PopTech Blog

Paving a Nuanced Path for Online Privacy

Make no mistake: the privacy debate is hotter (and louder) than ever. The recent uproar over Facebook’s new Terms of Service – and then, even more recently, Twitter’s new service terms – is all about privacy, says Helen Nissenbaum, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Culture and Communication and a Senior Fellow of the NYU Information Law Institute.

But what people really care about today when they complain that their privacy has been violated, Nissenbaum says, is not the fact that their personal information has been shared, but that it’s been shared inappropriately. Information, she says, ought to be distributed and protected according to social context—what’s appropriate, say, in the context of a workplace, or a medical clinic, or a social network, or a school, or among family and friends.

According to Nissenbaum, today’s privacy policies and rules are not nuanced enough; we have tended to adopt “one size fits all” protections that either go too far by ignoring these distinctions or fail to go far enough.

“The rapid adoption and infiltration of digital information technologies into virtually all aspects of life, to my mind, have resulted in a schism — many schisms — between our experience of and expectations for privacy today,” says Nissenbaum, the author of the just-out Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. During an interview Wednesday in her NYU office just off Manhattan’s Washington Square, Nissenbaum said these schisms have produced in society “a kind of radical shock, and we need some new ways to talk about privacy.”

Privacy in Context

What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Marcia Stepanek: In Davos last week, during a rare meeting of social media company CEOs at the World Economic Forum to discuss the impact of social networks on society, LinkedIn CEO Reid Hoffman told the group that “all these concerns about privacy tend to be old people’s issues” – that transparency and accessibility are two reasons why so many teenagers and young adults put their mobile phones on Facebook or MySpace. He said the value of being connected and transparent is so great, that privacy is not so much a concern to young people. What do you think? Is privacy an “old people’s issue?”

Helen Nissenbaum: [Laughs.] Reid, actually, was one of my students at Stanford, years ago. But no, I totally disagree with those kinds of critiques that say young people don’t care about privacy. Some people say privacy involves withholding information or is the right to control information. But when I see people getting into a flap over privacy, I don’t think that’s what they’re really after. People want to share information; what they care about is the appropriate flow of information. They want the right information to go to the right people and under the right circumstances. They want this “contextual integrity” for the information going around about them. Everybody is interested in privacy under that definition.

Teenagers yell if their parents read their diaries; I have 18- and 20-year-olds in college coming to me all the time, saying, “Oh my god, my 12-year-old sister wants to friend me on Facebook! That’s awful.” I think these are all expressions of a desire for privacy. A number of years ago, at Princeton, where I used to work, I had an alumni event, with an audience of all different ages. I asked those assembled, “How would you feel if you were in a job interview and as a condition of that, you had to yield your medical records?” There was a huge difference in the responses. Older people were much more indignant about that request but many of the younger people said they wouldn’t mind. Does that mean they don’t care about privacy?

MS: You say that individuals shouldn’t be able to control the flow of information.

HN: That’s right. The nuts-and-bolts of my theory says that privacy depends on the social context of information being shared and what’s appropriate for those contexts. Right now, we take information and divvy it up into public information and private information, sensitive or non-sensitive – and then have two different ways of dealing with it. I think that’s problematic. People then get all wrapped up in knots trying to figure out if their IP address is personal or not. I know the EU is struggling with questions like these right now, and it’s a non-starter. Privacy isn’t ‘one-size-fits-all.’

We really need to be much more nuanced and descriptive, and to open ourselves up to the diversity of categories of all types of information and the range of social contexts for that information – and then act appropriately in each situation.

You and I are in structured situation at the moment. I know, more or less, what you expect of me in this interview and you know what I expect of you. These things are governed by social norms. So much of what privacy is depends on the nature of the information at issue and what our roles are as individuals within a certain social context. And then there’s something called the constraints on the flow of information. You could check out my Web site, for example. And then you could ask a whole lot of people to give you some information about me. And then you could go to Checkpoint and pay them to write up a whole long report on me. In each of these cases, the way you’re getting information about me is governed by certain information flows and different constraints on the flow of that information. You could ask me some questions directly about myself, and I could choose not to answer some of those questions.

