PopTech Blog

Catching up with Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman

We had a few moments to catch up with 2008 PopTech Fellow Erik Hersman, who let us know what’s been going on with his company, crisis mapping and communication platform, Ushahidi.

It’s been quite an amazing year, Erik. Best wishes to you and your team and safe travels back to Kenya!

Ben Goldacre: Bad Science

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a fast talker. He has to be. He has so many examples of bad science to share.

Goldacre is a British physician and author of the weekly”Bad Science” column in the Guardian as well as of Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks. He takes on an impressive range of “enemies of reason,” a list that includes sloppy journalists, creationists, politicians that play fast and loose with the truth, pharmaceutical companies that design faulty drug trials, and a media that promotes pseudoscience. For example, suggesting that certain foods or objects can cause or cure diseases like cancer muddles the distinction between facts and beliefs. It can also be downright dangerous.

Goldacre shares the story of Matthias Rath, a German doctor who condemned anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS and instead offered his own vitamins to a gullible South African public. Rath not only grew rich on his scheme, his efforts also helped validate claims by “HIV denialists” who suggest that the virus was not the cause of AIDS, says Goldacre. This view had critical support within the South African government, and paved the way for the country to refuse necessary drug treatment to citizens. According to Goldacre, this “dumb idea” cost more than 300,000 South Africans their lives between 2002-2005.

What Goldacre finds just as frustrating is how few people have stepped forward to denounce Rath and his activities. He notes that almost no one in the alternative therapy community has spoken out. That might have something to do with Rath’s willingness to defend himself in court. When Goldacre wrote about him in his Bad Science column, the vitamin salesmen sued Goldacre and the Guardian for libel. (Rath has since dropped his suit and ordered to pay damages.)

The HIV story has terrible consequences. It reveals how difficult it is to adequately explain the complexities of science to the general public. It also suggests how difficult it is for many people to accept scientific inquiry as the dominant way to understand the world, often choosing instead to rely on anecdotal evidence and untested claims. Bad science, says Goldacre, is something we do to ourselves.

Imogen Heap is musical in nature

Imogen Heap

The often ethereal and always charming Imogen Heap delighted the PopTech audience today with both an announcement and a song. Heap’s recent trip to Tanzania and a chance meeting with social entrepreneur Thomas Ermacora led them to co-create what they’re calling a “do tank” — a place to execute on crowd-sourced projects.

Imogen Heap singing @ PopTech 2010

Their inaugural collaboration is called Love the Earth, a site that houses video clips uploaded by fans from around the world. The clips showcase little moments in nature that have inspired them: a flower spotted on a morning walk; a cloud’s reflection in a puddle; a robin going about her daily business of worm-gathering. Within six weeks of launch, the site had over 1,000 clips from 100 users.

Heap is now planning to write a symphony based on a montage of the clips, which she will perform at the Royal Albert Hall on November 5th. To tide us over until then, she played a stripped-down version of what she says is her most popular song, “Hide & Seek” — a song that was created by accident one night when her computer died and she was forced to take a look at something in her own world (her instruments) in a new way.

(Photos: Kris Krüg)

A Bell for Every Minute with Stephen Vitiello

Stephen Vitiello is a sound artist looking to open his audience to the world of vibrations. His career has spanned from electronic music to scoring experimental videos to his most recent form of work — larger-scale public installations that make immersive soudscapes accessible to a wider audience.

Stephen Vitiello

He started his PopTech presentation off with a story of an encounter in Sydney, Australia, where he had installed “The Sound Of Red Earth” at the Sydney brickworks. Vitiello recalled how a young girl had pulled him aside to shyly ask him a question — “do you ever just lean down and put your ear to the table to listen to the sounds?” It seems that this sense of child-like wonder and curiosity is what he hopes to evoke with his work.

Vitiello also told of his experience as a resident artist in the World Trade Center in 1999. He spent six months working out of a studio on the 91st floor of Tower One, and used contact microphones to record the building’s internal sounds at all times of day. An excerpt from one recording during a severe storm revealed the internal creakings of the massive building under stress.

Stephen’s most recent public sound installation, called “A Bell for Every Minute,” is placed in Manhattan’s High Line Park. Vitiello sampled bell sounds from throughout New York City’s five boroughs, including the New York Stock Exchange, the United Nations Peace Bell, and the recently excavated Coney Island Dreamland bell. He finished his talk with a recording of the sound that plays at the High Line installation every hour — all of the 59 bells layered into one room-filling sound.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

The world's largest workforce is ready, willing, and able

Nathan Eagle

Consider this: The ratio of mobile phone subscribers in the developing world to the developed world is 4:1. It’s a democratized platform since there’s no single demographic that owns a mobile phone. As Nathan Eagle, visiting assistant professor at MIT and research assistant professor at Northeastern University, explains, manual laborers in Africa, like the guys who dig ditches, are organizing and finding work through SMS. You need a phone to be part of the system.

Nathan Eagle

But with 3 billion mobile phone users and 1.5 billion unemployed people, is there a way to harness mobile technology to provide work for the un- or under-employed? Is there a way to crowdsource tasks, monetize idle time, and easily compensate workers at the same time?

Kicking off in Africa, Nathan Eagle created txteagle to enable people in developing countries to earn money or airtime by performing tasks via their mobile phone. Some of the work is outsourced, like video tagging, invoice processing, or audio transcribing, but Eagle hopes that the majority of the jobs will become those that depend on more knowledge, allowing people to be close to home.

Thus far, txteagle has been integrated into the billing systems of 220 mobile phone operators in Africa, reaching 2.1 billion phones. This means txteagle can compensate all of these 2.1 billion people, empowering the largest workforce on earth. Next up: txteagle is looking for more crowdsourced, locally-focused, projects to give this massive community the opportunity to improve its economic status.

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

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.


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.


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)