PopTech Blog

This week in PopTech: Reality based games, science critics, and reforestation opportunities

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.

  • Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an article on solar wunderkind Aidan Dwyer. The 12-year-old Dwyer talks about his critics, his solar panel discovery, and his latest research. Watch his PopTech 2011 talk here.
  • This week in The GuardianKen Banks (PopTech Social Innovation Faculty) outlines his hopes for the information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D) community over the next 12 months.
  • Finally, we've been following Pieter Hoff's efforts to combat desertification since his 2010 appearance on the PopTech stage. Most recently, Hoff's endeavors were explored in a recent New Yorker feature. If you missed our post earlier this week, here's the scoop.  

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

Image: Spore

Collaboration alert: Sarah Fortune and Lukas Biewald

In 2010, Sarah Fortune came to PopTech looking for a solution. The 2010 PopTech Science Fellow and researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health had hit a wall in her research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. She needed a way to analyze streams of images of the bacteria -- as quickly and cheaply as possible -- or one line of her research would stall.

“I thought maybe we could crowdsource it,” she recalled in front of a packed house at PopTech 2011. “So I asked onstage, ‘Is there an app for that?’ Unbelievably, someone in the audience called out and then made it happen.”

That someone was Josh Nesbit, a 2009 Social Innovation Fellow, who connected Fortune to Lukas Biewald, co-founder of CrowdFlower, an Internet-based crowdsourcing company. The rest, as they say, is history.

To learn more about their collaboration, watch their PopTech 2011 talk or read the rest of this post from the conference.

Erik Hersman makes the case for Africa's upswing

In asking us to shed outdated notions of Africa as a place wracked by poverty and war, during his PopTech 2011 talk Erik Hersman (PopTech 2008 Social Innovation Fellow) lays out numerous examples of entrepreneurship and innovation streaming out of that continent, and specifically, out of Kenya. As you watch his talk, use this guide with accompanying links, to cross-reference some of the examples he's provided:

  • iHub: Open space for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in Nairobi.
  • Akira Chicks: All-girl coding group in Nairobi responsible for M-Farm.
  • M-Farm: A transparency tool for Kenyan farmers to get information about the retail price of their products, buy their farm inputs directly from manufacturers, and find buyers for their produce.
  • Frances Kere: An architect from Burkina Faso who builds schools using sustainable materials.
  • Maker Faire Africa: A community of makers and handcrafters in Africa focused on origin, ingenuity, and innovation.
  • Pivot 25: Mobile apps and developers conference and competition focused in East Africa.
  • AfriLabs: Established African tech incubators and open collaboration spaces banding together to further promote the growth and development of the African technology sector.
  • M-PESA: A peer-to-peer mobile transfer solution that enables customers to transfer money.
  • Ushahidi: A non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization, and interactive mapping.
  • MXit: A social networking site and instant messenger platform.

Snowflakes made to order

When Kenneth Libbrecht utters the words “let it snow,” the universe obliges — even in southern California, even in the summer. Libbrecht is a physicist at Caltech, but he’s also a snowflake designer, manipulating water and air in his laboratory to produce the exquisite ice crystals we love to sing about —and to play about in — each winter.

But why? What secrets can a tiny, elemental snowflake yield to science today? As Libbrecht recently told the journal Nature (subscription required):

We see these beautiful structures falling from the sky, and we still cannot explain how they came to be. When you ask how snowflakes form, you are really asking about how molecules go from a disordered gaseous state to an ordered crystalline lattice. Unexpected phenomena can emerge — snowflakes are one fascinating example.

So his interest boils down to wanting to understand how crystals grow, the physics of which may find application in materials science. More specifically, Libbrecht is trying to understand why temperature has such a dramatic impact on the shape of snow crystals, producing simple, needle-like crystals at one temperature and extraordinarily complex, star-like ones at another. It's hard to believe, but the physics responsible for this transformation is still a mystery.

It should be said that Libbrecht’s interest in snowflakes isn’t purely academic. He’s an accomplished snowflake photographer, an author of several books on the icy crystals, and a pilgrim of sorts, who travels to snowflake “hot spots” – in Canada and Japan, for example – in search of the world’s best snow crystals. (Visit his website, SnowCrystals.com, for a flurry of facts and images about snowflakes including whether any two are the same.)


Following Pieter Hoff's efforts to combat desertification

We've been following the work of Pieter Hoff for some time now, along with his invention, the Groasis Waterboxx, a watering technology designed to grow trees in locations thought to be inhospitable. In fact, he first shared this invention and its potential impact with us at PopTech 2010.

During the conference, we spent some time with him one-on-one and made this candid video in which he explains how the Waterboxx works.

We followed up a handful of months later with an interview, On a mission with Pieter Hoff and his Groasis waterboxx, to learn more about how his relatively straight-forward contraption can bring an end to malnutrition, reduce erosion, and fight climate change.

