Volunteering in Bali and what I’ve done so far

by Travel Paulie on May 9, 2010

Word count: ~1500.  Approx. reading time: 10~15 minutes.

I wrote a short time ago about my frustration with trying to find a volunteering opportunity in Bali, Indonesia.  I did eventually find a place that were hitting technical road blocks with regards their website and what they could achieve using their current tools.  So in this article I’m just going to relate a bit of the work I’ve done here and hopefully illustrate the difference we can make to an organisation by helping out, if only for a few weeks.

Making a difference

A few days ago I took a day trip into the Balinese countryside, approximately 2 hours from Denpasar to the slopes of Mt. Agung. Got up at 5am to make it to the office for 6am where there was a car waiting to take us up to ‘Desa Ban’ – the village within which the East Bali Poverty Project (EBPP) has been operating for the past decade.  If you have 10 minutes, take a look at the video on the front page of the EBPP to get an idea of the conditions under which villages in this isolated region have been living.  They’re pretty dire.  Before EBPP intervened they had been completely isolated from the rest of the rapidly developing Bali – no roads reached them, they were coping with the after-effects of the most recent volcanic eruption, and their staple diet consisted of a root vegetable (kasava) that inhibited the absorption of iodine by the body, causing endemic physical and mental retarded development in children.

What I saw when I actually went there was amazing!  I knew there were many projects being undertaken, but seeing the fresh faces of the 7 year old kids in their neat classrooms learning to read and write contrasted so much with what I was expecting.  As I ‘hiked’ up to a particular village, Pengalusan, I walked along the dirt path that was the road currently being constructed by the Balinese government.  Finally!  Many of the houses were stone/brick versus the previous bamboo shacks; there were heaps of fresh water reservoirs collecting spring water; and there was organic farming techniques being employed to vary and balance the diet for the residents.  All of these changes were being implemented by the locals – the school teachers were locals, and the rocks being collected for the new road were done so by the locals.  It truly was an impressive sight.

Before this trip, the difference being made by the organisation was, to me, only stories and reports.  I couldn’t see it for myself and therefore couldn’t really appreciate it.  I was honestly a little frustrated at the progress of my work up until this point and couldn’t really feel how I was assisting with it all.  Rationally though, I knew the changes I was implementing were positive and would grease the cogs of the entire organisation, but before witnessing it all, I couldn’t truly appreciate it.

So what have I done since I’ve arrived?  Basically 2 main things have changed – the website and the email service.  Below I take both and explain a little bit about each and show how a couple of weeks work can make a huge difference.  It does get a little technical, so feel free to skip when it’s a bit heavy.  Also, any comments and suggestions of course are welcome in the section at the bottom of the page.

Building a new website

By no means am I a web-developer, but as you’ll discover when you’re volunteering with charitable organisations, expertise is all relative.  I don’t, and never have, produced websites in a professional capacity, but I have put together a few blog sites and I’m aware of related tools and technologies – and that now makes me an “expert”.

The foundation, East Bali Poverty Project, originally had a website that looked like this.  It was designed back in the 90s and the publishing interface also reflected its age, albeit with a WYSIWYG interface. It was slow, clunky, had browser-incompatibilities – just plain old.  It served them well, but for the average Joe attempting to publish content it was difficult.  So I decided, because it’s what I have heaps of experience with, to put up a WordPress blog and just customize it as best I could.  The site isn’t a blog, you say?  Well that’s the great thing about WordPress – you can use it to create more “static” websites as well and customize the look using one of the hundreds of freely available themes.

So the new East Bali Poverty Project website is a WordPress blog with much of the content from the old site transposed to blog pages, with certain content like Newsletters, News, and Updates, being put into blog posts.  It also allows them to more easily publish updates to their community and sponsors with news, progress, and events.  For most of the pages I manually copied content over and reformatted it for the site, but for some, like the Vetiver network page I just copy-pasted the source since it was too cumbersome.  It’s the 80/20 rule basically.

With the blog, it’s possible now to very easily integrate website analysis to view traffic information on the site, such as sources (how they come to be there – Google, referring sites etc.), visitor behaviour (whether they stay, and for how long), from where in the world they are visiting, and much more.  It’s impossible to effectively improve your website unless you can measure its current performance and then its performance after any changes are made.  With that in mind and these analytics in-hand, the WordPress foundation makes for very easy implementation of search engine optimization (SEO) – driving more highly targeted search-engine traffic to the site and increasing awareness of the projects.

It’s easy, dead easy, to create yourself a website in the form a blog.  It takes a bit of learning new tools, a few concepts about blogging and the interface to create it, but once you’ve been through it once, replicating the process is simple.  Anyone with an inclination to setting up their own site should really check it out.

Cloud Computing and Email

This is by-far one of the greatest areas for improving productivity.  I’m always amazed at the way many organisations operate their email and the stresses and strains sustained by users of poorly implemented emailing solutions.  The situation is often just accepted as part of the trials of email, with the view that there’s nothing really to be done about it.  Wrong!  There are things that can be done to mitigate typical email connectivity problems and also to protect against failing hard disks where archived emails stretching back many years are lost in a single disaster.

My solution of choice is simple: Google Apps.  I’ve been using Google Apps to host email for my Paul Goodchild.net domain for a couple of years now and I can’t see myself ever moving away from this platform.  Unless something better comes along of course, but there’s nothing out there showing any signs of that.  And what’s really neat – it’s free!  Perfect for NGOs and other organisations running on a tight budget.  If you’re working in an IT capacity for these types of organisations, I suggest taking a closer look at this – and if you’re not the tech guy, tell the tech guy about it.

So what do you get with Google Apps?  You get (for free)…

  • 25 email accounts (unlimited aliases) each with ~7GB storage space
  • A personal/professional email address.  You are not @hotmail, @yahoo, @gmail etc.
  • A gmail interface to your email that you can reliably access anywhere with an internet connection
  • IMAP / POP if you want to use Outlook.
  • Internal collaboration using calendaring, Google Docs, Google Sites.
  • Excellent SPAM filtering.
  • Brilliant contacts managment
  • Syncing (mail, contacts, calendar) with iPhone/iTouch – awesome!
  • Email hosting that is completely independent of your website (you reduce single-point-of-failure)

So what’s the catch?

To fully migrate to this system you need to understand emailing, DNS, IMAP etc.  This admittedly requires a little more tech knowledge than setting up a blog, but it’s not complex really.  I’ve done a few email/website/domain migrations in my time and there’s nearly always teething problems but when done properly, the biggest challenge wont be the systems, but rather user familiarity with the new technology which doesn’t really take too long to get past.  Seriously, if you’re still using Squirrelmail to access your webmail, it’s time to switch. 🙂

Lessons to learn

When you make a difference, you make a huge difference.  Whatever your specialty is, be it teaching, Information Technology, medicine, nutrition, anything… you made a huge difference by becoming a local expert.  When you hold knowledge, or have a skill, that a group of people don’t currently possess you are an asset to those people.  But only if you give your time to them.  It doesn’t have to be a lot of time, just enough to educate and/or implement upgrades in their knowledge or processes.  When you touch, directly or indirectly, even 1 life, then you have become an asset and a provider in the community at large – you are giving something back.

If you are volunteering right now, or plan to, remember that you do make a difference.

Are you currently volunteering, or have you experience with any of the technologies mentioned above and would like to offer feedback or suggestion, please feel free to contribute them below.  Of course, if you found this amusing, interesting, or informative, and you’d like to share it, please do so also using the “Share this Post” button.  Thank you for visiting!

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