In November 2014, Project Concern International (PCI) invited me to document the process of their DARSHAN project, which used participatory video to educate women in rural Bihar about practices that protect maternal and child health, especially during and after pregnancy. DARSHAN was one of four such projects supported by Digital Green in India to demonstrate and assess the effectiveness of participatory video for improving maternal and child health. My report, Promoting Better Health through Participatory Video: The Process and Impact of PCI’s Program DARSHAN, can be seen here.
DARSHAN’s videos featured women who practiced, demonstrated, and endorsed healthy habits, such as handwashing with soap, exclusive breastfeeding for six months after delivery, and immunizing their children. This video clip shows a saheli screening a DARSHAN video during a women’s self-help group meeting.
Although I had twice previously documented PCI’s Parivartan project, which is supported by the Gates Foundation, this was my first exposure to participatory video and Digital Green, which Melinda Gates regards as one of the four ideas that are changing the world.
I returned to Bihar 10 days later to document a DARSHAN learning workshop, during which approximately 50 PCI’s frontline community mobilizers, called sahelis (friends in Hindi), reflected to distill lessons from the project.
On 19 January, I presented findings from my fieldwork at the DARSHAN dissemination workshop in Patna. The workshop was attended by over 50 people from organisations including PATH, Digital Green, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Bank, Janani, BBC Media Action, the Population Council, Engender Health, Water Aid, World Health Partners, Praxis, Jhpiego, and Marie Stopes, as well as by representatives of Jeevika, the Bihar Rural Livelihood Promotion Society. For the workshop, I prepared case studies about a pregnant woman and a saheli who I had interviewed in November.
I’m enormously grateful to PCI for the opportunity to document DARSHAN. I’m very impressed by the power of participatory video for accelerating progress in public health.
My reports about illegal dumping of municipal solid waste and biomedical waste at Pondicherry’s truck terminal have received considerable attention. Photographs first published on this blog have been used in Health Care Without Harm’s report Medical Waste and Human Rights for the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur, and on the website of Occupy for Animals. My reports have been viewed thousands of times on this blog, and helped to inform Kunal Vohra ‘s excellent documentary, The Plastic Cow, which has been viewed over 40,000 times.
Given such coverage of the problem, I was curious to revisit Pondy’s truck terminal to see the situation now, three years after my first report. I visited the terminal yesterday and discovered that the area is still being used for illegal dumping of mixed municipal solid waste and biomedical waste, and cows are still foraging in the waste.
This is a public health problem because, as I explained in my first post on this topic, cows that forage in burnt plastic waste are likely to consume dioxin and then pass that dioxin to humans through milk. Such dioxin is passed to infants by nursing mothers. Permitting cows to forage in municipal solid waste endangers the life of cows because plastic bags accumulate in their rumen and can eventually cause cows to die. As this footage shows, cows continue to forage in illegally dumped municipal refuse and biomedical waste in Pondicherry’s truck terminal.
If you consume dairy products in India, the chance is very high that the milk came from a cow that eats hazardous municipal solid waste.
Here are a few images of cows foraging at Pondicherry’s truck terminal:
I’m writing this post to share my experience editing and processing video clips shot with a Lumix GH3 or with a Nokia 808. My primary purpose for editing and processing video has been for uploading videos to YouTube, so I’m trying to find the best combination of compression and image quality. I invite you to share your video processing experience and advice in the comments section.
In this post, I’m going to use the words “format”, “codec”, and “container” as they are explained in this YouTube video from Videomaker.com.
I use PowerDirector 10 for editing and processing. I’ve found it very easy to use, and it worked well until I noticed odd blotches of color in videos that I exported from PowerDirector in MPEG-4 format. Here’s a screenshot that shows orange blotches on my arms in a frame of video that was processed by PowerDirector:
The full video can be seen here.
I also found that when uploading .mp4 videos to YouTube, YouTube would display a message saying that my videos would process faster if they were in a format that is suitable for YouTube. I understood this to mean that my MPEG-4 videos were not in the best format for YouTube.
I wasn’t sure what was causing the blotches in my videos. The blotches did not exist in the original files from the camera. The blotches occurred only after the files were edited and exported from PowerDirector 10. I wondered if the blotches could be avoided if I shot the video in a different format, or if I exported the edited files from PowerDirector 10 with a different codec.
So, instead of shooting in the GH3’s high-bitrate MOV format and exporting from PowerDirector in MPEG-4, I tried shooting some video in AVCHD 1080p, 24fps at 24 Mbps bitrate and exporting the edited clip from PowerDirector in H.264 AVC 1080p, 23.976fps at 13 Mbps.
I found that videos shot in AVCHD (with an .mts extension) and exported from PowerDirector in H.264 AVC (with an .m2ts extension) have not had any color blotches. Here’s a 55-second sample of such video. Its bitrate was 13 Mbps, and the file size is 91 MB.
In a thread on the Cyberlink forum, a forum member named Carl said that he exports videos from PowerDirector in Windows Media Video (WMV) 9 HD standard.
I tried that and found that the video clip that I showed above became just 40 MB in WMV (at a data rate of 6 Mbps). I thought that the WMV version still looked acceptable. Here it is on YouTube:
I’ve also found that the MOV video that acquired color blotches when I converted it to MPEG-4 in PowerDirector did not acquire color blotches when I converted from MOV to AVCHD in PowerDirector.
So, I’m concluding from this experience that MPEG-4 is causing the color blotches in my videos.
I’ve also observed that when uploading .m2ts files to YouTube, I do not get a message from YouTube saying that the video will process faster if I use a format that is suitable for YouTube. I understand this to mean that the H.246 codec is suitable for YouTube, which is something that I’ve heard on several YouTube videos.
