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February 2011


Photo by PopTech.

I first learned about Heather Fleming, founder and CEO of Catapult Design, almost a year ago when I read one of her blog posts, “The Future of Design: A U.S. Cell Phone Designed by Kenyans?“ on one of my favorite blogs, NextBillion.net.

After reading her poignant piece, I was blown away. The thing that resonated with me the most was Heather’s closing statement:

“Soon multinational design teams will be commonplace and developed countries will no longer host the lion’s share of design firms. Imagine 90% of the world’s designers finally being tapped into and how that will shape and shift everyday objects we use (a US cell phone designed by Kenyans?) and our understanding of social challenges. It’s definitely an exciting time to be a designer.”

After reading a few more of Heather’s stories on NextBillion, I decided to Google her. I noticed that Heather had an impressive resume of accomplishments, including being a designer, an engineer and an entrepreneur motivated by social inequality. In 2005, she helped found and then led a volunteer group of engineers and designers focused on humanitarian design projects via Engineers Without Borders. In 2008, Heather was named a PopTech Social Innovation Fellow, a program aimed at high-potential young leaders with new approaches for transformational impact. In 2010, she was selected as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader for her work with Catapult Design.

She previously worked in the Silicon Valley product development consulting world and has six years experience working with multi-disciplinary teams to design, develop and deliver product solutions for a diverse range of companies. Heather is also Adjunct Lecturer at Stanford University teaching “Design for Sustainability” in the Mechanical Engineering department. Heather has a BS in Product Design from Stanford University.

Last year, she presented on “The Human Factor: The Designer’s Approach to Societal Change” atTEDxSoMa. In her powerful presentation about social design, she points out something every designer should keep in mind, the golden rule principle of design: thy shall not design for thyself!

As a designer, environmentalist and social entrepreneur myself, I was ecstatic to learn that Heather was speaking at the 2011 Compostmodern conference. I emailed my dear friend Francisco Noguera, the managing editor of NextBillion, to introduce myself so I could meet up with her at the conference. Unfortunately, that did not happen, but I did score this great interview with the spirited, smart, passionate and very personable Heather Fleming.

Photo by PopTech.

Monika Kerdeman: What’s your story in 100 words?

Heather Fleming: The only info out there that people don’t usually know about me is that I am a New Mexican native. My cat’s name is Hanz Strudel. I’m an amazing bowler, lover of fast food, and my favorite hobby is walking.

MK: If you could solve one problem in the world through storytelling or design, what would it be?

HF: Probably not a single, big problem. I think I’d focus on the little problems and annoyances I experience on a day-to-day basis. Something measurable that I could see the impact of within my lifetime.

MK: What would you characterize as your biggest professional success?

HF: Hmm…still waiting for that to happen. Talking with other people who want to be in this field, to do the work Catapult does, I sometimes give myself a small pat on the back for quitting my old job and starting Catapult. But I would never advise anyone else to do this, unless you want to be a salesperson, manager and communicate frequently with the IRS.

MK: What are you working on now?

HF: Too many things, but mostly email. Catapult’s designers are working on hand carts, mosquito traps, birthing kits and the like for various countries and people around the world. My job is actually not as exciting as people think. The designers get to do the fun stuff. I’m just a professional emailer.

MK: In your current line of work, what have you found to be the hardest services or partnerships to find or develop?

HF: Partnerships with funders is a never-ending challenge. We don’t brand ourselves as “consultants,” but if you strip it down, that’s essentially what we are. No one wants to fund the middle man, it doesn’t look good on their reports.

MK: What inspires you?

HF: Going home to the Southwest. It helps me put things into perspective.

MK: Do you have any requests for collaboration for current or future work?

HF: We’re always on the hunt for organizations that can enhance the product development process in rural and impoverished markets. There’s a need for distributors, marketing agencies, networks of rural entrepreneurs, etc. These folks and organizations can be the hardest to find without actually being in-country.

MK: Who was your role model for what you are doing now in design?

