Friday, December 23, 2011

Mapping Haiti Update

A recurring theme in my trip to Haiti was maps. So much so that "are you mapping this, Nick?" became something of a running joke.

Mapping a broken well

Over time, we became interested in mapping tap taps, Haiti's informal transit system. National routes are a wheel-and-spoke network with Port-au-Prince as its center. But when you zoom in on Port-au-Prince, a complicated network of short links emerges. To travel from one part of the city to another, travelers must have a mental map of which stations fall between their starting point and destination. To go somewhere new, you must find someone who knows the path. It turned out that these everyday conversations were the best way to introduce Haitians to sharing information about mapping Port-au-Prince.

Watson mapping a well

For awhile the data was collected but remained difficult to share or even see. If you followed instructions on a wiki, you could see something like this:

With Andy Allan's development of transit tiles for OpenStreetMap, this project was ready to make a leap forward. With some early-morning hacking with Adam over Skype, we put together just in time for the OpenHaiti summit.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ecole Shalom: Programming Strategy

As part of my work at École Shalom, I drafted a one-page strategy to introduce computing skills in each grade, from our 1st grade keyboard lessons to 5th/6th grade getting a bite of Python code. The idea is to give teachers and the principal a picture of how the computers can be used and how students learn more and more about each activity. Although teachers were already using the computers for quizzes and presentations, we wanted to show them some more creative lessons that computers are specially equipped to teach.

Intro and link follow:

One of the main goals of the OLPC volunteers is to support activities at all levels of Ecole Shalom's education programs which go beyond passive use of computers and focus on:
  • creating content

  • redesigning systems / programs

  • planning methods / algorithms

These are the fundamental skills necessary for programming and computer science, and they're just as useful for a variety of science, engineering, and math fields.

Full programming strategy

Saturday, December 17, 2011

With much thanks to SparkFun =)

Some of our most innovative work with sensors and computing in Haiti came from our Arduinos and a USB weather sensor.

Teacher-trainer Junior demonstrates weather sensor

I modified the learn-Python activity, Pippy, to include a weather program. The same program has options to read the serial output of the sensor in English, French, or Haitian Creole. You can download this modified program (warning - overwrites your existing examples in French!) at

A 6th grade student reads light level on an outdoor balcony

The weather sensor is part of our Programming Strategy, a plan to introduce creative and scientific concepts from kindergarten up to graduation from École Shalom =)

We also experimented with an Arduino electronics board. The modified Pippy activity is fully equipped to talk to the Arduino over the USB/serial cable.

RFID-tagged drawings make the XO speak the student's name and their drawing's subject

The weather sensor and an Arduino kit are from SparkFun Electronics, whom we met at the NYC Maker Faire. They're great - thank you so much!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Back in the USA

It had to happen: I returned to the US. Here I am at the airport with Junior.

Before then, Adam and I biked up a mountain. This mountain, actually:

At the top, you could see the whole plain: the ocean, Port-au-Prince, Croix-des-Bouquets, Double Harvest, and more. Photos to come later.

What else? We did an RFID/NFC project with some kids:

and I learned how to sew! Awesome.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Westward to Petit-Goave

I spent this Sunday traveling to a potential new microfinance site outside the Haitian city of Petit-Goave. To put it in perspective with some earlier trips, it's the bottom left marker on this map of places I've been:

This was mostly a mapping trip. Every sign, every well, every school and bakery I could capture on camera will soon be recorded on OpenStreetMap.

I also got to try douce marcos, a chewy local delicacy. Here's the business's sign and their latitude/longitude on OpenStreetMap.

But there plenty of other photos which I took for the sake of the view:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Perception of Difficulty

How experienced I feel when I start working on someone else's code:

Or even this:

(CC-BY-SA-NC Wayan Vota)

How I feel when I actually find and fix the bug:

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Flower Bridge: neat hacktivity

As a civil engineering major, I am a huge fan of the Bridge activity, the winner of a Physics Game Jam organized by OLPC.

The kids at Ecole Shalom have no trouble with the Physics activity, but Bridge requires much more precise mouse motions and clicks. I showed it to a few students and they enjoyed the mechanics and sound effects, but we didn't get any bridges built.

Last week, I got the idea to change up the game. As you play, flowers rise up and you can use them as supports for your bridge. I connected the flowers' growth to a solar sensor. Put your computer in the sun, and the flowers will grow and support the bridge. Watch out for clouds and saboteur classmates, because without sunlight those flowers will wilt away! ALSO to stop kids from cheating by connecting the sensor leads, the maximum flower height is too high for a train to climb.

See images from our classes

Monday, November 7, 2011

Big day for literacy and education

Today we welcomed Dr. Terri Bucci and other educators to Ecole Shalom. Terri is running a teacher-training seminar in town tomorrow, and several of our teachers will be there, so we decided to demonstrate how the XO laptops could be used to promote literacy in the Haitian Creole language.

For reading material, we used an illustrated story kindly offered to us by the IOM. Vivid pictures explained the situation (a mother and baby seeking shelter from a cyclone) and vital safety information. As the class read through the story, I asked questions about what was happening, and directed kids to mimic sounds that the character might hear. We noticed that students in the back row were doing most of the reading, so I asked the front two rows to complete the story. All in all, this had to be one of our best classes in terms of engagement and participation from the kids.

