Crowdsourcing Deshpande Challenges
Monday, August 16th, 2010
We sat in a large circle in the seminar room of the DCSE building. It was my first day in Hubli. â€śDeshâ€ť Deshpande was there with his wife, Jaishree, too. For most of us, this was our first time in India and we didnâ€™t know quite what to expect. The room was starting to fill with anxiety and it was apparent from our faces. Desh sat a few chairs down from his wife in a seat directly in front of the stageâ€“ it was the perfect spot. He was the boss, the one running the Deshpande show. Softly smiling and examining the room, he looked around and asked us three simple questions: What is your name? Where are you from? And, why are you here? One by one, we went around the room. The first two questions were simple. But surprisingly nobody answered his third questionâ€“ nobody! Most answers to the third question sounded something like this: â€śThe project Iâ€™m working on this summer isâ€¦â€ť Maybe it was the pressure of being in a large room full of people or maybe it was that no one had anything powerful and provocative to say, but we all defaulted to a question he never askedâ€“ What are you doing here? Looking back on it now, the best answer to his third question was just as simple as the first twoâ€“ to learn.
And thatâ€™s what our team did this summer. We learned and saw a lot- that, by far, was our biggest success. The fact that we were able to experience India through four different sectors provided us with a well-balanced and fair understanding of some of the biggest challenges faced in this country. The raw information we collected in the areas of Education, Agriculture, Health, and Livelihood was captivating, eye opening, and at times shocking. With that information, we were able to accomplish the following tasks:
- Interviews: six NGOs, three government officials, two journalists, four doctors, and one politician
- Field visits: five village visits, three school visits, and a visit to Karnataka University
- Footage: 20 hours of footage
- Videos: two videos completed (education, agriculture) and one in process (health)
- Documents: Developing Challenge Videos Manual, Sangha Process Flow Diagram
There were many obstacles along the way. From delayed and postponed interviews to illnesses within the team, we experienced a range of impeding challenges that constantly tested our ability to stay poised. Initially, our biggest challenge arose when we discovered we didnâ€™t have a way to offload video from the camera and onto our hard drive for editing. After a week of getting the run-around at local tech shops with faulty and nonexistent computer equipment, we discovered that a colleague had the ability to transfer the data via his laptop. Challenge #1, solved. The next challenge, and undoubtedly the most significant challenge, was getting our web platform developed. The feasibility of our projectâ€™s biggest component was essentially an unknown for weeks until we were able to develop a relationship with a qualified web developer. After making a connection through a DF staffer, we were able to make a trip out to Bangalore, meet with the development team, discuss our design, and create a timeline for final delivery. Iâ€™m happy to say the website is now in the process of being built.
Even with all the setbacks, the experience this summer was incredible and full of many lessons gathered along the way. My time in India has taught me just how important patience and communication are when working in a foreign country. And working with such a diverse group of people from many different backgrounds has exposed me to others’ talents, skills, experiences, and knowledge. And if I can be remotely honest with myself, I know thereâ€™s still a lot more to be learned.
Thursday, July 22nd, 2010
The Deshpande Center for Social Entrepreneurship or DCSE (pictured above) has Ă˘â‚¬â€śover the course of the last six weeksĂ˘â‚¬â€ś become my home away from home, my office, and the reason I and nine other USC students have come to India. Started in 1996 by Gururaj and Jaishree Deshpande, the Deshpande Foundation is one of the worldĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s foremost philanthropic organizations dedicated to social change through innovation, entrepreneurship, and international development. As Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“innovatorsĂ˘â‚¬Âť for the FoundationĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s 2010 Global Exchange Program, my university colleagues and I have partnered up in teams to design projects we are currently implementing this summer in the Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“SandboxĂ˘â‚¬Âť region of Karnataka.
Given the Deshpande FoundationĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s vision for development and innovation through global exchange, it should be by no surprise then that the DCSE building itself is innovativeĂ˘â‚¬â€ś architecturally speaking. Located at the southern end of the BVB College of Engineering and Technology, the home of the Deshpande Foundation utilizes unique form, expanding space, and a varied palette of construction materials. DonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t get me wrong, the building is by no means an architectural wonder. But with its distinct design concept and construction methodology, along with its 10,000 liter rainwater harvesting system and extensive stormwater management, the DCSE is by far the most innovative building on campus.
