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Hungry Planet

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Link suite overview on malnutrition, blighted futures, dumb food aid, sachets of hopes, micronutrient magic, microbiology and new markets

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

There are now, by recent tally, 7 billion people on planet Earth and at least 2 billion of us are hungry. Malnutrition, either from lack of food or too much of the wrong food is a human tragedy on every level imaginable. By the time they are just two years old, malnourished children are permanently stunted, both in body and mind. Illness defines their lives (diarrhea to diabetes). The spark of potential dims.

Translated into the cold hard statistics of economic health, a humanitarian crisis starves the state of GDP. Productivity losses due to chronic famine in western China are estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. In the US, a “Hunger Bill Map” calculates, state by state, the cost of avoidable illnesses, poor educational outcomes and the value of emergency charitable donations.

As goes the “bottom of the pyramid,” so goes the pyramid: human potential, both at an individual level and as a species, squandered.

In world increasingly bound together by global trade and digital communications, lowering tides may not sink, but most certainly threaten, all boats. Whether from compassion or self-interest, malnutrition, a crisis whose vast dimensions have been obscured by images of the most extreme cases—the extended-bellies, toothpick-thin limbs and glassy-eyes of children more dead than alive—must be comprehensively tackled. The alternative is simply too grim to consider.

According to the UN’s 2011 Human Development Report, continued degradation of the environment just about guarantees that all development gains made in the world’s poorest countries will be erased, if not reversed, by mid-century. The issues of pollution, deforestation, soil erosion and climate change are deeply entwined with malnutrition.

Even if all the eco-angles were addressed, it will take more than a better distribution of calories to fix the problem. International aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF / Doctors Without Borders) has been at the forefront of a campaign—Starved for Attention—against grain-based food aid, primarily from the US, that fails to meet the nutritional needs of children. Although a boon to American farmers, shipping tons of corn and soy halfway around the world is a staggeringly inefficient and expensive way to help.

MSF promotes all-in-one “Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Foods” (RUTF) such as Plumpy’Nut, an enriched peanut butter paste that comes packaged in small packets called sachets, which are small enough for even the littlest hands to grasp. Rip open a sachet and a child squeezes out the sweet paste. Supplies can be given to mothers, shortening stays at emergency feeding centers. Another advantage: no water required.

A similar product call Wawa Mum using chickpeas as the base was used in Pakistan as part of the World Food Programme’s (WFP) post-flood emergency response. By incorporating a locally grown crop, the fortified food can also help revive a local economy.

Food giant PepsiCo, partnering with USAID and WFP, has announced a similar effort in Ethiopia that will enlist 20,000 small farmers and develop a nutritional food for young children.

Corporate partnerships have become an increasingly important trend. France-based Danone has collaborated with Bangladeshi microfinance pioneer Grameen to develop an inexpensive fortified yogurt that can last up to week without refrigeration. A cartoon-ish and child-friendly spokes-lion (someone dressed up in a lion suit) is used to help market “Shakti Doi,” which comes in both mango and vanilla flavors. Everything about the production and distribution of the yogurt is designed to generate jobs and strengthen community. Local dairies supply the milk. Thousands of women sell the product door to door.

The network that develops through the Shakti Doi yogurt routes also provides a way to distribute information about health and hygiene. Malnutrition weakens immune systems and people who are sick are more likely to be malnourished.

This hyper-local distribution model offers other advantages as well. In an op-ed piece for Indian broadcaster IBN, Save the Children’s Ananthapriya Subramanian tells the story of a mother who cannot risk leaving her home in an illegal Mumbai slum for fear it will be burgled. The door is a flimsy sack. Help has to come to her or help won’t happen.

THINKING SMALL

Calories and micronutrients can’t help a child with diarrhea. The food doesn’t stick around long enough for its nutrition to be absorbed. An estimated 1.6 million children die annually from diarrhea—a leading cause of death of young children worldwide. Something as simple as a bar of soap can make a difference.

Probiotics (beneficial gut microbes) and prebiotics (substances that help good gut microbes thrive) have been shown to cut the length of a bout of diarrhea in otherwise healthy children. A robust gut biome is also able to absorb more nutrition from food. More research is needed to determine whether pro- and prebiotics could make a difference among those moderately malnourished.

Another small and potentially powerful answer could come in the form of a genetically modified fungus called VitaYeast. Developed by a group of Johns Hopkins undergrads for the iGEM competition (international genetically modified machines), the yeast is wired to produce vitamin A. As the yeast multiplies during bread-making, vitamin A is infused into the dough. Baking kills off the yeast. Still in experimental stages, the approach shows promise. It should be cheaper to add vitamin-enhanced yeast into dough than to fortify grain or grow GMO wheat.

