PopTech Blog

Crisis mapping Egypt

From the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information to the L.A. Times, crisis mapping is being used to track and facilitate the ongoing protests in Egypt. To see a collection of protest maps from the past week, check out Patrick Meier’s list here.

Image: L.A. Times crisis map via iRevolution

This week in PopTech: Violence interruptions, strange stirrings and gap year options

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.

  • According to Roger Ebert, The Interrupters, a documentary that reveals the amazing work of our friends at CeaseFire, is “Oscar calibre”. CeaseFire is a national and international public health strategy based in Chicago that has been scientifically proven to reduce shootings and killings using behavior change and disease control methods. The Interrupters had its World Premiere at Sundance 2011.
  • Global Citizen Year was cited as an example of how a gap year between high school and college doesn’t need to break the bank by offering scholarships to help defray the cost. “What we’ve seen so far is our kids after this year are hungry for college,” explained CEO Abby Falik. “They have a skill set that will help them be much more self-directed.”

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: Stephen Wolfram

The search for ten balloons: Riley Crane crowdsources his way to discovery

The DARPA Network Challenge: “Be the first to submit the locations of 10 moored, 8-foot, red, weather balloons at 10 fixed locations in the continental United States.” Although Riley Crane found out about the contest only four days before it started, four days, eight hours, and 52 minutes later he and his fellow MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, had won it. A postdoctoral fellow at the MIT Media Lab, Crane devised a system that allowed his team to harness the power of individual social networks by crowdsourcing the DARPA Red Balloon Challenge.

“It was a great network and winning the challenge was fun, but the real question is: what can we use it for?” Crane said. “If we want to see new things happen that are going to blow our minds, we need to start to really rethinking the way we communicate. If we do, the world will become really responsive to large-scale change.”

LifeEdited: Making room for the good stuff

During PopTech 2010, Treehugger founder Graham Hill announced the launch of LifeEdited, an online competition to design a tiny, 420 square foot, ultragreen apartment. With up to $70,000 in prize incentives, and inspired by the concept that less is better, countless designs were submitted for consideration.

Who best made room for the good stuff? We find out today when the LifeEdited design contest winners are announced live at 12 pm EST. Watch the announcement here.


Michelle Obama’s special guest at the State of the Union: A member of the West Philly High EVX team


A casual listener to the first thirty minutes of last night’s “Win the Future”-themed State of the Union speech could be forgiven for thinking it was written by Thomas Friedman. Amid references to South Korean broadband and Chinese cleantech, President Obama laid out a national strategy for America in the age of the flattening world, rooted in increased R&D investment, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education, entrepreneurialism, and foreign talent retention.

Although he didn’t get a direct shout-out from the President, there was one very special guest in the room, sitting with the First Lady, who embodies many of these themes: Brandon Ford, a high school junior at West Philadelphia High School and a member of its Hybrid EVX Team, led by ‘mad scientist-meets-science-teacher’ Simon Hauger.

Together, Hauger and his students have created a one-of-a-kind program in which a team of twenty or so students and seven instructors design and build road-ready, next-generation hybrid electric automobiles. Last year, the team drew national attention in their quest to compete for and win the Automotive X Prize; although they didn’t ultimately win, they were serious competitors, besting several elite university programs and commercial teams backed by more money, age, and experience.

WikiLeaks and Internet Freedom: A discussion

The initial “Is WikiLeaks good or bad?” debate was not the main focus at Monday’s WikiLeaks and Internet Freedom panel. Rather, the conversation centered on the implications for transnational activism, freedom of the press, and personal privacy. Hosted by PopTech board member Andrew Rasiej’s Personal Democracy Forum in partnership with NYU’s ITP, panelists’ perspectives ranged. And that lack of consensus was just the point explained Micah Sifry, the evening’s moderator and PDF Editor and Curator. He reinforced that we’re only beginning to understand WikiLeaks’ implications. “The WikiLeaks debate has hit a plateau but the reverberations continue to fly.”

