PopTech Blog

Unity Dow on a generational shift in Africa

Unity Dow wears many hats. She’s a lawyer, a retired judge (who happens to have been Botswana’s first female high court judge), a prolific author of four works of fiction and one non-fiction, and an advocate for the rights of women and girls. In her PopTech talk, she shared her perspective on a spectrum of topics connected to her pursuits including rethinking the future of Africa, reimagining the role of women and girls, and reclaiming one’s self and identity in the process. Watch Dow's talk or read our complete interview with her, which touches on some of the most salient points from Dow's talk.

PopTech Editions I: Duncan Watts on social contagion: What do we really know?


Recently, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're excerpting a contribution from Duncan Watts, a research scientist at Yahoo! Research.

The phenomenon of social contagion—that information, ideas, and even behaviors can spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do—is both intuitively appealing and potentially powerful.

It appeals to our intuition for two reasons. First, it is obviously true that people are influenced by one another. Reflecting on our individual experience of life, it is easy to recall any number of instances in which we have been influenced, whether by our parents, our teachers, our coworkers, or our friends, and corresponding instances when we have influenced them. And second, once you accept that one person can influence another, it follows logically that that person can influence yet another person, who can in turn influence another person, and so on. Influence, that is, can spread.

Its potential power arises mostly from this second idea. We know that in the world of infectious disease, global pandemics, infecting millions of people — the Spanish Flu, HIV, and maybe one day Avian Influenza—can be triggered by a single individual, a “patient zero,” from which all subsequent infections are derived. If social influence can spread like a disease, then it is only natural to suspect that “social epidemics” can take place as well, and that they too have their patient zeros who trigger them.

In the 19th century, writers like Charles Mackay and Gustave Le Bon viewed social contagion with alarm, seeing it as the cause of collective madness, whether in financial markets or mob violence. By the arrival of the 21st century, however, the prevailing view of contagion had become far more positive—particularly in marketing and related fields. If only an enterprising marketer (or some other change agent) could create the conditions for a social epidemic, the reasoning goes, and if only they could find the right people to trigger it, awesome change could be unleashed for relatively little cost.

One belief that hasn’t changed over time, however, is that social epidemics are responsible for dramatic, possibly sudden social change. But is this assumption really true? And if not, then what exactly can social contagion accomplish?

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: An electron micrograph showing recreated 1918 "Spanish Flu" influenza virions via Wikipedia

This week in PopTech: White House love, domestic farming and rainbow tango

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Jake Porway’s Data Without Borders brings data scientists and social organizations together to design transformative visualizations and decision-making tools. Yesterday, the White House recognized Data Without Borders in their “Big Data Research and Development Initiative” announcement.
  • 2009 PopTech Fellow Jason Aramburu launched re:char in 2005 to develop low-cost technologies that fight climate change while improving the quality of degraded soils. re:char’s systems convert agricultural waste into renewable fuel and into biochar, sequestering atmospheric carbon and improving soil quality. Previously focused on bring biochar to developing countries, Aramburu is expanding his work stateside with a Kickstarter campaign to kick off a trial to evaluate the effectiveness of biochar for domestic farmers and gardeners. 
  • Finally, some lighthearted Friday fun. OK Go (PopTech 2010) has teamed up with College Humor to announce OKGopid, the world's most fun and least successful dating site. In music news, OK Go released a rainbow of tango, or what you might call a music video for the song "Skyscrapers" yesterday. Have a great weekend! 

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: OK Go

Ocean Conservancy helps clean up a dirty, dirty world

Ocean trash infographic

The Ocean Conservancy, which organizes an annual International Coastal Clean-Up, has published its results in the 2012 Trash Index. You're not imagining it: as the global population swells, tankers continue to leak oil, and plastic water bottles continue to be our favorite way to drink tap water, the world's beaches are getting dirtier.

Nearly 600,000 volunteers worked in multiple countries to pick up and record the over nine million pounds of trash listed in this report. Check out their trashy findings, download a helpful pocket guide to recycling and if you're inclined, donate to help their efforts. And for the love of all things oceanic, if you smoke, find a better place than the ocean or ground to throw your cigarette butts (the number one piece of trash found on beaches)!

Image: Ocean Conservancy

Mapping the wind

This mesmerizing visualization of wind flowing over the U.S. hits on a number of our interests: data, design, mapping, and energy. Trust us, you're going to want to check this out. 

An invisible, ancient source of energy surrounds us—energy that powered the first explorations of the world, and that may be a key to the future. 

This map shows you the delicate tracery of wind flowing over the US right now. 

Read more about wind and about wind power

(via It's Okay To Be Smart)

Pardis Sabeti’s large-scale detective work

2011 PopTech Science Fellow Pardis Sabeti is a musician and computational geneticist researching infectious disease, looking for patterns of natural selection that leave behind a footprint in our genomes. Those footprints can be detected by crunching through large genomic data sets and studying random living individuals who may possess genetic resistance to certain diseases.

In particular, Sabeti wants to better understand the deadly Lassa virus, which she believes has been around human populations for millenia. She tells the story of the Lassa virus during her PopTech presentation.

Sabeti and her team work out of the Sabeti Lab located within the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard. The team is comprised of graduate students with a range of math, bioengineering, computer science, and physics backgrounds, all with a deep interest in understanding biological questions.

