Backyard Friends

Ever wondered what lives in an urban backyard in a tropical country?  Wonder no more…I finally sat myself down last week and identified our backyard birds here.  We have a wide variety on any day but here are the most common visitors:

Guira Cuckoo

White woodpecker

Sayaca Tanager

Rufous Hornero

Saffron Finch (Male)

Smooth-billed Ani

Southern House Wren

One I’m missing on this list is a dove species that I haven’t identified yet, turns out there are a lot of very-similar dove species in South America.  We also have a ton of house sparrows and pigeons, but then who doesn’t?

On exciting days we have the occasional parrot visitor.  Here are some white-eyed parakeets that came by the Institute one morning

I have also seen Quaker parakeets in the Toborochi trees at the Kinder.

As far as non-avians we have superfluous geckos who run all over the walls eating bugs.  We also have ameiva lizards who run around in the gardens and grassy areas.  Unfortunately our cat population keeps the lizards down, meaning less bugs get eaten.  Here’s Guida vs. Ameiva.  I believe Guida won.

In the insect department we are back into millipede season now, they’re everywhere!  We also have superfluous centipedes, beetles, wasps and so many more things I could never name.  We also have the occasional scorpion or tarantula visitor.  The butterflies are just amazing here with common visitors being the blue morpho and this callicore sorana

We also have some HUGE moths.

Here’s a cool garden spider that had babies in our hedge:

And finally as far as plants, we have abundant fruit trees and palm trees.  The coconut tree right outside our house finally came through with some coconuts this year.  Here it is flowering and then later with coconuts.

Mango season is right around the corner and it looks like we’ll have a good crop this year.  Starfruit season has already passed, it was June-August.  But the trees are already flowering again, getting ready for the next crop!  They have a really pretty flower

and I got into quite a kick of making homemade starfruit juice this past year.

And that’s our backyard!  Thanks for visiting!

Comings and Goings

August and September were months of comings and goings here.  We had the yearly group of Italian volunteers from Rome come for two weeks and leave at the end of August.  Meanwhile the first new Salesian Lay Missioner, Vivian, arrived towards the end of August.  Also Michelle, a Cochabamba Salesian volunteer, passed through Montero on her way to her site.

Extended community dinner (left to right): Tom, Michelle, Vivian, Aubrey, Ramona

Then the first week of September was a flurry of arrivals with Madre Clara, the big cheese, returning from her trip to Europe and three other Salesian volunteers arriving:  Maggie, Monica, and Tania.

Then too soon we had to say a sad goodbye to the outgoing Salesian volunteers, Aubrey and Ramona.

Then two weeks later Lainie arrived and finally AnnMarie (a repeat volunteer from last year)!  Now we’re a group of 8.  Each person brings their own talents and skills to offer and each is staying a different amount of time so the experiences differ but we all travel down the same road together for this brief period of time.

Sunday night community dinner (left to right): Tania, Lainie, Maggie, Monica, Vivian, AnnMarie, Tom.  And I’m taking the picture.

Oh the things they will make

So Bolivia actually has an interesting relationship with China since basically everything that is sold here (and everywhere right?) is from China.  But it’s a common thing to say to someone, “Is that real or is it Chinese” as a way to inquire about the quality of something.  It’s gotten to the point that “Chinese” is synonymous with “poor quality” even when referring to things not made in China.  They also like to use the phrase “work like a Chinese man” to indicate someone working extremely long hours in poor conditions.  At first I was shocked at how un-pc these comments were, particularly since people here have very little knowledge about what China is actually like and have met very few, if any, Chinese people.  But there’s no word I know of for ‘pc’ in Bolivian spanish, so I just let it go.

Some of the products that come to Bolivia I’m certain would never be accepted for import into the U.S.  One example of which is this darling pregnant barbie doll called “Happy Every Day.”

Not to be outdone, we saw another package with the same pregnant barbie dolled labeled “Teenage Pregnancy Beautiful.”  We all let out a collective What!? when we saw that one, but unfortunately couldn’t get a picture.

Another fun story is the kite Tom bought.  He was really excited to try it out the next day but was disappointed when it wouldn’t actually fly.  As he put it, “It seems as if someone who had seen a kite before said oh I can make that but didn’t actually understand the concept.”  The directions on the package should have probably been a tip off to us.  “CAUTION: Fly your kite in large field, avolding your kite the railway.  Trafficroad, the eletrlc line and high pressure wire field, vallay or near airport.  Made in China.”

