"I have only been volunteering for 3 weeks and I already wish I started earlier" says Blake, AVID Volunteer in Cambodia

5. 12. 2017

The Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program provides opportunities for skilled Australians to gain humanitarian experience and contribute to the Australian Government's aid program. Meet Blake, our AVID Volunteer working in Cambodia.
It’s great to meet you Blake. Can you tell me about yourself?

I’m Australian, born and raised on the west coast in Perth. I studied Geographic Information Science (GIS) at Curtin University and spent the last five and a half years working for an engineering consultancy organization, where I worked on various projects ranging from road networks and drainage to water plants and power. In my first few years I also did quite a bit of field surveying and got to see a lot of the country which was great. I’ve done minor volunteering roles in the past, all in Australia, but this is my first experience abroad and full time, so it’s a lot more substantial that what I’ve done in the past. I have been living in Cambodia for a month now and this is my third week as an Australian Volunteer for International Development (AVID) with People in Need (PIN).

You have a very interesting background. Why did you decide to leave your role to volunteer?

I was happy in my previous role, but I had been there for nearly 6 years and I needed a new experience - something different that would feel like I am working towards something bigger. I had spoken to a friend of mine in Australia who volunteered in Vietnam a few years ago and her feedback was very positive, and so I was intrigued. I started looking into it and found this role quite quickly. You don’t often find vacancies for GIS jobs for regular employment positions, let alone for volunteers, so I couldn’t find a reason not to apply.

What kind of work are you doing at PIN?

I support on the technological side of projects and provide expertise on GIS mapping and programming. I work with a great team and share general mapping information, such as choosing the right color for different features of maps, basic cartography, explaining reasons for choosing one style versus another, etc. I also provide technical support on various software packages we use, some of which are new to me too. Therefore, I am excited to learn from the team just as much as I will share, the entire experience is two-way.

That sounds very interesting. Can you describe some of your activities?

Though I spend a lot of time programming and mapping on my computer, I really enjoy going out into the field to gather data. Last week, we joined the Urban Poverty Reduction team to fly a drone above areas of land within Phnom Penh and map them. The activity is related to PIN’s iTenure project, a software tool that uses geographic and legal data to determine the status of land and produces a tailored package of information for residents of a specific area. This package also contains a map and legal advice to strengthen tenure claims.

Wow! Was this the first time you flew a drone?

No, I have flown one before but this was my first time using a fixed-wing drone, which was exciting. A fixed-wing drone has wings rather than helicopter-style rotors that you most often see. We set up a GPS base and launch it by hand, then it pretty much calculates a route and flies itself. It is a very cool piece of technology and I am looking forward to using it more.

PIN integrates technology in the majority of its projects, so you will have insight into our various programs. Is there one you find particularly interesting?

I find the Disaster Management team’s Early Warning System project interesting because it aims to quickly alert people who may be affected by flooding, by sending voice messages directly to mobile phones of subscribers. We have to fly drones over the river to study where the best place to set more water sensors could be. On Friday, I am actually going to try building the sensor itself before installing it, which is new for me but a very welcome challenge. So far, everything has been very hands-on which is great.

Even though you will only be here for 6 months, are you planning to learn Khmer, the local language in Cambodia?

Well, if I am being honest my Khmer is not great… but I would like to learn! I have only been here a few weeks but the other day I was able to give directions to a tuk tuk driver. I only used the words “left” “right” and “stop”… baby steps.

What would you say to someone considering volunteering with PIN?

Consider why you’re on the fence in the first place. I was hesitant too when I was offered the position, but I had a turning moment when a close friend of mine said to me; “if you don’t take the opportunity, you’re just going to be out here again doing the same thing in another 12 months. Is that really what you want?” So I wrote a list of pros and cons to this experience and I honestly couldn’t think of cons that were strong enough to hold me back. Flash-forward five months and here I am in Cambodia volunteering with a great, reputable organization and getting hands-on work experience. So my advice would be to just go for it because life’s too short to wait. I have only been volunteering for 3 weeks and I already wish I had done this earlier. 

Author: Samrawit Gougsa