Deb Levine is a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here’s a list of the 2009 cohort.) “Deb is doing extraordinary things using mobile devices…to help drive access to information in an area that impacts everyone in the room,” Andrew Zolli explains.
Levine founded ISIS – Internet Sexuality Information Services – in 2001 to build better tools to promote sexual health and prevent disease. (Levine’s bio on the social innovation fellows page explains that “[u]sing the web, mobile phones and mash-ups, ISIS gives people private, convenient and accurate access to information on today’s major health issues, from HIV prevention to unplanned pregnancies to access to healthcare.”)
Raise your hands, she asks us, if you’ve ever been a teenager. “Now raise your hands if you know a teenager! Raise your hands if you know a teenager with an STD?” (Most of us raise our hands for questions one and two; very few for question three.)
By the age of 25, one in two young people will get an STD. Young black women are twice as likely to be affected as young white women. One in five people in the US with HIV do not know they have the disease.
Levine was hired as a sex educator at Columbia University, “to teach young people how to put condoms on bananas. They didn’t care.” So she closed the door and said, “I know you have burning questions about sexual health. I’m not accountable to your dean or to your parents; let’s go at it.” The first question was, “I’m on Prozac, I take ecstasy — how will that affect my erection?”
“I didn’t know the answer, but I knew I could do some research and get back to that young person with information that could affect his lifestyle.” But she didn’t have a confidential way to get back to him, and he’d just disclosed both a mental illness and recreational drug use. The college was putting T1 lines everywhere. “I thought, hm… there’s something about the screen and the distance it creates that allows intimate conversation about sensitive issues in safe ways.”
That spawned “Go Ask Alice,” the first anonymous health Q-and-A service online. In 2001 she founded ISIS, a nonprofit designed to increase sexual communication around sexual issues and decrase STDs.
All of their projects involve 1) the right people, 2) the right message and 3) the right channels. “The right people” means using epidemiological data. “Right messages” means going out and talking to people, whether virtually or in person. And “Right channels” means looking at what’s popular: e-vites? text messaging? They use any means necessary to reach those communities and engage them in critical health services.
One of their projects is InSpot. Men said that when they got syphilis, they wanted to tell their partners but couldn’t. Now they can send anonymous e-cards saying that they may have been exposed to an STD and offering links to ways to get tested.
Another project: the underwear contest, InBrief. 15 years of abstinence education in this country means teachers are afraid to say ‘sex’ in the classroom. Kids want information from experts but also gossip from friends. So they asked young people to design a message of safer sex for a pair of underwear, since that’s the last thing you see before you get naked. They had overwhelming response.
ISIS is a team of 8 talented people. “I started with provocative questions,” Levine explains. “To show you that we’re uncomfortable talking around sexual health and STDs. But now I want to ask you to go to the young people in your lives, to spread the word about ISIS projects, and to impose upon them the importance of honest discussion around sex and sexuality issues.”
They also need help, she said, around creating unconventional partnerships. They want to spread their message and increase sexual communication around the world.
Josh Nesbit spent summer of 2007 at a hospital in rural Malawi – St. Gabriel’s hospital.
CC image by Kris Krug.
The hospital serves 250,000 people spread over a radius of 100 miles, and has 2 doctors to privde healthcare. To deal with this incredible disparity, the hospital relies on 500 community health workers. These workers get basic training and a drug kit, and stay in the field – Nesbit tells us that he met only one of these volunteers in his first visit to the hospital.
That volunteer, Dickson, carried a notebook with him at all times, carefully wrapped in newspaper. When he finally got around to asking Dickson what was in the notebook, he learned that Dickson was keeping “beautiful handwritten drug adherence charts for 20 HIV patients,” which he was then delivering to the hospital by walking 30 miles and having nurses sign off on the charts. He realized that these health workers were often doing extraordinary work in the community, but were doing so in almost total isolation.
Josh Nesbit, photo by Kris Krüg
Shortly after, Nesbit met Ken Banks, the founder of Frontline SMS, a powerful platform that allows the sending and receiving of lots of SMS messages on a laptop. Frontline SMS was, Nesbit felt, the perfect platform to empower and network health workers. So he bought 100 phones for $10 each, a laptop, and a plane ticket back to Malawi. He’s been training workers to use the phones and to power them with solar panels, turning remote community health workers into a network.