So we were particularly excited to see this excellent piece entitled The Great Oasis (subscription required to read the entire article) in The New Yorker last week by PopTech friend Burkhard Bilger about efforts across the globe to reverse deforestation and desertification. In this thorough article, Bilger followed a few key players in the field of agroforestry to Oman and Burkino Faso, explored re-greening initiatives in Africa, and provided an historical overview of the Great Green Wall, a project involving 11 African countries planning to plant millions of trees to prevent the spread of the Sahara. On PopTech's recommendation, he spent time with Pieter Hoff in Oman to see first-hand what role the Waterboxx may play in replanting lost forests in some of the driest places on Earth.

A-ha and uh-oh! Larry Smith's new collection of stories, The Moment, is out today

Ever had a monumental revelation, huge shift, or major turning point in life, love, career, or otherwise? We all have. Today's your chance to get an inside peek at the a-ha and uh-oh life-changing moments by writers and artists from the famous to the obscure. PopTech 2010 presenter, SMITH magazine founding editor, and Six-Word Memoir creator Larry Smith's newest book, The Moment is now available for your reading pleasure with stories from PopTech 2010 presenters Alan Rabinowitz and Jennifer Thompson as well as Dave Eggers, Diane Ackerman, Bill Ayers, and Jennifer Egan among others.

To hear more about this collection of stories, tune into, or stream, NPR's Talk of the Nation today at 2:40 pm. And for more about his Six-Word Memoir project, check out Smith's PopTech talk.

The Hanging Garden: Detecting moisture levels with sensors and LED lights

by Chris DeLuca

The hanging garden, a collaboration between Clorofilas and Aer Studio, uses basic technological components to enable plants to communicate by placing sensors in their soil to detect moisture levels. The design studios, respectively based in Manchester and Barcelona, linked the sensors to LED lights that illuminate when moisture levels get too low and the plants need watering. The heart of the project, the open-source Arduino platform, takes the information received by the sensors and relays it to the corresponding LED light. This communication apparatus between plant and human life removes a variable of uncertainty when it comes to providing a plant with the right amount of water at the appropriate time.

The hanging garden project, which was created primarily for office spaces, also enables more effective communication amongst co-workers who assume responsibility for watering the plants; if a plant has already been watered earlier in the day, for example, co-workers in the afternoon will immediately know the plant is sufficiently hydrated. The technology used to create the hanging garden might be expanded and applied to projects which involve multiple stakeholders, like communal gardening initiatives.

This week in PopTech: Live shows and the lives of brains


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.

  • If you live in Miami or Salt Lake City, tickets are on sale now for a live showing of Radio Lab, whose co-host Jad Abumrad shared examples of how sound has been used to make scientific strides at PopTech 2010. If you want RadioLab to come to your town, be sure to let them know. 

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: Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

Social innovation vs. cultural innovation

The term "social entrepreneur" has seen a lot of usage in recent years. Wikipedia defines a social entrepreneur as someone who "recognizes a social problem and uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create and manage a venture to achieve social change". Many of PopTech's Social Innovation Fellows fall into this category.

A new, similar term has recently come into play: cultural entrepreneur. In a recent article by Courtney E. Martin and Lisa Witter published on Standford Social Innovation Review blog, the authors propose that cultural entrepreneurship be regarded as "social entrepreneurship's little sister."

From the article:

[W]e argue that cultural entrepreneurship is different than social entrepreneurship, because it is focused primarily on reimagining social roles and motivating new behaviors—often working with and in popular culture to reach the widest possible audience. Social entrepreneurs solve problems by disrupting existing systems, as microfinance has, or through breakthrough product design, like the solar powered lights from d.light design or Barefoot Power.

Cultural entrepreneurs, on the other hand, solve problems by disrupting belief systems—using television shows like Glee to initiate viewers into the disability or GLBTQ rights frameworks or the Twitter campaign #mensaythingstome, designed to expose anonymous misogyny online.

While it's true there are a plethora of new tools that enable a movement to bring its message to an intended audience, cultural entrepreneurship reads a bit like good old-fashioned activism.

What do you think? Has social entrepreneurship matured to the point where it's branching out its family tree, as the authors suggest? Or is cultural entrepreneurship just activism in a Tweet's clothing?   

Image: no

Adriane Herman is making her lists and checking them twice

‘Tis the season for lists: wish lists, to-do lists and even lists of new years resolutions. Adriane Herman could be called the queen of list-making and list-taking. She’s been collecting people’s lists for the past few years, and, in doing so, has gained an inside look into how people spend their time, determine their priorities, and organize their lives. After digging through waste baskets in addition to accepting submissions, Adriane has amassed enough funny, gut-wrenching and mundane lists to exhibit them and turn these mini-memoirs into works of art.

For other artists and well-known luminaries who have been making their lists and checking them twice throughout history, check out this book that was created in conjunction with the show, Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists' Enumerations from the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art at the Morgan Library in New York City.