Poco a poco

Today marks the beginning of my third week in Mexico. When I came here two weeks ago, my bank PIN was rebelling, I was haphazardly thinking in three languages (English, Spanish, and Chinese), and I had a touch of altitude sickness. Within 48 hours of starting the job, my colleagues, Emily and Clay, and I put together a three-part geocoding training session in Spanish and then delivered it throughout the course of the week. We then read evaluations and improved the training program for our next session, which will be held a few weeks from now.

Geocoding is the process of assigning a unique set of geographic coordinates to an object in space. In AidData, geocoding provides the basis from which all kinds of analysis arise. By assigning coordinates to international aid programs and their components, AidData allows researchers to visualize their data and conduct high quality research on development projects at the sub-national level. Ultimately, geocoding brings aid transparency to a whole new level because it allows aid information to be displayed in an easily accessible format, such as maps.

Mexico Homicide Rate 2012

Hand-made map.

Maps are pretty darn cool. The one pictured here is a practice map I made a few weeks ago at the Summer Fellows’ training camp using the Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) software ArcGIS. Interestingly enough, we see higher rates of crime in the more sparsely populated areas to the north, which comes as no surprise since those regions are well-known for their cartel-related activity. That being said, my map here doesn’t show anything new, but it shows what could be done with geocoded data. Imagine instead that the dots represented the locations of aid programs in Mexico rather than homicide rates. Very easily, I would then be able to see that more aid programs were going out to the less populated areas (again, this isn’t necessarily true in real life, just for this map). More importantly, I would be able to convey that information to other people. If you want to see other examples, AidData has published some very interesting sets using geocoded data from projects in Malawi and Nepal.

Although I’ve been booked with the trainings and some other assignments from both AidData and Observacoop, I found some time this past weekend to get cracking on creating a geocoded data set with my colleague (and GIS wizard) Clay Harris that represents Chinese loans to Latin American countries between 2005 and 2011. Both of us are interested in China’s activity in our southern neighbors, and I hope it won’t be long before I have something to share!

Poco a poco, as one of our friends at Observacoop tells us. Yes, poco a poco, or bit by bit, my research and fellowship is coming together. Admittedly I’m not as far along as I would like, but thinking through the geocoding (and eventually, ArcGIS) trainings has really helped me prepare for tasks that I might have to do for myself down the road. I’m excited to see what this next week has in store!


  1. Enriquez Hesle Elisa says:

    Dear Darice,
    I am super impressed with what you have done with the map and GIS! WOWEE. Sounds like a very practical skill. Can you teach me? I hope you are not only enjoying research experience but also loving Mexico. I cannot wait to see all that you have achieved in a couple more weeks. Are you in Mexico City?Y You are so lucky to be doing research there. Let me know if you need any advice on cool places to visit on your time off, its one of my favorite cities of all time…. well good luck with the altitude, hang in there, feel better soon.

  2. John Nguyen says:

    Hey Darice!

    It sounds like you had quite an adventure in Mexico this summer. I’m impressed you delivered a training course on geocoding in Spanish; it’s impressive just to do that in English.

    I’ve run into a lot of AidData interns this summer running participants for my studies, so I’ve heard scattered details about the work that you all do. It was good to read here an explanation of the methods and the goals. I wouldn’t have considered before the impact something like geocoding could have on accessibility of aid dissemination information.

    I’m kind of a geek and I used to draw maps for the stories I wrote, so to me, maps are definitely “pretty darn cool.”

    It’s great that you all are making it easier to visualize the distribution of aid projects. Communication of information is so important if we want to make lasting and significant change. Helping people to see, and thus to learn, may be the missing element in getting people to notice and to care.

    Poco a poco is a great way to think of things coming together. I hope the rest of your summer was as fulfilling and interesting.

    See you in the fall!

  3. peter colwell says:

    GIS training is tough in English – I can’t imagine what Spanish would do to a person. I trust that all went well, though, and I wish you all the poco a poco best.

    Keep it moving,

  4. Morgan Sehdev says:

    Hi Darice,
    What a wonderful opportunity it seems that you’ve had – from this post and others! I’m interested in the language component of this experience. Were you working in Spanish while coding and training? And if so, how does the technical language that you are accustomed to with geocoding translate? I feel that this must have been a struggle – if it was how did you surmount it? If not, how would you describe the experience of being able to work in a field you’ve been familiar with in a language you might not get to use all of the time?
    Thanks so much, I look forward to hearing about this aspect of your summer’s work!

  5. Darice Xue says:

    Morgan, the language component was definitely a challenge! As I’m sure you’re well aware, the translations themselves weren’t difficult; rather it was finding the right words that made sense locally. Fortunately with technology, most people were content to accept the English term, as is appears to be the norm for other languages, such as Chinese. Actually, in one of our post-training interviews one trainee suggested that we conduct the whole thing in English so that it would sound more “fluid.” We were certainly conflicted, but ultimately chose to stick with Spanish because A) we were able to and B) conducting a technical training such as these would assume that everyone has the same level of English, and to ensure that everyone could understand our simplified but somewhat rough Spanish version of geocoding and GIS rather than a “fluid” but technical and complicated English version. Definitely it was frustrating to know what to say in English but not in Spanish, but that problem was diminished overtime as we became more comfortable with the language.
    Thanks for your questions, and I hope to see you soon to talk about the summer as well!