As the world becomes more connected and digital interconnectivity begins to play a bigger role in all our lives, it has begun to extend its reach to the rural areas of the world; either by its own natural development or brought into these communities as a means to solve a problem. Panama is increasing its digital infrastructure and finding digital solutions to connect people in their private, academic, and work lives. Residential internet access has become accessible to a majority of the population, with 58% (2.4 million) of panamanians being internet users in 2018 and 540,220 having accounts with an internet provider (1). Most people have smartphones and they are relatively cheap to purchase, in 2018 there were 138 cell phones per 100 inhabitants which indicates many Panamanians have multiple phones per person (2). In Panama mobile data coverage is found in most of the populated regions of the country, interestingly enough in 2018 96% of the population (4,009,794 of 4,176,869) had mobile cell phone coverage in spite of only 38% of the national territory actually having cell coverage (Panama has an area of 29,157 square miles or 75,517 square kilometers) (2). Along with all these statistics it doesn’t hurt either that Panama has four major submarine fiber optic lines running through the Panama Canal and 3 others landing on either the Pacific or Caribbean side of the country (3). Recognizing these statistics and seeing the data that is projected for the years to come, it is safe to say that Panama is and will continue to be a beacon of internet connectivity and access in Latin America and the Caribbean. We at Future Scientist are developing an application in order to connect water system users (community members) to a digital means to monitor their payments for the managers of the water system (water committee) and vice versa. We want to bring rural organizational finance management to the digital age. The application is called ConectaRoo, and we think it will transform the way rural water committees collect funds forever.
You may ask, what is the problem we are specifically trying to solve? What galvanized us to develop software like this? Also, if so many people have cell phones in Panama, how are they disconnected or without a bank account to facilitate their finances? The issue in many rural communities in Panama is that water committees have to be self-sustainable in order to have a proper functioning and successful water system. This basically means that they need money in their committee bank account in order to carry out any type of repair, maintenance, addition, or new home connection to the rural aqueduct. This means they need the majority of the community paying their monthly water bill, which in Palenque’s case is $2.00/month. The problem in many of these communities is that people do not pay their monthly bill so the water committees are often without funds; as a result these water committees break up and disintegrate and a community loses its leadership and the water system ends up failing and the community ends up without potable water in their homes. Also, these rural communities don’t have easy access to banking institutions. For example, people who live in Costa Arriba have access to only one ATM machine that is located in Portobelo, and that ATM machine is under surveillance and has a specific time it is available due to the machine having been stolen before. The closest bank is in Sabanitas, which is hours away from many of these communities, and very few people have cars. To give an example let’s go to Palenque, Colón, which is the community where we wish to prototype the application as a way to support the water committee there. After a couple meetings between the water committee and Future Scientist, we’ve been able to frame the issue of water access in the region. Palenque is a community of roughly 100 residences and establishments. For residencies the monthly water bill is $2.00. For businesses it is $5.00. We can estimate that, assuming everyone pays their monthly bill, the committee should be receiving roughly $220.00/month (roughly 6 businesses including schools and other government buildings, and 95 homes. The water committee tells us they’re receiving around $25.00/month on average. That’s a monthly budget difference of $195.00 and a yearly difference of $2,340.00. There is a lot a dedicated rural water committee could do with a yearly budget of $2,365.00. So in order to solve the problem at its root and not allow these inevitable chain of events to occur from lack of funding, we wanted to create a digital system that created transparency and accountability between the community members and the members of the water committee. Assuming a strong work ethic among committee members, if we can assure the water committee’s economic stability, then we eliminate all the problems that would be the result of their disintegration. If the committee works hard, makes improvements and maintains the system with the money they’re receiving, there will be a greater level of trust and confidence between community members and the water committee, thus a great level of cooperation. From our experience in Costa Arriba, the problem is not their work ethic. The water committees we’ve worked with are desperate to work and improve their respective water systems and only complain of the lack of monetary means to do so.
