Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Recycling posts

In his post this morning, Chris Blattman hit on something that I agree with. There's just a lot of information recycling. Read about something somewhere and then put it in your own post. I plead guilty to that. And I'm sorry.

I'm new to this blogging thing, and I'm not writing about myself or things in my life that are changing. Its been a year since I was last out in the field, where the action is. So I have less first hand information to give, making my posts less vibrant.

Unless I have an original spin on something or it cannot fit into a tweet, I'll do my best to keep it out. My posts will be less frequent, but hopefully when they come around, they'll be fresh.

Also, things are getting a little hectic at the moment. I will be traveling a lot starting this friday through the end of June, and I'm not sure how regular my internet access will be.

As always, thanks for bearing with me. I appreciate your patience and input at every stage.

Interesting aid Tweets

A couple of links I liked:

1. A sweet, yet sad look at how resourceful street children carve out a life in India. I often wonder how well these kids would do if they were adopted and looked after in some circumstance. Imagine if every middle class family took on one of these kids, paid them to do chores, sponsored their education, and gave them a place to sleep and eat, what a different world India would be!

2. A has done an excellent two-part write-up on the differences between the work/impact of Relief and Development Aid agencies. It gives a fairly clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this process, as well as outlines holes and inefficiencies. I see good dialogue happening from this topic.

3. Another potentially great debate will be stimulated by this post about How True is your Altruism? The author muses about altruistic fatigue...do people get tired of giving? and how genuine are their feelings of giving? Do political affiliations, for example play a role?

4. Manuel Borego blogs about stimulating BoP markets in disaster areas as a means to Relief. I think its easier said than done. BoPs are the first hit in disaster zones; they worry first about survival, and coping with the tragedies in their lives. Stimulating a market that has had its coping mechanisms ripped apart takes time and dedication, which relief organizations don't foray into. Essentially, great idea...but not so practical.

5. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) has put out a great report on Women and Entrepreneurship. Turns out that women entrepreneurs significantly contribute to economic growth in Latin America and the Caribbean. It also says that women with strong social networks are more successful...this is not surprising considering that word-of-mouth plays a significant role in market consumption. Finally, all those neighborly housecalls and gossip have paid off well :-)

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pangea Day Film Archive

What do you see?? Check out the Pangea Day Film archive.

For those of you who missed the live broadcast of Pangea Day yesterday (which was amazing...I'm still bummed that I couldn't score tickets to the main event in Los Angeles), the films are archived here. I urge you to check them out. Some of them were outstanding, and very thought provoking. Probably the best part was seeing the world through the eyes of people from around the world including Ghana, S. Africa, India, Paraguay, Colombia, and much more...

Pioneer Profiles: The Elders

The Elders, a council of 12 globally-respected elders and humanitarians, set up to provide advice in the world's time of need. (source: Peter Gabriel.com)

In his 2005 autobiography, Richard Branson talks about a heartbreaking moment when his last minute intervention to stop the U.S-Iraq war is just too late.

When Branson gets word of the impending tension between the U.S and Iraq, he appeals to Nelson Mandela, and Kofi Annan to intervene. They quickly hatch a plan to find an amicable agreement that would prevent war between the two from fighting. But just as Nelson Mandela is set to fly out to Baghdad, the first bomb is dropped. Branson is heartbroken, and describes his early inaction as the biggest regret of his life.

What I learned from the experience, Branson writes, is that the world needs a group of elders who can step in on behalf of the world community in situations like this...global 'elders' to deliver a voice to the people of the world.

I love this idea. In times of moral dilemma, we don't go to political, financial or strategic advisors. We go to people who have strong moral compasses, and great personal wisdom, who guide us with the depths of their beings. So why not provide the same thing for the world. Globally respected elders available for the world's times of need??

And the joy of it is that Branson went on to create exactly that concept. The Elders was launched in July 2007, with a group of 12 world-respected elders. Lets hope they put their powerful punch to the test soon!

For those interested, there is a great profile of the Elders and Virgin Unite in this BusinessWeek article.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Pangea Day in Half an Hour

PEOPLE, its time for Pangea Day. View it on your mobile phone or TV or computer. Check it out here.

