Sean T. O’Brien, Ph.D., is a circuit rider for the W. Alton Jones Foundation in Charlottesville, Va.

Monday, 4 Oct 1999


People laugh when I tell them my job title is “circuit rider.” It sounds funny, but I love it. How many people have a job title that is a pun, much less a job that requires the holder to have technical skills, an interest in promoting the health of our planet, and a willingness to travel extensively?

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This is me conducting the first test of a full remote communications system in Bolivia.

So what is circuit riding? The term is a pun on “circuit” referring to both a route traveled and an electronic circuit. In short, it means working with technology to empower progressive nonprofits, activists, and organizers. The term circuit rider originated in the 19th century to describe a minister who traveled a route around the wild West dispensing his services. Like ministers, we modern-day circuit riders evangelize (about the benefits of using technology) and minister to the sick (for example, virus-infected computers). Over the next five days, I hope to give you a taste of what it’s all about.

Contrary to the standard model for Grist diaries, mine will not be an entirely sequential set of entries. I think that a straight week-long diary would either give the impression that I have the most amazing job in the world or the most mundane. My job requires extensive travel, both within the U.S. and abroad, but it also requires a desire to get into the hardware and software guts of computers, networks, and the Internet. Read on and you will see what I mean.

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First, excitement!

Eco Bolivia is largely responsible for the creation of the nearly 2 million-hectare Madidi National Park in the lowlands of Bolivia. The Bolivian government is contemplating building a dam at this site in the park, which would flood hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary lowland tropical rainforest and displace an unknown number of indigenous people.

In November 1998, the W. Alton Jones Foundation awarded Fundación Eco Bolivia a grant to develop a system that would enable the organization to communicate with the outside world via phone and email from very remote locations (that is, no wire-based phone or electric service for miles around) in the vast Madidi National Park which Eco Bolivia works to protect. Rosa María Ruiz, the director of Eco Bolivia, enlisted my assistance to develop this remote communication system and to train the group’s employees in the use of the equipment. I, in turn, consulted with numerous people to ensure Eco Bolivia would get a robust system.

This project required extensive research on the various methods of communication available from remote locations, and a trip to Bolivia to deliver the equipment and train the users. Fortunately, I have a background in tropical forest ecology, so I knew we were facing some technical difficulties not found in other regions, the most important being the persistent high temperatures and high humidity. In a tropical rain forest, fungi can actually grow inside the lens of a camera within a few weeks if the camera is not stored in a dry place.

Rosa María in her office. The windows are just screen, no glass; the walls are made of grass stalks that grow 20 to 30 feet high; the floor is made of split palm tree trunks; and the roof is thatched. It remains remarkably dry inside. Nevertheless, all the equipment is stored in sealed cases when not in use, and plastic sheeting is sometimes used to keep the user and equipment dry when it is raining.

The remote communications system we designed allows Eco Bolivia to not only talk by telephone, but to send and receive email, with attached photographs, from the field, or anywhere else in the world. The system includes a ruggedized (meaning more or less waterproof and very resistant to damage from rough treatment) laptop computer from FieldWorks, a satellite phone (reasonably durable in moist conditions) from Thrane and Thrane, a digital camera (not so rugged, but highly capable and portable) from Sony, solar panels from Real Goods, an inverter and surge protector from Radio Shack, and a battery from the local auto parts store in La Paz to create a self-contained, highly portable communications station.

One of the great things about working in the tropics is the critters. This giant yellow snail was presented to me with great delight by the Bolivians who knew we have nothing like this in the forests of Virginia.

This project is atypical of those most circuit riders get to do. It involved very high-tech and expensive equipment and long-term travel to another country. However, it demonstrates the kind of project that would be very difficult to accomplish without a circuit rider. An understaffed nonprofit in Bolivia would have a very hard time researching, buying, and building such a system on its own. Moreover, one of the goals of circuit riding is to empower people and organizations and to do this in such a way that the group should be able to use and maintain the equipment with minimal outside assistance. This is done through training — circuit riders focus on training people so the recipient is not dependent on others to use technology. This is the only way to ensure that effective use of technology is integrated into the everyday activities of an organization. Despite the complexity of the equipment, I have had to field very few technical support calls from Eco Bolivia, but I know they are using the system because I get email from them regularly and I have seen their satellite phone bill!

Tomorrow I will write about a more typical sort of project for a circuit rider, establishing a local area network (LAN) with Internet connectivity (Web and email), file and printer sharing, and a backup system. Wednesday I will actually tell you what I do on Wednesday; it will be a non-travel day for me, so the everyday office tasks will be highlighted. I will also write a bit about circuit-riding models and point you to other circuit riders. Thursday we will head to Haida Gwaii (you’ll have to read Thursday’s entry to find out what and where that is). And Friday I will write about a what preliminary site visit or technical assessment might be like for a group looking for assistance from a circuit rider. Stay tuned.