TechBridgeWorld is pleased to announce that the iSTEP 2010 final report is now available. We would like to thank our partners, advisors, and the entire iSTEP 2010 Bangladesh team for their contributions to making the second year of iSTEP a success!
TechBridgeWorld interviewed Vashkar Bhattacharjee, who is a Program Officer at Young Power in Social Action (YPSA).
Let’s start by having you introduce yourself and saying what you do with YPSA
Thank you very much. My name is Vashkar Bhattacharjee. I work in YPSA since long, last 7 years. Presently I work as a Program Officer in YPSA ICT and Resource Center on Disability (YPSA IRCD) that is one of the leading and biggest centers in Bangladesh for and with persons with disabilities, which promotes information and communication technology. Also I am leading the disability and development issues of YPSA and representing the organization in different National and International Networks or Forums. I am myself also a visually impaired person.
Can you tell us about what YPSA is, how long it’s been around, and an overview of some of its programs?
YPSA stands for Young Power in Social Action. We have a accessible website at www.ypsa.org where you can get more information about our organization. YPSA is a registered voluntary social development organization established in 1985 (International Youth Year) . Last 25 years we are active in the social development arena. We have lots of interventions, such as working on health, disaster management, microfinance and enterprise, environment, disability, ICT for development, human resource development, Policy advocacy and networking, leadership, and promoting youth-related issues. HIV AIDS is one of our big program components. We have presently 3 projects for HIV AIDS prevention or awareness-based projects. Currently we have many more interventions. We do policy advocacy and research work for ensuring safer environments in ship breaking yards, one of the hazardous areas where every week one laborer has died. We have an intensive policy advocacy program for the ship breaking labor rights. Sustainable environment is one of our biggest issues. Biodiversity, you know climate change is a rising issue and Chittagong coastal areas are more vulnerable for climate change because sea level is now higher than before. So there are different types of activities and initiatives. You will get more information from our website. There are two websites, one is www.ypsa.org for our organization and another is www.shipbreakingbd.info where you will get the information about ship breaking.
Can you tell us some of the common challenges somebody who is visually impaired faces in Bangladesh?
Ok, that is a very important question I think. You know the visually impaired people in Bangladesh are really in a very severe situation. Information and communication technology for visually impairment is a very new issue. The center we are running, the YPSA ICT and Resource Center on Disability (IRCD), which is the biggest center in the country even though we cannot say it is a very standard center because we have a lack of resources. We have very good human resources for and with the center. Already four of our staff has received training from other countries. The challenge is education and accessibility. Not many blind people are educated and those who are educated don’t have access to a computer and other technology. There is less priority given by the government about using technology for persons with visual impairment. We couldn’t find Bangla screen reading software, we are using English. We cannot write and read Bangla by using a computer. And most of the websites are not accessible here in Bangladesh. Information accessibility is the biggest barrier. YPSA is promoting information accessibility, we have digital talking libraries, but not many books are available which are accessible to visually impaired people. Yes, I think if we could overcome barriers through information and communication technology it is better. Our IRCD trained people are working by using regular Internet and email and other ICT things, like other people, but you cannot find many blind people in Bangladesh who are using regular computer.
What do you think of the Braille Writing Tutor that TechBridgeWorld has developed?
Yes, very interesting. At first we are excited about this project. You know we are going to get some Bangla software or device that makes sound in Bengali. It really makes us very happy and it’s made the students very excited. They are very happy about this device. I think if we could have it successfully it will be beneficial to many Braille learners and children and also adults. So I think we need to overcome some of the barriers, such as the device should be available with very low cost. And if we just only use the computer (to connect the device), not many computers are available. You will not find many computers in blind schools, maybe only one or two. But I can say it is really fantastic, a fantastic device and it shows people how technology is helpful for blind people. It is very easy to learn braille (using the device) and I am very happy personally and now our students also appreciate this product very much.
What has it been like working with the iSTEP interns and did you have a good experience with them?