The lab typically uses algorithm-based quantitative tools to research genes. Recently, they developed a tool called MINE, Maximal Information-based Nonparametric Exploration, which mines large-scale data sets looking for anything that has a strong relationship in the data regardless of the type of data.
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PopTech Editions I: Rita Colwell on folding saris and saving lives

Last week, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. In the coming weeks, we'll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're excerpting an interview we conducted with Dr. Rita Colwell.

Saris are meant to be worn. But did you know that the garment can also be used to radically reduce the spread of cholera?

In 2003, environment microbiologist, scientific educator, and distinguished professor at the University of Maryland Rita Colwell conducted a study in which 7,000 women in Bangladesh were trained to filter the water they gathered every day through a cotton sari folded four times, which reduced the spread of cholera by almost 48%.

In 2008, Colwell returned to Bangladesh to see if the practice was still in use. What she found was that with no further training, 31% of participants continued to filter their water and about 60% continued to use saris for that purpose. Moreover, a significant group of women who had not learned the filtration technique had started filtering as well, taught by the population who had first received the training. And households that didn’t filter their water but lived in the vicinity of those who did had lowered their incidence of cholera.

We spoke with Colwell to learn more about how the ubiquity of the garment, the simplicity of the filtering technique, and the ease of teaching this method enabled this approach to spread throughout networks in the region.

PopTech: How did the sari cloth filtration study come to fruition?
We hypothesized if we could remove the particulate matter, the plankton, in a very simple way we could reduce cholera in a country like Bangladesh where it's endemic. Due to the lack of safe drinking water, the villagers – women – will go great distances to collect water. The water is untreated. Laboratory experiments showed that with simple filtration, a sari cloth folded four or five times could remove 99% of the bacteria.

We did a three year study that was funded by the NIH where we were able to show a reduction of 50% of cholera in the village where we had laid out an experimental design: those who filtered, those who didn’t, and sufficient buffer between the two groups.

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This week in PopTech: Power poses, health education and mobile money

There's always something brewing in the PopTech community. From the world-changing people, projects and ideas in our network, a handful of this week's highlights follows.

  • At PopTech 2011, Amy Cuddy revealed that we can actually change feelings we have about our own status through the physical positions we take with our bodies. Her research participants had higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol after only two minutes in a “power pose”. Cuddy is profiled in this week's issue of Time Magazine as a game changer who is inspiring change in America. Go go Power Poses! 
  • ZanaAfricafounded by 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Megan Mukuria, empowers Kenyan girls to break cycles of poverty through simple, sustainable solutions. With sanitary pads and health education, girls can stay in school with confidence. To tell this story, ZanaAfrica teamed up with longtime PopTech collaborator Peter Durand of Alphachimp Studio to make an animated promotional video.

If you'd like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, follow us on TwitterTumblrFacebook, sign up for our newsletter, and subscribe to the PopTech blog.

Image: Alphachimp

Hackasaurus gives you code-reading goggles

How to hack supergirlThe folks at Mozilla have come up with a fun, easy way to learn code. Hackasaurus is an "open source, education resource project" that allows you to view the world wide web in a whole new way. 

Using an add-on bookmarklet called "X-Ray Goggles," you can see the HTML elements of a webpage, which are the building blocks for any page on the web. Even better, you can then edit, save and re-publish pages, offering an endlessly tweakable digital playground.

The ability to edit published pages upends the way content has traditionally been served on the web. As Hackasaurus Technical Lead Atul Varma says in a project video, "In the Web 1.0 world, a page is an extremely static thing. You can do very little to change its shape once it's been delivered and shown on a web browser." 

Hackasaurus throws the idea of a passive browser out the window, especially in the hands of curious, empowered teens. In Hack Jams around the world, kids are getting together to do cool things with code. Mozilla even provides a Hacktivity Kit that enables you to run your own jam.  

"Learning to code HTML is a gateway to more serious programming," says software developer (and author's husband) Sean Ransom. "Hackasaurus is great for anyone who's interested in how web pages work."

If the past decade or so is any indication, learning code seems like an invaluable skill to have for the future. Help your kids get their hack on.

Interview: Milenko Matanovic on collaborative art as a community builder

Milenko Matanovic disappeared from the traditional art world of his native Slovenia 25 years ago to "explore the white space of possibility". From that exploration emerged a vision of an abundant future he’s been manifesting through public art projects with communities since 1986 when he established the Pomegranate Center.

The Pomegranate Center’s projects explore connections between art, the environment, and participatory democracy. When he described his work during his 2011 PopTech presentation, he invited us to "be tough on ideas, gentle on people. Let's focus on the essence of what we can do together and not sweat the details."  We recently caught up with Matanovic to learn about how his process is evolving.

PopTech: What makes a Pomegranate Center project successful?
Matanovic: The center uses a four-part model: wiring a project for success; moving from planning into action; organizing people around volunteer groups; and stewardship and maintenance.

Community ownership is critically important, as is keeping the momentum of moving good ideas into action. In all the talk about sustainability and how we can be wise with energy, these two energies are lost and wasted all the time.

So what does Pomegranate do to avoid that trap?
We want to use the process of collaboration to create something greater than what individuals achieve alone. This collaboration is fundamental to our generation and our society right now. We're doing it through hands-on research one project at a time, learning by doing. I wouldn't want engineers to involve the community in structural details of a bridge for example, but where the bridge goes, what it does, and what it means should include the ownership of as many people in a community as possible.

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