RapidFTR Field Trip – Day Four

This is a write up for day four out of five. here’s a link to the other days:

I had learnt my lesson from the past few days and asked the staff at the hotel to get some mosquito repellant and spray my room. It actually worked, so when I went to bed at midnight I was able to get a whole 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Unfortunately they had not left the spray in the room. So at 3am, the effects wore off and the mosquitos, sensing their opportunity, went on the offensive.

The mosquitos may have won again, I tell myself, but I still had one more night to fight back.

My fourth day starts on a harsher note than the previous ones. Nyakabande is a cold place, especially compared to the hot, sunny climate I’d experienced in Kampala. It rains almost every day, and it rains hard. It’s also pretty cold, but this morning was the coldest I had experienced so far. 9 degrees (Celsius), and it was raining. As I looked around the refugee camp,I saw the ground was muddy, full of puddles and the water cold. I saw kids wearing hardly any clothes at all, shorts, torn t-shirts and many bare foot, or at best, in flip flops. When I ask how they survive the cold I’m told that not all of them do, and that a child actually died of pneumonia in the camp the previous week.

We open up the UNICEF tent and let the nearby children in to get out of the rain. It’s 8am and we’re waiting for the volunteers. The plan for the day is to have a quick catch up with the RapidFTR users to talk about how they found the previous day, and for Cary and I to share some tips/tricks based on our observations. We had expected to start this session in the morning, however it’s not until post lunch that everyone finally turns up.

In the meantime we stay in the tent with the kids. There seem to be a few older kids around and one of them, Peter, speaks english. I manage to get to know them a little, with the help of Peter who translates for me. I take more pictures – the children love posing for the camera and then seeing themselves on the screen. As soon as one person requests a photo suddenly everyone wants one!

Alice, one of the children wants a photo on her own, without the others in the background. This proves to be a struggle, as soon as they see the camera everyone comes rushing into the shot! Finally after some annoyed looks from Alice the kids give in and let her have her solo picture. Peter now also wants in on the limelight and so asks me to film a video of him singing. He talks about Justin Bieber and then does a rendition of “Love me” much to the entertainment of the other kids. He sings well. Another kid, Mohammed, stands in the corner on his own. He seems to be in his own world, practicing dancing and singing to himself. I don’t get a picture or video, but his dancing is pretty amazing, I could see him in another life up on stage as a backup dancer at some concert.

The kids then go on to teach me their language. I make notes and after some practice am able to say hello, ask for their names and give them mine, as well as a few other phrases such as “where are you going”, and “I am going to town”. They seem to find my accent amusing, but they can understand me.

I take some more time to wander around the camp.

Below is a picture of one of the communal tents. The camp was currently over capacity and so some were asked to sleep in large communal tents (the regular accommodation is a smaller tent designed to sleep 2 families). These communal tents are much bigger and sleep maybe 50 to 100 people. I can’t share the pictures I took from the inside, but they weren’t the most pleasant of spaces.

More communal tents below. To the left of the picture you can see the kitchen tent.

another picture of some of the smaller living tents

an open play area. There’s a netball net there, although there seem to be a shortage of balls and toys for the children to play with.


It’s now around 12.30. It’s been a morning of absorbing the camp and understand the situation, however not much was done on rapidFTR. The team heads out back into town for lunch and we hope that more workers will arrive once we’re back so we can get to work in the afternoon.

There aren’t many places in town, and there is one small restaurant that all of the volunteers and aid workers go to every day so we join them.

We head back to the camp ready to start work with RapidFTR. Everyone has finally turned up and we start the day with the catch up we had planned. In addition to the 4 workers that will actually be using the phones and the application, we’re joined by various representatives of the organisations as well as someone from OPM (the Office of the Prime Minister).

Over the next couple of hours I take notes during the meeting. It starts off well, although I am able to sense some undercurrent of the politics. They talk about RapidFTR and the general feeling seems to be positive. Cary shares our observations from the previous day and suggests some changes they should make today when using the phones. Everyone listens and agrees and I feel like todays round of registrations should be smoother.

Then the conversation starts to go off track a little. Some people seem to start raising issues and concerns about rapidFTR, although in my eyes they’re pretty baseless. I feel that it’s more a case of personal resistent to change and a fear of a much more efficient software solution (designed to replace the current, inefficient and grossly insecure pen and paper registrations). The issues that are being raised are not at all specific to rapidFTR, and in fact the problems being raised are problems with the current paper approach and are issues that rapidFTR directly contributes towards eliminating.

