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Home / Stories from the field

An eRider Diary - 1999

2003-08-29 05:47:27

An eRider Diary from W. Alton Jones eRider Sean T. O'Brien, Ph.D. for Grist Magazine - Monday, 10.04.99


People laugh when I tell them my job title is "circuit rider. " It sounds funny, but I love it. How many people have a job title that is a pun, much less a job that requires the holder to have technical skills, an interest in promoting the health of our planet, and a willingness to travel extensively?

So what is circuit riding? The term is a pun on "circuit" referring to both a route traveled and an electronic circuit. In short, it means working with technology to empower progressive nonprofits, activists, and organizers. The term circuit rider originated in the 19th century to describe a minister who traveled a route around the Wild West dispensing his services. Like ministers, we modern-day circuit riders “evangelize” (about the benefits of using technology) and minister to the sick (for example, virus-infected computers). Over the next five days, I hope to give you a taste of what it's all about.

[eRiders.net Note: The domestic “circuit rider” model in the United States is very similar to the international “eRider” model. However, there are important differences. For example, most eRiders are local individuals who serve the communities from which they come. In contrast, Sean O’Brien, like other circuit riders, often works in various communities. The international movement has chosen to use the term “eRider”.]

Contrary to the standard model for Grist diaries, mine will not be an entirely sequential set of entries. I think that a straight weeklong diary would either give the impression that I have the most amazing job in the world or the most mundane. My job requires extensive travel, both within the U.S. and abroad, but it also requires a desire to get into the hardware and software guts of computers, networks, and the Internet. Read on and you will see what I mean.


Eco Bolivia is largely responsible for the creation of the nearly 2 million-hectare Madidi National Park in the lowlands of Bolivia. The Bolivian government is contemplating building a dam at this site in the park, which would flood hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary lowland tropical rainforest and displace an unknown number of indigenous people.

In November 1998, the W. Alton Jones Foundation awarded Fundación Eco Bolivia a grant to develop a system that would enable the organization to communicate with the outside world via phone and email from very remote locations (that is, no wire-based phone or electric service for miles around) in the vast Madidi National Park, which Eco Bolivia works to protect. Rosa María Ruiz, the director of Eco Bolivia, enlisted my assistance to develop this remote communication system and to train the group's employees in the use of the equipment. I, in turn, consulted with numerous people to ensure Eco Bolivia would get a robust system.

This project is atypical of those most circuit riders get to do. It involved very high-tech and expensive equipment and long-term travel to another country. However, it demonstrates the kind of project that would be very difficult to accomplish without a circuit rider. An understaffed nonprofit in Bolivia would have a very hard time researching, buying, and building such a system on its own. Moreover, one of the goals of circuit riding is to empower people and organizations and to do this in such a way that the group should be able to use and maintain the equipment with minimal outside assistance. This is done through training -- circuit riders focus on training people so the recipient is not dependent on others to use technology. This is the only way to ensure that effective use of technology is integrated into the everyday activities of an organization. Despite the complexity of the equipment, I have had to field very few technical support calls from Eco Bolivia, but I know they are using the system because I get email from them regularly and I have seen their satellite phone bill!

Tuesday, 10.05.99

At the suggestion of Kristen Goddard, the WAJF program officer for VBSR, I visited Burlington this spring to perform a technical assessment. This involves drawing out of an organization details about what they are trying to do and helping them determine how technology can facilitate their work. Technical assessments (and the planning process that results) are not about the latest and coolest techno-toys, but about choosing the right technology for the job. The goal is to create a reliable system that requires little maintenance, is reasonably priced, and won't be obsolete in six months. I like to think of technical assessments as the beginning of a "co-independence" relationship, as opposed to the sort of "co-dependence" relationship that often results from work with for-profit technical assistance providers.

Today I have to set up a bunch of appointments for myself and for the new circuit rider at WAJF, Todd Koym. I am going to D.C. with him for a few days to introduce him to some other circuit riders and make some site visits with grantees. Also today I have to update the WAJF circuit-riding website with a few new links. And I want to check out some new online services that people have told me about recently. I am always on the lookout for free services or really great pay services that might be useful for our grantees.

Another item on my list today is making calls and sending email to several grantees in Europe. One of WAJF's grantees recently discovered some pervasive Y2K problems and is looking for some assistance in solving them. Finally, I am remotely troubleshooting some communication difficulties with Eco Bolivia's satellite phone and ISP.

This is a pretty full plate of different activities. Like most days, it will be fun for me, checking out new web offerings and talking to interesting people. It is really the people that make my job so fun -- everywhere I go I feel like I meet dynamic people who are true believers in their cause. It is very refreshing and energizing to empower people who are trying to make a difference in the quality of our environment.

Wednesday, 10.06.99

You are probably wondering where the technology comes in to play. It is nowhere in my bio before this job. One of reasons I think I can be effective at convincing people to use technology to help them work for the environment is that I am not approaching them as a propeller head, but as an environmentalist. I want to understand the issues they work on and I care about them. I see technology as a facilitator, as a means to an end, not as an end in itself. Though I have strong technical skills and knowledge, I hope that my lack of formal technical training shows that anyone can learn to use technology. It does not require a degree in computer science or membership in Gen X. If a thirty-something academically trained ecologist can set up a LAN, configure Windows NT laptops, and learn remote communication methods, surely anyone can!

There is one more important aspect of this job that I want to tell you about: the technical assessment. This can be done in many ways -- a paper survey or a personal interview is probably the most common. I generally use the latter, but will often preface it with some communication by email, paper mail, or the web introducing a group to the concept and trying to establish some expectations.

The aim of the technical assessment is to figure out what a group is trying to accomplish and how they can accomplish it, whether or not this involves using technology. Often an organization will come to the meeting with a hardware and software wish list but without a good idea of how they would use such technology. Circuit riders help organizations avoid the mistake of getting equipment they may not need by talking with them about what their group does, who they communicate with, and what resources they currently have. I generally spend a couple hours with a group in a free-form discussion of their objectives and current technological capacity. I keep a list of questions that I want answered in front of me to make sure I get the information I need, but I like the loose format to help the people I am talking to feel comfortable with me, and hopefully, therefore, with the technology too.

Sometimes a group will present a technology plan, a great thing. These plans take many forms, but the fact that a group has thought about technology enough to have actually written something down is an excellent indicator of their desire to make a change and understand its importance. I would encourage all nonprofits to develop technology plans, even if they are not expecting a visit from a circuit rider.


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