2010 PopTech Fellows: Ben Lyon & Sinan Aral
The 2010 PopTech Fellows have been in Camden all week getting training from PopTech Faculty, networking and learning from and about each other. To introduce the Class of 2010 Fellows and the good work they are all doing, Andrew Zolli ran a short video produced by Beth Cohen of PopTech.
Meet the PopTech Social Innovators class of 2010!
First of the SI Fellows to actually take the stage was Ben Lyon, who launched Frontline SMS:Credit in 2009. Lyon stated that he was there to talk about the cost of money: specifically the cost of credit. He asked the audience: How much do you pay every year to credit cards? The average person in a developed country pays on average 14-15%. In developing countries it’s significantly more: an average of 35% percent. Small retailers pay closer to 50-75% due to loss of wages, transportation costs and other factors. Additionally, a significant number of impoverished people have no access to financial institutions or assistance.
There are then two fundamental problems: financial services are unavailable to poor people and when they are available, it’s expensive. But an increasing number of people do have mobile phones. Every day, more and more mobile money is being transacted. How do we link mobile money system with micro-financing to offer an affordable service? Seeking an answer to this question led to the creation of FrontlineSMS:Credit, which Lyon describes as “A nationwide bank run from a single laptop.” Their technology provides an open source system that’s able to process loan repayments offline with just a single laptop and a single cell phone, which is a far more efficient channel. Their goal is to increase income for the people they are serving. Increased income, says Lyon, will then provide better lives for their customers.
The second Fellow to take the stage was Science and Public Leadership Fellow and NYU professor Sinan Aral, who studies behavioral contagions and social networks. His two areas of interest are behavioral contagions and causality. Aral believes that if we can understand how behavior is spread in a population, there’s the potential to promote good behaviors such as condom use, tolerance etc. and to deter behavior like smoking and violence. He examines how behavior spread and how people influence each other. What’s key to these endeavors is causal statistical estimation or “the reflection problem” — meaning human behavior tends to cluster. Aral referenced a PopTech speaker from last year, James Fowler who co-authored the book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives”. A question Fowler asked and that Aral revisited in his presentation was “Can your friends make you fat?”
Aral posited that we may be inclined to select social networks that are most like ourselves. Aral wanted to test which messages spread a contagion best: personal invitation or passive awareness? His research proved that while personal invitation is more persuasive, passive awareness creates more global diffusion because more people end up being aware of it. Referencing Facebook, he invited to audience members to come speak to him to learn more about his work or, better yet he joked “Tell your friends to come talk to me.”
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