Fires, Drought and Rainforest

So we’ve already started the hot, dry, smoky season here.  Generally it’s smoky because they burn the sugar cane fields and the processing plant to the north of us throws out a lot of ash and smoke while processing the sugar cane.  However as we’ve found out happened in 2010 when we first got here and is happening again this year, in dry years the fires get worse.  Similar to what happened in the US this year, fires have started getting out of control in Bolivia.  When these fires get out of control in rural areas, there’s little more than men with buckets and rugs to beat them back.  Just a few days ago a huge chunk of land owned by the Santa Cruz airport burned out of control but luckily the airport has firefighters and were able to keep stop it before it got to the airport.

Many of these fires are human-started.  The majority of the fires are in the department of Santa Cruz (us) and the department of Beni (north of La Paz).  According to a recent article in our newspaper El Deber, the vast majority of the burning is associated with cattle farming and agriculture.  Why these fires started is a more difficult question though.  We know that farmers burn forest to clear the land; they also burn trash and according to the newspaper today, many farmers have claimed the fires came across the border from Brazil.  However since the same article said the authorities were fining anyone found starting fires, the truth is probably getting buried.  Burning can also be part of the yearly harvest cycle for crops such as sugar cane and what starts as a controlled burn could get out of control.  Beni and Santa Cruz are the main agro-business regions in Bolivia so it would make sense that so much burning is centered here, particularly during sugar cane harvest.

So we have man-made fires burning out of control with inadequate ability to fight them, but the problem doesn’t stop there.  Coincidentally the departments of Beni and Santa Cruz are also the regions where the Amazon rainforest spills down into Bolivia.   And as a recent article picked up by, “Bolivia park declared one of most diverse places on Earth” explains nicely, this region has huge biodiversity significance.  You know the stories about a scientist going deep into the rainforest and finding some fungus that cures this disease or that disease.  This is that forest.  El Deber reports that since January over 1000 fires occurred in forest reserves and protected areas.  (How large those fires were is not clearly explained however).  I don’t believe Madidi National Park, which the nbc article talks about, has had any large fires but they are certainly not out of danger.

They say it might rain on Wednesday.  Let’s hope it does.  Our weather forecast today:

Julia’s visit Part 2

After our adventures in Valle Sacta, we came back to Montero and showed Julia around a little bit.  It happened to be National Teacher’s Day and so she came to the Kinder and partied with us.

Julia and Nayerly dancing.  She also stopped by my English class and talked with one of my students.

My student said afterwards, “she so different from you.  She’s really happy and smiley.”  Oh, I thought, I guess I should try to smile more in my English class.

We also took Julia to Santa Cruz for a day to see the plaza, cathedral and most exciting of all, the feria.  The feria is a huge outdoor/indoor shopping center that’s open Wednesdays and Saturdays and sells everything you could ever want in bulk.  But it’s a collection of thousands of small vendors instead of a big box store like Costco.  It’s a great place to find all your illegal or fake merchandise.  I got a sweater for $10 that came with a tag on it that said 34.95 Euros!  Of course the guy offered me a cheaper price if I bought by the dozen, but I didn’t need a dozen sweaters.  And for Julia’s birthday present we found her a snazzy faux-Coach purse.

Julia was such a trooper what with us dragging her all over the country, being offered sketchy food, and braving the craziness of the feria.  It was really fun to have a visitor willing to come experience the real Bolivia with us.  Thanks for the visit Julia!


Julia’s visit

This post is waaaay overdue but better late than never right? The first week of June we had a visitor, my sister Julia! She was traveling to celebrate her 30th birthday and stayed here in Montero with us for four days. Sister Clara got excited about her coming and so decided we had to take her to visit Valle Sacta. Tom and I had never been either so I said sure, let’s go.

So after Julia arrived at 2am in the morning, and we all slept only 4 hours, we piled into the Sister’s truck and headed north. Valle Sacta is a small town half way between Montero and Cochabamba. It’s on the very edge of the foothills of the Andes in a very tropical and productive area. There had been some drug crack-downs that week, as reported in the newspaper, and we had the good luck to get to drive through all of the major cocaine-producing cities in Bolivia as well as the stolen-car capital of Bolivia. Since this area is a fair distance from any big city it tends to be a little farther from the reach of organized governance.