So there are circumstances in which people should control the information about them. But in other instances, this may not be appropriate. Let’s say you’re under investigation for having committed a murder and the police are investigating you, and they want to find out where you were on Friday night at 8 p.m. They may ask you, but ultimately, they must — behind your back — verify where you were at that time. And in this society, we’re not going to allow you to control that piece of information. We want the police to actually ferret out that information by any means. Nobody would say the police violated your privacy in this case, because we understand their need to get it independently of you. I think it’s intuitive.

MS: Why did you write this book?

HN: Too much time has been wasted deciding whether this or that piece of information – or this or that place – is private or public. What people really care about is whether information is shared appropriately, within the social context of any given situation.

MS: Are you proposing a set of rules that would lead to public policies that could more intelligently codify these distinctions – to honor what you call this “contextual integrity” of information?

HN: Yes and no. We depend on entrenched social norms for guidance, so there are a lot of people who know already what should be public and private, particularly in the realms of the family. In the workplace, on the other hand, we need to be told what the rules are, and this is where information technology has been a radical shock. There, it’s not good enough just to have implicit behavioral norms, like those which tell you how you should behave at a cocktail party. If you screw up there, it’s not so terrible. But if you’re a doctor, it’s probably a good idea to be required to write down what your responsibilities are when it comes to somebody else’s information.

MS: What is contextual integrity – the theory you put forward in this book?

HN: There are two parts to it. The first asks us to identify the places where people are getting freaked out about information flow and privacy issues and recognize the kinds of challenges that we’re confronting with technology. And then, the second part, is the moral part of the theory that says that not all change is bad. The first part says here’s how we recognize the nature of the change on our expectations about the flow of information. The second part says look, we have much better medical monitoring devices and using them, we can now save lives, so that’s fabulous.

There are a lot of ways that we’re being monitored that are good and all to our benefit, and there are other ways that aren’t so great. Information that previously was available to your doctor is now being made available to entire consortiums of research institutions and insurance companies and so forth. We need to map these flows and how they’re changing. We need a way of looking at what types of information flows are appropriate so that we can start talking as a society about what works and what doesn’t – or what should. We need to be talking about all of this more intelligently.

MS: Why now?

HN: What got me into this whole area of privacy is that there are now things we can do with technology that we couldn’t do before – but that we, as a society, never really stopped to think about whether we should do.

When suddenly we become confronted with something like Google Street View, we now have the possibility of surveillance cameras, if you will. Back in the day, it was considered okay if I saw you, so long as you could see me. But now, with Street View, we now have a surveillance image that gets posted on the Web and suddenly, this completely challenges our expectations of how some information flows, and is supposed to flow. Suddenly, there are people who can view you and you have no clue.

So my theory of contextual integrity really pushes for society to map out these technology changes, these points of radical shock where suddenly, information flows in highly unexpected ways and it challenges us. We freak out because it’s so unexpected. And no matter what you say about being in a public place so you should have no expectations, the truth is that you do have expectations – because that’s how life and (information) flow were governed for years and years. My book seeks to acknowledge the changes that information technology brings to our expectations, characterize the changes, and then advocate for us all to get on to discussing whether these changes are good or bad. Who are the winners and losers? Can we regulate the flow of information, or should we?

I mean, first you recognize the changes – such as the massive databases that can be aggregated from distinct sources, and then be used to mine different kinds of information and create profiles that can be used to make decisions about an individual. These are the types of radical, unexpected shifts in the flow of information that my theory seeks to address.

MS: Hasn’t the legal environment been able to help add clarity to some of this already?

HN: U.S. law has been heavily critiqued because it’s sectoral; it’s based on different sectors. You have, for example, financial privacy and communications privacy and video privacy, and so forth. People have said this is problematic, but I think the U.S. approach has merit because it has in mind particular contexts in which the information flow is occurring. I’m not saying that U.S. law is perfect: Choicepoint and Lexis-Nexis, for example, are out of control and highly problematic because they bring information from all different kinds of places, take it out of context and fail to respect the norms out of which it was shared with other actors – and then make that information available in contexts and under constraints that are inappropriate. This is an area in which the law, hopefully, will catch up. But I think we can do better.