PATH, an international health organization, has taken a slightly different approach, developing “Ultra Rice,” a fortified rice dough. “Grains,” that look just like regular rice are added to regular rice at a ratio of 1:100. PATH recently partnered with drug-maker Abbott to refine the manufacture and distribution of the product in India.

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Hungry Planet is one of the larger TrackerNews link suites, with more than 40 stories. All links on the aggregator become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Among the highlights:

  • Hunger Notes / World Hunger Education Service (aggregator)

Hello, Sunshine!

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Link suite overview on solar scale up: better tech, lower costs, variety, better batteries and bottle bulbs

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

The shades may have been drawn on Solyndra, but the sun still shines on solar. Despite Big Carbon’s industry front group-funded campaign to sell us on a fossil-fueled future, solar is going mainstream fast. Even heads deeply buried in tar sands can sense the shift.

There is no “one” solar answer. Solar comes in all shapes and sizes: from rooftop panels and peel-and-stick window film, to boats and backpacks, solar “ivy” and solar “leaves,”  giant concentrated solar arrays and recycled plastic bottles. Almost daily there is news of improved efficiency, better batteries and more products available off-the-shelf.

Costs are tumbling, too—and not just because the Chinese have heavily subsidized the manufacture of photovoltaic panels, undercutting everyone else in the market. Solar, finally, is enjoying the benefits of scaling up.

This year, the Department of Energy’s biannual Solar Decathlon saw home construction costs come in third cheaper than in 2009. The expense and learning curve of prototypes has  given way to the savings of lessons learned.

There are also more jobs—and better-paying local jobs, too—in installation than in manufacturing, lessening the sting of market share  loss to China. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, groups such as the Make It Right Foundation created “a teachable moment,” to train builders and appliance installers to work with greener technologies. Even the cleanest of coal (energy’s reigning oxymoron) cannot compete against a smartly designed solar home whose monthly electric bill comes in under $30.

It is that kind of bargain-happy free market decision-making that has Chevron—yes, Chevron—scrapping pricey natural gas in favor of a concentrated solar power (CSP) array to heat water for steam to to make heavy crude oil thin enough to pump: new sun to mine ancient sun. Beyond the obvious irony, this promises to quickly ramp up into a multi-billion dollar business.

Elsewhere, vast arrays of photo voltaic panels are sprouting everywhere, from  a capped garbage dump turned “energy park,” to a Victorian-era London bridge. Both are pilot projects, but expect many more to follow. There are an estimated 100,000 aging landfills in the US prime for PV.

Cutting right to the chase—no power generation required—in the Philippines, soda bottles are being recycled into 55 watt wireless lights through an ingenious design courtesy of MIT’s D-Lab. “Bottle bulbs” inserted into tin roofs bring free daylight into otherwise dark interiors, reducing the need—and expense—of air-fouling kerosene.

So let there be light! And power. And cheaper energy. And a cleaner planet, too.

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Hello, Sunshine ranks among one of the larger TrackerNews link suites, with more than 40 stories. Among the highlights:

(All links on the aggregator become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.)

The Days, Years After: Recovering from Bigger, Badder Disasters

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Link suite overview: on recovering from disasters; the lessons of Irene, Joplin, Fukushima, Pakistan flood, Queensland flood, Christchurch quakes, Haiti quakes, Katrina; collateral damage and eco-smart design as insurance

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It has been a banner year for disasters in the US with  a record-breaking 10 “billion-dollar-plus” knock-out punches, and still four months to go. So far: massive blizzards, epic floods, murderous tornadoes and one staggeringly large, coast-shredding hurricane. As  a grace note, an earthquake on an previously unknown fault in Virginia put cracks in the Washington monument—a wound as disturbing symbolically as structurally.

Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.

Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).

The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly.  As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.

It made a difference. People got out of harm’s way. Although the death toll has now climbed into mid-forties, with likely a few thousand more injured, an estimated 65 million people felt some part of Irene’s fury. Most stayed safe, which is remarkable.

Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.

The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.

It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.

There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.

Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.

Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”

IN RECOVERY

“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.

  • Political gridlock (Japan) can be just as devastating as corruption (Haiti) in slowing recovery
  • Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)

On a more encouraging note, all sorts of new and better tools for  mapping, clean-up, construction and communication have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, all made accessible, and some made possible, by the web.

Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.

Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.

Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.