Help Burma Links

Wanna help Burma? Here are some resources:

1. Arabella Advisors
, financial advisors who specialize in philanthropic strategy, is holding a free advisory teleconference for donors interested in helping the Burmese on Monday, May 12th at 3PM ET. RSVPs are encouraged. Details are here.

2. Chris Blattman and Alanna Shaikh blog their picks here, here, and here. Alanna is an aid worker, so I'd give her picks some thought.

3. The New York Times has put together a well-thought out list of resources here.

4. For those on the hunt for more permanent action, ReliefWeb has a list of positions here.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Disaster Relief Efficiency: And then there's the governments...

I've spent the past week reading Richard Branson's engaging autobiography Losing My Virginity. Its a great lesson in entrepreneurship and life, and a fascinating read.

Branson is quite an adventurer, and in describing one of his round-the-world ballooning expeditions talks about something that rings through today. After three sleepless days in a hot air balloon capsule, he writes the following in his journal:
Day 3, 20 December 1998
I haven't slept since I last wrote my diary 24 hours ago, with good reason. [While] I wish you could be up here with us...there were some moments...I would not wish on you.
Let me first explain the challenge that faces...us... It is not just the elements, or the technological challenge. Sadly, it also involves people and politics. As always in life, it is not the ordinary people who get in the way.. Its a handful of politicians at the top who selfishly make their country and this world a sadder place to live. After all...this is a mission flown in peace.
He goes on to describe how much a hot-air balloon is at the mercy of the weather elements, with wind as the only propulsion system. The balloon goes where the wind takes it. You can't demand that the wind go south of Russia, Iraq, China and North Korea. It goes where it wants and takes you with it. And although he had cleared this with many of the governments before starting his journey, some (China) revoked their permission just as he was about to enter their airspace, while others he expected to be downright difficult (N. Korea) were absolutely civil.

What is so sad and poignant about this situation is reflected in Burma's situation today. With relief teams and supplies ready to help the people of Burma, you have a few idiotic politicians on the top who are selfishly standing in the way of helping their innocent people.
In this case, it isn't a lack of technology or human resources or management, its the government and its stupid policy that comes in the way.

What can be done?? Well, its a watch-and-wait game. Relief and other philanthropic organizations need to think of this extra time as a blessing. Use it to practice, prepare and coordinate, so that when the regime does let them in, they can be efficient. OCHA (the UN Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs)...are you listening?? The Regime can't hold us off forever. They have to let us in.

In the meantime, can we please bring up our kids better?? Because some kid somewhere grew up to be the nutcase(s) who run(s) Burma now. Maybe if he had had a couple of knocks on his head, maybe he would have turned out better...

Making disaster relief efficient PART II: Formulating a solution

Put the right pieces together to make a more efficient relief operation (source: Emin Sinanyan)

Following up on Part I, I've been formulating a solution to Sue's (i've decided to name her that) predicament; and that of international agencies stuck in an inefficiency rut. Here's what I have so far:

To reformulate, here's the problem: Sue (a water-sanitation engineer) and other skilled workers like her want to work or volunteer for organizations using their necessary skills, rather than give money. And the agencies' poor human resource management and lack of coordination keeps outstanding workers like Sue out of their system. To make matters worse, relief isn't being as efficient as it could. How do you help make relief operations more efficient??

Disaster Relief is like a puzzle. There are different holes in your puzzle that need to be filled. Find out the right pieces for those holes in an organized manner and you'll have an efficient, complete operation in progress.

That's how relief operations and aid work need to be approached. The relief operation is like the puzzle, with parts of it already filled in (defined by relief work already in progress and the people in need), with odd holes that still need filling. These holes (aid) can be classified into three distinct shapes:
  • Materials/Supplies (Food, blood, search lights, helicopter, you name it)
  • Money (self explanatory...$$$)
  • Skills/Knowledge/Info (like Sue, logisticians, doctors, construction workers, etc)
You need all of these to make a complete puzzle, and relief agencies need to understand that and organize their needs accordingly.

