PopTech Blog

PopTech Fellows Justin Gallivan and Nina Dudnik

Justin Gallivan

2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow Justin Gallivan is amazed by bacteria. You can get them to do almost anything. For instance, Gallivan, associate professor of chemistry at Emory University, told the PopTech crowd Saturday that he can program e. coli bacteria to eat atrazine, a widely used herbicide that can contaminate ground water. The key is to be able to turn the gene on and off. Using a molecule called Riboswitch allows him to do just that. “We want to be able to program the bacteria to send it after atrazine,” he said. “Turns out we can do that.”

2010 Social Innovation Fellow Nina Dudnik told the crowd that her company, Seeding Labs, is taking discarded lab equipment from the United States to needy labs in other countries. “Talent is everywhere,” she said. “We need to train more scientists to be better everywhere.” As part of that commitment, Dudnik said Seeding Labs has also launched a program to connect scientists from the U.S. with their counterparts in Africa and South America. “Just 48 hours ago, the first group of science ambassadors landed in Nairobi,” she said. “Putting scientists from different walks of life together makes everyone’s work better.”

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Chris Chabris on Gorillas, Illusions, and the Things We Miss

Chris Chabris

Psychologist and neuroscientist Chris Chabris studies the numerous ways our intuitions fool us. Chabris is the co-creator of the famous “gorilla experiment” and author of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. He explores six “everyday illusions” that demonstrate the mistaken beliefs that we all hold about how our minds work.

For example, Chabris says that we often suffer from an “illusion of attention,” thinking that we see the world as it really is when in fact we are making all kinds of assumptions that shape how we perceive the real world. We also tend to have too much confidence in our own skills and abilities, and the least skilled tend to be the most overconfident. Another illusion that Chabris discusses is the illusion of cause: we tend to inaccurately connect cause and effect, when what really exists is accident or correlation.

You can also try a few of the experiments discussed in Chabris’ book.


Project Masiluleke Continues to Transform Mobile Healthcare in South Africa

Project M

Speakers Robert Fabricant and Gustav Praekelt took to the PopTech stage to talk about the next chapter for Project Masiluleke, an innovative effort to leverage mobile technologies and a bold self-diagnosis campaign to combat South Africa’s crippling HIV/AIDS and TB epidemics.

In the two years since Project M launched, the initiative has proven itself to be a transformative intervention that allows public health initiatives to directly reach the public. It helped create a self-testing kit that allows people to learn their HIV status from the privacy of their homes, and despite the pronounced social stigma surrounding the disease. According to Praekelt, Project M has also delivered more than 800 million text messages, at no cost to users and while generating revenue for local phone operators. In addition, the project has also established a successful AIDS help line, which has received about 1.5 million calls to date.

Project M’s success demonstrates the real world impact of PopTech, says Fabricant. The idea for the project emerged in response to Zinny Thabethe’s appearance at the PopTech 2006 conference. HIV positive herself, Zinny has been fighting to reverse the course of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Moved by her story, an interdisciplinary mix of partners that included Fabricant, of frog design, Praekelt, of the Praekelt Foundation, and representatives from iTeach.

The initiative also received critical support from PopTech’s Accelerator, a social innovation incubator that works to sustain the earliest stages of transformative initiatives. It’s tempting for designers to think they’ve solved something, says Fabricant, when there’s often a huge gap between bright ideas and actually achieving something worthwhile. The initial creative plan for Project M only took a few days, yet implementing the project and ensuring that it would be sustainable proved to be a far greater challenge. “Who is going to do all the messy, dirty things," asks Fabricant. "This is what PopTech did for two years, on every level imaginable.”

In May 2010, Project M won the prestigious 2010 Impumelelo Sustainability Award. Now that the initiatives has demonstrated its effectiveness within communities, the award grant will be used to build public awareness about the project itself.

Life during wartime: Laura Poitras on doc-making after 9/11

“I was with contractors in Kurdistan and one night, one of them told me he needed to use my room to do an arms deal.  As a documentary filmmaker, I said, ‘Of course, please come in and use my room for your arms deal.’”

Laura Poitras

Just your typical Laura Poitras story. The acclaimed director took time Saturday to share stories with the PopTech conference crowd about the making, and consequences, of her most recent films – My Country, My Country and The Oath, which form part of a trilogy she’s making about life after 9/11.

“With my work I’m trying to bridge the gap between what we actually know and what we actually feel,” she said. “I’m trying to make films that make you feel. And these films are about us. Even if they’re filmed over there, they still have to do with us.”


Adrian Owen’s quest for consciousness

Imagine you were entirely conscious but unable to move — your eyes could be open, you might twitch, but the movements would be completely involuntary. In short, you would be just as conscious as you are right now but totally incapable of communication. What would you give for someone to figure out that you were, indeed, fully awake?

Adrian Owen

Neuroscientist Adrian Owen has dedicated his career to determining consciousness in vegetative patients. Since 1997, he has used brain-scanning techniques and, most recently, functional magnetic resonance imaging, to measure brain activity.

“We have a logical problem here,” he told the PopTech audience Saturday evening. “If a patient was conscious but incapable of generating responses, which is the hallmark of vegetative state, we would logically have no way of knowing if that person was conscious.”

Since command following is the most effective means of determining consciousness, Owen devised a rather simple experiment – he would have patients imagine performing physical activities upon command. “When you imagine things, the same areas of brain will activate as if you were actually doing that thing,” he said. “The point is to get this person to think about…initiating movement. When you ask someone to relax, the brain activity disappears.”

In 2006, Owen and his team had a rather improbable breakthrough. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they were going to measure brain activity in a vegetative patient. “We had a young woman who had been in a road traffic accident and was entirely vegetative for five months,” he said. “She was the very first patient we tried this technique on. We asked her to imagine playing tennis. And she activated the same area of her brain as a healthy volunteer despite outwardly showing no signs of being conscious. When we asked her to relax, the activity disappeared.”


Bribes be gone. The Zero Rupee note combats corruption.

Corruption is rampant in India. It’s a day-to-day affair. Regardless of wealth or social status, a person in India can’t live without paying a bribe for a birth certificate, a passport, enrolling a student in public school, or any of the mundane but necessary activities others might take for granted. 99% of India’s population is impacted by these bribes. In fact, based on an index from Transparency International, India ranks 84th in the world when it comes to corruption.

Vijay Anand

But Vijay Anand believes it doesn’t have to be that way. Why do Indian citizens need to put up with this abuse of public trust for private gain? That’s why he started 5th Pillar, an organization dedicated to providing everyday citizens with tools to help them eliminate corruption throughout society, and more specifically, through the Zero Rupee note. Disseminated throughout India, these bills are “non-violent weapons of non-cooperation” that give people who may have been afraid to raise their voice, a convenient and simple mechanism to refuse bribery without fear or shame. While the bill looks like typical currency on one side, the other side provides training on how to use India’s Right of Information Act to demand government accountability.

The Zero Rupee Note

Thus far, 1.5 million Zero Rupee notes have been distributed in the past few years. While success stories of combating bribery throughout the country abound, there’s still a long way to go before this phenomenon creates a country-wide societal shift. Until then, Anand will continue to overhaul the cultural acceptance of bribery by focusing his efforts on educating students. His hope is that their parents, whose behaviors tend to be more ingrained, will listen to their children and flash the Zero Rupee note the next time someone tries to pull a fast one.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

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)