More than 2000 patient updates have come in through the program. Certain messages merit a response from clinicians – there’s a roaving clinician who’s able to jump on a motorbike and visit patients who are in dire straits. Using the system, 130 visits have been carried out, triggered by urgent SMS messages. And thousands of less necessary visits have been saved by moving follow-up to an SMS-based system brokered by community workers who send in patient updates and adherence reports.
You can help this remarkable new project, Frontline SMS Medic. Their project, Hope Phones, encourages people to donate used phones. They’re sold and used to buy phones appropriate for the developing world which are donated to clincs. Nesbit’s target is to help 50 million people in the next through years by networking clinics and wants your used phone.
The afternoon’s session focuses on energy – conservation, solar energy, and the energy of of live performance. If you were listening to east coast hip-hop in the late 1990s, you know the name John Forté. He wrote two songs for the Fugees’ breakthrough album, “The Score”, and launched a solo career… with a major interuption. In 2000, he was arrested with a briefcase containing a large quantity of liquid cocaine, convicted of conspiracy to distribute and sentenced to 14 years in prison. Thanks to intervention of Senator Orren Hatch and President George W. Bush, his sentence was commuted.
John Forté, photo by Kris Krüg
It’s a treat to be introduced as a singer-songwriter, Forté tells us, because he was a rapper, selling lots of records… “until I was not.” He’s unflinching about the fact that the failure of his rap career led him to getting involved with drug trafficking. Released last year, he’s building a new identity and new career “as a guy with a guitar.” In this new incarnation, he sings a cover of Kate Bush’s “Deal With God” with versus replaced by his rhymes: one line starts, “Ressurected on my 33rd, seven years was sufficient, God…” It’s a hell of a cover – you can hear a version here.
His new songs are confessional, raw, stripped down and literate, with a songs like one with a hook “I John who am also your brother”. He closes his set with “The Breaking of a Man”, a poetic interpretation of his arrest and time in prison. It, and his new and old work, are well worth your time for a close listen – Forté’s not just performing these days. He’s working with youth, writing a book and trying to be honest about his missteps, helping others avoid the mistakes he made.
Derek Lomas is a PopTech social innovation fellow. (Here’s a list of all of the 2009 fellows.) Lomas is part of The Playpower Foundation, created “to foster development of affordable, effective and fun learning games for under-privileged children around the world.”
“Derek Lomas is doing something absolutely extraordinary,” says Andrew Zolli. “You’ve heard about the $100 laptop experiment; Derek’s here to tell us about the $12 computer.”
CC image from Kris Krug.
Lomas asks, “What would you do if you were walking through a crowded electronics marketplace in India and someone tried to sell you a computer for only $12? I didn’t buy it! I had to live in India for almost a year before I discovered that it is a real computer, and also that if you bargain, you can buy it for ten bucks.” These computers are sold around the world, in Nicaragua and Pakistan and other such countries. How can a computer only cost $12? It uses an existing television as a screen, first of all. But beyond that, it’s based on the 8-bit 6502 microchip, originally popularized with the Apple II computer and Nintendo entertainment system. The computer is effectively in the public domain because the patents on the tech have expired. Hence, it can be afforded by the emerging middle class — those who make between $2 and $10/day.
“I first encountered this computer while working in India…doing ethnographic design research on uses of mobile phones in urban and rural contexts.” He decided to stay in India and teach a course remotely via Skype to students at UCSD. He bought the computer because he thought it would make an interesting class discussion. When he first turned it on, he wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or amazed — because it works! You can compose 8-bit music, or learn to program in Basic. But most of the software was pretty low-quality, a hodgepodge of typing games and 8-bit karaoke. But his own education with 8-bit educational games was very rich: Carmen Sandiego, etc. "It occurred to me that if this platform had just a few decent games, and one good typing game, it could be economically transformative, because touch-typing can make a difference between earning a dollar a day or a dollar an hour.
The companies that makes these computers are concerned with keeping costs down — “not educating kids.” They can’t design and research effective learning games. “That’s why we created PlayPower.org — a global open source community” made up of 8-bit hackers and developers. The intention is to develop 8-bit games for distribution around the world. “We are looking to move into some uncharted territory by trying to license some of that 8-bit abandonware software. It no longer has commercial value but would be incredibly valuable for our product.”