Not everyone can give money, and some others are better at donating supplies or skills than money (eg. Sue). In fact most agencies get a better deal in the process. For example, most agencies wouldn't be able to afford Sue. She bills out at $250-300 an hour. Instead, with Sue volunteering for two weeks, they get $24,000 worth for free, rather than the $200 she ends up donating to them.

Essentially, there needs to be a common space where agencies can lay out their needs broken down in this manner, along with a listing of the size of their needs (eg. water/sanitation engineer for 9 weeks, or 100 boxes of nails, or $10,000 for buying plane tickets); and volunteers/potential employees can decide/select which of those needs they can fulfill.

One of the closest platforms I have come across is VolunteerMatch. In a neat, user-friendly interface, volunteers and agencies can find each other in an efficient manner. It is a win-win situation, that I've personally used many times. I find an opportunity I like that allows me to work in a field I like, in the timeframe I want. Essentially, i end up happy; and the organization gets good, skilled labor for a position they desperately need filled at no cost.

Now think about expanding the concept of VolunteerMatch beyond the boundaries of the United States, to include all international agencies. Bring in organizations like Transparency International and Charity Navigator, to rate the efficiency/transparency of these organizations. Then let people decide how and in what manner they want to invest in which agency - money, time, and/or materials. Sue, for example, might want to volunteer full-time for a small International Rescue Committee (IRC) operation as a water/sanitation engineer in Burma, for two weeks (since she has to return back to work)...and maybe she can find a friend at work to take over her shift once she leaves. Maybe she can even get her company to sponsor one person's work for the cycle of the operation with IRC. Maybe Sue might even leave her job and want to work full-time on this operation for the duration of the mission. But she can make up her mind one day and fly out the next to be on an operation she can actually help with. This is what informational efficiency can do for disaster relief.

This is entirely possible if the information is up there for people to see, essentially giving the power of decision to the person making the most investment. This is how Kiva.org works, and this is why it is so successful.

As I look at the Burmese disaster, I personally know of professionals - doctors, nurses, engineers, logisticians, construction workers, who would fly out to Burma to volunteer, if they knew for sure that they would be put to work immediately, in an efficient manner, for the duration they can afford. But that's not the way things are happening right now. There is so much competition between the agencies, there are turf wars, and money being lost in the process, and all against the backdrop of human tragedy. It is SO unnecessarily inefficient.

I even think of Katrina's aftermath in 2008. Its not that America has forgotten about New Orleans. They just don't know how to help anymore. They've done what they were told to do - give money. And yet, the problem is still there. And they are frustrated that having already done the best they could (i.e. donate as much money as they could), that the impact hasn't happened. People still struggling against the aftermath of the disaster are mad at the rest of America, and honestly its not their fault.

Imagine the reverse scenario, where Americans with the right skills, tools and supplies, and money showed up and worked together to build up the city...what a different scenario that would be! That's what I'm aiming for with this post. We've got to make disaster relief more efficient...

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Making disaster relief efficient PART I: What would you do?

Burmese women wait in line for water (photo courtesy: Wall Street Journal)

The biggest inefficiencies of International Development agencies, who are at the front line of disaster relief operations, are their lack of coordination and POOR human resources management, which DESPERATELY need to be addressed.

I've been following the Burmese Cyclone tragedy, as I'm sure most of you have. It brings to mind Katrina, and the Tsunami - large-scale disasters that have been poorly managed, and several years later are STILL being worked on. Why haven't the lessons of the past been learned?? Why is it that Walmart, a supermarket chain store, had a superior response to the Katrina disaster than any other relief agency that specializes in "relief"??

Well, I have a good answer to the Walmart question. The overall short answer to the larger question of why International Development agencies respond so badly is a lack of coordination, and poor human resources management.

Let me give you a small example:

As soon as the 2004 tsunami happened, my friend who is a water-sanitation specialist wanted to help. She called up various news agencies who pointed her to the American Red Cross (ARC). Their phone line (not surprisingly) was overloaded with other people like her trying to find a way to help. The generic phone message said Please give money or blood (not exactly in those words, but you get the point). My frustrated friend, who had relevant skills, tried calling around in vain. She ended up trading in her christmas presents for money, which she donated to ARC. We still don't know where that money went or how it has been used. For that matter, I won't go into how much money ended up being collected for the tsunami by all the international development agencies, how quickly it disappeared, and how little has actually been done about it. That's a frustrating tale in and of itself. (On that note, here's a great article about what happened to the money donated to Katrina??)