That group had to leave, but later in the day we held a grammar class with 5th and 6th grade, followed by an after-school sensors project with 1st and 2nd graders. This is building up to a larger project where we can use Crikey (the modified Measure activity that I'm working on) to respond to sensors with recorded sounds. I also want to add to our set of sensor-based activities by working with the Physics and Bridge activities.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Hope and Holidays in Haiti

Due to holidays on November 1 and 2, there were only three days of school this week. By working closely with the teachers, we still taught a computer lesson to each grade and held great after-school sessions.

Kindergarteners are learning a new color each week. These activities use interesting visuals and also help children learn French. There are small differences between French and Creole words for fruits such as the papaya, articles of clothing, and even the colors themselves. Migueline, the kindergarten teacher, leads the kids in a song incorporating each item in the pictures.

Older students are learning to type by writing down details of stories such as La Paysanne and La cuisse de poulet. I downloaded the public-domain audiobooks from LibriVox and play them in sync on a few computers. The students tell us to pause the story whenever they hear a new character, and then they type that character's name into Write. They even help each other type faster so they can continue listening to the story!

We also did a mapping lesson during a visit by officials from the American embassy. We had a good talk about how OLPC can change the ways teachers educate, from the old style of rote memorization to participatory education with room for discovery, individualization, and science. See more on

Monday, October 24, 2011

OLPC-SF from Haiti

Hey everyone in SF - your posters look great! Glad I could join you live from Port-au-Prince via Skype. Thanks to Julie Blaustein for these and more great photos:

I used the chat to introduce my plan to get the laptops used more in class. We've been meeting most students once during the day and twice after school each week, based on teachers' ideas for what we can teach. This time around, I offered the teachers two "wildcard" classes which they could request for their students: taking apart an XO and listening to a poem. Naomi picked the former for grades 3-4, and we decided Cesar's class, grade 2, would enjoy the poem.

On my way back to school, I got to visit an art festival. Seeing artwork on display and in progress honestly made my weekend.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Memorize + Sensors, Explained

Ever since I proposed Memorize with Sensors, reactions have varied from "that's so cool!" to "what is this I don't even...?" Now that this hack-tivity is released, it's time for a step-by-step guide to how and why to set it up yourself.

1) Draw a poster with many parts (countries, continents, parts of the body...) but don't label anything.

2) Embed resistors in each item on the poster. Each resistor should be different, and measurable by the XO. Putting your resistors in series or parallel can give you extra measurable areas.

3) Create a new 1-2 deck in Memorize. Wire up your microphone port to a resistor and click the Measure icon to add a resistor value. Only use values between +/-32000.

4) Also click the Speak icon so the XO will read the name on the card.

5) Repeat 3-4 for each resistor on your poster.

6) Re-make the game if you move to a room with very different humidity.

This week in Haiti

I had the idea to do a laptop tear-down in front of the 5th-6th grade class. One of the laptops got a broken screen on the airplane, and another had a misfit touchpad. Junior and I each took a laptop so we could put the good parts together. Photos by Tony!

Tony, George, and Adam left. So Junior and I are OLPC Haiti for the next 10 days! A few days before they left, a 1st grader stopped by to talk about the laptop, and I got this photo:

I used my extra responsibility to set up a clearer schedule and run some new after-school activities. I tried out some new lessons with audiobooks, typing, and sensors. Here are a couple of photos:

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mapping: Paper vs Papert

Although One Laptop per Child usually has a computer education focus (Papert), the students at Ecole Shalom are making their mark with pencil and paper first.

In our first attempt, students in grades 5 and 6 drew roadmaps on their own. Nathalie, the teacher, asked us to teach geography every week =) The second time around, we were more ambitious. Four teams of four students each were given colored pencils, stickers, and a few starter ideas.

We must have done something right because we saw students being attentive to detail and innovative in finding drawing tools. The photos below show how one team used a 5 Goude ($0.13) coin to draw a circle on their soccer field, and another student tracing the Haitian flag from another paper.

Speaking of copying... the groups tended to take ideas from their neighbors. Fortunately we had two different rooms, so we still had two contrasting designs! One focus was on the school and schoolyard, and the other was "zoomed out", so to speak. Here's a zoom-out map:

Then the school day ended on us! The kids kept going, and even brought in lunch. I was reminded of late-night hackathons, putting together activities and websites over pizza. The girl in yellow was especially persistent.

Photos from both days

On my last mapping post, we got the question:
Could you provide links or information where a volunteer might help with this or other OLPC GIS/mapping projects? Thanks!

Sure! We are working our way up to using Offline Map which is open-source HTML/JavaScript in a Python wrapper. One thing you could do is look at satellite photos to trace roads and buildings into OpenStreetMap, especially around Croix-des-Bouquets. Uruguay uses MapaCeibal, which comes with a library of Google Earth files. I also worked with an awesome OLPC school making maps in Uganda.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Quizzed and Quizzical

The past three days of our classes have focused on using the laptops to quiz students on their teachers' lessons. Grades 1-2 are learning the colors, 3-4 were adding three-digit numbers, and 5-6 were conjugating French verbs. The quizzes are on the school server, so we are training the students to open the Learn activity, find their class, and download resources. New students arrive each day, unfamiliar with the computers, so our continued progress is truly remarkable.

Decorating with Turtle blocks

Working together to solve math problems

Natalie helps a student add accents to a French conjugation

See additional photos from George on

Monday, October 10, 2011

OSM import into ArcGIS

Big step forward on the mapping portion of our trip - we got a free and openly editable map of Haiti loaded into Esri's ArcGIS application. We are hoping to work with several organizations on using volunteer contributions to strengthen their own picture of what's happening on the ground.

The source data for this map is Creative Commons licensed from