Additional highlights of the link suite include:

… and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

RELATED

— @TrackerNews

Bite!!! Life in a Warmer, Wetter World

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Link suite overview: On vector-borne disease and climate change, connecting the infinitesimal and the invisible, Dopey Does DDT, the need for ecosystems thinking & bugs gone borg

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It is a midsummer night’s feast and we are on the menu. Nibbled and sipped by winged vampires and  blood-sucking squatters, we scratch, swat and fret. But the bugs, annoying though they may be, are merely messengers. Virus, bacteria, rickettsia, protozoans and helminths—those are the ones turning the whole predator / prey equation on its head.

From a safe distance, preferably behind screens, pants tucked sensibly into socks and doused in parfum-de-DEET, the elegance of the big picture is both undeniable and astonishing. This is the web of life at its webbiest, connecting the fates of the infinitesimal to the invisible—shifts in weather patterns, changes in climate—and everything in between.

A bird flies a little further north than usual one spring, staking out territory in what, for it, is literally new territory.  A warmer, more humid world has brought earlier thaws and later freezes to this particular neck of the woods. Which is also  good news for the bird’s passengers: the ticks on its body, mites on its wings, virus and bacteria in its blood. Occasionally even something as big as a snail manages to survive the journey, berthed in a bird’s gut, likely carrying a parasitic payload of its own.

For everything we can see changing in the landscape—tundra to forest, swamp to sea, lake to desert—there is so much more going on at the edges of detection.

A deer tick finds itself in grasslands favored by voles rather than the forest, where white-footed mice rule the leaf litter. But a blood meal is a blood meal. So the tick latches on and borrelia—the bacteria carried by the tick that causes Lyme Disease—sets up shop in a new animal host. This is the Disease Cycle as jazz, constantly riffing theme and variation. Innovation as making do.

While global trade and travel do a mighty job of mixing up the pot, speeding the spread of pathogens and invasive species, climate change alters the basic recipe. How do you restore a tundra whose permafrost has melted? Or a rainforest weakened by repeated periods of drought? How do you make plans for a world in transition to a “new normal”?

Pollution, carbon emissions, deforestation—all at least hold out the possibility of reversal: things can be done, if only we would do them.

Climate change is a dragon awakened.

BITE!!!

“Bite!,” the new link suite-story on the TrackerNews aggregator, surveys a variety of vector-borne diseases, all on the rise due, at least in part, to climate change: Cold-blooded insects prefer a warmer, wetter world.

It is not their only stroke of luck. Tight budgets in the US have put mosquito abatement districts in the political cross-hairs as an easy target for “saving” taxpayers money, no matter the expense of taxpayer illness. Lose the public abatement districts and there would be no coordinated surveillance for West Nile virus. Or for dengue, which has recently established a foothold in Florida decades after it was eradicated. Or for the next headline horror—chikungunya?—on the horizon. The standard bureaucratic spin about”the best science available” falls flat when the “best” is barely any at all.

Bugs—and the bugs they carry—won’t disappear even if the data do.

Funding actually needs to go up. Way up, according to Peter Hotez, president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, dengue is “a bigger threat than many of the biodefense pathogens that we’re spending huge amounts of money on. Dengue and other vector-borne diseases are a true homeland security threat.”

Really, though, they are a global security threat and public health disaster. For every breakthrough…

…there are setbacks.  Babesia, a parasite carried by ticks—including the tick that transmits Lyme Disease—causing a malaria-like illness, is on the ascent. Diagnosis and treatment an be tricky. There is no vaccine. Further complicating matters, a single tick can deliver both babesia and borrelia.

Humans are hardly the only animal hosts under assault:

  • Moose are facing a similar fate from “winter ticks.” These are ticks that latch onto to moose in the fall, burrow into their coats and feed all winter. It used to be a moose might pick up 30,000 ticks, a horrifying but survivable number. But a shifting climate means snow melts earlier. Ticks fall off onto dry ground in the spring, allowing more to survive. Their breeding season is longer, too. Now “ghost moose” have been found with over 100,000 ticks. Like the baby fish, they are being bled to death.

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DOPEY DOES DDT

Meanwhile, cases of  leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease carried by sand flies, are also on the rise, bedeviling everyone from soldiers in Afghanistan to the  beleaguered residents of the world’s newest country, South Sudan. Efforts in India to eradicate the disease by 2010 failed spectacularly.

Yet simply getting rid of sand flies could lead to other problems: As larvae, they eat garbage.