I’ll keep experimenting and will share what I learn. I’ll be very interested to read about your experiences. Please share your experiences and suggestions in the comments section of this post.
Copal Publishing has featured a photo that I shot of municipal solid waste management on the cover of a soon-to-be-released book about urban planning in India, India’s Urban Confusion: Challenges and Strategies.
My workload this past year gave me very little time for other things, as is evident from my total neglect of this blog. A sample of what I’ve written this year can be seen here. I’m now taking four weeks off to spend with family. During this break, I want to consolidate and share a few writing lessons that people who are starting in the fields of documentation, report writing, or communication might find helpful.
I’ve learned a few things from my experiences i) helping Karnataka Health Promotion Trust evaluate candidates and select a finalist for a position of documentation officer for KHPT’s India Learning Network, ii) lecturing on effective writing and mentoring participants in the Population Council’s scientific writing courses for grantees of the Gates Foundation’s Avahan program, and iii) working with the foundation’s grantees to document the Ananya program in Bihar. Through this exposure to many people’s writing, I observed some common issues that I now guard against in my own work.
I’m inspired to write this by Daniel Odio, who encourages the readers of his blog to use the Internet to share what they know, as he does. In his posts about his quest to learn to take great photos, Daniel invited readers to contribute their suggestions and experiences, which resulted in some enlightening contributions and exchanges. In the hope of doing something similar, I urge readers of this post to share thoughts, links, and advice on documentation and effective writing. I’ll be very grateful to learn from you.
Another person who has influenced me is John Griggs, whose blog posts are always enjoyable, informative, and inspiring. I appreciate John’s work because he shares not only tips about techniques and tools that work well but also accounts of mishaps in the field. In his posts about documenting a hot air balloon festival and a night-time football game, John revisits some instructive bloopers and challenges that he encountered. I find such candid disclosures extremely valuable because they are rare and because I’m extremely prone to make such errors myself.
Here’s my list of recommendations for effective writing:
1. Write with Clear Purpose
Start each piece—be it an essay, article, report, or story—by composing a clear and concise purpose and message of the piece. Writers should be clear in their own mind about their central or primary purpose and message before they begin writing. This purpose and message should be written down before starting and then reread occasionally while composing and revising the story to make sure that the story is achieving its purpose and communicating its central message.
It’s helpful for readers if the story’s purpose and message are presented in the opening.
I know this sounds obvious, but I suggest this because I’ve seen too many pieces in which it was evident that writer had either given little thought to or forgotten their story’s purpose or message. Such stories were not just ineffective: in some cases such ill-conceived essays actually conveyed the opposite message of what was needed—instead of showcasing progress and improvement, they illustrated dysfunction, which did little to inspire confidence in the program being documented.
2. Know Your Audience
It is additionally helpful if writers are clear about their primary audience. If you are writing for a specific audience, then you should clearly understand what you want the audience to learn from your piece. Also, if you are writing to inspire your readers to take a particular action, then you should clearly and explicitly describe that action to the readers.
If you wish to influence a specific audience, I recommend explicitly stating in the opening of your article who you are writing for, so that readers will easily recognize whether your article is relevant or intended for them.
3. Never Mystify Your Readers
Rather than writing uninformative or vague things, such as “etc.,” “and other things,” “certain essentials,” “all the facilities,” or “many benefits,” writers should specify what they are referring to. Vague claims and terms are deadweight and should be replaced with precise details during revision.
4. Avoid Jargon
David Meerman Scott and Tony Proscio have written excellent essays on the sin of using jargon. Communication is most effective when words are plain and common. Tony Proscio’s essays are essential reading.
5. Use Linear Sentences
Another bit of advice from Tony Proscio is to always clearly explain who did what to whom. In this advice we see linear sentence structure of subject, verb, and object. Linear sentence structure is the easiest to comprehend.
6. Discriminate When Choosing Words
The English language is full of synonyms, but synonyms don’t necessarily have identical meaning. Use a dictionary and a thesaurus to choose words very deliberately so that your writing says precisely what you mean.
7. Be Concise
It is easier to comprehend short sentences than long sentences. As a thumb rule, I try to keep sentences under 25 words. Many people don’t have the mental stamina to comprehend two 50-word sentences in a row. I also suggest limiting each sentence to a single point, rather than trying to make multiple points in a single sentence.
8. Inform Readers
Try to tell readers something that they didn’t know. Do research to find evidence from scientific studies that puts your story in context and demonstrates the significance, scale, and urgency of your topic. Much of the world’s research is at our fingertips, thanks to the Internet. Although some scholarly articles are published in journals that are behind paywalls, many articles and research reports are available for free.
9. Bring Your Story to Life with Quotes
Rather than merely telling readers what happened, it is often better to include direct quotes from people who play a role in the story that you are writing. Verbatim quotes or testimony serve to increase the credibility of your claims or assertions, just as you’ll be more likely to believe that a restaurant is good if you hear this from a customer than from the owner.
10. Include Relevant Details
Details make stories informative, interesting, and rewarding for readers, as Cila Warncke points out in a great blog post. Provide details about who, what, where, when, why, and how. Irrelevant details, however, should be omitted. I recently reworked an article about a public health extension worker who improved her knowledge and skills by completing a training course. The article mentioned that she was a native of the same district as a notorious politician. This distracting detail had absolutely nothing to do with the story, and was therefore the first thing that I removed. Details such as this only bloat an article.
11. Rewrite, Rewrite, Rewrite
The biggest piece of advice that I have for writers is to revise their work. I recommend giving the draft of your story to a colleague for comments.