The beginning of spring

A blog about my work, where international development meets tech, and my life, where food, books, design, dogs, and friends (and the occasional pig) make appearances.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Indonesia earthquake

"The latest reports put the death toll from the Java quake at over 5,800 and sources estimate that some 647,000 people have been displaced and are in need of basic food and shelter." -- Indonesia Help blog

What's distressing to me and my colleagues at GlobalGiving is that somehow this disaster has not attracted the kind of attention or generosity that other disasters have recently. Perhaps we're all struggling with the relentless sequencing of disasters following one upon another; perhaps there hasn't been as much dramatic footage on the news.

But the encouraging part for us is that the response on the ground has been both immediate, and selfless. Project leaders are leading community efforts to help the displaced and injured, even as they have suffered their own personal losses. Project leaders have lost their own homes and had to evacuate relatives, but are able and willing to pitch into helping the community.

I feel a little odd using this blog to write asking people to give, but you can see this has hit a nerve, so here goes.

Until July 5th, all donations to Indonesia earthquake projects posted on GlobalGiving will be MATCHED!! A GlobalGiving community member has generously offered $5,000 in matching funds to double all donations going to these projects. Important earthquake recovery efforts are still in need of funding to provide food, clean water, medical care, and education and trauma recovery for children, so please donate and provide support to earthquake survivors: Donations will be matched up to $250 through July 5th or when the $5,000 limit is reached. If you have any questions, please contact Dana Messick for more information.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Identity mashup conference: an assessment

So a couple of final comments about the conference. I expected before I went that I would find it interesting, but I wasn't sure it would be particularly relevant. I think in hindsight it was both interesting and relevant, in part because of the following.

People you don't know usually can teach you more things you don't know than people you already know. Mark Granovetter pointed this out back in 1973 through his insights about the strength of weak ties, but it always goes against my introvert's grain, and I have to be reminded of it. I got to Cambridge, listened to a lot of smart people talk about things I didn't really know anything about, and although I didn't learn anywhere enough to be able to hang in many of the conversations, I got a good feel for the disciplines and the fields of inquiry people were drawing on to sort out the issues in the identity space, and got a couple of insights that I think will be key to figuring out how I can frame our thinking around identify, reputation, and community on GlobalGiving.

I was also struck--really struck--by the fact that to a person, attendees of this conference believed (and acted on the belief) that technology is not a constraint. And I mean that in 2 ways. One, that technology can pretty much solve any technical problem anyone could have. Two, that technology solutions can be implemented by anybody--by this I mean that even if the whole solution requires an interaction between people and a technology, the behavioral changes that need to accompany the technology will pretty much happen. I can see how this could happen if the problem being addressed is really really huge--and a lot of the things being discussed at the conference were, in my view, really really huge--but I wasn't sure if anyone outside of the conference would share that view. On the one hand, the optimism about technology was really freeing. But on the other hand, it felt removed from reality.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Smartocracy -- Eureka! (Identity Mashup Conference Day 3)

So I have to make an online confession. And in particular this is for Brad DeGraf, whom Dennis and I have now known for years, who has been a real fellow traveller on our adventures with GlobalGiving. The confession is that I was invited to join Smartocracy in its beta phase a couple of months ago, and I could not make head or tails out of it. And I was interested in understanding it--stuff that has to do with wisdom of crowds, etc. is of intense interest to me, both professionally and personally.

And when Brad announced at our Identify Mashup conference that Smartocracy would be used to figure out what the next question was, I groaned internally because there were so many things going on, and I had little faith I would be able to sort this out in the midst of all the hubbub. And I think of myself as being a relatively good lay person with technology and figuring out how stuff works.

But it worked--for me, I mean. [And there's another post I want to make about "things working for me" where I'll go into this, since it also has something to do with the conference. Will post link as I publish the next post.] And maybe it was because the implementation was different than the beta test, but here's how it worked for me, and what was neat about it.

Brad created identities for everyone at the conference, so they were preloaded into the system. He put up some random (and some not so random) questions to vote on, and explained that we had 10 proxies to hand out. The proxy was where I got stuck the first time--I couldn't figure out whether by giving my vote away, I was losing my one vote (which I think I was reluctant to give up because I'm a Japanese national and absentee voting in Japan is very difficult [and I don't follow Japanese politics closely enough to cast a responsible vote even if it was easy], I've grown up never having voted in any government elections anywhere). This time, the list of people to whom I could give proxies to was clear, and the fact that I could enhance their vote by giving them proxies was also clear. Suddenly, this became like "awards" I could give out.

