PopTech Blog

Interview: Ned Breslin on World Water Day and long-term water solutions

To celebrate World Water Day, PopTech caught up with Water For People CEO and PopTech speaker Ned Breslin, who was awarded the 2011 Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship by the Skoll Foundation this past week.

Water For People (WFP) helps people in developing countries improve quality of life by supporting the development of locally sustainable, long-lasting drinking water resources and sanitation facilities. The organization’s main tenets focus on following through and following up after the water systems have been built; no more abandoned wells and broken water pumps. Breslin framed the mission of WFP’s work during his PopTech talk by asking, "What happens when we leave? What happens when that system has to run for a while? Are the children still smiling? Are the girls back in school? Is water flowing?"

We wanted to see what was on tap (excuse the pun!) for WFP on WWD, how this day can help redefine aid, and what accountability measures WFP holds itself to in developing sustainable water practices.

PopTech: What is Water For People doing for World Water Day?
Ned Breslin: Probably the most significant push we are making on World Water Day is a session in Washington DC on learning and improving programmatic performance [featuring Kate Fogelberg and Susan Davis, Water For People; Marc Manara, Acumen Fund; Marla Smith-Nilson, Water1st; moderated by Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting].  We have been part of a series of meetings over the past seven months that are designed to reinforce solid programmatic work around the world while addressing weaknesses we see on the ground in new ways.  This work has been done in collaboration with the IRC in Holland, GWC and others.  The learning session in DC is a further step along this important path of building on strength and addressing challenges.  A number of organizations will present on their actual experiences so that we can all sit back and see ways in which we can all improve our work.  It should be very exciting.


Ecomaterials Lab: Recycling Pepsi's new "green" bottle

PopTech's weekly Ecomaterials Labs series is part of our ongoing, focused look at next-generation sustainable materials innovation.

The new 100 percent plant-based bottle PepsiCo announced last week is also going to be 100 percent recyclable. As in just-like-your-PET-water-bottle recyclable – in fact, they will even be able to go into the same recycling bin. This from PepsiCo:

Because the new 100 percent plant-based bottles are PET (identical to existing PET bottles, just plant-based versus petroleum-based), there will be no contamination of the recycling stream, and we strongly encourage consumers to recycle them in a Dream Machine or through another existing recycling program to help increase the U.S. beverage container recycling rate.

This is good news for recyclers who might worry about recycling stream contamination a la PLA, the plant-based plastic made primarily from cornstarch or sugarcane, which is toxic to PET streams. It's also welcome news for conscientious consumers who might fret about what exactly they should do with the new bottles when Pepsi rolls them out in 2012.

But, how green is the new bottle really?  The company claims that: "Combining biological and chemical processes, PepsiCo has identified methods to create a molecular structure that is identical to petroleum-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which results in a bottle that looks, feels and protects its product identically to existing PET beverage containers."

So, what exactly are those chemical processes? That's what recycling advocates like Susan Collins, Executive Director of the Container Recycling Institute, would like to know.

"What is the life cycle analysis for the new bottle?  What are the inputs to the process?" Collins said on a call late Monday afternoon. Absent a complete analysis of the production process, it's hard to make a call on how ecologically benign the production process of the new bottle actually is.  "At this point, we don't know." Read more...

When failure looks like success: Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy explain

The global effort to bring clean water to Bangladesh appeared to be a huge success—twice. But each time, the success contained the seeds of epic failure. The overarching message? Success requires ongoing vigilance. Don’t assume the mission is accomplished.

In the April 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Vision Statement: When Failure Looks Like Success, PopTech's Andrew Zolli along with Ann Marie Healy unpack the mirage of success associated with a 30+ year project to bring clean water to Bangledesh. In a nutshell: A lack of potable water led to a massive well-building project initiated by UNICEF in the early 1970s - followed by the discovery, in the early 80s, that the water from the wells was causing arsenic poisoning.  A multimillion dollar attempt to fix the wells and educate the public was deemed a success until villagers were unintentionally stigmatized. What can be learned from this utter and repeated failure? Take a closer look at the visualization to get the whole story. 

Image: Harvard Business Review

This week in PopTech: Movers, shakers, and portrait-makers

What Happens When

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’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: What Happens When

6 questions with...Adam Harvey

PopTech’s new series, 6 questions with… gives us a chance to get into the heads of social innovators, technologists, artists, designers, and scientists to see what makes them tick.

We’re kicking off the series with Adam Harvey, a designer whose work focuses on computational design, human-computer interactions and dreaming up new ways to utilize technology. Harvey went through NYU’s ITP program where his thesis project, CV Dazzle, “a camouflage from computer vision,” uncovers ways to design make-up and style hair to defeat facial recognition software.  Named after a type of camouflage used in WWI, CV Dazzle can interfere with technologies on Facebook, Flickr, and Google’s Picassa that may compromise one’s privacy – while simultaneously providing an outlet to experiment with some fantastical hair and make-up styles.

If I'd been a fly on the wall of your office/studio yesterday, what would I have seen you doing?
Hopefully this fly on the wall is not spying on me because counter-surveillance is one of my areas of research. Though, for the past few months I’ve been working on a non-related project. It’s a stethoscope paired with sound recognition, kind of like Shazaam for your heart. If you were here, you probably would have seen me coding Java and drinking Bustello at my studio in the Navy Yard.

