PopTech Blog

Ending Poverty and Personal Genomics

This week, two talks from PopTech 2009 on the use of science to end poverty and to personalize medicine:

Esther Duflo, MIT economist and co-founder of the Poverty Action Lab, asks why the world’s poorest people tend to stay poor. Duflo’s pioneering research applies randomized trials, used extensively in drug discovery research, to development economics.

Geneticist George Church believes that genome sequencing can bring us closer to personalized medicine. Several years ago, Church launched the Personal Genome Project, a public database that connects genes to diseases as well as physical and biological characteristics. (100,000 volunteers are expected to contribute by 2010.)

What do you think about these talks?

Nicholas Felton's 2009 Annual Report Released

Nicholas Felton presented at PopTech 2009—video released in February—on “What We Are Saying,” produced with Ken Reisman and Rob Deeming. (You can see What We Are Saying online.)

Nicholas has just released his 2009 Annual Report:

The 2009 Feltron Annual Report

“Each day in 2009, I asked every person with whom I had a meaningful encounter to submit a record of this meeting through an online survey. These reports form the heart of the 2009 Annual Report. From parents to old friends, to people I met for the first time, to my dentist… any time I felt that someone had discerned enough of my personality and activities, they were given a card with a URL and unique number to record their experience.”

Two cards from the 2009 Annual Report are tacked onto a wall at the Brooklyn PopTech office, and we’re looking forward to our copy of the Report.

Two cards for the 2009 Annual Report live in the PopTech Brooklyn office.

You can order the letterpress version of the report too.

Find out more about Nicholas’s work and current interests on his blog, and check back in a few weeks when we’ll release the video of his talk.

Kris Krug Images of Streb RAW Flying Dancers in Vancouver

PopTech photographer and friend Kris Krug photographed Streb RAW, a group of dancers attempting to fly, this weekend.

The group is directed by ‘action specialist’ Elizabeth Streb, who spoke at PopTech 2007 on dancing in the sky. Below are Kris’s images from last Friday, and below that, Elizabeth’s talk at PopTech.

Find out the power of exploration, being lost, and staying in the present tense:

Congrats to the dancers performing in Vancouver; you can follow the Streb RAW tour here.

Help Count the Homeless Tonight in NYC

Editor’s note: Kat Johnson is Program Coordinator for the national team at Common Ground, an organization that works to end homelessness. This is an interesting volunteer opportunity to help take data for an important purpose.

cc Image by PopTech friend Ed Yourdon

Tonight at midnight, volunteers from across the five boroughs will hit the streets to survey homeless individuals for the Department of Homeless Services’ annual Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (“HOPE”) count. The count creates a census of those sleeping outside, helping the City to measure progress and better align resources to move people from the street into permanent housing.

Common Ground (commonground.org ) will be coordinating the count in midtown Mahnattan, and we could use your help. Many volunteers make light work, and help to ensure that the count is as accurate as possible. Each volunteer will be on a team with at least one experienced outreach worker, and will undergo training (with coffee and snacks) before heading out.

If you’d like to join us, please email Laura Borntraeger at lborntraeger [at] commonground [dot] org to sign up, and to make sure we haven’t filled all the volunteer spots.

Privacy Is Over. Here Comes Sociality.

As widely discussed by privacy advocates and blogs, Facebook recently changed some of its privacy settings. Users are no longer able to limit the viewing of their profile photos, home towns, and friends lists to only approved friends. Those are all public now by default. Moreover, Facebook’s new default settings “recommend” that dynamic content such as status messages and photos be made public.

While the blogosphere still closely scrutinizes these changes and is aghast at Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘privacy is over’ claims made at the Crunchies awards (he didn’t actually say it verbatim but his statements more or less implied it), I have to admit I was surprised that all this stirred such an uproar.

Facebook is only reacting to a larger social trend as it strives to become an asymmetrical and therefore a more growth-enabled network (or communications platform) – like Twitter. Privacy, at least a more traditional notion thereof, is the collateral damage of this strategic agenda.

With the value of reciprocity (narrowcasting) succumbing to the prospect of exponentiality (broadcasting), privacy is no longer commercially exploitable. “No one makes money off of creating private communities in an era of ‘free,’” writes social networking researcher danah boyd in a blog post in which she otherwise harshly criticizes Facebook’s move. The age of privacy as we know it might be over indeed. Is it worth fighting for?

Privacy (from the Latin ‘privatus,’ according to Wikipedia: “separated from the rest, deprived of something, especially office, participation in the government”), the “right to be let alone,” is considered a human right in most parts of the world, in spite of all cultural relativism. Historically speaking, privacy has undergone a remarkable evolution. Aristotle distinguished between the public sphere of politics and political activity, the polis, and the private or domestic sphere of the family, the oaks. If a citizen of Athens was a private man, then it meant he was stripped of any political office and therefore considered “inferior.” Later, in the enlightened civil societies of Europe, however, privacy became a hallmark of the bourgeoisie, a hard-earned privilege that marked the delineation between upper and working classes. The latter had work – if they were fortunate – the former “had a life,” because they could afford it. This life tended to be private, by definition.