It’s not hopeless. When the FTC, for example, was asked to create privacy rules for the financial industry, I think they did a pretty good job because they were able to focus on very specific types of information relevant to different contexts. For instance, there was an argument about whether your name and address, shown above the line in a credit report, should be public. Credit companies argued that it should be because it’s not financial information. But the FTC said it should be private, because it appears in the context of a financial action. The FTC went to court over it and won, and I thought that was fabulous. When laws are made correctly – with information flows and social contexts in mind – I think it could serve us all well.

MS: Wouldn’t this all be easier if we simply put limits on what data could be archived, an approach raised by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger in his recent book, Delete? Should all the information about us be allowed to exist in digital perpetuity?

HN: I do think information should be deleted, but again, to argue for deletion, you could say even that is a sort of arbitrary move. To restrict access to information may, in some cases, require deletion but the word that a lot of legal scholars use is that we’d want to tailor that deletion appropriately. There may be some instances where we decide there’s a whole lot of information being kept somewhere that should just be wiped out. But we want those constraints to be subject to the specific individuals and the context of given situations.

MS: Some of the new mobile devices – from PDAs to the new iPad — are creating completely new contexts for the flow of personal information. Does the mapping of real-time, geographically-specific behaviors demand a new definition of privacy?

HN: There’s an interesting re-configuration going on about what we think of as social space. People see their social space differently as a result of social networks and location-aware devices. I think we’re just now being forced to confront the question of geo-location. It’s now becoming a new aspect of information available about people that’s going to force us to start asking these same sets of questions around.

MS: On FourSquare, for example, some people feel that by playing, they’ve already given their implicit permission to give up their personal information.

Nonsense. I think that before we start going around saying that anything is implicit in this way, we ought to explore whether it should be. What should the rules be? If you had to sit down and read every privacy policy on the Web or for every device that you bought, it would take you – and I’m making this up – two and half years, right? [Laughter] Ultimately, a lot of great work in privacy has been written about constraining the flow of information one way or another. But what I want to add to the mix of our discussion about privacy in society is the notion that we have to look at the contexts, themselves, to determine what’s appropriate, and under which circumstances. Thinking about privacy in this way leads us to ask much bigger questions.

I like working with computer scientists. Together with them, I’ve created a bit of subversive software, such as TrackMeNot, which is committed to privacy in Web search terms.

We’ve also created something called Adnostic, which is supposed to help against online behavioral targeting. And there’s another project we’re working on about court records and placing them online in certain circumstances.

So many of our questions about privacy and what’s appropriate when we’re creating this software takes us back and forces us to ask what are the functions of our institutions in society. Because of technology’s challenge to previous flows of personal information, we find ourselves almost having to go back to these first principles, even saying, what are the purposes of the court? What are records? That sort of thing.

For example, with the courts, if you don’t take care and dump everything onto the Web, including the names and addresses of jurors, for example, maybe the next time you get asked to serve on a jury, you will struggle hard to avoid it, and that won’t promote the values of the court. It will make the courts function worse, forcing us to reach back all the way to consider the roles of the institutions, themselves.

Very delicate considerations need to be embedded in these technologies.

MS: Where has technology changed the tradition flow of information most radically, to what you refer to as “shock status?”

HN: One is in monitoring and tracking. This isn’t visual anymore. It’s online and it can happen when you’re interacting with your supermarket. Second is this arena of aggregating information and analyzing it. It’s all behind-the-scenes and it’s driving a lot of the monitoring, so people are not so obviously aware of it. Sometimes, some little surprising thing happens and you think, hmmmm, I wonder how they knew that? And then, if you’re thoughtful, you realize that somebody has a database somewhere. But it’s not in your face.

Third, there’s the worry about communications and media because this is not just about information that sits in a database somewhere. It’s about distribution. This is Twitter and Facebook and blogs and email. In information science, this whole notion of aggregating information from different sources and then using it to profile people – to see if they’re terrorists or good mortgage prospects – it’s very cutting-edge stuff, involving statistical techniques and operations research. But here’s the problem. It’s not directly experienced except in the ways your bank will reply to you.

MS: Are you hopeful about the future of privacy?