Yesterday I was browsing through some job ads on the ARC website, and they were looking for a water-sanitation specialist for "tsunami relief." Someone explain to me why three and a half years later, they are still looking for my friend who wanted to work with them in the first place for the same project!

Here's something even more ironic. A year ago, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) put out a desperate call for water/sanitation engineers to work in the field. My friend who fit the description of what they were looking for, filled out the excruciatingly long application and sent it in. Three hours later, she got a response saying "no." Confused, she called and emailed them. Three days later, sick of her calls, they wrote saying "sorry...we don't offer explanations to anyone we didn't interview" or something to that effect. I'm still confused. She has field experience, top-line degrees, and good knowledge of her subject; not to mention that she is well-traveled and lived independently in rough parts of the world. I'm more curious than she is about why she got turned down.

Now the Burmese tragedy. She calls me up again saying...I just read, they are having problems with water quality. I want to help. My first response is...just go there. You'll find something. But that's dumb. Its worse to send someone out like that. I've already done that. I've shown up and the place was a zoo, and my being there only made the chaos worse. I got frustrated. I might as well have stuck with the job I had. Now I need help! So I just shut up and listen to her complain. I don't tell her to give money, or volunteer locally. Been there, done that too. I know how frustrating it is to be told that.

So what can someone in her shoes do??

Monday, May 5, 2008

Public Health Tweets

1. Chris Blattman blogs about Dr. Gary Sultkin, a public health warrior and peace crusader, who has started an organization called Ceasefire to stop unnecessary shooting and killing, using public health techniques. I must say, its very cool to see how medical principles can be applied (with successful results) outside of just medicine!

2. Shawn blogs about his mosquito bednet project on Uncultured.com. I think bed nets ROCK! Personally, they have saved my life (and my sleep) a number of times. Bed nets are SO cheap and effective against malaria that I think its a crime for any government to not provide one with the birth of every child.

3. The food crisis has gotten so bad that the poor in Haiti are eating mud. Can someone, anyone explain to me why we are fighting a war that no one wants, while people are eating mud??

4. I've been reading some of the comments on the CBS 60 Minutes website in response to Paul Farmer's segment that aired today. I was truly taken aback by the anger and bitterness against Paul Farmer, whom many accuse of being a "traitor" and "turning his back on his own." This says a lot about how one of the world's wealthiest nations is failing its people most. At the same time, i need to stand up for Paul and all the aid workers who go out on a limb (I like to call it America's good and peaceful force) everyday to undo the damage caused by the American Administration. Were it not for their heroic deeds, we'd have been blown out of the water years ago!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Pioneer Profile: Dr Paul Farmer, Dr Jim Kim

Another segment I plan to start will be called "Pioneer Profiles," where I will quite simply try to profile a pioneer of technology, social entrepreneurship, and/or education in the developing world.

Let's start with physicians Paul Farmer and Jim Kim.

Dr Jim Kim (source: Harvard University)

Dr Paul Farmer with a 15 y/o boy in haiti (photo source: Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston)

I came across their amazing story a few years back, when I was sitting in on a seminar series on AIDS in Africa. Nearly all the best presenters in the seminar were in some way affiliated with Partners in Health, a relatively obscure public health program that has revolutionized healthcare in the developing world. Turns out it was started by Paul and Jim, and two other friends.

Paul and Jim's least impressive feature is that they are both M.D, Ph.Ds from Harvard, and MacArthur Genius Fellows. What is most impressive is how they've revolutionized treatment against two of the developing world's most dangerous killers - multidrug resistant TB (MDR-TB) and HIV. Their holistic, sustainable approach to public health has really won people over. PIH runs a few hospitals and medical programs in select countries (Haiti, Rwanda, Peru, Russia, to name a few) for the most disenfranchised. All medical treatment is provided free. The hospitals are also built on local capacity, i.e. they try to hire and train as many doctors, nurses, and other hospital staff from within the country as possible, both to encourage and keep local resources in the country, and to promote sustainability of the clinics/hospitals. The result is a largely functional, resourceful, and knowledgeable team providing effective healthcare. Now other countries are turning to them for advice on building up their own infrastructure.

