PopTech Blog

This week in PopTech: Visual tributes and social solutions


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.

  • Graphic designer and 2009 PopTech presenter Nicholas Felton has released The 2010 Felton Annual Report, an infographic homage to the life of his father. Felton has published his Annual Report every year since 2005, collating countless measurements into a rich assortment of graphs and maps reflecting his life.
  • Activate the Future, a beautifully shot BMW-sponsored documentary series about the future of mobility features a numbers of noteable changemakers, including 2010 speaker and Treehugger founder, Graham Hill.

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Image: Nicholas Felton

Map warping at the New York Public Library

The NYPL Map Rectifier is a tool for digitally aligning (“rectifying”) historical maps from the NYPL’s collections to match today’s precise maps. Visitors can browse already rectified maps or assist the NYPL by aligning a map. Play the video to tour the site and learn how to rectify a map yourself.

At Tuesday’s Social Media Week event, Future Library: Socializing History with Maps, the New York Public Library’s Geospatial Librarian, Matt Knutzen, explained how the Library has undertaken a project to align its collection of 10,000+ digitized historical maps of New York City to current, more accurate maps. What’s particularly exciting is that the project is open to the public; anyone can help match old with new. With its Map Rectifier, “we can turn historical maps into spatial data,” Knutzen explained. Users plot a few points on an older map that correspond with the latitude and longitude of a current day map. Using geo-rectification, a.k.a. map warping, old NYC streets, buildings, transportation, and landmarks come into focus within a contemporary framework.

This New York Public Library video provides a detailed tutorial on how to rectify a map’s data.

Image: New York Public Library

Nasal attraction: How your nose can help you find a suitable partner

Recent scientific discoveries have shown that a woman’s partner choice depends on personal chemistry. More specifically, the data demonstrates that information about genetic similarities is hidden within body odor and that this information can help in the selection of a partner. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, this talk will reveal how this mechanism was discovered, how it works, and how it may impact our everyday lives.

Today at the Wagner Free Institute of Science of Philadelphia:
Nasal Attraction: How Your Nose Can Help You Find a Suitable Partner:
An illustrated presentation by Dr. Johan Lundström, Monell Chemical Senses Center

Thursday, February 10, 2011, 4:00 pm
Wagner Free Institute of Science, Philadelphia, PA

Reminds us a bit of The Pheromone Party that took place in Brooklyn this past November.

Image: indiagarcia_photography

PopTech interview: Eduardo Porter on pricing education in India, fertilizer in Kenya and human life in Zimbabwe

Eduardo Porter is the author of The Price of Everything: Solving the Mystery of Why We Pay What We Do, in which he investigates the critical role prices play in shaping our lives, from having a baby to buying a car. To illustrate, his recent blog posts have included “The price of cheap food,” “The price of a sleeping bag,” “The price of a longer life” and “The price of a beer.” PopTech spoke with Porter about determining a price tag for social change.

PopTech: What’s your take on the sea-change in thinking about social innovation that’s taken place over the past decade – a shift from traditional nonprofit approaches (Donor A pays for Service B for Constituent C, who is assumed to be incapable of paying for it themselves) to more market-friendly approaches, like microfinance and social entrepreneurship?
Eduardo Porter: There have been two extremely beneficial innovations in the way non-profits go about trying to effect social change. One is the use of market mechanisms and incentives to deliver valuable services to marginalized communities. Another is the use of field-testing to evaluate projects and determine how best to accomplish program goals.

Take education in rural India. A local NGO, Seva Mandir runs several schools in the region of Udaipur, reaching students that are not served by regular government schools. The NGO’s schools suffered enormous absenteeism [by teachers]. On any given day, 44% of teachers wouldn’t show up. Absenteeism has traditionally been combated by administrators keeping score of attendance and punishing slackers. But Seva Mandir addressed the problem in an innovative way: offering teachers an incentive to show up and introducing an impersonal instrument to monitor their presence: a camera with a time stamp.

What it did was replace the standard teacher wage of Rs. 1,000 rupees per month (about $22) for 21 days of teaching, with a base salary of Rs. 500 plus an extra Rs. 50 for each day they actually taught. That meant teachers’ wages would range from Rs. 500 to Rs. 1300, depending on their attendance. To monitor their presence, a student was asked to photograph teachers with their students at the beginning and end of each school day.


Jules Verne predicted the future

…Tuesday would have been the 183rd birthday of Jules Verne. Had he lived to see 2011, the French science fiction writer also would have seen many of his fanciful inventions made real—more or less.

Check out National Geographic’s slide show of 8 Jules Verne Inventions That Came True. The science fiction author predicted the submarine, lunar modules, skywriting, and the taser amongst many other seemingly off-the-wall ideas that have eventually been realized.