HN: My hope level is in constant flux. When I think of the vast backend of information aggregators interacting directly and indirectly with personal information, such as Google, Choicepoint, ISPs, government agencies, and financial conglomerates, I fear the worst. I worry that the landscape of incentives will swamp just about any moral consideration we might bring to bear. At the same time, I’m buoyed by the growth in size and quality of privacy scholarship and practice, the guile, brilliance, and insubordination of computer hackers and NGO players. And sometimes, watershed events can be enormously important; grim as it is, the Google/China debacle may turn a few heads.

A New PopTech Fellows 2009 Video

We announced a call for nominations for the 2010 class of PopTech Social Innovation Fellows this week, so I edited a video to accompany the email announcement.

Typically during the PopTech conference I’m running around with the camera crew, missing all the edifying and moving moments taking place on stage, so I was excited to finally watch the 2009 Fellows’ videos in their entirety while pulling this short piece together.

Editing always involves a dance between what’s being said, where the camera was focused when the great moments took place, and how each piece fits with every other piece.

The best part of choosing the shots that wound up in the final version was realizing how many great moments happened on stage! To see all the footage, check out the full fellows’ talks.

I hope this inspires you to nominate and help us find the next class of Social Innovation Fellows!

What are your favorite moments from the Fellows’ presentations? Let us know in the comments.

Apply Now to be a Global Citizen Year Fellow

Editor’s note: Wil Keenan heads up communications and technology at Global Citizen Year, an organization led by PopTech Social Innovation Fellow Abby Falik. Watch Abby’s PopTech talk to learn more.

Each year, Global Citizen Year (GCY) selects and trains a corps of HS grads and supports them in apprenticeships across Asia, Africa and Latin America during a bridge year before college. Our first corps of Fellows launched last fall and now we’re searching for our 2010 Fellows.

Do you know any high school seniors or educators who might be interested? Help us spread the word!

Since the 2009 Fellows left for Senegal and Guatemala last October, the Fellows Blog has been full of activity. Seven of the nine months in the GYC program are spent on the ground learning a language, engaging in complex issues in a host community, and serving as an apprentice at a social enterprise—facing tough personal challenges.

Michael Wilson (Fellow – Chapel Hill, NC) began his experience wondering whether the local Guatemalan water was safe to drink – months later he set out to follow the water from the community’s water source. Gaya Morris (Fellow – Hingham, MA) began her apprenticeship in Senegal wondering what she could possibly contribute to her host community, and, after working for weeks in the school, emerged with an idea to engage the other teachers in reviving the school’s dormant library.

To hear more from our Fellows in the field watch their broadcast and check out the Fellows Blog. We hope you’ll join us and please spread the word about applications for our Class of 2010!

The Grand Disappointment: Apple and Obama after Hype and Hope

Some languages are more precise than others. German’s word for disappointment, “Enttäuschung,” for example, literally translates as “disillusion” and thus implies that the prerequisite of any disappointment is excessive (and false!) expectation. As if that needed any further evidence, Apple’s iPad presentation and President Obama’s first State of the Union address last Wednesday marked the preliminary culmination of an obvious trend: disappointment as a widespread sentiment and cultural subtext at the dawn of this young decade.

Hype from Cult of Mac

Both Apple and Obama are among the most powerful brands of our time and occupy that vexing space between hype and hope in the public mind. Both have zealous fans and followers, and enjoy an almost religious admiration. And both have now suffered a very public deflation, a humiliating erosion of their once unflappable appeal of invincibility, a painful rejection of love.

The Awl wrote about the iPad launch: “Still, I’m a little taken aback by the immediate and vocal lack of enthusiasm for the product. What does it lack? What was everyone hoping for that did not materialize? This is a very rough thought that I may or may not refine, so take it as such, but the iPad is a lot like Barack Obama: Everyone was able to project their own fantasies and aspirations on a product with which they were mostly unfamiliar, only to sour on it once they realized that it did not live up to their impossible expectations. Only with the iPad it took about seven minutes for the disappointment to set in. I don’t know what that says about our accelerated culture or how we confuse hype and excitement for the tangible realities of life, but it says something.”