My experience with the iSTEP team–they are very dynamic people and very active, hard workers. I understand whenever we gave any feedback they have tried their level best to accommodate it. In the beginning they had some mindset that they would make some software with the device which will use the computer. But after listening to our feedback they have changed their mind. They are now going to make it independent, without a computer it could be played. And they listened to us carefully and they accommodated the feedback in the Braille Tutor project. We really enjoyed working with them. (Laughs) Unfortunately they didn’t get the chance to visit around Chittagong because they are always working, no time to see some sight-seeing and other things! So that is one thing I think they missed. But definitely we need to ensure that they at least can see some of the beautiful places in Chittagong.
What would you like to see out of this partnership in the future?
There are two parts. One is this Braille Writing Tutor. We would like to have it in our hands and we would like to promote this technology in rural parts of Bangladesh and all over the country. I am sure we will work together to have a good device and a good Braille Writing Tutor for the visually impaired children and adults. Another thing is that as Carnegie Mellon University we really want your experience, your knowledge. And we want to have a long-term partnership for different social development issues; not only the Braille Tutor or other technology things, not only for visual impairment but other disabilities and vulnerable people also can be covered. We can work together for ICT for development-related issues. You can share your knowledge and hands on experiences and many of your students can work with us as interns, as volunteers. Also we can share our hands on experiences with you and we can join in different conferences and seminars. You also can send your people here to learn and work. We can start some exchange programs, knowledge exchange, people exchange. I think there are lots of future prospects I am seeing and I believe our partnership will run long.
Anything else you want to add?
At last I would request to TechBridgeWorld that our partnership would not end, it will continue. We’ll explore more issues and whenever we need we’ll communicate with you and I believe you also will continue communication with us. We’ll do some work for the people who are really disadvantaged, people who need help, people who don’t have access to information, people who don’t have access to technology. Localization is the biggest problem, language is a big barrier. We need to work open source because people cannot purchase–they don’t have money in their pocket, so we need to have very low cost software and technology. For the near future we can explore more and more new interventions. Thank you very much and thank you for selecting YPSA as a partner of your university. We have tried our level best to collaborate with you–thank you.
TechBridgeWorld interviewed Dr. Faheem Hussain, who is part of the ICT faculty as an Assistant Professor at Asian University for Women:
Tell us about Asian University for Women, the iSTEP 2010 main host partner in Chittagong.
Asian University for Women started its undergraduate program for women last year. It is a two stage program; one is the Access Academy which is the pre-university program, and then the university program itself. We have nearly 150 students in our first batch from 12 to 13 countries. And the mission of the university is to develop leadership within the women population of the whole Asian continent.
What we understood in the background research while there was talk going on about establishing a university, is that there is a wide disparity and a wide range of efficiency levels in terms of Math, English and communication. What the pre-university Access Academy does is in order to get students to a level standard in terms of quantitative reasoning and communication skills, and in terms of English as a medium, because our university is 100% English medium and students are coming from different backgrounds, from different countries, so we needed that kind of leveling.
How did you first find out about TechBridgeWorld?
When I was a graduate student in Carnegie Mellon University, I found out about it from a class of Bernardine Dias (TechBridgeWorld’s Founder and Director). I was very interested in it and was a bit involved but I couldn’t get the chance to be a part of it as a student intern. So when Bernardine mentioned about TechBridgeWorld during her first visit to AUW, we grabbed the opportunity to work with them.
Why did you think partnering with TechBridgeWorld and the iSTEP internship would be good for AUW?
Because I saw it myself at a personal level the amazing learning outcomes and the gains the students can have while learning by doing. In terms of the ICT4D domain, which is a relatively new field, it’s a mesh, an interesting hybrid of doing stuff and at the same time maintains a connection with the theory. iSTEP and TechBridgeWorld to a greater extent is facilitating that. We want to do the same thing for our CS undergraduate program in AUW, and hence we wanted this partnership.
What do you think the benefit has been to your students that have participated with this internship?
