. Judging by the dumbfounded looks on their faces when I give them an estimate in days, rather than minutes or hours… most are not prepared for the scope of the journey they had planned to undertake in a weekend or a day.

Let me lay it out for you in distances, and travel times, so you can get a good idea of just HOW big we really are, on a global scale, from the perspective of someone who has traveled extensively both in Canada and abroad.

From my perspective, when I say that something is:

“…in the city…” I am talking about somewhere I go every week:

I work in downtown Vancouver, so I am normally giving directions from Waterfront Station. (0km)
I live in New Westminster (19km)
I sing karaoke on Wednesdays in Surrey (28km)
I play dodgeball on Tuesday nights in Langley (47km)

“…pretty close…” I can mean up to 300km away.

A distance I would consider reasonable to go for a picnic, a hike, a day trip to ski or shop, or sight see.

Examples include:

Victoria (117km and a 1.5hr Ferry)
Whistler (123km)
Harrison Hot Springs (131km)
Seattle (230km)

“…at least a weekend trip…” I may mean up to 1000km (one way) in driving or flying distance.

Some ‘weekend trips’ I have taken in the past include:

Tofino (302km through mountain roads, and a 2hr ferry)
Calgary (954km or 1188km if I drive the longer, but more scenic route through Jasper)
Las Vegas (2021km – this is a common weekend trip for Vancouverites who fly down and back cheaply from Bellingham Airport)
Los Angeles (2051km – I went in 2010 for 4 days to shop and see a Muse concert and considered it a weekend trip)

“…pretty far…is what we use to talk about places that are generally several thousand kms away... places we only typically go for an annual vacation, a summer home, a family gathering, weddings, funerals and holidays such as Christmas.

Common examples are:
Los Cabos, Mexico (3916km) Destination Beach Wedding
Toronto (4205km) – Thanksgiving Dinner with Family
Montreal (4736km) – University Friends Reunion
Miami (5616km) – Disney World Vacation

Countries and Clothing Colours

14 06 2012

One thing that has stood out to me in my travels around the world, is the huge variety in what is considered “acceptable” in terms of clothing colours.

Yesterday I was talking with some of my colleagues about when and where pink became a “girls’ colour“, and whether that was something that women chose, or something that men chose, or something that came about naturally through associations with flowers and delicate things being pink.

Then this morning, colour came up again as a topic of conversation when I complimented a colleague on her brightly coloured shirt, and she thanked me, paused, and then noted that it was one of her least colourful pieces from Vietnam. Likewise – I myself have many colourful clothes from overseas that are just not easily worn here in North America because of how bright they are.

It seems as if there is some sort of (potentially interesting research material) association between certain types of cities and places, and how drab or colourful the clothing is there. My own mental association goes something like this:


Dark, dreary, and mostly all in black – I had a friend from London once point out to me on the subway that I was the only person on the train not wearing any black.

New York City


Still dark, still generally monotone – with lots of glamour vibe going on… New York fashion is like a dark gemstone, glittering only when the light hits it just right.



Navy, khaki, army green… still a lot of neutrals, but with pops of bright colours like orange…

Cape Town


More colours than neutrals but still toned down a bit with black and white.

Women of Rural India



Check it out next time you are traveling – is the place you are in more colourful or less colourful than your home country? Then look down… and hey, maybe brighten up a little. 🙂

– Sarah Topps 2012


Trip to Turkey & the World Wealth Income Distribution

13 06 2012

Today I bought a round-trip plane ticket to Istanbul, Turkey for less than $700 Canadian dollars including all the taxes, fees, adjusting my seat options etc. from Vancouver BC. I was ecstatic, as these tickets normally run for about $1500-1600, if you aren’t picky about your dates, and can run up to and over the $4000 mark for economy class seats! (The seat sale is still on, so grab one if you have ever wanted to visit!) Incidentally – props to KLM for lowering their prices so much! ❤

After buying my incredible steal of a ticket, I excitedly posted on Facebook that I was going to Turkey next year, and another, more sombre post underneath:
“Just bought another transcontinental plane ticket on a whim… 🙂 I am SO lucky to live in an age where international travel is so easy. It humbles me to think that as recently as a single century ago, this would be the voyage of a lifetime for almost anyone on the planet…”

I probably rewrote that comment 3 or 4 times in trying not to draw hostile comments about how it would still be the voyage of a lifetime for many, or how many people can’t afford to travel, or more specifically how my friends couldn’t afford to travel, and how I was somehow luckier than them in this way…

I will say, that nothing drives me crazier than my friends telling me that I am “lucky” to be able to travel so much.