Rather than talk more about them, I'll let you loose on a few resources. CBS 60 minutes did a great profile on Paul Farmer today (bel0w):

In addition, you should read the book on the Paul Farmer and PIH called Mountains Beyond Mountains, penned by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Kidder.

A few years ago, PBS did a brilliant 6-hour award winning documentary series called Rx for Survival, an absolute MUST SEE for anyone interested in healthcare technology in the developing world. Filmed across several countries, the series identifies pioneering technology and health care approaches that are saving millions of lives. You can see a biography and videos of Jim Kim, and of Paul Farmer.

There's a lot more about both on the web. Just google their names and you'll have enough to keep you going for days!

Sowing the Seeds of Secular Education

source: New York Times

This morning, the New York Times (NYT) wrote a brilliant article and slideshow about a group promoting secular islamic schools in the urban slums of Pakistan. Pakistan has unfortunately been a seat of radicalism for years, whether the national policy promotes it or not. And I strongly believe the only way out for Islamic states like Pakistan, Afghanistan, and others struggling against poverty and fundamentalism is to invest in secular education.

Another excellent book to read on this topic is Three Cups of Tea. Its such an insightful, engaging read that you won't be able to put it down. Brilliantly penned.

This is a bit of an aside...hence the italics. Over the years, I've been asked many times to reflect on Pakistan's fundamentalism. For anyone interested, here it is: My own theory about why Pakistan is so radical has to do with its violent past, and lack of committed leadership. Pakistan was born out of a violent and bloody partition from India in 1950, orchestrated largely by the British. In the north where Hindus and Muslims had peacefully lived for centuries, a line was drawn on two sides of India...think of two arms being chopped off arbitrarily. One arm eventually became Pakistan, and the other eventually Bangladesh. The Hindus and Muslims were given a week to move out of their homes and move to the "right" side of the line. This sort of ridiculous uprooting caused tremendous anger between the two groups, which has never fully healed. The partition on all sides was painful, and violent. India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan have never been the same since. Any country born from anger and blood is only bound to breed more.

India has survived best of the three because the basic secular infrastructure, economic generators, and policy of the country still remained. Also a large mass of the people (in the center, northeast and the south) were relatively unaffected. Muslims, Hindus, and others of the world's great religions still live peacefully with each other in these parts. These reasons and others, combined with better leadership, have insured the continuing success of India. Bangladesh has far too many natural catastrophes, relies too heavily on India for support, and has too much poverty to handle extreme fundamentalism. Not to mention neighbors that are either peaceful, or too mired in their own problems to affect Bangladesh much.

In some ways, Pakistan was doomed from the start. It was founded on fundamentalist principles against non-muslims from a bloody war (and three more after). Support has come from its fundamentalist and unstable neighbors Afghanistan, Iran, and other middle eastern countries (like Saudi Arabia) and it was a U.S pawn in the battle against the Soviet Union. Basically it had access to weapons, but never schools, roads, hospitals or good leadership (this is the story of Afghanistan as well). No wonder it has been in so much trouble! Often I see it as a teenager born from a violent relationship that was never given a chance to figure itself out. In fact, I really feel for Pakistan, and mostly the innocent people who have been victims of a terrible system.

On that note, let me say that I have several friends who are Pakistanis and I have tremendous respect for them and their homeland. This whole violence thing is such a pain in the behind!

Friday, May 2, 2008

A blog far superior to mine

I found a blog that covers the same territory and does a far better job than me (does this mean I'm out of a blog??), so I encourage you lovers of Tworque subject matter to add White African to your reader or email list or whatever. Of course, his blog focuses entirely on technology in Africa, so I won't quit my ramblings anytime soon! :-)

Links and Opinions: Tworque Tweets for the week

I think I'm going to start a thing called "Tworque Tweets." Henceforth, like other bloggers, I'll add my cool links of the week, along with a one line ('tweet' from "twitter") opinion. Its more efficient for you and me.

