PopTech Blog

PopTech Fellow Emily Pilloton on Colbert Report

PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Emily Pilloton was on Colbert Report last night, talking about her work with Project H Design and her new book, Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People and demonstrating the Hippo Roller. Watch her great interview below (and here’s her PopTech talk):

You Can Help a UN Citizen Ambassador in Haiti

Editor’s note: All of us in the PopTech community can help by spreading the word about this Twitter campaign with specific syntactic conventions. Emily will be in touch as she heads back to Haiti; see her photo essay from Haiti in December 2009 here.

Just two weeks ago, I returned from a month-long trip to Haiti, taking photos and documenting the serious humanitarian crisis. (More about my journey is here.) I couldn’t have imagined that the friends I made and happy children I photographed in the streets would soon be in peril, or dead.

Haiti children
Photo by Emily Troutman

Now, I am about to head back, working as a photojournalist and writer, but I need your help, PopTech readers, as I try to make a difference — using the internet — to find peoples’ loved ones lost in the wreckage.

Throughout this catastrophe, the Twittersphere has been my primary source of information coming out of Haiti because phone service has been down, but internet is working. Twitter is especially being used by people who were desperate, like me, to find out if their friends and family are alive. People send dozens of tweets in every direction with their families’ names.

They also search Twitter for the names of their friends, neighborhoods, streets, etc. Unfortunately, as we all know, search.twitter.com is a horrible way to really drill down and filter information, both because of the volume of tweets and the mix of content. Lists are also clumsy, user-driven and random.

Project EPIC (Empowering People in Crisis) has come up with a brilliant plan to teach people how to “Tweak the Tweet,” a smart tagging system for listing to track and sort Haitians who are lost, dead, injured, missing or alive.

Right now, people are simply re-Tweeting names and other peoples’ desperate cries to find loved ones. Many people are asking me to find their families through e-mails and Facebook. But when I get to Haiti, the bandwidth will be very low and opening Facebook pages and e-mail will be burdensome.

If you want to help make a difference, I propose the ultimate re-tweeting:

Everyone should go on Twitter, Facebook, and other walls for lost loved ones in Haiti, and rewrite calls for information and updates in the format proposed by EPIC.

Here’s an example of a descriptive tweet with specific hashtags:

#haiti #imok #name John Doe #loc Mirebalais Shelter #status minor injuries

A quick suggestion: so that there is less duplication of effort, people could commit to ONLY rewriting the names of people whose first initial is the same as theirs.

My promise: When I am in Haiti, I will make every effort to visit Twitter and look for the names of people missing when I travel the city’s neighborhoods. I will tell you what I find, and I will show you how you’ve healed Haiti from your homes.

Let’s show the world what technology can do.

Be in touch: @emilytroutman, UN Citizen Ambassador

The Numbers We Need the Most

Teach for America is a data-driven organization. A quick perusal of the organization’s website reveals some of the detailed statistics on recent recruits. The 2009 corps is more than 4,000 teachers; 18 percent were the first in their family to attend college; 15 percent attended grad school or worked as professionals before applying. But last week, The New York Times reported on another batch of numbers indicating, counter-intuitively, that TFA alums might demonstrate less civic engagement than peers who turned down an offer or who quit before their two-year commitment was up. Understanding these stats is certainly worthwhile, but the attention to TFA veterans should not come at the expense of attention to TFA teaching and the positive impact it has on public school students.

The focus of the story, by TFA alumna Amanda Fairbanks, is a forthcoming study from Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam, who surveyed everyone accepted by TFA from 1993 to 1998 and posed questions about voting, charitable giving, and civic engagement. The Eduwonk blog zeroed in on the findings themselves and suggested that the differences are interesting but hardly tragic: “while 92 percent of the sample overall voted in the last presidential election, only 89 percent of TFA completers did. You decide how much of a problem this is given that these rates are about double the averages for the age-cohort overall.”

And as a future data point myself, a recent recruit for the 2010 cohort, I also couldn’t help but trip over anecdotal evidence that conflicts with the study results. Every alum I spoke with during the application process is highly involved in some sort of civic enterprise; so are most of the alums they know. My informal polling is no way to make a counter-argument (see, I’ve already absorbed the data-driven ethos), so instead I’ll say this: the data on civic participation for TFA alums is intriguing, but is of less civic importance than the data on how those teachers are improving classroom education.

