Getting Acquainted

Phnom Penh in May is oppressively hot. It's the kind of heat that takes your breath away when you step outside. When the sun rises at 5:30 a.m. the heat starts building, and by noon it is so intense that a quick walk down the street for lunch leaves me exhausted and dripping. Though the days are long, the early beginning and end of sunlight leaves little time for investigating the city during the week. My only real exploration to the Russian Market and the area surrounding the Royal Palace ended with a bout of dehydration that took all night and half the next day to recover from. 

During the waking hours this city is busy. In the morning motorbikes, tuk-tuks, bicycles and cars pack the streets, fighting each other for the same space. The intersections, most of which don’t have traffic lights, are the sites of many near accidents as cars try to muscle their way across while motorbikes slip through the tiny spaces around them. All day my colleagues work in intensely focused quiet, while the sounds of construction workers, tuk-tuk drivers, and street vendors rise from the street. It seems like many people have more than one job, though where they find the time is a mystery because the streets are quiet by 8:00 p.m.

Though it is supposed to be monsoon season, the brief but intense evening rains have yet to arrive with regularity. On the few nights they do appear the droplets come down in sheets, and when the rains pass they leave a welcome change in the temperature.

Working with Open Development Cambodia (ODC) is definitely a (welcome) challenge. The organization is part of the open data movement, which aims to make public interest data freely and openly available for use and proliferation. The movement is especially important to Cambodia where legal, socio-economic, environmental, industrial and land use data are very difficult to find and, if it can be found, often may be biased. ODC collects such data, aggregates it, and makes it publicly available through its online platform that includes policy briefings, interactive maps, a news archive, a legal compendium, and more.

After researching in Cambodia for only a week, the importance of the organization’s mission became very clear. I’ve spent my days digging for facts, usually frustrated by the results.  Government sources are particularly difficult to work with as they publish very few texts in English and their websites are often entirely in Khmer. However, in a country where important public interest information simply is largely unavailable, the frustration is worth enduring.