The Beauty of Bio-Gas Digesters

In November, 2011, I took a trip to Nepal to visit an international development NGO called CHOICE Humanitarian.  I met the organization’s former CEO earlier in the year and was struck by the statistics he presented—contrary to many NGOs’ M.O.s, the rural villages that CHOICE works with have an abnormally high success rate after CHOICE’s involvement is over.  Their model of teaching leadership over the course of their development projects trains villagers to take control of their own further development, so when CHOICE leaves, they’re self-motivated and empowered to keep their own improvements going.

After five days volunteering in the office, getting to know CHOICE and how they operate, and exploring Kathmandu, I joined CHOICE’s Kiran Neupane on a trip to visit a few of the villages CHOICE works with.  We were accompanied by a few members of Kathmandu’s Rotary Club which was supporting some of their work and we stayed two nights in villagers’ homes. CHOICE and the villages we visited were preparing to launch a new home-stay-based trekking route the following month and we were a friendly group to give them a trial run.

The people were friendly, open and wonderful as Kiran checked on and showed us the progress in different villages.  CHOICE works on a variety of projects, letting the villagers decide their own priorities, and we saw a few schools and a health outpost tucked into the steeply sloping hills and cascading rice paddies.  But one recurring item really struck me as I saw them installed in many villagers’ households—the bio-gas digester.

What is a bio-gas digester and how does it work?

* Time to check your squeamishness at the door.  We’re about to talk about poop and pee.  We all make it, we all have to do something with it, and here’s a way to harness some good from it. *

how a bio-gas digester works - illustration

(click image to enlarge)

Continue reading

Research vs. Journalism

In this thought-provoking presentation at TEDxBoulder, Leslie Dodson, a researcher and journalist discusses the shared traits and objectives of researchers and journalists and how they inherently clash, and she challenges us to be more discerning in how we represent other people in any field.

I really enjoyed her point about researchers and journalists and I hadn’t thought about that before.  They both seek out information in the form of data, observations, interviews, and photographic evidence.  And they both collect, compile and present that information.  Both seek to tell a story through collected data, but the journalist needs that information to be personal and to sate the appetites of readers and viewers consuming a story, sometimes as entertainment, sometimes as an appeal for support.  The researchers want anonymity, to remove the personal and keep it objective.  As a researcher and a journalist, Dodson must compartmentalize each and make sure she doesn’t corrupt the research while keeping the journalistic storytelling interesting.

As designers, we also have both tasks.  Research must be objective in order to inform us accurately, so that we can then work to create solutions that succeed.  But we also need to tell a compelling story in pitching our designs to clients, funders, and even back to the people and communities we researched.  There is a challenge in not over-simplifying or reducing people or whole populations to caricatures or cartoons and taking away their power by taking away their complexity.  We do have to generalize based on samples of populations and collections of personal stories, and in selling, creating characters is often a useful tool.  But we must remember to be careful riding that line, so that we continue to help the people and communities we serve, not undermine them by representing them in over-simplified ways.

In addition, Dodson points to the popularity of oversimplification in NGO communication materials, especially graphic representation, catchy names and slogans.  As iconic as the shape of the continent has become, it might even feel like just one country with one people and a few major issues we can tackle quite simply if we all just pitch in a few bucks.  But Africa is a continent with over 50 countries, over 2,000 languages, and a whole spectrum of issues, from disaster to prosperity.  Oversimplification is misleading, and may work against the needs of the people on that continent.

The tough part is that we see examples where simplification helps donors feel like there is hope in a manageable situation succeed.  So the question remains for each designer to continue asking themselves through every stage of their work, whether applied to Africa, development around the world or to any community we’re trying to serve: “in this case, does simplification help or hurt the cause?”