The AidData Files: Students and professor reflect on summer research projects

Professor Scott Ickes

Rachel Brown, Flat Hat Assoc. Variety Editor

Professor Scott Ickes’ ’04 summer research laboratory wasn’t filled with flammable chemicals or lab rats or particle accelerators. In fact, his laboratory wasn’t even on campus. Instead, he spent a month in Bundibugyo, Uganda, over 7,000 miles away from Williamsburg, where he researched maternal capacity and its relationship to child nutrition.

Ickes and a few students from the College of William and Mary traveled to Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi this summer to perform child nutrition and global health research after receiving a grant through the Reves Faculty Fellows. Ickes describes Bundibugyo as a remote, rural area with little electricity and only one paved road. Even though the area is impoverished, the research performed by Ickes and the students appeared to have an impact.

“There were several different projects we were doing. My particular project … was looking at maternal capacities for child feeding,” Ickes said. “We were trying to understand what the social and cultural determinants of child feeding were through this lens of maternal capacities. The idea behind maternal capacities is that there are some intrinsic characteristics of women, qualities about them, that are shaped by their social and physical environment and the various structures that create their society.”

With strong social support, a woman has better decision-making capabilities and therefore her maternal capacity is high. Maternal capacity is important because it can affect a child’s health. Relationship dynamics, marriage patterns, physical health and other factors can all affect maternal capacities.

“In general, we … found that this notion of maternal capacity seemed to be an important one to bring to the discussion of child nutrition,” Ickes said. “Some of the key findings were that three life events, which are very socially embedded, affected women’s ability to provide well for their children, specifically in the area of nutrition. The first was getting pregnant at a young age. The second one was having a child that’s closely spaced to another child. And the third was being in a polygamist union.”

Ickes and his team examined how these factors affected women’s ability to provide for their children through conducting semi-structured interviews and focus groups, along with weighing and measuring babies.

Ickes noticed that his work gave the people of Uganda a sense of enablement and enlightenment, and he plans to regularly go back to Africa each summer with teams of students to continue researching public health.

“Just providing a forum to raise some of these issues and talk about some of the challenges in people’s communities relating to child nutrition, to family dynamics that might be problematic in terms of supporting good nutrition in general childcare — that seemed to be empowering for women,” Ickes said. “I think men often felt the discussions raised some challenging topics for them to think about relating to their role in society and their role in families and in caring for children, but I think they too felt pretty engaged and challenged in a positive way and ultimately encouraged that some work was being done to shed light on some problematic patterns in the culture.”

Ickes understands the goal of research — to examine a problem and find a solution. Child nutrition is a major problem in developing countries such as Uganda, but Ickes and his team are taking big steps in — and long flights to — Uganda to help improve the health of its citizens.  

Emily Mahoney ’15 

Emily Stone, Flat Hat Assoc. Variety Editor

Pumping money into aid projects is often the solution that comes to mind when most people think about global development and ending world hunger. For aid efforts to be successful, however, they must be tracked and compared with similar projects around the world. This is where the AidData initiative comes in.

“Brad Parks, who is one of the founders of AidData, as an undergraduate, wanted to do his senior thesis on tracking environmental aid,” Emily Mahoney ’15 said. “But he came to realize that there’s really no information available in one common database. He thought finding all the data would be so easy, but it wasn’t. He worked with Professor Tierney to get [AidData] started, and they brought in Professor Dan Nielson from BYU and Development Gateway. It’s a partnership between BYU, William and Mary, and UT Austin through Development Gateway.”

Mahoney began working on local nutrition projects with Professor Scott Ickes during her freshman year. For most of her sophomore year, Mahoney worked on a research project in Ickes’ lab comparing data about the prevalence of malnutrition in Malawi.

“When I was working on the research project over the school year, it was a lot more statistics,” Mahoney said. “A lot of the work was cleaning up the AidData and going through that data and figuring out what the density of certain activities was in Malawi. It was more data analysis. My work over the summer focused more on talking to people. It was more qualitative.”

Mahoney spent five weeks of her summer in Kampala, Uganda, and the remainder of summer in the AidData house on Scotland Street in Williamsburg.

“Professor Ickes wanted me to provide local context to this project,” Mahoney said. “What that entailed was me meeting with a lot of nutrition focal people in Uganda and figuring out how they would like to see a map of nutrition projects in the country.”

Mahoney’s work in Williamsburg differed from her time in Uganda — instead of meeting with donors, Mahoney spent time assigning activity codes to aid projects in the AidData system.

“I don’t remember the exact number of how many coders were at the AidData house, but there were a ton, and it was really fun. We were all there from 9-5. I want to say there were about 50 people. There were some UT Austin students, and a couple BYU students. There were about ten graduate students who were working as consultants for various reasons, so all together, a lot of really cool people.”

AidData recently received a federal grant of $25 million to start a development lab.

“Ever since the grant, AidData has hired a ton of new staff and it’s a cool work environment,” Mahoney said. “Something that’s also very characteristic of a William and Mary experience is that they really value undergrads. Any undergrad that has an idea for [AidData] is always encouraged to go and talk to Mike Tierney and Brad Parks. That’s how AidData started, with Brad’s idea when he was an undergrad. That’s definitely the crux of AidData at William and Mary.”

Sara Rock ’14

Emily Nye, Flat Hat Assoc. Variety Editor

 For most students, summer is a time to kick back and enjoy the pleasures of life at home. Inevitably, many of us get jobs working as lifeguards at the local pool while others enjoy vacations with their friends and families. Several spend their summer days toiling away behind desks as interns while others choose days of sleeping in well past noon. However, very few can say they spent three months teaching masters students how to ‘geocode’ at Kathmandu University in Nepal. Unless your name is Sara Rock. Then you can say that.

