The productivity and success of the HALI project, indeed any project stretching across borders is communications. How do our teams in the field and lab in Tanzania remain in contact with our teams at UC Davis, UC San Francisco, and University of Vermont? I’d like to say it’s simple, and it in essence it is thanks to technology. So for any other projects out there wondering how to plan, implement, and manage projects internationally, here a few helpful tools.
Cellular Networks and Text Messaging
Everyone has cell phones, even your grandmother. This extends to Tanzania, where cellular networks and cell phones are essential components and accessories in every day life. From Maasai communities in marginal and isolated areas of the Southern Highlands to downtown Iringa, cell phones are ubiquitous, and becoming very useful tools (photo at left from the LINKS project). We send and receive text messages between our US and Tanzanian teams on a regular basis. From simple reminders to scheduling of online meetings (see below), SMS text messaging has become a favorite communication strategy, especially during Manchester United matches. It is cheap, to the point, and guaranteed to deliver even in the most remote field and sampling locations. Plus, the development of USB driven 3G modems allows our team to access the internet from field camps where they are doing wildlife surveillance work and outreach activities with the HALI community. So now they can all update their Facebook accounts from the bush!
Google Apps (especially Calendar)
We use Google Calendar to share activities, locations of staff and personnel, upcoming deadlines and important dates, and things like birthdays (don’t forget the important aspects of team work!). Google Calendar is of course free, and comes in XML, iCal, and HTML formats for easy export to desktop calendar managers like Apple’s iCal and the open-source Sunbird. It is easily shared online, easily updated, and can send alerts, email reminders, and a host of useful information for your team. So now when Harrison and Muhiddin are in the field, I can see it on Calendar and instead of email I can send text message if I need a quick response. It also is embedded to our Basecamp site (see below), so all our project management information stays in one easily accessible location.
We hold regular weekly meetings using Skype. These meetings allow our Director, Jonna, to stay in touch with her favorite PhD student and PREDICT Staff Scientist Liz, and allow Harrison and I to keep on task and on the same page. While we have tried video Skype, we find it slows the bandwidth down, and frankly the time change makes doing our hair and putting on makeup for face-to-face conservation a bit difficult. I prefer to Skype in pajamas with morning coffee or with an evening glass of wine or beer from the comfort of my own home, and I think Harrison feels the same way. The best aspect of Skype is that it is free to call to another Skype customer, or to chat online, and with their call to phone fuctionallity, I can economically dial my team in the field direct to their cell phones. My mom even likes this feature to call me on my phone during trips to Iringa.
Basecamp is a bit new to us, but it has proven essential for PREDICT. Basecamp is an online project management service that allows users to post group messages, important dates and deadlines, interactive to-do lists, important files and working documents, and keep track of activities across several locations. With Basecamp, we can easily stay on the same page in California and Tanzania, and can collaborate on activities and see progress on important tasks in near real time. The Tanzania team is really getting functional on Basecamp, especially our superstar HALI administrator Zenna. While the Basecamp we use for PREDICT requires a subscription (PREDICT has multiple partners and the need for a lot of storage space and functionality), there are free versions that are excellent for managing smaller scale projects with a few users.
WebEx is a Cisco product that is pretty new to us as well. Harrison and I participated on a call with some PREDICT project folks at UC Davis just last week using the service, and it was very impressive. WebEx is an interactive online conferencing system that allows multiple users to view, control, and access one another’s desktop PCs. We were collaborating on some maps of Tanzania, and how to refine some of our wildlife disease surveillance areas. With WebEx, we all watched and participated in real-time as these maps were developed, modified, and adapted to Harrison’s needs for planning. It was pretty impressive. WebEx is not free (it requires a subscription), so I wanted to note here that Skype also allows you to “share your desktop”, just not control functionality on one another’s desktops. It’s a nice alternative if you don’t need anything that fancy.
These are just a few of the tools we use, and if you have any questions, or would like to discuss how HALI uses these, and if they may be right for you, we’re happy to help.