HF: Definitely not a single person. A variety of people have influenced me at different times in my life. When I was a kid, my cousins in Arizona showed me how engineers could help people. A presentation by Martin Fisher in college showed me how design was being applied in poor parts of the world. Cathy Leslie of EWB-USA was someone I admired for being a woman leader of a successful non-profit.

MK: Catapult was recently named one of the 30 best places to work by GOOD. Do you think these types of accolades and media coverage have changed your business? If so, how?

HF: Sure! We haven’t had a traditional marketing campaign and rely almost solely on word-of-mouth to find our clients. The only way that works is if people are hearing about us through a variety of sources. We’re very grateful for the interest in our work and the media’s interest in sharing our story.

MK: As one of the pioneers in your fields, how did you get the idea to design for social good?

HF: Interesting, I don’t really consider myself a pioneer. I think there’s a misconception that this is a new field simply because lots of people are just now learning about it. But a lot of the terminology and philosophy we’re building on today was formalized at least 50 years ago by economists, engineers and designers working together. (Read: “Small is Beautiful” by EE Schumacher.) Prior to Catapult, I was volunteering my time with Engineers Without Borders and working at a product design consultancy. From there, it wasn’t too much of a stretch to combine the two.

MK: What do you see as the biggest opportunities in the developing world in terms of improving people’s lives based on sustainable design?

HF: I think some of the challenges we face in the U.S. regarding renewable energy, green product adoption or sustainable business models are less relevant in rural or impoverished communities. That’s pretty exciting to me. For example, small-scale renewable energy is notoriously expensive (when compared to the grid) and almost financially infeasible in areas where the electrical grid is present. Whereas, in impoverished nations, the cost of implementing an electrical grid is so high that renewables make more sense. There’s also a lot of buzz in the U.S. these past couple months around collaborative consumption (read: Lisa Gansky’s “The Mesh“ or Roo Rogers’ and Rachel Botsmans’ “What’s Mine is Yours”) and how that will contribute to more sustainable lifestyles. Rural communities in impoverished communities have been living their lives by the principles outlined in these books for decades, not for sustainability’s sake but out of necessity. I think that’s interesting because it means we can’t assume that our consumption patterns resonate in other parts of the world. Consumers in developing countries could (and in many cases will) leapfrog our old school ways of doing business or buying and owning products.

To learn more, follow Heather on Twitter: @heatherfleming

Or read more about her work on Treehugger or Wired.

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Photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve.

On February 16, former President Clinton and 200 social innovators, technologists, entrepreneurs and philanthropists gathered at Ford Foundation for the Wired for Change event to discuss how to create an innovative and equitable digital future.

A good overview, including archived “live blogging” posts, can be found on Jillian C. York’s website.

The following is a brief Q&A I conducted with one of the lucky attendees, Jonathan Eyler-Werve Jonathan is a journalist, designer and social entrepreneur, who works as Director of Technology and Innovation at Global Integrity. He’s currently working to make the Indaba platform, a beautiful tool for NGO fieldwork.

Monika Kerdeman: So, you were one of the lucky 200 people who attended the event. Can you explain your background and why this event is important to the work you aim to achieve at Global Integrity?

Jonathan Eyler-Werve: I’m the project lead for the Indaba fieldwork platform, which is an online tool that aims to make it easier for distributed organizations like an aid agency or an NGO to collect information and publish it. I sent Wired for Change an email and said, “Hey, you probably have some practitioners at this thing” and they agreed.

I’m a policy person by training, and I wanted to be in a role where we could grapple with big systemic questions. I ended up in public interest journalism. At my first job, my team needed a simple database set up, so I spent a couple hours reading the help files for Microsoft Access, and I put it together. This is a dangerous thing for a reporter to do, because these databases are really useful, and pretty soon I was doing more work on the backend stuff—figuring out how to tell stories—than I was reporting. Ten years later, here I am.

The Wired for Change event is essentially that conversation all over again, at a civilization-scale level. How does information drive good, progressive change, and what interventions can we take to enable or accelerate that? But intervention is a late-stage discussion, and this event was often more foundational. What does the present look like? Who wins and who loses? Are we OK with that arrangement?