The application works as a digital account monitoring assistant in that the water committee is able to monitor the monthly payments of the community members who are connected to the water system and the community members are able to monitor what the water committee does with those funds. The application is cloud based so all changes and updates to the user and manager accounts are updated in real time. This will also serve in protecting the information from storage failure and unexpected power outages. Our initial implementation of the project will be in the community of Palenque and it will be through a computer program run with Microsoft Access that will create a digital database and can be accessed in the local SENACYT built Infoplaza; which are government funded internet cafés (4), or local business partners with internet access. We want to begin by using computers because we want to first see the impact it has in the collection of funds as well as survey people’s feedback of the program. The final objective is to turn our Access database into a smartphone application. This way it can be integrated even where there isn’t an Infoplaza but there is a strong enough phone signal that people are able to use mobile phone data. It would give the project a farther reach and allow more communities access to the software. Below is a more succinct breakdown of the ConnectaRoo solution as well as an illustration.
ConnectaRoo provides a digital administrative solution:
• Accountability and communication system among users (households) and managers (committee members) by establishing trusted intermediaries (e.g., store owners) to relay financial transactions and notices.
• Transparent cash-based financial transaction documentation to raise baseline level of trust and amplify incremental gains.
• Bidirectional communication to empower communities and increase resilience by sharing information and real-time notification of issues and opportunities.
Current COVID-19 Tech Solutions in Latin America and Panama
Coming back to the still omnipresent topic that is Coronavirus, we’d like to present some examples of how Latin America, Panama, the Panamanian federal government, and the private sector have utilized digital monitoring and video conferencing technology to combat the virus and allow certain sectors of society to continue to function.
A new government initiative in order to get stimulus money out to its citizens was utilized by using the barcodes on citizens’ identification cards as a sort of credit card (5). The stimulus amount granted to Panamanians was deposited to their ID cards and they were able to use their ID as a debit card in order to make purchases at the grocery store. This was a way to get money to Panamanians given the fact that many Panamanians do not have bank accounts.
MEDUCA (Ministerio de Educación, Ministry of Education) as well as private schools in Panama have implemented digital classes for students. They have been utilizing a virtual platform called Titán by a Spanish company called Educaline (6). The platform contains books and other digital content, endorsed by the Ministry of Education for the use in public and private schools. The program has been approved internationally and has been used since before the pandemic in some Panamanian high schools.
In Latin America, the Chinese tech company Huawei has supplied various technological tracking and diagnostic tools for the virus in countries like Honduras and Argentina as well as a tool to understand the genetic makeup of the virus (7). In Argentina they have implemented thermal cameras with AI (artificial intelligence) in the Ezeiza International Airport in order to identify travelers with a high temperature and then sound the alarm of the possible medical risks to ease the detection of the virus. It has been implemented in Honduras as well, Honduras being one of the first in Central America to do so. In Panama, the chinese tech giant has supplied a video conferencing platform as well as a tech support team so that Ministry of Health workers can communicate with Chinese doctors and scientists to share knowledge, practices, and experience about their battle against COVID-19.
As our world globalizes more and more, we will remain further and further connected like never before. Digital connectivity is creating solutions for monitoring and distancing problems in urban settings as much as rural ones. We hope that these technological solutions have a place in these rural regions of the country and that the people can adapt to the change of the way of doing things. We at Future Scientist see this new technology as a valuable problem solving tool of the 21st century and wish to implement it where we can to create long-term solutions for those in need.
On Monday, March 9th, 2020, Panama officially recorded its first case of Coronavirus, or COVID-19. As of today, April 25th, 2020, there are 5,338 officially recorded cases nationwide (Ministerio de Salud, 2020, http://minsa.gob.pa/coronavirus-covid19). Since the beginning the Panamanian government, led by Presidente Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo, has ramped up efforts to slow the curve of infected citizens so as not to overwhelm their healthcare infrastructure and capacity. The economy has come to a slow crawl as people are practicing social distancing and self-quarantine. To date, the government has implemented a progressive lockdown strategy to keep people in their homes and have as little movement as possible out in the streets. It began with mandatory curfews in the evening and early mornings and as of now an individual that doesn’t work in an essential job or have a special permit is only allowed to leave their home six hours a week. The government has regulated movement by biological sex and the last number in a person’s identification number. Women are allowed to leave their homes Monday-Wednesday-Friday and men are allowed to leave Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. Each number 0-9 corresponds to two hours between the hours of 6:30 AM to 7:30 PM that you are allowed to leave your home and be out in public. For example, a man with the last number of 8 in his ID number would be allowed to leave his home Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday between the hours of 7:30 AM to 9:30 AM. Before 7:30 or after 9:30 he risks either being fined or arrested by the police, depending on the circumstances. As the outbreak spreads throughout the country, more and more provinces are becoming affected and the Ministry of Health has increased testing and is finding more cases. Since our work is focused in the province of Colón, specifically the Costa Arriba region, we have been communicating with our counterparts and other community members in the area to get more information as to what is happening in our area of work.
