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)

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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

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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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Good, Evil, Digital: The Promise and Peril of Life in the Cyber Lane (link suite overview)

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TrackerNews link suite on internet freedom, internet security and the power of digital networks. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

“Good, Evil, Digital” is one of the largest link-suite “stories” we have ever featured on the aggregator, with more than four dozen links to articles, books, videos, websites and software tools. It has also been one of the most fascinating to research and challenging to assemble.

Internet freedom and internet security are two sides to the same coin:

Likewise, determining who’s a hero and who’s a villain isn’t always so clear cut. When ad hoc vigilante “hackivists” under the theatrically ominous moniker “Anonymous” go after the inarguably awful Iranian government, it’s Robin Hood in bits and bytes. It is a tougher call for “Operation: Titstorm,” which targeted the Australian government over censorship issues, using porn as the standard bearer for free speech.

The curious case of Aaron Barr, a software security expert singled out for attack, crosses the line straight to creepy. Barr, who had boasted of being able to strip the hacktivists of their most precious asset—anonymity—found himself on the wrong end of some sharply aimed code. The Anonymous crew tunneled through tens of thousands of Barr’s emails, making them public, along with his cell number, address and social security number. Found among the email booty, a possible smoking gun, implicating not one, not two, but three security firms proposing a variety of dirty tricks—including cyber attacks—on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America.

In the midst of all this cyber-sniping, some are calling for a “Geneva Convention” to outline the rules of cyberwarfare, spare “civilian targets” and inject some ethics into battle.  Others say the “war” analogy doesn’t really work when dealing with an enemy can’t be seen or even tracked all that easily. The “Stuxnet” worm that attacked Iranian nuclear facilities, for example, was designed to cover the evidence of its own existence. It went about wrecking gyroscopes with commands to speed up and slow down while simultaneously generating data reporting that everything was operating as it should.

Meanwhile, the award for innovation in mobile data distribution goes to the Jihadists, for whom Bluetooth has become a “…a distribution mechanism of choice. ” From crunching video files to developing special encryption-friendly operating systems, they’ve got it down.

Taking the opposite tack, Egyptian-Googler-turned-freedom-fighter Wael Ghonim and a network-savvy generation placed their bets on openness, struggling to keep a nascent revolution alive through posts on Facebook and Twitter. Throughout the 18 days of unprecedented protest, the government tried everything it could to throttle communication, including shutting down the country’s internet and cell phone services.

Despite the limits, the “Facebook revolution” prevailed, not only sweeping a despot from office, but also shredding in the process Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis on activism and the “strong ties” of personal friendships versus the “weak ties” of internet networks. Clearly, is not an either/or choice, but a powerful cross-reinforcing combination.

Indeed, at this point, the only force that could possibly bring down the internet and put an end to this furious, sometimes frightening, often marvelous flowering of digital communication is an extra-terrestrial event: a solar storm. And it could happen. After years of quietly shining in the distance 93 million miles away, the sun is starting what scientists dryly describe as a “more active phase.” Tongues of particle-charged plasma are reaching across the heavens to short circuits here on Earth. In 1859, a solar storm fried telegraph lines. Today, that same storm would cause an estimated $2 trillion worth of “initial damage,” which could take a decade or more to fix. What Mubarek couldn’t manage, Apollo can do in a blink.

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Need, Give, Good: On Philanthropy, Due Diligence, Trends & an Idea Whose Time as Come (link suite overview)

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Giving has never been easier, nor need greater. Leveraging donations for impact, how more can be less and the promise of social enterprise

“Need, Give, Good” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

According to a new study by Network for Good and True Sense Marketing, 20% of all online giving takes place in the last 48 hours of the year. So get out your laptops and cell phones, it’s time to dig into your cyber pockets and spread some love around.

There are plenty of ways to do it, too. This year’s digital darling, Groupon, has teamed up with crowdfunded microfinance pioneer Kiva to make your philanthropy dollars go further: 40% further. The coupon site is selling $25 donations for $15, with Groupon and its sponsors making up  the $10 difference up to $500,000, Kiva isn’t out a dime. The deal ends, along with 2010, on December 31.

Groupon competitor, Living Social, has a somewhat more complicated offer going with Global Giving, involving percentages of sales, a processing fee, benefiting five charities in Canada, the U.K. and Australia. Today it the last day, so we should know son how well it worked out.

No matter how you send in your dollars (credit card, text, check or “old timey* coin in a kettle), be sure to use Charity Navigator to make sure an organization is as worthy as its cause.

There are plenty of worthy causes, too. But if you’re stuck, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has a few suggestions for lesser-known groups that could use some help (btw, no holiday required—give early, give often…).

WHAT’S NEXT IN PHILANTHROPY?

