Sunday, June 29, 2008

Spotlight: The Secret Millionaire

Photo credit: Strevo

I never thought about this, but giving away money is just as hard as applying for it. The Freakonomics blog was the first to bring this to my attention, when sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh asked readers What would you do with $70 Million?? I don't think I'd ever considered that it was hard to give away money. Excess funds have never been an issue for me, rather its been the latter.

On a recent flight through the UK, I stumbled upon a program called The Secret Millionaire. The show follows undercover millionaires as they search for worthy people and programs to distribute their money amongst (rumor has it that an American version will soon debut in these parts). I'd honestly never seen philanthropy from their point-of-view---the difficulties of figuring out who to trust, who would most benefit, and how to take a social investment furthest. At the end of each episode (I saw two), the millionaire finds several worthy causes and is humbled by the act of giving, and the recipients are most grateful and humbled by the act of receiving. Both describe it as life-changing. I wish most philanthropy was this personalized, and this gratifying.

There are many lessons to learn from this program. The viewer gets to see several points-of-view including that of the donor and that of ordinary people who are potential recipients. You also get exposed to the complexity of charitable giving or receiving. Even midway through my first episode, I found myself deep in thought. If you get a chance, I would urge you to check the show out (you can see episodes online, though I haven't figured out how!)

Here's a sample:

Writeup on Terry George


And an interview with Terry after:

Pioneer Profile: Amy Smith

Amy Smith is the real deal. She shot to prominence in 2004, when she won the prestigious MacArthur Genius Award for her work in appropriate technology design.

Smith's greatest contributions, I believe, are in the world of education. An MIT student genius, Amy got her greatest technical challenges and lessons during her four-year Peace Corps assignment in Botswana. She brought her passion back to MIT and has since dedicated her life to educating and involving bright, young students in design for the poorest in the world. That is and will be her greatest legacy. D-Lab, her popular appropriate technology design class has spawned similar programs in other universities; and alums have gone on to spawn social innovation companies and/or become respected thinkers in their own right. What is greatest about her alums is that they have learned to consider the poorest person in the world when making any decision. They consider the impact their everyday decisions or technology designs have on those we least consider. Imagine what a different world this would be if every engineer, scientist, sociologist and politician considered and designed for the least of us all. Below, I've included Amy Smith's TED talk...where she talks about one of the appropriate technologies that have spawned out of D-Lab.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Catching up and a Tworque Beta update

I'm back, and its time to catch up.

Here's the promised update on Tworque Beta:

My original concept was put on hold to address more important related issues that happened to be closer to the professor's heart. We agreed that so little was known about what really works in the field; and that this was a direct result of the lack of documentation of field projects. Our goal, therefore, was to develop some sort of a tool to aid and incentivize documentation. In fact, I learned that this is the key step required to develop better technologies. If you want better designed, sustainable, and implementable technologies, then find out what has already been developed, where the pitfalls are, and what needs to be changed.

We spent a week intensively brainstorming and finetuning our new concept. This was presented at an educator's retreat last week, where educators/academics sought ideas and feedback from their peers on ideas such as these. Feedback was extremely good and encouraging. Everyone agreed that we were onto something critical that could change the world of "aid" if it worked.

Unfortunately on return, I heard that the project had run out of funding; and so this project has been put on hold until further funds can be collected. Ah, the fickle world of "aid"!

To celebrate being back and having a bit more time to blog, I wanted to share my favorite video. It plainly and simply identifies what works for when you want to connect with people, regardless of where you are in the world...ENJOY! (and if you've seen it before, try it always puts a smile on my face!)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

photo credit: Jek in the Box

Today I came across a great site called I thought it was the best introductory tool for people going into the field for the first time. (they should make a site for Finally you'll know how the BoP think, with practical units that work best for them. They could care less about metric, british, or any other system. So you better learn how they think and measure. This is important for communication.

For example, BoP milestones are measured by events. This is important for survey development. The question "How old are you?" quite often gets a response of "I don't know." Instead, you should know to ask..."were you born before or after the 'Great Flood'?"...and " How many years before/after?" you can then guesstimate a person's age.

The BoP measures the worth of something in terms of barter. For example, to the very popular question "how much does a ticket to the U.S cost?" I sometimes say that it is the equivalent of trading 'n#' of cows or goats, and lest they think that I am loaded with cash I quickly add that in the U.S there are many cows, so the price is not that much there but its very much in Kenya (say)! Somehow, they get the point...

You'll also understand why when they say "that village is five minutes away in that direction" or "the bus is coming in five minutes," you end up walking or waiting two or three hours.

My point: Try to find a way to communicate in their language. It will take you far.

Apologies, thanks, and what's happening...

Many apologies for my long silence. I was on vacation until June 1. Vacation is my cut-off time. I try to disconnect from my regular life, rarely using a computer, television, telephone, or other technology that keeps me connected to the world in any way. Instead I retreat into my thoughts and the landscape I am around.

Upon return on June 2, I flew headlong into a new assignment. And here's something for any other visionary hopefuls out there who don't believe that lightening can strike... A prominent university professor heard about Tworque, and contacted me asking to set up a beta version. Turns out she's had the same idea for a few years now, but didn't have the time to implement it. So three weeks later, I'm in Boston working to churn out a tangible concept. Our goal is to use Tworque within a teaching environment, and maybe tweak it into working condition, at which point it will just market itself.

This week has and will continue to involve brainstorming and setting up the "ghost" Tworque (a precursor to Beta). Next week, I will present the ghost version at an educator's retreat. The goal will be to get feedback, and possibly even interest in incorporating Tworque Beta into their curriculums.

Tworque Beta will hopefully launch in the fall, for exclusive use in an MBA International Development (ID) class in the Fall. I'll let you know what happens. But wish me lots of luck, because I need it!

Thanks, as always, for your continuing support. Special thanks to those of you who wrote asking me to continue posting. I will do my best to keep you updated.