You could say Tony Tseng’s interests have been all over the map—from geography major to ropes course instructor to Peace Corps volunteer turned tech-head. Even so, they reflect an ever-present desire to understand and improve how people relate to their environment.
Fittingly, we linked up with our Information & Communication Technology Officer via Skype this month to talk about the human side of technology and all things data and development. He’s helping us kick off PCI Changemakers, a monthly Q&A series featuring Project Concern International staff from around the globe.
How did you first get into combining technology with development work? What was your introduction to this space?
I joined Peace Corps in 2010 and worked as a fish farming volunteer in northern Zambia. Between my third- and fourth-year extension, I started getting involved with a technology hub in Lusaka. We developed a language translation app called Bantu Babel. It can run offline and translate English words and phrases into one of seven local languages spoken in Zambia.
At the same time, I’d begun working with the University of Alabama in Birmingham’s Sparkman Center for Global Health. The director there was promoting this device or product called eGranary, which is a digital library. It’s part of the WiderNet Project. Essentially, the idea is to bring the Internet to people in super low-connectivity environments in an offline way. We were piloting that in three Peace Corps education project sites. That was sort of my beginning in terms of bringing technology to the development space.
Had you always had an interest in technology or did those experiences ignite that for you?
As a kid, I’d build my own computers. I’d go to conventions and buy different parts. Those days are long gone, but I’ve always been tech-savvy. I just never really thought about using it for anything other than personal interest until Peace Corps. That’s when I realized there was a lot of need at organizations like PCI looking for specific capacity in the field.
So when did PCI enter the picture?
I was coming to the end of my time in Zambia and someone forwarded me a job post from PCI about a Mobile Technology Coordinator. When I read the description, I felt like they had written it with my name in mind. I was like, “I have to have this job. This is me.” … I joined PCI in January 2015 after being gone from the states for four years.
How would you describe your job to people outside of our organization?
I was originally brought on to support our mobile data collection needs in different countries. This meant looking at ways to get data from the field in a faster, more efficient manner than traditional paper forms to help with reporting and measuring impact. It’s how we know if what we’re doing is effective. Data-driven decision making, I think, is the new buzz phrase.
My role has since expanded to look at broader uses of Information and Communication Technology for Development, or ICT4D. The NGO space is finally catching up to what the tech space has been doing. We collect a lot of data, but if we can’t see it and use it for our programs, then how do we make it easily digestible? This idea of the democratization of data, that’s the larger, overall goal of what I sit in and help promote.
Are there any particular projects or moments in the field that stand out to you?
Most recently, we’re doing a midline survey of the SAPARM project using mobile phones. We have more than 1,750 surveys we have to complete, and three Land Cruisers are out in the field in the Afar region of Ethiopia collecting data. Every night, that data is being synced and both the program officer in Ethiopia and people here in San Diego can see what’s coming in. We’re as close to real-time analysis of the data as possible. That might sound mundane, but in terms of making our day-to-day activities easier and this program more effective, it’s super powerful.
We’re also in the early stages of an exciting project that will be PCI’s first real foray into getting technology into the hands of our end user. In the past, we’ve only been using technology to help do our jobs better. We just finished some user experience testing in Tanzania. Traditional technology deployments have been, “Let’s build the platform and train everyone to do it.” Now, we’ve sort of flipped that on its end and said, “Let’s figure out what people want and build that for them.” One of the key components of this process is to delight people. It’s centered around interest. The end user is having an input into what the product will look like.
As someone who is so people-oriented, what keeps you coming back to work that some might think is more attached to screens and machines?
Yes, technology can be very impersonal. We’ve seen this a lot in the Western world with the rise of social media and obsession with ‘likes.’ But I think we forget to realize that the device that’s causing everyone to shut off from each other is also allowing people to be connected to the whole world. We just need to make it work for us and use it to a better advantage. I like to embrace the “new” and wherever technology is taking us, but there’s a human on the other end of it and that’s key to remember.
What I do is the perfect intersection of people, technology, and problem solving on an international level – a blend of all the things I love. I am passionate about connecting with people across cultures and continents and believe that technology not only empowers people but also unlocks their potential.
**All photos by Tony Tseng. To see more of his snapshots from the field, visit our Instagram page.