So with all that in mind, we were pleasantly surprised to see how beautiful the Sister’s compound in Sacta is. They have a huge K-12 school, a medical center, a girl’s home, a church, and a big convent house. We relaxed the first night and then in the morning we ‘made the rounds’ with the sisters, visiting all their programs. In the medical center a woman had just given birth that morning and the only staff there at the time were two nurses and a dentist. The baby couldn’t have been more than an hour old as the nurses were still mopping up the birthing room as we passed by and poked our heads in.

Then we visited the high school’s morning lineup.

We even drove out into the country to visit a three-room school house that’s under the umbrella of the main school in town. They were having a ground-breaking celebration for a new computer classroom they raised the money to build. It was a really great cultural experience. After the dance presentations and the speeches (I had to give a speech for us), the ground-breaking began. Everybody dug a little bit of the hole.

Then they put the ‘cornerstone’ in and we dropped clay pots full of chicha (fermented corn alcohol) against it. This is an offering to Pacha Mama and also is supposed to give good luck and a speedy finish to the building.  I was invited to throw a pot in and I’m proud to say it broke perfectly.  The guy before me didn’t break his pot and ended up spilling chicha all over Madre Clara.  It can be seen as a bad omen if the pot doesn’t break.

At the end of any celebration, people throw confetti on everyone’s head. Here’s Julia with some of the students.

Then we toured the school, they had three computers set up in a classroom to show off.

And they insisted we stay for lunch which was corn (choclo), homemade cheese, potatoes and habas which are like big lima beans. Julia and I shared a plate and were able to finish everything except the cheese which we deemed too risky. The food was simple but really good and filling. And as is the custom in many parts of Bolivia, it’s all eaten with your hands, no utensils needed.

And that was just the morning!  We went back and took a nap and then that afternoon we went to see the river, a tributary of the Amazon, at Puerto Villaroel.

I realized after this picture that the Sisters must not know what I was doing, so I tried to explain was a moose was, but I ran out of words quickly and just gave up.  Fishing is a big industry for this town and so there were many boats on the river. It appeared that most people who owned a boat also lived on the boat at least for some period of time.

IP Shark Week

Intellectual Property Shark Week

So Discovery Channel is having their infamous “Shark Week” this week.  I’m going to one-up them with a series of articles and posts about a very dangerous form of shark…Intellectual Property (IP) sharks.  If you’re following me on Facebook/Google+/Delicious you’ll be treated to a bunch of different topics surrounding the problems we have with Copyright and Patents…or you can just ignore them.

If you’re reading this on the blog this is a bit off topic but I wanted to put it all together in one pace. You missed the fun in realtime, but here’s everything you missed all at once.


Copyright in the U.S. began with the constitution which gave the congress the power to: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Once the constitution was ratified, the original Copyright Act (of 1790) set the “limited time” to 14 years with the option to renew it for another 14 years for a total of 28 years.

With the copyright term set to 14 years, authors were able to make a good amount of money on their works, as historically the vast amount of money is made immediately after release. However when the time was up, others were able to take these works and freely share them with anyone. For example, the movie “Its a Wonderful Life” was originally a terrible box-office flop. However when its copyright expired, several TV stations put it on to fill air-time around the holidays because it was free to all. Its popularity rapidly grew from there. #IPSharkWeek

In 1976, at the behest of rights holders, congress drastically lengthened the term of copyright to the life of the author plus 50 years (or simply 75 years for works created by a corporation). Then in 1998, when the copyright on the originally Mickey Mouse movies was about to expire, Disney pushed congress to again extend it. This time for the life of the author plus 70 years or 120 years for corporate works. #IPSharkWeek

After the originaly 14 years of copyright was up, people were also free to take the original work and build upon it. For example Disney took the story Sleeping Beauty (published 1697) and was freely able to make it into an animated movie. (This is a common theme for Disney movies).  They waited almost 300 years, but at the time they made the movie they would only have had to wait 28 years to use a story in a film. However, you can’t make a painting of a scene from Disney’s movie until 2078 (if congress doesn’t extend copyright again). #IPSharkWeek

Along with getting extraodinary extension to the copyright terms, the distributers of copyrighted works also decided to really jack up the penalties for unauthorized distribution. They got congress to say that you would be liable up to $150,000 per work that you copy without a license. So if I were to burn a copy of one of my CDs for my wife (retail value $8), I would be responsible for copying all 16 tracks on the CD (each one being a separate work) for a grand total of $2.4 million!  Happy birthday honey :-) #IPSharkWeek