It’s a very interesting question because I see benefit from the iSTEP program as a long term thing. I cannot just tell you what are the long term benefits right now because we are just finishing off with the summer project. But in terms of immediate impacts, we recognize their understanding of the holistic approach, which is important for working with the community, for understanding their needs, and then in customizing or coming up with new technological solutions or technology-based solutions for the problems. I see a steep and positive learning curve among the students. And most importantly their interest to learn more about ICT and to be involved in the ICT4D domain and I see it will grow with time.
What do you think is unique about the iSTEP internship, the way it is run and how the partnership has worked?
It’s unique in a sense because I see the level of preparation iSTEP students had from the Pittsburgh and Doha campuses. They were quite prepared about what to expect here in this community. They had a good background research team backing them up and they had the preparation in terms of the culture, technology infrastructure, and to some extent about the local needs. And so the moment they came, the time to actually adjust to the process of it, in this environment, which can be sometimes very challenging, did not take that long. That visibly is way different from the other internship programs or the partnership programs that I have seen, not only in AUW, but anywhere that I have worked with.
Secondly, I see the openness of the iSTEP program in actually accepting the new culture and the new challenges, and to also play along, and not just fixated on the solutions that have worked elsewhere. The level of partnership and openness that they had with our AUW interns – that was very good.
Why is ICT so important to Bangladesh and the region in general?
It’s not just ICT. Any development related initiative is very important for a country like Bangladesh or for the region of South and Southeast Asia. We need to focus a lot in this area in terms of how we actually improve the livelihood of the people in general, how we ensure access to information, how we ensure that they have the minimum supply of drinking water, healthcare, education. These are very important and ICT is just a tool. What makes it very important is it has the immense capability of dissemination being a tool for common people. It’s a very interesting and amazing opportunity for all of us, for people in academia, for the people who are actually practicing it, to be together. Because ICT provides a platform to work together and to better the lives of millions, I think ICT is very important, but within a bigger picture of development.
There’s two models of development, one is having people from the outside come in and the other is to build local capacity. Why do you think the second model is more effective and what do you hope AUW’s role will be in that process?
First of all I don’t believe that local expertise can be developed if one lives in an island. Certainly we need views and expertise from outside, but sometimes we need to make sure that we don’t commit the classic failures that others did, where you come from outside and then you start saying that I know better and you should follow me. There has to be localization, there has to be customization. People need to be heard, what their needs are. There should be a hybrid solution for that ideally. We expect our AUW graduates to champion this idea. Because they have the knowledge of their own communities, local needs, they can talk to the people, they can relate to them. At the same time they are also the connection to the facilities where they have the expertise to ensure a better future.
Anything else you’d like to say?
We hope that it’s not a one-off thing with TechBridgeWorld and iSTEP. We need the partnership from AUW’s end and I strongly believe iSTEP and TechBridgeWorld also recognize the unique aspect AUW offers. In order to see any long term impact, this type of partnership needs to sustain over time. And also it has to be a win-win combination. Strengthened by such partnerships, we are hoping to be the regional knowledge hub because we have connections with all the 15 countries our students are coming from. This can be a big networking opportunity in terms of research and collaboration from both ways.
Binny K. Babu
My time spent over the summer would not have been as productive if I had not been involved with the iSTEP internship. Before working with the iSTEP team, I had little exposure to real world issues developing communities face. The iSTEP experience gave me the opportunity to reach-out to some of the local communities in Bangladesh and really understand some of the daily challenges they encounter. The moment I came in contact with members from Young Power in Social Action (YPSA), I could empathize with them. I began to experience the real world conditions in an area far away from my native community, many of which, I could never have imagined before. I am proud of the progress I have made in developing my Bangla language skills.
I am happy that I chose iSTEP as my summer internship. The iSTEP internship has motivated me to be actively involved with developing communities.