MK: From your perspective, what are the critical barriers that have traditionally been overlooked?

JE: I am skeptical going into technology discussions because there’s such a disconnect between rhetoric and reality. It can seem like dueling straw man arguments where technology will save democracy or destroy it, which it totally might, but not for the reasons you get on CNN. So I was ready for anything.

As it turns out, I was really blown away with what the Ford Foundation chose to put on the agenda. They pointed at essential, under-the-radar issues: how to keep the Web open and interoperable; why U.S. broadband duopoly happened and what the consequences are; the crucial difference between regulating pipes and regulating content; the role of institutions (government and corporate) as gatekeepers to information and what we can do to fight that.

These are infrastructure for democracy, and it’s a problem that has been around for a long, long time. At the founding of the United States, there was a raging debate between pragmatists, who argued that the U.S. Postal Service should give newspapers deeply discounted mailing rates, and the idealists, who believed that the USPS should carry newspapers for free. Likewise, the founders insisted that mail service should go all the way to the frontiers, because you just can’t run a democracy without cheap, unrestricted and diverse sources of information. Same issues, new platforms.

MK: How do you think organizations, funders, social innovators and philanthropists can work together to overcome the silo barriers that exist in sharing technology, information and other things?

JE: I think that Luis Ubiñas, president of the Ford Foundation, is kicking the anthill here. He’s trying to start a conversation inside other foundations and within Ford itself. This was a culture change event. Luis is an interesting guy, hired from McKinsey & Company, where he helped media companies think about their new realities. Luis spoke near the end of the need to get technology out of the “overhead” silo and into the strategy conversation, which is essentially giving foundations the same question that newspapers are flailing with: the ‘net changes everything; how will you change?

This sounds like a really good conversation to have right now. And they’re starting with good people and the right questions. So I am on Team Luis. I am in.

Ford invited really good people too: Yochai Benkler, Tim Berners Lee, Gigi Sohn at Public Knowledge, the Global Voices folks, the Mozilla Drumbeat people. Giving them a timeslot next to Bill Clinton is probably more uncommon than people realize.

MK: Do you think the ideas discussed pertain to people around the globe or did they focus on solutions for the developed world, which operates in a different vacuum for tech needs and capacities?

JE: I think these questions are very broad and can be applied in a lot of places. There are winners and losers. There are people who are included in conversations about regulation, about restriction of expression, about terms of service, and there are people who are left out. These aren’t technology questions, which we see all the time at Global Integrity. The process is broken in really similar ways in both the rich and poor countries.

I was pleasantly surprised that we were able to have a conversation that shifted between Internet censorship by the Egyptian government and censorship on U.S. school and workplace networks without pausing. It’s the same questions of individual freedoms, institution controls and technologies that might tip the balance of power to one side or the other.

MK: As a member of the NGO and civil society community, as well as a social entrepreneur and technology innovator, is there any advice you would like to provide to funders to ensure the needs of the people on the ground are met?

JE: This needs to be a conversation. There is a movement out there of people who want to see technology serving and expanding democratic participation, improving social services, bringing justice. It doesn’t have a name, but it does have email lists (e-democracy.org, for instance) and meetings (usually with “Camp” at the end of the name) and people the movement respects and takes guidance from, like Tim O’Reilly.

The first thing funders should recognize is that these people don’t want or need money. The second is that this movement can be really useful in getting money allocated to the right projects. This is going to be opportunistic. This is going to involve taking risks on things that are half-baked. It will involve trusting really smart people to respond to emerging opportunities. A funder who can live in that world, go to the meetings, contribute on the message boards, without doing harm to it, would be a powerful ally.

MK:
From the info presented, what shocked you the most?

JE: Well, having John Hodgeman dropping a reference to “Rube Goldberg porn videos” was unexpected. There was a spirit of humor and whimsy to this event that I really enjoyed. If this stuff is boring, you’re doing it wrong.

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Image by AJ Cann.

How do you get nonprofit videos in front of the right audience?

