PopTech Blog

Posts by Emily Spivack

PopTech Editions I: Rita Colwell on folding saris and saving lives

Last week, 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. In the coming weeks, we'll be highlighting individual pieces from our first Edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good. Today, we're excerpting an interview we conducted with Dr. Rita Colwell.

Saris are meant to be worn. But did you know that the garment can also be used to radically reduce the spread of cholera?

In 2003, environment microbiologist, scientific educator, and distinguished professor at the University of Maryland Rita Colwell conducted a study in which 7,000 women in Bangladesh were trained to filter the water they gathered every day through a cotton sari folded four times, which reduced the spread of cholera by almost 48%.

In 2008, Colwell returned to Bangladesh to see if the practice was still in use. What she found was that with no further training, 31% of participants continued to filter their water and about 60% continued to use saris for that purpose. Moreover, a significant group of women who had not learned the filtration technique had started filtering as well, taught by the population who had first received the training. And households that didn’t filter their water but lived in the vicinity of those who did had lowered their incidence of cholera.

We spoke with Colwell to learn more about how the ubiquity of the garment, the simplicity of the filtering technique, and the ease of teaching this method enabled this approach to spread throughout networks in the region.

PopTech: How did the sari cloth filtration study come to fruition?
We hypothesized if we could remove the particulate matter, the plankton, in a very simple way we could reduce cholera in a country like Bangladesh where it's endemic. Due to the lack of safe drinking water, the villagers – women – will go great distances to collect water. The water is untreated. Laboratory experiments showed that with simple filtration, a sari cloth folded four or five times could remove 99% of the bacteria.

We did a three year study that was funded by the NIH where we were able to show a reduction of 50% of cholera in the village where we had laid out an experimental design: those who filtered, those who didn’t, and sufficient buffer between the two groups.


Collaboration alert: Peter Durand on ZanaAfrica's PAD project

ZanaAfricafounded by 2011 Social Innovation Fellow Megan Mukuria, empowers Kenyan girls to break cycles of poverty through simple, sustainable solutions. With sanitary pads and health education, girls can stay in school with confidence.

The girls in ZanaAfrica’s EmpowerNet Clubs in Kibera helped create this video to share how pads and health education have positively impacted their lives. They used the Brushes application on iPads to create drawings, which longtime PopTech collaborator Peter Durand of Alphachimp Studio used as inspiration to make this animation.

via ZanaAfrica

Announcing PopTech Editions: Social Contagion for Social Good

We’re excited to introduce PopTech Editions, a feature that explores an emerging theme at the edge of change from the perspective of some of the remarkable innovators shaping it. From tracking behaviors within social networks to exploring the service-oriented nature of social innovation to getting a handle on the unanticipated outcomes of climate change, Editions serve as a guide to timely topics with original essays and articles from contributors, interviews from the field, videos on and off the PopTech stage, and more.

We’ll dive deep into a specific topic or trend on our radar and call upon PopTech’s rich network for their diverse viewpoints – and we’ll reach out to experts and thought leaders whose topical insights will help shape each issue.

In this edition, Person-to-person: Social contagion for social good, we're exploring if and how we can harness social contagion for social good:

  • James Fowler provides tips on the science of spreading the word;
  • Rita Colwell recounts how folding saris is helping fight cholera;
  • Duncan Watts describes what we know – and don’t know – about social contagion;
  • Sinan Aral explores how we’re influenced by our social network;
  • Gary Slutkin describes how CeaseFire interrupts violence by spreading the message;
  • and much more!

Enjoy - and let us know what you think of this first Edition in the comments below.

Robert Fabricant's graphic doodles

PopTech friend and 2008 presenter Robert Fabricant of frog design shared his signature graphic doodles with us from PopTech 2011. He describes the reasoning behind his notetaking:

What makes a meeting, a conversation, or a PopTech talk memorable? Why bother to write down anything these days when it all ends up recorded in the cloud? A few years ago I realized that all it took were a few simple things – a particular turn of phrase, quote, story or image – to capture the essence of these moments.

