PopTech Blog

Image-wise: Fiber architecture

White matter fiber architecture of the brain. Measured from diffusion spectral imaging (DSI). The fibers are color-coded by direction: red = left-right, green = anterior-posterior, blue = through brain stem.

Navigate the brain in a way that was never before possible; fly through major brain pathways, compare essential circuits, zoom into a region to explore the cells that comprise it, and the functions that depend on it.

The Human Connectome Project aims to provide an unparalleled compilation of neural data, an interface to graphically navigate this data and the opportunity to achieve never before realized conclusions about the living human brain.

via The Human Connectome Project

Bhagwan Chowdhry sums it up

UCLA Anderson Finance professor Bhagwan Chowdhry introduced us to his Financial Access at Birth (FAB) project at PopTech in which newborns are given an initial $100 in an online saving account. While FAB is in its infancy (excuse the pun), the potential is great: it would give "every human being...the dignity of financial citizenship," thereby giving a voice to the world's poorest, who often aren't accounted for.

He answered some key questions about the project during his PopTech talk. And he detailed how much work is still ahead in an interview which took place during the conference.

In addition, a colleague of Chowdhry's, Rosita Najmi, provided this succinct yet thorough recap about PopTech on the Center for Financial Inclusion blog, which was recently posted on FAB's blog as well.

1. For those of us who design and deliver products and services for the poor—
Be Tough on Ideas, Gentle on People: A “recovering” visual artist turned community builder, Milenko Matanovic shares his path from the pallet to The Pomegranate Center that builds much more than open-air gathering places—certainly a different approach to community development that honors consultation with all. Here’s a must see for anyone who calls themselves a community organizer as well as great ideas on methodology for the design of a product or service for a wider population.

2. For impact investors and practitioners working in Africa—
Rethink Africa: Unity Dow (Botswana’s first female high court judge, human rights activist, and writer) presents her version of “Dead Aid” and encourages those of us who seek development in Africa to think beyond grants and invest in its productivity. Enjoy her festival of ideas here.

3. For those who seek to enable common tasks in uncommon ways—
Reprogram your Brain: Founder and leader of World Access for the Blind, Daniel Kish explains how the visually impaired can reprogram their brain to achieve greater freedom and mobility through echolocation—yes, the same technique that bats use to navigate using sound. See and hear how here.

4. For those who are in the business of empowerment training—
Remember Power Poses Work: Amy J.C. Cuddy’s presentation demonstrates (with the help of Wonder Woman) how body language might empower us and send inferences that determine outcomes related to decisions, elections, hiring, promotions—perhaps success at accessing credit? Learn some moves here.


This week in PopTech: Innovating the news and minding the mind

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.

  • Interested in exploring if and how mental training involving mindfulness exercises changes attention and emotion in the brain? Take a free, online course on The Cognitive Neuroscience of Mindfulness with 2010 Science Fellow and brain scientist Amishi Jha
  • Kevin Starr (PopTech 2010), Mulago Foundation director, looks for the best solutions to the biggest problems in the poorest countries. In an article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Starr addresses the hype regarding impact investing.

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: Articulate Matter

Climate Resilience Lab: PopTech goes to Nairobi

The effects of climate change are well documented. Climactic events such as floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, typhoons, and prolonged droughts are among the most visible results of recent dramatic changes in the earth’s atmospheric conditions. Less visible, perhaps, is the effect these events have on the world’s most vulnerable populations – girls and women in resource-poor communities.

It is a cruel fact that those with the least resources to combat the effects of adverse climate events are also the most vulnerable to those effects. A 2011 Plan UK study convincingly articulates the degree to which girls and women bear the brunt of climate disasters:

  • Women and girls are recorded as 90% of those killed by the 1991 cyclone in Bangladesh and up to 80% of the loss of lives in the 2004 Asian Tsunami. In 2007, an estimated 1.5 million people were left homeless due to rains and flooding in 18 African countries with women and children representing more than three quarters of those displaced by natural disasters.
  • A study by the London School of Economics (LSE) analyzed disasters in 141 countries and concluded that gender differences in loss of lives due to natural disasters are directly linked to women’s economic and social rights. The study also found that in societies where women and men enjoy equal rights, losses in lives due to natural disasters were more gender balanced.  
  • The LSE study found that boys are likely to receive preferential treatment in rescue efforts, and in the aftermath of disasters both women and girls suffer more from the shortages of food, and from the lack of privacy and safety of toilet and bathing facilities, and sleeping arrangements. In addition, in many countries, girls are discouraged from learning survival skills such as swimming or climbing.

When you add to this mix proscribed gender roles and cultural norms which place undue hardships on adolescent girls such as demanding household and family tasks and responsibilities, their lack of access to information and resources, lack of knowledge of their rights and of life-saving skills, and lack of power in decision-making, the problem makes itself manifestly clear.

Building resilience to climate change among at-risk communities is no easy task, but one thing is certain: girls and women must be active agents in the creation of any meaningful solutions. Strengthening the resilience of communities requires both a recognition of their place of the front lines of this battle and also must draw upon their unique skills, experiences, and knowledge.