There are currently 128 cases (Ministerio de Salud, 2020, http://minsa.gob.pa/coronavirus-covid19) in the entire province of Colón. The Costa Arriba region so far has only one case in the corregimiento of María Chiquita. We have spoken to several of our counterparts and other community members of the region to get an idea of what they’re experiencing and what measures they are taking to combat the virus and its spread.
Coronavirus in Colón
The general reaction from those who live in Costa Arriba, Colón is that they are taking things seriously, but things are relatively peaceful compared to other regions of the country. The communities have to follow the orders that the federal government has issued but with a general lack of policing in the region there is still a level of flexibility to the law. People are staying at home and avoiding contact with others more than they normally would but they have not practiced social distancing or self-quarantine to the degree of those who live in Panama City or even the city of Colón. People seem to be moving around more or less when they need to and not rigidly following the identification number nor biological sex policy that the government has instituted on a national level. Living in a rural area has acted much like its own form of isolation and people have even mentioned that they are not particularly worried that the virus will have a heavy impact in the region.
Medical personnel have commented that the medical capacity of the region is still stable. The patients that show up to the clinics come for other medical reasons that are not related to COVID-19. There are only a couple cases in María Chiquita (Ministerio de Salud, 2020, http://minsa.gob.pa/coronavirus-covid19) and those are the only cases of the Costa Arriba region. So the clinics further up the coast haven’t had to diagnose any cases and they are functioning as normal. The isolated nature of these communities has served in protecting them too. Since there is only one road that goes up the coast, it is easy for authorities to patrol and set up checkpoints so as not to let people from the cities into the coastal communities. This has been the only real concern of the residents of these communities. They are aware of how badly urban areas are being hit so they don’t want people from those areas trying to escape to more rural regions of the province.
The government, the local governments as well as the federal government, has taken a role in taking care of its citizens during the economic slowdown due to the lockdowns and quarantines. They are handing out food bags as well as stimulus checks to those who are not working or have lost work due to the pandemic. The local governments have taken the biggest role in their respective communities due simply to their geographic proximity to the affected people and the local knowledge they have of every resident’s individual needs.
Small business owners are also playing their part in the quarantine and lockdown. Local supermarkets have begun only tending to customers through the iron gates so that people can still make purchases but can’t enter the building. Some businesses have closed down and are waiting out the pandemic. Some businesses have seen a drop in clientele and others no. Supermarkets for example are still receiving clients because people need food. The local internet cafés are not receiving as many clients because school is out so students aren’t using the internet for school work and people aren’t using their money to spend on internet time when they need to divert it to necessities such as food.
Here in Panama as in the entire world, we are seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases. The government is utilizing ever increasing controls over the population so as to lower the infection rate and stem the tide of infections per day. Scientists are uniting across the country to aid in the creation of tests and reactives in the test. The population is under strict national decrees and are following them properly, especially in Panama City. With education, discipline, and solidarity, we will beat the virus and return to life as we knew it before.
Future Scientist sees composting as the future of organic waste management for small rural communities. This year we are making it a priority and we are actively working with two communities in Costa Arriba, Colón to make it a reality. After much deliberation in 2019, we have begun to lay the foundation for our community compost project in Palenque, Colón. This year we want to focus on our compost projects that we have lined up for Palenque and Portobelo, Colón. They are very similar in the sense that we want to involve the communities in the projects as the primary caretakers and beneficiaries.
An image of the entire country of Panama. The two points are the two communities of Portobelo and Palenque.
An image of the entire province of Colón. The two points are the communities of Portobelo and Palenque.
An image of the Costa Arriba region of the province of Colón. The two points are the communities of Portobelo and Palenque.
