Technology at the Dump

Carrying my colleagues and me, our auto slows down to turn onto the dirt road that leads to our project site. Flanked on both sides by glimmering green rice paddy and the soft morning sun touching the water, the dirt road leads to what looks like an amusement park. Looking out the auto, green trees, blue benches, and a yellow fence come into view. As we get closer, we pass under an archway reading “Solid Waste Management Park” and a planter box with grass grown in the word “Welcome” greet us. We have reached our project site, our park, and ultimately, a dumpsite.

My placement organization—Waste Ventures—works with trash. As such our field sites are generally located within dump yards.  This particular dump yard, set up by the municipality, makes me chuckle with the irony each time I am there. Perfectly manicured gardens contrast tractors rumbling along, filled to the brim with waste.  Your eyes quickly draw away from the clean welcome sign to the birds circling the trash at the far end of the dump yard where piles of trash are smoking at the edges. The composting shed has multiple smells of its own ranging from the relatively rank smell of just dumped organic waste to the fresh smell of ready-to-market compost.

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It is within this environment that I have been working to create an Android-based system of monitoring and evaluation, and a couple weeks ago, I implemented the first stage of the project by training our dumpsite supervisor—Raheem—on data collection and how to use a tablet.

Over the past few years, technology has been playing a larger and larger role in the developing world. Social enterprises are using technology to increase, expand, and maximize their services. Technology companies are finding ways to market their products and make them applicable to the poor. Consumers in the developing world have increasing become connected through the ubiquity of cell phones and ever-expanding access to the internet.

For us at Waste Ventures, technology enables us to monitor our field sites and track our impact. It allows us to get real-time data at our head office from our field sites (i.e., dump yards) in the far reaches of India. We can monitor everything from our workers’ salaries to the temperature of our compost. It is quite an exciting possibility, but while training Raheem, step one was simply pressing the on button.

Surrounded by compost pits and the buzz of flies, my coworker and I began by teaching Raheem to turn the tab on and off. Next was unlocking the screen and waking the tab up from sleep mode. From here, we progressed to email: logging in, composing a new message, to field, subject, compose… and then, a much needed break.

It was immensely helpful to my coworker translating with me, as he was able to relate to the local context in ways that I could not. When we moved into the mobile data collection training, my coworker was able to relate the tab to Raheem’s cell phone use. He was able to boost Raheem’s confidence that these surveys were just the ones he was doing with pen and paper, only now they would be more efficient through entering data into the tab. After some apprehension and timidity handling the tab, three days later, Raheem was off to collect data at the dump.

I returned for a second visit yesterday, and Raheem was there to greet me as I stepped off the bus. He was all smiles with the tab in his hand. As we sat down back at the Solid Waste Management Park to implement two new surveys, Raheem was eager to learn and breezed through the new data collection points. We both were excited: he was able to his job more efficiently, and I was excited to have more data flowing into my computer.

Covered in flies at the municipal dumpsite in a tier-three city in India isn’t exactly where you picture introducing someone to a tablet, email, and mobile data collection, but it fits perfectly with the irony of the dumpsite.

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Caitlin's interest in social enterprise began while working at a nonprofit research and consulting firm in Boston. This interest intersected with international development shortly thereafter while on a field study with Northeastern's Social Enterprise Institute in Cape Town, South Africa where she consulted with local township entrepreneurs. Following the field study, she worked in Hubli, Karnataka at the Deshpande Foundation for six months as a Junior Fellow. During this time, she focused on a number of the Foundation's educational programs to develop, implement, and evaluate curriculum. She also completed a research grant on the Indian higher education system and the impact social enterprises can have in higher ed. Wanting to gain more from her time in India, Caitlin later spent time studying beginning Hindi in Jaipur, Rajasthan on a Critical Language Scholarship from the U.S. Department of State. She also has experience in program assessment, research, and data analysis. Caitlin looks forward to combining all of these interests back in India as a Fellow.

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