Kristin Milhollin might be onto something. She is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit SpaceforGood, soon-to-be rebranded into The GoodSpeaks Project, a community-based nonprofit video news forum and distribution network.

Kristen recently unveiled a rough design of her work-in-progress website, built on Drupal 7, inviting feedback from an audience of technologists, nonprofit communicators, activists and other technology and social change advocates at a NetSquared DC meetup in Washington, D.C.

The “Extreme Makeover” format of the meetup aims “to help an organization solve a pressing web site or online strategy problem.” For Kristen, the challenge is creating a platform for “good” news, so often missing from the mainstream news cycle.

“You might have a distorted view that many bad things are happening,” she said. “But there are nonprofits that are providing solutions to the crises we’re reading about.”

To give these nonprofit videos – and solutions – a home in front of an engaged audience, Kristen envisions GoodSpeaks: a video aggregator (pulling from sites like YouTube and Vimeo) that uses semantic information that would allow for contextually linked and clickable videos that direct viewers to take action or donate to a cause or issue they care about.

THE BIG IDEA

The primary audience of the service would be web publishers, such as Daylife (a partner of media giants like Forbes, USA Today and NPR), who want to provide viewers with the option to watch “good news” videos related to “bad news” stories about crises, disasters, and environmental and societal problems.

In geek speak, this means using the RDFa (Resource Description Framework) to embed rich metadata within multimedia content, so that machines would recognize information from videos not just limited to keyword searches. As one audience member said, it would be like creating a Pandora or Netflix of nonprofit videos. So, you’re into women’s reproductive rights? Great, check out these other videos that might interest you…

For example, consider the breaking news of an earthquake in Haiti. Publishers would be able to provide all the news that they usually provide, plus a separate space to display related videos on a topic like disaster relief, giving viewers the option to watch augmented video content to learn how to get involved in helping the crisis.

This would change the relationship of viewers to videos. “You are no longer passive,” Kristen said. “You are potential activitists or agents for positive change.”

Of course, the nonprofit-produced content would be a “strange cross-section between self-promotion and news,” as one audience member noted. But at the same time, since nonprofits are often the first-responders to major events, especially crisis situations, Kristen says, then that “strange” combination is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if the nonprofit producers are trained in how to tell good, compelling, fact-based stories.

It’s a way to “catch people while they’re already paying attention and give them an opportunity to choose nonprofits to support,” Kristen says.

WHAT DOESN’T WORK

Kristen often has to answer the question, “Why not just use YouTube?” She says there are several limitations with the current YouTube model of video aggregation and distribution. It may be a great resource for hosting videos but not necessarily for providing an organized and easy-to-search community platform designed specifically for nonprofits.

First, although the company offers a dedicated “Nonprofit” channel, content providers must apply to get in, and this can be hard for some nonprofits, especially small organizations.

Second, YouTube videos aren’t easy to navigate. Most content is organized by “most popular.” But this makes it hard to find videos related to a specific cause, topic or event, thereby limiting the visibility of nonprofits that have compelling stories to share. Also, YouTube offers limited search functionality. Content is dependent on “free-tagging,” mostly from individuals. The entire taxonomy of the YouTube platform isn’t necessarily interesting or relevant to most nonprofit organizations. “Nobody who is not already looking for you is going to find you there,” Kristen said. Point taken. The top videos of the day on Friday included the words “SEX” and “Justin Bieber.” Keep in mind, this was the same day that other more important things awere going on, like, um, President Mubarak’s resignation.

Finally, the YouTube audience is too big. Same goes for sites like Vimeo and even Jumo, the nonprofit and cause-oriented social network. There are other video channels that are specifically for nonprofit videos like DoGooder.tv, Ourmedia and Channel G, plus some specifically human rights-oriented sites like Witness Video Hub and Global Voices Online’s new pilot project. Apart from DoGooder, the sites are not very well-designed. And they all attempt (but fail) to do what video giants like YouTube and Vimeo are already good at – being video repositories. At the same time, GoodSpeaks could benefit from a partnership with an organization like DoGooder, which has phenomenal expertise in good storytelling, thanks to the leadership of CEO Michael Hoffman.

