What I've Been Up To

Corey writes:

It’s been a while since I did a summary work post so I want to update everyone on what I’ve been doing. The server computer has been a real success story. It’s still being used and has become institutionalised. People now use the server to share files instead of pen drives (mostly) and all of the data is being backed up properly. We’re also able to monitor the staff Internet usage which makes my boss happy. In addition to the server project, there have been some additional computing infrastructure changes that have really improved things at SOVA.

A big new inverter

Since most of our readers live in places with good power grids, I’ll assume you don’t know what this is. I didn’t before coming to India. It’s basically a box hooked up to a bunch of car batteries. In this case, 20 of them. When there is power on the grid, the box charges up the car batteries. When there is no power on the grid, the box uses the batteries to power the outlets in the building. This means we can continue working on our computers and on the Internet for up to 8 hours without power. All this comes at a price, however, in this case around $3,500.

It’s been well worth it in my mind, and has really changed my outlook at work. It’s so demotivating when you want to send an e-mail or research a problem, or just type a blog entry and the power goes out. During last rainy season there were days when we would have no power from 11am to 5pm. People would just wander around the office chatting or reading magazines, bored out of their minds. Then they would sprint to the computers as soon as the power came back, often to have it go again after 5 minutes.

I helped SOVA to research their inverter options and to get competitive quotes from 3 different vendors. I also wrote some terms of reference for the vendor to ensure that SOVA gets proper support. Last, I helped make sure the electricians wired up the outlets to the inverter properly.

A bigger and faster Internet plan

This was a struggle with my boss for a long time. He kept insisting that our Internet bills were so high because people were misusing the Internet. I was able to use the data from the server logs to show him that in fact, people were not watching YouTube all day. Once he agreed, I helped him choose a new Internet plan and fought the long fight (i.e. at least 5 in-person visits) with BSNL bureaucracy to get it changed. Now our connection is twice as fast and our monthly download limit is 3 times greater. No more big monthly bills for going over the limit.

A management information system

I’ve also been working with the HIV/AIDS project to try to develop a good set of data collection forms and an Access database to store the data. I’ve trained the staff on how to use the forms to collect data and I’ve trained the MIS coordinator on how to use the Access database to enter data and generate reports. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of data we got back from the field workers after the first month. I hope this trend continues.

In addition to this work for SOVA, I’ve been outsourced (get it?) to other organisations as well. At the end of May I traveled to Bhubaneswar along with the SOVA Programme Manager to present some of our work to the funding agency. They were pleased and have asked me to come back for a week at the end of July to help their other partners get their monitoring & evaluation in line.

Traveling IT consultant

This past weekend I traveled to Rayagada, about 4 hours away from Koraput, to do an intense 3-day IT overhaul at another VSO partner organisation. I was invited there by my fellow volunteer Sheila. I was really looking forward to this trip, as I got to do a bunch of geeky things like formatting computers, installing a network switch and a network-attached-storage device. NAS’s are really perfect for small non-profit organisations as they provide a way to share files in a secure way, as well as automatically back them up. Up until 3 or 4 years ago, this meant a dedicated server computer, costing upwards of $2,000. However these little consumer NAS devices are available for around $300 plus the cost of hard drives. I wrapped up my visit with a 6 hour training session on things like website management, backup & recovery, Office 2010, and a network diagram.

The bad news

All this sounds pretty cool, I admit. These thing are what I envisioned when I signed up for VSO. However, none of this stuff started happening until about five months ago. Before that, I had developed many forms and databases, and trained people on how to use them, begged them to use them, only to be ignored. I fought for 3 months to get our domain transferred to a new company so we could have our own @sovakoraput.org e-mail addresses (at my boss's request) and once they were created, no one used them. Even after training and hand-holding and transferring all the old e-mails to the new accounts. Still to this day, they are largely ignored, even by my boss. I sacrificed my one day off (Sunday) to give trainings on Excel, Word, etc. (again at everyone's request) and then had no one show up.

I'm not complaining, I just want to present a realistic picture about what my VSO work experience has been. I know many other people have the same experience. But the key for me has been perseverance. That's a lesson I'll take with me when I leave India and keep for the rest of my professional life.