Birgitta Jonsdottir, a member of the Icelandic Parliament who is currently challenging the U.S. Justice Department’s request for her Twitter records, weighed in with her thoughts via Skype. She recounted a question recently posed to her about whether governments should keep secrets. Of course certain things, like national security, should be kept secret, she had responded. When pressed for more details, she realized she was answering on autopilot. Most secrets are kept because they’re ‘secrets by default,’ and it’s what we’ve come to expect. But the reality is that we need to push ourselves to think through that lack of transparency further. Perhaps if there had been whistle blowers in Iceland, she continued, the country’s financial crisis would have been averted. “WikiLeaks has been an icebreaker, a wake up call,” she explains. “WikiLeaks has made it cool to blow the whistle.”

Gabriella Coleman, assistant professor of media, culture, and communications at NYU, explained the history of Anonymous, the entity that defended WikiLeaks and is known for its “ultra coordinated motherfuckery.” Working to defend freedom of information and protesting against internet censorship, Anonymous’ loosely coordinated cyber attacks have targeted Amazon, PayPal, and Mastercard’s denial of service linked to WikiLeaks as well as the Church of Scientology and most recently the Tunisian government’s website. Anonymous, while faceless, has been an entry point into politics for internet users and geeks and has continued to play an important roll in transnational activism.


Built to fail: Heather Knight's Rube Goldberg infatuation

An element of chance and an air of tension draw Heather Knight and her colleagues at Syyn Labs to construct Rube Goldberg contraptions. PopTech followed Knight to get her take on the Rube Goldberg machine they created, mainly from knick-knacks found in antique shops around Camden, ME, to kick off PopTech 2010. And with bated breath, we watched the apparatus come to life – with a little help from some friends.

Syyn Labs, which Knight co-founded with six others in 2008, got its big break when they masterminded the Rube Goldberg device for OK Go’s music video, This Too Shall Pass. Since then, as profiled in Fast Company, the likes of Google, Disney, The Colbert Report, and Sears have come knocking, hiring the team to dream up more quirky projects and bringing greater visibility to this DIY collective.

But for Knight, who is working towards her PhD in Robotics at Carnegie Mellon, it all comes back to telling stories in an entertaining way, whether through engineered mousetraps or robotic theater. “I love using technology, whether it’s mechanical or electrical or interactive to capture an audience’s imagination.”

Visual mashup of PopTech 2010

Every year during the PopTech conference, Peter Durand can be seen in a loge box, furiously working above the PopTech stage. During that time he produces nearly three dozen illustrations of speakers. These aren’t just ordinary sketches, though; rather, he distills the essence of each talk and conveys its overarching themes at a glance.

We’re excited to announce a mashup of Durand’s illustrations with photos by Kris Krug. Have a look at this free PDF, a visual record of the curated sessions from PopTech 2010.

Here’s a peek inside:


This week in PopTech: Strong silk, moviemaking accolades, and cognitive toolkits

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.

  • 2009 PopTech Fellow Nigel Waller launched Movirtu to provide virtual mobile phone services for people earning less than two dollars a day. This week, Movirtu announced ManyME TM, a revolutionary service which enables users to manage multiple phone numbers on a single mobile device.
  • What’s stronger than steel? Spider silk. PopTech Ecomaterials Lab participant and molecular biologist Randolph Lewis and his mighty spider silk was featured this week as part of a four-part PBS series on NOVA called Making Stuff: Stronger. Watch the broadcast online here.
  • Congratulations to 2010 PopTech speaker Laura Poitras, who was named Outstanding Director for The Oath at the Cinema Eye Honors earlier this week. The Oath tells the story of Abu Jandal, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and Salim Hamdan, a prisoner at Guantanamo facing war crime charges.

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: I’ll Never Grow Up

Liberation, forgiveness, and friendship

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was raped. She went on to testify that Ronald Cotton was the man who attacked her and as a result, he was sentenced to life in prison. After eleven years of incarceration, DNA evidence exonerated Cotton of the crime. Two years after he was released, Thompson reached out to apologize. Not only did he forgive her, but Thompson and Cotton went on to write a memoir together about their experience, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption.

77% of Americans have a close family member or friend who is gay. But s/he isn’t afforded the same rights as her/his straight counterparts. For example, it could take a decade or two before the gay community is on equal footing when it comes to social security benefits for one’s partner or hospital visitation rights. For 2010 Social Innovation Fellow Brian Elliot, that’s far too long to wait. To speed up the process, he’s founded Friendfactor, a social network to move the process forward based on the premise that change is more likely to occur when the focus is on supporting a gay friend rather than supporting gay rights.