Volunteering abroad - what's it like for tech professionals?
Jared Linnell is a Victoria University graduate who just returned from ten months volunteering with Volunteer Service Abroad (VSA) in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea. He told Kalena Jordan about his tech adventure overseas.
Q: Where were you based? What was your role?
A: I was based in Buka, in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, from February to December 2016. My role was Communications Assistant with the Autonomous Bougainville Government's (ABG) Bureau of of Public Affairs, Media and Communications. My primary task on assignment was to develop and launch an official government website and ensure that Bureau staff were able to manage it after my departure. I was also tasked with increasing the capacity of the Bureau to use digital media.
Q: How did you get started in tech?
A: At university. I have a combined Bachelor of Science DS/Bachelor of Commerce, majoring in Information Systems, from Victoria University. Basic web design was part of my major in Information Systems.
Q: In relation to your assignment, what are you most proud of achieving?
A: The launch of the website on the 15th anniversary of the Bougainville Peace Agreement on 30 August 2016 by President John Momis. Being involved with something that could be a defining moment for Bougainville. To see the pride that the website produced in colleagues and the enthusiasm and support shown by the President.
Also running a two-day workshop to teach people how to use MS Office. Some of them started not even knowing how to use a mouse and ended up being able to create graphs in MS Excel. You could see how thrilled they were to have new skills.
Q: What are some of the major challenges of working in a remote location like Bougainville?
A: It's difficult for people back home to fully appreciate the atmosphere and extent of issues in a place like Bougainville. You have to be willing to challenge misgivings that you have about living in Papua New Guinea. Bougainville has a much better safety environment than the rest of PNG and I felt very safe and welcome. You need to make good use of food by sharing. Generosity and reciprocation will quickly earn you good relationships and opportunities to bond.
Q: How common is digital technology i.e. mobile phones/tablets and internet usage in Bougainville?
A: Mobile phones are common and Internet usage widespread, however, there is no wifi in Bougainville. So data sticks, flexi cards and mobile data hot spots are how the locals get their access. Cards can be purchased all over Bougainville and pre-purchased data is available in time or credit-based packages. It's amazing to think that many Bougainville residents have gone from living in the bush to using smart phones in the last ten years.
Q: How do the locals respond to volunteers coming in to work?
A: Kiwis are generally put on a very high pedestal by Bougainvilleans. Much of this stems from New Zealand's key role in brokering theceasefire in 1998. But it's also due to our nature. We generally respect our position as guests in someone else's home and we don't assume to know what works best or try to assert our values on another culture. We generally go in with a "can do" attitude and ask what people need.
Q: What was different about working with technology in Bougainville versus New Zealand?
A: It has consistently unreliable power and internet connectivity. Funding is limited and access to technology and hardware or software is difficult. Because of access to parts and cost, repairs aren't common in Bougainville. For example, there were several large printers standing idle at the Bureau because they had minor repairs needed but there was no facility to take care of these. New printers would simply be purchased to replace the old ones as it was cheaper than trying to source parts.
At our MS Office workshop, there were 20 computers but only seven of them worked properly. We had regular power cuts, so then the diesel generators would kick in, blasting fumes around. But everyone would just keep working - that's just par for the course in Bougainville!
Q: What do you think you will remember the most about your time as a VSA volunteer in Bougainville?
A: I'll remember the organised chaos of Buka town - overloaded trucks, people chewing beetlenut, the colours, the sheer randomness of things. I'll also remember being collected by a car for an unplanned meeting with the President (in my jandals) to show him the website!
Q: How is the media different in Bougainville versus New Zealand? Are their cultural issues or sensitivities you need to be aware of?
A: Everything in the media in PNG is emotionally charged and sparks intense debate online. The social media and newspaper content is very emotional, very raw and honest and there is little sense of privacy or sensitivity. For example, full crime details are published in the media. The idea of such free press is refreshing, although culturally strange at first.
Q: How well accepted has the Bureau's website been?
A: Extremely well accepted, particularly by the President. It was built using Expression Engine and I conducted training before I left to ensure staff were capable of managing the site un-aided.
Q: What is digital security like in Bougainville?
A: Viruses are rampant in Bougainville. Pretty much every computer is infected, mainly because people's anti-virus software has expired and no-one knows how to update it. I actually ran an Electronic Day Spa in Chabai where people would bring in their laptops to be checked for viruses, have boot problems fixed and have their antivirus software updated. I found one laptop that had 96 viruses on it.
Q: What's next for you? Would you volunteer overseas again?
A: Yes, I definitely would. But first I want to build up a solid workplace skillset and experience. I'll be taking up an Information Systems role here in New Zealand, but first, I have a family vacation trip to Europe planned.
If you're interested in a volunteer experience of your own, VSA has short and long term tech roles available regularly across the wider Pacific.
An experienced IT journalist, educator and blogger, Kalena Jordan looks after online communications for Volunteer Service Abroad [http://www.vsa.org.nz], New Zealand's largest and most experienced volunteer agency. When she's not glued to social media, she's writing her novel, failing to find tricky geocaches or embarrassing herself in hip hop Zumba classes.
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