Composting in Jacoba Urriola Solís
In Portobelo we have begun to get quotes for the materials and we have the contractor who will build the site for the creation of the compost. The school will have easier logistics due to the fact that we are working directly with the school and the students. We hope to integrate the community in its contribution to the compost by asking the surrounding houses to bring their organic waste to the compost site and help it to grow. This way it won’t just be the cafeteria that is contributing to the compost pile but rather a more collective effort between community and school. The students will serve as the managers and caretakers of the site. It will serve them as future agricultural scientists and in turn the school will receive nutrient-rich compost for the school crops and the neighbors' houseplants. This will serve as a great way to educate the surrounding community members on organic waste management as well as organic farming. The students will benefit by getting valuable experience in taking care of a large scale organic composting operation that will serve them in their future careers. What Future Scientist will get out of it is data on the amount of waste weight that is lost when composting organic material as well as data on the well-being of households that participate in the composting program. Perhaps with increased awareness in waste management tactics households will do their part in better managing the waste in their communities. These are all things we will see as the project progresses.
Waste Management in Palenque
The goal of the project in Palenque is to educate the community in effective waste management as well as provide them a site in order to use these skills in creating something of community benefit. The compost site would be key in eliminating organic waste from local dumps and converting it into something of real value that could generate a small amount of funds for community use. Ideally we want it to imitate the self-sustainable compost center we visited in La Escuela Vocacional Especial in Panama City (https://basuracero.mupa.gob.pa/iniciativas-y-proyectos/centro-de-aprovechamiento-de-organicos/). This compost center is part of the Municipality’s initiative called BasuraCero (Zero Waste) and it has a rehabilitated work force of ex-convicts trained in organic waste management and composting. To the date the center has processed 160 tons of organic waste that is brought to it from all around the metropolitan area. The site is integrated into the school and students participate in its function and contribute the food scraps from the cafeteria to the compost piles. The site is a fully integrated system, both in collection of organic material to the rehabilitation of its personnel. This is what we hope to achieve in Palenque. We want the town to become a center for organic waste management by eliminating a third of the waste produced in an average panamanian household (http://aaud.gob.pa/plangestion/Docs/ANEXOS/20170731_E%188.8.131.52.5_Propuesta%20Nuevo%20Modelo%20de%20Gestion_v3.pdf), creating a self-sustainable nursery for the selling and exchange of plants and flora, and a economic stimulus for the community where many people don’t have stable work. Here the people and businesses from various neighboring communities can bring their organic waste to be processed, thereby saving them money and time as well as helping them contribute to a cleaner community. In Palenque we have spent a lot of time planting the seeds (pun intended) for this vision that we want to achieve in the community. We have had many meetings among the Future Scientist team as well as the team working directly in Palenque. The team in Palenque consists of myself and Francisco Pizarro from Let’s Do It!-Panamá and we met multiple times in order to develop our strategy for the project’s implementation and how we would both create a solid infrastructure as well as an education program to back it up. In the last week of February, we took our first steps in making this vision a reality.
The coronavirus pandemic has put a stop to our trips to Colón and thereby we won't be able to advance things on the ground. We will be joining the fight against COVID-19. We will be providing content regarding preventive health habits and tips to stay safe and healthy during the pandemic as well as other pertinent information regarding the virus. We will work on creating a greater online presence during our time practicing social distancing and self-quarantine. Stay-tuned for more information in future newsletters, social media posts, and on our website at futurescientist.org.
A new year brings new experiences. Our work here in Future Scientist is no exception. It was no exception either for the boys and girls from El Instituto Nacional de Agropecuaria en Divisa, Veraguas and from the Centro Educativo Jacoba Urriola Solís in Portobelo, Colón. The third week of January (January 19-24) we were invited as guest speakers and facilitators in the Campamento Científico Agropecuario 2020 (Agriculture Science Camp 2020). 34 students participated in the camp as well as other facilitators and speakers from various universities and institutions. The students were immersed in a world of science and were able to interact with that world in a way that they had never experienced before. It gave them perspective on the life of not only a scientist, but a professional. It taught them to value their education and think critically, which is a sought after skill in a growing third world country like Panama.
Campamento Científico Agropecuario 2020
The camp was organized by Ivonne Torres, Ph.D. Ivonne Torres has her doctorate degree in pharmacology and is a professor at the esteemed Universidad de Panamá. Her passion for bringing science to students from rural areas manifested in this science camp that was also funded by la SENACYT (National Secretary of Science, Technology, and Innovation; Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia, Tecnología e Innovación; senacyt.gob.pa). She wanted the camp to emphasize the scientific method and encapsulate it in a way that would make science palatable to Panamanian high school students and allow them to see examples of how science plays a part in their studies in agriculture. We believe she achieved this goal by introducing students to a scientific environment that seems plucked from a movie but is right in the heart of Panama City. Along with the advanced lab equipment and technology the scientists developing projects and experiments are Panamanian as well. The experience allowed them to see that these aren’t a bunch of foreigners make scientific leaps in their country, but their countryman achieving great things in the name of science.
