PopTech Blog

Eli Pariser on Machine Curation and Paying Attention to the Things We Don't Know

Eli Pariser spent the last decade organizing people. Now, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, is organizing information.

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Algorithms generally manage the enormous amounts of available data by giving you more of what you like with every click. The trouble, says Pariser, is that the vision of perfect machine categorization often fails to adequately represent the multiple ways that information can be grouped.

To underscore his point, Pariser tells the story about physicist Niels Bohr, who once proposed calculating the height of a building by using a barometer as a weight. Bohr’s failure to use the barometer as a measurement device meant he failed his high school physics exam but it also reveals a flexibility of thought that machine curation does not adequately capture.

For example, Netflix bases its categorization system on prediction, namely “if you like this, you’ll like that.” Once the Netflix model determines a user like romantic comedies, says Pariser, it will continue to suggest romantic comedies, effectively narrowing the types recommended. In other words, the Netflix algorithm doesn’t provide users with risky choices.

Pariser says that machine curation also risks reducing the “noise,” namely the randomness and unpredictably, of information to a point that it impedes the creative process. Here, Pariser points to Dean Simonton’s research on spontaneous creativity and the likelihood that similar creative ideas will pop up in a lot of different places the same time. “A perfectly relevant environment,” laments Pariser, “lacks the ability to recognize this kind of variation.”

Pariser suggests that this narrowing of information doesn’t need to be inevitable. “We need media systems to make us uncomfortable. We need media to help us pay attention to the things that we don’t know. We need systems that don’t block us.”

In the meantime, he’s starting to work on a site he’s going to call thingsyoullhate.com. It’s not up yet, but when it is, Pariser wants it to highlight ideas and things that people completely unlike you think are great.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Zehn Luftballons: Riley Crane and the power of social networking

Riley Crane found out about the DARPA network challenge (find ten balloons placed in ten different locations around the country) four days before it started. Four days, eight hours, and 52 minutes later his team, the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, had won it.

Riley Crane

How they did it is a testament to the power of crowdsourcing solutions and the ability of social networking to tackle seemingly impossible tasks. Crane’s approach was to set up a system in which every person who volunteered to help was given a unique URL that could be shared with that person’s social networks (primarily via Twitter and Facebook). The process was repeated over and over again. Everyone who signed on was guaranteed a part of the $40,000 prize purse if the team won.

This family tree approach gave Crane’s team access to the collective power of an extraordinary number of individual networks. Slashdot posted an open letter from the MIT team (best comment: "re: balloons – will there be a little boy trapped inside each one?”), which massively increased interest, and Crane’s team was able to access even more networks.

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Biologist Amro Hamdoun on keeping out the bad guys

Clearly, PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellow Amro Hamdoun’s communication training is paying off. Casting aside his data-dense, rather intimidating charts and graphs of how chemicals affect cell structure, he instead showed the laughing crowd a menacing photo of a muscle-bound man in black suit. “Your cells,” explained Hamdoun, “have bouncers.”

The impact of chemicals on cell structure, however, is no laughing matter. With over 85,000 chemicals produced in the last century, the average person now has between 300-500 of miscellaneous chemicals in their systems. It’s the “bouncers”, officially known as multi-drug transporters, that work to keep the bad guys out. The question is, why do some of the “bad” chemicals make it into the cells and how can we predict which ones will do so (with averse and often unknown consequences) as we develop even more chemicals?

Science and Public Leadership Fellows Amro Hamdoun (right) and Gidon Eshel (left)

Hamdoun, a cell biologist, focuses his research specifically on embryos using sea urchins for test subjects: one sea urchin can produce roughly a million eggs in ten minutes, which is comparable to the reproduction efforts of 5,000 mice. The goal of his research? To ensure cells can keep out the bad chemicals and thereby prevent birth defects and other anomalies of embryonic growth.

To learn more about his work, Hamdoun invites the PopTech community to check out hamdounlab.org.

(Photo: Science and Public Leadership Fellows Amro Hamdoun (right) and Gidon Eshel (left). Photo credit: John Santerre)

Border Green Energy Team lighting dark places

Social Innovation Fellow Salinee Tavaranan and the Border Green Energy Team are helping to bring light to some of the world’s darkest places. She and her team work on the border of her homeland, Thailand, and Burma, a country that’s been embroiled in civil war for over sixty years, to bring solar power to clinics and medical facilities that desperately need it.

Salinee Tavaranan

The team is up against enormous challenges: in addition to the ongoing war, they struggle with lack of road access, transporting heavy equipment that needs to be hand-carried up and down mountains, and the general sense of uncertainty and danger inherent in working in the borderlands.

An emotional Tavaranan recounted perhaps the team’s biggest challenge: the loss of co-founder and “solar hero” Walt Ratterman to the Haitian earthquake, where he was finishing up a training session on solar technology.

Tavaran and her team are committed to continuing Ratterman’s good work: providing solar power to the places, like schools and hospitals, that need it most. She ended by asking the PopTech community to let her know if they could help.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Own Your Future — a PopTech Accelerator & BCAM collaboration — has launched!

