Archive for the 'resources' Category

Team Profile: Recovers.Org / Developing a New Solution for Disaster Relief

49 teams are signed up to enter this year’s IDEAS Global Challenge. Nick Holden, helping with his knack for writing and interviewing has created a series of profiles on teams.

Last week, he profiled Team Recovers.org who are working to finesse a tool to harness and deploy the power of people’s help after a disaster. I included a snippet of the profile below. You can read the entire profile through this link.

Q. What’s innovative about the solution you are proposing to make an impact on disaster recovery?

A. There’s this huge spike in interest after a disaster. Fifty percent of all web searches seeking to help occur in the first seven days after a disaster.

An affected town loses the potential resources it could get from the initial spike in interest because it doesn’t have the capacity to accept the physical or financial resources. Without the proper technology in place, towns can’t capitalize on that early interest, and they are left without a platform to build more interest and no money for recovery.

Every single community that is affected by a disaster is affected by this technological black hole. For example, FEMA makes aid distribution based upon data it receives from communities after a disaster. That data includes how many volunteers worked, where they worked, for how many hours they worked, and what heavy machinery they used. In the first two weeks after a disaster, towns don’t even know that data needs to be tracked, and they don’t have tools to track it.

We’re disaster experts now because we’ve done this before. What we can do is structure the inputs with really easy-to-use software. We can make a button that says: “Where are you sending this volunteer?” Then we give coordinators this software that allows them to track volunteers. Now, FEMA gets their data, and the town gets more money because of it.

We started going into disaster areas as part of our development. Chris [Kuryak] and I just got back from Alabama. In the course of three-and-a-half days, we were able to set up an online recovery hub for a city that was ravaged by tornadoes on Jan. 24.

Using our website, the community has already flagged tons of cases of fraud attempts — of people going to multiple distribution centers. They’ve collected a massive database of donation items, especially things that are too large for people to bring in and store, but that are going to be needed six months to five years down the road, like china cabinets for people who are rebuilding their homes. It was pretty phenomenal proof-of-concept.

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Keep reading over at the MIT News site.

(Great profile, Nick!)

Good (Legal) News for Social Entrepreneurs

Good ideas are hard to come by; so, too, are funds for start-ups and investor-friendly regulations, especially in a struggling economy.

Luckily for budding entrepreneurs, two recent legislative developments might make it easier for you to get your innovative project off the ground.

Last month, the House passed the Entrepreneur Access to Capital Act, enabling entrepreneurs to crowd source online up to $1 million per year (or $2 million with the provision of audited financial statements).  The bill, which is backed by the White House, would cap shareholder investments at $10,000 or 10% of annual income, whichever is less.

So how exactly would a new law, if enacted, shake things up for social entrepreneurs?

Scott Edward Walker offers several enlightening FAQs on the VentureBeat blog, pointing out some key opportunities and potential risks involved with crowd-funding.

While the finer details are yet to be resolved, one thing is certain: the Act would lift current federal securities laws that prohibit solicitation for investments through crowd-funding websites or social networks like Facebook and Twitter (note that in some cases, e.g. Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, donations are allowed).

This is exciting news for projects that might benefit from local investing, or “locavesting” as coined by Amy Cortese in her popular book of the same name. In a recent interview, Cortese described her frustration with regulations that favor wealthy investors and hinder investments in local companies. The new legislation would effectively replace current SEC laws (which, believe it or not, have been in place since the 1930s), and may be the key to unlocking new funding possibilities for social innovators across the U.S. It will offer an alternative to venture capital and other sophisticated investment models, and may appeal particularly to those interested in empowering communities and building local businesses from the ground up.

Let’s hope that the companion legislation, now awaiting mark-up on the Senate floor, is promptly passed.

In a second interesting development, multiple bills have been introduced (and in some states, enacted) to authorize new legal structures that span across the spectrum from 501c3s to for-profit organizations. In a Wall Street Journal guest column, Kyle Westaway describes these models, including:

  • The low-profit limited liability company (L3C), which operates primarily to achieve a charitable purpose and secondarily for profit,
  • The benefit corporation, which creates a general benefit for society as well as its shareholders, and must report on its social and environmental performance, and
  • The flexible-purpose corporation, which strives to achieve a specifically-designated purpose in addition to profit.

For those mission-driven organizations that are also interested in creating sustainable value (as, we know, all in the MIT IDEAS community are!), these innovative legal structures could offer some great options.