Here are this week's Tworque Tweets (TT):

1. Time Magazine has two interesting and insightful photoessays:
  • India's Health Care Crisis outlines the awful healthcare problems facing India's poorest. On this note, I wonder where agencies like the WHO should intervene and incentivize/encourage basic health care provisions for the poor; and how much other countries who want to eradicate disease (eg. the US) need to interfere in an issue like this.
  • Psychic Scars of Kashmir outlines the psychological consequences of a long enduring war and where the people are turning for help. Its just a beautifully narrated and covered piece. I also ask you to read about Sufism before passing any judgement, it is one of the more tranquil sects of Islam.
2. Good Magazine highlighted the world's first billion dollar home being built in Mumbai, India, by and for an Indian petrochemical magnate. No place in the world is poverty more starkly visible than in India, where gaps like this (a billion dollar home and the world's largest slums) are so blatantly visible.

3. Rising rice prices have the world's largest rice producers considering a rice cartel. Good idea, but somehow I don't think this will fly. It would need good leadership...something Asia is desperately lacking (in my opinion!).

4. The geekiest science fair is on this weekend (may 3 and 4) in San Francisco. Check out video of the Maker Faire.

5. Check out the preview for the impressive film Africa Investment Horizons. I really do think that Africa is the place to be right now...so much happening, SO much potential, so badly needed.

6. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has an impressive Youtube channel with excellent videos from around the world highlighting sustainable and socially responsible businesses in developing countries.

TechShop should expand to the developing world

TechShop in Menlo Park (source: Make Magazine)

Today Boing Boing (one of my favorite blogs) highlighted a really cool company called TechShop. It provides lab space with every kind of machine that a D-I-Yer can dream about. For a low monthly membership, anyone can access the shop's large workspace and machinery, and get a community of other people to bounce ideas off (on the video below, you'll get an idea of what a space like this can do...including teach you to build a car!).

I really really think that a TechShop concept is desperately needed in developing countries, particularly the India's, China's, and Kenya's of the world where ideas and entrepreneurship abound, but people lack the workspace, knowledge, community (especially), or finances to get equipment of their own.

For the concept to work though, there are some things that need to be taken into consideration. I've worked out a way to combat some of these issues:

1. The problems with lack of electricity, can be combated by starting out small and basic; by having (biodiesel, diesel or biogas) generators, or even using the workshop as a training space to build generators (so that the farmers can build their own). Lighting is easy, particularly if efficient lanterns (LED, solar charged CFLs, or such) are provided or can be rented. Most of India, for example, is connected to a power grid of some sort. The problem is that the grid is extremely unreliable and power comes on during the day when no one can use it...so the point is to charge the batteries when the power is flowing and use them in the night.

2. Lack of basic knowledge. This is probably the most critical issue as quite often, people have no concept of building their own stuff, or what tools are capable of, or even how to go about building something they envision in their heads. This can be combated by hiring trained local artisans to man the workshop at different times and providing advice as necessary; developing pictoral user guides for the tools; and doing promotion workshops in the villages to get people started (eg. how to build a plough out of a piece of wood, how to build a thatched roof, etc). I know for a fact that a lot of men end up using their evening time either drinking or doing other pointless activities, and would gladly switch that for something as curiously engaging as this.

3. Better financing options: Since the poor live by the day, financing options need to run by the hour or quarter of an hour.

However in bigger cities, where there is better electricity, education, higher willingness to pay, and in general wealthier people, this could be run similar to the U.S and will do extremely well...

See Boing Boing TV (BBTV)'s visit to TechShop:

An Update on the Aquaduct

A few weeks ago, I blogged about/reviewed a technology called The Aquaduct. As stated in that post, I had emailed the team a few questions that I couldn't find answers to. It took them three weeks to respond, and they sent me a generic answer after all of that. But apparently, they've started a blog with the first post answering a lot of my questions, including how they came up with their design, the type of filter they used, the cost of their product, and where they were heading with it.

Frankly I'm a bit disappointed with the vagueness of their answers. Still it atleast scratches the surface...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

More Contests Spurring Tech Innovation

Following up on my last post about the X-Prize, I wanted to point out three more contests that are improving technology (this is in the same vein as the WB Development Marketplace, and others like it).

