aea365

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: http://aea365.org/blog/?p=6954

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 Idealist.org and then checking out SWB.

Susan Kistler on Great Professional Development and a Great Blog May 19, 2012 Link: http://aea365.org/blog/?p=6466

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: http://aea365.org/blog/?p=7491

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!

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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

Image

 

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





7 Things I Never Travel Without

10 02 2011

As an event and trip coordinator, and a frequent traveler in my personal time – both clients and friends often ask me: What should I pack?It’s the age-old traveling question, and I have often found it makes the world of difference in the quality of my trip.

To be honest, it really depends on the trip – how long is it?, where will you go?, who will you go with?, do you need fancy clothes?, how will you get there?, where will you stay?, what activities will you be doing? etc. I could go on and on about the various factors that come into play when I am deciding what to bring. (Look out for upcoming posts as I begin my quest for one-bag international travel starting with a trip to Taiwan in April.)

However, if I have to give a short answer, I always love the quip about the necessary “Big 3” my parents used when we traveled: “Tickets, passport, money. Everything else you can buy, borrow, or make do without.”

While I truly believe this motto, and have followed it to the letter before in extreme circumstances, there are several other items which make my “necessities” list on (almost) every trip these days, rounding out to a nice 10.

1. Good walking shoes & SmartWool socks

Okay, so technically this one is two things, but it’s not like you would use one without the other, right? After years of walking in many kilometres, in many conditions, all around the world, I have come to the conclusion that I absolutely LOVE SmartWool socks. They are comfortable, they don’t smell, they take YEARS to wear out, their colours hide dirt well, they look good on everyone, and they prevent blisters! To learn more about the science behind these awesome socks, they made us a pretty website!

2. Pencil and notebook

Same deal as above… paper is pretty useless unless you’re using it for fire starter in the woods (and I think open fires are illegal in most wooded places now anyways). Great for remembering details such as addresses or opening hours, for learning words of the local language (a great opener for talking to locals) and for detailing your adventures in.

3. Sunscreen

This brings us to one of my absolute all-time favourite travel stories, and perhaps the best one to illustrate my parents unique manner of raising me to be the independent, responsible and interesting human being (I hope ) that I am today.

When I was 17 years old, and full of young restlessness I used to spend hours and hours (actually who am I kidding, I still do) on airline websites, trying to find the best travel deals to my dream destinations. One night, my parents had asked me to babysit my younger brother while they went out for dinner and a show. After my brother had gone to bed, I was on the computer, chatting with some friends from Australia and skimming my usual travel sites. Suddenly, I spied an incredibly good deal for a flight to Brisbane from Vancouver… after doing about, oh… maybe 3 minutes of intense cost research and asking my friends if the weather was nice, and whether they thought I could get a job there, I had bought a plane ticket. For the next morning. To Australia.

By the time my parents got home, later that night, I was halfway through packing for my spontaneous 3 month trip down under. My Mum took one glance in my room, asked me where I was going, stared at me for a moment after my reply and then shook her head and went to bed. The next morning, around 6 a.m. she padded back through to my room in her slippers and asked if I was serious. I held up my bag in one hand and my plane ticket in the other, then cheekily asked if she could give me a ride to the airport in an hour. She thought about it for a second, nodded, and then padded to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.

An hour later, we were driving to the airport and we were chatting about mundane things when she suddenly seemed to realize that I was actually planning to spend the next three months in Australia. She turned to me abruptly and said:

“So you’re really going to Australia today?”

“Well, yes, although I won’t get there until tomorrow. I’ll call when the time difference isn’t too bad.”

“Did you pack sunscreen?”

“Uhhh… no?”

“There should be a bottle under the seat. You can take that one.”

I dug it out and tucked it into the top pocket of my bag. We drove the rest of the way to the airport in that comfortable silence that only comes from everyone feeling that all that is needed has been said. I think it officially marked the moment in my life where I felt like an adult in my parents’ eyes. And I still remember to pack sunscreen, every time.

4. Digital Camera

I have found over time that I never remember my trips as well if I don’t have pictures to spur the memories. Take pictures! Take LOTS of pictures. Take pictures of new friends, old friends, yourself with friends, yourself alone, local quirks, colourful signs, famous locations, not-so-famous-but-just-as-cool locations, your favourite dish, your favourite camel… you name it! If you’re motivated enough, you can even make yourself a scrapbook when you get home. (Just don’t force your poor friends to sit through an 800-picture slide show… really, after 50 pictures, no one cares.)

I currently own one digital SLR; the Canon Rebel T2i (EOS 550D outside the US, but I like the flashier name… no pun intended) which I love for it’s smaller grip – perfect for my female hands, and a smaller Canon Powershot from a few years ago when it had a slimmer design.

5. Universal Plug Adapter

Really? You want an explanation? Just get one. You can thank me later…

6. Goody’s Ouchless Hair Elastics

Weirdly useful… and not just for putting hair into a ponytail.

