PopTech Blog

Catching Up With The Future of News

I recently attended the Future of News and Civic Media conference at MIT. One theme throughout the multi-day conference focused on the convergence of local online journalism experiments with open government initiatives, and on the larger implications for community action in a era of data-driven knowledge.

Photo by Teddy Link

The MIT conference brought together winners of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge program (past and present), researchers affiliated with MIT (myself included), as well as others who are working at the intersection of journalism and technological innovation. Videos of the Plenary sessions Crowd building and Data Into Action are now online. The event also announced the 2010 News Challenge winners.

They include:

  • Stamen Design, which will create CityTracking an initiative that will make municipal data easier to access by allowing users to create embeddable data visualizations. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others.
  • Tilemapping, created by Development Seed, will help local media create hyper-local, data maps for their websites and blogs while also allowing citizens to draw connections to their physical communites in new ways. [Ushahidi, whose leadership team includes PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps that were used to crowdsource reports in places needing aid.]

In addition to the News Challenge winners, another Knight initiative was announced, this one a partnership with OpenPlans. Called OpenBlock, this project will further develop EveryBlock.com, an earlier Knight-funded journalism experiment that tied public records, news stories, and other data to city neighborhoods, by simplifying the project’s source code to make it easier for news organizations to adopt the technology. [OpenPlans is also part of a collaborative effort called Open311 that is working to create a standardized, open-access model for citizens to report on non-emergency issues.]

These projects, like the rest of the conference, suggest the degree to which the early enthusiasm for small scale innovation has been joined by conversations on fostering stable, coherent best practices and on replicating these practices across multiple domains and at scale. Such questions also confront the distinctions between the informal crowdsourced peer production, and more expert-forms of peer-production, and what each might have to offer each other in building projects from the ground up.

This Week in PopTech: "Smart" Energy Grid, an Arctic Bunker and the Edge of Change


  • This week we also released Massoud Amin’s 2009 PopTech talk on the critical need for a “Smart” Energy Grid. Massoud believes this will provide national as well as environmental and financial security.
    WATCH: Massoud Amin: A Smart Grid
  • We explored a bunker in the Arctic that stores the seed for human survival. Agricultural impresario Cary Fowler gave the PopTech audience a sneak peak of the seed vault as it was being constructed.
    WATCH: Cary Fowler: Conserving Bio-Diversity
  • We’re still collecting quotes on failure. We got some great ones this week, so keep ’em coming. “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

Get Involved!

  • Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, you can follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, sign up for our Newsletter and subscribe to us here on the PopTech Blog.

A ‘Book Tune’ For Every Book

Editor’s note: Rapper Abdominal, who performed at PopTech in 2008, participated in the first ‘Book Tune’ released by Book Tune Records. Below is an edited excerpt from a longer piece, by Book Tune Records President, Jonathan Sauer.

Latest tracks by Book Tune Records

I’ve forgotten most of what I’ve read. And so have you. An audacious claim? I would venture to say it’s just an inevitable consequence of the human condition. If I were to ask you to glance across your bookshelves right now, taking in the many book titles you’ve read, and then, suddenly, if I were to present you with a pop quiz on the spot, asking that you recount for me, with any degree of detail and specificity, the contents of each of these books, you would presumably fail, abysmally. I know I would.

Book Tunes
Photography by Aaron Bird

This human inconvenience of forgetfulness is a function of what psychologists call the Curve of Forgetting, which basically holds that immediately after initial exposure to new knowledge we have a very high recall rate, but thereafter our knowledge gains dissipate at a very rapid rate within the first 24-48 hours, and then continue to dwindle to ever smaller levels over the next 30 days, until we retain only a tiny fraction of what was conveyed. Given more time, you might find that it’s as though you were never exposed to this new information at all, as though it was someone else who read this material, an imposter, not you at all. One day knowledge simply folded up its tent, and left town.

We’re getting back pennies on the dollar, for our time invested. So, the question naturally arises, “Can we do better? And, “If so, how?”

It turns out, we need not look far at all: music is the answer, the ‘song’ format specifically. What we propose is a ‘book tune’ (i.e. a companion song) for every major book, so we never again forget what we’ve read.

Download to learn more about Book Tunes.

