This ain’t no holiday!

Screenshot from Project TOTO video diary, with Gnaomi the topless gnome and Apollo the cat

People have been asking whether I’m excited about my trip to Africa. To be perfectly honest, I’m not.

Or at least not yet.

Project TOTO is still too abstract. There’s no firm dates, there’s no clear itinerary and, from a project management point of view, no clearly defined goals. Not because the project isn’t happening or doesn’t have support or isn’t being planned properly, but simply because that detailed conversation with ActionAid Australia about priorities has yet to take place.

That conversation is scheduled for this coming Friday 12 June.

Meanwhile, I’ve had many, many things on my mind. Most of them are completely unrelated to Project TOTO. But all of them have conspired to make the last three weeks extremely stressful indeed.

That’s one reason why my last video diary was back on 21 May. That’s a screenshot at the top of this post. I’m looking tired, eh? And I’ve been even more stressed since.

It’s time to catch up. So, even though this is the Queen’s Birthday holiday, here’s a rambling update. With some pictures.

Photograph or rural Tanzanian village, with man using hand pump to get water

What can I confirm about Project TOTO today?

  • The destination country is definitely Tanzania.
  • I’ll be leaving some time in the next month, probably sooner.
  • I’ll be in-country for a week.
  • I’ll spend some time in ActionAid’s office in Dar es Salaam, but I’ll also be visiting some of their field projects — places like those in the photos. No running water. Dodgy electricity. But, I’m told, there’s decent mobile phone coverage in 70% of these rural villages.
  • My goals will include setting up a “field blogging outpost” and also reporting on my experiences along the way.

That last point is causing a bit of stress.

Photograph of Tanzanian women with brightly-coloured plastic water containers balanced on their heads

One media release talked about a “live video outpost in the remote region, training the local community to use it”. That’s one hell of an ask.

Live video at Ustream quality, which is what I use for Stilgherrian Live, requires a 400 kilobit per second uplink. Even here in Sydney’s inner suburbs, that’s available only if you’ve got a hard-wired ADSL2+ or cable connection (typically a 1Mb/s uplink) or Telstra’s Next G mobile broadband tuned for HSUPA (ditto). None of the other mobile broadband providers can deliver.

In Tanzania, there’s 1Mb/s DSL in Dar es Salaam, but that’ll have a maximum uplink speed of 128kb/sec. If we’re lucky. Outside the city we’re essentially at dial-up speeds or worse, either on overloaded DSL or whatever data links the mobile carriers can provide.

Thuraya SO-2510 satellite phone

Even the new Thuraya satellite phones (pictured) only deliver 9.6kb/s. Thuraya does have a laptop-sized data terminal which can deliver 144kb/s — but I’m getting conflicting reports about Dar es Salaam and the south of Tanzania being in their coverage area for data.

One reason I dropped the video diaries is that a 5-minute video can be more than 40Mb of data. Imagine uploading that over dodgy dial-up!

Time is a factor here.

Once I’ve thought about what to say, recorded the video, compressed it and uploaded it, that’s an hour out of my day. Is that the best use of my time when only 124 people have watched the first episode (as of today) compared with 2000+ reading the words?

(And consider that in the same period, more than 15,000 read my article Fisting Twitter and the birth of “trend fisting” — though they may have been looking for something slightly different.)

If I’m going to produce any worthwhile media out of Tanzania, something that isn’t the usual clichés, I’ll need time to reflect.

Photograph of Tanzanian villagers meeting in a hut with a rough-hewn wooden table and basic household utensils

OK, I’m stressed about other things too. But I’m conscious that ActionAid is investing significant resources (for them) and trying something new (for them). ActionAid Australia, despite four decades of experience as Austcare, is now the new kid on the block. Doubtless they’re fearful of failure. As a result, so am I.

Very fearful.

Now a typical 500-word Crikey article takes an hour or two to write, as does a post like this if I’m preparing photos. A reflective, insightful essay or feature article can take half a day. A liveblog like Gonzo Twitter 1: Saturday Evening in Newtown unfolds in real time over a couple of hours, but you have to be relaxed and “in the zone” for it to work. Unreliable Bangkok 3: Bureaucracy was based on an entire day’s experiences, and only emerged weeks later.

What if there’s so many things happening that the Muse is not with me?

That’s why TV sports coverage is so banal. The swimmer has just exerted himself to the utmost and broken the 400m record. He’s barely emerged from the pool. The adrenalin is surging through his brain. And yet we stick a microphone into his face and expect him to say something meaningful. There’s a reason the Australian Institute of Sport trains its athletes to have the clichés ready, and a reason those clichés — and only those clichés — roll out.

How will I balance the demands of producing this sort of material with, you know, “setting up a live video outpost in the remote region, training the local community to use it”?

What if I get to a remote village and discover that I’ve forgotten some key component? It’s not like I can just nip down the shop!

How will I avoid being yet another white bloke rolling into town telling the locals what to do?


That’s all out of my system now. While the non-TOTO stresses have not subsided, at least I feel that I’ve accomplished something today. And now I can take a break and tackle my presentation for the SoGiKII Law, Communication Technologies and Culture Conference.

Which is tomorrow.

But starting tomorrow I’ll try to gradually shift into a regular daily pattern of posting photos and writing. Wish me luck. And perhaps ask me questions and stuff that I can answer in future posts.

[Photos: Tanzanian village photos courtesy ActionAid Australia. All rights reserved.]

6 Replies to “This ain’t no holiday!”

  1. What an amazing adventure ahead. You are spot on about the words and pictures versus video. I am looking forward to reading about your experience of understanding the local needs and the challenges of implementing the outpost. All the bestto you.

  2. How do you avoid being another white bloke rolling in to town? By listening to what they have to say, by finding out how they might use the technology, if they need the technology by making it relevant to them?

  3. I was inspired by last night’s Australian Story about the NSW woman who has built a school in northern Tanzania. The school’s motto is “fighting poverty through education”, the aim being to produce the leaders of the future for the country. I noted the school’s use of computers and internet.

  4. Don’t forget the humble audio podcast.

    Low bit rate .mp3 files uploaded as frequent/near real time as you are easy to produce and consume — especially via subscription to RSS feed

    Decorate with a small photo or two and better than video in some ways.

    By all means upload vid when you can but make sure audio is there as well.

    @dnwallace and I are already thinking about ways to munge any video you upload into .mp3 (e.g. via excellent open platform) so we can easily consume it.

  5. @Sylvano and @Mike Seyfang: Having just discovered a bit more about the Thuraya satellite phones we may be getting, I’m starting to think more about audio.

    Optus offer Thuraya in Australia, but apparently they don’t yet have the data capability. The handsets must talk to the satellites in a standard way, so the missing component is presumably the linkage between Thuraya and Optus’ billing systems.

    Or something.

    There’s two different aims here. One is setting up ActionAid’s blogger with whatever they’ll be using long term. The other is me generating media and buzz while I’m in-country. The set-up and “media outputs” for those may well be slightly different.

    ActionAid’s blogger may well tour their project sites gathering content on their notebook for eventual upload when back in Dar es Salaam. Meanwhile, since I need to generate live buzz while travelling, I might well be posting audio (phoning in for someone to record and post) and to Twitter (via SMS).

    Or something.

    @Sean the Blogonaut and @Desertgirl: Useful stuff. Yes, I’ll be listening more than talking. And I’ll be watching that episode of Australian Story as soon as I get the chance. Thank you.

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