And indeed, no product in the world could have lived up to the hype around the iPad: Apple as the inventor of human-friendly computing, Apple as the media company that enables the much desired super-convergence, Apple as the innovator of innovation, Apple as the savior of the ailing publishing industry, Apple as the savior of the Californian blend of optimism that is now set against the backdrop of a bankrupt state, Apple as the savior of capitalism. After the unveiling, we felt a bit like the car fan who realizes that what he was sold as the dream car of the future is in fact a convertible Ferrari. If Apple is the “Zeitgeist Company,” as my colleague Adam Richardson wrote, then our zeitgeist is the Midlife Crisis.

While the real creativity can be found on the web, where the iPad release spurred a throng of irreverent spoofs and thoughtful analyses, the actual product – ouch – is a let-down, for reasons that have been extensively addressed elsewhere and shall therefore not be restated here. At any rate, the disappointment was to be expected: For every brand that lives off of inflated expectations, things get tricky when the tangible manifestation shows signs of all-too-human imperfection. The iPad, in this sense, did not represent the “humanization of technology,” as some people waxed lyrical. Rather, it was the humanization of Apple, as the many obvious flaws made the divine brand suddenly appear sloppy, erratic, and shockingly out-of-touch with the consumer.

My colleague Robert Fabricant has already poignantly commented on the retro-futurism exhibited by the iPad, likening Steve Job’s nostalgic vision of the future to the megalomaniac naiveté of James Cameron’s Avatar. Perhaps that ‘s what’s really at the core of this recent streak of disappointments: the depressing insight that in the very moment we believe to finally have the tools and intellectual aptness to shape the future, some old-man-made visions of tomorrow’s better world betray our infinite utopian hope. Last year’s LIFT conference had a pretty good instinct for the emerging cultural climate  when it chose as its theme: “Where did the future go?”

Yes, the digital joyride has come to an end. The faith in smart technology, collective knowledge, and data-driven human reasoning has suffered severe blows of late. Neither did social technology unleash the revolutionary potential of the Iranian people after the election, nor did sophisticated financial instruments prevent the financial crisis or the Copenhagen Summit yield a meaningful solution for combating the climate crisis. Wikipedia has not made us wiser; conflicts remain unresolved; ignorance prevails – in spite of the social capital accumulated on social networks, time and place-shifting transnational hyper-connectivity, and design thinking.

“The Social Web is like the Sixties,” Donovan sang at last week’s DLD conference in Munich, a gathering of the digital elite headed to Davos. That sounded good but the reality is less flowery: while the Social Web may provide a sheer endless array of possibilities, a movement it is not (in hindsight, the online activism during the Obama campaign remains a footnote of history). And with the iPad, the Social Web has been contained as a mechanism for mere consumption.

On a panel at DLD, John Brockman (Edge.org), David Gelernter (Yale), Frank Schirrmacher (arts & leisure editor of German daily FAZ), and Andrian Kreye (arts & leisure editor of German daily SZ) discussed the state of the Internet and the state of information technology overall. The mood was dark. Schirrmacher, the cultural pessimist, warned of the age of the “Informavore,” as artificial intelligence supersedes human’s ability to intellectually cope with information overload. He quoted Daniel Dennett (“We have a population explosion of ideas, but not enough brains to cover them”) and painted a grim picture of the future of media: With the big Internet gatekeepers (and their search algorithms) regulating attention markets, media should shift their attention to the culture of software – or it would be filtered out by that very software sooner or later. Gelernter bemoaned the lack of advances in user interfaces (“we still use the same metaphors we used twenty years ago”), and Kreye found the current Web “boring” (“the Web is like a car now; the fact that it is moving is no longer interesting. What matters is what we do with it, and where we’re going.”). Brockman finally killed the discussion altogether by wryly telling his fellow panelists that “your time is over. You are over.”

The Obama party is over, too, and the President’s State of the Union address made that palpable. Only a year after his inauguration, which many Americans celebrated as liberation, the Republican opposition flexes its muscle again, but what’s even more remarkable, Obama’s once most fervent supporters on the left show a complete lack of enthusiasm. Rational arguments fall short of explaining this phenomenon. The Obamameter by PolitiFact shows that Obama didn’t break too many campaign promises (with some notable and controversial exceptions of course). By and large, he didn’t make profound mistakes, he didn’t change course. He did take on the heavy battles and the complex challenges America is facing, as he said he would. He may have made some miscalculations as he set his first-year agenda, but fixing healthcare was the only plausible choice in the end. It is striking: a country that elected a president who had campaigned in the name of change is now rescinding its mandate for it. Conservatism is the mask of the fool who knew better all along.