One day I was passing through Terminal 5 at JFK on my way to a conference in Austin and I stumbled upon these peculiar notebooks in the Muji store. They had little boxes that were meant for storyboarding. Just like the 140 characters in a tweet, these boxes have provided the frame for condensing discussions to their essential bits. Since then it has become a bit of an obsession for me in meetings as I try to get the most out of each square. And it has spread to friends and co-workers, one of whom bought them for her son who was having trouble focusing in school.

In the digital age, when every interaction is captured in a steady stream of 1s and 0s, it is critical that we pay extra attention to the human and personal qualities of each situation. It is too easy to retreat into the ether. Thats what these notebooks do for me.

--Robert Fabricant, frog design

Click on the doodle below to view Fabricant's renderings in all their wondrous, magnified glory.

Powering up at the Energy Innovation Summit, part II: Quick takes

In our ongoing conversation about the future of energy - and a follow-up to our post last week - we captured some great stories from energy disruptors on the ground at ARPA-E's Energy Innovation Summit.

OPX Biotechnologies, Inc.

Makani Power


Steve Blank


Energy shop talk: Johanna Wellington on clean energy technologies

Johanna Wellington was inspired to go into a technology career because she loves math like other people enjoy doing crossword puzzles. She started off at GE as an intern, went on to be a Combustion Design Engineer, and held several other positions before joining the Research Center in her current role as Advanced Technology Leader for Sustainable Energy where she is an expert in clean energy technologies. In our ongoing conversation about energy, here's our latest edition to our series of shorts on energy disruptors.

Powering up at the Energy Innovation Summit

ARPA-E recently wrapped up its Energy Innovation Summit, which took place just outside Washington D.C. from February 27-29. The third conference brought together leaders from academia, business, and government in order to advance energy technology innovation. Heavy-hitters like Bill Gates and Nancy Pelosi presented along with ARPA-E award recipients who’re on the ground creating new technologies that are transforming the way we consume, generate, and store energy.

On Tuesday, Arun Majumdar (Energy Salon 2011), director of ARPA-E, framed the conversation by showing the audience a punch card from the 1970s used to input data into computers and an iPhone. In the information revolution that’s taken place over the last 40 years, “we didn’t make better punch cards,” explained Majumdar. “We enabled the future and built a better world.”

Looking across U.S. history from Norman Borlaug, who initiated the Green Revolution, to Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine, to Nikola Tesla, who created the AC electricity grid, begs the question - who will be this century’s greatest scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs? And the area that’s ripe for innovation is the energy space. “Energy offers the biggest challenges and opportunities,” Majumdar stated. And when we’re spending one billion dollars per day to import oil into the United States, it’s a massive drain on our economy and a national security challenge, but also it’s a huge economic opportunity to develop affordable and sustainable energy.


Reflections on impact from Beijing

Contribution by Arvind Subramanian

As I write this from Beijing, the vista from my hotel is dominated by the monstrously imposing modernist monument that headquarters CCTV, China’s official TV channel.  I’m here to speak at the launch of a new report (CHINA 2030) about the country’s future, which was jointly written by the World Bank and the Chinese government. This report has been receiving a lot of attention because it is like a blueprint for China’s reform process going forward. All the very senior Chinese officials present at the event are very aware of, almost obsessed with, the problems looming ahead for China—inequality, corruption, environmental degradation, prospects of instability, etc. 

These problems notwithstanding, China is a testament to the possibility of rapid progress out of poverty and under-development. And China’s future development is of earth-shaking consequence for the rest of the world. I discussed some of the related issues during my presentation at PopTech last year, and in the latest issue of WIRED magazine I develop these ideas further, notably how to ensure that China’s growing economic dominance is harnessed for the good of the world. How China shapes its internal future as well as how it crafts its international role is going to be fascinating to watch. 