Put simply, we should focus more on how education is changing for the students and less on how life is changing for the recruits.

Fortunately, Amanda Ripley did exactly that in an Atlantic article published just days after Fairbanks’s NYT piece. For her in-depth feature, Ripley had access to 20 years of Teach for America data linking teachers to student testing results. Her snapshot: the organization has test-score stats for 85 to 90 percent of the nearly 500,000 students taught by 7,300 TFA teachers annually. The impact of this information in recent school years has been extraordinary:

In 2007, 24 percent of Teach for America teachers moved their students one and a half or more years ahead, according to the organization’s internal reports. In 2009, that number was up to 44 percent. That data relies largely on school tests, which vary in quality from state to state. When tests aren’t available or sufficiently rigorous, Teach for America helps teachers find or design other reliable diagnostics.

How does TFA achieve results like this? I don’t head to the summer training institute until June, but my current perspective aligns with Ripley’s conclusions: the organization finds people who don’t give up when faced with a daunting task (the word “relentless” turns up frequently during the application process) and teaches them the techniques to engage any student they meet. In practice, this means applying an intricate combination of strategies on a moment-to-moment basis to manage classroom behavior, tailor instruction to individual students, and reevaluate anything that isn’t working. Ripley captures this process in motion, chronicling in detail the methods of William Taylor, a math teacher at Kimball Elementary School in Washington, D.C. who is not a member of Teach for America, but who embodies the skills the organization aims to replicate.

Watching an effective teacher can be mesmerizing and extraordinarily intimidating. On a recent observation visit to a TFA teacher’s classroom, I saw middle-schoolers read in attentive silence, cheer at the start of a grammar lesson, and race to organize themselves into diligent literature study groups. The short videos that accompany the Atlantic article offer a taste of these classroom approaches, which teachers then multiply through an entire class period and across a six-hour day. I am under no illusion that this will be easy.

But considering the results that effective teachers, some of them TFA recruits, are having in classrooms today, I have to ask: Is it more important that the young adults in front of those classrooms might, after two years, change their patterns of civic engagement relative to their highly-engaged peers? Or is it more important that they are committed to a national experiment to refine the elements of good teaching and share them with the students who need them most?

Haiti: Ways to Find Information and Take Action

The images coming out of Haiti in the days since the devastating earthquake have been horrifying. Although the news today is beginning to report increasingly unsettled conditions, there continues to be a flood of support for the rescue and relief efforts.

A few members of the Poptech community have been directly involved:

Ushahidi (founded by Poptech Social Innovation Fellows Ory Orkolloh and Erik Hersman), has launched a Haiti deployment to aggregate information about the ongoing response efforts including missing persons reports, emerging threats, and survivor news:

haiti.ushahidi.com


The Ushahidi Situation Room, Day 3

- For extensive coverage, the Global Voices Haiti Earthquake 2010 page has aggregated posts, blogs, Twitter feeds, and resources.


For members of the PopTech community looking to help, here are a few ways:

- Charity Navigator recommends sending money and not supplies to an established charity. They’ve posted guidelines on choosing the right charity to help fund Haiti Earthquake Relief Efforts.

- Partners in Health, a healthcare organization, has been working on the ground in Haiti for more than twenty years. You can donate here.

Serena Koenig, Director of Haiti programs for Partners in Health, spoke at PopTech 2006 on the PIH philosophy: equal lives deserve equal treatment.

- The Red Cross has set up a mobile site (text “Haiti” to 90999 to send a $10 donation to the Red Cross) where they have reportedly raised more than $5 million. (More text donation options from MobileActive.

- The Extraordinaries has set up a page that is crowdsourcing efforts to help locate and identify the missing. They have built a facial recognition system that allows individuals to match photos or videos of missing people with news images coming out of Haiti.

- Haiti Open Street Map is using GeoEye imagery to tag collapsed buildings and help later reconstruction efforts.

- The Haiti Missing Persons Index, the Haiti Volunteer Network, and the Haitian Earthquake Registry are other ways to locate people and opportunities to help.

The Doomsday Clock: It is 6 minutes to Midnight

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists have spoken and the verdict is: 1 minute of respite.

Launched in 1947 by scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, the Doomsday clock has only been changed 18 times since its inception. The last change occurred back in January of 2007, when it was moved 2 minutes forward from seven minutes to 5 minutes before midnight.