What does this have to do with anything, you might ask? Well, first let me ask you this. Do you think itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s a mere coincidence that the organization most preaching innovation is the one with the most innovative building? ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s no coincidence. The Deshpandes clearly had a vision. They understood that physically taking an individual out of a literal Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“boxĂ˘â‚¬Âť building was the first and most important step in helping that person to start thinking outside the box i.e. thinking innovatively or creatively. Quite simply, they Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“encourageĂ˘â‚¬Âť us Ă˘â‚¬â€ś whether we know it or not Ă˘â‚¬â€ś to be innovative by making the environment around us innovative. Think about it, it makes sense! With that said, very few things exist outside of the Deshpande Foundation in India that encourage creativity, imagination, or innovation.
I have just briefly discussed this issue from a physical perspective, but letĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s take a look at it using both categories: mental constraints vs physical constraints to creativity in India.
Take IndiaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s primary education system, for example. Like education in the U.S or in other western countries, India rewards its students for memorization. Like us, they too have quizzes and exams that test their studentsĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ ability to memorize things they have either read or learned in class. But unlike the U.S., India doesnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t offer subjective learning- mainly in the form of art. Drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and many other creativity-demanding activities donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t exist in IndiaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s primary school curriculums, whether public or private. Walk into a classroom here and you wonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t see any of the childrenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s artwork hanging around the classroom. Why? Because they donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t do it.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Why is it that no original research is being done in India?Ă˘â‚¬Âť asked Dr. Sanjeev Kulkarni, a practicing gynecologist and founder of Baala Balaga, a progressive Indian school located in the nearby city of Dharwad. Dr. Kulkarni decided to start his own Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“schoolĂ˘â‚¬Âť Ă˘â‚¬â€ś from the front room of his houseĂ˘â‚¬â€ś for his young son after seeing the limits IndiaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s education system places on students. Now in its 14th year, Baala Balaga (www.baalabalaga.org) has grown into a legitimate school composed of three building complexes and roughly 500 students. Here, the belief is in learn by doing, where activities like drawing, cooking, and sports are an integral part of the curriculum just like mathematics and science. For Dr. Kulkarni, these types of nonconventional activities sometimes offer the same value, if not more value, over the course of childĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s life than traditional school topics.
Baala Balaga is not the only school with this type of unique philosophy. The Blue School (http://www.theblueschool.org/) in lower Manhattan offers a similar approach to learning where creativity, collaboration, and play are vital to a childĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s learning process. In a similar story (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html), Ken Robinson explains the limits traditional schools place on the imagination and how they kill creativity in children rather than foster it. Mental constraints arenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t the only killers of creativity. Physical constraints are there also.
IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘d like to talk about physical constraints for creativity in India on two levels, the building level (individual) and the city level (societal). I talk about these constraints from the perspective of human collaborationĂ˘â‚¬â€śthe foundation of our teamĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s project this summer. To understand this, weĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll first have to agree on two things: human interaction is a prerequisite of human collaboration and human collaboration advances human imagination.
Individual, or building level constraints apply more to small groups, such as families or classrooms of students. Going back to IndiaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s education system, the physical design, or lack thereof, of schools and classrooms greatly puts students at a disadvantage to be imaginative and interactive. If you can recall my earlier argument about the design of the DCSE building and how literally being inside an actual Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“boxĂ˘â‚¬Âť presumably traps a person from thinking outside the boxĂ˘â‚¬Â¦..then youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll understand my problem when I say the design of nearly every public and private classrooms that IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve seen in India- with the exception of Dr. KulkarniĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s classrooms- is in the form of an enclosed box that isolates students from one another. With steel bars on the windows, the rooms look more like prison cells than classrooms. WhereĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s the creativity in that?
Moreover, public schools donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t provide the basic infrastructure for children to learn, let alone be creative. About three weeks ago, my team and I did a ride-along with the education NGO Agastya to a local government school. To my surprise, the children had to sit on the concrete floor because there werenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t enough chairs. There werenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t enough tables or books either. We later learned that the children neither had a suitable toilet nor clean drinking water; to use the bathroom, they had to go to nearby fields, and to get water, they used a pond across the road. As they later told us, all they really wanted was a proper playground to play with one another.