And if it had not been in the context of a conference, if it had been strictly virtual, I would have ended up giving proxies to people I knew. Which would have been fine, but kind of boring. Because this was a conference, I could give proxies to people I thought had said thoughtful things at the conference. It was a bit like kudos, and fun at that. I got to let them know I thought their vote was worth more, and in some cases I got to reconnect with people I hadn't met in a long time, like Jan Hauser.

And how this links back to GlobalGiving. We've been thinking of different ways we could decentralize the vetting of organizations and project leaders. Currently we do that ourselves, and through project sponsor partners, with whom we have signed legal agreements covering how this is done. How could we broaden that without compromising quality? Well, maybe Smartocracy is a way for us to organically develop a network of trusted partners who can be given specific proxy weights by people who know them well who in turn, could nominate worthwhile organizations. Or another such group could undertake to review the credentials of project orgs that want in. Either way, the smart crowd will be a lot "deeper" and "broader" than any of our direct contacts.

Very cool idea.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Why am I not warming up to My Virtual Model? Identity Mashup conference Day 2

So I'm trying to figure out why I've been having such a negative reaction to My Virtual Model, which was introduced to us yesterday. There are very many cool aspects about it:
  • the reliance on visuals is intuitively really appealing, and maybe it removes inhibitions about buying things like clothes online
  • you can imagine a world of seamless media--you see a dress on an actress in Sex and the City, and you go from the show site to a place where you can get the dress online, and "try it on" your own virtual model to make sure that's what you want
  • people can use their avatars to imagine what you would look like after losing weight--great motivation
But I had a negative reaction when I went to their site and figured out that you can't "just" create a virtual model, you can only do so by committing to a particular vendor that they have partnered with. Had there been a vendor that I actually buy products from, I might actually have gone ahead and seen what it could do. But I was turned off at that point--I really didn't like the idea that I had to commit to a vendor to use this.

And today they made the point that the Virtual Model has allowed for information to travel back to clothing manufacturers about what people want to see on themselves, etc. and how you can go from 2D to 3D, etc. And my reaction today is: what is My Virtual Model adding that Threadless isn't doing already, in a much less hi-tech, but equally satisfying in the real interactions you can see between T-shirt designers and consumers of T-shirts?

Still not getting it--will have to keep thinking about it some more ...

Information: public good and private good (Identity mashup Day 2)

So I just got an insight from the Trust, Fairness and Sanctions in Digital Communities session that I think we need to think through in creating a reputation system on GlobalGiving. (Our first experiments around that are around the feedback systems we created for progress reports by project leaders.)

There was a short back and forth amongst the panelists about the value of information that is widely available vs. known only to a few. Judith suggested that information widely known is not as valuable--and Bill suggested that actually the opposite was true. I think it actually comes down to the type of information we're talking about. Judith was probably thinking about the point she made yesterday, about fashion being a signal of access to information--in this context, it's really clear that the more people have access to this type of information, the less valuable it becomes. ("Oh that was so yesterday, everyone is wearing/listening to/watching it now.")

But some information, e.g., the knowledge that washing hands can prevent cholera, has public and private dimensions that actually change over time depending on how widely the information is shared. So to play out this exapmple further, here's what happens to the information about handwashing and cholera. When cholera is running rampant, there is huge private value in knowing that handwashing helps to prevent your catching cholera--you benefit personally from this information. And in addition to the absolute good of not catching cholera, you could also get additional satisfaction of surviving when others do not (there's a lot of literature in economics recently about a phenomenon that us ex-Sovietologists pondered for a long time, which is that people are happy when they are relatively better off than others).

As the information about handwashing and cholera becomes more widely shared, though, you get the public good emerging, which is that cholera becomes less prevalent, and the odds of your catching cholera (and that your obsessive handwashing helps keep cholera at bay) comes down. The public good has increased, the private good goes down.

Now not all information is like that, but I think Judith had a good thought that there probably is a taxonomy of information that can help us sort through the different implications of the private vs. public value of information ...

