PopTech Blog

The fungal fantastical

Can mushrooms save the world? In a manner of speaking, yes, according to renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. We must first come to understand the language through which fungal networks communicate with their ecosystem.

Mushroom mycelium represents rebirth, rejuvenation, regeneration. Fungi generate soil, that gives life. The task that we face today is to understand the language of nature. 

My mission is to discover the language of nature of the fungal networks that communicate with the ecosystem. And I, in particular believe nature is intelligent. The fact that we lack the language skills to communicate with nature does not impugn the concept that nature is intelligent, it speaks to our inadequacy of our skill-set for communication. 

We have now learned that there are these languages that are occurring in communication between each organism. If we don't get our act together and come in commonality and understanding with the organisms that sustain us today, not only will we destroy those organisms, but we will destroy ourselves. 

via Ecovative

Interview: Jake Porway on collaborating with data

2011 Social Innovation Fellow Jake Porway wants to live in a world where every social impact organization thinks deeply about their data. As a result, Porway founded Data Without Borders to explore how data scientists can help solve social, environmental, and community problems alongside nonprofits and NGOs. His inspiration for founding the organization came after attending a hackathon where he thought, "Instead of just figuring out how to build another restaurant review app., can't we figure out how to help feed people?"

To test that hypothesis, Data Without Borders held two weekend-long data dives during 2011. Their first event in New York last fall brought sixty data scientists together with NYCLU, UN Global Pulse and Mix Market. They dove into those organizations' existing data sets to understand what questions the data could answer, and how to best frame those questions, understand the variables, and account for the missing values. Out of the sessions, one group said they "saved a year’s worth of work," and another group formed an ongoing collaboration with the UN Global Pulse project in which their work was shown in a presentation to the UN General Assembly. You can read about the exciting results from both data dives in more detail.

Based on the success of the data dives, Data Without Borders is planning to launch DWB DataCorps early this year to build a vast network of data scientists that can work internationally, have sustained engagements, and bring lasting change to organizations that don't have data resources. The program will recruit volunteer fellows who can work on projects part-time over the weekends, nights or on their own schedules. If you're interested in helping, you can sign up on Data Without Border's volunteer page

Recently, we checked in with Porway to learn how his experience at PopTech shaped his current work with Data Without Borders.

PopTech: As a Social Innovation Fellow, what was your biggest takeaway from last year's PopTech conference?
Jake Porway: I walked away completely inspired by the realization that collaborations can't just happen between two organizations anymore. It has to be this multi-faceted collaboration between different groups with different skills. I have to admit, I naively walked into Data Without Borders thinking, “We've got this. We'll take the social sector, bring data scientists to it, we'll solve their data problems.” Almost immediately in working with these groups we found this data insight led to needing a tool. We realized that we need developers, designers, policy makers, and government.


Jer Thorp talks data visualizations and life lessons at Eyeo

This past June, artist and educator Jer Thorp organized the Eyeo Festival, a gathering of coders, data visualization pros, designers and artists. Today, his talk from the Festival, in which he focuses on two of his current projects, was posted online:

First: Project Cascade, a real-time analytic tool built to examine how New York Times content is shared through Twitter. Second: His work designing a name arrangement algorithm for the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan. He also sprinkles in a few lessons learned from various projects and his latest work on the OpenPaths.cc project.

For more context about his projects, PopTech interviewed Thorp about his work and his approach a couple of months before the Eyeo Festival. In addition, we spoke with The New York Times Company’s Research and Development Lab's Michael Zimbalist in May about the development of OpenPaths.cc, a database of anonymous location records uploaded by users, which Thorp explains in his talk. And for an added bonus, enjoy a couple of posts from our coverage of the Eyeo Festival while it was taking place.

This week in PopTech: Sounds of science and extinction

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.

  •  (PopTech 2010, PopTech 2011) contributed to the Los Angeles Times this week to address the question, is marriage going the way of the electric typewriter and the VHS tape? "Not exactly," says Coontz.
  • Alan Rabinowitz (PopTech 2010), defender of big cats, appeared on TreeHugger Radio this week. In the interview, Rabinowitz explained why the key to fighting extinction is for humans and predators to share land in peace.
  • Congratulations to PopTech 2012 Social Innovation Fellow Bryan Doerries, whose Outside the Wire and E-Line Media have received a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Award for the development of Online Graphic Novel/Sequential Art Authoring Tools for Use by Service Members and Veterans.

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: Nite_Owl

Interview: Social Innovation Fellow Chris Marianetti on Found Sound Nation's new initiative with the State Department

Found Sound Nation, 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Chris Marianetti’s organization that unites people through collaborative music projects, recently announced some exciting news. It’s partnering with the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs on a new initiative, OneBeat. This project, which kicks off in September 2012, will bring together over 50 musicians to the U.S. from around the world, ages 19-35, for a month-long exchange to connect with American musicians and audiences, and especially those in underserved communities. We checked in with Marianetti to see how the project came to fruition with the State Department and what he’s most excited to see from the partnership.