Today we stand 6 minutes away from catastrophic destruction.

During the announcement, panelists shared some hair-raising numbers:

- In a world where 1 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day and a child dies every 6 seconds, the world spends $1464 billion on military expenditures in a single year, $90 billion of which is spent on nuclear weapons programs.

- 9 countries have a total of 23,300 nuclear weapons.

- 8,393 of those are deployed on alert status.

- And using 0.03% of the weapons would cause catastrophic climate change.

The key concerns are nuclear proliferation and war, climate change, and biosecurity—though only the first two were referred to during the announcement. While we are still in a precarious state, it is believed that recent intentions by global leaders including restarting talks on arms reductions and securing fissile materials as well as globally addressing GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions are a move in the right direction. But this move is only indicative of a change in attitude and for a more substantial shift; we need to see action.

We are reminded of Einstein’s words, spoken 65 years ago, after the one and only time nuclear bombs were used in war; “Everything has changed, save the way we think.”

Here’s to hoping this minute back is truly a sign of a change in the way we are thinking.

For more information on the Bulletin of Atomic scientists and the Doomsday clock see here and here.

VIDEO: Willie Smits and Katy Payne

This week, join us as we learn how to rebuild a rainforest (with a plant used as currency in Indonesia) with biologist and activist Willie Smits, and listen as animal researcher Katy Payne samples jungle sounds to decode the language of elephants. Ready?

Watch Willie Smits on saving rainforests:

Biologist Willie Smits has spent the last thirty years searching for ways to restore fragile ecosystems. From his home in Indonesia – a leading producer of greenhouse gases – Smits has discovered a method of sustainable energy production: using the forest to generate biofuels with a carbon-positive impact.

 

Go Deeper:

- Willie is Chief Science Officer of Tapergy; find out more about their reforestation efforts and the Sugar Palm.
- Willie and Borneo Orangutan Survival using Google Earth to drive reforestation participation. (Oct 29, 2009)
- Willie is also known for and committed to orangutan research through RedApes.org. (@redapes)


Watch Katy Payne on elephant songs

Animal communication researcher Katy Payne has been studying the sounds of African elephants and humpback whales for decades. Her research has led her to fascinating conclusions on how acoustic phenomena shape relationships and communities. In 1999, Payne founded the Elephant Listening Project to monitor elephants’ movements.

Go Deeper:

- Watch Katy Payne on CBS’s "60 Minutes."
- More on the "60 Minutes" shoot with Cornell researchers.
- Buy Katy’s book Silent Thunder on B Corp Better World Books.

Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches and Awareness

This afternoon in New York City, free fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches were handed out to commemorate Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday, while The King’s greatest hits were sung by a group of impersonators with autism, the latest activity of the FREE (Free Family Residences and Essential Enterprises) Theatre Arts Program, a group that uses music and dance as therapy for individuals with mental challenges and developmental disabilities.

Besides a great excuse to wear bedazzled jumpsuits, Elvis is sometimes linked to autism causes through an autistic character who appeared in his final movie, “Change of Habit.” For original music about autism, you might turn to the album “Songs of the Spectrum” with songs sung by Jackson Browne, Dar Williams, and Mike Viola. 90% of the album profits go to autism groups.

peanut butter & banana sandwich

Here’s my recipe for fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches:

Roast 1 split banana at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, spread two slices of bread with your favorite peanut butter. Cut the roasted banana halves into two pieces each and place on one slice of bread. Squish the slices together.

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter (or fry a piece of bacon, if you like, then removing bacon and using grease in pan) in a skillet on medium-high. Fry sandwich on one side for 3 minutes, until crunchy and golden. Flip and fry another 3 minutes.

With this holiday’s successful “Rage Against the Machine for Christmas No.1” campaign, an effort to put the band’s 1992 song “Killing in the Name” at the top of the Christmas charts in the UK instead of the newest winner of the television show “X Factor” and raise money for Shelter (a national organization that work on issues of homelessness), we can expect to see more ways groups use music celebrity avenues to raise awareness and money for causes. You can donate to the campaign here; £94,183.00 was the tally as of this afternoon.

What are your favorite examples of recording artists’ celebrity or subversiveness being used for social good?