In the emerging information economies of the 20th century, various theories described privacy as control over information about oneself (Parent, 1983), while others defended it as a broader concept crucial for human dignity (Bloustein, 1964), or emphasized the social aspect of it with regards to enabling intimacy (Gerstein, 1978; Inness, 1992).

Throughout their historical mutations, the public and private spheres needed one another like yin and yang. Having a life was a private act, but only if it was publicly earned and respected. This dialectic relationship will always remain. There is no privacy without publicy and vice versa. And yet, while privacy may never go away as a philosophical counterweight to publicy, today it is publicy that counts as the new privilege of the digital upper class. Privacy has been marginalized to the fringes of a society whose modus operandi is based on the very public mechanisms of social sharing. In the digital era, a private life does not exist. Google ergo sum.

The search engine’s recent public stance against the Chinese government, threatening to shut down all its China operations after Gmail accounts of Chinese activists had been hacked, highlights this new power structure and the evolving value of privacy in our ever-connected world. When the privacy of Google’s users was violated, the company decided to respond with a public statement, mounting public pressure to press on an essentially private matter. Good for a company that does not want be evil, many people applauded, but it bore a certain irony that Google acted as de facto digital state with its own foreign policy. Isn’t Google, after all, built on the very principle of making private data public? Isn’t it because of Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” that we have come to terms with the fact that our online lives and afterlives will never be private again and will be perpetually archived in the very public cloud?

In the case of Google vs. China, what was bemoaned as the loss of privacy was in fact the lack of publicy. Privacy is the most precious asset in more or less closed societies in which trust is a scarce resource and true publics don’t exist. But as we live our lives in the openness of the web, isn’t it publicy that we need to enable and protect? An ideal publicy that is so transparent and democratic that it doesn’t need privacy as refuge?

It’s complicated. Stowe Boyd has declared this to be the “Decade of Publicy,” in which he expects “the superimposition of publicy on top of, and partly obscuring, privacy:”

Publicy says that each self exists in a particular social context, and all such contracts are independent. (…) It’s as if we are gaining the ability to see into the ultraviolet and infrared ends of the social spectrum when we are online, and in some contexts we are dropping out yellows or reds. To those tied to the visible color spectrum we are habituated to, this new sort of vision will be ‘irreal.’ But ultraviolet has always existed: we just couldn’t see it before. (…) This will be a fracturing of the premises of privacy, and a slow rejection of the metaphors of shared space. The principles of publicy are derived from the intersection of infinite publics and our shared experience of time online, through media like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. The innate capability we have to shift in a heartbeat from a given public, and our corresponding persona, to another, is now being accelerated by streaming social tools. This will be the decade when publicy displaces privacy, online and off.

As we struggle to maintain the traditional, monolithic privacy-publicy dichotomy, perhaps we must start using a different terminology altogether and embrace a new concept: sociality. In a hyper-individualized society, sociality is becoming the main object of desire for individuals. Or as Markus Albers puts it in his forthcoming book about what he coins the Meconomy:

The Meconomy does not entail a purely egoistic philosophy. On the contrary, it promotes a new culture of empathy and social engagement. As we increasingly decide for ourselves how, where, and with whom we work, the search for meaning gains more importance. The trend to combine economical with social engagement grows stronger. We want to do good, be happy, and make money. In the old patriarchal, hierarchical, and inflexible working world, these aims were often mutually exclusive. In the Meconomy, their combination is almost a precondition for success.”

The semantic coincidence is telling. “Me” desires “Meaning.” As much as publicy needs privacy and vice versa, the “Meconomy” needs the “Meaning Economy” – as its co-evolutionary, symbiotic partner. With meaning emerging as the core currency of all market interactions (because it is ultimately what consumers buy; and friends, fans, and followers buy into), people, organizations, and brands that provide meaning will be the power players of the new Me(aning) Economy – brands like Apple, conferences like TED, contests like the Olympic Games, sports clubs like FC Barcelona, media organizations like NPR, non-profits like UNICEF, and, yes, politicians like Obama.

Sociality may succeed privacy because it is a critical precondition for meaning. To be meaningful, meaning needs to be shared, and sharing can only occur in open social settings. Open social settings, however, by definition, compromise privacy, in all its four textbook modes (solitude, intimacy, anonymity, and reserve). Meaning means giving things a name, making sense of “Black Swans,” unexpected events. In other words: Only an event that becomes a story (which still is the most powerful social media of all times, a true evergreen on the social web!) is meaningful.