The MIT Courses We’d Like to Take …

The semester is stirring to start. The students are back. It’s the time of year when the new flood of new-to-Cambridge residents learn their way around the neighborhood.

As the semester starts, here’s a look at some of the project-based classes we’d be keen to take:

(1) Seth Teller’s Assistive Technology
6.S196: Principles and Practices of Assistive Technology (link) A prototype created by the IDEAS Assistive Tech Team.
Professor Seth Teller with EECS is starting a new course on Assistive Technology with our own William Li who helped lead the recent IDEAS winning team by the same name.

Why take it? As Seth says:
In this project-based subject, small teams of students will connect with a person with a disability in the Boston area, learn about this “client’s” challenges, and develop an assistive device, solution, or technology that meets the client’s needs. We hope to serve people with visual impairment, motor impairment, or cognitive impairment,
as well those who need adaptive equipment for daily living. Learn more by emailing: ppat (at) csail (dot) mit (dot) edu

(2) Sandy Pentland and Joost Bonsen’s Development Ventures
15.375J Development Ventures

As Sandy and Joost describe it:

Seminar on founding, financing, and building entrepreneurial ventures in developing nations. Challenges students to craft enduring and economically viable solutions to the problems faced by these countries. Cases illustrate examples of both successful and failed businesses, and the difficulties in deploying and diffusing products and services through entrepreneurial action. Explores a range of established and emerging business models, as well as new business opportunities enabled by emerging technologies in MIT labs and beyond. Students develop a business plan executive summary suitable for submission in the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition $1K Warm-Up. Limited to 25.

** Joost is also working on an Urban Ventures course to launch this fall. If you’re interested challenges particularly related to cities, keep track of Joost’s thread here.

(3) Leah Buechley’s Design for Empowerment
MAS.680 Design For Empowerment
We have heard lots of great recommendations on Leah’s class. Here’s the description:

Aims to understand, contribute to, and support communities of people who design, build, and hack their own devices. Focuses on tools that enable non-experts to design and build computational and electronic systems. Students investigate software and hardware toolkits, open-source technologies, fabrication processes, and new manufacturing and distribution models.

(4) D-Lab Courses
Click here for their course list

Sugarcane charcoal developed through MITs D-Lab

Sugarcane charcoal developed through MIT's D-Lab

As always, lots of incredible, hands-on courses are happening through D-Lab for undergrads to take advantage of. If you’re interested in applying engineering and design to development challenges, this is your chance to get your hands dirty. One of their new courses is being led by Libby McDonald, who’s part of MIT’s CoLab, and teaching a course on development and waste.

(5) The Global Health Grad School Course
HST 590 Fall 2011 – GLOBAL HEALTH for Biomedical Researchers (link)

Given the amount of energy Ashley Messina has put into helping organize this course and that Anjali Sastry (check out her courses) is one of the guest speakers, this course is not to be missed!

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This is just a beginning of the many courses out there. Others that we in the MIT Public Service Center are working with include: Ben Eran-Joseph’s urban planning course, Urban Design Skills; Natalie Kuldell’s Biological Engineering courses; and the famous 2.009 led by David Wallace.

What other courses are you looking forward to?

(And if we haven’t said it already, to those who have returned, welcome back!)

What Works in Poverty Alleviation / A Review of Poor Economics

Much coverage has been given to MIT researchers Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s new book, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Banerjee and Duflo are well-known here at MIT for their use of randomized control experiments to test the means of poverty alleviation and their co-starting of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-Pal).

The 273 pages of Poor Economics shares the results of their research – and starts to fill in the gap between economist Jeffrey Sachs’ (aid breaks the poverty trap!) and William Easterly’s (free markets and provide incentives, people will solve their own problems!) theories on development.

Banerjee and Duflo’s work raises oft-debated questions such as what really supports the use of bed nets in malaria infested areas, when is microfinance useful, and why, given the availability of education, are more individuals not receiving quality education? What is actually working?

There are many good intentions in development work (regardless of the location); being able to learn from and distinguish between good intentions and theories and the associated results will help us all push forward the next iterations on our work.

As writers Ramnath and Misra point out in Forbes India, “The approach is not without its critics [one example]. One relates to the danger of generalising [sic] the results (what social researchers call ‘external validity’; it questions whether what worked in one place will work in another). In an earlier interview, Banerjee said it was a serious concern. But some evidence is better than no evidence. Also, many such trials will lead to better policies.”