The majority of the camp was in INDICASAT (Institute of Scientific Investigation and High Technology Services; Instituto de Investigaciones Científicas y Servicios de Alta Tecnología; indicasat.org.pa) where some of the most advanced laboratories in the country call home. Here students heard from actual scientists who have done and are doing important work in the field and in the lab and visited laboratories and conducted experiments in them. The guests scientists are working in projects such as plant disease investigation, alternative agriculture such as vertical farming, and biodiversity in domestic animals. Some experiments the students did were in cow feces analysis to soil sample analysis. It was important that the science in the camp had to do with agriculture as a way to connect to the students and make the work relatable. The students also spent a whole day in the Universidad de Panamá (University of Panama; up.ac.pa), where they met more science professors and did more lab work. This hands on experience with seasoned professionals and advanced lab equipment was once in a lifetime experience for these students, and as such was a great motivational tool to get these students into science or at least motivate them to continue their academic careers.
Future Scientist’s Role
Our role in the science camp was to provide critical thinking and project development seminars for the students in order to develop these skills in problem investigation and sustainable solution creation. Knowing our audience the goal was to be as dynamic as we could be in the 45 minutes we had for our time slot. When speaking to high schoolers it is important to keep them intelligently engaged but also keep the subject matter light and accessible. This is not to say these kids are not intelligent and would not understand complex information. What we mean is that sometimes that level of information can be intimidating for them and you will be able to connect with the students better and keep them engaged if you frame that complexity in a more accessible model. The topics I chose for the camp were the double diamond model for design thinking, the canvas business model for start-ups and new projects, and the Golden Circle by Simon Sinek.
The Double Diamond Model for Design Thinking
Design Thinking is a process used to develop problems, define them succinctly, and create sustainable, long-term solutions. It is similar to the scientific method in that it requires you to ask a question (what is the problem?), investigate that question/problem (experiment, collect, and analyze data), and come to a conclusion about the information you collected (problem statement). The Design Thinking method is a combination of the scientific method and the engineering method in that the scientific method looks to analyze the problem, make an assumption of why the problem exists, and after data collection and analysis you either support your assumption or refute it with your conclusion; the engineering method takes the problem definition and works to find a long-term solution that solves the problem in a sustainable way. So the design thinking process takes these two methods and combines them for the ultimate problem solving methodology.
The Double Diamond takes the Design Thinking methodology and encapsulates it in a useful diagram that is easy to understand. It captures the circular nature of the methodology while also demonstrating the different phases of the process. It is a great illustrative representation of the Design Thinking methodology and this is why I included it in my seminar for the students. When transmitting information to people who haven’t heard of what you’re talking about, it is important to appeal to both the audio and visual learners. You also need a level of dynamism in order to keep them engaged. I did this by including a small activity called “The Party”. In this activity the students swap ideas for a party by using the phrase “Yes, but…” and “Yes, and…”. The two phrases are meant to demonstrate the two classes of thinking necessary for project development: analytic thinking and creative thinking. “Yes, but…” represents the analytic or left-brain thinking whereas “Yes, and…” represents the creative or right-brain thinking. Why is this? “But” is a way of putting the brakes to an idea and stopping to consider it in a way that can be analytical whereas “and” is a motivator to keep spewing out ideas that puts no stops on any idea and allows the creative juices to flow.
The Canvas Business Model
The Canvas Business Model is another diagram useful for projects or start-ups. It is a tool used to identify the key components of your business endeavor. I chose this topic for the second day because the students were instructed to come up with science projects and I thought that the Canvas Business Model can also work with scientific projects as well as entrepreneurial ventures. A scientific investigation also has need for this type of resource identification. A scientific project has costs it needs to identify. It needs funds (revenue) to be realized. Its customers can be considered the people being studied or the people affected by the problem that is being investigated. It requires partnerships and collaboration. It carries out key activities to achieve it’s end goal. It has resources at its disposal for its realization. And it has a purpose or a mission that gave it life in the first place. Now the students that participated were all agriculture students. Some may become scientists and carry out investigations in agronomy, botany, animal science, genetics, horticulture, aquaculture, etc. However some may become involved in agribusiness or any other business for that matter. I repeat, the Canvas Business model is not just for entrepreneurs but for scientists as well. It has such a wide application that I thought it useful for all the students as they become adults and start entering the labor market.