From Here to Zero Energy Buildings

Editor’s note: With cold weather in the U.S. affecting even Florida, where frozen iguanas are dropping from trees and strawberry crops are in peril, this is a moment to evaluate the sustainability of current energy needs. Below, Bruce Sullivan talks about building new houses with less energy impact; for more on this subject, watch Dan Nocera present an idea for personalized energy at PopTech 2009, and find out about proposed “cash-for-caulkers” incentives for home weatherization the White House is considering.

In a typical year, millions of houses are built. Each house will last 50 to 100 years. Today each new house encumbers society with a debt of energy required to operate it over its life. The vast majority of houses built today are old-fashioned energy hogs, and each one is a missed opportunity.

Energy visionaries have set their sights on homes that create more than they consume. In ten to twenty years, every new building could be a “zero-energy building,” Or “net zero.” The technology exists today, all we lack is the proper motivation.


Zero Energy Habitat for Humanity home in Wheatridge, CO, a collaboration between Habitat for Humanity and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

A zero-energy building is one that creates more energy than it consumes over the course of a year. In order to achieve this feat, a zero-energy building will be small, efficient and grid-connected. Here are some key attributes:

· Smart design is the key. Homes must be designed for their climates and sited to take maximum advantage of nature’s gifts of sun, wind, water and light. Designs must make the highest and best use of material.

· Small homes use less energy. All modern needs (and many of our desires) can be accommodated in 400 to 500 square feet per person.

· Highly efficient structures that incorporate super-insulation and air-tight shells will not need central heating systems. Insulation uses no energy and never wears out .

· Renewable energy generation, such as photovoltaic (solar electric) panels or wind generators , will be essential. These systems must be connected to the utility grid. They will generate more energy than the building needs on summer days, but will require some energy from external sources at night and during winter.

The challenge is no longer technical. The equipment and know-how exist today. What we need is a commitment to this destination and a clear roadmap showing how to get there.

One big obstacle for designers and builders is that they don’t have a good way to estimate the efficiency of their projects during design. A number of proposals are now under review to establish a building efficiency metric and labeling system. One of these is the Energy Performance Score, which is simply an estimate of how much energy a building would use each year. A typical new home may have an EPS around 120. An “efficient” home might be 50, while a zero-energy home would be, well… 0. You can see that we have a long way to go from our current practice to reach zero energy.

Since on-site renewable energy generation may not be possible for all building sites, ultimately some homes would have to generate excess energy. And despite our yearning for decentralization, we will always need a utility grid with central power generation.

Enterprising young designers from around the world put net zero principles into practice every year for the Solar Decathlon, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Twenty teams of college and university students compete to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house.

Zero-energy doesn’t have to be expensive. Many Habitat for Humanity chapters around the U.S. build very efficient homes. In Bend, Oregon, where I work, the local Habitat projects use small size, high efficiency and solar energy to achieve EPS ratings as low as 23. With annual energy bills of only a few hundred dollars, this is truly affordable housing. From there, it’s just a small step to true zero energy.

VIDEO: Luis von Ahn Harnesses Brainpower

As the latest tech products and applications launch at CES this week, we are releasing Luis von Ahn’s talk about the power of big groups and small increments of time to solve problems computers cannot. What other forms of social good are possible in this new decade as we turn more attention to microcontributions of time and energy?

Watch Luis von Ahn on harnessing brainpower.

Computer scientist Luis von Ahn’s programs harness the human brainpower to solve complex problems. von Ahn invented ReCaptcha, a program that uses squiggly characters that humans easily decipher but blocks spambots – and helps digitize millions of old texts. The CMU professor also makes games that use human knowledge to improve computers. Find them at gwap.com.

Go Deeper:

- Luis’s blog and personal site

- See more examples of transcription accuracy and reCAPTCHA resources

- ZDNet on new questions for reCAPTCHA (December 2009)

An Interview with Better World Books

While in Atlanta over the holidays, I asked Xavier Helgesen, Co-Founder of Better World Books, a few questions about what the social enterprise book company does—how they find used library books, why they are located in Atlanta (change.org blogger for Social Entrepreneurship Nathaniel Whittemore includes Atlanta in his recent post on burgeoning “regional innovation ecosystems”), and why Better World Books is a B Corp (find out more about B Corps in our December blog post):

Questions for Xavier? Tell us what you think in the comments—we are planning to highlight more B Corps in the coming months.