Copyright law has not been completely corrupted to serve the interest of the publishers. There are two things that the public (which the constitution says should be the beneficiary of copyright) has on its side. The first is a limited term (which isn’t as limited as it used to be). The other is Fair Use. This allows for some (very limited) opportunity to use works that fall under copyright without permission of the publisher. Some of the ways you can use fair use are: criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research. Unfortunately just because you fit into one of these categories doesn’t mean you’re in the clear to use it…there’s a bunch of other requirements too. #IPSharkWeek

In 1998 the media distributers, mostly music and movie publishers, decided that the internet was for real, and that they didn’t want their music and movies distributed in any way besides CDs, VHS/DVD, and Cable TV. To put a stop to anyone who wanted to try other methods for selling media, they created the DMCA. A large part of this law was devoted to anti-circumvention. This means if a content producer puts encryption on their DVD (most do), then its against the law for you to use a tool to remove that encryption, and for example, copy it to your iPod. #IPSharkWeek

The real crazy thing that the DMCA’s anti-circumvention clause did, other than keep people from putting the DVDs that they own onto their iPods, is enable other, non-content, companies to lock out competition. For instance, the companies that make printers and then sell the ink a huge profit margins put a bit of computer code into each ink cartridge so that they could use the DMCA to go after anyone who tried to make competing ink cartridges. Even better, there was a garage door opener company that sued another company another company under the DMCA that made universal openers which worked on their doors. Even if these lawsuits aren’t successful, just fighting it off could put an inventive startup out of business. #IPSharkWeek

To oppose the industries unlimited power to encrypt things, and keep them from being used for fair use, congress and the register of copyrights have established several exemptions to the anti-circumevention policies. One is to allow professors to copy a DVD for use in the classroom. Another is to allow e-books to be read by screen readers for visually impaired people. Yet another allows users to jailbreak their smartphones. #IPSharkWeek

Another aspect of the DMCA (the final one I’m going to mention) allows for publishers to request that a website (youtube, wikipedia,, etc) take down a user’s content if the publisher merely sends an accusation that the content is copyrighted by the publisher. The plus side of this, is that it absolves the websites of any responsibility for the content their users publish. The down side is that the number of times this has been abused by publishers is very un-funny. There are no checks and balances for fair use or even that the alleged copyright holder actually owns the copyright. There is no judge to decide if the take-down is legitimate, you only need to make an accusation to get the material taken down. #IPSharkWeek

One of those examples of publishers abusing the DMCA take-down request: A user submitted a video of birds (and their mating calls) to youtube. Then a company that licenses music for videos sent youtube a takedown request stating that his video contained some of their music and youtube took his video off the site. He tried to appeal to youtube, but when they asked the music company what was up with their request, they insisted that they owned the rights to his, clearly, original recording.  #IPSharkWeek

The publishers of music and movies often call people who illegally copy the items they distribute “pirates” or “thieves”. But really? Is sharing your favorite song with a friend by copying it onto an ipod “stealing” anything? If I were to walk into your garage, hot-wire your car, and drive off in it, that would be stealing…one minute you had your car, the next you didn’t. This is not what happens when you copy music. No one loses their copy of it…studies have even shown that the odds are very good that your copying of one song won’t negatively affect your decision to purchase that music. #IPSharkWeek

So the internet has been around for a few years now, and isn’t really going away. And the major content companies (mostly music and movies, but books and TV too) haven’t really gotten into the whole “online” thing. They’re really only on iTunes and Amazon. Why? They’re really afraid to change their past business model (CDs/DVDs/VHS) for something new. There’s lots of companies that have tried to innovate in this space, but they almost all get shot down by the same companies they would end up benefiting if they were successful. #IPSharkWeek

Its one thing to illegally download a DVD from the web, but it is another thing all together to put a link to youtube on your website. The big content industries want both to be illegal, luckily the law is still on the side of the people with this one. The federal appeals court (7th circuit) recently ruled that its *not* illegal to put a link to an online video on your website. You’re not copying it! #IPSharkWeek

In 2001 a smart guy named Bram Cohen developed a new internet protocol for rapidly downloading large files. It is called bit-torrent and it allows everyone who is downloading the file to pool their bandwidth so that they can all download it faster. Amazing technology. The music and movie people quickly started to oppose this technology, because it was so good that it worked well for copying movies and music too…they have (and still are) tried to demonize this technology, even though it was originally designed and is widely used for non-infringing purposes.  Here’s one example of a site over 1,000,000 different *legal* files available for download with bit-torrent. #IPSharkWeek

