Using Drones and Netflix in the Andes, but Sidestepping Google Maps

How do New York Times journalists use technology in their jobs and in their personal lives? Nicholas Casey, Andes bureau chief for The Times, based in Medellín, Colombia, discussed the tech he’s using.

What are some of the most important tech tools you have relied on as our reporter covering parts of South America?

Lately we’ve been having a lot of fun experimenting with drones here, and not just for filming.

This summer, I traveled with Ben Solomon into the Peruvian Amazon on a 10-hour journey on a boat to a village along an extremely winding river. Several hours in, we launched the drone. The footage uploads in real time to a display that connects to an iPhone — you can essentially fly up there and have a look around at where you are, see how far you’ve come. Turns out we hadn’t gone all that far: The river is filled with switchbacks over a marshy swamp, so hours on the water doesn’t translate to the longest distance as the crow flies.

It was no surprise to us, either, that drone technology was something that had never made it to the village we were working in. So the “flying camera” was quite an attraction when we arrived at our destination.

What about the tools that you use could be better?

Google Maps, for one. I mainly work in the Andes, and most anyone who lives in mountains can tell you that the shortest distance between two points isn’t necessarily the route that you want to take. However, Google doesn’t use local knowledge to calculate directions.

Recently at a dinner party in La Paz, Bolivia, a friend told me about heading out of the canyon where the capital dwellers live and up to a concert on the plateau that sits above the city. The route his phone had calculated was on a dirt road that went straight up on a 45-degree angle that people generally walked or went up by mule.

It reminded me of the stories that every correspondent had about using Google or Waze when I used to cover Israel and the Palestinian territories. Your phone would regularly take you in and out of each as though there weren’t a conflict going on, through military checkpoints and down roads that often ended in a wall put up 10 years before. Even if impassable, it was always the shortest route, Google assured.

You were barred from Venezuela last year after reporting on the financial crisis there in 2016. You witnessed shortages of food, medical supplies and electricity. What were some of the technology challenges you faced under such tough circumstances?

A correspondent there warned me before I arrived to bring a Kindle — books were sometimes easier to download than to buy in Caracas, especially best-sellers or anything in English. You also lived in fear of losing things as basic and easy to get as a power cord. Venezuela is a country where people are having trouble finding tires when they get holes in them on the road, let alone Apple products. It is very unfortunate.

It’s not uncommon for Venezuelans to come back with a duffel bag filled with just the basics that aren’t for sale in stores anymore: toilet paper, dish detergent, shampoo, sponges. It would get to the point where you were also adding phone chargers, batteries, USB cables, internet routers and anything else you could imagine that plugged into the wall.

How has internet connectivity been in the Andes countries, and how do locals use apps or websites like Facebook or Twitter?

You’d be surprised how fast the leap to connectivity can be in rural Latin America. It’s a lot faster to get a cellphone tower into a village than the years spent waiting for the state utility to install landlines. Social media has replaced the rumor mill in a lot of villages. Facebook is offering free internet to parts of Latin America — which increases connectivity but also, to Facebook’s aim, trains people to see Facebook as the extent of the internet.

How do governments use tech for surveillance in those places?

That’s a question everyone would like to know. Venezuelan spying can be surprisingly low-tech at times — opposition politicians regularly turn on the television to hear embarrassing conversations of their telephone calls being aired to the public. It seems a bit of a throwback to the Soviet Union in some ways, rather than Pegasus and the other recent spyware that governments usually reach for.

It’s effective, though. Many conversations just don’t happen over the phone, and we find another place to communicate where there’s encryption, like Telegram.

Beyond your job, what tech product are you currently obsessed with using in your daily life?

Netflix. There seem to be 10 times more offerings in Latin America than the United States, including many movies that are blocked back home and that I can only rent on iTunes. I would urge anyone who wants to spend days watching good films not available in America to set his or her VPN to Colombia and have a look.