Eco IQ's, Violas, Mammoths, and Genes that "Seek and Destroy": A PopTech Salon

Last night at the House of Sweden in Washington, DC, PopTech brought together four speakers, a performer, and a lively and engaged audience for a PopTech Salon on Science, Living Systems, and the Edge of Change.

Sound Check Salon
Behind the scenes at the House of Sweden before the Science, Living Systems & The Edge of Change salon in Washington, DC. Photography by Kris Krug

Right now our nation and our planet face unprecedented challenges, and the sciences have a more important role to play in society than ever before. As a result PopTech has made a commitment to the sciences through a variety of new programs, including last night’s science salon.

Each of the speakers in attendance is involved in work that has profound implications for positive social change in areas ranging from conservation to medicine; social networking to environmental cleanup, and each had big, actionable ideas to present.

Beth Shapiro is a geneticist who is shedding new light on how species respond to environmental change. She suggested that climate change is key to understanding species extinction, but also concluded that humans themselves share responsibility for much of the most recent extinctions. Beth gathers DNA from mammoth bones to do her research

Beth Shapiro
Beth Shapiro. Photography by Kris Krug

Justin Gallivan is a biochemist who “reprograms” genes to “seek and destroy” toxic herbicides. Justin’s work has huge implications for controlling gene expression.

Justin Gallivan
Justin Gallivan. Photography by Kris Krug

H. Sebastian Seung is a neuroscientist who is helping computers see the connections between the brain’s neurons. Sebastian introduced the concept of connectomes— the mapping of all neurons in the human brain— as the core to understanding what it means to be human. As he put it, there are millions of miles of wires inside your brain— “plenty of opportunity for mistakes.”

H. Sebastian Seung
H. Sebastian Seung. Photography by Kris Krug

Yasser Ansari uses mobile technology for wildlife exploration, and is bringing citizen science to the masses through Project Noah. Project Noah is designed to “boost our ecoIQs” and our knowledge of the wildlife that surrounds us.

Yasser Ansari
Yasser Ansari. Photography by Kris Krug

Christen Lien, is a “viola artist” whose music has been described as "ethereal and otherworldly; a bridge to the divine. “It’s not a violin; it’s a viola!” Christen opened and closed the PopTech Salon with two beautiful dreamlike pieces. Sublime.

Christen Lien
Christen Lien. Photography by Kris Krug

Both audience and speakers alike enjoyed conversing and relaxing together.

Question DC

Q and A

Photography by Kris Krug

During the day, PopTech videotaped several speakers and participants. (Huge thanks for NSF for providing us with our amazing crew, Cliff Braverman and Steve McNally)

NSF Filming in DC
Photography by Kris Krug

Look for more about last night’s salon over the upcoming days. Thanks to to the speakers and participants who participated in this extraordinary night! Special thanks to Intel and the NSF for their sponsorship of this event.

For more images of the salon by Kris Krug visit our Science, Living Systems & The Edge of Change set on flickr. If you have any of your own images, share them in the PopTech flickr pool.

This Week in PopTech: OK Go, Auditory Collages, Ultragreen Packaging


  • We are over the moon to announce OK Go as our first performers for PopTech 2010. OK Go just released their latest music video — we know this one’s going viral.
    WATCH: End Love
  • We released videos from the Chicago Salon that present ideas about how networked mapping and the innovative application of multiple technologies can more deeply reveal the dynamics of problems as well as drive social change.
    READ AND WATCH: Visualizing Data to Drive Social Change
  • We loved this quote by Joel Garreau: “Innovative cultures have in them fables of ‘honorable failure.’ — knowing losing as winning.”

Get Involved!

  • Do you live in the DC area? There are a few tickets left for our PopTech Salon in Washington, DC, which will feature three scientists at the cutting edge of potentially world-changing discoveries. The event is free but space is limited.
  • Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, you can follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, sign up for our Newsletter and subscribe to us here on the PopTech Blog.

Announcing OK Go at PopTech 2010

Photo credit: Edwin Roses

We are incredibly excited to announce that OK Go is performing at the PopTech 2010 Conference in October!

If you haven’t yet seen the band’s incredibly innovative videos — from their Grammy Award-winning “Here It Goes Again” to the amazing Rube Goldberg machine built for “This Too Shall Pass” — check them out. We can’t even imagine what these guys will cook up for the PopTech Conference. You won’t want to miss it.

Check out their new, just-released video, “End Love.”

Register today for PopTech 2010.

