Finally – a publication!

2 06 2010

Back from my hiatus – thanks for being so patient with me!


I am very excited to be graduating from McGill this week, and equally excited to announce the publication of my first article in a peer-reviewed academic journal!

You can read the article for yourself here.

Special thanks to Matthew Lange for his helpful suggestions and support during the writing of this article and to John Robertson for his swiftness and generosity in giving permission duplicate his graph.

After finding out that my paper had been accepted for publication, I had less than 48 hours to contact Mr. Robertson and obtain his permission to reprint the graphs I included from his work – remarkably, I was able to track him down and he was very kind about giving me permission to use his work. Thanks again!

– Sarah Topps

Space imagery interpretations: for better? or for worse?

1 04 2010

One of my favourite professors, Jon Unruh, has engineered an interesting concept for learning a large amount of material quickly in his graduate level class on the geography of conflict. There are about 10-15 students in the class, and we each read one peer-reviewed article from the suggested list, and then summarize it, critically analyze it and present it to our classmates in ten minutes or less.

Last week’s conference was on applying geography to peacebuilding, and I was lucky enough to be able to review van Wyk’s 2008 overview of the use of space technology to aid human security in Africa.

Space for peace? The use of space technology to monitor conflict trends and human security in Africa (by van Wyk 2008) – A critical review by Sarah Topps

This article highlights the emerging trend of using space technology and satellite imagery to improve human development in African conflict zones. Jo-Ansie van Wyk describes several ways in which programs such as global positioning systems (GPS), geographic information systems (GIS), Earth observation (EO) and remote sensing can be used by governments and NGOs to track conflict,  illegal activities such as logging, internal displacement, or to identify crimes against humanity.

The article was succinctly written and used satellite images to demonstrate the potential for space science and technology (S&T) in a number of different situations – from identifying human rights abuses in Zimbabwe’s Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 to searching for underground water sources for refugees camps in Eastern Chad.

The article notes that satellite technologies can be costly and therefore inaccessible to some, such as African humanitarian organizations, however it does not indicate how expensive this technology is, or how cost-effective it is in saving time and money that would have been otherwise spent on locating the target aid recipients in other ways. Is it too expensive for every humanitarian organization to use it, or simply the ones which will not benefit enough from it? Could there be cooperation between the groups who own the space S&T and the humanitarian groups?

Another drawback which the author notes is the lack of a scientific support base to interpret the images in order for their governments to respond appropriately and adequately, however, depending on the scenario for which the images are being used, some may only require simple and specific training which might be taught easily enough through internet instructions from scientists elsewhere wishing to help with the conflict resolution etc.

Overall an enjoyable paper, which made no pretense about it’s purpose, which was simply to illustrate “[…]that space S&T can be applied to address conflict trends and human security in Africa” (van Wyk, 2008).


Interestingly, not two days later, my father sent me a link to a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions while using space imagery. Recently, Alex Tabarrok from the economics blog: Marginal Revolution wrote an article on tried to examine the large-scale effect of Mugabe’s land redistribution policy on Zimbabwean farmland using “before and after” photographs from Google Earth.

Unfortunately, according to Google Earth expert Stefan Geens, there seems to be a slight problem with his interpretations of the “before and after” shots.

“His before-and-after images are derived from the same original raw Landsat image. They are from the same point in time.” – Stefan Geens

I would suggest reading the article itself for more details, and Tabarrok, to his credit, has since updated his post, retracting some of his previous statements, based on what Geens has pointed out.

Satellite technology has certainly proven useful in a number of situations, and may be vital to the success of many future development initiatives, however, in today’s age of freely available technology, results need to be scrutinized before acting on them as conclusive evidence, as van Wyk also noted.

– Sarah Topps

1. van Wyk, Jo-Ansie. 2008. Space for peace? The use of space technology to monitor conflict trends and human security in Africa. Conflict Trends (4):12-17

Difficult times for university students and recent grads

16 07 2009

The economy is down, job searching this summer is tearing students apart in North America – most of my friends are having some form of difficulty finding work. And not just work that pays a decent wage, or even minimum wage, work that is any more challenging than flipping burgers or doesn’t involve someone screaming at you every fifteen minutes or so – now even these hated positions are scrapped over like the final pieces of carrion by vultures.

