Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a different high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet KELSEY SCHREIBER, a master's student in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at the University of Illinois whose research focuses on the definition of success in international engineering. She is also president of Akelos, an Urbana nonprofit that helps existing international water projects create community-specific solutions.
Who else is on the team?
We are a diverse team made up of graduate students and young professionals with backgrounds in various types of engineering, global studies, environmental science and political science. We are also pretty geographically diverse, with members from Singapore to Italy! Thank goodness for online meeting platforms.
How does this work as a nonprofit? Do you have funding sources and partners? I understand you are planning a local fundraiser.
So Akelos was founded to partner with existing water organizations to help them implement projects with a keener eye on the contextual nature that accompanies working with unique and diverse communities. Most of our funding has come from donations and a fundraiser we hosted last year. Right now, we run solely on volunteers and have pretty minimal overhead, so we dedicate the funds we generate to site visits associated with gathering necessary data, meeting our local client communities and building the relationships necessary to provide that contextual insight.
What's coming up?
Last year, we held a really successful fundraiser in Chicago, but we are excited to be organizing this year's fundraiser in the Champaign-Urbana area! We love the idea of being able to spread the word about Akelos here and potentially find local partners with similar interests or an interest in supporting our cause!
Akelos, They Inherit and local partner And Defar Niombato are currently in the design phase of a water system to serve four communities near Keur Balla Maria, Senegal. They Inherit works on supplying context-driven water solutions to rural communities around the world. Tell us about that.
They Inherit, who has connections to the Senegalese NGO And Defar Niombato, partnered with us to help design and implement a water system for these four communities who were identified by ADN to have a need for an improved water system. They currently have very intermittent access to the water in their shallow wells, which the women pull up manually several times a day. This was a brand-new project at the start of our partnership, so we've been able to work closely with They Inherit, ADN and the communities to design a system that works technically and is able to be sustainably managed. The latter being the more challenging of the two!
And what are you doing in Latin America?
The Guatemala project aims to service two communities in a mountainous boundary of Guatemala. Each community has several water sources in the form of naturally occurring springs, but they all lie lower than the majority of housing, and women must traverse treacherous paths multiple times per day to collect and carry sufficient water.
You also currently have a project in Honduras. I'm curious, do you do all this travel, or is some of it virtual?
We try our best to travel, which is why finding sustainable funding sources really critical for our organization. As much as our internal organization hinges on virtual communication, there is really no replacement to being able to interact with a community to get a sense of their wants and needs. The technical side of water systems also relies heavily on geographic information that can come from land surveying, but intuition is built better on being physically present. Not to mention, some of the communities we work with don't have reliable access to internet, so we do a lot of juggling communication through all of our partners to get the feedback we need!
You work a little differently than other international water organizations. Tell us about that.
We distinguish ourselves from other international water organizations by connecting technology and context in the rural communities we serve. In our collective experience, we recognized that projects are inherently faced with local context (culture, politics, expectations, experience) which becomes an obstacle to success for organizations that don't know how to incorporate it into a project. We are trying to shift the technology to follow the context, not the other way around!
Is this what you see doing in your future, professionally? What draws you to this nonprofit work?
Yes, once I graduate, I plan to seek out work somewhere in the development sector. Maybe a nonprofit, maybe a government agency. I would love to get experience in a larger organization to be able to compare it to the work that we do at Akelos. I was originally drawn to this type of work because it opened my eyes to an application of my engineering skills to a mission that really motivated me. That still holds true, but I have also grown to love how much I've been challenged, both personally and professionally, by doing this work. It has grown into this incredible opportunity to co-found and lead Akelos, work alongside diverse communities, and pursue my master's degree!
Did you ever make any mistakes that you learned from early on?
When we first founded Akelos, we were, I think understandably, really excited to jump into advising projects. We had all of these ideas of what we could contribute and incredible connections who quickly linked us up with several projects. Unfortunately, we hadn't really formed a procedure for what our partnership expectations would look like and were overwhelmed with the management of so many projects. Since then, we have formalized our partnerships, each with their own unique set of expectations. We also understand that right now, as we are still growing, it's more important for us to do a thorough job at consulting a few projects rather than spreading ourselves too thin over many projects!
TECH TIDBITS ... from KELSEY SCHREIBER
Do you have interests in social media? Are your startups on any of them? I definitely have a passive social-media presence. I follow a bunch of people and organizations in the water-development sector on Twitter (@SchreiberKelsey) but have yet to take the plunge into tweeting myself. It's on my to-do list, though! Akelos is on Facebook (@akeloswater) and LinkedIn.
What's your favorite app? The Dunkin Donuts rewards app. A quick pick-me-up cup of coffee and the added benefit of frequent perks is a home run!
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? I prefer books! Right now I'm reading "Navigation by Judgement" by Dan Honig, a professor of international development at Johns Hopkins. It's a win-win read that relates to my research and managing Akelos. It looks at the mechanisms behind top-down-funded international development and how effective implementation is often thwarted due to inflexible management strategies that don't allow for modification by those more aware of local contexts.
Do you have any wearable electronics? Technically, yes, I have a Garmin GPS smartwatch, but I usually only wear it when I am out for a run (the GPS mapping is pretty great!). The rest of the day, I sport a regular watch.