PopTech Blog

Posts by Emily Spivack

Celebrate Earth Day with Imogen Heap


Stop by Imogen Heap's backyard garden (well, sort of...) this Earth Day, Sunday, April 22, for an intimate, live performance of her new song and video. She'll be performing with her musical gloves for this one. Following the performance, you'll be treated to the premiere of Love the Earth, a film she's been working on for some time with collaborator, Thomas Ermacora. On Heap's blog, she elaborates:

Leading up to the Heapsong6 performance (which will hopefully have a name by then) I will be guiding you through the process so far via a ‘making of’ video. You’ll see the making of before it’s made! I’ll be introducing you to all the people involved in Heapsong6. From cameramen to cyclists, designers to lighting specialists and all of ‘The Gloves’ team, with footage shot over the last few weeks.

...the team will then magically re-assemble the garden from film set to outdoor cinema and we’ll all sit down together, relax and watch our Love The Earth Film, (orchestrally scored by yours truly), after a brief recap and introduction from Thomas Ermacora and I, before saying goodbye and leaving you to watch The Love The Earth film.

To whet your appetite, watch Heap perform at PopTech in 2008 and 2010 and read more from PopTech about her Love the Earth film.

Image: Kris Krüg

Image-wise: Iceland's resilient beauty

This month, National Geographic has featured one of the most beautiful and buoyant countries with Iceland's Resilient Beauty, a multimedia feature that includes text, photos and travel must dos. They're also accepting photo submissions from readers who have spent time in the country. For anyone considering joining PopTech in Iceland this June when we convene a conference on the topic of resilience, we highly recommend having a look.

Image: Orsolya and Erlend Haarberg via National Geographic

At Hveravellir—literally "hot springs in the plain"—thin terraces of geyserite precipitate from the water as it cools. A notorious 18th-century outlaw, Fjalla-Eyvindur, stayed warm here for years, stealing sheep from summer pastures.

Image: Orsolya and Erlend Haarberg via National Geographic

The volcano Eyjafjallajökull, in Iceland, just before dawn on April 23, 2010: The worst is over. Lava flows freely. Earlier, as it punched through the ice cap, it triggered a meltwater flood that destroyed roads and farms, and a steam explosion that hurled ash into the stratosphere, stopping air traffic for a week.


Image: Wild Wonders of Europe via National Geographic

At Litlanesfoss, the waterfall cross-sections an ancient lava flow, which formed columns as it cooled.

Dowser on organizing for resilience: The Transition Towns Network

As PopTech focuses its attention on the theme of resilience this year, we'll be highlighting stories from on and off the web that exemplify many facets that define the field. Recently, we were drawn to the following post on Dowser by Rachel Signor, which we've excerpted here:

A while back, Dowser wrote about Bellingham, Washington, a town that is consciously developing its local economy in order to withstand the global recession. Across the world, communities are forming around principles of sustainable, locally-based living, with awareness that natural resources—like oil—are finite, and an understanding that sustainability is more than a choice in a grocery store; it’s a way of life.

Arguably, much of what goes on in the Transition Network is happening already, in cities everywhere: urban agriculture, crowdfunding, and other kinds of social enterprises are aligned with principles of resilience. But the Transition Network offers a support base, as well as a handbook to the Transition Town design model, a 12-step guide to organizing a community toward non-reliance on oil.

PopTech Editions I: James Fowler, Sinan Aral, and Gary Slutkin speak social contagion

Recently, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the past few weeks, we've been highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're highlighting videos from past PopTech presenters relevant to the theme, which we included in Edition I.

Gary Slutkin: "You do what you see other people doing. And then it gets stuck by the social expectations of everyone else."

James Fowler: "Your friend's friend's friends have an impact on you. They're going to impact whether or not you're obese, whether or not you smoke, whether or not you drink, whether or not you're happy, whether or not you're lonely, whether or not you're depressed, whether or not you exhibit altruism..."