As a top student at one of the best and easily the most well-known university in Canada for my field of studies – I followed the same path that has previously offered the best chances for interesting and sometimes paid work opportunities this summer:

I asked my current manager if he would be able to keep me on for a summer position… no such luck.
I tapped my professional contacts… no luck.
I applied for, and was accepted to an internship program… but in the end couldn’t afford the plane ticket and visa costs to reach the country where the internship was to take place due to funding cuts by CIDA this year.
I searched on the internet for hours, finding internships, jobs and volunteer work which appealed to me and applied to dozens of spots, all well before deadline… no luck.
I asked past employers if they needed employees for the summer months… no luck, many are still downsizing.
I spoke with friends, family, friends of the family, family of friends… no one was hiring, anywhere.
I applied for jobs in the paper – in English, in French, in Spanish – in Alberta, in BC, in Montreal, even in Europe… no luck. I had some job interviews, and even a few offers, but moving and housing would cost more than the salary offered.
I took job interviews with companies I would never wish to work for, such as telemarketing and door to door sales, heavy manual labour that paid less than minimum wage or waitressing positions in sketchy restaurants that ran drug deals out the back… then I decided risking my safety and/or sanity wasn’t quite worth the minimum wage positions.
I even worked manual labour for 4 weeks while I tried to come across something more stimulating (or better paid).
And put myself in a somewhat risky situation with a bipolar boss who paid under the table cutthroat wages and screamed at us when he couldn’t find his cigarettes which were on the table behind him.

Finally… I’ve had enough. Sometimes you can put in all the work, and your luck or timing will be off by just enough that you just miss the spot you were trying so hard for. Better luck next time…

On the other hand, I have the luxury of having paid all of my bills already and not having any dependents at the moment (besides my kitty, who I have fed and taken to the vet when I didn’t have money to buy food for myself or pay all my bills on time) and realistically, I’m far more likely to wear myself down, wear myself out or put myself in the way of some serious harm – whether physical strain, mental breakdowns or simply feeling terrible about my life – than to actually make enough money to make those things worth it.
I’ve paid all my bills for the summer, and I’m not going to starve to death, I can keep my cat healthy, keep me healthy and far happier than I would be, working some shitty job where in the end, half my pay is lost due to my bosses losing track of my hours or short-changing me on my shift hours etc.

I’m lucky, and I recognize that. Not having to work for 6 weeks during a recession where finding a job as a student is a nightmare and keeping one is hellish at best, is truly something to be taken advantage of, and I intend to spend the time working on my thesis, prepping for my classes next year and taking care of myself mentally so that I might not break down when it all goes to hell next April when my thesis will be taking over my life.

For a few lucky ones, life still worked out in their favour – even more so than it did for me, and several of my most talented friends have been offered interesting and stimulating work or educational placements this summer – including my friends Alexandra in Nepal, Eric in Syria, [see their collective blog here], Lynn in Tunesia [click here to follow her adventures and those of the other AIESECers from McGill], and fellow AIESECer Amina Samy in India, and good friend Kelly Garton in Panama.

Next year I will be one of these lucky people, as the internship offer which I qualified for with AIESEC McGill still stands until February of next year, by which time I will have chosen one to undertake post-graduation in May 2010. (I’m very excited to see what I will end up choosing… there are so many options!)

As for right now, I remain happily unemployed, working hard on my thesis, my final paper for a summer class and my blog, organizing the international trips for my VP position in the McGill International Student Network for 2009/2010, coming up with ideas for my other VP position on the IDSSA (International Development Studies Students Association) academic board, keeping my body healthy, helping my cat with his physical therapy and enjoying spending time with friends I might not see again for several years after this summer.

All in all – not a bad way to spend the last 6 weeks of a summer when unemployment is rampant and most of my friends are wallowing in misery-filled jobs, huge amounts of debt, or both. I think I’ll just appreciate that for now I have the most luxurious of resources – time.

– Sarah Topps

Uniting the pro-development Canadians

5 04 2009

Last week I had the pleasure of being invited to a conference which was c0-hosted by the new Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University and the Public Policy Forum.

The conference was entitled “The Challenges of Development Today: Practitioners’ Perspectives on Where to Move Forward” and was addressed by several impressive speakers, including David Morley (President and CEO of Save the Children Canada), Canadian International Development Agency President Margaret Briggs, and International Development Research Centre President David Malone, along with the Right Honourable Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Canada.

Rt. Hon. Joe Clark had something very interesting to say, which I had always thought was the case, but apparently it is not yet, and that is that ALL of the groups who are interested in promoting international development in some way, across Canada, ought to have some kind of forum, a means of communicating with one another, sharing ideas, technical advice, knowledge and expertise, contacts, and meeting shared common goals together.

He suggested that it would invite and involve the entire development community, from the NGOs to the not-for-profits to the youth groups to the government to the individuals to the religious groups to the university students and everyone in between. He said that ideally, it would not focus on specifics, except to learn from one another, but instead it would ask: how will we, as Canadians, build a road to a brighter global future, together? How can we collaborate and work side by side to obtain this new world?

Personally, I would love to see a forum such as the one suggested by Rt. Hon. Joe Clark being set up… but it does beg the question: who is in a position to set up such an arrangement? How would it be done?

I would like to propose some kind of online working group, internet forum or other idea-sharing tool, to facilitate this kind of broad cross-national participatory approach, which would be complemented by an annual (or bi-annual) conference to enable and empower those who strive to do global development work across Canada.

What are your thoughts?

– Sarah Topps

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