Tea in TiP: Interview with visiting researcher Hanne Cecilie Geirbo

Welcome to the second in our informal interview series with visitors to the research group. It is called Tea in TiP because interviewees are invited to share a cup of tea and talk about what they hope to work on while visiting the ITU.

Hanne Cecilie Geirbo is visiting TiP from the  Department of Informatics at the University of Oslo. She is a member of the Global Infrastructures research group, and will be in Copenhagen between mid January and mid April. Both Rachel and Hanne Cecilie drank walnut tea.

Rachel Douglas-Jones : Hi Hanne Cecilie, welcome to TiP. What are you writing while you’re here?

HC med te

Hanne Cecilie Geirbo: I am writing my PhD thesis, due in August, so the work I am doing at the moment is pulling the themes together. The thesis is about a pilot project that I was involved with at the Department of Informatics at the University of Oslo which worked in collaboration with a  Bangladeshi telecom company, where we implemented a solar electricity mini-grid in a village in Bangladesh.

It takes place in a ‘village’ of 20,000 people, a village which is a hub, with a vibrant fish trade, and a college. But it is also a landscape with no roads and no national electricity grid. The project serves 136 households with one light each, and provides electricity to a computer center where people can get documents printed and scanned and get their photos taken. These services are in high demand because people need identity documents in their interactions with the government as well as NGOs. Internet is also available, but this has not been a popular service.

Rachel: Tell us more about the project and your research in it.

Hanne Cecilie: My field is partly in the village but partly in the telecom headquarters in Dhaka and University of Oslo premises. There have been teleconferenes, phonecalls, facebook chats, emails, and I have been travelling back and forth to Bangladesh in stints varying from three months to one week.

The mini-grid we have implemented is based on the existing mobile network infrastructure: the base stations that make mobile phone coverage. They themselves need electricity but in remote areas they run either on diesel – which needs transport and can be stolen –  or increasingly they run on solar, which is easier to manage and also green. So the idea is to piggyback new infrastructure – like electricity grids – onto that which mobile operators already have in areas where there is no other infrastructure, like roads or national electricity grids.

Rachel: What questions, problems or issues are you working on while you are with us?

Hanne Cecilie: While I am here I am taking advantage of the interest that members of TiP have in infrastructure generally and energy infrastructure specifically, as well as people with an interest in landscapes. Three of the things I am working on while I am here are:

Mobile tower with solar panels (side, front and roof)

1.  How to analyse why the mini-grid doesn’t work, and the translatability of concepts for governing these kinds of projects. Why is it that we haven’t been able to make the grid sustain over time? One thread is the issue of maintenance. An infrastructure is a process that needs work on it, again and again, it needs to be maintained. Another is how work is conceptualised: for example, employees – both individuals and teams – in the telecom company have “Key Performance Indicators” to manage their work. These need to be measurable. But it seems those representations of work are not translatable – we as project members get entangled in the materiality and politics of the landscape, like water hyacinths getting stuck in the engine, struggles over control of resources, or the poles we erect sinking into the soft soil of the ground.

2.  Sustaining the grid through maintenance also raises issues of temporality associated with the project: such as the idea that there has to be a routine for electricity fee payment – weekly, or every month. In this village, the temporal structure is quite different. It’s not about the months or the weeks, but changes in the landscape. In summer it is like an inland sea, in winter it is dry land where you can do agriculture. So there is a lot of seasonal labour migration, people are moving out of the community to work for extended periods of time at different times of the year, and then there is no cash at home. They therefore tend to settle bills when they come home for festivals. This rhythm to the time isn’t translatable to rigid schemas.

3.  Right now I am working on a chapter about a video that we made and submitted to the GSM Associations annual awards. I’m trying to look at the video as a translation from what people tell us about their experiences to a discourse about ICT and development. It could be told as a story of power imbalance, but at the same time videos and suchlike are necessary things within development initiatives that could serve to anchor this project with potential funders for future development and maintenance. It’s not that there are no power imbalances at play in the making of this video, but there is something more to tell about this that may shed light on how technology pilots like this work.

Rachel: Would you tell us a little about how you ended up working on this set of issues?

Hanne Cecilie: It was a set of coincidences, as it often is. I am a social anthropologist by training, and with South Asia studies as part of my undergraduate degree. A year after graduation I was invited to go and stay with my uncle in Bangladesh. I worked in Bangladesh for almost two years in a research department of an NGO, and I also in that period did some work for a telecom company in the market research division. From there, I was recruited to a Norwegian telcom company in their Research and Innovation department. My 4 years there involved short field studies in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. At that point, I wanted to be able to go deeper, have some more time for writing. I sought out a PhD, and got to know about this pilot project  and it had the Bangladesh connection and the telecom connection.

The Department of Informatics in Oslo is heavily into action research. I found that quite attractive, since I had found working as a social scientist in telecoms we often had really valuable insight into service and technological development, but also lacked language to get this message through to engineers. Through my PhD, I wanted to develop a language to be able to talk about technology in a way that makes sense in an interdisciplinary setting.

Rachel: What might you like to work on in the future, and where do you see this work you’re doing now going?

Hanne Cecilie: What I am really happy about is having had the chance to do what I wanted to do: to be able to be specific about technology and to write about technology as a social scientist but also being closer to the nuts and bolts, and to develop that ability. I’d like to work more on infrastructures. I think they are totally fascinating. Before starting in the research group Global infrastructures, I didn’t think about infrastructure in itself as something interesting. So I’d really like to continue to do research on infrastructures and I would really like, if I can, work on renewable energy infrastructures.

Rachel: What is your memorable moment from your fieldwork?

Hanne Cecilie: Perhaps the most pleasing thing about this fieldwork has been to travel in and experience this landscape where this grid is. It alternates between a vast inland sea in the summer and vast agricultural flatland in the winter season. I have been amazed at the fluidity of the landscape: you go by small boat in the summer, it is peaceful, trees are protruding up from the water, and then in the winter maybe a motorbike or a tractor. In between seasons it’s really difficult, it’s too shallow for boats and muddy for tractors.

Rachel: Can you tell us what you consider to be the coolest thing about your current research?

Hanne Cecilie: For better and worse, being part of a technology pilot project. It has been tough but also a really, really interesting way of doing research.

Rachel: Now, you’re visiting us from Norway. What is your favourite encounter with Danish food so far?

Hanne Cecilie: Sild! (Herring) Except the curry one. With rugbrød (Danish rye bread).

Rachel: And finally, what is the best thing about being at TiP so far?

Hanne Cecilie: To be in an STS/Anthropology environment working with similar things to myself, it is quite wonderful actually to be part of this community.