Their planned distribution network is simply giving this educational software away so it can be bundled with these low-cost computers instead of the 8-bit karaoke. The companies have asked whether there’s any programming in Arabic. “We can leverage the existing low-cost manufacturing base and also the informal distribution network bringing these computers around the world to places where consumers are buying them.”
We’re still in the Teaching Change session this morning. “How do we teach, and how do we build curriculum?” asks Zolli.
For an answer, we hear from Dennis Littky (PopTech bio, webpage), founder of Big Picture Learning, an organization which works to radically reform what education is. But before he gets going, one of his students gets up on stage and takes over, leading the room in a chant. Half of the room is chanting “Pop!Tech, Pop!Tech,” and the other half chants “We can change!”
CC image from Kris Krug.
“We all know that everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame,” Littky says, quipping that being here is clearly his 15 minutes. He asks how many people in the room have been fired, and a lot of hands go up. “We’ve all done great work in our life, and then we get fired and we get known; that’s what happened to me. When I got fired, they wrote a book about Dennis Littky and his fight for a better school.” The book was Doc: The Story Of Dennis Littky And His Fight For A Better School. NBC also made a movie, called A Town Torn Apart, which tells this same story. (Here’s a review.)
The question, he says, is how to change the system and how to change what’s going on inside the school. He’d been a principal most of his life, and thought he was done with that; he came to Brown University; and then he was asked whether he would start a school. “Only if we could do it exactly how we want,” Littky said, not thinking anyone would say yes — “and they said yes.”
They asked 300,000 students to name one word that describes school, and they said “boring.” So his plan was, let’s create a school that’s not boring. “That’s why kids drop out,” he said. “They’re bored, they’re not engaged. We really closed our eyes and said, we’re not going to tweak around the edges. This is too big; we have to redesign. What would school be, if you didn’t know there was such a thing as school?” If you were homeschooling your kid, would you make him sit and read a book for 45 minutes, then ring a bell so he could go to the bathroom, then make him do science for 45 minutes…? A lot of reformers, he says, are trying to make teachers a little better, or materials a little better, but really change needs to be about engaging students in developing their own personal learning plan.
“How do you find their interests and passions? Let them be with adults and develop those passions — then go back to school, and you don’t need those regular classes; let them put all those pieces together!” How do we get to the real stuff kids need to learn?
“Every kid in our school has a different curriculum,” he explains. In his first year, a student comes in who says “I want to study death.” That was a little weird, he admits, but he was supposed to be the cool principal and this was the new plan, so — what to do? They said yes. Every 9 weeks, the kids exhibit their work in front of a committee of parents, teachers, and other students, and talk about their work. The girl in question stood up — she’d been a hellraiser in middle school — and it turned out she’d done 17 drafts of her paper before presenting it, she was clearly taking the work seriously. Her entire family had been killed coming over from Cambodia. She had to deal with that. So she talked about that, wrote about it, studied about it, thought about it, for 9 weeks.
“‘90% of my life this has been at the top of my brain,’” she said, and now she felt that she’d been able to explore it and exorcise it and could move on. “I was so proud to be part of a school where she could do that. That’s the kind of interest, be it good or bad, that you want to capture.”
Another kid wanted to study the Vietnam War. He picked a mentor who was building a monument for the soldiers. “You build your own schedule,” Littky reminds us, so the kid really immersed in it. He took a class for how to teach teachers about the Vietnam War. His senior year, Litky asked the kid why this had been his obsession, and the kid explained, “Ever since I was 5 years old, I’ve asked my dad about the war, and every year, he turned and walked away and never said a word.” For his senior project, the kid took his dad back to Vietnam. The kid was 18, the same age his father had been when he went to war. “Did I care whether he knew about the Boer War? No! He learned something in depth! And he went on to become a history major and is now a teacher.”
Right now, they have 73 schools around the country; and recently they started a college, College Unbound, “because [colleges] do a worse job [than high schools]!”
Littky brought a student, Michael Reeves (the one who began the session with the chant) who is now a college student and will give us some perspective.
“My story,” Michael Reeves begins — “hi Mom and Dad! — I’ve never been one of those students to sit in a classroom, raise my hand, be at the top of the class.” Though he hated being at the bottom of the class. All he cared about in middle school was being in the “in” crowd. While he was in school, the sitcom Nip/Tuck came out, and he decided, they make a lot of money; “I want to be a plastic surgeon!” Make a lot of money and also be helping people!
