One Day, towards the end of the rainy season and the beginning of the Myanmar winter, during the extremely humid mornings when the water vapor manages to stick to my eyeballs but refuses to hit the threshold of wiping the air clean with a healthy rain, I started to run again. Yangon isn’t exactly a runner-friendly city, but I’ve found my spots.
I run around Kandawgyi Lake almost every morning. I’ve run around the lake a few times in the last few months, 59 times to be exact. I would say I know this route well, or I’m getting to know it. First, I learned the order of landmarks. After the bus stop near the cold drinks and betel nut vendor, I’d cross to the walkway leading to General Aung San’s statue with his towering gaze and hand outstretched towards the two older men doing their morning stretches at his feet. While mentally sketching the macro structure of the run, I also noticed smaller details on the route. I have gotten to know the checkerboard colored stone tiles in front of the General’s statue and how, if I run too closely to the darker tiles that share a border with the curb, I’d slip on the moss that has just spent the night collecting moisture.
When arriving in Myanmar half a year ago, I did not “know” the country. I’m a data scientist, so to me, I want to get to know a country both through interactions, feeling those tiles slip beneath my feet, as well as through numbers. I’ve been working at Phandeeyar, Myanmar’s first innovation lab, for a few months, and realized that the scale of the task required to make sense of it all is daunting. We work with local NGOs and civil society organizations to help them leverage data and technology to complete their own goals. We comb through datasets and promote them on our own open data portal. We write stories with our data and work to foster a data-minded community.
My colleagues have been thoroughly amazing. Most are from Myanmar and are more than willing to answer my questions and even play tour guide when I drop in on their village over winter break (thanks George!). I joined Phandeeyar to have a platform from which I can observe the relationship between technology and society in Myanmar. I listen to my colleagues’ anecdotes of their first smartphone and their views on what a free press really means. Each piece of information finds its slot in my mental model of Myanmar. Each book I read or bowl of Mohinga I eat finds its place as well, helping me get closer to some semblance of knowledge, and this would all be so much more difficult without my team at Phandeeyar.
I have a few more months in Myanmar. I can speak a few words of Burmese. I can name all 15 states and regions and recount the rough timeline of post colonial historical events. I have figured out which tea shops carry the best pork bao in my neighborhood and how to get filtered water delivered to my house. But, I’m looking forward to these next months to develop my relationship with my current home. I want to inspect deeper into how technology and data are really creating change in Myanmar. I want to study the larger data initiatives and how the community reacts to its own needs. Myanmar is an ever changing place, and I admire that. I am proud to say I’m getting to know the country a little better each day. The relationship I’ve developed is dynamic and I’m taking liberties in using the word “know,” but I know that I’m getting to know Kandawgyi Lake.