Sinan Aral: "If we can understand how behaviors spread...we could potentially promote behaviors like...condom use or tolerance."

Women and men, haves and have-nots

Contribution by Stephanie Coontz

The theme of this June’s PopTech conference in Iceland, the need for resilience, follows logically from last October’s theme of realignment. I have been doing a lot of thinking about both these issues recently in relation to trends in family life. In my last two presentations at PopTech conferences I described the realignment of marriage norms and male-female relationships as women’s legal rights inside marriage and socioeconomic options outside it have expanded. Both trends have been good news for millions of people around the world.

But undercutting the generally positive direction of these changes has been a disturbing realignment of class relations. Almost everywhere we see a widening gap between rich and poor, and a collapse of traditional working-class routes to economic security. The growing economic and financial stresses facing traditional working-class communities have depleted their reserves of resilience and sources of renewal.

The widening gap between the haves and have-nots goes beyond access to material security. It is also evident in access to stable personal and familial relationships. Among economically secure individuals, there has been a marked increase in gender equity, a decline in family violence, and an increase in the time parents spend cultivating their children’s minds and bodies. But economically insecure individuals now find it harder to establish and maintain stable families and community networks. 
Read more...

Nithya Ramanathan on why measurement matters

How do organizations that are working to solve some of the world's most challenging social and environment problems measure the impact of their work, especially when that work is happening in remote areas and on a significant scale? Take, for example, not only gauging air pollution levels in remote villages in India and the corresponding deaths caused by smoke inhalation from cooking indoors over fires but then tracking clean cook stove solutions that reduce the incidence of deaths. Or, how about measuring the population and thereby preventing the extinction of seabirds on remote islands by gathering and analyzing the sound of those birds?

Both of these projects have been tackled by PopTech 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Nithya Ramanathan and the organization she founded, Nexleaf Analytics. Nexleaf Analytics couples low-cost, everyday objects, like cell phones, with sophisticated analytics to transform those devices into scientific instruments. "Using very simple technologies and more complex computational models we're able to dramatically reduce the cost of data collection. This means we can start deploying instruments in hundreds, or even thousands, of households to really get a better understanding of what's going on in the field," explained Ramanathan during her PopTech talk.

In the case of the indoor air pollution problem, a simple pump and air filters coupled with a cell phone photo provides enough data for a computer to parse the risk. Or, in the case of the sea birds, a modified baby monitor, created simply with mobile phones, turns the sound of bird calls into data, which then, in turn, helps scientists understand how the avian populations are changing over time. By using cell phones and other off-the-shelf technologies in new ways, Nexleaf Analytics is providing "real time access so we take action when it matters most," concludes Ramanathan.

PopTech Editions I: James Fowler's 10 points on the science of spreading the word

Recently, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're excerpting a contribution from political scientist and PopTech presenter James Fowler.

1. Good deeds are contagious

We naturally imitate the people around us, we adopt their ideas about appropriate behavior, and we feel what they feel. Acts of charity are no exception. In our 2010 generosity experiment, we showed that every extra dollar of giving in a game designed to measure altruism caused people who saw that giving to donate an extra twenty cents.

2. The network acts like a matching grant

That same experiment showed that contagious generosity spreads up to three steps through the network (from person to person to person to person), and when we added up all the extra donations that resulted at every step, we found that an extra dollar in giving yielded three extra dollars by everyone else in the network.

3. Messages get amplified when they spread naturally

People are bombarded by information and appeals every day, especially in our newly mobile and tech-centered society, so the effect of any one appeal to do a good deed may get lost. But don't underestimate the effect of a broadcasting strategy. Our research on get-out-the-vote appeals suggests that the indirect effect of a message on a person's friends is about three times larger than the direct effect on the person who received the message in the first place. The more you can get people to deliver the message naturally, the greater this multiplier effect will be.