When I started working with the iSTEP team, the only knowledge I had was the basics of conducting ICTD field research. Everything I learned was entirely new to me, and I prepared myself for a 10-week long learning session. During this internship, not only did I get to learn about the projects, but also got the chance to meet people from diverse communities with different real life experiences, which is a remarkable experience for me. Being a part of the needs assessment team gave me the opportunity to observe closely how the iSTEP field research was carried out and how the technical, documentation and needs assessment teams came together. The most important lesson I have learned is how to quantify qualitative information and perform assumptions based on our collected results.
Apart from the work experience, my overall personal experience from participating in the iSTEP internship is noteworthy. The iSTEP interns are not only cooperative, but also very friendly. I came to learn about some non-academic and real life experience such as American and Japanese cultures from Jennifer and Aysha, Kanji characters from Brian, and playing card games from Anthony. Overall, it was an incredible experience to work with people from different cultures and backgrounds throughout the summer.
The iSTEP program is the very first internship experience I have involved myself in and it was a very exciting and enjoyable experience. I worked enthusiastically with two other AUW interns, Zishrat and Binny as part of the needs assessment team and learned about the importance of teamwork. I learned how it is crucial to consider your teammates’ opinions and to listen carefully about their needs and concerns when striving to reach a common goal. More importantly, I realized that it is important to extend yourself past your own team and be resourceful. I gave my best efforts in assisting the different sections of the teams to facilitate the completion of both projects.
This internship program has personally helped me build up my confidence and pushed me to apply the lessons I have learned in class. Learning is insignificant without practical application, and the iSTEP program has given me the opportunity to apply the knowledge acquired throughout my education.
Nuzhat Nazmul Nishi
With my background and ambitions to pursue a degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics, the iSTEP experience has encouraged me to think creatively about how I can combine my major with my new understanding of how technologies can be utilized to promote development in my country in a feasible way.
Teamwork is essential for projects that require multidisciplinary skill sets to solve real world problems. All five members of the iSTEP team have different educational backgrounds and are experts in their own fields, yet they are capable of working with each other efficiently. Working with the iSTEP team gave me insight into the individual perspectives they have on the challenges of the projects.
The iSTEP and AUW interns have really made the effort to teach me the overall process of field research. The week-long tutorial on field research and ICTD by Dr. Yonina Cooper was especially useful before the team’s arrival and I appreciate the time Aysha took to explain her experience from the previous projects she was involved in. Additionally, Aysha taught me how to design basic databases using Microsoft Access and its application in various fields.
This internship has brought both Carnegie Mellon and Asian University for Women students together and helped me to understand the different technologies that Carnegie Mellon has built. It challenged me to think of improving the learning environment at AUW with technology based solutions and it has made me closely consider the existing social problems around Chittagong which I have not noticed before. I do hope I will be able to be involved in another research-oriented internship in the future.
Before being selected to participate in the iSTEP internship, I had little understanding of the ICTD field and how technology can be used as a solution to help solve certain challenges people face in our communities in Chittagong. I chose to be a part of the Documentation team as I am interested in photography and media. At times, I felt that the documentation role was unclear to me but I thoroughly enjoyed going to all the newspaper offices to promote the publication of media articles written about the internship in both Bangla and English. It was fun to watch the journalist’s interesting faces and questions about the projects. I would like to thank my other group members especially Nouf and Shathy for the Bangla typing which was the most challenging task in the translation process. It took more than two hours for me to write only one paragraph in Bengali! However, it was truly rewarding when I read our articles published in Bangladesh’s most popular newspapers!
Not only did this 10 week internship teach me about documentation, taking video and photos, writing articles, and research; but it also gave me the chance to learn about individual groups of people, visit different sites around the Chittagong region, as well as overcome challenges. Overall, my most exciting moment goes back to when I saw the demonstration of the Braille Writing Tutor in Bangla and using the English literacy practice tool in our IT labs. I thank the entire iSTEP team for a wonderful experience. I would be very happy to work with this team in the future if I get another chance.