“Philanthrocapitalism” co-author Mark Bishop predicts 2011 will be “a year when aid is privatized more than we’ve ever seen it before.” Whether that turns out to be good or not remains to be seen. But the trend got a big boost with Warren Buffet and Bill & Melinda Gates’ “Giving Pledge,” a clever non-binding bit of billionaire peer-pressure designed to buck the “tax breaks for the wealthiest 2%” mentality of Washington D.C. Although the pledge calls for the mega-rich to donate half their wealth during their lifetimes, or immediately thereafter, the realities of how much actual cash that boils down to on an annual basis and where the money goes may prove disappointing to some.

Meanwhile, continued global economic gloom, coupled with a pricey uptick in natural disasters, means that governments slashing domestic budgets will have less available for foreign aid just as the need has never been greater. This is already a huge problem. UN appeals often fall short of their goals. In 2010, the UN asked for a record $5 billion for natural disasters, but received only 60%, a still record $3 billion (the Haitian earthquake and Pakistan flood were each billion dollar-plus catastrophes). A few country-specific appeals failed to generate any donor-country response at all.

Consultant Lucy Bernholz turns her crystal ball on the next decade. Along with the consensus favorites—text-giving will replace credit card donations, better coordination for disaster relief and a shift toward “impact investing”—she sees data analysis and visualization becoming key skills for philanthropists, while gaming and game pedagogy become a mainstream tool for problem solving.

AN IDEA COMES OF AGE

In only 9 years, Acumen Fund has gone from a glimmer in CEO Jacqueline Novogratz’ eye to a social enterprise powerhouse: $50 million-plus worth of “slow capital” invested in companies based in India, Pakistan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The “leverage” effect tops $200 million. Tens of thousands of new jobs have been created, along with new business sectors serving millions of people. The learning curve has been as steep as the growth curve, with Acumen literally writing the book on how this sort of thing is done. Today, there are nearly 200 social enterprise funds, by Novogratz’ count.

In 2011, the U.S. State department will host SOCAP@State, a conference described as “the Clinton Global Initiative meets It Takes a Village.” Clearly, social enterprise is an approach whose time is now.

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* Here at TrackerNews, we are big fans of Maria Popova’s stunning work at Brain Pickings always worth a read. Although the term “old timey” is one of the lesser gifts of her writings, we have come to adore it.

PopTech: Day 1 – Reimagining and Beyond Imagining

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Blame it on the birds. And the elephants, lions, biochar, Indonesian agroforestry, dirt batteries, mechanical caterpillar waves, global maps, messenger bag-cum-lighting systems, a cyber-dance experience and one very lovely essay about migration. But not too far into the first day of PopTech, the conference’s “Reimagining America” theme disappeared. Which was fine. It seemed too limited for a confab about Big Thoughts, even here in a small, charming  American town (that could use a little reimagining itself – connectivity way, way too spotty). In any case, you can’t really reimagine, or even imagine, America without including the rest the world in the equation.

And nobody brought that point home with more heart-wrenching eloquence than Chris Jordan with his slide show of photographs of dead albatross on Midway Island, killed by a diet of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Photograph after photographs of birds, heads twisted by pain, guts split by a bounty of all too familiar bottle caps – perky shades of reds and blues favored by marketers – had the audience in shock and *this* audience in tears. This wasn’t an isolated occasional bird tragedy, but the picture of a extinction-in-progress. And because it took so darn long for anyone to discover the Garbage Patch, a ghostly-insidious man-made chemically-enhanced primordial soup the size of at least a couple of Texas’s (Texi?), it is far too late to do much about it – at least for the albatross (“Midway Journey” project blog – notes & videos).

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Save the microbes! Save the plankton! Save the food chain!  Who knows? We might just save ourselves, too.

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The day was filled with jolts of Overwhelming Problems paired with Glimmers of Hope.

John Fetterman, the myth-come-to-life mayor of Braddock, PA, a bankrupt rust-belt town that had been all but written off. A strikingly tall bald figure, with dates tattooed on his massive arms to remember the victims of violent crimes (thankfully, no new tattoos in over a year), Fetterman’s unvarnished recitation of all that had gone wrong coupled with some very basic ideas of what can be done had the crowd on a can-do upswing. Renovate those $5,000 homes (average price – since the recession, they’ve lost value). Add artists. LOTS of artists. Plant urban gardens. Hold lots of family-friendly it-takes-a-village-to-make-a-village. Clear debris and make a park. Then came news of a major hospital closing, which will not only take jobs from the area, but leave the population – mostly poor and minority – in a health-care desert. It is hard to make money taking care of poor people. So much for the greater public good or, for that matter, public health.

I began to wonder whether some of the health solutions being tested in the developing world –  many driven by cell phone tech – wouldn’t be appropriate here, too? (e.g., PopTech Fellow Josh Nesbit’s FrontlineSMS: Medic & Hope Phones).

