PopTech Blog

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.
Read more...

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.

Read more...

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.

Read more...

Collaboration alert: Peter Durand on ZanaAfrica's PAD project

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.

The girls in ZanaAfrica’s EmpowerNet Clubs in Kibera helped create this video to share how pads and health education have positively impacted their lives. They used the Brushes application on iPads to create drawings, which longtime PopTech collaborator Peter Durand of Alphachimp Studio used as inspiration to make this animation.

via ZanaAfrica

Announcing PopTech Editions: Social Contagion for Social Good


We’re excited to introduce PopTech Editions, a feature that explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. From tracking behaviors within social networks to exploring the service-oriented nature of social innovation to getting a handle on the unanticipated outcomes of climate change, Editions serve as a guide to timely topics with original essays and articles from contributors, interviews from the field, videos on and off the PopTech stage, and more.

We’ll dive deep into a specific topic or trend on our radar and call upon PopTech’s rich network for their diverse viewpoints – and we’ll reach out to experts and thought leaders whose topical insights will help shape each issue.

In this edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good, we're exploring if and how we can harness social contagion for social good:

  • James Fowler provides tips on the science of spreading the word;
  • Rita Colwell recounts how folding saris is helping fight cholera;
  • Duncan Watts describes what we know – and don’t know – about social contagion;
  • Sinan Aral explores how we’re influenced by our social network;
  • Gary Slutkin describes how CeaseFire interrupts violence by spreading the message;
  • and much more!

Enjoy - and let us know what you think of this first Edition in the comments below.

This week in PopTech: Book releases, musical reviews and food rules

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 2009, Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, noted that, paradoxically, lacking expertise on a subject can be an asset. “It’s what allows us to see the connections, to see the problems that no one else can see.” Lehrer's lastest book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, will be released this Monday, March 19th. 
  • Singer-songwriter Ethan Lipton (PopTech 2005) has created “No Place to Go,” a musical ode to unemployment at Joe's Pub in the East Village. The show received rave reviews in the New York Times this week. 

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: Marija Jacimovic

Petridish.org: Crowdfunded science

giant red ant

Calling all armchair scientists! Petridish.org is a new site that allows you to help fund a science project, then follow along with the project team as it progresses. As with the successful site Kickstarter (which funds arts-related projects), backers reap a multitude of project-related rewards that range from updates and photographs of research in progress, to stones from far-away countries, even the possibility of naming a new species. 

Petridish.org's CEO and founder Matt Salzberg is a former VC who always had a passion for science. When crowdfunding started to became popular, he recognized that it could work equally well for scientists, who often lack the capital to complete or even begin research projects. The model also connects people to science in a very direct way, with a broad range of projects to choose from and ongoing communication with the research teams as they do their work.

"We're trying to make science participatory," says Salzberg. "This is literally research that wouldn't happen without your support." The individual project pages host information about the projects such as biographies of the teams, what specifically your money will help fund, and impassioned testimonials from the scientists themselves about why their research is important.

If you're a scientist looking to get a project funded, let them know. The site is currently in beta and actively looking to add more projects.

Follow on Twitter @petridishorg

Image via Petridish.org


Robert Fabricant's graphic doodles

PopTech friend and 2008 presenter Robert Fabricant of frog design shared his signature graphic doodles with us from PopTech 2011. He describes the reasoning behind his notetaking:

What makes a meeting, a conversation, or a PopTech talk memorable? Why bother to write down anything these days when it all ends up recorded in the cloud? A few years ago I realized that all it took were a few simple things – a particular turn of phrase, quote, story or image – to capture the essence of these moments.

One day I was passing through Terminal 5 at JFK on my way to a conference in Austin and I stumbled upon these peculiar notebooks in the Muji store. They had little boxes that were meant for storyboarding. Just like the 140 characters in a tweet, these boxes have provided the frame for condensing discussions to their essential bits. Since then it has become a bit of an obsession for me in meetings as I try to get the most out of each square. And it has spread to friends and co-workers, one of whom bought them for her son who was having trouble focusing in school.

In the digital age, when every interaction is captured in a steady stream of 1s and 0s, it is critical that we pay extra attention to the human and personal qualities of each situation. It is too easy to retreat into the ether. Thats what these notebooks do for me.

--Robert Fabricant, frog design

Click on the doodle below to view Fabricant's renderings in all their wondrous, magnified glory.