Visualizing Data to Drive Social Change

Several weeks ago, PopTech held a Chicago salon that focused on social mapping, and the ability to leverage networked technologies and old-fashioned communication alike to express local knowledge and perceptions as well as economic data and other figures that are often otherwise practically inaccessible to citizens.

Two of the featured speakers offered ideas about how networked mapping and the innovative application of multiple technologies can more deeply reveal the dynamics of problems as well as drive social change.

Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi, was in attendance to talk about how the open-source mapping project has used the aggregation of information to respond to emergencies in near real-time.

Patrick Meier at the PopTech salon on Social Mapping and Social Change, May 2010.

The Ushahidi platform relies on distributed data collected via text message, email, and web that is then visualized on a map or timeline. The project first began as a way to help track citizen reports of post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. Since then, Meier suggests in his talk, Ushahidi has been used by numerous organizations around the world for a variety of situations. These include tracking elections in a number of countries, enhancing Al Jazeera’s coverage of the January 2009 violence in Gaza, supporting WildLife Direct’s citizen wildlife tracking initiative in Kenya, and identifying clean up efforts in the wake of record snowstorms in the Washington D.C. metro area this past year. Most recently, a nonprofit environmental health group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade has deployed Ushahidi (in conjunction with a kite camera project that PopTech previously reviewed) to monitor the coastline in the wake of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Ushahidi had FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) calling in on day five, saying, folks, whatever you do, don’t stop mapping, you’re saving lives."

Around minute 4:50 in his talk, Meier explains Ushahidi’s role in the Haitian earthquake response and recovery. A number of organizations marshaled the assistance of thousands of individual volunteers, who translated and aggregated text messages as well as United Nations situation reports and news stories onto a Ushahidi platform customized for the Haitian disaster. The distributed response also took advantage of the country’s cellular technology infrastructure, which remained operational, to distribute a mobile “short code” that made it possible for affected Haitians to send text messages at no cost. The use of text messages made it possible for crisis teams to handle individual requests – about 1,000 text messages a day – a level of response normally impossible during crises. The Ushahidi platform also made it possible for disaster responders to filter requests by geographic area or type of need. Meier recalls that these affordances made it possible for near real-time communications in devastated Haitian communities on a scale “completely unprecedented in the history of disaster response.”

“Ushahidi had FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) calling in on day five, saying, folks, whatever you do, don’t stop mapping, you’re saving lives."

PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh are also part of the Ushahidi leadership team. Hersman spoke at PopTech in 2008. For more on Ushahidi’s Haiti response, check out this video.

Laura Kurgan, director of the Spatial Information Design Lab at Columbia University, also spoke at the Chicago salon. The Lab is a “think- and action-tank” that visualizes complex political and social data, such as incarceration rates and financial expenditures, that help re-envision the relationship between architecture, criminal justice, and community investment.

Laura Kurgan at the PopTech salon on Social Mapping and Social Change, May 2010.

In her talk, Kurgan focuses on the lab’s mapping and visualization efforts in New Orleans.

Reconstruction efforts in response to Hurricane Katrina have helped drive the radical transformation of public infrastructures like education, health, and housing. Yet Kurgan notes that the criminal justice system has largely been ignored. In fact, her maps reveal that in neighborhoods like Central City, which has the highest incarceration rates in New Orleans, per capita spending on prisons has increased since rebuilding began.

Kurgan points out, “the predominant governing institution” in neighborhoods like Central City is prison.

Her maps reveal that money is spent “on the neighborhood, but not in the neighborhood.” In other words, Kurgan points out, “the predominant governing institution” in neighborhoods like Central City is prison.

Here, Kurgan’s lab has also served as an intervention, helping to map the work of local organizations working in Central City in order to strengthen the connections between them.

For more on Kurgan’s work in New Orleans, check out the lab’s recent report on the subject.

Laura Kurgan also spoke at PopTech in 2009, watch her talk here.

Graphic visualizations of the Chicago salon by Peter Durand can be seen here.


I heard an episode of The Writers Almanac a few months ago that got me thinking about serendipity. I learned that lots of wonderful things have come about when researchers were looking for something else, including Silly Putty, penicillin, the principles of X-rays and chocolate chip cookies. Viagra was developed to treat hypertension and certain kinds of chest pain; it didn’t do such a good job at these things, but researchers found during the phase of clinical trials that it was good for something else.