This February 7-11, 2012, we will be hosting our Climate Resilience Lab in Nairobi, Kenya in collaboration with our partners from the Nike Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation in an attempt to address these very issues. The Lab will bring together a carefully chosen network of climate researchers, gender experts, social innovators, technologists, designers, and community champions, to explore new possibilities in this domain. Our goal is to move “beyond the white paper” to identify and collaborate on high-potential new approaches that can be tested, scaled, and implemented.

We will explore new ideas, interrogate existing models to see what’s working and what isn’t, and identify and build on the most effective methods as we move forward. We encourage you to visit the Lab's webpage, review the research, and meet our participants. We will be sending updates from the Lab itself as well as producing video, photographic, and written content that will tell the story of what the PopTech community is doing to address this timely and critically important issue.

RoboHash: Turn text to robots

"PopTech" as robotLooking for a friendly robot to add some sci-fi flare to your website or blog? RoboHash is a cool little script that will turn any snippet of text, username, file name, etc. into a cute custom robot (or monster, or alien!) that you can use as you see fit. You can change the size and file type to further meet your needs.

And speaking of robots and text, January is the birth month of Czech writer Karel Čapek  (b. Jan. 9, 1890), who was the first person to use the word "robot" in written form. The word robot originally comes from the word Czech word "robota" meaning literally serf labor, and figuratively "drudgery" or "hard work". Čapek's 1921 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) introduced the word to a world that quickly became robot-crazy. 

Wondering what "PopTech" looks like as a robot? Wonder no more - we're big-eyed, quite possibly surprised, neck extended, antenna engaged and looking forward to what's next.

Bernard Lietaer on money: Monoculture vs. multiplicity

Bernard Lietaer has been studying the implementation of monetary systems for over thirty years. Trained as a civil engineer and economist, he has worked as a central banker, fund manager, university professor and consultant to governments, corporations and communities. He travels the globe researching and speaking about currency systems and is the author of numerous books and articles. 

In his 2011 PopTech presentation, he argues against a monoculture of currency – fiat currency, that is, such as the dollar, euro, or yuan –  in favor of a high diversity of currencies such as the WIR, Dora, and other local currencies, which he believes, are shown to provide high resilience to communities and nations.

He posits that it’s been scientifically proven that we need more than one currency, noting that patriarchal cultures have always had monopolies of a central currency, and matrifocal societies have always had a multiplicity of currencies. He believes we can rebalance our current monetary system woes through a rebalancing of the masculine and feminine in the money domain and that “political democracy without monetary democracy just doesn’t work”.

His most recent book, New Money For A New World, co-authored with Stephen Belgin was published late last fall. It further examines the role of complimentary currencies in creating and maintaining a resilient economy.

2012: Toward Resilience

Flood bicycle

After a freewheeling, decade-long “vacation from history” at the tail end of the 20th century, the opening decade of the 21st abruptly returned us to a world fraught with fragility and surprise. And this new context is here to stay.

Each week, it seems, brings some unforeseen disruption, blooming amid the thicket of overlapping social, political, economic, technological and environmental systems that govern our lives. They arrive at a quickening, yet erratic pace, from unexpected quarters, stubbornly resistant to prediction. The most significant become culture touchstones, referred to in staccato shorthand: Katrina. Haiti. BP. Fukushima. The Crash. The Great Recession. The London Mob. The Arab Spring. Other nameless disruptions swell their ranks, amplified by slowly creeping vulnerabilities: a Midwestern town is undone by economic dislocation; a company is obliterated by globalization; a way of life is rendered impossible by an ecological shift; a debt crisis emerges from political intractability. If it feels like the pace of these disruptions is increasing, it’s not just you: it took just six months for 2011 to become the costliest year on record for natural disasters*, a fact that insurance companies tie unambiguously to climate change. Yet nobody can be sure where the next disruption will come from: in our densely and globally interconnected world, the ‘black swans’ are baked in.

In the face of such unavoidable volatility, what factors cause some communities, individuals, ecosystems, institutions and economies to break down, and which enable them to bounce back?

That simple, and increasingly central question is at the heart of a new field, and an important new strategic conversation, centered on resilience. The answers uncovered come from many fields: economics, ecology, political science, systems and decision theory, information technology, cognitive science and social innovation among them. Like a developing Polaroid, they are slowly revealing a set of insights for building social, economic, technical and business systems that can anticipate disruption, heal themselves when breached, and reorganize themselves to maintain their core purpose, even under radically changed circumstances.

The shift to resilience is bringing with it a major refocusing, away from ‘sustainability’ and risk mitigation as they have been commonly understood, and toward greater risk adaptation – ensuring that we can survive disruptions when they inevitably occur.

This shift to resilience is so fundamental and strategic that PopTech is committing the next year - and beyond - to examining its many facets, disciplinary lenses and contexts. At conferences in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Camden, Maine, and in Labs in Nairobi, Kenya and elsewhere, we’ll be bringing together a global network of resilience practitioners, researchers and leaders. We’ll be asking questions about how to improve the resilience of our economy, our communities, our institutions, our ecosystem and ourselves. And in a political season, we’ll explore what policies and modes of civic engagement will yield a more resilient America.

We cannot imagine a more important or pressing conversation to have right now. And we invite you to be a part of it.

Image via Thai Flood Hacks


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.