There’s a lot of potential for GoodSpeaks but also still a lot of unanswered questions:

  • What resources (or people) do you need to build the site’s category taxonomy?
  • What’s the revenue-generating scheme?
  • How would you work with international publishers?
  • Would content be translated into different languages? How?
  • How do you engage end-users who don’t have access to Web or video technology?
  • Could you organize and search by content type (i.e. two-minute shorts), not just subject area (i.e. education)?
  • Could you browse by multiple search terms?
  • Could you download video file footage? Who would pay for hosting?
  • How would you monitor the impact of the videos?
  • What’s the process for curating content?

By the end of the night, Kristen got more feedback about her value proposition then about her website design, but both are hopefully mutually reinforcing. If you want to get in touch with her directly, contact her at khmilhollin@spaceforgood.org. 

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 "Positive Outlook" by ViaMoi on Flickr

Are news filters giving us an artificially “positive outlook?” Photo by ViaMoi.

Over the last decade, the world of news media has changed significantly, allowing more voices to share their stories and more ears to listen. There has been a convergence of major media conglomerates, the introduction of social media, and the spread of the Internet, including the ever popular browser search tool. All of these new methods of communicating and obtaining information means that people don’t have to go very far to find news stories they want to learn about. But does this method of learning about the world really introduce us to new news, or just news that is filtered specifically for our personal interests? 

As I ask myself these questions, I am not exactly sure what the answer is, but I am pretty sure that yes, we are getting self-prescribed news. From an interview with Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in The Telegraph:

The convergence of search, location and social is the next big narrative. Schmidt says that people who “opt in” to the system will begin experiencing a much richer relationship with technology, aided by their computerised “personal assistant.” “We still think of search as something you type,” Schmidt said. “Perhaps a decade from now, you will think, well, that was interesting, I used to type but now it just knows.“ How does it know? Well, on mobiles we know where you are, down to the nearest foot. You’ve chosen to log in, with your permission, and it knows where you are and it can provide a personalised service. 

Does this make us more susceptible to a narrow point of view or does this open our eyes to a wide range of ideas and stories? The New York Times is going to be recommending pages to its readers based on the content that they have already read.  “The whole idea is to expose our readers to as much of our great journalism as we can,” says Marc Frons, the Times’ new Chief Technology Officer for digital operations. 

On the web, it can be hard to find the things you like — not to mention the things you don’t know you’d like until you like them. The new Recommendation engine, Frons says, “allows us to expose content to our readers that they wouldn’t see any other way.” And it allows the news organization, more broadly, “to establish a more personal connection between what we do online and what our readers do online.”

The Times will be rolling out this new approach to its readers in the next couple weeks. The Washington Post is also preparing to launch a free news-aggregation website, called Trove, to personalize the news experience for its readers (the site is currently in private beta.) This will be another test to see what happens with readership for some of the less popular topics. Will this mean that certain parts of the paper are going to become a thing of the past? Will it continue to mean people might miss important historical events? Consider this: 52% of Americans have heard little or nothing about the anti-government protests in Egypt, according to research from the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press.

Filtering to Gain Social Network Value by Intersection Consulting

What do we gain (or sacrifice) by creating personalized news feeds? Image by Mark Smiciklas.

As we’ve written about before, the future of media is storytelling, one where the stories we read and watch are the ones we believe, and thus, history is in our mind’s eye. New search and curation tools like Qwiki or Storify will give viewers a more interactive way to experience these stories. But I hope we don’t miss out on the big events in the world just because we don’t find them interesting.

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People met at United Nations Plaza in San Francisco to take part in an International Day to show solidarity with the democracy movements in Egypt and Tunis. Photo by Steve Rhodes.

This week’s much-covered controversy is about whether or not the violent protests in Egypt were brought on by a “Twitter Revolution.”

The same question was raised in 2009 during the Iran elections, with some thought leaders like Malcolm Gladwell and other journalists answering with a resounding “No!”

