On big data

In the wake of Snowden and the NSA
In the wake of Target and customer tracking
In the wake of communication companies tracking smartphone holders

…it seems like everyone is talking about BIG DATA. I want to join the conversation too, so here goes: big data in Mexico.

Oh yes, big data exists. It is located in paper stacks and in recycled folders, on un-shredded documents in landfills, and scattered across the minds of many people. It gathers cobwebs and dust “in the basements and bodegas all across Mexico!” as my friend Chelsea put it.

It definitely does not exist as it does in the United States.


Hey I say, eyes still glued to the GPS unit. Did you guys know that we just left the park? It looks like we will be re-entering in about 50 meters though.

I am hiking with one of the park rangers and his boss, Danny. I mention it because I thought that it would be fun to show them applications for their GPS unit now that the park boundaries were uploaded. I did not realize that my casual comment would bring up a serious management concern.

Danny turns to the park ranger. “This is why it is important to remember where the park boundaries are located. Imagine you catch someone collecting mushrooms here. If they were just five meters behind us, they would be breaking the law. If they were here, we have no jurisdiction. You have to remember exactly where the boundaries are.”

This is how patrols are conducted? I think to myself.

Apparently, up until now, park management relied on the memory of 17 people to know the exact location of an invisible line more than 20 kilometers long.

Training how to use the GPS unit and showing what it can do

Showing what the GPS unit can do on a crisp afternoon


Do not get me wrong; people collect and record data. In fact, mountains of data exist! Unfortunately, they tend to be organized in a tangle of bureaucracy.

Even more unfortunate, my office is in the middle of a contemporary bureaucratic nightmare. It has been so bad this month that mired is not strong enough to describe their current level of paperwork. Perhaps stymied is a more appropriate choice. All other activities have been shut down while the office churns hour after hour, week after week.

Their task: completing a ten-year report of activities that took place in the park between 2003 – 2013.

My co-worker is buried under many tall stacks of paper

My co-worker is buried under many tall stacks of paper

That may not sound difficult, but the task is immense when you consider the following:

  • There have been at least five administration changes in that ten year period that resulted in almost complete staff turn-over each time;
  • The general culture is that when one leaves a job, one takes all of their work, leaving behind very little documentation and/or data;
  • There are almost no digital files; and,
  • Almost all tasks are left to the last minute.

This leaves my co-workers with the task of digging through paper archives, cabinet by cabinet, page by page. They are scanning, stacking, and stapling ad nauseum. Their fuel is coffee, sleep deprivation-derived energy, and stress. The office soundtrack is a constant hum of scanners and printers with a back-beat of paper shuffling. It is a month of no fun and barely any taco breaks.

The temporary scanning and stacking station located in the hallway

The temporary scanning and stacking station located in the hallway


From what I have seen, there can be big problems with the copious data that exists in Mexico. It is often incomplete or inaccurate.

An example of incomplete data: The park’s management plan lists 545 species, but I know that number is woefully low. While certainly no expert in the topic, even I have found species that were not listed in the census. Below are several species of orchid, none of which are included in the management plan.

How can you manage biodiversity if you do not know that it exists?

An example if inaccurate record keeping: When I picked up a receipt that I needed to submit for reimbursement paperwork, the cashier cheerfully handed me the wrong one. While it had my purchase on it, it also had two additional expensive items totaling more than 100 US Dollars.

Perdon I said, I think this might be someone else’s receipt. I did not buy these last two things. She checked her stack of receipts from purchases made the day before. Yes, you read that correctly. I had to pick up my receipt in person, the following day. 

No, she told me, that is definitely your receipt. We accidentally added those other things. She then looked at me as if the problem was solved.

I asked if she could correct the mistake and print a new receipt. She looked uncomfortable; I had put her on the spot. She reluctantly replied Well no. Can’t you just turn it in like it is? It was her way of politely saying no.

I was left with no choice. When I turned it in to Peace Corps, I explained the situation. Our amazing Medical Administrator fixed everything with her cute laugh and agility on the computer.

It all worked out in the end, but the overall carelessness with data still sticks with me.


So data can be incomplete and/or inaccurate. It can also be very hard to find.

I can just about guarantee that if you are in the USA, you use the internet to find data every day. Heck, I bet you check it hourly, or that your phone alerts you instantly to new information. Well that does not really work in most of Mexico. But I adjusted, and now I rarely look for information by googleandolo (goh-glay-AHN-dow-low), or googling it. Here is what I mean:

How I found information in the USA and how I find information in Mexico

How I found information in the USA and how I find information in Mexico

You might have noticed from the infographic that getting things done in the USA is very data-focused. The system is so efficient and impersonal.

You may have also noticed that in Mexico, the majority information is shared person-to-person. Very little is written down or made public. Finding data might take quite a bit longer, but you find so many things along the way, and you talk with so many interesting people.

When you are in a US American mindset, you might curse in frustration at this process. If you let go and you loosen up, finding things can be a great adventure.


As you might imagine, using big Mexican data has set me back a bit at work. As a project manager, I want to make informed decisions like: how long will the project last; and, how much is the fair amount to pay my trail team.

Getting answers for these simple questions has been an endurance test. Historical data exists in files that I was unable to locate or access. Historical knowledge exists in the minds of so many former park employees who refused to talk about their time in the office.

Even still, I asked and I asked. I consulted community members and supervisors. And until last week, I always received conflicting answers or vague responses.

I bet these people from the park have the historical data...now if I could only find them...

I bet these people from the park had the historical data that I need…now if I could only find them!

Last Thursday I was casually passed a file on a virus-infected flash drive that contained all of the critical data that I had been searching for since last July. Why did no one show this to me before!? I almost yelled out in frustration.

And then I realized why. The biologist who passed me the file has been systematically going through his computer for the past month. Remember that ten year report and the high staff turnover? Well, this file was created before he worked at the park, and even before his predecessor. He never knew that the file existed. He unearthed it among the plethora of random, partially incomplete second- or third-hand files that he inherited. I almost hugged him in excitement. Now, my decisions will be based on actual data!


Last Friday at the office, our maintenance manager asked me if I knew how to tell whether GPS coordinates lie within the park boundaries or not. Sure! Do you have a GIS program and some sample coordinates? I am happy to show you.

The staff biologist overheard us and perked up. You know how to do that? he asked with excitement.

And that is how my GIS training program started.

In addition to my trail project, I will help systematize data analysis with the hope of better decision made for the park. But I think that the three of us will start with small data first.


Making me smile, connecting with the USA edition

  • Lining up back-to-back marathon Skype and Google Hangout sessions with friends and family. If you were a part of that, thanks! You made my day. If you were not, email me and we will find a time that works. I have been having a blast and plan to keep it up
  • Even from a distance, it warms my heart watching my cousins grow into impressive young adults and hearing about my friends getting engaged, married, and giving birth among other milestones and big life decisions. I love my community so much
  •  Collaborating with a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer to participate in Peace Corps Week’s Classroom Challenge. We talked with eight grade students at his former school about diversity and the problem with stereotyping. I had so much fun that we might make it a regular thing to correspond with the class
  • Getting together with other Peace Corps Volunteers in my region to celebrate birthdays, go dancing, make Thai food, and discover exploding plants in a canyon

4 responses to “On big data

  1. Contact me about any data you are looking for regarding the trails or other projects in the park. I am not sure I have what you are looking for but I can share what I do have.

    • I was just about to email you! Thanks for the offer 🙂 I would love to run through the basics of the project so far to see if it all sounds reasonable to you, and to invite you over to see it of course.

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