[Part 1] Tech Consulting in the Wild

By Evans Campbell
iHub Consulting
  Published 11 Apr 2015
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[Part 1] Tech Consulting in the Wild

The Problem

Last year the iHub had the pleasure of hosting the MIT Media Lab for their off-site visit to Kenya. In that time, we managed to make a joint trip to Wildlife Works offices — located in the crucial migratory corridor between Tsavo East and Tsavo West. Our aim then was to establish what problems technology such as sensors and various software could help solve out in the poaching-affected area. We learnt a lot on this fact-finding mission — for example, the area to be covered spans 14 large ranches, so sensors may not be as feasible as we initially thought. We eventually settled on creating an app that would ease the data collection processes currently used by Wildlife Works rangers and embarked on developing a prototype late last year. This field trip was organised for us to get even further perspective from the intended end-users of the app: the Wildlife Works rangers and research team.

The iHub Team

The following chaps were based in the Tsavo Discovery Centre (formerly Camp Tsavo) situated in Rukinga ranch for 3 days:
  • Kennedy Kirui - Lead, iHub Consulting
  • Mark Kamau - Design Lead, iHub UX
  • Eric Asiago - Design consultant, iHub Consulting
  • Evans Campbell - Chief Storyteller (Programme Coordinator), iHub Consulting
  • Joe Mathai - Multimedia Editor, iHub Media
 

An early morning drive

If you are used to waking up later than 6.30am, resetting your alarm to 5.00am is a definite challenge. Luckily, most of us were accustomed to waking up at odd hours like this. Leaving early for Rukinga was necessary in order to beat the traffic caused by trucks heading down to Mombasa. By 6am we were on our way. At 9am, we made our first stop in Kibwezi at Hunters’ Lodge for breakfast. This is the same place we stopped when we were with the team from the MIT Media Lab about a year ago. Construction and refurbishing is almost complete now, the lodge looks splendid. Prices have been adjusted upwards, probablyto reflect the change in management and upgrade of facilities. IMG_0045   While waiting for our breakfast we took some time to review what we intended to achieve during the trip. We established two main aims:
  • Identify potential issues such a solution might face - connectivity, backup, hardware challenges
  • Interact face-to-face with the rangers and get their buy-in
  With our stomachs full we hit the road and soon arrived in Voi.  

Meeting Cara and the cool team at research

Have you met Cara? No. Well, we can tell you that aside from being the Conservations Office Manager, she’s a super-cool lady working with the Wildlife Works office in Maungu. After warmly receiving us, she drew a map to where we would be staying. Despite having been there before, our memories were pretty sketchy on how to make our way back to Tsavo Discovery Centre a.k.a TDC.   Roughly-sketched paper map in hand, we made our way to the camp. Along the dusty road there, Eric got to see an elephant for the first time, satisfying a pursuit that he said had once made him park (dangerously) in the middle of a similar migratory corridor in Nanyuki. After seeing the graceful giant trudge by, we were once again reminded just how important it was to help conserve this remarkable species.   Once everyone was settled in and rested, we visited the research facility just next to the camp. IMG_0089   Our aim was to spend a few minutes with Dr. Mwangi and Solomon from the biodiversity research team, hearing their opinion on whether an app would be a viable solution and what challenges they foresaw for such an implementation. The following issues were raised:  
  1. Network connectivity challenges - most ranches have poor network connectivity, how will the app work in such an environment? Additionally, some of the ranger camps also have inadequate network coverage.It was agreed that the application would not rely entirely on network connectivity.
  2. Backups - what would happen if a phone got lost with all the data in it?We agreed to introduce the capability of sending reports to the cloud when in an area with connectivity to minimise instances where data is lost. The app will have a sync feature which can be manually activated or activates automatically when there is network connectivity.
  3. Hardware challenges - the rangers wear out GPS devices very quickly, so what chances would phones have? In the market at this point we have devices that can survive in such environments. Additionally, there is casing that can act as a shield to prolong the shelf life of a mobile phone
  4. Power issues - how will the rangers ensure their devices are always on considering the fact that they will be using them heavily? With the advances in power provision (solar, power banks) this can be solved. Additionally the battery capacity and power utilisation rate will be a big factor when deciding on the hardware to go for.
  5. Quality control - how would we ensure the quality of the data collected remains the same?When building the app the current quality assurance mechanisms will be retained. The data will still be checked by Moses, the head of data collection.
With the above questions satisfactorily answered we went back to the camp. The chef didn’t disappoint with the meal he prepared. At some point we lost track of the number of cups of tea Mark had by the bonfire. Eric was the first one to call it a night, probably still excited from his first elephant sighting.  

Meeting the rangers

On the second day we were up and ready by 8am, ready to meet the rangers. At 9am they arrived at the camp led by the head of security. The team was comprised of the following (we have left out names to protect their identities):
  • The Head Ranger
  • Court Data Collector — tracks cases presented before Voi Law Courts regarding various crimes related to poaching and game meat
  • Leader of Trackers
  • Zone Leader
  • Head Data Editor and Collector
  • Air Leader
  The team was representative of all the activities the rangers undertake. Once the introductions were done we doveinto the heart of the matter. The first session involved the rangers taking the iHub team through the different activities they carry out on a daily basis. This was an in-depth session where the rangers describedall their tasks in detail. A poison-laced spike trap used to kill elephants The iHub team was shown some of the devices poachers use. In the image above is a spike trap laced with poison (black substance in the centre). The poison is highly toxic and even contact with an open wound would be fatal.   IMG_0010       The second part of the session involved brainstorming on how to build an app that would make the rangers’ work easier and lead to better data collection. The rangers started by voicing their concerns related to the proposed app. One of the main ones raised was that they would not have a copy of the data once they submitted it via the app. It was agreed that they could initially get a print-out and in future, they would be able to access this information via the app. We then showed them the prototype we had been working on. Initially we were afraid of showing it as we felt we were off the mark. However, we are glad we did as the excitement it created was amazing. The rangers during our demo of the prototype app   There were some light moments too IMG_0149   Evans tried pairing the app with the Garmin GPS device the rangers use in order to get accurate coordinates. Attempting to use the Assisted GPS (A-GPS) feature on Android   We left Eric to demo to the head of security. We are pretty sure he did it in Gusii (a local language) that the two were familiar with. IMG_0126   Time flew by and before we knew it, 2pm was upon us and we had to let the rangers go back to their respective duties. Before they left we took the customary group photo. In the hours that we spent with these dedicated men, we grew to deeply respect and admire their courage, commitment and sheer determination to keep our elephants and wildlife safe. IMG_0193

Back to the city

Thursday was our last day at the camp. You could see how reluctant the team was to leave. We passed by the research facility to do a final catch-up session with Dr. Mwangi. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the one below says, “Dr. Mwangi is sad to see you leave *insert extra 993 words here*.” (at least that’s how we chose to see it).
"Don't go..." "Don't go..."
  Before we hit the road we passed by HQ to visit the Wildlife Works shop and grab a few gifts. We can say that we had an insightful, inspiring and fulfilling trip. Work is already underway to better our prototype and return to Tsavo soon for further testing. Stay tuned for more on Tech Consulting in the Wild.  
PS: As a photographer, you often sacrifice being in the group photo. So we graciously caught a photo of the man behind our lens — Joe — and shall leave it here for public acknowledgement :). IMG_0218
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