The Pilot

by admin on March 13, 2010

(posted by Erica Gralla, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti)

All my philosophical thoughts about measurement (from yesterday’s blog post) ran head-on into reality today. We can think about measurement all we want, its purposes and pitfalls, but actually carrying it out makes the challenges and the importance clearer. Back in Boston, everything was happening in some distant place I saw through pictures and understood through abstract sets of numbers. Here in the US Embassy, with its air conditioning and marble floors, reality is a bit closer (emphasized by the constant presence of army guys in camo with guns strapped to their hips) but still distant enough to keep some perspective. In the camp we visited today, it seemed so irrelevant to think about methodology when it was absolutely clear that a rainstorm would devastate the entire place (at least to my layman’s eye). But of course, that’s precisely the challenge – we need something better than my layman’s eye to figure out what’s really needed in the camp. And therefore, we need to collect data… so without further ado, the story of The Pilot.

The pilot is really a test of the survey itself, the process of carrying out the survey, and all the technical and human support that makes it possible. The goal was to carry out a small version of a real data collection. We would go to the big camp at the Petionville golf course, send five surveyors out to do interviews, and observe each interview to note question timing, misunderstandings, and other problems. It didn’t help that the entire survey would be conducted in Kreyol, so we needed Kreyol-speaking observers to help. This morning, we were still attempting to consolidate all the changes to the survey questions, enter them into GRT’s devices, and get the surveyors out into the camp to test the instrument. We got up at 4am to print out copies of the latest version of the survey so that observers could take notes on each interview. By 7:45, we were ready for the long drive (in constant Haitian traffic) out to the golf course. Out here (not very close to downtown Port-au-Prince), many or even most of the buildings are still standing, showing some damage but not devastation. But then every few houses or every few blocks (depending on the area) you see a building at a crazy angle or completely collapsed into a pile of pulverized cinder blocks. It’s a shocking and sobering sight.

The camp we visited was at the Petionville golf club. We drove up a winding road, through a checkpoint staffed by American soldiers, and into a parking lot shaded by palm trees. We walked out of the parking lot and into what must have been a fancy golf club bar, with wooden tables cut from big tree trunks and surrounded by fancy chairs. A few aid workers and several American soldiers were relaxing in the shade, with a view of a swimming pool (empty of water). This was not at all what I expected from an IDP camp. We sat in the shade to wait for the others to arrive.

Eventually, everyone had joined us: an assessment coordinator from the United Nations, the contractor and surveyors who would carry out the pilot, and several observers who would help us understand how well the survey was going. We had some technical problems with the data recording devices, we discussed issues with the survey design, and all of a sudden we were ready to go. I was to follow a surveyor along with another Bostonian who spoke Kreyol. And so we followed the surveyors through the parking lot and down a road into what was suddenly a very busy IDP camp. The crowds appeared almost immediately, and we had to squeeze through people and jump out of the way of wheelbarrows carrying food bags down the path. It only got more crowded as we followed the path down, until we saw soldiers supervising a food distribution and long, long lines of women waiting to receive their food (we were told by camp residents that women receive the cards that enable them to get food). We finally made it past the crowds at the distribution site, and the surveyors split up to find households to approach.

We followed our surveyor off the path as he approached a woman sitting outside of a tent. Her “tent” was not much more than four sticks with sheets draped around them, but she had a chair to sit on and shade to sit under. My fellow Bostonian and I stood awkwardly a few feet behind the surveyor on the slope of a hill, as he requested the woman’s permission to ask her some questions. We stood in the shade on rough “steps” cut into the dried mud of the hill, as he asked about access to food and water, the health of the woman and her children, sanitation in the camp, safety, and education. As we stood, a crowd gathered, and people started trying to join in the interview and answer the questions. The interview was supposed to last only about half an hour, but we stood there for 50 minutes. At the end of the interview, the woman asked the surveyor what he would do with the answers to the questions, and how he would improve life for those in the camp and for her family. These are tough questions to answer as a surveyor, and tough questions to answer as an MIT student standing there watching. What impact will those answers, and the survey in general, have on the lives of people in the camp?

This is a bigger question than I can answer right now. Particularly since it’s late and it’s been a long day, and I’m not used to this “blogging” deal. I hope you’ll forgive my disjointed storytelling, and my inability to convey the truth of the experience. I’m hoping, as they say, a picture can tell the story better than my late-night attempts.

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