Bridging the Digital Divide in Rwanda

Can you imagine losing family and friends in a brutal genocide, attending school without the financial and moral support of your family, continuing to support your younger brothers and sisters in school while you work as a park guide two or three hours distant from your home? Over the last two years, we’ve been working with Rwandan national park guides who really want to continue their education and to improve professionally in spite of the challenges they face in doing so. They are given few tools to do their jobs other than their uniforms. That makes it challenging to continue professional development and growth that helps them provide the kind of quality effort that they desire.

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Our Certified Interpretive Guide class in Nyungwe National Park trained 25 guides and reception hosts.

Their modest pay and family obligations often make computer technology inaccessible. An annual salary of about $3,000 leaves little or no disposable income, and yet, these guides have great hope for the future. I recently asked our park guides if and why a laptop would make a big difference in their lives.

They said,

“Since the world is becoming a small dot, it is of utmost importance to have a computer in order to access to Internet which helps us to improve our knowledge by doing research as well exchanging experience with other people.” Gilbert

“I want to start a masters’ program . . . if possible you can help me to achieve my dreams.” Cesar

“Seeking a personal computer to help . . . advertising of our National Park and connect people . . . by the inspiration and appreciation of all travelers.” Eric

“. . . I would say that as a guide who is always serving others in a very sensitive and fragile field; we should be supported and equipped with knowledge, skills, and equipments; if not we will keep on serving without those, but just with our heart.   Musafiri B. Christian

cigclassWe want to help 25 Rwandan guides and reception staff at Nyungwe National Park to realize their dreams by acquiring a laptop for each of them. We hope to help them bridge the digital divide. It will require $400 per machine to pay for the computer, add necessary software and pay for secure delivery to Rwanda. These young men and women help protect primates, endemic birds, and parklands in this most densely populated nation on Earth. At the same time, they are helping to rebuild their country’s economy and lessen dependence on foreign aid through providing quality tourism experiences. They work with local communities to minimize depreciative behavior and exploitation of forest resources by providing opportunities for more appropriate activities.

Tobias Merriman, our son and a computer network professional at Southern Illinois University, has volunteered to load each machine with licensed software that gives them full “office” and Internet browser capabilities. We will use DHL or UPS to deliver the machines securely to the guides and they will provide photos and thank you letters to us that we will share with donors.

This is the PC we plan to purchase.

This is the PC we plan to purchase.

This effort is not tax-deductible for we do not have a charity in the middle. We have spent our lives working for nonprofits, but now work as consultants with organizations that make a difference in conservation and helping communities around the world. We take no administrative funds from this and will not spend any of the money on anything other than the computers, software and shipping to the guides. Our website http://heartfeltassociates.com will report on progress and share photos of the guides. We will personally donate two or more computers as our income this spring allows. And we will carefully manage delivery of the machines so they end up in the hands of guides, not postal handlers or bureaucrats along the way. We want to help individuals. And we want to share their stories with you.

If you wish to make a contribution to this effort, go to indiegogo.com and give a contribution of any amount comfortable for you. The website takes 4% of the total campaign for their services. We have 45 days to raise $10,000 (25 times $400 = computer cost, software, and DHL or UPS) under the agreement with Indiegogo. If we do not realize our objective of $10,000, they still provide the amount raised and we will use that to assist the most deserving individuals based upon their applications for a laptop.

Many foundations and government programs provide assistance to African governments and agencies in protecting wildlife and supporting communities struggling with hunger, AIDS and malaria. We think that’s great, but we want to help some of the individuals we know personally who will put this technology to work improving their lives and their efforts to conserve and promote the national parks in Rwanda. Won’t you help us with a gift of some size reasonable for you?

Thanks for helping make a difference! We have been blessed with great support in our lives – paying it forward feels right. Visit our donor campaign page – Help Bridge the Digital Divide In Rwanda – HERE!

Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu

Five Ways to Better Understand Your Audience

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I will never forget my days running a state park visitor center when we counted people going through the building. These daily numbers went into a report we submitted to the state office annually. We detected the presence and number of our visitors and that was about it.

Most of us do not have the luxury of hiring a skilled survey team to conduct research about audience interests, but there are ways we can learn more every single day. These are a few very direct ways to better understand your audiences’ motivations and interests as they interact with your resources.

1. Secret Shopper (also known as Interpretive Stalking, but don’t do anything creepy) – Walk among your guests without a uniform or any form of identity, dressing as they would. Look and act like your audience. Wander with them and stand near and listen. What are they saying to each other? What questions do they ask of each other? What do they photograph? How much time do they spend when they stop? What stopped them for longer discussions? Did they read the signs and exhibits or breeze past? This gives you a somewhat subjective, but very useful sense of how they feel about your visitor experience.

2. Observation without Engagement – Sit and watch your audiences in one-hour blocks of time, recording what they are doing. Create an observational form for your site with a category for every major user group. Leave a space for describing those doing things not usual to your site. You may discover a new market segment you had not previously considered. I trained trail rangers at the nature center I managed to do a one-hour survey for every four hours they patrolled a bike trail and the observations were made year-round so we had a much better understanding of seasonal change in uses of our grounds and trails.

3. Constant Conversation – Train your staff to use open questions skillfully to conduct an informal survey every time they meet a guest. Where are you from? Have you been here before? Is there something special you’re hoping to see or do? Is there anything special we can do to help you? But also train staff in how to disengage and respect the privacy of guests. Not everyone wants to chat every time they come to your site. Some guests are “spiritual rechargers” (Falk et al. “Why zoos matter”) and may prefer to relax in your beautiful environs without a chat. When you learn the specific desires of the guest, you have a chance to suggest how they can have a better experience that day, and you can shape future plans according to the desires expressed.

4. Interactive Survey – Devise a simple four or five question survey that your volunteers or staff can administer to guests after getting their permission to do so. Keep it short and meaningful. Have you been here before? How often do you come? What do you like most here? How might we improve? Use a form to collect the data that gives some demographic background such as gender, general age group, geographic area of origin, as well as some simple psychographic information such as why did they come and how satisfactory they found the experience. That allows for analysis later when you have time to do so.

Screen Shot 2014-03-06 at 9.42.44 AM5. Social Media – Tripadvisor.com, Yelp.com and Facebook.com are becoming easy places to look for honest feedback about your site or programming. With Facebook, you can create your own fan page to stimulate conversations, but since many folks are “lurkers” it is not a great place to learn much about your guests overall. People who love your site or are unhappy with the experience in some way may go to Tripadvisor or Yelp and give a review. Read these reviews daily or weekly, as often as they show up. Notice what they are saying and the star rating, but also check out the photos that they post to see what they find most fascinating about your site.

There are obviously many other ways to learn more about your guests but these are some that can be done daily or weekly with little or no investment. Analysis can be as informal as discussions at weekly staff meetings. Or you might have a student intern or local college class take data collected from some methods and do a deeper analysis with cross-tabulations. Understanding the motivations and interests of our audiences is essential. Learning to listen and observe in simple, direct ways can be very effective in helping you improve what you do for your unique audiences.

It’s still fine to count numbers and be aware of the volume of traffic through your building, site or programs, but presence alone is not enough. Try to learn more and apply it to improve all you offer.

– Tim Merriman