The Golden Circle (simonsinek.com)
The Golden Circle is a motivational tool used to describe how to successfully connect with people in order to motivate them and gain their loyalty. To connect the topic to science, it is important to mention this tool’s connection to biology. One might think that the Golden Circle is psychological, but it is really based on the tenants of biology. This connection is made once you view a cross-section of the human brain and look at how the Golden Circle really reflects the layers of the brain. When we look at the brain we see that it is also separated into three layers. Starting from the inside out: The reptilian brain, the limbic brain, and the neocortex. The reptilian brain is what drives our instincts. It is our animal brain and when we’re backed into a corner, the reptilian brain can take over and guide us through instinct alone. The limbic brain is the part of the brain that controls our emotions. It is where we can feel things like trust and loyalty. What is fascinating about the reptilian and limbic brain is that they are incapable of understanding language. This is why the “why” part is often the hardest to explain and seems foggy. Words oftentimes cannot capture what we feel or why, and this is usually why the majority of us have a hard time starting with “why”. Simon Sinek argues that few companies and people start with why when speaking to people or advertising a product, whereas the majority will start with “what”. When you start with “why” you connect with that part of the brain that speaks to people’s feelings. When you share your beliefs with someone and they believe as you do, there is an unspeakable bond between you two and a level of trust that is built. This is the sensation that Simon Sinek speaks about and this is the idea I wanted to get across to the students in the Campamento Científico Agropecuario 2020.
Overall the camp was a success. The students spoke highly of our contribution to the camp. We had many students say that our seminars were the most entertaining and dynamic. This was great news because that meant we connected with the students and that we have found a good way to motivate them and connect with them through the educational material we have developed. It was a joy participating in the camp and we will see what other opportunities present themselves as the year progresses.
As December comes to a close, Future Scientist is reflecting on the year that we leave behind, as we all do around this time. It has been a year of expansion, new opportunities, learning experiences, and successes.
We began collaborating on a new project carried out by SENACYT (Secretaría Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología; National Secretary of Science and Technology; https://www.senacyt.gob.pa/). Agua Colón is a new project funded by SENACYT to investigate the water quality in the Santa Isabel district of the Costa Arriba region of the province of Colón. Future Scientist has been added to the project as a collaborator. We will also develop the education component of the project.
We began working with the Palenque water committee, collaborating with local political authorities, and connecting with other NGOs in Panama City and Colón. Our work with the Palenque water committee started with us trying to understand the problem by examining the water system, meeting with the water committee members, and speaking to community members. This investigative work lead us to work on creating an app to improve the administration of the water systems. This app will be available for both community members and water committee members in order to facilitate transparency.
We have been working on jumpstarting a new composting initiative in the region, with successes and obstacles along the way. We began a collaboration with Open Blue Sea Farms (https://www.openblue.com/) and Let’s Do It!-World (https://www.letsdoitworld.org/) to do a pilot composting project in Palenque. We want to replicate a government composting program in the city that has created an almost 100% self sustainable composting site. We want this project to be managed by the community members and we hope that a plant nursery can be born from the compost project, in order to generate a source of communal income for community projects and necessities.
What’s most important is the people we’ve met along the way, the relationships we’ve built, and the seeds we’ve planted in the region to create real change for the many communities of Costa Arriba. We’ve built relationships with community members and political authorities alike. We’ve created working relationships with political representatives from every community as well as the district mayor. Water committee members in Palenque and Nombre de Dios are now our counterparts and we are working with them to improve the administration and physical infrastructure of their water systems.
Future Scientist is a 501c3 non profit that believes in the power of science education to provide people with the tools they need to solve the problems in their lives and in their communities. Started in 2009 by UC-Berkeley and UCSF students with the approach of teaching design methods and carrying out hands-on science lessons, with the goal of teaching resource-poor communities how to identify and sustainably solve their own problems. Here in Panama we have two primary programs: the Clean Water Access Initiative and the Self-Solving Initiative. We have been developing and expanding these programs thoroughly over the last two years and we are reaching more and more people as time goes on. Read more about our work at futurescientist.org and subscribe to our mailing list at the bottom of the webpage.
