Archive for the 'musing' Category

Recap of a Launch

Its been a remarkable six months. Here’s a recap including links to some fun background and outcomes. Thanks to every at MIT and beyond who helped make this year a success, in particular our partners at the MIT150, the MIT Alumni Association, and Idea Couture along with our many sponsors. Download a copy of the interim report here.

Overall Visitor Traffic for the Period

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And the Winners Are…
(Browse teams here: http://globalchallenge.mit.edu/teams)

$5000 Community Choice Awards

  1. LOW COST CURRICULUM FOR THE BLIND
  2. AQUA
  3. INNOBOX SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING TOOLKIT
  4. INDIAN MOBILE INITIATIVE
  5. EYECATRA

$5000, $7500 and $10,000 IDEAS Juried Awards

  1. BIODIESEL – $5000
  2. EYECATRA – $5000
  3. HYDROHARVEST – $5000
  4. LOW-COST CURRICULUM FOR THE BLIND – $5000
  5. SAFE WATER WORLD – $5000
  6. INDIAN MOBILE INITIATIVE – $7500
  7. SOLAR AUTOCLAVE – $7500
  8. INNOBOX – $10,000
  9. LOW-COST AUTOCLAVE – $10,000
  10. ASSISTIVE TECH – $10,000

$10,000 Global Challenge Juried Awards

  1. KOSIM WATER KEG
  2. SOLAR AUTOCLAVE
  3. PRACTICAL ENERGY NETWORK – winner of the School of Engineering’s Global Villages Challenge
  4. INDIAN MOBILE INITIATIVE – congratulations on your sweep in all three award categories!
  5. MAA-BARA – Winner of the Mohammad Yunus Challenge to Alleviate Poverty through Improved Agricultural Processes

Community Choice Voting Participation – Vote Sources

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Community Choice Voting Results

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Choosing a mobile development platform

Smart phones, they’re everywhere. They’re fueling the end of despotic regimes, tuning up your local experience, and shooting feature-length films. There’s a school of thought that says mobiles – smartphones and feature phones – are powerful tools to tackle barriers to human well-being as well. We’ve seen many amazing projects in this spirit come through IDEAS – SanaMobile is a remote medical diagnostic tool; AssuredLabor helps trustworthy workers connect with employers; Netra reduces the cost of diagnosing refractive eye conditions; and Konbit enables employable Haitians to create audio resumes.

But we’re getting a little ahead. Our question is about getting started in smartphone application development, so we want to put it to you, developers: how do you choose the platform and development environment to work in – Windows, Android, or iOS? What are the criteria you would use? (And be honest here: if its as simple as, “I learned Java in 4th grade and have stuck with it,” or, “A sponsor gave us 5 Windows phones,” then tell us that, too!).

“Call the question” is a new series we’re experimenting with, to get insights into how innovation for development and invention and entrepreneurship as public service happens – at MIT and elsewhere. We encourage questions from the specific (how do I choose my corporation type?) to the strategic (where should I pilot an innovative water desalinization technology?). Got a question you’d like to have answered?  Send an email to question@mit.edu and we’ll consider posting it here. Either way, we’ll let you know.

Shirky on the Silly Stuff vs Science Gap

A friend and I took an hour to hear Clay Shirky speak at the Monitor Group last night, curious to learn more about some of the intellectual territory plowed in his latest book, “Cognitive Surplus.” [Disclaimer: though a colleague shared the book, I've yet to crack it].

Couple of key points he raised before I get to mine: first is that the book is centered on one of the big opportunities opened by the web and connected devices, which is for massive coordinated voluntary action. Second is that there’s this “gap” between the billions of hours Americans spend watching television, and the time spent contributing to efforts like wikipedia (its huge according to Clay’s back of the envelope sketch). Third, scientific production has historically lagged the production of silly stuff – erotica, for example – when new communication technologies hit the social landscape.

This third point caught my attention. Is it really true that it took the scientific ‘community’ of Europe 150 years or so to ‘catch up’ to whimsical uses of the printing press? My gut says something else was afoot, something along the lines of ‘enlightenment.’

When Gutenberg famously cranked out his first editions of the Bible in the 1440s, moveable type presses had existed elsewhere for hundreds of years. Europe itself was just coming out of from under the blanket of medieval ‘dark ages’ with a nascent ‘renaissance’ of reasoned inquiry rooted in the Enlightenment ideals of autonomy, reason, and progress.