“Accidental sagacity” was how serendipity was first described, when Horace Walpole (the 4th Earl of Orford, in case you didn’t know) coined the term after reading a fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip (Persian for Sri Lanka) about three royal boys who were always making accidental discoveries of things they weren’t looking for.

Accidental sagacity.

Between now and PopTech 2010 we’ll be exploring the theme of Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs and we want your help. Have you come across any great quotes or examples of the role accidents, failures and serendipity play in success?

Send us what you find (hello@poptech.org), and we’ll post some of them!

This Week in PopTech: Irrationality, Violence Interrupters and Smart Growth


  • We went behind the scenes to learn about the work of Violence Interrupters in Chicago.

Get Involved!

  • Do you live in the DC area? Mark your calendar for a special PopTech Salon in Washington, DC, which will feature three scientists at the cutting edge of potentially world-changing discoveries. The event is free but space is limited.
  • Are you or someone you know passionate about science, technology, and social innovation? We’re looking for amazing, energetic people to join our growing team.

If you’d like to receive a stream of these updates (and more) throughout the week in real time, you can follow us on Twitter, Tumblr, sign up for our Newsletter and subscribe to us here on the PopTech Blog.

On the Street With Violence Interrupters

Several weeks ago, PopTech held a brainstorming session in Chicago to investigate how social mapping tools can be used to create positive social change. As a test case, we talked with CeaseFire Chicago.

To learn more about CeaseFire’s work to prevent gun violence, PopTech caught up with several members of their team who attended the brainstorming session. What follows comes from several conversations that I’ve had with Dr. Gary Slutkin, Executive Director of CeaseFire, and CeaseFire Interrupters Timothy White and Eddie Bocanegra.

Gun violence in Chicago. It happens over money or a girlfriend or a neighborhood block. It happens over the smallest and most common of things. Someone steps on someone else’s shoes. Someone looks at someone the wrong way. And once it happens, retaliation is likely.

“They’re angry. And they have a reason to be angry,” Eddie Bocanegra, told me recently. “You know, maybe their closest friend just got shot. Or maybe the individual himself just got shot and he’s sitting in the hospital with a gunshot in his leg, and the only thing in his head is I’m going to go back as soon as I’m able to walk.

“Think about it. For the past two or three years, who knows, probably even longer than that, he’s seen his friends getting shot, and it becomes normal… In his mind it’s like Ok, this is how we live."

And that was exactly what went through Eddie’s mind when his close friend got shot and wound up paralyzed from the waist down. He was angry and ready to act on what he’d learned from the streets. “My intention was to go back and shoot somebody and inflict the same kind of pain that my friend was going through,” he told me.

Eddie Bocanegra describes the past that inspired him to support young men who turn to violence as a coping mechanism for anger. Video shot by our friend, Daniel Stephens.

Like Eddie, Dr. Gary Slutkin grew up in Chicago. But while Eddie spent fourteen years and three months in prison, Gary spent a large part of his career in Africa, working on some of the developing world’s biggest health issues – AIDS, TB, and cholera. When he returned home to Chicago in 1995 Gary focused his attention on an epidemic much closer to home.

“People told me about children shooting other children with guns, and I saw the magnitude of the problem,” he told me last year. “I asked people what they were doing to try to address it, and the things that were being expressed to me didn’t make any sense. I didn’t know what we would do, but I knew that what was out there had no chance.”

Gary established a violence prevention approach called CeaseFire. Over time, he says the violence plaguing his hometown began exhibiting to him all the signs of an infectious disease. His work evolved in recognition of this, and today, based on behavior change and health/epidemic control methods, CeaseFire is reducing shootings and violent crime in the inner-city Chicago neighborhoods where it is employed, by an average of 45%.

Part of what makes CeaseFire unique and successful is its use of Violence Interrupters, men and women who have or build a rapport with gang leaders and other at-risk youth, and who intervene in potentially violent situations before anyone pulls a trigger. The Interrupters typically have a background on the streets and have spent time in prison. Ex-offenders usually have an extremely challenging time getting a job after they’re released from prison, yet when Eddie applied to work as Interrupter his background was an asset. Like the other Interrupters, Eddie can read the streets fast, and knows what will or will not work in any given situation.