Sadeka Tasmin Nouf
Of the different available summer internships at our university, the first that caught my attention was the iSTEP internship. After reading the description about the two projects the iSTEP team would be working on, I started thinking about being a part of the team. It became my dream and was my first preference for the summer internship. Naturally, when I came to know that I was selected for the iSTEP program, I was very excited and after 10 weeks of working with the iSTEP team, I can confidently say that my excitement was not in vain.
Working with the iSTEP team was really a wonderful experience. Though we are from different cultures, we experienced very little cultural conflicts within our team. I admired working in the friendly environment the team created which made my work much easier to do. Working in the documentation team, I got the chance to learn how to approach different groups of people while promoting the internship. We had to visit many places, meet media people and read and write persuasively in order to publish our articles. Though the main responsibility of my team was documenting the overall team experience, I learned a lot about public relations and a bit about public policy too. It was never boring to work with the group and the learning process was easy and fun.
It would be hard for me to forget this summer as I have learned many new lessons about working on research technology projects. This includes understanding the necessity of the needs assessment process and considering sustainability of projects. Most importantly, I have met four wonderful friends from Carnegie Mellon University who have helped us in this learning process with a lot of patience and love.
Shagufta Tazin Shathy
One of the key components of the iSTEP internship is teamwork. From this internship, I realized how crucial it is to have a positive attitude in your work in order to achieve the vision the team has set to reach. Positivity and confidence are necessary qualities to have in field work, especially since there is a lot of uncertainty no matter how thorough your plans are. With the motivational support from our teammates, I really overcame challenges that I encountered throughout the internship – challenges that were specific to the purpose of my role.
My personal take away from this internship is that having objectives and a final destination defined will help you overcome all the obstacles that you face.
This summer, our Braille Writing Tutor team made changes to the existing tutor according to the needs assessment process. I have contributed to the project in developing a Bangla version of the tutor. Without the team, we wouldn’t have been able to successfully develop an initial Bangla version of the tutor and through the iSTEP experience, I realized the importance of team work. Anthony brought his technical expertise of the tutor while Lutfun and I brought our knowledge and understanding of our local communities. Being able to be a part of this unique team has really helped me become a better team-player and has given me the chance to learn about the importance of having strong team dynamics. With dedication, willingness, and a healthy mentality, we were able to successfully modify the tutor to meet our partner’s needs.
Working with the iSTEP team as well as the communities at home has been an eye-opening experience and has definitely confirmed my ambitions to continue to pursue a degree in Information and Communication Technologies.
I believe I am extremely fortunate to be a part of the iSTEP internship, and especially to be involved with the Braille Writing Tutor project. I learned a lot from Anthony, our technical lead, from basic programming to understanding how the tutor functions. More importantly, I am happy that I gained the chance to interact with the blind community in Chittagong who have been courageous in overcoming many of the problems they face in Bangladeshi society. Throughout the iSTEP internship, I closely observed children from the blind community who were ambitious and determined to receive an education, but struggled to learn braille. Their dedication has been inspirational to me and I am glad I was able to experience this with the iSTEP team. I believe the tutor the iSTEP team brought with them to Bangladesh will serve the blind community well.
The most important lesson I’ve learned from this internship through my interactions with the iSTEP team is that you have to believe in yourself and in your community for a technology solution to work. This internship has helped me identify my responsibilities to my society and I am looking forward to contributing further to the work the iSTEP team has accomplished.
Things look different from the field. It sounds trivial but I still can’t believe just how much I underestimated the difference between my role last year and being on the field this year. From being able to go home every day to being able to easily replace items that get lost or broken, being on the home-side gives you a lot of benefits to make the experience a little less stressful.
However, being in the field, and actually talking to the users who interact with the projects is an unbelievable experience. Not many internships allow their participants to see how people interact with their work on the same level as iSTEP. I can’t imagine another experience I could compare to my experience watching a student at the Government School for the Blind look up at Shumana, one of the AUW interns I worked with, and repeat everything she heard from the Braille Writing Tutor through one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine working anywhere where groups of people call me “Dada,” or elder brother. And I can’t imagine working at a job where people routinely ask me to dance and I quickly star to blossom into a big YouTube hit. But the biggest take away from the past 10 weeks, is that nowhere else will I have an opportunity to take feedback to heart like this. It completely changes the purpose of the work, to really know whom you’re developing for and to really understand why your work is valuable.