Have you (referring to my USC colleagues) ever asked yourself what purpose the courtyard in our Scholars House serves? Is it just for natural light and ventilation? Is it simply a garden for plants? Or was it meant to be something more? If you havenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t noticed, our Indian neighbors on the second floor have placed plastic chairs around the perimeter of the courtyard; they sit there and talk. Why? Because they want to use the courtyard. They want to be able to sit and interact with each other and the other people living here. They want this to be their playground. Think about it and ask yourself this: does the design of this courtyard- or the schools that weĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve visited for that matter- encourage interaction?
The physical design of the city is just as unresolved when it comes to human interaction in my opinion. Like our courtyard, the major issue with Hubli lies with the use, or nonuse, of its streets and public open spaces. Wait, let me back up for a second. Public open spaces donĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t even exist in Hubli! Other than the one public park that IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ve been to in this city, the closest thing youĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll get to a public open space is the crowded downtown market. Yes, the surrounding streets support high levels of pedestrian traffic, but itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s chaotic and thereĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s nowhere to sit. I have to stand to drink my coconut or eat my ice cream, while keeping one eye on the road so not to get run over by a bus. Streets hereĂ˘â‚¬â€ś and in most other Indian citiesĂ˘â‚¬â€ś rarely offer spaces of stasis. No areas to just sit and observe the human experience, the daily routine, or the Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“social dramaĂ˘â‚¬Âť of the city as Lewis Mumford so eloquently once put it. Time spent in this city seems more like a constant scatter of empty experiences, waiting to be realized. Interaction on these streets is sparse and swift at best- often with little or no substance. Even with all the curiosity and interest that I and my friends attract, we rarely interact with people on the street. Can you remember the last time you had a conversation with someone on the street? With 1.2 million people, the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad offer some of the densest and least pedestrian-friendly streets I have set foot on. And yet we ask where the community involvement is? Where is the collective living?!
Hypothetically speaking now, just imagine for a second what Hubli could look like if streets connected activity-rich public spaces that actually brought people together for a purpose, like well-planned parks or plazas. Imagine outdoor shops and restaurants that incorporated dance performances, festivals, and Indian weddings, bringing different parts of the community together. WhoĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s to say it’s not possible? IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘m not saying I have the solution. But what I do know is that HubliĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s current physical and mental formwork suppresses the two most essential elements of growth: creativity and collaboration.
Albert Einstein once famously said, Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of lifeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s coming attractions.Ă˘â‚¬Âť Unfortunately in Hubli, imagination is a rare and difficult thing to find. But luckily for my teammates and I this summer, creativity and collaboration shouldnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t be an issue. Because if Wikipedia is our model for collaboration and the rest of the world is our imagination, I canĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t wait to see the attractions life has in store for Hubli!
Wednesday, July 21st, 2010
I am from Cleveland. Recent sports media events have increased the relevance of this fact from Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“negligibleĂ˘â‚¬Âť to Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“immensely personal.Ă˘â‚¬Âť The impact of Lebron JamesĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers has devastated my home town. But, to understand this and its implications for our work here in Hubli, you must first understand what it means to be from Cleveland.
Cleveland, OH is the junkyard dog of cities. ItĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s been deemed Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“The Mistake By the Lake.Ă˘â‚¬Âť It experiences roughly 300 cloudy days per year. Depression and obesity rates are unquestionably high. The cityĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s economic peak was in the 1930s (saw it on a PBS special), and it has subsequently suffered from sprawl and hosted serious racial unrest. It was the first city to enter default since the Depression. Even the mighty Cuyahoga River, dumping ground for the cityĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s industrial giants, famously caught fire in 1969. But, with a ragged tenacity, the people of Cleveland have hung on to an eerie sense of optimism about the city they call home. Although Cleveland has been plagued by a history of economic, media, and sports mishaps (read: The Drive), it was united by a single hope in 2003. That hope was 18-year-old Lebron James, first round draft pick for the Cleveland Cavaliers. IĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll spare you the details, but over the past seven years, he has become a symbol for the the city, brought the Cavs to four playoff appearances, one NBA Finals appearance, and brought some much-needed respect back to the city.
Most Clevelanders felt the stinging pain of rejection and anger at LebronĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s decision to play for the Miami Heat and the arrogance of his media spectacle. How could he turn on his own city? Where was the sense of legacy, of class and team play (see: the Jordan years). Where was the passion for a team victory over individual career advancement? Granted, he is now much more likely to get a ring with Wade and Bosh…but I firmly believe that not all victories are created equal.