Thus, it makes sense to replace the strict privacy-publicy opposition with a multi-layered continuum along progressive levels of sociality. Sociality may turn out to be a much better variable for describing and regulating our digital lives. The question then no longer is how private we can be, but how social we want to be. Instead of privacy settings, we should speak of sociality settings: The maximum number of friends we want to have; and through which channels we want to ‘socialize’ our contents etc. Privacy understood as sociality (as an enabling and not a defensive right) grants us the ability to control who knows what about us and who has access to us, and thereby allows us to vary our social interactions with different people so that we can control our various social relationships at different levels of intimacy.

This new sociality is most visibly manifest in online social networks. It is worth noting that these not only mirror the mechanisms of offline social interactions but actually provide users with more control over their privacy (or sociality) than they would ever have in the physical world. On Facebook and other networks, you can pick and choose the people you want to meet and share ‘presence’ with; in a restaurant, bar, and other public spaces, you can’t. Exclusivity in the real world needs to be earned, whereas online it is a given.

Bill Thompson pledges we should embrace the new liberties that come with this new radical transparency:

The enlightenment idea of privacy is breaking apart under the strain of new technologies, social tools and the emergence of the database state. We cannot hold back the tide, but we can use it as an opportunity to rethink what we understand by ‘personality,’ how we engage and interact with others and where the boundaries can be put between the public and private. Those of us who are ahead of the curve when it comes to the adoption and use of technologies that undermine the old model of privacy have much to teach those who will come after us, and can offer advice and support to those who might be unhappy to have their movements, eating habits, friendships and patterns of media consumption made available to all. But every Twitterer, Tumblr, Dopplr or Brightkite user is sharing more data with more people than even the FBI under Hoover or the Stasi at the height of its powers could have dreamed of. And we do so willingly, hoping to benefit in unquantifiable ways from this unwarranted – in all senses – disclosure. I’ll argue that we are in the vanguard of creating not just new forms of social organisation but new ways of being human.

All this openly shared user data represents not only an enourmous amount of social capital but also a huge collective leap of faith. Whether the big digital platforms and ecosystems will honor this trust to maintain civic publics or if they will choose to exploit it for (private) economic reasons, at any price, will be one of the defining moments of this young decade and the most impactful decision it will have to make. Control (as the catalyst of privacy) is good, but trust (as the catalyst of sociality) is better. We can afford to lose our privacy, but we will not survive the loss of sociality.

[image: Geekologie]

Say What? Contest Opens Today

Editor’s note: Deb Levine is a 2009 PopTech Social Innovation Fellow (watch her PopTech talk) working on innovative tech solutions to sex education and disease prevention.

My organization, ISIS, Inc., just launched an awesome contest with Funny Or Die, SayNow, and MTV (special thanks to Jason Rzepka, PopTech Board member who works on MTV’s A Thin Line campaign, for the help).

Say What?!?!? is a contest where youth aged 15-21 call (310) 736-6760 and record the craziest (or most awesome) stuff adults are telling them about sex.

Sex Advice from Adults from SayWhat Contest


Have teens you know enter – they can win a walk-on part in a Funny Or Die video. (Ask them, they’ll know it’s cool.) They can check it out at saywhatcontest.org.

The short story is that young people want their sex information and education from trusted adults, but because adults are kinda embarrassed about the topic, they may ad lib a bit and not provide accurate, relevant sex information to our youth.

Pass along the video above and the widget below:

Official contest rules at saywhatcontest.org; winners announced February 12th and winning video premieres February 26th in San Francisco.

FLAP Bags to Haiti; Dr. Serena Koenig on Health Care in Haiti

Very soon, we will ask for your help as we send FLAP (Flexible Light And Power) portable light bags with a solar panel, an LED, and a USB charger to relief efforts in Haiti.

The FLAP bags are a prototype off-grid light solution (video below) that can be used in undeveloped areas and emergency situations:

If you are willing to help, please leave us a comment or send us an e-mail: hello [at] poptech [dot] org (Find out more about the bag in the FLAP FAQ and PopTech Hub FLAP group.)

At PopTech 2006, Director of Haiti programs for Partners in Health Dr. Serena Koenig told us why she believes equal lives deserve equal treatment. Her ideas for addressing global inequalities in health care are more relevant than ever.

Watch Serena Koenig at PopTech 2006 on Haiti and health care:

You can donate to PIH’s work in Haiti online.

For Haiti coverage, we continue to follow PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh’s Ushahidi (crisis-mapping software) site: haiti.ushahidi.com

Ushahidi Hait

Expect more updates soon on the FLAP bags and how you can help.

Please leave us a comment if you have ideas for applications of the FLAP bag and ways to use them in Haiti or would like to be involved.

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?