While we are all not able to commit to (or have the luxury to) conduct randomized control trials, we can learn from Duflo and Banerjee’s work. They offer five key lessons when working on poverty alleviation (summarized here and can be found starting on page 268):

  1. A lack of information often contributes to untrue beliefs.
  2. The poor bear responsibility for too many important decisions (such as whether to spend money on vaccinations).
  3. Markets are not always friendly to the poor.
  4. Many policies meant to help fall short because of the three Is: ignorance, ideology, and inertia.
  5. People live up to their expectations.

Duflo and Banerjee end on a practical note, inviting readers to use the book as an invitation (almost a challenge) to dig deeper. As they say,

If we resist the kind of lazy, formulaic thinking that reduces every problem to the same set of general principles; if we listen to poor people themselves and force ourselves to understand the logic of their choices; if we accept the possibility of error and subject every idea, including the most apparently commonsensical ones, to rigorous empirical testing, then we will be able  not only to construct a toolbox of effective policies but also to better understand why the poor live the way they do. Armed with this patient understanding, we can identify the poverty traps where they really area and know which tools we need to give the poor to help them get out of them. (page 272)

You can find more about the book here: http://www.pooreconomics.com.

Farmhack@MIT Ignite! Pitches

Farmhack@MIT

Pitch Kitchen at MIT

AQUA PitchThere is a growing ecology of resources at MIT that support student ventures – from grounded ideation in programs like D-Lab to launch mechanisms like the $100k business plan competition. The idea behind Pitch Kitchen is to create an informal environment where students can trial their venture pitches in from of a mixed audience – representatives across these resources – and receive helpful feedback that sets them up for success down the road.

We had our first Pitch Kitchen in February 16. Peter Kang of Team AQUA presented the idea and business model for his project – an online game that is one part education tool and another part charity platform. In the room were representatives from $100k Emerging Markets Track, the Entrepreneurship Center, a communications expert from CSAIL, and yours truly from IDEAS/GC.

Kudos to Peter for his stamina – after presenting his 8-minute pitch he endured nearly a solid hour of intense questioning from panelists – all with the intent of helping Peter and team AQUA sharpen their message around a few key areas:

  • Community connection and impact
  • Transparency and accountability in income and expenditures
  • Representing communities without exploiting ie “gamifying” communities
  • Business and sustainability model
  • Translation of online income into on-the-ground impact

Interested in experiencing the crucible? Join us for the next Pitch Kitchen on Wednesday, 3/16 from 5:00-7:00pm in 4-145. Questions? Email lhtorres at mit dot edu.

And the winner is…

Congratulations to IDEAS 2010 team Sanergy for your winning entry into the IDEAS and Global Challenge video pitch contest! Judges voted Sanergy’s pitch the best for the clear connection between your team’s accomplishment and the resources offered through IDEAS and the Global Challenge. Most importantly, the video did a wonderful job emphasizing a multidisciplinary team drawn from across the MIT community and a deep connection to community and MIT resources on the ground, like FabLab. Here’s the vid:

Sanergy from Ani Vallabhaneni on Vimeo.

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Thanks so much to all of the teams that entered a video into the pitch contest – the range of projects represented is amazing, and I hope that through the MIT Public Service Center we’ll continue to find ways to support your work. View all of the entries here.

Echoing Green Opens Application Cycle for Social Entrepreneur Fellowship Program

The Foundation Center reports that Echoing Green will award twelve to twenty two-year fellowships to social entrepreneurs in 2011. The fellowships provide start-up capital and technical assistance to social entrepreneurs around the world working to turn their ideas into sustainable social change organizations.

Echoing Green seeks individuals or partnerships (organizations led by two people) with innovative solutions to significant social problems, strategies designed to create high-impact and sustainable change in people’s lives, and the ability to grow and lead a new organization.

The application process is open to citizens of all nationalities working in any country. Applicants must be fluent enough in English to participate in interviews and Echoing Green events, and must be 18 years of age or older.

Organizations seeking support must be the original idea of the applicant and must be independent, autonomous, and in a start-up phase, which means the applicant may have been running the organization full-time for up to two years, with Echoing Green’s financial support constituting its major/primary early funding. Applicants who have only worked on their organization on a part-time basis or have yet to start an organization are generally considered eligible. Applicants must make a full-time commitment to their organization’s development.

Fellows receive up to $60,000 ($90,000 for partnerships of two people) in seed funding over two years.

Visit the Echoing Green Web site for complete eligibility information, application materials, and profiles of fellows and their projects.

Contact:
Link to Complete RFP

MITGC Introduction Slide Deck

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.