Single-focus wars-on-fill-in-the-blank-disease rarely work (only smallpox and the cattle scourge rinderpest have been effectively wiped out, and notably neither were vector-borne).

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In the early 1940s, the Walt Disney Company produced a series of short educational films, among them, “Winged Scourge,” in which the Seven Dwarfs (yes, those seven dwarfs) take on Public Enemy Number 1: the Mosquito—”wanted dead or alive”… (HT to epidemiologist and author of the marvelous Aetiology blog Tara C. Smith)

Wrapped in gobsmacking kitsch is a matter-0f-fact portrayal of then state-of-the-art pest control: drain wetlands, coat breeding ponds with oil and waterways with Paris Green, spray copious amounts of insecticide (likely DDT, given the time frame), put up screens, seal building cracks and use bed nets. It worked, too, at least for a while,  if you don’t count the cascade of eco-disasters that followed.

****

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Not only is there a need for an “ecosystems thinking” approach, but one that can accommodate fast-changing landscapes. What was, isn’t any more. What is, won’t be for long.

The climate dragon is awake, scattering clouds of mosquitoes, flies, fleas, mites, ticks and lice as it yawns, stretches and shakes off a millenia-long slumber.

RELATED:

  • Under Our Skin, documentary by Andy Abrahams Wilson chronic Lyme Disease / website

Bar, Hack, Lab, Fix: The Genius of Play and the Power of Opportunity

Link suite overview: On creating a bottom up culture of distributed innovation, making tools, making tools that make tools, fish songs; and a thought

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

Want to see a happy man? Watch Dale Dougherty, editor of MAKE magazine, wax poetic about the glories of motorized muffin-cars, electric drill-powered scooters and the “Sashimi Tabernacle Choir” (a mash-up of plastic “singing” fish and an old car, created by a physicist with a taste for the benign bizarre and time on his hands).

All of us are makers. Makers are enthusiasts. They are amateurs. They are people who love doing what they do… (They ask): ‘Can I do it? Can it be done?’

Although the inventions often dive into the realm of the sublime ridiculous, there is genius in the journey and delight in discovery.

Bar / Hack / Lab: Fix,” the new link suite on TrackerNews, explores one of the most encouraging trends to emerge over the last few years: group-organized collaborative “doing.”

Rather than wait for a vaguely defined “Them” to fix things, people all over the world are gathering in hackerspaces, innovation labs and accelerators, or meeting up at BarCamps, Maker Faires and hackathons. Guided by an open source ethos and joy of community, information is shared and help offered. Disciplines cross-pollinate effortlessly:  techs work with crafters, who work with builders , who work with mechanics, who work with electricians.

It seems almost to good to be true—the world as you thought it was supposed to be back in kindergarten. In fact, a hackerspace can feel a little like a kindergarten for adults: a room full of toys, a place to play, humor welcome. “Maker” culture is full of promise. Anything is possible. Really.

In a kind of conceptual loop-de-loop, hackerspaces segue neatly into the tinkerer / education movement, best personified by Gever Tulley. Tulley, famous for the Tinkering School and the book, Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do), is opening a k-12 school called Brightworks this fall to build on his ideas about learning through doing.

What if the goal of education were to produce a resourceful generation for whom innovation was simply part of the mix? In a world where change, often rapid and extreme, has become the “new normal” (see climate), the ability to adapt will require both collaborative networks and the confidence to invent.

________________________________

When you come to any hackerspace in the world, you are among friends.

— from Dinosaurs and Robots (video)

One the key moments for me was the day one of the developers told me about “Hello World of the Month”… an exercise to take something they knew absolutely nothing about and figure out how do something useful with it… ‘We want to feel comfortable with learning new things. We need to feel comfortable not knowing so we can look for the answer.’ Now that’s the right attitude. We could all learn from that.”

Eduardo Jezierski, CTO, InSTEDD / “iLabs: Community, Connection and a Culture of Innovation

In the connect-the-dots style of the aggregator, the forty-plus links describe just the surface of a quirky, fascinating, constantly iterating (tech-speak for evolving…) global movement. From the fun and froth of a Maker Faire to the establishment of “labs” designed to help build tech sectors in developing countries, the work is infused with optimism. It is at once bold and humble, an attempt to find better answers through a bottom-up distributed culture of innovation.

Among the suite’s highlights:

…and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

________________________________

A TRACKER HACK? 

Discoverability: the holy grail of digital content. Between search engine “filter bubbles,” the frenzy surrounding iTunes rankings and the graphically dismal world of wiki’s, a staggering amount of interesting content regularly falls through the cracks.