This goes on for some time and then things get a little more out of hand. The meeting gets derailed into discussing all sorts of important, but unrelated issues. Some start attacking the communication between the groups, others bring up problems with the NFI distribution and others still engage the OPM about their policies of giving out blankets.

While I watch, I start to get a sense of how things work here, and I wonder how this would have looked if this was a well performing team. A well performing team has 3 things, competent members, good communication and trust. If I was responsible for UAMs, I would trust that the team in charge of distributing NFIs could handle their task. This trust would be earned through demonstration of their competence, as well as communication of their workings. I wouldn’t need, or expect, to be involved in their decision making process or in every meeting they have. I would expect to hear the outcomes of their meetings, and that would satisfy me.

Unfortunately this group seemed to be lacking somewhat in all 3 of these areas. The members were indeed making simple mistakes and did at times demonstrate incompetence. This immediately breaks the trust, combined with the fierce guarding of boundaries and information, leads to an explosion of discussions. Ultimately it makes it impossible to maintain focus and any meeting ends with everyone discussing everything.

These are bigger problems that the ones RapidFTR can fix. I take some comfort in the fact that at least an MOU on the usage of RapidFTR has been signed, there is agreement at the upper levels, and an understanding at the lower levels of how it is to be used. Despite these other issues, the application is working as expected and is bringing these organisations a little closer together.

Back at the hotel

We leave the camp for what I expected to be the last time and head back to the hotel for some last minute training. Most of our focus had been on usage of the android application however there was some need for the staff here in Nyakabande to use the netbook and the web application too.

The main scenarios for use of the netbook from Nyakabande are around the advanced search, and specifically to filter down the newly registered, verified, separated/UAMs that have given permission to have their photo shared. The advanced search can be used to filter across these criteria, and then a user can choose to export all of these records to a printable PDF which can be displayed on a photo-wall. The photo-wall will then allow parents to search for their missing children and help the aid organisations reunite the familes.

Charity, one of the volunteers from Save the Children came back to the hotel with us. I attempted to spend some time walking her through the advanced search flow on the netbook. I tried to walk her through the application and explain how the filtering of records work and also tried to explain the various criteria that she would need to search by during the course of her work. After around 45 minutes of this we had to stop and call it day. It was a useful lesson for me and we learned that no matter how intuitive it may have seemed to us, it was not something that the workers here on the ground were going to be able to use.

We decided that the advanced search was not something that was going to be used at least for the next few weeks as the camp did not yet have the physical hardware to set up the photo-wall (notice board). This bought us some time. Also as a workaround we decided that Cary would perform the advanced search for them and then email the PDFs across for them to print, only if they were struggling with web app. This training session also highlighted the need for some kind of tutorial on how to use the advanced search.

Before the trip I had been imagining all kinds of documentation detailing how to use the mobile phone and the application, turns out this was totally unnecessary and that we needed a different set of training. Within two days of first getting their hands on a smart phone they had become experts. When I looked at their devices they had all figured out how to play music, how to work the youtube app, and some had even found the app-store and discovered downloadable apps! This removed the need for a large part of the documentation as simple hands on experience provided most of the training the needed (there was still a need for some troubleshooting information)

The day ends with a short shopping trip. Cary, Charity and I go for a walk into town to pick up some power strips so that they can charge their phones and work the netbook/printer from the tents. We don’t have a bag large enough to house both the printer and the netbook that we can give, so I donate my laptop bag to Charity and pack the printer and netbook safely into it.

I’m pretty exhausted by now, but alas the day is not done!

While this was going on I was in contact with some of the team back in Chennai and India. Cary had noticed the application was behaving slower than usual and didn’t quite seem right. Ashok in Chennai took a look at the server logs and turned out we did indeed have an issue. I talk to Subhas in Kampala about the issue and he investigates a little.

Our production servers are set up as a pair, with one acting as a data backup. There is a couchdb replication that takes place every 10 minutes to the backup server. The issue on our main server requires a complete rehash of the box, including reinstalling the OS. It’s already getting late, however we expect the workers to get in to the camp in the morning and to start registering children and so we really need to get the issue resolved before morning.

Subhas takes up the task and gets the prod server back up and running. We had a few backup phones with us so we get one out, set it up and test it out. Everything seems to be good, we can log in, and download the records from the server and see everything is there. Happy days.

Cary, Chris, Eleanora and I have dinner together at the hotel as we debrief the days events, and then one by one we head off to get some much needed rest for the long long journey home the next day. Turns out we needed it as the next day ended up being more eventful than we had anticipated.

About the Author: akash


  1. Pingback: RapidFTR Field Trip @Nyakabande Transit Centre – Day One | blog

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