My point is this: Disappointment comes in all forms; the strength of a team, of a community, lies in its ability to cope with change, manage expectations, and appropriately assess its long-term goals. And, while itĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s much easier to put individual interests ahead of team objectives, true success is measured through overall impact. An ideal victory is a situation in which the outcome is greater than the sum of its parts. This doesnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t happen easily or quickly.
As a team, we have met with a host of unexpected and at times, unfortunate events. From the beginning, we have had to revise our focus. We expanded from initially documenting the DFĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s InnovatorĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Challenges and are now investigating the most deeply-rooted challenges in each of the FoundationĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s program areas. This has meant broadening the scope of our interviews and documentaries… long story short, more work for us. When it came time to actually begin our work, we encountered a healthy amount of red tape to navigate before obtaining our recording materials. We have also had to deal with a lag in our timeline for meeting and working with our web developers. We even lost a teammate for a week due to illness (thankfully, heĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s made a full recovery). So, how do we continue to recover from these setbacks? We stay calm, we revise our strategy, we communicate. We cut back on our expectations from others and focus on the work that sits in front of us. We remind ourselves that our team goals come first.
Malleability allows a team, a city, to move forward. Like Cleveland, we have to regroup, adapt, and remember that no success comes without some setbacks. We have to balance long-term outcomes with short-term decisions. WeĂ˘â‚¬â„˘ll get there… we just have to stay positive, make smart decisions, and maintain that dawg-pound tenacity that defines us.
Saturday, July 17th, 2010
I came to India to get experience developing and executing an entrepreneurial idea and to gain international exposure to NGO work. My experience in the US had quickly taught me that a nonprofit organization’s approach to working in one city required a different approach to working in another city. I knew that regional differences played a significant role and anticipated that India’s would only be magnified, but to what degree and to what dimension I had no clue. In my nearly five weeks working in India, I’ve quickly learned what I came here seeking. Entrepreneurship is no doubt difficult, but doing it in rural India requires twice the input and gets you only half the output. Never had the words, “you will soon appreciate the small wins,” rang so true.
Everyday is a new day and never like the one before. When we first arrived we focused heavily on meeting with foundation staff to begin understanding the challenges in the area and develop contacts throughout the region. When not in meetings, we were discussing our web platform and wireframing the webpages to pass along to our web developers.
As we began developing our local sea legs, we soon became all too familiar with “the runaround.” The runaround is everywhere. A task that should take five minutes takes five days. Things that are promised are rarely delivered without persistent pressure. Good communication (not to be confused with translation problems) is hard to come by and passing the buck is standard operating protocol. These are all part of a culture, which for thousands of years has tolerated with great patience bureaucracy, a sense of individualism, and in my opinion, a lack of trust, which I think is at the heart of why you can never find the decision maker when you need a simple task completed, and why when things go wrong everyone wants to point their finger to the next person. Without accountability the job is always harder.
Having learned to recalibrate expectations we have continued to pursue our work in the field, meeting, interviewing and filming NGO leaders, government officials, journalists, professionals, farmers and villagers. If logistics are the tortoise of our project, then getting an interview is the hare. When people hear you are a student from the US, it becomes your VIP pass to speak with whomever you want, even without an appointment. And they have no problem opening up their mobile contact lists to you either. Whether it was the Commissioner of the Municipal Development Corporation, who overseas 1.2 million people, or the most successful businessmen in the region, getting their numbers, speaking to them on the phone, and setting up a meeting was no problem - in fact, almost too easy.
With already 15 hours of footage, we split our time pursuing new leads and editing clips to help frame the challenges we seek to present. Beyond all the day-to-day operations, this has been our biggest challenge. There are no shortage of problems to be solved, for example in the education sector, but determining which issues are systematic and which could have potential to be addressed by the general public with a sustainable, scaleable solution is always a debate. And ensuring our time is spent wisely is a guessing game. When we travel four hours to a remote village to interview farmers about their involvement in their child’s education, it’s a total crapshoot whether the information we gather will be pertinent to our project’s objectives. Some days require so much time and energy, yet provide little reward for the project, beyond the personal experience we can take home with us.
Beyond the personal challenges of work are the personal challenges of maintaining proper health. After four weeks of eating in the local restaurants, in villages and transitioning from bottled to filtered water, my stomach and I felt most invisible, with the exception of the minor discomfort from time to time. But as soon as I thought I had begun developing an immunity to the spices and dubious cleanliness of food preparation, I was knocked off my feet, admitted to the hospital with a food-borne virus. Right when I thought I was in a good zone with respect to my body and my project, everything nearly came crashing down. If it weren’t for the support of my team, our project may have been derailed while I lay incapacitated.