Here’s the list of what’s hot on the site:

There’s also lots of other software available over bit-torrent, like my favorite operating system, Ubuntu:

Not content with their current power over content, the big content industries pushed congress to create a (series of) new law(s) that would let them together with the feds shut down websites that they don’t like, even overseas. Part of this was called SOPA, and the internet wasn’t having it. On the day of January 18, 2012 tens of thousands of people called the capitol switchboard, overloading it. There was so much traffic to congresses web-servers that they went down for a while. Over six million people signed petitions against SOPA (that’s a decent percentage of the 300 million citizens in the U.S.).  The amount of people who contacted their representatives this one day is more than ten times higher than any other day in history. And it worked. The next day the bill was dead. #IPSharkWeek

The people who had pushed the SOPA bill were dismayed at the huge outpouring of support against their cause and decided to cast the blame against groups like Wikipedia (they’ve got a huge commercial motive, NOT!) and some companies like Google who had spoken against it. I’m sure that Google doesn’t make any sizable percentage of its money from this type of content either way. #IPSharkWeek

Blaming the organizations for the failure of SOPA isn’t even getting to the meat of the issue. It was important that organizations helped people get together and express their views, but it was the millions and millions of people that should be the important piece of the puzzle, not one company vs. another. Eric Raymond wrote a good letter to Senator Dodd (now the chair of the movie producer’s organization) explaining how this bill would have hurt the internet and all the people who use it. These are things that shouldn’t be messed with for *any* industry’s bottom line. #IPSharkWeek

Here’s a funny dramatization of what Chris “Rodd” wants to make into law with bills like SOPA. #IPSharkWeek

So after the Internet’s SOPA victory, the worry was that the content companies would just wait a few months for things to calm down and try the same approach again. Sooner or later they’d get luck with congress…so to take the initiative some of the people who are knowledgeable about these topics developed a “Declaration of Internet Freedom” to outline freedoms that should always be protected on the internet going forward. This should make things clear to industries who want to innovate which practices the users will and will not stand for. #IPSharkWeek

So I’m going to post my own suggestions for how to fix copyright but #IPSharkWeek still has a couple days to go…you’ll have to stay tuned. In the meantime, here’s what some other great minds think about fixing copyright.  (Up next: patents)

Software Patents

Patent time. Software patent time. The patent system has worked wonderfully for years at protecting the rights of inventors of all kinds of gadgets. However the U.S. Patent office states that you cannot patent an “Abstract Idea” or a “Rule of Nature” such as a mathematical formula. Anyone who understands how software works knows that it is just (complicated) mathematics combining ideas together., so software in general shouldn’t be patentable. Unfortunately, the courts got confused somewhere along the way, and it is. #IPSharkWeek

The other thing about patents, is they need to be non-obvious to someone “skilled in the arts” (aka a programmer). Yet somehow Amazon managed to get a patent on a “One Click Checkout”, where you click one button next to an item and it just ships it. Basically this boils down to they’ve already stored all your billing info and don’t need to give you a page to enter it again. Not only is this obvious, but it is pretty much the definition of an abstract idea and is implemented completely in software (aka math). #IPSharkWeek

The problem with patents is that, unlike copyright, you can keep people from using functional things by suing them over patents. Take microsoft, they have a patent that allows a filesystem to use filenames longer than 11 characters (can I get a shout out for good-old 8.3 names?), sounds obvious *and* abstract. They then drafted this patent into their battle against the Linux operating system and started suing companies that used linux, like TomTom. That’s not really competing fairly. #IPSharkWeek

So Apple got a patent for using “swipe to unlock” on their iphone. Then the started seeing that Samsung was making phones that were technically far superior to the iphone and instead of releasing an iphone with a bigger screen, they sued samsung over this trivial patent, hoping that they could block sales of samsung phones in the U.S. Samsung, not being a pushover fired back with some patents of its own, and though the trial isn’t over it doesn’t look like either side will get a clean victory. They’ll probably end up settling for very little money and the only ones who will win will be the lawyers!