“Most of the time it’s that anger and the ego…and the friends on the sideline cheering them on telling them ‘go do this, go do that’," he told me. “I might get another Interrupter to calm the cheerleaders down… Then I’m able to pull him aside and have that personal communication with him, and I can feel my way around him. It’s like doing a psychological analysis to decide what approach I’m going to take with him. Every situation is different.”

“A lot of times I’ll share my experience… ‘Hey, everything you’re going through, I’ve been through before. But the difference is that just like you, I didn’t know how to control this anger. I didn’t know how to vent. I didn’t know exactly what avenues I actually had. So I’m here to help you with that. Vent. Talk to me. How can I help you?’”

He talks more quietly, trying to control his emotions, “I didn’t have anybody back then to kind of process this stuff”, he told me, “With CeaseFire, I’m given that opportunity to actually make a difference, to maybe reach out to individuals such as myself… well, just to reach out to individuals…who are living the way I was living at one time.”

I am reminded of talking to another Interrupter, James Highsmith last year. He said, “I helped create this beast, so I feel like I have no other choice but to do something… This is what you’re supposed to do. I be thinking What can I do, what can I do more, what magic thing can I do to make this stop….? This is what I think about every day. What the hell can I do to make everybody stop killing each other?”

Eddie Bocanegra
Eddie Bocanegra

Driving his beat in West Chicago, Minister Timothy White waves to people who frequently call out to him. His charisma is palpable. “This is the area I grew up in,” he tells me. “This is also the area that I ran the streets in, so I’m familiar with this area, and a lot of people are familiar with me.” This is the hallmark of the CeaseFire Interrupter. He tells me that fathers, unwilling to call the police on their own sons, and equally unwilling to have their sons kill someone, have called him in desperation. “My son’s in the basement loading up. Can you talk to him?” And later, both father and son have thanked him.

He tells me that if he himself can’t stop a potential act of retribution, he’ll know someone who can. “I’ll threaten to call his uncle…And he’ll be like, ‘WHAT?! You’re going to call my uncle?’ ‘He the only one you listen to. So I’m going to see what he says about you going out and killing everyone today.’"

Tim has a social fluidity that’s quite unusual. He understands how to do the violence mediation in an effective way because he has real social credibility with people active in the streets. At the same time, he walks into the PopTech brainstorming session with complete ease.

He explains to the group that currently the Interrupters’ use of technology is fairly basic, simple text messages back and forth between Interrupter and the streets that deliver information about the location of a situation that’s unfolding. Most of the real communication happens in person. Like Eddie, he points out that each situation is different, and his work depends heavily on human experience. “It’s almost as if it’s intuition. When you’re out there, there’s no one particular method. You just have to read the situation.“

Driving around, one of the few places at which we slowed down is Tim’s father’s church: “My father is the pastor… My father was a real busy man ministering to other people. Sometimes he didn’t even see what I was doing… until it was too late.” Tim puts his own kids in basketball and football, and tells them who he was and the mistakes he made. And his children have kept out of trouble. He tells me, “God covered them… I slipped through the cracks …Sometimes one or two will slide through the cracks; here and there you get a bad apple. But that wasn’t bad because what the devil meant for evil, God has turned around and worked it for good, so my background became my resume."

With his troubled background as his resume, Minister Tim White now works with Ceasefire to intervene in troubled situations before conflict turns to violence.

Dr. Slutkin doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how he feels about saving lives, he told me last year. “I keep my mind on the idea of the program. I am interacting with these Interrupters and the outreach workers, and I think I spend more time thinking about them and who they are, and in a way, kind of how much I love them really. I’m really inspired by them and what they’re doing and how much they’re putting into it. So my mind is on how exciting and cool and challenging and brilliant and committed they are…And how much we’ve got to get help to get it to another level…My mind is so much more on the unfinished business.”

I asked him why he does this work. At first he reacted as though the question simply didn’t make sense. Why does anyone do what they do? “At one level, I think you don’t even know.” He hesitated and sighed, “I mean I’ve been working on the largest issues I could find time after time because what else should you do with your time?

“I feel that as a result of the interaction of all of the experiences that I’ve had – you know I’ve really trained under some amazing people, you know, people who lead the smallpox campaign, who lead the AIDS campaign for the world… And now I’m learning from all these guys on the street and… we’ve GOT to do it. It’s an absolute obligation to take this as far as we can take it.”

Check out presentations and more behind-the-scenes videos from our Social Mapping Workshop and Salon in Chicago.