Not because I am not lucky… I will be the first to admit how lucky I am –

I was born and raised in a likeable country with a good reputation overseas, and one with not many restrictions on which countries I can visit. I even have dual citizenship – helpful with those tricky countries that don’t like one another…

I am healthy and have full use of my body – I am not wheelchair bound, I do not need glasses, I am not dependent on any medicines or machinery to keep me alive and in good health.

I have no criminal record and I am sound of mind – these can both be used to keep someone from entering another country.

I am not married to another woman – as wonderful as this might be, it would certainly restrict the places I could visit.

I speak an international language, which enables me to function on a relatively high level in most places around the world today.

I have freedom of movement – I am not a hostage, a prison inmate, a political diplomat, or anything else that would necessitate me staying in one country besides keeping my job – which I have the option to take vacation time from, or quit.

But 9 times out of ten, that’s not what they mean. They imply, or sometimes outright tell me – that I have money to spend on travel, that they do not. Or that I somehow have no other expenses, and that is why I can afford to travel? These conversations always boggle my mind, because they always end up going like this:

Me: I am going to Turkey next year! I am so excited…
Friend: You bought another plane ticket? You are so lucky! I never get to go anywhere… I wish I could travel.
Me: … Why don’t you come with me?
Friend: What?! I can’t afford that! I have bills, and stuff to pay off…
Me: I have bills to pay off too. I have a mortgage to pay, my cell phone, electricity, internet, student loans and credit cards.
Friend: Yeah, but you always seem to have more money than me – you’re just lucky like that.
Me: Well… I don’t own a car, and I don’t spend $300 a month on cigarettes and coffee. That adds up pretty quick.
Friend: Yeah, but I NEED my cigarettes, car and coffee…
Me: And I NEED to travel. So I give up my car, and put $50 a month away in savings for future travel. $25 each pay cheque.
Friend: Whatever… I have tried to save up for travel too
Me: Didn’t you go to Vegas last year?
Friend: Yeah, but… that’s not real travel. I want to go to exotic places like India!
Me: …Yeaahh…

In any case, I will also not deny that by global standards I am rich, but honestly, if you saved $25 a week for a year, you could go somewhere exotic “like India” for about 2 weeks if you planned it right. It’s just a question of priorities. Mine is to travel.

Let’s talk about wealth – relative wealth, that is… Tricky thing about money – most of us feel poor at some point, relative to our lifestyles and to our peers/family. The Canadian average income per year is $40, 541 according to the International Monetary Fund (2011). There is an interesting article that lists 20 jobs that earn approximately this much. I am in my twenties, I have no dependents, and I work full-time in a salaried job. My income is below the national average of my country, but I also recognize that not having children is saving me a lot of money too.

To put us on the global scale, I love to use the chart below. Normally I draw it out myself, but I had to find one I could post as an image because my scanner is broken…

This figure represents all of the world’s current money earning adults (in case you were wondering why it’s only ~4.5B people and not 7B people).

More than 2/3 of them make up the bottom portion of the triangle, and earn less than $10, 000 per year.

That’s right – if you are North American you are richer than 67% of humanity. Stop your bitching.

Another 23.5% earn between $10,000 to $100,000 – with most of us at the lower end of that spectrum.

And less than 1% of people in the world are millionaires and billionaires – however, they own 38.5% of the total $. The original posters of this figure break it down even further:

“As readers can see above, the figures for mid-2011 indicate that 29.7 million adults, about 1/2 of one percent of the world’s population, own more than one third of global household wealth. Of this group, they estimate that 85,000 individuals are worth more than $50 million, 29,000 are worth more than $100 million, and 2,700 have assets above $500 million. Compare this to the bottom of the pyramid: 3.054 billion people, 67.6 percent of the world’s population, with assets of less than $10,000, who own a mere 3.3 percent of the world’s wealth. Add another billion people with assets between $10,000 and $100,000 and we have 91.2 percent of the world’s population that owns something on the order of 17.8 percent of total world wealth.”

So next time you think to yourself – wow, that person is so lucky, they get to travel and I don’t – either start saving to buy a plane ticket, or just be grateful that you earn more than $10, 000 a year, and probably won’t ever have to worry affording vaccines, basic education, shoes, a clean toilet, food and a roof over your head.

For my part – I will continue to make travel a high priority for spending my hard-earned dollars, and try to stay humble about how lucky I am to be able to travel with such ease – sound of mind and body, and with a passport, plane ticket and full belly.

– Sarah Topps 2012

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