And that ties nicely into the conversation that Eli(zabeth) and I were having last night about whether project leaders should have control over what they reveal about themselves, and the reliability of self-reported information. I think the bottom line question for this is whether the information has any public good aspect that might override the private good of the project leader.

Monday, June 19, 2006

3 aspects of markets: Identity mashup conference Day 1

I always have such mixed feelings showing up at Harvard. On the one hand it's very familiar, having spent 6 years here--I learned to drive on Storrow Drive, for instance. On the other hand some of that time I was here I was rather unhappy, so it's always a bit startling to walk past familiar landmarks and feel the sensations of those years wash over me. But more on that later.

The biggest takeaway I got yesterday, not surprisingly, was from Doc Searls. He reminded us that markets have 3 complementary aspects (which he in turn attributes to Eric Raymond and Sayo Ajiboye):
  • transactions
  • conversations
  • community
I think this captures exactly what we've been groping towards at GlobalGiving as we keep talking about community tools and Web 2.0 on how to make sense of where to go next.

First, in my mind the 3 aspects, laid out in that order, sort of represent a Maslowian hierarchy of markets. At a basic level, markets have to support and facilitate transactions. I think we've nailed that at GlobalGiving if you think of the basic transaction on GlobalGiving as the transfer of funds to support projects and social enterprises worldwide. Going beyond transaactions to conversations and community begins to meet our higher order of needs for connection and identification--and is immeasurably richer.

Second, the 3 aspects also feel to me like a great "fit" with the whole proposition of giving. Giving is by its nature really suited to go beyond a transaction when done well, and I think it will help us stay out some of the problematic power dynamics that can emerge from the big asymmetries that exist in our space. (More on asymmetries later)

Third, I need to come back to the fact that Doc Searls cited Sayo Ajiboye in his presentation of the 3 aspects of markets. The fact is that the developing world is actually more in touch with the 3 dimensions of markets than the developed world is. So this opens up the possibility that because so many of the project leaders operate in the developing world, they can in fact play a huge role in teaching and leading us to understand the integration of these 3 aspects.

Friday, June 16, 2006

A really thought-provoking presentation about media

I heard Jim Brady of the washingtonpost.com give a presentation the other day about media convergence (a topic that is so hip/twee nowadays that there is a site devoted to tracking its incidence) that I thought really clarified the stakes a bit. He distinguished between:
  • Technical convergence: how devices were all combining/substituting for each other, listening to music on your cell phone, taking pictures with your PDA, tracking your calendar on your iPod
  • Audience convergence: being able to discover and connect easily with likeminded people, whether through MySpace or Facebook [in real life, I just lost about an hour while I went and messed around in Facebook--young people have been telling me what a time-suck it is, and I can now testify to it--see results here]
  • Competitive convergence: here I think the key driver is the web, and the fact that it can accomodate so many media, from video to podcasts to text to photojournalism. The result is that CNN competes with the Washington Post to deliver video images of tsunami even though one is a cable network and the other is a print newspaper
  • Information convergence: This is best summarized by mashups like Chicago crime stats displayed geographically.
The most charming thing, though, about Brady's presentation, was his energy and enthusiasm for all the possibilities this opened up. The WP started a year long program of coverage around "What it means to be a Black Man," and to kick it off brought a diverse group of men for a photo to be featured above the fold. What media convergence meant in this context, was that not only they could create a specialized site around this program, but that they could shoot a video of the photo shoot that brought these men together--a surprisingly intimate, touching 3+ minute slice of life. This beats conventional media any day.

Another very cool thing he pointed out was that the WP had for years maintained a congressional voting record DB. The journalists used it for their news analysis, but no one ever thought to do anything else with it ... until the washingtonpost.com hired the guy responsible for the Chicago crime stats above, and he discovered the journalists using it. A month later, it was up and running as a resource and incredibly rich content on washingtonpost.com. A great lesson on repurposing content and looking at everything we do through another lens.

So here at GlobalGiving, we track statistics around projects and project organizations. It would take a bit of work, but we could start cleaning up the data and making it available to anyone who's interested. It would be interesting to see who is interested, given all the press lately about due diligence (or its absence) in the philanthropic world. Maybe it's because we don't present the data in interesting ways ...

Am really behind on my posts. Will see how confusing it is to people to start posting these posts backwards in time, like Time's Arrow.