The cynics have a strong ally: Disappointment is sustainable. Obama and Apple may eventually stumble over the conundrum that Thomas Hardy so aptly described: “The sudden disappointment of a hope leaves a scar which the ultimate fulfillment of that hope never entirely removes.” Maybe we just enjoy seeing our gods fall from grace. Or maybe last week’s collective sigh was an expression of the enormous emotional and spiritual effort it took to close out the past decade, resulting in a fatigue that now readily converts optimism into cynicism (as in: pragmatism without principles), which has again, unfortunately, become the most powerful currency of our intellectual discourse. It remains to be seen if this is a temporary sentiment or if we have indeed entered a new era of permanent disappointment – an age of Grand Disillusion. If not even Apple honors our trust, who else is left to believe in?

[Image: Cult of Mac]

Nominations for PopTech 2010 Social Innovation Fellows Open

Do you know someone with a big idea, a track record for high-impact results and a commitment to make the world a better place? If your answer is “yes,” then we would like to hear from you.

Nominations are now open for the 2010 PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Program.

In the coming months we will be selecting up to 20 Social Innovation Fellows from around the world who are incubating transformative solutions to the world’s most pressing social, economic and environmental challenges. Nominations are particularly encouraged in the fields of healthcare, energy, water, and the arts, as well as green materials, the environment and education. Fellows will be selected based on their proven track record and their potential to generate high-impact and sustainable solutions. Check out the 2010 Call for Nominations for eligibility criteria, and see our 2008 and 2009 Fellows for great examples of what we look for.

The Social Innovation Fellows Program exemplifies PopTech’s longstanding commitment to the field of social innovation and highlights the importance of this sector in developing breakthrough solutions to some of the world’s most urgent challenges. The centerpiece of the program is an intensive, multi-day, interactive curriculum taught by a world-class faculty with expertise in areas critical to the success of “big bet” social innovations. This experience is complemented by participation in PopTech 2010, the annual convening of prominent thought leaders, influencers and policy-makers (October 20-23, Camden, ME). Our ability to deeply integrate Fellows into the broader PopTech network provides a unique opportunity to showcase work and develop deep relationships with a corps of supporters who are committed to advancing their ideas, projects and collaborations.

We need your help as part of the PopTech network to identify the Class of 2010—please nominate candidates now through the online nomination form.

From the Archive: Jaron Lanier at PopTech 2002

Digital theorist Jaron Lanier has a new book out, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (find out more about the book in a recent WNYC interview), and he appeared at PopTech 2002 to discuss virtual reality (and play the piano!). Some excerpts from Jaron’s talk:

Reinventing Education in Kenya

If you need a clear sign that new ideas are needed to save public education in Kenya, look no further than Tuesday’s announcement by U.S. Ambassador Michael Ranneberger that the United States is suspending almost $7 million in aid to the Kenyan ministry of education until fraud in the Free Public Education program is addressed.

That seven-year-old program brought an influx of previously disenfranchised students into the national education system, but in the process created as many problems as it solved: class size rose, teacher recruitment stalled, and the program became dependent on outside donations from foreign governments and international organizations. That’s before you even reach the corruption that has siphoned off almost $1.5 million, or the program’s doubtful educational results.

A new venture called Bridge International Academies is reinventing the model for education in Kenya by taking a page from franchise-based corporations.

Bridge International Academies
Father dropping off a child at a Bridge International Academy school with a “barn” style roof for air ventilation, an innovation in an area where many buildings have no windows or air vents. Credit: Bridge International Academies.

Bridge is rigorously studying and evaluating how to deliver the best quality education to Kenyan primary-school students at the lowest possible cost, but the most innovative aspect of their program is that they are examining every aspect of opening and running a school with an eye toward replication, so that new schools can be opened, many at a time, of a consistently high quality.

“Everything we do is done with the plan to scale to thousands of schools,” one of Bridge’s founders, Shannon May, told me. “Like other successful, large-network or franchise-based corporations, we are resolutely data-driven and process-oriented in order to achieve our mission. … We know of no other organization that is putting together what we call the entire school-in-a-box: all the systems and processes, from land acquisition and construction, to curriculum development and teacher training, to educational performance monitoring and evaluation, to school management training and auditing, to financing and accounting systems.

