University of Wisconsin–Madison

Tim Connolly (MA’18) Uses Data Analysis to Help Rohingya Refugees

Recent graduate Tim Connolly shares his experience providing humanitarian aid in Bangladesh and describes how the iSchool degree enhances his work.

Could you provide a brief overview of what you do in Cox’s Bazar?

I am Head of Engineering and Innovation Solutions for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, as part of their emergency response to the Rohingya refugee crisis. In this role I am also Project Manager for the Site Maintenance Engineering Project, or SMEP, which is a joint operations partnership of WFP, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). We are responsible for the construction, maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation of infrastructure in and around the Rohingya refugee camps. Right now we are working on improving the roads on which humanitarian supplies get to the camps and stabilizing the hillsides to reduce the risk of landslides during the monsoon season. Here is a Microsoft Sway (a nifty and free application, by the way, to add to the iSchool toolbox for the production of multimedia online presentations) that gives a pretty good overview of what SMEP does:

How has your time at the iSchool influenced your work?

I had been working as a disaster preparedness and response consultant to the United Nations for many years prior to enrolling in the iSchool in 2016. One of my reasons for seeking the MLIS was for the “IS” part, the information studies. When in charge of operations during a humanitarian disaster response, I often found myself responsible for the Information Management (IM) teams that would show up, with all the latest in digital collection tools and data management applications. I decided it was time I learned more about what they were doing. 

The iSchool has a strong digital information focus (for which, in my view, Dorothea Salo deserves great credit). The deployment here in Cox’s Bazar is my first since graduating in May 2018, and I have already found myself making use of what I learned at the iSchool. For example, we are now conducting secondary analysis on data which was already being collected, and using it to target where the refugees may be having difficulty accessing humanitarian aid due to the terrain. Based on this, we can now direct our engineering resources to improve those areas and mitigate any access difficulties the refugees face. We are also moving away from the use of paper forms and over to digital for our operational data collection, through an open source platform specifically designed for the humanitarian community called KoboToolbox. 

Did you know that you would be working in such a nontraditional environment after graduation or was this a surprise?

It was not really a surprise, no. While my long-term goal is to get into archival work as an independent researcher, I knew going in that the most likely immediate use of my MLIS degree would be in my humanitarian disaster work. 

Do you have advice for current or future students? Especially those who may be looking to do impactful work in the LIS field?

It was Archimedes who said “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” I think libraries and archives are that place to stand, and librarians, archivists, and other information professionals are the lever. The opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others has never been as great as it is now, no matter what MLIS track someone chooses to follow. I did my practicum with the Sauk Prairie Conservation Alliance, where I arranged, described, and created a finding aid for a collection of materials they had amassed over their decades-long fight for environmental justice. A seemingly small contribution, yes. But perhaps as a result of my work they are now better able to draw from their collection a particular document critical to making their case in some future legal action. I would like to think so, anyway. 

The specific ways in which the individual MLIS holder can impact the world around them may never be easily quantified. But they do exist. And, to paraphrase Senator Robert F. Kennedy’s “Day of Affirmation” speech to students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa in 1966, each time a middle school librarian stands up at a school board meeting and argues against the removal of a book from her shelves, or an archivist refuses to turn over to an oppressive government the oral histories of those who have fled its oppression, the courage of those individuals and other like them, in Kennedy’s words, “sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” That is the superpower of an MLIS holder.