These amazingly durable, colourful bands are perfect for securing things together (bunches of pens, flowers, rolls of bills, you name it!) or for hanging things. As hair elastics go, they are very comfortable since they don’t have the traditional metal bar holding the elastic together which pulls your hair out when you remove it. They come in a great variety of colours, last forever and are super cheap and easy to find (any major drugstore will carry them). I find them so useful that I often have an extra one on my key chain or in my bag – in fact, I’m wearing one on my wrist right now!

7. MP3/USB player

Again, you can buy them in any electronics store or major drugstore – cheap, not flashy, easily concealed, good for storing digital pictures or e-versions of important documents. Wear it around your neck under your shirt on a cord necklace for easy but secure access to your music. The one I use is similar to this one. Get as much memory as you can find/afford… even your favourite songs get old after you’ve been on the same bus for 18 hours.

And of course – don’t forget your tickets, passport or money!

– Sarah Topps (2011)





What can kill you in less than 3 hours, and be treated with salt and clean water?

9 11 2010

No, it’s not a jellyfish sting, or lethal poison – the surprising answer is Cholera.

According to the CBC, over 7000 people have been infected in Haiti over the last week, resulting in the deaths of 500 individuals, many of whom could have easily been saved if Haiti had the proper infrastructure in place to treat them. There has been no cholera outbreak in Haiti for around 50 years, and the initial reaction was one of confusion as many Haitians just did not know how to avoid the disease (BBC News).

Directly from the World Health Organization website: “Cholera is an easily treatable disease. Up to 80% of people can be treated successfully through prompt administration of oral rehydration salts (WHO/UNICEF ORS standard sachet). Very severely dehydrated patients require administration of intravenous fluids. Such patients also require appropriate antibiotics to diminish the duration of diarrhoea, reduce the volume of rehydration fluids needed, and shorten the duration of V. cholerae excretion. Mass administration of antibiotics is not recommended, as it has no effect on the spread of cholera and contributes to increasing antimicrobial resistance. In order to ensure timely access to treatment, cholera treatment centres (CTCs) should be set up among the affected populations. With proper treatment, the case fatality rate should remain below 1%.”

Cholera is a disease which is believed to have originated in India, and which thrives in disaster-type situations like this one, such as floods, hurricanes or earthquakes which disrupt normal water treatment routines. The original outbreak is believed to have started approximately three weeks ago, but the number of cases have drastically increased since Hurricane Tomas struck last Friday, causing flooding across western Haiti. Unfortunately the bad news continues to grow, as one of the rivers which has been identified as a source of the epidemic is soon expected to overflow with excess water.

The best intervention strategy for reducing cholera deaths is through a combination of  controlling the disease spread through provisions of safe water, proper sanitation and immediate education about the disease to the affected population group. Infected individuals can be difficult to identify since most are asymptomatic, but insuring access to quick treatment to those persons who do show signs of the illness helps to prevent further spread and save many lives. Providing safe water and sanitation is a major challenge, particularly in emergency situations, however it has been shown to be the critical factor in reducing the number and spread of infections.

Perhaps this is another opportunity for the use of SODIS (solar disinfection of drinking water) to be taught and used as a weapon against the further spread of this deadly disease. This simple method of disinfecting drinking water can be readily achieved by filling a clear plastic bottle with collected water (which has low turbidity) and leaving it out in the sun for more than 6 hours. (Stay tuned for a more in-depth follow-up post about SODIS, how and when it works, and benefits of using it to disinfect water.)

Written by Sarah Topps – 2010

Read more: http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2010/11/07/haiti-cholera-toll-rises.html?ref=rss#ixzz14l2qWRgI





How to Make Money and Change the World

1 12 2009

Recently a good friend of mine and his family heard that I had never experienced an American Thanksgiving and were thoughtful enough to invite me down to visit with them for the weekend. Needless to say, the meal was decadent, and both the conversation and the wine were sparkling. [An extended thank you to the Vitek family!]

While I was down in the USA, my friend took me to meet some friends of his for a night out in small-town America. We visited a local bar, ate bagels slathered in cheese and spicy meats and chatted about our various university degrees and jobs. One of his friends, Tsewang, was a young woman from Nepal who I chatted with for an hour or so about international development and social entrepreneurship (two of my favourite topics!) as well as some less cumbersome subjects. At one point near the end of our conversation, I mentioned to her that I was hoping to start a pilot project for solar water disinfection (SODIS) in Angola next year, and she told me that, being from Canada, I ought to look up an organization called Dream Now“.

After returning from the weekend, I had all but forgotten about her wonderful suggestion when I stumbled onto their website this afternoon. Reading descriptions about how they literally built blanket forts in various rooms across the country in order to facilitate comfortable discussion, I was absolutely intrigued. Ravenous for more of this truly out-of-the-box approach, I dug a little deeper on their website and discovered this jewel of a bookHow to Make Money and Change the World

Not only was it one of the most helpful and innovative books I have read on the subject of finding a job in our generation – it was free! Beautifully designed and available online for download, and redistribution, I thought – well! that’s my Christmas shopping done for every friend I have who’s about to graduate from international development! (On a fair note, being a student, I otherwise probably was just going to wish them Merry Christmas on their facebook walls or twitter, so this is quite the improvement as far as free gifts go...)