So when he heard about the big picture, having an internship, getting your own laptop, he took the dive; he figured he’d work with a plastic surgeon. Instead he wound up working with a cardiologist. He was fourteen years old at the time. He was allowed to watch a six-hour open-heart surgery. “I walked out of there and realized, plastic surgery is not for me, because I can’t stand there for six hours like that!” That’s how he knows the Big Picture high school was right for him — he was able to find out empirically in high school that plastic surgery was not actually right for him.
So instead, he created a brochure answering the question of what happens to you while you’re in surgery. He was able to follow his interest and passion and find a way to help other people with it. From there he thought he might want to be a psychologist, might want to be a chef — and now he’s found his true passion, working with youth, and he wants to be a social worker. In his senior year he started a ten-week program for youth, designed to help them work on self-esteem and their own personal power, to help them choose on their own which influences they want to follow.
For college, he decided he wanted to do something more traditional, but when he found out about College Unbound, he knew it was right for him. There are 8 other college students in the program. They started the college by doing a cross-country trip to LA, doing oral histories in each student’s hometown, including meeting senators and governors. “It was a way of doing real-world learning.” The college experience is a scary thing, he says, “because we’re doing college in a new way… we as people have to change our mindset about what education is.”
Littky returns to remind us that colleges are worse than high schools. Every 12 seconds a high school student drops out, and 89% of kids who are the first generation in their family to go to college don’t make it. Only 11% of first-generation college students actually make it.
“What got me angry is, I think colleges need to say, ‘we need to be more student-ready,’” rather than arguing that the students aren’t ready to come to school. “There’s something wrong with the institution,” he says. Hence, College Unbound, a continuation of the high school program. “We work life-to-text, not text-to-life.” So there are college kids working in architecture, advertising — they’re doing the work, and then back on campus the teachers make sure the kids have the reading and writing and analysis to get the job done.
When John Fetterman was talking yesterday about his town, Littky went up to him afterwards and asked about his schools. “In most small towns, the kids are sent outside — and that’s another thing that ruins the town’s identity,” Litky notes. “I told him I’d be interested in developing a K-12 system in his district, whatever he pays an outside district to take that kid away, I’d take that money.” So change is already happening.
Since this session began at 9am, 800 students have dropped out of high school — approximately the same number of people currently sitting in the Opera House. Littky ends his presentation with that sobering fact.
Our second session on Friday morning is themed around Teaching Change. First up after the break is James O’Brien of Brooklyn Community Arts & Media High School. He’s a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow, along with the rest of the 2009 cohort.
CC image from Kris Krug.
The school started four years ago; now there are 4 grades and 430 students. “We believe that our students…simultaneously have access to every form of media, but also are the most susceptible to being consumed by that media.” They use a 3-pronged approach of academics, creative arts, and professional development to support their students.
“Hopefully someone in the BCAM community is watching this live streamed” — Fridays at BCAM students get to dress how they want (no uniform shirts) and today is pyjama day at BCAM, and it sounds like O’Brien got some flak for not being there. “Pyjama day will be never-before-seen like we do it at BCAM,” he says. “Yesterday when we were hyping pyjama day and I said I wasn’t going to be there, I’d be at a conference, the kids said: you’re scared to wear pyjamas!” So he hopes they’re watching the live stream and can see that he really did have someplace to be today. He had pyjamas on earlier today, he acknowledges, but now he’s wearing a suit.
BCAM is a small school in Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City. “Our students are like any set of students in any inner city across the country or world. We’re an un-screeened open-enrollment school… we have access to students who aren’t selected for specialized schools, didn’t audition or take a screened exam.” Some come in with college literacy levels; some come in with third and fourth grade literacy and academic skills, “and every place in between.”
The student body is dominantly working-class, “though as Brooklyn is and has been and continues to be, we also have middle class students,” he adds. It’s a diverse student population. “We try to support our students and we have to approach some real critical aspects in educating our students. Our students have a wide variety of skills,” and the educational approach has to meet their needs.
New York requires the kids to pass 5 Regents Exams, so there’s a Regents’ Exam prep model folded in with their other approach. Many students who come to BCAM come already alienated, they’ve never had good experiences in school before, their families aren’t motivated because they’ve never seen their kids succeed in school. “We try to change that in partnership with them.”