Indeed, one of the conference’s most intriguing themes to emerge so far is this concept of two-way innovation: developed to developing world and vice-versa. (Note to makers of One Laptop Per Child: I really really REALLY want one of those computer screens designed for use in full sun…)

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On the Glimmers of Hope front, the PopTech Fellows were batting it out of the park. From Jason Aramburu‘s efforts to commercialize biochar, a carbon negative solution that also improves soil fertility, to Eben Bayer’s nifty mushroom-mediated compostable alternative to landfill-choaking styrofoam, Aviva Presser Aiden and Hugo van Vurveen’s “dirt batteries” and Emily Pilloton’s no-nonsense determination to enlist an army of young designers to come up with Better Answers, there was a sense that it’s still not too late. We can, just maybe, turn this thing around and not go down the climate change tubes.

FLAP – Flexible Light and Power – a prototype of a portable lighting system stitched into a Timbuktu messenger bag – also caught the crowd’s imagination. Designed by MIT’s Sheila Kennedy, it’s a simple idea that could radically change the way we think about solar deployment, opening up the space to all kinds of new ideas. No longer would solar be consigned to rooftop panels or a strip on a pocket calculator. It can almost literally be woven into the fabric of our lives, turning us into portable “plants,” photosynthesizing as we go about our daily business. (More from Erik Hersman on field-testing the design in Africa.)

Indonesia-based Willie Smits also has big plans for photosynthesis, with a scheme that would not only reforest the world’s rain forests, but generate jobs and an array of crops, supply power to poor villages, restore biodiversity and wildlife habitat and dramatically reduce demand for foreign oil. Smits “Tapergy” plans is an integrated system that works with Nature to increase the productivity of land while capping CO2 “volcanos” that result when millions of acres of land, particularly peat-lands, are cleared from monoculture oil palm plantations. (read more about Smits work in “Trees for Trees” post – page down to section on “You Had Me at Organgutan” – includes videos)

There was much more to Day 1. But Day 2 is about to begin. So, connectivity willing, follow on twitter: #poptech / @trackernews.

Phone Riff: Hope Phones, Healthy Texting, Conflict Minerals, Ecological Intelligence, Blue Sweaters and Doing the Right Thing

hopephoneblogHope Phones is one of those “Gosh, yes!” ideas:

  • Get people to donate old cell phones to a recycling company
  • Get recycling company to assign each phone a value
  • Use value to trade for refurbished phones
  • Donate refurbished phones to clinics in developing countries to use for sending health-related text messages
  • Good begets good

Stanford student Josh Nesbit, who came up with the scheme, spent last summer at a tiny hospital in rural Malawi armed with 100 refurbished phones ($10 per), a used laptop and some free software called FrontlineSMS for managing text messages. Could he set up a phone network to deliver more and better health care to the 250,000 people living in the region served by the hospital?

Phones were given to a group of volunteer community health workers who support the hospital’s two (count’em two) staff doctors, traveling dozens of miles by motorbike and on foot each day to meet patients. It was the first time some of them they had ever used a phone. $500 was allocated as the annual budget for messages (10 cents per = 5,000).

The wins were immediate and sizable. In the first six months, the hospital saved $3,000 in motorbike fuel, shaved off 3,500 hours in staff travel time, while doubling the number of TB patients served. Nesbit, pumped by such a simple triumph of tech-for-the-greater good, now wants to scale up the project and duplicate it Bangladesh, Burundi, Honduras, Uganda, Lesotho and additional clinics in Malawi. Which means phones. Lots of phones.

But Hope Phones may prove to be an even better idea than he realizes.

MOBILE PILE-UP

As amazing and essential as cell phones have become, their disposal is a logistical and hazmat nightmare. Even in a down economy, well over a billion cell phones and smartphones are sold each year. According to the EPA, between 100 million and 130 million discarded phones are sitting in drawers in the U.S., mostly because people don’t know what to do with them. (Some estimates peg the annual number “retired” handsets at 155 million, which translates 426,000 per day. Taking current recycling numbers into account, then rolling over the surplus from year to year, the number of stashed phones can probably be measured in the hundreds of millions.)

If nothing else, it is a giant waste of energy. According ot the EPA:

If Americans recycled 100 million phones, we could save enough upstream energy to power more than 194,000 U.S. households for a year. If consumers were able to reuse those 100 million cell phones, the environmental savings would be even greater, saving enough energy to power more than 370,000 U.S. homes each year.

Most Americans, of course, want the upgrade, not last year’s model. The average life expectancy of a phone in the U.S. is a fleeting 18 months. Still, they are more than good enough for sending basic SMS messages, so it’s a matter of getting them to where they’re needed and wanted.

Photographer Chris Jordan's presentation at the 2008 Greener Gadgets Conference

Photographer Chris Jordan's presentation at the 2008 Greener Gadgets Conference

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