Does anyone ever get beyond the second page of a Google search?

We think about this a lot at TrackerNews, usually while on the hunt for one-off diamond-in-the-rough links.

There is a limit to what even the cleverest machine algorithms can deliver. Determining what information is useful at any given time, or for any given project, is very much an individual decision—one that must take into account the “human algorithm” of personal experience, online and off.

Curated aggregation, of course, is TrackerNews stock in trade, and a powerful combination. But a personal aggregation tool could be a game-changer. Imagine if anyone—everyone—could more deeply mine and share digital content. This, too, is a bottom up rather than a top down approach.

Hackathon anyone?

iLabs: Community, Connection and a Culture of Innovation: a conversation with InSTEDD’s CTO Eduardo Jezierski

For the last few years, CTO Eduardo Jezerski and his colleagues at InSTEDD have been working on a model for an innovation lab—an “iLab”—to build local tech capacity in developing countries to support projects with social impact. The first, in Phnom Penh, is now 100% Cambodian-run, producing tech solutions that not only address local needs—primarily focused on public health—but are so useful, they are being adopted elsewhere as well. Could Southeast Asia be the next Silicon Valley? A second iLab was launched  a few months ago in Argentina, so perhaps it will be South America.

Recently, TrackerNews talked to Ed about iLabs, hackerspaces, BarCamps and creating the right circumstances for “virtuous circles” of good. (Article also available as a pdf).

* Disclosure: The TrackerNews project was incubated at InSTEDD  —J.A. Ginsburg, editor, June 2011

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1. TrackerNews: Let’s begin at the beginning with a some background. What was the spark for the iLab idea?

Eduardo Jezierski: The iLab as a concept came from a “melding of minds” across technology and social work. My background is in technology, while our CEO, Dr. Dennis Israelski, has dedicated his career to working on global public health issues, mostly in Africa and China. Although these two domains—technology design and public health—would seem to be quite different, we discovered they share quite a bit in common.

For both, it is important to constantly adapt to changing situations and to embrace iteration. It is a very different proposition from, say, building a car, where you’ve got a standardized set of processes to create a commodity product. Traditional post-industrial organizational styles and practices simply don’t apply. Our shared goal is to push the design frontiers in tech to improve health, safety and development in low-income settings—and to make sure the improvements are real and measurable and driven locally.

We began by defining the characteristics of projects that have had long-term impact:

  • Open spaces, neutral “commons”
  • Agile planning and strong field work
  • Collaborative culture
  • Local ownership
  • Sustainability through concrete business plans
  • A culture of designing for the end user, (which might be a patient)

We saw that the most innovative outcomes tended to draw from a combination of these elements. Clearly, our next step was to create a place that would provide all of these “fertile soil” characteristics for socio-technical work: an innovation lab or “iLab.”

Ironically, I am not a big fan of the word “innovation.” It has become so cliche and evokes so many wrong concepts about how things happen (e.g., the genius character, the epiphany moment, the romantic tale of invention). If you are really interested in innovation as a concept, I strongly recommend reading Scott Berkun’s book, The Myths of Innovation.

The iLab is a place that nurtures innovation, not as a goal, but as a part of the process of doing great work in technology for social good.

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2. TrackerNews: How did you begin? Was it just a room with a few computers? How has it developed over the last couple of years? How does this compare with Silicon Valley’s early “garage” culture?

EJ: We set up the iLab in early 2008, with support from Google.org and The Rockefeller Foundation. We started in a large house, with a mix of bedrooms, open space workrooms, classrooms, etc. A lot of people would crash in the bedrooms during BarCamps and other events. We had a constant cycle of foreigners—both from the region and beyond—who helped InSTEDD set up in Southeast Asia, or just wanted to connect with the accelerating local tech community.

We have iterated the physical set-up and now the iLab occupies part of a floor in an office building with beautiful open spaces. One thing, however, has remained constant: The internet connection is awesome—and a large part of the cost of the iLab’s infrastructure!

The iLab is 100% staffed by Cambodians, with a steady stream of visiting engineers, interns, volunteers and InSTEDD staff. The library is an eclectic combination of books that range from Muhammad Yunus’ Creating a World without Poverty, to technical manuals such as The Experts Guide to Asterisk and Sketching User Experiences, to the classic tell of the birth of Silicon Valley, What the Dormouse Said.

Something I hope distinguishes the iLab from Silicon Valley, though, is that it helps foster a broader focus, one that includes social impact as an explicit initial goal of a business and part of the bottom line.

