Making Research

Tom making research.That’s what our Liberian research assistants / interpreters told people we were doing when they explained the purpose of our visit.

This past week Tom Smyth, a computer science PhD student from Georgia Tech, came over to help start up a couple projects. One of these projects being the GTV mobile video story sharing system, and the other is an analysis of the motivations behind cell phone use in Liberia. We started off working on the GTV project.

GTV power supplyOne of our priorities was setting up a power supply for GTV. So we went to a couple shops down town and bought a 120 amp/hour battery and a 1500 watt inverter/charger. The inverter is pretty awesome. You plug it into the wall and it charges the battery while powering the stuff plugged into it. When the wall power cuts out, the inverter switches to the battery and keeps powering the stuff plugged into it. Basically, it’s allows you to make a huge UPS. You can keep chaining batteries together in parallel to make a system that can run for days. The Carter Center, Jimmy Carter’s rule of law NGO, has a 3000 watt inverter plugged into 4, 200amp batteries to allow their whole office to run for 5 hours when the generator shuts down for a break during the day. I was pretty excited to get to play with electronics. We bought a multi-meter to monitor the battery and diagnose problems. We also started thinking about how to convert watts, volts, and amps to watt hours of burn time for GTV. It was good ole nerdy fun.

Me after getting shockedWe also needed to create a system to provide adequate lighting for GTV. We wanted to make sure that when we’re filming outside the users face isn’t a black silhouette against a super bright background, so we bought two 15 watt compact fluorescent bulbs. We wanted a focused light that would compete with the brightness of the sun. For this Tom had the brilliant idea to make reflectors out of pie pans. So I was testing the pie pan reflectors when one of the pie pans slid down and made contact with the base of the bulbs contact. Instantly both my arms became rigid, I yelled, and fell out of my chair. I needed a second to process what had happened, then had a good laugh. I’ve never shocked myself with 220 volts before.

Researching on an old fridgeAnother exciting project that Tom and I were tasked with was performing Q-sorts surveys of mobile phone users in rural (non-Monrovia) Liberia. What’s a Q-sort you may ask? I’m glad you asked. It’s a method for determining a person’s position on one issue relative to another. In our incarnation of Q-sort we have a big mat with 31 cards. Each card says something like, “My cell phone lets me get more done in a day”, “I enjoy talking to my friends and family on my cell phone”, “I use my cell phone to stay in touch with my suppliers”, and “My cell phone makes me feel more secure.” The subject takes these cards and then arranges them on the mat from “Most like me” to “Least like me.” To make this task possible we’ve hired two Liberian research assistants, Laye and Aldoph. Both of these guys are great. Some of the best Liberians I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with. The biggest thing they help us with is explaining such an abstract concept as a Q-sort survey to the average Liberian. Laye would relate it to soccer, “Say I prefer Man U to Chelsea, but I prefer Liverpool to Chelsea and Man U. Then I would put Liverpool on the far right, Man U in the middle, and Chelsea on the far left.” We also taught Laye and Aldoph shotgun. Aldoph is now pretty good at riding up front.

A crowdEverywhere we went we’d draw a crowd, and people are always super accommodating. We first went to Robertsport and spent the whole day sitting on someone’s front porch. In a market town outside of Kakata we sat in the “offices” of the local lawyer. People want to know what we’re doing and it sometimes takes a while to explain that we aren’t working for a cell phone company or starting a school in Liberia. Oddly enough most Liberians have not met academic researchers on the streets.

For me the best part of this has been the driving. I love driving. The roads to most of the towns are paved for the first 40 miles. After that it can get bumpy. Even the paved roads are bumpy in spots. The road from Tubmanburg to Bapulo was nothing but dust, mud, and rocks. I was in a mild state of euphoria the entire trip. At the end of the trip our 4Runner was covered in dirt. I need to get the road pics and video from Tom, but it’ll be good when I do.

In addition to all this fine research I’ve also replaced all my stolen IDs. I spent a memorable 3 hours getting a new driver’s license. To reduce corruption there are 4 levels of indirection when paying for your license. First you go to the Min. of Transport where they give you a hand written bill. Then you go to the Min. of Finance where you hand the bill to someone who prints out a bill. Then you go to the teller in the Min. of Finance and give them the bill and the money. Forty-five minutes later someone comes out with a stack or receipts and calls out the names on them. Finally you take the receipt back to the Min. of Transport and there you get your license. Luckily, the Min. of Transport is across the street from the Min. of Finance.

While waiting, I met some very cool people. One guy asked if I was getting the license for my bike and I was like, “Yeah I am… How do you know I have a bike?” He said he had seen me driving around town. I still don’t buy it though. I have a helmet on when I ride; even my friends don’t recognize me when I drive by, but whatever. I also had some great conversations with people about coming to America and that you can’t just get off the plane, hail and cab and say, “I’d like to go to college and then a job please.” One guy was sure that he’d get a good job in the States, another guy was like, “No you’ll do labor.” I agreed with the later. Then we had another conversation about how inefficient the whole process of getting a license was. The guy said, “This is Africa” and before I could retort this old lady on the corner went off about how it’s not Africa, it’s them. It was great. It was so cool to be talking politics with the common man, and not just me arguing my western, college educated, think I know it all point, but to see Liberians discussing their differing views.

Also, after several weeks GATECH-1 has her vanity plates. Since the plates have arrived I haven’t been stopped at check points. A few days ago I found a hard spot on my foot where it looked like I had a splinter stuck in that the skin had grown around. I tried digging it out with my knife and all this puss came out. But when I examined it closer it wasn’t puss at all, but little white ovals. Kinda like insect larva. I was ever so slightly disconcerted by this. I went to the doctor and they checked me out, made sure the cut wasn’t infected and told me I was alright. I think I was gotten by a worm at the beach. So far I’m still alive.

This was overheard in Monrovia when one person was talking about a workshop for traditional tribal leaders about the country’s new rape laws:

1. Traditional Leader: “Can woman rape man? If so how?”

2. Traditional Leader: “If a woman is raped in the bush and no one hears it, is it still rape?”

Expat: “Yes.”

In traditional culture, if a man doesn’t force himself on a woman than it is thought that she must not be attractive enough. So a woman asked how many times a woman can refuse her husband before he can force himself on her. When told that a man can’t ever force himself on a woman, the woman was flabbergasted.

Soon Martin Bednar, another GT student, will arrive with the long awaited GTV system. Once that arrives, the real fun will start.

Also, special thanks to Tom for sharing his pictures with me for this post since my camera was stolen.


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