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Science, Adventure, and Service

The Guardian UK has a delightful article that describes the confluence of history, science, and adventure that turns on the story of Darwin, the redesign of the HMS Beagle, and NASA scientists today – and ways they inspire modern K-12 education. At the heart of the article is a wonderful quote, that “Inspiration, then, fuelled by adventure, was the trigger for Darwin’s lifelong commitment to science. Over the past few years the Beagle Project team has worked to bring the adventure of science back into focus.”

I think this affinity for adventure and discovery among students is a big part of what makes public service so attractive at MIT – its the opportunity for students to apply their problem-solving skills in very different and unfamiliar contexts that stretch their learning. This is exciting, and it’s also problematic, and goes to the heart of a robust debate that Bruce Nussbaum kicked off a few months back on design and the new “imperialism.” When the HMS Beagle – a very adept ten gun sloop of war of the British Navy – set out on its historic voyage nearly 180 years ago, Britain was at the apex of its colonial expansion, and the voyage marked a projection of power far more than it did a scientific endeavor.

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Bruce Nussbaum: The New Imperialism

During the period of rapid American mechanization and industrialization – from roughly the late 18th century through the 19th century – the United States benefitted significantly from the contributions of foreign inventors and entrepreneurs. One might go so far as to say, the founding of American industrial strength out of this period was formed out of strong continental ties and a lively exchange of ideas and designs.

Explicit knowledge transfer programs like worker training and study tours thrived as societies sought to keep abreast of the latest technological advances – as did less formal modes of learning, including philosophical societies and outright espionage.

Against this backdrop of the lively exchange of knowledge and commerce, it comes as a bit of a shock to read the latest musing of Bruce Nussbaum, a professor of Innovation and Design at the Parsons School of Design, who mused in a recent Fast Company Design article whether “Humanitarian design is the new imperialism?” Granted, this is a line of enquiry he’s used in the past, for example in a 2009 Businessweek article when he asked whether “Green” was the new imperialism.

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Competitions, Social Innovation, and Human Well-being

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “The U.S. Lagging, not Leading, Social Entrepreneurship” caught my eye; the author writes, “Spend less time and money training entrepreneurs and funding contests domestically; invest more in social entrepreneurs globally.”

A few observations:

  • Lead with partnership. The author suggests that what’s needed are innovations “for the two-thirds world, coming from the two-thirds.” And while this is true, its probably not sufficient. What we’re finding is that partnerships – in which communities contribute their expertise, and MIT students contribute theirs – generate startling results. Scrape a little deeper into the history of companies like M-Pesa, Ushahidi, and even Grameen Phone and the role of robust international partnerships become clear.
  • Markets are not equal. Markets are very different in the U.S. and base of the pyramid. The consumer needs and the costs of entry are very different, as are the ongoing costs of doing business. We need better descriptions of the end-user benefits before we rule out domestic investment. The fact that the U.S. has created a Social Innovation Fund should signal some hope that we’re moving out of the era of big NGOs and into trimmer enterprise-led solutions to social dilemmas.
  • The U.S. is a terrific incubator. Domestic investments are, counterintuitively, investments in international social entrepreneurship. At MIT, 25% of team members in competitions like IDEAS and the Global Challenge are international. At the same time, partnerships should be considered an essential investment criteria for anyone considering funding for a social enterprise outside the U.S. in which American actors play a part.
  • Finally, there isn’t much in the article to suggest how the U.S. can move from being a laggard – if the proposition is true – to being a leader. Its not clear how investing in social entrepreneurs globally will advance the U.S. leadership position.

Its probably true that the United States, and much of the donor base that operates out of the U.S., has over-invested in well-intentioned – and ultimately fruitless – self-styled innovators who don’t have the problem-solving knack needed to tackle persistent problems abroad. But that’s not sufficient in my book to suggest we lag. Nor that entrepreneurs abroad are any more likely to achieve success – precisely because these are tough challenges that often require a rare confluence of skills, experiences and resources necessary to solve them.

At the end of the day, we need to create more opportunities for entrepreneurial thinkers to encounter each other – whether that’s through competition spaces, incubators, networking events like Design Indaba, Maker Faire AfricaSocial Capital Markets, Pop!Tech, and the Skoll World Forum to name just a few. The important concept is that these are how learning networks are fed, and from these networks innovation is sparked. We also need to seek out, recognize, and support nascent talent where it lies, and foster spaces where young problem-solvers like William Kamkwamba can encounter and build the personal networks that often build toward successful social enterprises.

Come get a sneak peak at some of the terrific ideas MIT students are coming up with as we prepare to launch the MIT Global Challenge, a competition platform to connect and reward innovators inside and outside the MIT community that are tackling barriers to well-being.