India is a challenging place to work. And where I am, in the rural enclaves, life is much slower and more conservative. On one level, I can’t say I would want to work in an environment like this again. I must acknowledge that I am biased by the struggle of being away from my fiance for so long, but there is more to my sentiment that resides here in India. I have accepted my new temporary home, but I often find myself fighting the cultural norms. I know change is slow, and I’m not expecting to change the world overnight, but its the small things, like getting a computer cord, which require four visits to the computer shop after four separate promises that it would arrive that evening, and the next, and the next and the next. It’s arriving at a meeting, and waiting five hours for it to get started. It’s meeting with a doctor and asking him a question about your test results and receiving a look of contempt as if it was an affront to ask a question of such an educated man of status. And the gender disequalities, while not oppressive, are disheartening.
But when I pull back and see the forest from the trees, I come away more optimistic from this experience. There has been a lot of amazing things about working with the people in India. Most are gracious, friendly and willing to help. They have taught me so much about their culture, and through the process, have educated me of the challenges of international development. I haven’t even finished my project and yet I know that grown through the richness of experience, which has made the journey all the more satisfying.
Saturday, July 10th, 2010
It was like any other night, a disagreeable stomach, a case of the voms and a session nerding out to NPR’s podcast of Science Friday with Ira Flatow. Alright Ira, lay it on me - are we heading down the path of the metphase karyotype of microchromosomes into heterochromatin (oh, i think i just vomited again), or are we entering bush league territory, where a set of ears and a pulse gets you admission? Fortunate for me and my temperamental GI system, the science gods had coated me in their pink bath of pepto bismol compassion. Tonight’s topic: maintaining your privacy in the world of social networks. Flatow please, I dream in tweets; I eat digital facebook gifts for breakfast; Mark Zuckerberg and I share the last four letters in our names. Consider it cake.
So here I am, not even a minute into the podcast when Ira starts talking about how the US Library of Congress plans to archive every single tweet. Come again?
Look, I know that I made some privacy tradeoffs when I entered the realm of Facebook and Twitter. Heck, I’m sure there are some NSA brass trolling my accounts right now, questioning whether my post on the superiority of Middle Eastern and Indian food is a legitimate culinary critique or a reason to ship me to Gitmo.
But what the Library of Congress is doing is far more intrusive, almost creepy. They’re grabbing my information - without permission - and parading it around town with impunity, giving every wingding, dumbbell and lawyer (love you, honey!) a field day. Even if I erased my account, I could not escape the Library’s archived history of my snarky comments and links, like this regrettable blog post you will soon see on my twitter page.
So will this change my social media ways? Never.
If I’ve learned anything in India, it’s that our concept of privacy is evolving towards greater openness. As we begin to understand the full ramifications of our online social presence, we’ll soon realize that we are already behind the curve. Walk into any village in India, ask them how much they make, ask them how educated they are, ask them if they are able to afford to put food on the table. It doesn’t matter if 30 other villagers of differing incomes or social strata are listening in, there are no secrets - none. Sit in my room for a day and wait as one of the house staffers walks in without knocking, or an Indian compadre comes to greet you only after walking around to see what’s on your computer screen. Hop onto an overcrowded bus, where shoulder-shoulder standing is sometimes replaced with lapsitting, or on the street, where boys and men of all ages, walk hand in hand, or arm-around-shoulder, sometimes spanning four bodies in length. Witness the abundance of conversation happening all around you among people who met only minutes ago. Even with the remnants of a disappearing caste system, there are no self-imposed barriers here, there is no privacy.
For a civilization dating back nearly 9,000 years, maybe India is on to something. Maybe our relationship with Facebook and Twitter is just a realization of our own inevitable societal journey from the breaking of privacy blockades towards an embrace of openness; we’re just 8,766 years behind.
I believe our civil liberties are our most cherished rights as Americans - I was once a card carrying member of the ACLU. And I’m not about to give up all the comforts of my American privacy lifestyle, but if the Library of Congress wants to take my cherished tweets away from me and my 36 followers, fine, they can have them. If India is any indication, the Library of Congress is the one already behind the curve.
Any other Library of Congress types out there interested in archiving my tweets can do so using my Twitter handle: @JPGberg