Sara Rock ’14, a Chinese and international relations double major at the College of William and Mary, spent the summer working to educate masters students at Kathmandu University’s School of Art in the art of geocoding, a skill she herself acquired through her work with AidData.

AidData is an international “initiative that aims to increase the impact of development assistance by making aid information more transparent and accessible to a wide range of stakeholders,” according to Rock, who got her start in the program as an intern, traveled to Nepal as part of the AidData Summer Fellowship, a program made possible through a grant provided by USAid. Over the next five years, the program will work to send students to developing countries in hopes of enabling local people and organizations with the skills needed to utilize AidData’s extensive data and research set.

“AidData specializes in geospacial data related to development finance,” Rock said, “We have World Bank data, information from USAid, a couple of important different data sets.”

Specifically, Rock focused on teaching her students how to use GIS software called ARCGIS, software that allows the user to make maps of any kind of geospatial information that can be mapped on a spread sheet. Since the students Rock taught were in programs primarily focusing on development studies and human and natural resources, the skills mentioned were highly relevant.

Rock was struck by her observations on the quality of life in developing countries.

“I was really impacted by the way that people live in poor, developing countries. Although I had been to China before, which by definition is a ‘developing country,’ in general the entire country is wealthier. It is not nearly the same level of poverty and underdevelopment you see in Nepal,” she said.

Elsa Voytas ’13

Marie Policastro, The Flat Hat 


For many, the post-grad life seems grim, but Elsa Voytas ’13 averted the dreaded fate of migrating back to her parents’ basement this summer.

Instead, she uprooted and traveled all the way to Uganda where she partook in a fellowship supported by AidData, an organization founded in order to provide a database of aid projects.

AidData recently received a five-year USAID Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) grant, allowing them to collaborate with many different foreign governments, implementing experiments and projects similar to Voytas’.

“The goal of our partnership [with USAID] is to create information infrastructure, analysis tools and human capacity to enable better decision making within the development community,” AidData Program Manager Alena Stern ’12 said.

Voytas worked closely with students and faculty at the Makerere University, located in Kampala, Uganda. Her project addressed the need for a revision of waste management services in the city of Kampala.

The lack of an efficient solid waste removal system can prove detrimental to the developing society. A booming population in a bustling city such as Kampala only intensifies these negative effects. Water becomes contaminated, spreads diseases, and increases greenhouse gas emission.

As an AidData summer fellow, Voytas developed a solid waste crowdsourcing experiment.

“To help mitigate the deficiencies of trash removal, we proposed to encourage students to use their mobile phones and comment on the solid waste removal in their neighborhood,” Voytas said.

Because this was merely a baseline experiment, their efforts did not end there.

“In the future, we will randomly assign zones of the city to receive citizen monitoring, conduct subsequent assessments to determine if that monitoring was accurate and useful, and finally observe if solid waste removal improves due to the monitoring,” Voytas said.

Adjusting to life in Kampala was challenging for Voytas, despite her extensive experience abroad. Her previous trips included studying abroad in Argentina, interning in Belgium, and researching in Guatemala.

“It was really fun to get to experience a lifestyle so different from what I was used to, but parts were really difficult (like losing electricity almost every night and hand washing my clothes),” Voytas said.

Voytas forged many lasting relationships on her trip.

During a trip to Northern Uganda, Voytas interviewed northern Ugandans about their experience under the Lord’s Resistance Army. She learned how the conflict with the government had negatively impacted their lives at a very young age.

Voytas looks forward to making a return trip to lobby for ways to improve the lives of those affected by the LRA. She is interested in ensuring their reintegration into society and reversing adverse psychological effects suffered under the past regime.

Carleigh Snead ’15

Emily Nye, Flat Hat Assoc. Variety Editor

Working closely with local masters students in Kathmandu, Nepal, Carleigh Snead ’15 taught the intricacies of geocoding. Snead was selected as an AidData Summer Fellow and joined Sara Rock ’14 at the Kathmandu University School of Arts in Nepal to teach local students how to geocode.

“Everyone’s voice matters and I think that’s what the summer fellows were able to do we were able to reach down, not just to the cities, but also to the local towns and villages and develop the skills of the local people so that they, in turn, can help build their communities,” Snead said.

AidData recently partnered up with USAid to create the AidData Summer Fellowship program, of which Snead was a part. After beginning as an intern for AidData last September, Snead, an international relations major, became a research assistant for the initiative and completed the Summer Fellowship in Nepal.

Snead’s work focused on instilling fundamental operational skills at the local levels of communities.

“We were working to build the capacity of the locals in Nepal so that they would be able to utilize our data and incorporate it into their research,” Snead said. “We worked a lot one-on-one with students, helping them create maps and create their own geocoded data, as well as getting involved with local organizations.”

Working six days a week, Snead’s responsibilities included blogging and networking on behalf of AidData. Snead and Rock also participated in local hackathons, in which participants compete to develop computer software pertaining to solving social issues, in their case, violence against women.

Snead spent a week out of the city of Kathmandu and in a small local village called Lamjung, where she had to adjust to the way of life.

“There were no bathrooms, we had to bathe in the river, we really had to rough it out and so that was really interesting,” Snead said. “We had to stay with people we met on the street, and there was no electricity, but the people were really friendly. Nepal is very hospitable to foreigners.”

Despite having to rough it, Snead found the experience exceptionally rewarding.

“It was an amazing experience,” Snead said, “I learned a lot, how to network with people and how important that is and how important it is to engage with local communities at local levels. Everyone’s voice matters. We were able to reach the local towns and villages and develop the skills of the local people so that they, in turn, can help build their communities.”



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