ted fellows

Reporting from the TED Senior Fellows mini-conference at TEDGlobal

Posted by: Emily McManus

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Above, TED Senior Fellow Jon Gosier talks about SwiftRiver, a new piece of software that helps makes sense of data during a crisis. Photo: TED / James Duncan Davidson

The Sunday before TEDGlobal, the TED Fellows held an extraordinary workshop with five Senior Fellows — young thinkers and doers who’ve been asked to continue with the TED Fellows program for three additional years beyond their original fellowship. It’s an amazing group — passionate, connected, interesting. TED Fellows director Tom Rielly invited the TED Blog to attend an experimental new mini-conference, where five Senior Fellows talked about their work across a range of disciplines and cultures. It’s an amazing look at what’s coming next.

Paradoxically, V.K. Madhavan opened the session by defending a traditional approach. Madhavan works with chirag.org, a rural development project in the Himalayas of India. His group takes on projects all around Kumaun region of Uttarakhand, from running preschools to recharging dry springs. And this kind of multi-disciplinary approach, he says, has somewhat fallen out of fashion in this decade, compared to specialized, results-oriented projects that focus on one topic (education, farming, roads) and have one measureable result or end product. Another Senior Fellow, Frederick Balagade, asked him, “What is the end product of your work?” Madhavan replied: “There is no end product; we’re working with people. Our work sometimes doesn’t show until the second or third generation of families.” It’s a large-scope approach that has a complicated relationship with the local government that, in a healthier society, would do chirag.org‘s work. As he says: “We mirror the state. We exist because the state has failed.”

Julianna Rotich of Ushahidi.com is spreading the new meme of African technology: self-sustaining. “In Africa, we are about customizing things and making things our own,” she said. The explosion of mobile communication means that “Mobile phones have become the medium of information in Africa.” And she made a brilliant point: “When it comes to mobile money, the third world is first.” The key to mobile development, she said, is local tech development that empowers mobile users. “We have mobile developers in Africa focused on solutions for regular people, to let people can access information not only online but on their mobile phones.” To that end, she’s building Mobisko, an in-development website where mobile developers can upload their app, distribute it and get ratings, and optimize for different carriers. In the Q&A, Senior Fellow Jon Gossier makes a good point: “What we’re seeing in Africa now is a new awareness for a low-end smartphone. Because once you’ve got a browser, you can do anything.”

Rotich also points us to an amazing new website: AfricaKnows.com, which aggregates great photography and writing from all over the continent. Definitely worth a browse.

Peter Haas of the Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group (AIDG) gave a searing look at post-earthquake Haiti. He said: “We’ve heard about how many lives were lost in the Haiti earthquake. But we haven’t heard enough about why all those lives were lost. It was the buildings, not the earthquake, that killed people.” After the quake, AIDG inspected over 1,500 buildings — schools, residences, govt buildings, hospitals. And what they found shocked him: “Haiti was not a natural disaster. It was a disaster of engineering.” All the buildings failed in the same ways: walls and slabs not tied properly into columns; asymmetric structures not built to withstand shaking; poor building materials, poorly mixed concrete, rebar that was smooth. Now, AIDG is working with Architecture for Humanity and other groups to work one-on-one with masons and builders to bring proper masonry training into Haiti. “To make sure these buildings are safe, it’s not just going to take policy changes — it’s reaching out to the masons on the ground to help them learn the proper techniques.” Watch Peter Haas’s TEDTalk >>

Artist and activist Naomi Natale talked about her new project, One Million Bones — a cry against ongoing genocides happening now, around the world, under our watch: “I want to pile one million bones on the National Mall in Washington DC.” The bones will be made one by one, by artists, educators and schoolchildren. Bones can be made of clay, wood, paper, glass; some bones are even made of biodegradbeable materials with seeds inside — at the end of the project they’ll be distributed and planted. “Most of us will never view a mass grave,” she said. “One Million Bones will represent those graves that are being filled today in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma … I want us to make noise about it. Our government can intervene in these international disasters, but we must demand it.” She made a chilling point: “At some point we are going to have to look back and realize, our generation allowed and permitted genocide. ‘Never again’ became ‘again, and again, and again.’” During the Q&A, Senior Fellow Colleen Flanagan asked, “Who’s been your most responsive audience to the project so far?” Natale said: “You may be surprised but, ex-military. I’ve talked to many ex-military guys and they get this, they’re gung-ho about it.”

Coder and “hacktivist” Jon Gosier of AppAfrica.org is part of the team that wrote Ushahidi.com — a prime example of Julianna Rotich’s African tech explosion. The site allows people to report information in crisis on the ground. But it developed a problem during the Haiti crisis, in the first four days after the quake — when some 100,000 reports came in, and all had to be verified by humans. There had to be a better way. Gosier started working on SwiftRiver, an open-source tool that gets rid of junk, spam, duplicates and extraneous data in any data feed. It judges the content of any SMS or tweet, who it’s from and where they are, who they know — using sophisticated entity extraction and natural-language processing to zap retweets and hunt down inaccurate info. Why is this important? Gosier talked about the riots in Kampala, where he lives. “It was 48 hours before it hit the mainstream news. I first heard about it on Twitter, and for the first four hours, I could get information strictly on Twitter. By the end of the day, it had made the local news, and the following day, CNN. Getting news from Twitter is key, but retweets and inaccurate info were a big problem. Swiftriver helps process this data.” Swiftriver launches at the end of August, but Ushahidi has been using it and demo-ing it. Another key partner is PubHealth.net, which is using SwiftRiver to sort through mountains of public health data.

It was a fascinating 90 minutes of passionate ideas in action, from people who represent the next generation of TEDsters.