I would also like to see a more fluid collaborative approach across organizations, and an emphasis on the importance of being able to try “start ups” with low initial investment. There is evidence this is happening.

Cambodia—and other developing countries—have a great opportunity to leapfrog past the traditional ways of doing business and building companies.

Tech mentor and developer Chris Brown (a “white Cambodian” of sorts) makes this a very important part of his BarCamp talks. He, himself, works across four organizations—including InSTEDD—where the tech teams share experience, knowledge, training sessions, and even hold “dev” competitions amongst themselves. (Ed. two of Brown’s projects: Upstart and Cambodian Atlas)

_________________________________________

3. TrackerNews: Tell me about the BarCamps you’ve held in Cambodia. What surprised you? (Please explain what a BarCamp is!)

EJ: BarCamps are a kind of “unconference,” self-organized by a community. They are collaborative gatherings where people share what they know, have debates, build things, teach each other new skills and have fun. Although there is no pre-determined agenda, they do require some preparation and sponsorship to make the experience good for the attendees!

InSTEDD was a sponsor of Cambodia’s first BarCamp in 2008. We have also sponsored, either directly or indirectly, all the BarCamps in Phnom Penh since, as well as the first Lao and Myanmar BarCamps. But I really want to stress the community nature of these events. The credit belongs to each and every one of the organizers, and the “instigators” whose efforts put the idea on the table. These are generally annual events, though it depends on how often people want to step up to the plate and put one together.

BarCamps are culturally harmonic with InSTEDD’s mission and approach. The social networks and trust that develop can become an important national asset in times of crisis. For example, right after the late March, 2011 Myanmar earthquake, it was BarCampers from the region who quickly set-up social networking tools to gather first-hand information.

It is worth noting that for the last two years, the largest BarCamps in history have been held in Myanmar. Big doesn’t necessarily mean better. But you need to offer more than t-shirt gifts to get over 3,000 people to show up. It is unprecedented.

If there had been a BarCamp Yangon before Cyclone Nargis, or Port-au-Prince BarCamp before the earthquake, I believe the local sharing and flow of information would have been better. There would have been better technology support for building collaborative networks within the country and with foreign responders.

Among the things that have delighted me at these BarCamps:

  • High level of the talks
  • Diversity of the talks: tech, business, crafts, from cooking to lock-picking!
  • Overall gender balance around 50%
  • Number of talks in Khmer, Burmese or the local language
  • International participation from across Southeast Asia
  • The local tech community sees this event as a commnunity asset, a “commons”
  • The stability of the social groups formed at these BarCamps. They are venues to discover people who share interests and values.
  • How much everyone looks forward to the next one through the year

_________________________________________

4. TrackerNews: Describe some of the projects that are being worked on at iLab / that have come out of iLab. Any software / apps that have attracted attention beyond Southeast Asia?

EJ: There are so many cool projects happening at any point in time. It’s hard to choose!

At InSTEDD, our work is to support NGOs, governments and community groups with technology that furthers their goals. We are continuously adapting to all sorts of requirements. It is critically important that tools we develop can, for the most part, be used without a great deal of training by almost anyone.

For example, GeoChat is a simple collaboration tool for group-messaging: People can hold group “chats,” collect data, or send alerts via SMS or email. Work at the iLab helped shape the design of the tool that would deliver solid communication capability within the limits of locally available tech. Then we found out Geochat is being used in New York for community public health projects. Sometimes, when you focus on the simplest phones, and the most basic audiences, you get surprised about the uptake from the “tech-savvier” end of the spectrum.

I have come to believe if you design for constrained environments, you force yourself to make things easier and simpler, and everyone benefits.

An example of a tool built bottom-up by the iLab that based on needs experienced in the field by our “client” organizations is a resource mapping tool. It allows people to track work, stocks and resources geographically and share information via SMS, smartphones and the web.

It is simple, but powerful. The team started writing the first lines of code in 2009, and today it is used by NGOs to track all sorts of things such as child immunizations. Within a few months, it will be available for Android tablets.

Tech innovation isn’t always about bits and bytes. For example, the team has developed the Reporting Wheel, a system using physical “coding wheels” that makes it possible for semi-literate health workers to reliably report quantitative data from the field. This came directly out of work at the iLab. Now these wheels are being used for disease reporting in Thailand and Cambodia.

Hardware or software, analog or digital, the iLab was designed to create an environment where people with skills can “connect the dots,” then rapidly validate (or invalidate—just as important!) ideas in the field.