Our bodies are remote controls: Desney Tan and Scott Saponas explain

Imagine if you could turn up the volume on your stereo, answer an email, or find directions - all by tapping your arm or moving your body. It's really not all that far off. On the PopTech stage, Desney Tan and Scott Saponas demoed Skinput, their technology that creates an interface using bio-acoustics on touch-sensitive surfaces of our body. Beyond the novelty of using your forearm to change the channel on your television, there's a real benefit from this technology.

Tan lays the foundation of their talk by explaining that the iPads and Androids we depend upon daily aren't purely functional. Instead, if they're designed right, they should provide an experience for the user, change culture, and shape the way we live. But these devices, which we've become tethered to, can be limiting. What if we didn't always need to pull something out of our pocket and close off the world around us while staring into a small screen and tapping away on an ever-shrinking device? What if we could continue to interact with our environment while getting the information we need?

"We've made cool technologies that profoundly shape how we live. The bottleneck is in the interface. The challenge is to create richer ways for humans and computers to communicate," described Tan. He suggests that we turn our bodies, or what he deems "playground[s] of technology interface," into sensors so that we can then become our own controllers wherever we go, whenever we want.

Image-wise: PopTech portraits from Alphachimp's Perrin Ireland

PopTech friend Perrin Ireland of Alphachimp Studios sketched portraits of PopTech 2011 speakers and Fellows in action, and we've compiled these pieces into a slideshow for your viewing pleasure. You may get a sense of the talks' topics from the illustrations, but if they've piqued your interest and left you wanting more, we've conveniently included links to each of their stage talks as well.

  1. Shahidul Alam describes how he started a number of projects to bring photography to the people.
  2. Milenko Matanovic is a community builder and visual artist.
  3. Krista Donaldson runs D-Rev: Design Revolution, which creates state-of-the-art, user-centric products to empower the lives of people living on less than four dollars a day.
  4. Reuben Margolin creates large-scale kinetic sculptures that use pulleys and motors to create the complex movements and structures we see in nature.
  5. Adrien Treuille tackles scientific problems with games.
  6. Jan Chipchase, head of research for frog Design, talks about the process behind his company’s acclaimed work.
  7. Military strategists Col. Mark Mykleby (who presented with Captain Wayne Porter) presents highlights from their much-discussed paper, “A National Strategic Narrative.”
  8. Iain Couzin studies how animals coordinate behavior.
  9. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson describes Iceland’s social and democratic upheaval and their path to resilience.
  10. Paul Needham's organization, Simba Networks, makes solar energy available to the poor by using a pay-as-you-go pricing structure that eventually leads to electricity ownership.
  11. Michael Murphy uses architectural solutions to make people healthier.
  12. Katherine Kuchenbecker designs haptic interfaces, virtual objects and distant environments that feel real to the human touch.
  13. Jonathan Rothberg’s invention ushered in the era of personal genetics and today his technology is used in laboratories and medical centers all over the world.
  14. Erik Hersman explains how Africa has some of the world’s fastest growing economies where innovation and entrepreneurship are exploding.
  15. Anne-Marie Slaughter shares her insights on the transformation of state and non-state actors.
  16. Thomas Thwaites reverse engineered a simple seven dollar toaster into 400 separate parts and then set about recreating it entirely from scratch.
  17. Unity Dow, a lawyer, high court justice in Botswana, and novelist describes seismic generational shifts between pre- and post-independence Africans.
  18. Military strategists Captain Wayne Porter (who presented with Col. Mark Mykleby) presents highlights from their much-discussed paper, “A National Strategic Narrative."
  19. Saman Arbabi (who presented with co-host Kambiz Hosseini) started a satirical television show, Parazit, that uses use the power of satire combined with content from citizens on the street to expose injustices happening across Iran.
  20. Tony Orrico explores line and shape with his actual body, creating works of visual art that record his own motion.