Bridge was founded in 2007 by three Americans: Jay Kimmelman, the entrepreneur behind the software company EduSoft, which helps U.S. public schools analyze student-performance data; Phil Frei, a technologist whose last venture enabled Malawian farmers to reduce the amount of wood they consumed in curing tobacco (Malawi’s chief export), thus combating deforestation; and Shannon May, an anthropologist who specializes in sustainable development. Together they have assembled a social-enterprise project that borrows techniques from business and social science to create a network of high-quality schools that remain accountable to parents.

So far, the results are promising. Three weeks ago, Bridge opened five new schools at once (they opened their first two, one at a time, in 2009), and average enrollment is already 119—a sign that parents have found reason to prefer Bridge schools to the more established private schools in the area. Early testing shows that Bridge students are substantially outperforming their peers across Nairobi in core reading and math skills. According to May, these students are even closing the achievement gap in English reading performance with students of the same age in the United States.

Rigorous evaluation, which international development projects sometimes shortchange, is a central part of Bridge’s model. (For more about how social-science analysis can make development and anti-poverty efforts more effective, watch Esther Duflo’s 2009 PopTech talk.) To measure educational and financial success, Bridge sets ideal costs for buying land and building schools, costs and schedules for hiring and training teachers and school managers (who are also hired locally), standards for teaching and teacher oversight, and standards for student performance. Bridge uses “direct instruction” to maintain a rigorous and consistent education in independently administered schools, scripting each class carefully so that, according to May, “we know exactly what is being taught at any given minute in the classroom, and exactly how it is being taught.”

Bridge International Academies
Inside of a classroom with engaged students. Credit: Bridge International Academies.

To reduce corruption, Bridge runs what it calls a cashless school. All payments, incoming and outgoing, including payroll for all kinds of workers (teachers, school managers, construction workers), money for construction materials and school materials, and receipts of school fees, are made through the M-PESA mobile-phone payment system or Equity Bank. Signs in schools remind teachers and parents that Bridge employees should never ask for money, with a phone number for reporting violations. Off site, Bridge staff members use regular attendance reports to double-check that no student’s fees are diverted.

Can poor families afford these fees? A family pays 295 Kenyan shillings a month to send a child to a Bridge school. That’s less than $4, or about one day’s pay—usually the cheapest option, or among the cheapest ones, available in a given area. And relying on parents rather than outside organizations for funding makes the project more sustainable, reduces opportunities for corruption by shortening the path between funder and school, and above all, makes the schools accountable to parents above all others.

“By running [Bridge] as a for-profit, the target population is changed from a beneficiary to a customer, and in that change they gain all the power,” says May. “It is the customer that can keep us in or put us out of business. It is the customer, our parents, who are in charge, and that is exactly how we want it.”

Parents are willing to pay for their children to attend Bridge schools, says May, because just walking past the school they can see evidence of the quality of the enterprise. These signs of quality may seem modest by our standards, but they are significant: Children are in class during class time. Teachers are in class, too, and they are actively teaching. Lessons are interactive, with frequent responses from students. “From the parents’ perspective,” says May, “this means that there is never a time they walk by a classroom and see a teacher wondering what to write on the board, or confused about the correct answer to a problem, or sitting at their desk while the students ‘self-study.’”

In December, Omidyar Network gave Bridge International Academies a $1.8 million grant [updated February 1, 2010] equity investment (which will be repaid along with additional returns) to scale up its network of schools. Seven schools exist so far; in May, between five and ten more will open. After that, Bridge hopes to launch at least ten schools at a time and very quickly start launching 20 to 30 schools at a time. Within five to eight years, Bridge intends to open hundreds of schools annually and expand into other parts of Kenya and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with the goal of establishing 1,800 schools by 2015. Crystal Hutter, the investment lead for Omidyar Network, says that if the program succeeds, it could serve as a model for other parts of the world and other areas of social enterprise. -- Joshua J. Friedman is a writer in New York City. He is a former editor of The Atlantic and Boston Review.

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.