Gladwell responds again this week to claims that the most recent uprisings were caused by online social networking: “Please,” he writes. ”People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented.”  But defenders of online mobilizing insist that times have changed. 

Allison Fine, author of the award-winning book, “Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age,” says social media are aiding revolutions, particularly by providing these three critical resources:

  1. the ability to initially organize
  2. the power to change plans in midstream
  3. [enabling] citizens to share their stories, pictures and videos with the rest of the world

VIRTUAL REALITY

Artist Rita King today wrote about “Why Virtual Worlds Play an Important Role in the Changing Arab World,” in the context of recent events. She gives examples of the psychological impact of virtual worlds, mainly, that they are the “perfect medium for exploring cultural understanding” among geographically dispersed people, and she writes about the impact of virtual protests, such as the one that occurred in the immersive game world of Second Life during the real-world conflict in Gaza in 2008.

“Our digital identities have echoed louder than ever into the physical world, bringing about change and connecting us in ways that would not have been possible before,” said one of King’s interviewees, Mohammed Yahia, a science journalist and editor of Nature Middle East. “The relationships we have formed digitally have made some protesters feel like they’ve known each other for years, coming together and working together in some amazing displays of empathy.”

ACCELERATED RESPONSE

Ethan Zuckerman, the co-founder of Global Voices, posted this fascinating interview with Andy Carvin, senior strategist at NPR and an online organizer who has been covering the recent protests in Tunisia and Egypt. Carvin explains that he first started following the uprisings in Tunisia because the story was not getting covered adequately in the mainstream press.

He started an experimental Storify collection about it and encouraged his NPR colleagues to follow along. ”I felt Storify could at least let me tell a narrative arc of what was going on,” he said, “from the time Bouazizi set himself on fire, to ultimately, Ben Ali fleeing the country.”

For Carvin, curating Twitter streams, Wikipedia posts, YouTube videos and Flickr photos on a tool like Storify is like any other form of storytelling or journalism.

“I’m sure there are still plenty of people who are skeptical that social media curation is an actual form of journalism. But let’s say if I worked for an advocacy org – I could see these same tools being used for whatever cause I support…It’s all storytelling, whether you put your own perspective into it or not.”

CRITICAL MASS

When Zuckerman asks him about the validity of “social media as source for social change,” Carvin admits he’s torn, while still acknowledging the important role that online social networks play in mobilizing people offline:

“On the one hand, I’m no cyber-utopian. I have no illusion that regimes are going to use social media for their own self interest, as we saw so vividly in Iran. But I think it goes both ways – clearly these dissidents and protesters see social media as a way of asserting their own self-interests as well. Last week I asked a Tunisian colleague if the revolution would’ve succeeded without social media. She said it probably would have eventually, but would have taken a hell of a lot longer and would’ve been much bloodier. Maybe she’s right; I honestly don’t know. But what I do see happening here, first in Tunisia and then in Cairo, that there are a critical mass of people there who believe that social media can help their causes. They obviously have their own offline networks that they’re working, but social media is helping them grease the wheels, amplify things inside and outside the country, capture bad acts by the regimes on their camera phones, etc. Essentially, they’ve reached a critical mass of people who don’t differentiate their online lives from their offline lives any more. So for them, these tools have been vital. For others, perhaps not, but clearly it’s playing some kind of role.”

As E.B. Boyd echoes in FastCompany, social media accelerated the Egypt revolts by helping to organize protests, shape the narrative and putting pressure on Washington. “Did social media make all this happen? No, of course not,” he writes. “Did it bring everything to a head much sooner than it would have, had Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube not existed? Absolutely.”

Despite all the attention on virtual worlds and online conversations, there is no doubt that Egypt’s uprisings occur most visibly in the physical world. In the words of Sarah Goodyear from Grist.org: “Because whether or not this revolution began on social media, it has flowered on the streets of Egypt’s great cities.” And it’s also true to say that while “the streets of Cairo themselves have been the medium that has carried the message of the Egyptian people,” a new version of public space is blossoming – in the tweets.

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