Agua Colón: Assuring Water Quality in Costa Arriba, Colón
To begin the year we were included in a SENACYT funded project called AGUA COLÓN. The project director is Dr. Zohre Kurt, who has a background in environmental and chemical engineering. The goal of the project is to carry out an analysis of the different water sources around the community of Miramar, Colón and the district of Santa Isabel as a whole. Future Scientist’s task is to seek out the different water sources in the region and collect water samples from these sources. We are also in charge of the educational component of the project. This includes sharing our analysis results with the public of Colón and of the communities we work in so that they are informed of the quality of the water they are using and consuming. This also includes educational seminars to educate the community so that they know how to distinguish contaminated water from non-contaminated water and how to decontaminate that water if necessary. Not only that but they will be instructed on the watershed ecosystem and how to keep it healthy, handwashing, conducting chlorine and e.coli/coliform testing for water, and proper potable water storage. We have so far analyzed four wells, three houses, two rivers, and one spring source for the project. This analysis expands across four communities (Miramar, Palenque, Viento Frío, and Nombre de Dios) and a total area of roughly 31 square miles (80 km2), which includes Chagres National Park. From our analysis so far we have determined that the water is relatively safe for consumption. The pesticide levels in the water (due to high amounts of agriculture in the region) are surprisingly good, given the lack of pesticide control and education. However we are beginning to explore other natural sources for metal contamination, as metals have appeared in our analyses. We are entering phase two of the project for 2020 and we will be starting education seminars around February-March. Until then we will continue gathering samples and looking for other water sources to analyze as 2019 closes and 2020 begins.
The Future Scientist Water Committee App: Improving Water System Administration
Our work with the Palenque water committee has had its developments throughout the year. From our community meetings in Nombre de Dios, the town halls we’ve attended, and the comments from various community members from the region, the biggest problem is lack of proper administration and service charges. What often happens in these communities is that a water committee is formed and it quickly dissolves due to a mix of a lack of interest to serve on the committee and a scarcity of funds to do anything of merit with the water system. The simple solution is to motivate the community to pay their monthly bills and hold them responsible when they don’t pay. This requires the committee to keep people in line and accountable and this requires a level of transparency between the committee and the community. It must be a two-way street. The water committee must see who is and who isn’t paying their water bill and the community must be able to see what the water committee does with their funds. The solution that we have proposed for Palenque is a cell phone app that allows for this transparency. The app will provide the committee with payment oversight and a net monthly budget by documenting use of funds information for the community and a list of the payment histories of community members for the water committee. Furthermore it will be used for planning and reminding people of water committee meetings in order to stimulate participation among the community. Our app developers are in the country and we want to take advantage and have them meet with the water committee members so that they can get a more precise idea of what the community needs and the type of solution best suits them. We are fortunate to have acquired the services of Ricardo and Carlos Ng. Ricardo and Carlos are father and son respectively and they have volunteered their time and their work in order to give back to the country which they love so dear. Ricardo is a retired database administrator in ULINE and Carlos is a Bioengineer in the Wyss Institute-Harvard working on microdevice design. When the prospect of creating an app for water committee administration came up, Ricardo and Carlos jumped at the opportunity to help make it a reality. On December 19th we visited Palenque to meet with the water committee president and district mayor with Ricardo and Carlos so that they could get a better idea of whom they were making the app for and what the issues really were with the poor administration. We will be meeting with the committee a few times in the coming months and presenting them with prototypes to interact with and provide feedback. Along with our connections within the communities we’ve been trying to create a network of connections with local authorities, who are enthusiastic about the effort. We have spoken to Ministry of Health technicians and local politicians about the app as we develop a strategy to share the app with water committees in other communities after piloting it in Palenque. They are fully in favor of the app and have agreed to its value in creating sustainability for water committee administration in the region.