From the beginning, we have supported interoperability and standard data exchanges with our tools. This allows projects to built on top of what’s already been done, developed locally and for local needs. Developers can take advantage of assets that are too costly for tiny humanitarian efforts and grassroots projects to build on their own.

For example, the team developed a simple mobile-poll app using a Google form. You can send out an SMS survey and results drop into Google spreadsheets.

As more and more people build apps on the APIs we have provided, we are starting to think about repackaging them so these apps are available to anyone in the world that just connects their mobile platform.

Imagine…

  • malaria elimination apps
  • village health worker tuberculosis referral apps
  • community early warning apps

…all designed bottom-up in specific communities and being useful worldwide.

The iLabs are the first place humanitarian organizations go for technical advice. By working together, we can see what are common versus unique needs and simplify how local communities build applications designed for whatever the task may be.

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5. TrackerNews: Have you had any “graduates” who have gone on to start tech-related businesses? Do you see iLab playing a central role in sparking a tech sector in Southeast Asia? Has a jobs network developed? Are there any relationships with universities, either local or foreign?

EJ: This is starting to happen. Part of our capacity development includes business management. By design, we never wanted the iLab itself to be the hub of activity, but rather to serve as a catalyst between social impact work and the tech sector. The iLab is actually part of an ecosystem made up of a handful of local organizations, all working together to help the Cambodian tech sector develop. For the iLab to do its job, it cannot place itself at the center!

Tech jobs networks have started to emerge around the iLab community. Members of the iLab, along with people from other local organizations, created a new group called “Share Vision.” Everyone shares what they’ve learned on the job with university students in an informal curriculum delivered through free talks. This has helped close the gap between the official curricula and ever-changing marketplace needs. And just in the past few months, a new group had emerged: Khmer Young Entrepreneurs (KYE). These are the business leaders of the future.

We didn’t “design” this exact outcome as part of the iLab work plan, but it is exactly what we hoped would develop if we created the right sort of culture.

We have been lucky to have donors and supporters that “get it.” They understand that these secondary “virtuous circles”—so critical for overall success—cannot be mandated. You have to leave it to the brightest and most passionate people at the iLab itself to steer the course.

A lot of organizations in the region see the potential of technology for their social projects, and InSTEDD as a natural “go-to” organization. We work with whole network of like-minded companies, such as Change Fusion and Open Dream in Thailand.

Google.org is sponsoring the next stage of the iLab’s development as it matures into a social enterprise able to support itself from triple bottom-line products and services: education, social impact, revenue.

The iLab staff is now thinking about a business strategy and planning for the long term. There is no guarantee of success. At the same time, there is no lack of demand for technology design and implementation skills. The iLab is well-positioned to design smartly targeted products.

Success, I think, is more a matter of “how” and “when,” but not “if.”

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6. TrackerNews: Tell me a little more about the Hackerspace Phnom Penh. How will this differ from the iLab, beyond being developed independently? How many people do you think will be involved? Is this part of an existing hackerspace movement in Southeast Asia, or do is the prototype?

EJ: Hackerspace Phnom Penh (HPP) is a related but different project. It is about providing a shared space to work on shared projects, with a focus on hardware. The plan in the long run is also to have additional teaching rooms, rental offices and provide space for Khmer small-capital startups. (Disclosure: I am one of the “‘investors” in HPP).

HPP is used already being used for small community projects and for tech talks. It’s an experiment. The hope is we can find a balanced business model that makes it self-sustaining.

There is another angle one can only understand by spending time in Southeast Asia: It may actually be better for a something such as HPP to be developed independently. In countries that receive a lot of NGO foreign aid, international organizations or groups with social missions are often perceived as a prime example of non-local ownership, non-efficient execution and non-business thinking. It is vital to attract people who want to develop the local economy, so having an independent identity is as asset.

The point is to keep iterating and finding new ways to share knowledge, support entrepreneurs and help develop the local social enterprise ecosystem. There have been other hackerspaces and similar such efforts in Southeast Asia before. Each provided lessons for its successors. The international community of hackerspaces is very good at sharing what’s been learned, so over time patterns emerge. Then you just have to try them out in the local context.

At the core of the iLab we have a triple bottom line:

  • social impact
  • capacity building
  • economic sustainability

There are several ways to approach reaching these objectives: For example:

  • Business: Are you setting up a company, a facility, an incubator or accelerator? Maybe it’s a mix that shifts over time.
  • Capacity-building / Knowledge-sharing: Is this delivered as classes, workshops, BarCamps? Or is this on-the-job?
  • Social Impact: Is it part of main mission or a serendipitous side-effect?

