Taking Flight (Remotely) over East Africa
This is Part 1 of a four-part series of film profiles highlighting the work of students in the Masters of Public Administration in Development Practice (MPA-DP) program. This summer, 57 MPA-DP students will leave the Columbia Morningside campus to undertake 12-week summer field placements with partner organizations around the globe.
By Swetha Ramaswamy
Despite an early love affair with technology encouraged by my computer scientist, Silicon Valley-based parents, even I had a hard time envisioning a world in which I would spend a summer flying fixed wing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) over pastoral East Africa; and yet, this is exactly how I spent my summer field placement in Arusha, with the African Soil Information Service (AfSIS), as a first year MPA-DP student. Our purpose? Increasing access to quality information and data sets in order to improve agriculture yields in Tanzania and, eventually, sub-Saharan Africa at large.
Prior to entering the School of International and Public Affairs, I had spent time primarily working in education and training in a number of settings where I explored the extent to which technology could be used in improving program quality in resource-poor environments. Information and communications technology for development (ICT4D), as it is known in the international development community, is no longer a new idea, but one that is becoming more incorporated into the work we do every single day across sectors. As advances in technology are made, phones get cheaper, bandwidth more accessible, and people more comfortable, the international development community has been pushing to decrease digital divides, both in program and process.
The project I developed as an AfSIS data science fellow—creating and implementing a standard operating procedure for their UAVs—was one more opportunity to push the boundaries of social innovation. Though I had a background in ICT4D, particularly in geospatial mapping and mobile data collection, navigating the summer’s challenges required I pull from not only previous work experience, but also many of the lessons I had learned both in and out of class during my first year at SIPA.
The combination of coursework in global food systems and quantitative analysis for International and Public Affairs II gave me the background I needed to develop relevant systems to process information in a way that could be used by agricultural, technological and data scientists alike. But even beyond the classroom, SIPA honed my skills as a project manager and collaborator. So when AfSIS needed to field test protocols and train its partners, I could combine my experience in training, adult learning and capacity building with the co-creational skills that grew over the course of econ and quant problem sets.
While AfSIS focused on the development of usable tools, my value-add came in field-testing them. This summer placement gave me the chance to see more closely the way in which community politics, land management, and national history intersect; the reality of what it means to launch new ideas and products. The combination of my work experience and MPA-DP coursework gave me context to more clearly demonstrate the potential for success of new tools in Tanzania.
However, I see summer placement as just a small taste of who I hope to be as a development practitioner. As a second year student about to graduate, I very much enjoyed integrating this experience back into my classes after returning to New York.