US Aid Professionals to American Volunteers: Stay Home

William Easterly is a well-respected economist, author, and aid critic at New York University. One of his books that influenced me quite a bit is “The Elusive Quest for Growth: An Economists Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics.” In it, he lays out a passionate, cogent case that U.S. foreign aid has not delivered the economic and social benefits donors should expect. You can keep up with his writing at his blog, Aid Watch. Much of it is a consistent stream of criticism around ways aid is portrayed in the media, with timely quarrels with the numbers and policy recommendations.

An interesting side effect of this work has been a rising call for American voluntary aid workers to stay home. In fact, you might even say that the work of journalists like Nicholas Kristoff to popularize awareness of conditions in struggling regions has been met with frustration at Americans’ corresponding desire to do something.

This do something spirit, perhaps amplified in our age of Internet-enabled media and visibility, has even been given a new name, voluntourism.

The frustration with Americans pitching in generally, and voluntourism specifically, is exemplified by the blog Tales from the Hood - at the center of a group of bloggers with titles like Blood and Milk, Good Intentions Are Not Enough, and Wronging Rights – that regularly launches salvos across the bows of DIY do gooders and “amateur” aid workers. Its not clear how they themselves cut their teeth in aid, for whom they practice, and the lasting results that they have produced.

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Can Information Improve Aid Effectiveness?

In 2009 Oxfam America published a brief on “smart development,” in which the authors advocate for increased transparency and predictability in US overseas assistance (ODA). In defining the challenge and the opportunity, Oxfam America identifies three reforms central to their strategy: provide increased access to information to recipient countries; build capacity and help countries lead their own development; and finally let countries lead by opening control.

In making the case for reform 1 (increasing access to information), Oxfam America gives three examples of the information entanglements that arise from massive aid programs that lack effective information sharing regimes:

For years, Afghans have heard about billions of dollars being promised by foreign  donors, yet they have no way to find out where that money is going. Even their  government does not know how one-third of all aid (some $5 billion) has been  spent since 2001.13 In Uganda, a mapping exercise in 2005 found twice as much  aid being spent than what the government was told.14 In Sierra Leone, the government knows little of the 265 different aid projects that donors are funding.15 And
in Malawi, there was a $119 million difference in what donors reported they were  providing to the government of Malawi and what donors reported to the OECD.16

“How” the authors ask, “can recipient governments use donor aid to plan in such circumstances?”

In reading the report, which is a sleek 40 pages, I realize there is a tremendous innovation opportunity here – which is to develop better tools, standards, and administrative reforms that will lead to the kind of information coherence across ODA actors necessary for effective development planning. In a sense, a GPRA for aid that harnesses the open data reforms of the last decade and the flexibility of information sharing tools available on the web.

A problem with enough technical challenges to be of interest to MIT management and programming talent?

Dispatch Work: Participation and “Pointing” Urban Spaces

Graffitti in Babilônia favelaAs a mixed media artist, I’m always on the lookout for intriguing, clever, playful, whimsical ways of using ordinary materials to bring delight to the urban experience. A few recollections came to mind recently – principally as a result of a cool project I learned about during the annual MIT IDEAS Competition retreat I attended this week.

The project that got me thinking back to my days of RAOC (random acts of collage) is a “kite mapping” project that will engage youth in Brazil’s slums in surfacing the narratives of place where they live. The idea is one part arts engagement (cultivate narratives of place), a second part technical (use sophisticated technology to document narrative), another part advocacy (application of evidence to legitimize place). Of course, I’m crazy about using collage as a means for story-telling. Like Rauschenberg, I believe collage best replicates visually how we perceive the city.

I won’t go into more detail; you can learn more about “My City, My Future” (aka ArteRio) here. But here’s my point: an “owned” city space is a healthy city space.

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IDEAS2010 winners retreat reflections

IDEAS held its annual winners retreat May 25-26 at the always welcoming and excellent MIT Endicott House in Dedham. Over the course of two days, participants were asked to work with their team members and fellow winners to plan their next year of work, with an eye toward long-term impacts.

Although we didn’t get around to some of the more adventurous options like firewalking and gravity-less flight we had a great time interacting across discussions and activities like:

  • Project roadmap: plan the ultimate outcomes you envision for your project, and wrap around each the objectives, activities, resources, and timeline necessary to achieve those goals. Laura Sampath, International Development Initiative manager and Daphne Dhao, MIT alum and superstar IDEAS volunteer, led great discussions and workshops that privided practical tools for project planning, including a discussion of “Asking the right questions.”

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