Life Patents

Another thing that you can unfortunately patent that you shouldn’t be able to is life. There’s a company that found a genetic marker (has been in millions of peoples’ DNA for millennia) which indicates a elevated likely-hood for a certain type of breast cancer. So they went and patented the gene. Now if you want to get tested for that important mutation, you need to go through them. There are no other options, no second tests. #IPSharkWeek


So that just about wraps up #IPSharkWeek, but before I go, I want to leave a couple posts about what you can do. First, use Creative Commons licenses and media. Creative Commons is an organization that created a collection of freely available licenses that you can apply to your works (photos, writing, etc) which give others permission to use them in specific ways, without having to wait 120 years for it to enter the public domain or to get specific permission from you. Since it was created in 2001, millions and millions of works have been made available with the various Creative Commons licenses, which you are free to use yourself.

Another thing you can do is to use Open Source software. This is software that is given away (usually) free of cost, but more importantly it gives its users the freedom to use it in any way they see fit or even to modify it to their liking. You may not be someone who can edit code of your favorite program to make it work better, but if you use software that has the freedom to do that, there’s a good likelyhood that someone else in the community of users (there are real communities that form around open source sofware) will have those skills.  You may already even use free software. Firefox is. Libre Office (edits MS Word/Excel/Powerpoint) is. Gimp (a photo editor as good as photoshop) is. The Linux operating system (my favorite version – Ubuntu), which is a complete replacement for windows even is. All available for free. #IPSharkWeek

So people have been asking, what are my ideas for reforming IP law.  Here they are: 1) Shorter copyright term, I think the original 14+14 years was fine, plenty of time to make money off your work. 2) Sane penalties for copyright infringement. If you make a copy of a $8 CD, you shouldn’t be responsible for millions in damages…something like 10 times the commercial value would be a fair punishment. 3) No patents on software, they just don’t make sense. 4) No patents on life…it was around before us, discovering something and then patenting how it works shouldn’t be something one organization can monopolize.

Thanks for reading #IPSharkWeek….tune in next week for #GlobalWarmingSharkWeek or #GovernmentSurveillanceSharkWeek…just kidding, no more rapid-fire messages for awhile.


Last Class

We’re now a couple weeks into our last semester teaching in Montero, and it has been very busy.  For the first time, my Introduction to Multimedia class had to turn away students because the class was full!

I’d especially like to thank everyone who donated towards building this computer lab. When we originally put it in, I only wanted to install ten computers, but Sister Clara (who runs the school) thought we should try to do fourteen, and because so many people donated towards it we were able to put them all in.

Now I just have to do my part and teach the class. Having a larger class is definitely a lot more work because I need to spend a substantial part of the time giving one-on-one instruction. It’s challenging, but it’s a challenge I’m excited for. Keep me in your prayers please.

I also have a new section this semester. Every Saturday morning I have a class with several of the sisters. It’s a little more laid back (only 3hrs a week vs. 10 for a normal class) but they’re learning some good fundamentals of multimedia as well as some basic computer usage. And it doesn’t matter how much they beg me for it, I’m not letting them make up missed homework with extra rosaries!

Making Maps

A quick note: The blog has had some hiccups over the last month and a half, sorry for any readers who couldn’t get access. I think I now have things worked out with our hosting provider and it should be better. We should have some more new material coming soon!

Making Maps – The First Step in Development

Having used google maps for years (and before that mapquest), I expected, in 2010 when I came to Bolivia, that a city of 100,000 people like Montero (wikipedia, better version) would certainly have some online maps that I could look at before I arrived. I was hoping to scope things out, see where I would be living and working, what was around, where I could put my skills to work, etc.  Unfortunately there wasn’t anything.  Google maps had a spot for montero, and a few of the roads, but not very many and almost no street names or any other kind of reference spot.  My personal favorite mapping spot, OpenStreetMap, was even worse off, it just had the main road through town (which I would later find out wasn’t even done correctly).

So when I got to Montero, not only did I not know what the town would be like, but we had the most difficult time finding my way around for the first couple months. After a while of this, I decided to take matters into my own hands and build a map of the town.  In addition to being able to find great fried chicken places a second time, I was hopeful that my map would also be of use to others. I know that there are several NGOs that work on a regular basis in and around Montero and it would be great if they could build off of my work as well. Eventually, I hope that as Bolivians become more and more computer literate, they could also benefit from having a decent map of their city. (Spoiler: here’s the link)

I decided to do my work in the OpenStreetMap database for two reasons: 1) they have great map making tools (both online and offline), which I was already familiar with and 2) the maps would be made freely available to anyone who wanted them.  For those not familiar with it, the OpenStreetMap (OSM) project works like wikipedia. Anyone can edit it and there is a huge community focused around making it better (and keeping it free of vandalism).