Occupation: Change the World

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in working for positive change – either in international development, or other fields of social change.

– Sarah Topps





Plumpynut: More revolutionary than sliced bread

19 11 2009

Every year 10.6 Million kids die before their 5th birthday. Malnutrition accounts for about half of that number. Finally, we may have a solution which addresses both caloric and micronutrient deficient diets: Plumpy’nut.

The old adage about being able to live off of only beer and peanut butter is almost true in this case, although since we’re talking about kids – it’s peanut butter and powdered milk. The mix also includes powdered sugar and several vitamin supplements including zinc, Vitamin A and E, iron and protein. It can add an astounding 1kg (2.2 lbs) per week to a hungry child’s weight.

CBS News ran a special on it back in 2008 but unfortunately WordPress does not support their embedded video.

It’s been used successfully in Niger by Medecins Sans Frontiers and is now being recommended by UNICEF for use across Africa and the world.

Plumpy’nut does not need to be cooked, or refrigerated, or boiled, it does not need to be mixed with water (eliminating potential contamination as has happened with powdered milk formulas), it has no parts which could be a choking hazard, it comes pre-packaged in an ideal amount, it can be eaten directly out of the packaging; making it an ideal meal for undernourished children in the developing world who may not have access to electricity or safe drinking water.

The following YouTube clip is an excerpt piece by Anderson Cooper from the longer CBS video I’ve referenced above.

– Sarah Topps





Development Workers and Missionaries – are we so different?

6 07 2009

In my life, I always seem to go through phases of more or less curiousity about the functioning of different religious groups I have heard of or encountered. Recently, I have had several enlightening talks with friends of mine who have been missionaries in developing countries, and after stumbling across a post this blog today (July 6th) by Chris Blattman (a Harvard professor in International Development) on missionary work and development, I thought it might be worthwhile sharing my questions of the moment.

[As a prelude to this post, I’ve also been reading a book by Orson Scott Card this week; Lost Boys which centres around a Mormon family which has been relocated for work to North Carolina and all of the strange incidences which go on in their daily lives throughout the year after they relocate. There are a number of religious references in the book, and it explores some of the stranger practices and ideals of Mormonism and examines them from a Mormon point of view which explains some of their cultural practices in a very sensitive and interesting light.]

Chris Blattman wrote his post “What aid workers can learn from missionaries” based on another blog called Blood and Milk. You can see the original post here.

Here is an excerpt:

“Host country donor staff make a major difference in institutional competence, but it’s a rare donor who lets national staff run their programs. The fear is corruption, mostly, but there is also a capacity problem. The people with the education and skills to really run a donor program aren’t working for USAID, World Bank, or CIDA salaries.

When you have a really good donor representative, they are like an extra brain for your efforts. They can help you dodge problems, adapt quickly to challenges, and negotiate different government relationships. It’s a synergy that can make all the difference.

And it pretty much never happens. More often than not, your funder’s representative doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t even know the nation’s major cities before they land. No matter how smart or committed you are, you don’t have time in a few years to get up to speed enough to be really useful. One of the very few things we know about what works in development is that your interventions need to be precisely targeted to the local context. We can’t do that if nobody knows enough about the local context to make that happen. And how do you take a long view on development when no one stays for enough time to think that way?

So that’s what we can learn from missionaries. Stick around until you know what you’re doing. Project managers, and donor representatives, should have regional knowledge and language skills. They should be deeply steeped in local culture. We need incentives to get good people to stay in one place and become experts at it. Well, first we need it to be permitted. Then we need incentives.”

I believe that there is a reason that most of humanity’s six billion people are religious in some way or another, and religion has been trying to spread ideas of goodness and improvement for thousands of years longer than development workers have even been on the scene – in a way development work is my religion – I truly BELIEVE that things can be improved for the world poor, and maybe that makes me an idealist, but I certainly have enough FAITH in the concept to dedicate my life to working towards that end. If that doesn’t make me religious, then what does?

Religions of all types have found ways to reach into the depths of people and draw out the best in people, and to improve millions of people’s lives the world over – perhaps its time we took a lesson from missionaries – the very people many development workers blame for the stratification of much of the developing world’s societies. Maybe we do need to settle down, to “invade”, to listen, to learn from them – before we can hope to understand their problems, their needs, and the best way that we can help them. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll be smart enough to learn something from them at the same time.

Although, as Chris Blattman commented at the end of his post that: “It’s worth saying, however, what aid work ought not to share with missionaries: the saving mission. Development ain’t religion, and there are no souls and bodies to be saved. Unfortunately, that actually needs to be said. I think Alanna would agree.

I have to agree – that trying to force change where it is undesired, goes along much the same lines as religion pushing itself on people who may already have their own beliefs – perhaps we are being just as sacrilegious when we try to change their methods of giving birth, of clothing themselves, of earning a living, of anything…

Just a thought. (or a series of provocative thoughts)
Sarah Topps








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