And so I leave my second and last year of the iSTEP internship and enter the next stage of my life knowing that I have enjoyed a career experience on professional and personal levels that few others will have the opportunity to experience. The past 10 weeks and the people I’ve met will stay with me for the rest of my life. I just hope that our work will continue. However, after working with TechBridgeWorld, AUW, and YPSA, I know how passionate and dedicated they are about the work and I firmly believe that these projects will continue to improve long after we leave.
When I received the congratulatory email from TechBridgeWorld, I remember thinking to myself what a huge achievement and honor it was to be selected for such a competitive internship. I applied the year before, when I was a sophomore but was declined a seat on the team. I didn’t understand then but now I understand why. Field research is challenging. It’s really tough being in the field and to prepare extensively for something you can’t even begin to comprehend. But it’s important to understand and accept that there will always be unaccounted variables in your preparation process, no matter how thorough your planning has been. I was fortunate to be a part of a team of extremely talented people that worked together to accomplish a common goal: to make a difference in communities in Chittagong. This goal unified us and helped us to overcome diverse cultural backgrounds and extreme personality types. I realized how much I depended on my teammates for work, for recreation and most importantly, for survival.
iSTEP has taught me so many things. One lesson was to expect the unexpected and to react strategically and leverage my resources when those unexpected challenges arose. Furthermore, I learned the importance of producing high quality work; being flexible when working in a team; organizing, leading and turning things in a timely manner; and acting and reacting in a culturally appropriate manner. On the other hand, I learned that being passionate about your work and considerate to the people and communities you are interacting with goes a long way. Most importantly, I learned that to be successful, you have to be willing – willing to work the extra hours; willing to build life-long, true and honest relationships; willing to have heart-felt conversations with people from the driver to the highest ranked person in our partner organization; and willing to become more than what you thought you could be.
Despite the challenges, field research is really rewarding. At times, it becomes difficult to understand how you are creating meaningful impact. But it’s important to look at what’s in front of you and appreciate and cherish the work you are doing. After all, the solution has a tendency to be right there in front of you. It’s really up to you to look in the right places, listen carefully, and make your judgment.
When I applied for the iSTEP 2010 internship, I was looking for an experience that would be hands-on, provide an opportunity to learn about a new location and new communities, and that would help me to develop a stronger understanding of international development work. At its close, this internship has been all these things and more, and I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to be a member of the team.
Over the course of ten weeks, so many things have happened. Our first few days in Bangladesh were challenging for me – adjusting to the climate, the chaotic traffic (that I now appreciate), and the complexity of the social fabric – the fact that next to modern high-rises you had a shanty town, followed by a shopping complex. I was excited when we started our work as I enjoy juggling lots of tasks and working quickly. However, this internship was also a lesson in balancing urgency with the time it takes to actually accomplish work on the ground. In the past, many of my jobs have included working with community partners on a variety of issues. In contrast, it is a very different experience when you need to establish a relationship, collaborate to develop technology, and deliver a needs-based technology solution within ten weeks.
I have come to love the country and the culture in Chittagong and while I still struggle with the dichotomy that you see every time you walk down the street, I know that so many people are working so hard to help their communities develop in sustainable and responsible ways. As I prepare to leave Bangladesh, some of the most impactful things that I take away from this experience are the stories of the AUW interns, the Access Academy students and teachers, the staff from YPSA, the students at the Government School for the Blind, and my fellow team members. For me, these personal stories put not only our projects, but also my future aspirations, into perspective. This experience has reaffirmed my desire to pursue a future career in international development policy and I hope to be able to come back and visit the region again in the not too distant future.
The opinions expressed by the bloggers are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Carnegie Mellon University, TechBridgeWorld or the iSTEP program, or any employee thereof. Carnegie Mellon University is not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied by the bloggers.