“It’s Bed-Stuy, New York, and some of our students do come with somewhat of a culture of crime and violence,” he acknowledges. Some students have gang affiliations. “We don’t deny that, we don’t berate our students for having that inside of them; we try to help them understand it and to give them other options and to meet them as real people.”
He shows us a slide of David Hollis, one of the first students to enroll in BCAM. “That’s an all-American looking young man,” he notes — the photo shows him in his gym uniform. “He typifies a BCAM student: charismatic, a leader, nice with the ladies, really smart and savvy in how he does things. I’ve seen him lead million-dollar foundations to tour our building and talk with them as if he were an adult with them.” Last spring he and 11 other students went to Chicago for a culture and college prep tour; “he’s legendary in Chicago, at this point!” He mixed with professors, with museum, docents, and again — “was nice with the ladies.”
David, though, also has another side to him. “All these compliments are real, but David also has a side that isn’t nice with the community. He already has a felony charge of robbery, has been superintended-suspended numerous times, doesn’t do well in formal academic classes, has at best a C average and doesn’t pass all of his classes.” But he’s gotten caught up in the end. “I’ve sat up with his mother at one in the morning bailing him out of jail.” I believe in him, O’Brien says, and I believe he’s working this out. David is a typical student at BCAM, not an anomaly.
They’re trying to develop a “professional preparatory model,” integrating academics steeped in an inquiry model where students push to connect what they’re studying with real life and real world issues. “We want them to make sense of it,” O’Brien says. “We also have to integrate that with the Regents’ exams, so it can’t just be personalized performance-based education” — that’s a real struggle, since the Regents’ is mostly about content and skills, not personal relevance.
Art is considered an academic discipline at BCAM, so students take a 3-year art curriculum, “which is unheard-of in small public schools, especially given funding cuts.” Art is marginalized, “ironically enough in New York City, the mecca of art.” The kids do fine arts, media arts, to have a critical analysis and analyze the context and impact of art. “We also have an incredible elective program…we contract community-based artists and educators” from the neighborhood to come into the school a few days a week. and if teachers want to put on another hat — if a science or English teacher wants to teach an elective that they’re passionate about, they can. This quarter there are 18 electives that kids can opt into, and they do four a year in nine-week modules. Once a quarter they do “Night to Shine,” where students demonstrate what they’re learning to family and friends and community.
And they push students to engage in professional experiences, through internships and partnership experiences with the school’s partners. “We push students to do what we call publishing and exhibiting — to revise, to take things to full completion, whether it’s a music studio beat or a piece of writing or a science experience.” They’ve published two books of student writing and artwork; they’ve made six short films that are on their website or on YouTube; there are two full cds of 16 songs apiece, brought out with their mobile music studio. And they’ve exhibited work all over the place: MoMA, international center for photography at Brooklyn Art Museum, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
A professional filmmaker is making a documentary about the school. She’s partnered with a group of ten students, all of whom have cameras; she shoots from her angle, but gives them free range to shoot from their angle.
BCAM teamed up with a hip-hop festival in New York, partnering with hiphop artists and a film and production team; students edited, wrote, and produced the whole film. O’Brien shows us part of the first verse; it looks as polished as anything you’d seen on television, and there’s something powerful about knowing that the lyrics and the voice we’re hearing belong to kids for whom these realities of violence are real. (You can see that very video here at YouTube.)
“What we want to do next,” O’Brien says, is to have students specialize in an academic or artistic discipline, as one does in college. They do sporadic art projects based on partnerships; their hope is in the next year to push each student to do a project where they’re working in the community on an issue, expressing a response which can go into the graduation portfolio. And, he says, “we want students to get paid” — to develop small businesses, to be able to hustle the products they make in school and have revenue come back into a bank account or investment portfolio that they can access upon graduation to help them be prepared for the future.
They have one floor and four classrooms; they share space with a middle school. They want someday to have dedicated studios and labs, and a nonprofit foundation to develop funds to keep the model alive and keep the school alive. “We can give [these kids] a fighting chance to succeed.”
