• Written by Frodo van Oostveen
    5 November 2014

Street view, Sule Pagoda Yangon. Photo credit: Frodo van Oostveen.

The first tweet I posted in Myanmar was directly from the taxi on my way from Yangon airport to the Inle Valley Bed & Breakfast on Pyay Road. Back in March, I wrote about feeling the change in Myanmar and I still feel it happening. At the airport it was easy to buy an Ooredoo SIM card for 1,500 kyat ($1.50) with additional data top up for 5,000 kyat ($5). During my last visit, I needed to rent a SIM card (without data), or had the option of buying a SIM card for the unrealistic amount of around $2,000 (BusinessWeek: When a SIM Card goes from $2,000 to $1.50).

Surprisingly Ooredoo Myanmar re-tweeted and favorited my tweet, as I think they were happy with the compliment regarding connectivity. Later on I realised that the reliability of Internet access is definitely not yet a common thing in Yangon.

Moving slowly in the morning traffic, you notice that Telco’s Ooredoo and Telenor (which has become the new Coca-Cola of Myanmar in terms of brand building) have branding in all of the small shops. Typically you will see a red Ooredoo umbrella or a blue Telenor banner or, most likely, both. Ooredoo has already been working for some months on selling SIM cards and branding Yangon. In recent weeks, Telenor has started paving the way and selling SIM cards as well. Ooredoo is supporting social enterprises via ideabox, a start-up incubator in Myanmar, and Telenor is developing social training programmes. Partnering with them could lead to a front-runner position in the provision of credible data for decision-making. I am in contact with both organisations.

Myanmar is developing on all thinkable fronts, and all tracks are leading to the upcoming elections at the end of November next year. New car arrivals, new Yangon landmarks (hotels), Mobile Monday events and even our friends from iHub Kenya will be launching an iHub incubator space in downtown Yangon in the coming months. Myanmar is popular and, although nowadays a relatively small core group is already working and living in Yangon, it’s overcrowded with people flying in and out. Development and building relationships takes time, therefore my idea was to work this time for (at least) two weeks in Myanmar to be able to catch up with partners from previous visits (UNICEF, Food Security Working Group, local partners of ICCO, etc).

Mingalabar (hello) data
My colleague Amit beautifully phrased in his Vanuatu blog the existence of “data-free” countries and Myanmar is definitely in this group. A lot of organisations are struggling with solid (quality) data provision. Therefore my assumption would be that Myanmar is hungry for mobile data (collection) as well. So far my conclusion is that we first need to develop capacity to determine what kind of data will be relevant to collect. Meanwhile we should get started on the iterative process of testing questions and verifying the quality of data via mobile phone collection. It feels like the perfect momentum to leapfrog long, paper-based surveys.

I would like to deliver my contribution to this mobile movement and support collection of (social) data for better decision-making and investments in Myanmar. Therefore I am admiring the speed at which Myanmar is trying to bring the country online via the most modern technologies and smartphones available. Let’s start to map Myanmar. 

Mingalabar connectivity 2

Chan Chan and Thiha Aung of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation with Frodo van Oostveen of Akvo (center). Photo credit: Martine Rutten, TU Delft.

Mingalabar Sayama (hello teacher)
Part of scaling Akvo in the region is that we all need to be multi-disciplinary skilled in sales, admin, proposal writing and conducting training. Especially the last element – training – is relatively new for me with all of Akvo FLOW’s new monitoring features, a different language and coping with the lack of stable Internet connections. You can’t lean back during a training workshop – it’s everything or nothing. During the last two weeks, I’ve done my deep dive and conducted five training courses at different venues with mostly new partners.

It felt rewarding to train people (each with their own personal journey) to use smartphones, this time for their professional lives and to both show and experience the impact of the tools we are developing. The training fever really got a grip on me, and I have never felt so tired and so energised at the same time. You need to be creative, but keep track of activities and time. You need to be in the lead, but definitely need to let go.

I would like to share two different examples:

Mobile data-collection lecture (demo) at the Technology Center of Ministry of Agriculture & Irrigation in Bago
While three groups were conducting their first survey about their favorite Myanmar food, one group was downloading the Akvo FLOW app on their phones (to prevent crashing the wifi). With everybody back in the same room, we were able to show the survey results per question (favorite food: mohinga) and points on the map in an interactive way. This would be really convenient to use for upcoming activities related to their canal development programme.  Each group from the TU Delft / Deltares training programme started to define its own survey design, resulting in a new survey with the ten best questions. During the lunch, one group managed to bring these ten questions online into the dashboard and during the afternoon programme, the group was conducting their first surveys.

Akvo RSR and FLOW training for The Leprosy Mission Myanmar in Yangon
The Leprosy Mission (TLM) is a partner of ICCO and works on economic support for disabled people. After a two day training, they conducted a Household Food Insecurity Assessment Survey (HFIAS) in the Dala township (I did not have permission to join).

After training TLM, a part of the Disabled People Organization (DPO) communities, we were asked to also help them with a United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) survey because they were planning to start a big paper-based survey soon. During the evening, we worked on three computers and managed to do a dashboard light training course and successfully bring the survey online (including Myanmar script). On the 3rd of December they would like to compile 500+ surveys and present to wider constituency about the current status of how they are enjoying rights as people with disabilities in this country. This will be important reporting on where gaps still exist and what we should recommend for the future, as Myanmar signed and ratified UNCRPD back in 2011.

I never thought about being a trainer myself and you probably think you’re never ready to become one, but actually everybody is a trainer if you dare to stretch yourself and to get into the “flow” (check out Hans Henrik Knoop – flow concept on how we realise our learning potential to the fullest, not to be confused with our mobile tool Akvo FLOW!)

Have a look at more photos on my Flickr set at Frodo1977.

Frodo van Oostveen is a programme manager at Akvo, based in Singapore.