The Sprawling World of Information Management at WCS (Phnom Penh and Seima, Cambodia)

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I came to Cambodia for a summer to do work. Sometimes I forget this. Sometimes people don’t realize it. Sometimes people say: you’re on holiday, why aren’t you acting like it? To which I reply with exhaustion and/or fatigue and/or confusion, for I have been working, and I continue to work, and I continue to explore what I’ve come here for.

The job: working for the Wildlife Conservation Society. The position: working as the Information Management Specialist. Similar to my work for Open Development Cambodia, except this time with a touch more confidence, a bit more experience, and two lovely sidekicks to keep me even-keeled during my journey.

The opening of this position was unique and intense: working under significant leadership/supervision within the WCS, it was determined that I help to hire two Cambodian interns. How? Find out where to advertise, get the job posting circulating, and then interview them. I had only a little bit of interview experience under my belt, from the last time I was in Cambodia. But so be it: the show had to go on! With the help of the Phnom Penh office’s lovely admin, and some support for the interviews from two other staff, we hired two young women who started working abruptly (and continue to this day). All told, there were six interviews, four of which I conducted alone.

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The work has been mostly analysis at this point. The Phnom Penh office, where I’m based, has an internal library of a couple thousand books (we actually haven’t counted them straight through, as we are still weeding the collection). There are an uncountable body of digital documents on hard drives and servers as well. The Phnom Penh office is setup with a Synology server, and the organization just implemented Google Drive, which has been fairly troublesome to work with, as the bandwidth on the local WiFi system cannot handle the eight or so people using Google Drive simultaneously, and not many people even know how to use it, and individuals are using it on both Mac and PC.

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We’ve gotten the main library under control. A lot of the documents were damaged (from age and general decay, or from termites) and have to be scanned so we can throw them out. Weeding is challenging. Many of the documents are absolutely not in any capacity available online because they are very old, and when we can only find the catalog record or a broken hyperlink, it’s more than frustrating. We have been keeping records of what we get rid of, if we cannot find digital replacements. The potential to seek out these documents from other NGOs exists, though I’m not sure we will actually get to do that investigative work.

The interns have been mostly helping with organization and scanning. They are not by any means librarians or trained in information management, but they seem to enjoy that. I try and compensate them (above their monetary pay) with cupcakes and jokes. It usually works to break the monotony. Additionally they’ve been on data retrieval missions and in the near future will be helping other team members with photography classification, and metadata enhancement for some indexes that were created by staff for previous projects.

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One of the joys of working for an NGO that operates mostly out of the field is being able to go out in the field for different events and functions, similar to a couple of my experiences working for ODC. In the picture above, I am visiting the release event of the Royal Turtle in Sre Ambel. Seeing the work that the information within this organization does so well to capture, seeing it in real time, provides a lot of significance to a job that could be mostly PDFs and wiping away dust.

The NGO is in the field and I already got to visit the one non-Phnom Penh office I will be helping out in: Seima. Seima, located in Mondulkiri Province, is a protected forest that is at risk from deforestation/land development, as well as illegal logging of rare trees. Seima has a plethora of diverse wildlife, including gibbons and doucs (which I saw during my visit). It also apparently has more types of hummingbirds in one space than any other forest in the world (21 was the count).

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When I was a graduate student a couple of years ago, I actually fantasized about going out into the jungle in search of rare documents. I’m not exactly doing that, but I don’t think it would be much of a stretch to consider this short-term gig one of “jungle librarianship” proportions. The office in Seima literally sits right on the edge of a dense forest. Whether or not it’s officially a jungle or not is aside the point, but it’s humid, and the creatures that fill the forest are wild and unlike any I’ve ever seen (especially the insects).

Fortunately my brief trip this one time for two days was not the only trip I will take there, and I will be able to go back with my interns-cum-translators, to work there again. Doing what, you might ask? Transforming the Research Center, which needs some deep cleaning, organizing, and general improvements, and capacity-building with the Cambodian staff who are responsible for heaps of information.

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So far, my experience working with the WCS has been one of independence and intensity. I have been responsible for a lot, and the expectations are high. It’s easy to “go up” in organization here because the offices have been disorganized for so long. Just being around and shuffling papers has been a symbolic act of change and optimization that (I think) most people at the organization, Cambodian and Barang, both understand I’m around to provide support and assistance where needed, though nobody really know what the image of that is going to be at the very end, and that’s probably a good thing, because it means we are all open minded and working together to achieve what will be a better future for the internal information landscape.

I realize I haven’t provided a lot of details about this position: types of documents, file formats, technologies, etc., and content related specifics. It’s been hard to write about this because there is so much I can say. I think I will contribute more details in the future, if things appear like they are getting settled down around here. Which they probably won’t, because Rath and Phalkun (the interns) keep me on my toes, and Simon and Alex and Sarah and Matt and Kez (the WCS staff) keep me on my toes, and Heng and Claire (the other interns) keep me on my toes, and Veng and Solita and Pheap (the IT and Admin team) keep me on my toes, and all the other people I’ve worked with throughout the organization . . . everyone has been enormously fun to work with, and yet the entire process has been one of overload. Jeff, who is helping with REDD and GIS and the IT infrastructure here (he’s been here since last year) has been an amazing support, but I think he can see me slowly getting more and more burnt out. Maybe it will happen. It probably will. But this is Cambodia. Burnout happens, and we move on, go forth, drink coconut smoothies, and enjoy the rush.

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