Image: Jonathan Hayward via National Geographic

Birding gone social - with WildLab

The longest running citizen scientist project, entitled the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), was started 111 years ago by ornithologist Frank Chapman. As a less destructive version of the massive annual bird slaughter known as the Christmas “Side Hunt,” it began with 27 men scouting 90 types of birds in 25 locations. In 2010, the CBC had grown to include 60,000 participants throughout the U.S. who noted 2,300 species comprised of 50,000,000+ birds. While a feel good activity for the whole family, the data collection is really quite valuable. Audubon Society and other organizations use data in this wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations – and to help guide conservation action. In fact, the EPA now uses the data as one of the 24 indicators of climate impact.

As indicated by the popularity of the CBC, bird watching happens to be one of the fastest growing hobbies in America. In fact, 1/3 of Americans would consider themselves birders. As a result, it’s become a perfect entry point to get people excited about nature and science – and to make science social, explained naturalist and educator Gabriel Willow yesterday at Social Media Week’s Research Gone Social: Leveraging the Web to Advance Scientific Discovery session. “The connection between scientists and technology can create a bridge for making science more accessible.”

Leveraging the growing popularity of bird watching and people’s increasing comfort with social media tools, Willow created WildLab, which uses iPhones as mobile data collection devices to gather information about birds and other wildlife. The app, as well as a five-part curriculum that’s been conducted with 500 students in NYC schools, promotes STEM learning and generally gets people of all ages excited by the natural world. Sightings, GPS data and weather information collected by students – and participating citizen scientists who download the iPhone app – are entered into a database that can be used to better understand and track wildlife. Birders also send their sightings to eBird and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for use in scientific research.


Chris Jordan's got a new logo suggestion for Monsanto

Artist Chris Jordan’s newest work, Proposed New Corporate Logo For Monsanto Company, 2011 is based on a painting by Josiah Lopez. Jordan elaborates:

In light of this week’s sickening news about Monsanto’s latest act of agri-piracy here in the U.S., I have decided to release one of my new pieces that I was otherwise planning on keeping in reserve for an exhibition.

The piece depicts 200,000 heirloom agricultural plant seeds, equal to the number of farmers in India who have committed suicide since 1997, when Monsanto introduced its genetically modified cotton seeds containing terminator technology into that region.

Image: Chris Jordan

Kevin Starr demands impact

When Kevin Starr talks about philanthropy and his work with the Mulago Foundation, he keeps it simple and straight-forward. As the foundation’s director, Starr is looking to fund the best scalable solutions to the biggest problems in the poorest places. No fancy mission statements or long grant proposals are necessary. As he described during his PopTech talk, he’s seen too much money wasted on too many big problems to get swayed by the newest, flashiest, overhyped projects (One Laptop per Child, LifeStraw, and PlayPumps, for starters). In investigating potential grantees he wants to know whether they 1) know their mission, 2) measure the right thing and 3) measure it well.

Prior to his work at Mulago, Starr had been practicing medicine. When his friend and mentor, Rainer Arnhold, passed away suddenly while they were both working in Bolivia, the course of Starr’s life shifted. In 1994, Arnhold’s family asked Starr to maintain Rainer’s life’s work focusing on health, poverty, and conservation in the world’s poorest places.


Speculative Futures

Futurology, the study of probable, desirable, imaginable and unimaginable futures is based on past and present day events and circumstances. As a practice, futurology (or Futures Studies) aggregates research to arrive at complex and purposeful views of the coming world. Sources as diverse as philosophy, economics, technology, criminology, and popular culture provide insight to futurologists. In the Bloomberg office, information is in a constant state of flux, flowing from what is tomorrow in London to what might be yesterday in Los Angeles. Given the fluid nature with which time and information is treated in this space, it easily can be interpreted as a futurological mothership for this exhibition.

Curated by Regine Basha and organized by the SculptureCenter, Speculative Futures features work by Julieta Aranda, Beth Campbell, Cao Fei and Ana Prvacki. It can be seen by appointment only onsite at the Bloomberg New York office through April 29, 2011. For more information on the exhibition, visit the SculptureCenter website.

Image: Cao Fei

Try your hand at designing a military vehicle

Local Motors, in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is hosting the Experimental Crowd-derived Combat-support Vehicle (XC2V) Design Challenge to rethink the development of military vehicles.

It is important to note that even though this is a militarily relevant vehicle, this is not an offensive fighting vehicle. The goal of this vehicle will be to transport items and/or people around quickly and efficiently in a potentially hostile but mobile environment.

The winning design will be developed into a working prototype. The winner will receive a cash prize and the opportunity to see his/her design turned into a functioning concept vehicle. The submission deadline for the contest is March 3, 2011 at 11:59 pm EST. More details are available at Local Motors.

Image: Local Motors