Smart Aid: High-Tech Poverty Fighters

Barcode pilot

A vendor signs information at a CRS seed fair in Seko, Central African Republic. CRS piloted a barcode tracking system in CAR in June 2011 as a more efficient and effective way to register and track beneficiaries and vendors. Photo by Sandra Basgall/CRS

Sandra Basgall turned seventy a few weeks ago. But there’s no easy chair in sight for this Colorado-born CRS staffer. Sandra’s an advisor on monitoring and evaluation for the Central Africa Region, lives in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is still very much in on the action. She’s lived in 15 different US states and 6 different countries, but home is wherever she lays her hat. “I don’t look back and think ‘oh I wish I was there again’. I just look forward and think ‘where am I going to go next and what am I going to do next?’”

Technology has never held any fear for Sandra. She touched her first computer in 1982. “The woman who was teaching us was maybe a week ahead of our lessons”. Since then she’s moved with the times … she started typing her Masters thesis on an electric typewriter before graduating to a huge word processing system that took up most of the office. By the time she was writing her Ph.D, she was on a laptop computer—albeit a 22-pound one, which looked like a portable sewing machine…

“Something exciting’s happening at CRS,” Sandra confided to me. “Firstly, data collection is becoming the backbone of our projects, and secondly, the technology with which we can collect data in real time is really advancing. We’ve never been able to do such things in development work before. We used to look at data that’s 6 months or a year old and say ‘Oh, if only I’d known this…’ – well, now we can know and we can plan our projects around that.”

Sandra believes firmly that CRS is a leader in the ICT4D world (Information and Communications Technology for Development). It’s the only organization to hold an annual global ICT4D conference—the fourth was held this year in Kigali, Rwanda. Sandra remembers the first one in Nairobi three years ago.

“The techies sat at one table and the ‘development’ people sat at another. But then, slowly, they started talking to each other,” she explains. “Right now, I feel as comfortable with the techies as they do with me. We now understand each other’s roles and how to integrate them. In the past, we’d only call a techie if we had a problem with our computer or the internet or if the mainframe was down. Now they’re an integral part of everything we’re doing.”

And it’s not just up to the ‘techies’ to discover technological breakthroughs. Sandra had her own ”eureka moment” a little while back, which could now help transform the way CRS keeps track of the people that it’s helping.

She wanted a better way of tracking which beneficiaries were getting which service—whether it’s food, seeds, tools, whatever. And then a serendipitous event changed everything.

“I had a magazine in my hand and I threw it on my desk and starting doing something else. Then I turned and looked and saw the barcode on the back of it and suddenly thought ‘Aha! That’s how we can do it!’” Sandra then explained her idea to the IT folk and they started turning it into a reality.

Sandra Basgall

Sandra Basgall hugs her colleagues outside Nyamagabe Health Center, Southern Province, Rwanda. Photo by Kevin Kostic/CRS

“The methodology we used was really quite different than how I’d imagined, but that just shows the importance of bonding between IT people and ‘field’ people, like me. They know so much more about these things”.

Last summer, Sandra saw her barcode technology put into practice as a pilot during CRS seed fairs in Central African Republic.. Each beneficiary and vendor was given an identification card with a barcode on it, which was scanned to register the person and keep track of what they received or sold. Their photo was taken with a smart phone and information about them was then stored on a kind of ‘virtual form’ accessible on or offline. A world away from all the paper forms, signatures and thumb prints of previous fairs.

“We found it saved time, it saved money, everybody enjoyed it,” Sandra told me happily. “I thought people might be a bit afraid of the technology, a bit reluctant … but they embraced it and were excited about it. Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a very low literacy rate. So it just shows that technology is something that anyone can accept and use. Plus, it made things a lot simpler. It could really revolutionize the way we do things.”

Because of the success of the pilot, the technology could now be used in a whole range of areas of development work undertaken by CRS.

So where does Sandra’s desire to give come from? Her inspiration is her Mom. “I remember my Mother telling me when I was young, that we have a responsibility to give back to our community more than we take from it. So when I look at my community in the larger sense, being the world, that means I have a responsibility towards that world to make it a different, a better place, so that people can have access to the things that we in the West think are normal.”

Sandra hopes she’s passed down these values to her two children, and their children.

And with cutting edge technology in the mix, that ”giving back” just got a whole lot more exciting. For Sandra, it’s like seeing long-held hopes come true.

“My parents introduced me to science fiction when I was pretty young. The things I was reading about as a child, like barcode readers, GPS, intelligent phones, we’re using them today. Who would have ever thought? I always believed that science fiction was a picture of what people are thinking about for the future … and, well, here’s the proof that it can happen.”

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