BY JULIENNE LAULER, DEEA ARIANA, ASHLEY AUGSBURGER, AND GABOR DEBRECZENI
Julienne Lauler, Deea Ariana, Ashley Augsburger, and Gabor Debreczeni are second-year MA students who recently traveled to Chennai, India to research urban service delivery as part of the International Development Practicum.
The most valuable lesson that we learned during our ten-day practicum trip to Chennai was that even the most well-thought-out plans can dramatically change throughout the research process – and that it’s the role of the researcher to figure out ways to acknowledge and adapt to this reality.
We arrived in Chennai prepared with a list of target interviewees, tailored survey instruments, and a detailed work plan for our daily activities. We had a clear idea of what information we wanted to collect, how we would collect it, and how our interview findings would fit into our larger practicum project. Our overarching goal was to understand how governments could use technology-driven citizen engagement to improve urban service delivery.
But things don’t work as smoothly in reality as they do on paper, and expected work plans devised in a study room in Nitze don’t necessarily translate into the Chennai context. Though we had held bi-weekly Skype calls with our client, Athena Infonomics, it wasn’t until we spoke with them in person, in Chennai, that we were able to conclusively define our research goals, finalize our surveys and devise our revamped ten-day research schedule.
The highly fluid nature of our project was epitomized by an experience we had at the Vellore Institute of Technology, a couple of hours drive from Chennai. At VIT, we had the opportunity to meet with a professor of sustainable development, who shared his perspective on using mobile apps for citizen engagement in Vellore.
He then introduced us to another professor, who he said would be helpful in answering additional questions about technology and citizen engagement. That brought us to our interview with a professor of renewable energy who spent nearly 30 minutes showing us around his workshop, which included solar-powered giraffe lamps (pictured) and golf carts, bathroom tiles made out of carbon dioxide, housing panels made from recycled trash, and a range of other planet-friendly innovations. It was fascinating, but had nothing to do with citizen engagement. Even our colleague from Athena whispered: “We are not in the right place.”
But faced with this (highly amusing) detour, we tried our best to stay on task and asked questions about how citizens are engaged when developing solar-powered street lamps and kitchen tiles. He told us that he once met a woman who was studying medicine at Johns Hopkins University. In the end, the interview did not directly support our work, but it demonstrated the flexibility required of researchers, and gave us a good story to tell in hindsight.