Own Your Future: A PopTech Accelerator + BCAM Collaboration

Own Your Future is a collaborative project of the PopTech Accelerator and the Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School (BCAM), a small public high school in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, run by founding principal and 2009 Social Innovation Fellow, James O’Brien. Through this program, students, including two youth ambassadors who attended this year’s conference, will receive year-long training in art, design, technology, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy to develop marketable products and skills.

This knowledge enables students to develop, market, and sell creative products and services. The money earned is then deposited into the students’ savings accounts and made available to them upon graduation — to help pay the way to college. Preparing BCAM students to become active members of the creative economy equips then with tools for the future and will hopefully become a replicable model.

Own Your Future: A PopTech Accelerator + BCAM Collaboration

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Palestinian Students Share Stick Tec at PopTech

9th graders Nour Al-Arda, Asil Abulil, and Asil Shaar, and their teacher, Jameela Khaled, are proof of the power of innovation driven by local needs.

Palestinian Girls

They realized that the rough terrain and rundown streets around their home in the West Bank Al-Askar refugee camp made life difficult for a blind friend. So, they developed an electronic cane equipped with ground sensors which cause it to beep or vibrate when confronted by a hole or obstacle. Earlier this year, the four won a special award in applied enginering at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair — a first for any Palestinian representative.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Deborah Kenny knows how to fix the education system

Deborah Kenny

Deborah Kenny, founder and chief executive of Harlem Village Academies, noticed Eugene when he showed up for the first day of school. Head down, making no eye contact, he walked past the teachers greeting the students and seemed to grumble to himself. Later that day, while the teachers were administering a test to determine students’ reading levels, Kenny saw that Eugene hadn’t even picked up his pencil. In fact, it seemed that he was tearing up. Only later did she find out that his response was due to his inability to read. At all. But without fail, every year he was moved up to the next grade.

Kenny invited Eugene’s mother to meet with her. His mother knew he’d be severely handicapped without learning how to read. And Eugene knew he didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was in jail. Seven years later, as a result of his education at the Harlem Village Academy, he’s reading the Iliad, has taken the chemistry regents exam and is on his way to college. “We know what works,” Kenny said. “But do we have the political will to scale up?”

Kenny attributed the Harlem Village Academy’s success to bringing out passion in teachers: establishing a culture that gives them ownership over everything they do, creating a sense of team spirit, and developing a space where teachers learn from one another. Based on that approach, the school produces students who are wholesome in character, avid readers, sophisticated intellectually, independent thinkers, and most importantly, compassionate.

Deborah Kenny

(Top photo: Thatcher Hullerman Cook. Bottom photo: Kris Krüg)

John Legend on music, education and the gift of opportunity

John Legend

John Legend’s activism is deeply intertwined with his music. As he mentioned in his talk that led this morning’s PopTech session on Teaching & Learning, this juxtaposition has not been as common since singer/song-writers of the sixties. But it’s time, says Legend, to put the politics back into music — specifically in order to address a public education system that he describes as “completely broken”.

John Legend

Legend had been working on his latest musical project called “Wake Up” with co-creators, the Roots. They wanted to include a video portion in the piece that explored the neighbors and people living and being educated in impoverished communities. As they started to research the project, they realized, serendipitously, that filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (who directed “An Inconvenient Truth”) was just putting the finishing touches on a documentary that covered the same topic: the film became Waiting for Superman

He closed his session by playing piano and singing two songs: the aforementioned “Wake Up”and a song from the film “Waiting for Superman” entitled “Let ’Em Shine.” This in an enormously important film, says Legend, who urged everyone in the room to see it. “Kids need to break the cycle of poverty,” says Legend, adding that right now we’re not giving low-income and minority kids a chance to succeed. “We, the adults, owe them that chance.”

(Top photo: Kris Krüg. Bottom photo: Thatcher Hullerman Cook.)

Matt Berg: Using Code to Make Africa Healthier

2010 Social Innovation Fellow Matthew Berg says Africa is ready to code.

Berg says that Africa needs to build its local technical capacity if its going to be able to locally, and sustainably, address the continent’s profound health issues. So, he helped create the Rural Technology Lab to train the continent’s first generation of programmers. They are learning to build community initiatives by leveraging the exploding popularity of mobile phones with technologies like RapidSMS.

Matt Berg

With the help of this lab and the MillenniumVillages Project, Berg has created ChildCount+, a mobile-phone-based health platform. The project works with community health care workers to ensure that mothers and their children are part of community health systems. By using basic SMS messages, communities are able to register patients as well as track their health in a community patient registry. The pilot program has already registered more than 10,000 kids and 5,000 mothers.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

OK Go: "Improbable is what we do"

OK Go @ PopTech

OK Go closed Friday’s session with a brief talk about the current state of the music industry and how they’ve managed to succeed around it thanks to video, content-sharing and being able to put performance back into the musical experience. “Now that the music ‘industry’ has kind of imploded,” said Kulash, “videos no longer have to be ads. They can be more like art.”

The band played several acoustic songs, showed an amazing video starring a bunch of rescued dogs, got the crowd to sing along with them and rocked a lovely set of handbells. Here’s a little video of the bell song shot by a slightly over-caffeinated yours truly from the best seat in the house:

And just because it’s super cute, here’s a video of the slightly star-struck Kulash talking to Kermit the Frog about ping-pong and recording a cover of Muppet music.

(Photo credit: Thatcher Hullerman Cook)