September 27, 2013

ENVS Blog: Mobile Devices in the Swaziland Overseas Program

Alix Finnegan relates her experience traveling to Swaziland for a summer opportunity abroad as part of a digital field scholarship project.

Alix Finnegan (ENVS 2014)

Coming into my study abroad program to Swaziland during summer 2013, I had some expectations. I wanted to meet new people, explore a new part of the world, and learn a new language. I expected to stumble through the process of independent research and come put with new skills and knowledge. I hoped to see savannas, climb mountains, and make new friends. I did not expect to come back from eight weeks in Swaziland with a deep and unrelenting desire for an iPad Mini. But I did.

Earlier in the year, Lewis & Clark’s Environmental Studies program acquired ten iPad Minis as part of their Digital Field Scholarship initiative, and I was part of the inaugural seminar on digital field scholarship in the spring that was tasked with testing the Minis. While I learned a lot and had a blast, I remember the incredulous amusement of some friends outside my major who couldn’t believe that I was taking a class that weekly sent me out into the woods to play with an iPad. In Portland, we had the iPads for only one class period at a time, and our labs sent us out into the field with a direct objective: collect temperature data for interpolation, mark GPS points, post blogs from the field. In Swaziland, it was a little different.

Our group of ten travelers used the iPads for almost anything. We shared updates, schedules, and resources as a group via Evernote, visually informing the world of our antics and adventures with Instagram, or administering our environmental health assessments. The weekend before our siSwati language test, the iPad minis made the journey to eGebeni with us and, for most of the car ride, almost everyone in the van was hunched over an iPad, using the flash card app to commit the vocabulary to memory. Sunday nights would find our group congregated on Lidwala Lodge’s porch (where we stayed during our program) with our devices, composing research updates to post on our SGE projects. We took the iPads to our NCPs, rural home stay, and on the environmental health assessment surveys to shoot or record what we saw; sometimes a small wireless printer would accompany the iPads, and we could instantly print the photos we shot for our Swazi friends or hosts. As a group, someone always carried an iPad, ready to photograph, add GPS placemarks, or check the schedule. And that person was typically me.

As the lucky one who broke her laptop charger during the first week, I was especially reliant on the versatility, flexibility, and handiness of our iPad minis for my research and work. While others could write and post on their laptops, I had a Mini and the Wordpress app. It was a bit of a rocky transition to get used to the size and keyboard, but after a week, I was unstoppable. My iPad went from something I used occasionally for email and blog posts to a necessity for recording and sharing my daily occurrences. Slipping one into my shoulder bag in the morning meant that I was prepared for any adventure the day could throw at me. One afternoon while exploring Lobamba, Jhana, Robin, and I stumbled across a group of women performing traditional dances for the members of Parliament, and I was able to record part of it on my device and later share it with the rest of our group. Another day would take me to the National Archives to do research, and my iPad doubled as a notepad for jotting quick facts and quotes I needed, and a way to record my interview with the head archivist so I could transcribe it when I got back home. I took pictures with the students at the Lobamba NCP, used the maps app to find my way back to Lidwala after a small mishap at the Mbabane bus ranks, and recorded and coded my survey data with Fulcrum and Graphs . When it came time to create posters and presentations summing up our research, I took screen shots of the many graphs, charts, and tables I made using the Graphs app, cropped and edited them with the camera, and uploaded them to a Google presentation- all without touching a mouse or keyboard.

I may have gone a bit overboard with my Mini at times; after a particularly enthusiastic day of photographing the other students, I was declared the ‘unchallenged Queen of Instagram’ by a somewhat exasperated, camera shy individual. But the way I see it, our group was on an incredible adventure of knowledge and experiences, and we were handed a powerful device to record, analyze and share it with people who wouldn’t otherwise get to experience Swaziland. Much as our Minis seamlessly linked the four EHA groups when we were in the field, they seamlessly linked us, our work, and our experiences with the rest of the world. Several of my friends who possibly couldn’t find Swaziland on a map followed our Instagram as a way of keeping in touch with me, and therefore were able to see the beauty of Mahamba Gorge, the inside of a Swazi preschool, or the hustle and bustle of Manzini Market. Kelsey’s mother read every single thing we posted on SGE and presumably learned about a whole new range of topics, from Swazi sense of place to bushmeat poaching.  The world is rich with information, and how we collect, analyze, and present that information matters. Studying abroad, I felt like any environment I entered was an opportunity to learn and understand something new, and having my trusty iPad at my side was one way to gather as much information as possible. A photo of a cow standing in the middle of the road could spark a discussion on dowries, marriage, and gender roles in Swazi society. A scavenger hunt using GPS place markers got us out and about, interacting with locals and exploring Ezulwini. And if being a small, white female doing surveys in the Lobamba Marketplace didn’t attract enough curiosity, conducting my surveys with an iPad doubled the participation as people flocked to play with it. Without an outlet to analyze and share what we learned, I can’t imagine being nearly as satisfied with my work. Graphing, mapping, writing or editing the photos, stories, and data we gathered was simple, as was sharing it. With so many outlets for presenting our work and experiences, there was something for everyone—culture experience blogs for curious fellow world-travelers, research posts for the academically-minded, Instagram for friends and family who missed our smiling faces, maps and graphs for semi-formal presentations to Parliament and All Out Africa….Those are but a few of the methods we used to share our time in Swaziland with the world.

Looking forward, I’m going to continue to collect, analyze, and share. I have a new Facebook album of photos that didn’t quite make it to Instagram while I was in Africa, and our group has a Picasa account to aggregate all of our photos in one place. The graphs and charts I made on the iPad are only the start of data manipulation for me. Armed with a new list of resources and a collection of documents from the National Archives, my work will continue back here in the states when I write my senior thesis next spring. And in the meantime, thanks to questions and comments from family and friends who saw our research posts or Instagrams, I get to keep sharing my experiences from one side of the world with the other side.