What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work relevant at this point in time?
One of my major influences is Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography. I own three copies. Not on purpose though. Two of them were gifts. In her work she dissects our relationship with photography and cameras. It’s an interesting topic that becomes more relevant with every camera sold. Photography has changed a lot since she wrote the book in 1977. Now, over 85% of millennials (age 18-29) own at least one digital camera. I own 14. London has over 500,000 within their ring of steel. As these numbers climb, we will need to learn how to adapt and understand this phenomenon.  I like to think of my work as a continuation of what she started several decades ago, an emerging critical discourse about photography and cameras.

Collaboration alert: Lincoln Schatz and CeaseFire work to cure violence

PopTech is known for bringing together innovators from its network to facilitate unlikely collaborations.  Such was the case when Lincoln Schatz, a video artist, met CeaseFire’s Executive Director, Gary Slutkin, at PopTech 2008. A year later at PopTech 2009, they announced their joint project, Cure Violence, which empowers communities to openly and safely discuss the causes – and more importantly, solutions – to violence.

Today, Schatz announced via email that the first chapter of Cure Violence: Portrait of an Epidemic could be viewed online.  He provided background about the project along with an explanation of his process:

I created Cure Violence: Portrait of an Epidemic in conjunction with CeaseFire, an Illinois nonprofit dedicated to working with community and government partners to reduce violence. Traveling through the greater Chicago area in 2009, including the neighborhoods most ridden with violence, I interviewed people from the CeaseFire network of violence interrupters, outreach workers, and community members. I processed the footage through my custom software to create a non-editorialized composite portrait of the complex landscape of violence. Cure Violence: Portrait of an Epidemic is intended increase awareness, incite social action, and provide a platform for discussion.

Stay tuned for more news about CeaseFire-related collaborations in the coming months!

Image-wise: Antarctica's blood red waterfall

This five-story, blood-red waterfall pours very slowly out of the Taylor Glacier in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys. When geologists first discovered the frozen waterfall in 1911, they thought the red color came from algae, but its true nature turned out to be much more spectacular.

Roughly two million years ago, the Taylor Glacier sealed beneath it a small body of water which contained an ancient community of microbes. Trapped below a thick layer of ice, they have remained there ever since, isolated inside a natural time capsule. Evolving independently of the rest of the living world, these microbes exist in a place with no light or free oxygen and little heat, and are essentially the definition of "primordial ooze." The trapped lake has very high salinity and is rich in iron, which gives the waterfall its red color. A fissure in the glacier allows the subglacial lake to flow out, forming the falls without contaminating the ecosystem within.

Full article and additional images can be found on Atlas Obscura.

Image: United States Antarctic Program Photo Library. (A tent can be seen in the lower left for size comparison.)

Flashback: Erin McKean and her words

Erin McKean spoke at PopTech in 2006 about words, dictionaries, grammar and all things in between. 

McKean's love of language continues today.  Her website, Wordnik, is a resource to better understand a word, check its spelling, hear a pronunciation, or express an opinion about that word. And more recently, she's become a regular contributor to the Boston Globe's The Word column where she tackles the pros and cons of language advice websites and considers the plural form for Toyota's Prius (Prii) among other etymological topics.

A look inside the financial diaries of $2 a day households with Daryl Collins

You earn money. You try to save some. You spend most of it. You attempt to stick to a budget. Rent, cell phone, heat and electricity, some groceries. Juggling your income and expenses is manageable, more or less. 

But what if you were living on $2 a day, as 40% of the world’s population does? How would you make ends meet then? Is managing money even an option? That’s what Daryl Collins set out to determine when she co-authored Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day.

The assumption may be that the poor have very little financial life, but when she and her colleagues started to interview low-income households in Bangledesh, India and South Africa every two weeks over the course of a year, they saw something different. From the financial diaries the 250 participants kept, a picture emerged of families with sophisticated financial lives, borrowing and saving as well as maintaining diverse “financial portfolios.”

For a peek inside some of these households’ financial diaries, check out Collins’ PopTech talk above.

Casey Dunn wins the Waterman, untangles DNA and promotes open science

Casey Dunn is a biologist who draws upon an eclectic set of interests. His lab at Brown University studies how evolution gave rise to the diversity of life.  In particular, he studies siphonophores, giant colonial, connected ‘superorganism’ jellyfish that are one of the longest animals in the world (they grow to be 100+ feet long in the open ocean).

Beyond siphonophores, Dunn’s invested in the future of scientific data sharing as well as makintg science accessible through storytelling. To that end, Dunn created CreatureCast, an online video series that feels like an episode of This American Life recorded in a biology lab.

Today, Dunn, a 2010 PopTech Science Fellow, was awarded the National Science Foundation's prestigious Alan T. Waterman Award, the United States’ highest scientific honor bestowed to a scientist 35 years or under. PopTech spoke with Dunn about the various projects he has his hands in right now.

PopTech: Your lab focuses on “learning about the actual history of life on Earth as well as the general properties of evolution that have contributed to these historical patterns,” which sounds pretty expansive. How do you approach that type of investigation?
Casey Dunn: A lot of what we’re doing is collecting rare, poorly known organisms and then using genomic tools to sequence lots of genes from them. Then we use that information to figure out how they’re related, which helps to reconstruct the history of the evolution of a variety of things.