Steve Barr, the founder of GreenDot schools, has been on the front lines of turning around education in Los Angeles, where they’ve built 17 schools. Barr (after cracking a joke about the TED/PopTech rivalry) tells us that he’s not an educator, but he is a product of the California public school system. He tells us that his class, the class of 1977 of Cupertino High School, represents the last year of the fully funded, truly high quality educational system in the US. Silicon Valley wasn’t about engineers who liked to surf – it was the product of a really good school system. “A couple guys down the street, Steve and Steve, went into a garage and built a pretty cool company.” And as a son of a waitress, Barr received the same education.
“In my lifetime, California schools went from the best in the world to the worst.” We debate about this. The left says “let’s give more money to a failed centralized system built for a manufacturing society.” The right is largely indifferent and blames the teacher’s union.
Barr was transformed from a career in politics by two tragedies – the death of his younger brother and his mother within two years. He started thinking about schools and how they’d changed. When he graduated from high school, he tells us, the schools believed that “20% of you are going to college and will do great, and 20% we can’t do anything for – the rest of you, if you can read and write, are going to do just fine” because there will be good jobs that will let you support a family and buy a house. That’s not how it works now. And “most of the people in this room have fled the system.”
Barr and GreenDot took over Locke High School in Watts. “Tough neighborhood” doesn’t begin to describe the location around this campus. It was founded in 1968 as a “sign of hope” in the wake of the Watts riots. The Blood and the Crips were founded within ten blocks of the school. The school has become a dumping ground for surrounding schools – for problem students and teachers.
Since the school opened, 60,000 people have passed through this badly broken school. Only 8,000 made it to four year universities. Only 2,200 graduated from those schools. How many came back to Watts to become a teacher, start a business, or be politically active? Basically, none. “Can any business overcome the infrastructural damange of that school?” Every city you’re from, he tells us, has a Locke High School. Until we fix this, there’s no widespread American financial recovery.
What would be the fastest way to change education in the US? We could make private schools illegal. (He’s joking. Sort of.) “What would happen if Bill Gates had to send his kids to public school? He’d go to McKinsey and demand that they turn this stuff around!”
Barr visited the big public schools in LA and observed that they looked like prisons. And then he went to the succesful private schools. “You’d never send your kid to a school with over a thousand kids if you were paying 25 grand – they’d fall through the cracks.” You’d have high expectations for every kid, and bring kids up to speed so they could learn together and so every kid would be focused on college prep. You’d call the school if they didn’t assign your kids homework – and they’d answer the phone. And you’d participate in the school’s culture – the bake sales and the teacher conferences.
Critically – and perhaps most politically – “You’d never spend 25 grand if half the money didn’t go to the classroom but to another building where folks walk around in suits.” 60% of the employees in the LA educational system aren’t teachers. Sure, he tells us, we need some principals and some school bus drivers. But the LA system is building the best bureacracy that money can buy.
GreenDot now runs 16 schools in LA, and one in the South Bronx. While they’re enormously succesful, Barr tells us, “I’m tired of charter schools.” He’s tired, because we’ve proved that you can succeed with high expectations for kids. The question is how we might create a movement.
He references Lucy of Lucy’s El Adobe, a Mexican restaurant in LA. She’s a Buddhist, and suggests that there are two things needed to make change: wisdom and method. Barr’s method, in no small part, focuses on finding politicans who are able to challenge their preconceptions about race, politicians “who actually know that black and brown kids can learn”. Politicians who don’t get it tell him that his students learn because they’ve got motivated parents. They do, Barr agrees, but the vast majority of those parents in LA are illegal immigrants. You don’t need rich parents to get a good education – you need committed, engaged parents and politicians who accept responsibility for turning around the American educational system.
Hayat Sindi is a Saudi medical researcher who has invented a machine “combining the effects of light and ultra-sound for use in biotechnology.” (So saith Wikipedia.) A few years ago she was part of a group of Arab women who peddled for peace — participating in a bicycle ride from Beirut to Ramallah intended to “send a message to world leaders to get on with it and stop the suffering that continuous conflict brings.”
CC image by Kris Krug.
She’s the first Arab woman to win a Pop!Tech fellowship, and she’s part of this morning’s Mindshifts session, speaking as a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here’s a list of the 2009 fellows — not surprisingly, it’s a pretty august crowd.)
“Hayat is an extraordinary scientist… an incredibly passionate advocate for the role of women and girls in the sciences, in particular in an important region of the world,” says Andrew Zolli, welcoming her to the stage.
