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Do you like to travel?  Why is that the case?  For me, despite the myriad ways to keep in touch virtually, there is just nothing like the feel of a particular place.  The look in a person's eye just doesn't translate well, even over a web cam.  It was the goal of my recent trip to build my relationship with the Zambian team working on developing and deploying SmartCare (an electronic medical record system being implemented throughout Zambia to combat the health-care emergency there). I do believe that closer relationships between the group of technical volunteers that I have been working with for the past three years and the local team will result in  more significant contributions to the project.  After spending three weeks working side-by-side in country with this team, I do feel like I've met that goal.

During the time I was in Lusaka, I mostly delivered technical training.  Resources for such are quite limited in developing countries - even getting access to technical books is quite challenging.  Even though there is Internet access in the city (usually), the connection speeds are not at all what we enjoy in the developed world. 

I designed and delivered 60+ hours of classroom training around technologies that are being used in the project, such as advanced T-SQL query optimization techniques and best practices for SQL Server administration.  In addition I delivered technical training around ASP.NET, as the team has decided to launch a locally-hosted website to document the application's deployment process.  Also, I presented information about SQL Server Business Intelligence, giving a 'forward look' to a possible future implementation of SSAS OLAP cube and data mining models (as the volumes of data collected grow).  I created a custom repository (on a flash drive for each person), with supporting training materials.  These included 9 full MSPress books, which were graciously donated at my request by MSPress.  The SmartCare team is quite interested in obtaining technical certification, so I 'navigated' the certification landscape, creating a personalized map for each person, i.e. which certification to pursue, which exam to begin studying for and which associated exam objectives to start learning. 

A secondary contribution was to work to build general technical capacity in country.  I did this by seeking out, meeting, and trying to connect working professionals in country.  To that end, I worked with one of the team's developers who is interested in forming what will be, to my knowledge, the first .NET developer's user group in Zambia.  I connected him with a great UG leader locally, James Johnson, who runs the Inland Empire .NET developer's UG and who has helped many a new UG get off the ground.  Also, I met the first MCT (Microsoft Certified Trainer) in Zambia, visited his ISP, training and technical testing center and discussed plans for building capacity with him.  In addition, I worked with an intern from UNZA (University of Zambia) on the SmartCare team on his contribution to the project.  I met with a SharePoint administrator from the Copperbelt area (who had listened to my webcasts and 'found me' via Facebook!), who has just completed one of the first large MOSS implementations in Zambia.  I also connected with the lead for Microsoft TechED South Africa, with the intent of inviting some of the in country professionals to speak at or to attend TechED South Africa 2009 next summer.

I also worked with another MCT who was in country volunteering.  Chrys continued the work around creating end-user training videos that our team began last year.  She shot, edited and produced a series of training videos of a leading Zambian HIV specialist explaining how to fill in patient record forms for the local clinicians.  I was her QA tester for these videos (and learned a bit about video production in the process!).

Of course, I also had lovely time getting to know many Zambians.  Part of this included a day trip to the lower Zambezi river on the Zim-Zam border. 

Lower Zambezi river map

While fishing there, my group was quite lucky to observe a group of elephants swimming in the river!  I was told that seeing this is quite rare.  It certainly was incredible.  For more pictures of that day - http://www.new.facebook.com/album.php?aid=51216&l=ee397&id=561122108

Another goal of my trip was to better understand the complexities of the interdependencies between the various NGOs and local gov't agencies that are working together to support SmartCare.  To that end, I spent several days attending meetings with the Zambian Ministry of Health staffs.  They are the primary team that is deploying and supporting SmartCare in the field.  The challenges are really quite enormous.  Items that we would not consider possible blockers, such as obtaining flash drives to perform data merges, can become obstacles.  For example, it took 8 months for the team to receive an order for flash drives in country.  We spent a good bit of time during the deployment meeting reviewing the complex data merge process built into SmartCare.  For more pictures of Lusaka and the local team http://www.new.facebook.com/album.php?aid=49761&l=6b69f&id=561122108

Steven explaining SmartCare Merge logic

This was my second trip to Zambia and I am really glad I went. After my first visit last year, I decided that in addition to making remote contributions on an ongoing basis, that I would return to Zambia at least annually for an extended period of time.  It is an incredibly gratifying feeling to think that the contributions of the volunteer team that I am part of is helping this life-saving project to succeed.