Being lazy, I started creating my map near where I was living. I’d go out early in the morning (before it got super hot) and wander around the streets near where I lived with my GPS running and a camera I used to take pictures some of the plaques that the city had put on every house. These had on them the address for that house and many had, crucially, the names of the streets. I had tried to write down the names, but that resulted in me standing in front of someone’s front door for a minute while I tried to write down spanish names. Using the camera allowed me to take just two seconds per door and resulted in a lot fewer strange looks.

An address plaque that has a street name on it.

Once I’d get back home, I’d convert my GPS track into the common GPX format (also wikipedia) which is a common, computer readable, format for GPS data. Once I had the GPX file, I would do two things with it. The first is to simply upload it to the OSM server so it would be available for use later. Then I would open it together with my pictures in a program called Viking. This program (and there are many others like it) could use the timestamp (assuming I had previous set the correct time on my camera plus or minus a few seconds) on my pictures to put them onto my GPS track. Now I could see which of the lines in my track (aka streets) had which names.

I would start up the online editor on the OSM website. To make streets here is very easy, I would start by clicking on the end of one street to make a point, then just click a few points along my track (more if there were turns) until I got to the end and OSM automatically connects them into a line. Finally, I would simply select the type of street: dirt road, paved road, various classes of highway, etc. (What these classifications mean varies from country to country, for example here they are in Brasil.)

Once I had all the lines for streets input into OSM, it was time to add their names. By looking at my GPS trace with the pictures at the same time as my new map, it was easy to see which picture corresponded with which road. All I had to do was read the picture and type it into the road name box.

I didn’t spend too much time on this right away, which turned out to be a good thing, because about a month after I got started OSM got sponsorship from Microsoft. Part of this deal meant that satellite imagery which Microsoft had would be available in OSM’s online editor. Now instead of walking up and down each street, I could just sit at my computer and draw the street lines where the satellite images showed the streets going.  Much easier!  The downside to this is that the satellite imagery didn’t line up quite right. It turned out that all the images were about 30ft north of where they were supposed to be, not terrible, but enough that it stood out on the GPS. To solve this I went to various points around town that were easily visible in the satellite imagery (I really only needed one or two though) and took careful GPS positions of them. Then I used these as control points to show me how far I needed to adjust my lines.

Now that I could make all the street lines from my computer things went much faster. After four hours of furious clicking, I had all the street lines in the main part of the city.  A few more days of on-and-off work gave me the rest of Montero and a bunch of the surrounding area. The map was looking very good, unfortunately only the streets near where I lived had names. To fix this, I went back to my walking around with a camera and taking pictures of address plaques, but it went much quicker now. I only needed to hit one house on each street.  I was able to walk a zig-zag path from the edge of town into the center and got all the street names in that quarter of the city!

In addition to streets OSM also has built in support for all kinds of points-of-interest from resturants to churches to drug-stores.  Its easy to add them in the editor, just select one and drag it in, and now that I had a map with streets and names, it was easy to figure out where to put things. If I knew that the grocery store was on Calle Warnes a block up from the main plaza, I could just add places from memory. After putting in my favorite/important places, I was considering my map complete!

This is about where it stands now, you can see it here:

This is great, now when I find a great new fried chicken place, I know where to put it so I can find it again!  However, the uses of the map aren’t limited to finding restaurants or getting around town. OSM provides all the map data freely to anyone who wants to use it, so it can be imported into other programs and used as a base to add other map related information, such as population density, disease outbreaks, crime rates, etc. Then this data can be used to make important development decisions. This is really a whole field, which is called Geographic Information Systems (GIS), but you don’t need to be getting a graduate degree in it (like my brother who starts his masters in GIS next week…good luck Kevin!) to put it to use.

So if you are one of the EWB people reading this blog or otherwise work in international development, think about making a map of the whole community/region as your first step in working on a project. Its easy, and a lot of work can be done state-side before you head into the country.

Tomas(a) dancing

Tom’s not the only one with dance videos up his sleeve.   The next evening we went to the Sacred Heart party at the girls home (Hogar).  The girls presented a variety a well-rehearsed dance numbers.

Even the staff had a great number.

And we presented this number. See if you can pick us out.


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