“This is my first time addressing such a diverse American community; I’m honored to be here,” she says. She’s the co-inventor and co-founder of Diagnostics For All, but wants to share a bit of her journey & passion before telling us about it.
“My journey has involved breaking boundaries between the East and the West, to help society and save everyone: child, man, or woman of different religions and cultures.” She was born in Mecca and comes from a family of 8 children with a traditional upbringing and enormous love for knowledge. Since childhood she has admired people who do something for humanity. “I dreamt one day to be like them, to make a difference in this world.”
Seventeen years ago she left home in her teens, on her own — not speaking a word of English — to Britain, to follow the dream of becoming a scientist. She graduated with honors from Kings College and received a scholarship to get a PhD in biotechnology from Cambridge. Almost three years ago, she came to Harvard, to work in a special scientific lab. “This lab is making great discoveries to help society and community at large.”
That lab is where Diagnostics For All arose, a project which involves creating point-of-care diagnostic devices microfabricated in paper. (This pretty much blows my mind.)
“Our mission is to provide a very low cost health care solutions to improve health worldwide.” They’re a nonprofit enterprise. “Millions of people are dying around the world because they can’t afford access to diagnostic tools.” Sindi shows a picture of a lab in the developing world — bulky equipment and unsanitary conditions. DFA has a solution, putting the power of the whole diagnostic lab at the patient’s fingertip.
“Our technology is made of paper, so it’s very low-cost,” she explains. It’s portable — can be carried, folded, put in a pocket. It doesn’t require external power or reagents, and it’s safely disposable — can be incinerated with a match. It’s also very tiny, which requires only a minimum amount of tears, saliva, or urine to give results in seconds. “We can do all of this on a piece of paper while maintaining the high level of quality.”
How does it work? Take a drop of bodily fluid and place it on the device. The fluid wicks up the channel and reacts with chemical reagents in wells which are built into the paper. The color change might tell you, e.g., about the presence of glucose or protein. There are many variations; it can test for many different things. “Our first application is liver function tests — there are a huge number of patients with HIV who suffer from liver damage because they take many pills which can cause liver failure. How we deal with this problem in the US? Monitoring blood taken from the patient so the doctor can keep an eye on the liver function. What’s happening in the developing world? It doesn’t happen.” Even if the patient has a sample sent to the lab, it takes weeks to get results, and the patient may have returned to a remote area — and by then it may be too late.
In the US, 5% of patients medicated for HIV develop liver failure. In the developing world, the figure is 15%. This is only HIV/AIDS and its medication; if we add TB, the number will jump to 2.3 million patients in the developing world who will die — not because of the disease but because of side effects from the drugs meant to save them. “Diagnostics for All can solve this problem head-on, simply by monitoring.” Take a drop of blood, squeeze it gently on the device, and you’ll have results in seconds. A doctor can screen a whole village.
They’re developing a suite of diagnostic tools for other problems as well. Because the tech is so sophisticated, it’s going to expand the market area. They’ve also introduced tele-medicine, as a complement to the device. A remote doctor can take a photo of the device and send it via SMS to a lab in Africa or the US who can give him results.
The team behind the project is a mixtures of MDs, PHDs, and MBAs. “Diagnostics for all is guaranteed to benefit all of us; and it’s going to take all of us to make it work. We need your support,” she tells us.
She closes by telling us what she’s learned from her journey so far. “My first message is to the women, especially women in the Middle East. I want to say to them that you are strong, you are smart, you are intelligent, and you can also make break-throughs. Society and science can be hand in hand. I had a dream as a child to make a difference, and it has all happened.”
Leadership in innovation should be taken by people who love diversity, people who can bring other people different skills, people who care, and people who are brave to break boundaries and create values for the next century. “The power is us doing it together.”
CC image of PopTech Executive Director Andrew Zolli by Kris Krug.
“The Science and Public Leadership Fellows program aims to develop a corps of highly visible and socially engaged scientific leaders who embody science as an essential way of thinking, discovering, understanding and deciding, and who can engage the public in areas of vital importance.
Starting in 2010, and each year thereafter, PopTech will select up to 20 high-potential, early- and mid-career scientists working in areas of critical importance to the U.S. and the planet, such as: energy, food, water, public health, climate change, conservation ecology, green chemistry, computing, education, oceans, and national security. Fellows will be given year-long training and skills development in communications, media training, public engagement and leadership, beginning with an initial, week-long intensive program in mid-June 2010 led by a world-class faculty of experts in these fields.