Building Relationships: Creating a Network of Community Counter-parts
From our time being in communities we’ve been introduced and had opportunities to meet with local authorities. These people range from the local politicians to civil servants to ministry technicians to other NGOs. We’ve attended town halls to participate in the discussions of issues in the communities of the region. One in particular was about the water situation in Santa Isabel and a couple of Ministry of Health technicians were invited to participate. The mayor also invited Future Scientist to attend in order to meet the technicians and provide our own input into the situation. Here people took turns telling their stories and their experiences with the water systems in the area. We were asked to speak and we mentioned our collaboration with the Palenque water committee and the need for greater transparency in administration between committees and community and the need for there to be clear consequences when community members don’t contribute to the maintenance of their aqueduct. We were met with resounding agreement and here we knew we had come to fully understand the problem. We later met with the technicians and we will include them on any advances in our work with the water committees as involving them will be key to the sustainability of our work.
Two other partnerships we’ve been working on cultivating is with the environmental NGO Let’s Do It!-World (https://www.letsdoitworld.org/) and Open Blue Sea Farms (https://www.openblue.com/). When Javier Visuetti, the Community Relations Liaison in Open Blue Sea Farms mentioned his interest in a project for the trash problem in Santa Isabel, we knew that we had just met the perfect person to connect him with. Not many weeks before, we had met Francisco Pizarro when we went to hike to the Palenque aqueduct source. Francisco works for Let’s Do It!-World and he had told us all about his work and his passion for cleaning up the planet. Once Javier had mentioned his need for a trash oriented project, we knew that we had met the right person. By simply talking to and meeting people, Future Scientist has been able to connect counterparts with collaborators and form partnerships to carry projects forward.
Composting Toward an Environmentally and Financially Sustainable Future
The need for sustainable waste management in the Costa Arriba region of Colón is great. Upon entering the region, one is instantly impacted by the trash that is piled along the side of the road, oftentimes spilling into the street itself. The region generates roughly 15 tons of trash a day, with four of those 15 tons coming from Santa Isabel. According to a study carried out by the Urban and Residential Waste Authority in Panama, roughly 33% of these trash is organic. That means five of those fifteen tons is organic. Those five tons of perfectly valuable waste is being squandered in those roadside dumps and the regional dump in La Línea. Future Scientist wants to combat this waste and incentivise community members to value their organic waste and use it for their benefit instead of throwing it out.
As a part of this initiative, we have been able to complete a compost project with the students in the school in Portobelo. This project was carried out with Open Blue’s support. We wanted to do an experiment using three different aeration frequencies for two different compost mixes: dried and fresh plant mix and a dried plant with fish organs. The fish organs were provided by Open Blue. We wanted to measure the composting rate of vegetable material and vegetable mixed with meat material. The students presented their findings in the regional and national science fair. Due to the success of the project the student team won 3rd place in the regional science fair which carried them to the national stage.They were successfully able to make compost out of both mixes and we are looking to scale up the experiment for the next school year, to once again be presented and better elaborated for the next regional science fair. We want to make it more inclusive within the school; bringing in the cafeteria and the food waste in the school, grass cuttings and clippings from the school farm, and any other organic waste that the school produces. We have already handed in a proposal to Professor Wilfredo Aguilar, our long-term stakeholder within the school, and we are looking forward to the 2020 school year to initiate the project. This project would be done in conjunction with a pilot compost project we are working on in collaboration with Let’s Do It!-World and Open Blue Sea Farms.
The pilot composting program in question will be in the community of Palenque. This project began before we started the composting project with the students in Portobelo. It has had its ups and downs. Some obstacles have been breakdowns in communication, lack of financial support, and lack of participation from community members. We have a solid plan and know what the phases of the project have to be in order for the project to be a success. However with so many parties involved, everyone needs to be satisfied and be on board with the way the project is going. Our biggest obstacle has been securing financial support from Open Blue, whom we have been meeting with in order to convince them to support the project financially as part of their community responsibility program. Let’s Do It! And Future Scientist have to work harder on providing a better plan in order to secure Open Blue’s confidence and support in the pilot project. However we have reconvened and have finalized details to begin building a small structure to house the organic waste that will become the first compost pile of the project. With something physical and tangible to see, community members will be motivated and energized to participate and the project will move forward.
Future Scientist 2020
So as 2019 comes to a close, we look at our successes and how to replicate them. Likewise, we look at certain learning experiences and how we’ve grown from them. We hope 2020 holds more opportunities for more concrete projects. We hope to expand off our successes, continue growing, and continue developing new ways to increase our impact in the region. We will make 2020 a new leap forward for Future Scientist and science education in Colón. ¡Que sea un próspero año 2020!