4. Close friends matter more

When we studied behaviors like obesity, smoking, and drinking, we found that spouses, siblings, and friends had an effect on each other's behavior, but next door neighbors did not. So any attempt to change people's behavior should probably focus on motivating these "strong ties" rather than broadcasting to a wide range of weak connections.

5. Our real world friends are online, too

Although most relationships online are not strong (the average person on Facebook has 150 "friends"), we do tend to be connected to our closest friends online too. Therefore, it is possible to use online social networks to reach our real world friends to spread social good. If someone is suggesting friends to a person who could help spread the world, it is important to try to figure out which of his/her relationships are also likely face-to-face. We have done this using photo tags and frequency of communication online, both of which work relatively well.

Read all ten of Fowler's points on spreading the word.

Resilience Week at USAID

This week, the USAID is focusing its attention on resilience from an international perspective and specifically exploring ways to do business to avoid crises in the future. Of particular interest to the USAID is the horn of Africa where we held PopTech's Climate Resilience Lab this past February. USAID explains:

While we can't stop catastrophes from occurring, we can do more to help people withstand them so that they don't shatter development gains or give rise to violence that can set countries back decades. USAID is committed to strengthening food security so that droughts no longer lead to food crises. We are committed to expanding our focus from relief to resilience-from responding after emergencies strike to preparing communities in advance.

For more, check out the conference and related conference papers and read the Communique for the Joint IGAD Ministerial and High Level Development Partners on Drought Resilience in the Horn of Africa (pdf).

Image: USAID.Africa

Unity Dow on a generational shift in Africa

Unity Dow wears many hats. She’s a lawyer, a retired judge (who happens to have been Botswana’s first female high court judge), a prolific author of four works of fiction and one non-fiction, and an advocate for the rights of women and girls. In her PopTech talk, she shared her perspective on a spectrum of topics connected to her pursuits including rethinking the future of Africa, reimagining the role of women and girls, and reclaiming one’s self and identity in the process. Watch Dow's talk or read our complete interview with her, which touches on some of the most salient points from Dow's talk.

PopTech Editions I: Duncan Watts on social contagion: What do we really know?


Recently, PopTech announced a new initiative called Editions, which explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. Over the next few weeks, we'll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're excerpting a contribution from Duncan Watts, a research scientist at Yahoo! Research.

The phenomenon of social contagion—that information, ideas, and even behaviors can spread through networks of people the way that infectious diseases do—is both intuitively appealing and potentially powerful.

It appeals to our intuition for two reasons. First, it is obviously true that people are influenced by one another. Reflecting on our individual experience of life, it is easy to recall any number of instances in which we have been influenced, whether by our parents, our teachers, our coworkers, or our friends, and corresponding instances when we have influenced them. And second, once you accept that one person can influence another, it follows logically that that person can influence yet another person, who can in turn influence another person, and so on. Influence, that is, can spread.

Its potential power arises mostly from this second idea. We know that in the world of infectious disease, global pandemics, infecting millions of people — the Spanish Flu, HIV, and maybe one day Avian Influenza—can be triggered by a single individual, a “patient zero,” from which all subsequent infections are derived. If social influence can spread like a disease, then it is only natural to suspect that “social epidemics” can take place as well, and that they too have their patient zeros who trigger them.

In the 19th century, writers like Charles Mackay and Gustave Le Bon viewed social contagion with alarm, seeing it as the cause of collective madness, whether in financial markets or mob violence. By the arrival of the 21st century, however, the prevailing view of contagion had become far more positive—particularly in marketing and related fields. If only an enterprising marketer (or some other change agent) could create the conditions for a social epidemic, the reasoning goes, and if only they could find the right people to trigger it, awesome change could be unleashed for relatively little cost.

One belief that hasn’t changed over time, however, is that social epidemics are responsible for dramatic, possibly sudden social change. But is this assumption really true? And if not, then what exactly can social contagion accomplish?

Read the full article and check out the complete Edition.

Image: An electron micrograph showing recreated 1918 "Spanish Flu" influenza virions via Wikipedia