Fellows will develop relationships with leaders in communications, media and public engagement who will provide ongoing guidance and mentoring. Fellows will also be provided significant opportunities to raise their public profile and that of their work through many media, and to participate in a peer-level alumni network.
Luis von Ahn, professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon, believes we can make computers better by harnessing the intelligence of humans. Inventor of the CAPTCHA and the reCAPTCHA, a technology that both helps eliminate spam and digitizes books, Luis was recently recognized with a MacArthur fellowship for his groundbreaking and creative work.
“Have you seen those distored squiggly characters on web forms? Do they annoy you? I invented that.”
Luis explains why we need CAPTCHAs on the internet. They prevent scalpers from buying millions of tickets at once through online systems like Ticketmaster, and they slow down spammers from obtaining a near infinity of email accounts. They don’t always work, he explains – an automated system on Yahoo creates distorted letters from random letters. When the system prompted a user with the word “WAIT”, she waited for twenty minutes before giving up. He’s just grateful it didn’t say “RESTART”.
Luis von Ahn. photo by Kris Krüg
Without CAPTCHAs, bad things can happen. He tells us about a Slashdot poll that asked users to vote on the best CS grad school in US. Students at CMU wrote a program to game the poll. MIT fought back, and within a couple of days, the poll needed to be taken down as both schools had more than six million votes.
Spammers need lots of email accounts, since each account tends to be limited to sending a few hundred emails a day. So spammers write programs to harness lots of accounts. CAPTCHAs slow this down. So spammers are now building CAPTCHA sweatshops, hiring humans to type CAPTCHAs in countries where the minimum wage is very low. Luis observes that, well, at least it’s costing spammers something. And it’s creating jobs in the developing world. Pornographers who want email accounts have found out how to do this for free – they ask people to solve the CAPTCHAs they’re confronted with in exchange for free porn.
CAPTCHAs have now been tried in different ways in different countries. Russian CAPTCHAs frequently ask users to solve complex math problems – Luis is astounded that Russian CAPTCHA authors assume that a random user can calculate a limit in a complex algebraic equation. Indian CAPTCHAs sometimes feature circuit designs and ask a user to calculate resistance. And, of course, in the US, blog captures feature tough problems like “What is 1+1?” He points out that all these CAPTCHAs fail, because they’re all pretty easily solveable by computers.
While he’s proud that 200 million CAPTCHAs are typed online everyday, Von Ahn mourns the waste of human time and energy, up to 500 thousand hours a day. So Luis invented the reCAPTCHA, which is used to help in the scanning of books. Scanning books involves taking photos of book pages then using OCR (optical character recognition) to figure out what the words are. In older texts, OCR is quite inexact – he tells us that for books written before 1900s, OCR misses roughly 30% of the words.
reCAPTCHAs present users with two distorted words. The system knows what one is – if you identify it correctly, it assumes you’re probably answering the second one (the order is randomized) to the best of your ability. When a dozen users identify an unknown word the same way, it’s very likely that the recognition is an accurate one. The system now digitizes 45 million words a day, the equivalent of 4 million books a year.
The two word reCAPTCHAs are as efficient as entering in random strings of 6 to 8 word characters, so von Ahn isn’t making us work harder. The texts are coming from the New York Times archives and from the Google book scanning project. Google likes the technology so much that they just acquired reCAPTCHA.
In the question and answer session, von Ahn explains that he’s hoping to use these methods for language translation and image tagging in the near future.
Andrew closes our first session with the announcement of a new initiative. He explains that Pop!Tech has focused on three areas: innovation, social change and science. The new initiative focuses on helping young, working scientists become visible leaders, learning communication and leadership skills to complement their scientific skills. Starting next year, 15 to 20 scientists will be involved in a year-long training program which will may appearances on the Pop!Tech stage. Andrew acknowledges that, in the academy, there’s something of an anti-popularization bias – the role of Pop!Tech is to ensure that scientists continue doing excellent academic work but are simply more skilled at communicating their exploration, knowledge and discovery. This work is supported in a big way by Microsoft, along with National Georgraphic, and is endorsed by the National Science Foundation.