In the iLab, social impact is a core element. But in HPP, it is casual: commercial or entertainment projects are just as valid.

I think over the next few years, we will see lots of permutations and combinations of these approaches being tried as an integral part of technology projects for health, safety and development—with a mix of private and public sector support.

The iLabs can operate as standalone organizations, or a subsidiary or division of another organization acting as an implementing “host.” It is even possible to have combinations. Each iLab is unique and will develop in its own way.

We are trying all sorts of programs, for example, fellowship stipends for iLab graduates to work on specific tech projects focused on country and community priorities. We are also trying out competitive contests—with awards and small cash prizes-—both as potential first-step for incubator projects, and a great way to discover bright talent.

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7. TrackerNews: Let’s talk about replicability and scalability: Could you write a “recipe” for an iLab? How much does one cost? How is the Cambodia iLab funded? Does InSTEDD plan on opening more iLabs? Where?

I don’t think writing a recipe would be smart because an iLab is about context and, ultimately, local ownership. However, I think you can start with stating its triple bottom line:

  • Social impact
  • Capacity building
  • Economic sustainability

Then build from there, applying what’s been learned from other local and international projects.

Some of these lessons almost go without saying:

  • Get the smartest people you can find who are passionate about social impact and the potential of technology.
  • Create a nurturing environment for leadership and execution

This can either mean providing resources or, depending on the situation, getting out of the way.

It is critical to engage with others working in local tech and social enterprise. Be part of and nurture the local ecosystem. Support the work of those who have the right intent, be agile in your business execution, and promote the exchange of ideas across sectors/cultures/disciplines.

And did I mention have the best internet connection possible?

How much that’s going to cost will depend on the initial goal set and the risks you are willing to face. Although I am a fan of low start-up capital endeavors—creating something agile is always desirable in my mind—there are some things you don’t want to compromise on: It is about the the quality of the people, a level of independence, the culture that’s created and the bottom line. Cheap, fast, and right might not always come together. The fundamentals require patience.

We look for people with great crossover skills. Whether projects are developed through independent NGOs or government ministries, or supported by local or international funders, or a local technology organization, an iLab has to offer strong skills in design, technology, program management and often require field staff.

We have plans to open other iLabs over the next few years, each developing from its unique context. An iLab is a community resource. This isn’t about growing a plant in a pot, but about contributing to the growth of a garden.

With support from Google.org, we just opened an iLab in Argentina to work with the communities of Latin America. Already, I am seeing how the iLab model is working with challenges quite different than those in Southeast Asia.

For example, the general technical experience is higher overall, but NGOs and governments need help understanding the potential of technology. Health, safety and development projects that either use or would like to use technology are best served by local people who understand local needs and can apply their design skills to help bridge that gap.

InSTEDD also collaborates with organizations who have mission-specific labs, like Jembi’s labs for Rwanda health systems, and OASIS nodes. Jembi is a local organization that hosts key OpenMRS developers working on health systems in southern Africa. We are also currently looking at opening/supporting other iLabs in partnership with like-minded organizations. The lab model itself may become more distributed and virtual over time as well.

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8. TrackerNews: What lessons / moments really stand out for you from the experience? What are the “take home” messages you want people to hear?

EJ: One the key moments for me was the day one of the developers told me about “Hello World of the Month.”

It’s brilliant. The iLab developers were getting tripped up, worried about their speed whenever they started to work in a new programming language. They realized they kept reverting to “old ways” that were more comfortable. So they created “Hello World of the Month,” an exercise to take something they knew absolutely nothing about and figure out how do something useful with it. There is always a mix of curiosity, frustration, even trepidation when trying to do something in a new programming language. “We want to feel comfortable with learning new things. We need to feel comfortable not knowing so we can look for the answer.” Now that’s the right attitude. We could all learn from that.

Another bright moment was when our product manager—Channe Suy negotiated a long-term contract with the largest mobile operator in Cambodia (Mobitel) to provide centralized infrastructure for mHealth projects. It was great to see her leadership, and how naturally high-tech, national scale, and social impact came together in her pitch.

Thanks to her work, Cambodia has its larger wireless operator supporting national social priorities (along with earlier implementers, such as Smart Mobile). This is real accomplishment: It hasn’t been done in many countries and it is extremely rare for a non-foreigner to take the lead.

My take home message: To realize the potential of technology for health, safety and development, we need to push both how we do design and improve local ownership. The iLabs are a great model to close the gaps, contributing to local business ecosystems in a way that generates impact for a long time.

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