PopTech: How did the collaboration between Found Sound and the State Department come to fruition?
Chris Marianetti: Buckminster Fuller talks about the "coincidental nature of discovery" as a wave that rolls across the environment of exploration and invention.  It was a wave like this that rolled across our organization, Found Sound Nation, most recently.

About a year ago we held a strategic planning meeting about the future of our organization.  We dreamed up something that, to our surprise, shared a lot of similarities with the ideas that some people in the State Department were thinking about at the same time. 

We envisioned creating a music exchange project that, in a sense, disrupts how a traditional music "festival" operates.  We imagined that the focus of this musical happening would be not only performance, but on the creation of original music via an intensive people-to-people exchange of ideas and creativity.  We also felt that these collaborative exchanges had to be shared with an ever-widening circle of folks who are culturally, geographically, and technologically connected to this happening.  We imagined that great artists would come together not only to create amazing new music, but also to share these music-making experiences with youth and communities. 


Bird brains, chattering elephants, savvy cephalopods: What defines animal intelligence?

Dog looking at a parrot

What if brain size, the yardstick by which intelligence has primarily been measured, actually had little to do with how "smart" one is? What if animals, long thought humans' intellectual inferiors, actually have their own systems for communicating, problem-solving, and navigating their respective worlds -- systems we may only be beginning to understand or even recognize?

In a recently published article in Orion magazine about an octopus named Athena, writer Sy Montgomery posits that octopuses and other creatures are actually much more clever than we give them credit for. Like us, they enjoy solving puzzles, playing with toys, and even have distinct personalities (from aggressive to methodical and even impetuous). The observed intelligence in these cephalods has inspired at least one blog: The Octopus Chronicles. 

Animal communication expert Katy Payne spoke at PopTech 2009 on her work with elephants. Careful observation of captive elephants lead her to realize that they were communicating with each other at sub-sonic levels: below the level at which humans can hear. This breakthrough enabled her to found the Elephant Listening Project, which "seeks to learn about [elephants'] lives and the unique threats they face, and to directly aid in their conservation." Read more...

Image-wise: Bruce Munro's field of light

by Chris DeLuca

British artist Bruce Munro's 'Field of Light' installation was recently exhibited at the Holburne Museum in Bath, England.

The field encircles the building, infusing the exterior space with an expanse of color and light in the dark. The Holburne Installation consists of over 5,000 bulbs planted throughout the grounds of the museum. An intricate network of fiber optic cables connects each acrylic stem crowned by a frosted sphere to the collective sculptural piece.

via DesignBoom

Image: Mark Pickthall

Jan Chipchase on design methodologies and imperialistic inclinations

When Jan Chipchase, head of research for frog Design, spoke at PopTech 2011 he described how his team spends weeks on the ground, living with participants around the globe and observing the activities and rules of their daily lives in order to design products, services, and technologies based on their findings. His talk provoked a series of questions from the audience about the ethics and integrity of his work and this past Friday he responded, at length, in an essay on his blog entitled Imperialist Tendencies. He introduces the piece by setting forth the following framework:

I enjoyed going to the recent Pop!Tech conference – the combination of bright minds, warm hearts and the Maine autumn is highly conducive to reflecting on what has been and imagining on what will be next.

During the event, I gave a talk to the audience about my research work, and in the panel session at the end of my talk I took two questions from a member of the audience relating to personal motivations of doing this kind of research and whether anyone has the moral right to extract knowledge from a community for corporate gain. Given the asker’s frustrated-politeness I’ll paraphrase what I (and a bunch of folks that came up to me after the talk) took as the intent of his questions:

  • What is it like working for BigCorps pillaging the intellect of people around the world for commercial gain?
  • How do you sleep at night as the corporations you work for pump their worthless products into the world?

Short answer is that I sleep just fine*.

Those with a desire to go beyond the 110 character headlines should draw a fresh mug of their favourite brew, find a comfy armchair and read on.

After you watch his PopTech talk, continue reading Chipchase's full response to some tough questions around design methodology, globalization, and social good.

This week in PopTech: Design scholarships, material engineering, and saving the American Dream

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.

  • Architect Neri Oxman (PopTech 2009) is the founder of MATERIALECOLOGY, an interdisciplinary design initiative expanding the boundaries of computational form-generation and material engineering. Yesterday, Oxman's recent work creating 3D prints inspired by nature was featured on Mashable. 

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: MIT Media Lab

Craftivism: Getting crafty for social causes

Valentine in the city

There was an interesting post on Treehugger earlier this week, highlighting a movement calling itself "Craftivism". The folks involved define themselves as doing "projects to make people think about global injustice, poverty and human rights through the seeds planted by public [craftivism] art."

In 2009, crafter Sarah Corbett started a blog looking to combine her activism and crafting to forge a new way to raise awareness of social issues. That blog eventually became the London-based Craftivist Collective, with members now all over the world helping each other complete projects, providing crafting kits, connecting and running events and installations. In the collective spirit of the craft community, Corbett credits knitter, writer and activist Betsy Greer with originally coining the term craftivism and lending a guiding hand as the movement has gained momentum. 

Projects have ranged from making and handing out hand-stitched handkerchiefs with the message "Don't blow it" to local politicians, to hacking Barbie dolls to promote awareness for maternal health issues