1. Keen Footwear's Stand Up Out For contest:

Keen's Stand For winner, Brian Bell, plans to melt Haiti's ubiquitous plastic trash and transform it into footwear for kids (source: Robert Gottofrey)

Recently Keen released profiles of their Stand contest winners. For each of the categories, entrants had to provide a write-up of their idea for "changing the world," a budget, and a personal statement about who they were and why they deserved the prize. In return, they won US$25,000 to implement their visions. Probably the ones I am most interested in are the engineer who plans to recycle plastic trash collected from the roadsides in Haiti to be converted into footwear (croc-like??); and to a lesser extent (only because its not very original) in another engineer who will be using her prize money to build water pipelines in Kenya.

2. Dell's Regeneration Green Computing Challenge:

The Lawn PC, one of five finalists from Dell's Regeneration challenge (source: regeneration.org)

You've all probably heard about toll e-waste (electronic waste) is taking on the developing world. Most of the toxic e-waste from the developed world ends up in landfills in the poorer parts of the world. So Dell decided to take responsibility and run a contest for greener design. As of a few days ago, Five finalists have been chosen and its upto you to vote for your favorite. Computers, with One Laptop per Child (OLPC) and others, are changing the world and continue to break down a lot of education barriers in the developing world. Green computing will improve access to the electronic world and education in the developing world, without increasing the damage that has already been done. Very important.

3. INC.com's Inspired Innovations Great Idea Contest:

Unlike the rest, this is still running. If you have an idea that will change the world, submit it here and you'll get some cash, venture funding, and other resources to make your dream come true. HURRY, applications are due May 9th. According to their website, here's what the contest is about:

Let us hear about your great idea. Give your submission a headline that describes your idea in brief, and then tell us about your innovation in an essay, being sure to include:

A thorough description of the idea -- Is it a product, a service, an enhancement to something that exists already? The market it serves -- Who is the target market and what need does the idea serve so well?

Be creative in your submission -- sell us on why your idea is truly innovative.

Note: We recommend you create your submission in a word-processing program prior to submitting. Each submission should be no longer than 5,000 characters with spaces. After reviewing and editing your essay, you can cut and paste it into the form below.

Related Posts:
Playpump International

The Development Marketplace and other social competitions/conferences

Contests as Sources of Technology Innovation: The X-Prize

I love contests. They serve as brilliant incentive for technology development. Quite often far more money is spent on the technology development, than the prize money that is won in the end.

This is probably most obvious from the X Prize Foundation, where Peter Diamandis decided to take the idea of technical innovation to a whole new level with his prize. His Ansari X-Prize for space travel pushed space technology so far that it suddenly seemed possible for anyone to buy a ticket to space. Example, Virgin Galactica.

Peter Diamandis talks about the origin of the X Prize Foundation.

Peter is pushing the envelope in other fields as well. His recently announced Progressive Automotive X-Prize will reward US$10 million to the first team that produces a car that meets EPA standards and can do about 100 miles per gallon. Of course there are more details than that and you can read about them here. But briefly in their own words:
The Progressive Automotive X PRIZE will place a major focus on affordability, safety, and the environment. It is about developing real, production-capable cars that consumers want to buy, not science projects or concept cars. This progress is needed because today’s oil consumption is unsustainable and because automotive emissions significantly contribute to global warming and climate change.

So you might be wondering why I'm going off on these X-Prizes. Well, I'm highlighting them for two reasons:

A. Efficient technology development is good for the world at large, because of their primary and secondary benefits. For one, it levels the playing field in terms of technology development, i.e. Bangladesh can produce an entry and earn the prize money just as well as the United States. Prizes level the playing field in that it mitigates the risk of investing in technology development...essentially you can possibly make the money back once you win the prize. Some people might argue that prizes give a fake sense of security, but in reality even teams that don't win the prize, spur secondary benefits such as entrepreneurial ventures based on the new technology, economic development, increased environmental quality because of increased efficiency and much more.

B. X-Prizes for poverty alleviation and other social problems. Diamandis is already talking about expanding X-Prizes into the social areas of water purification, poverty alleviation, etc. Imagine the possibilities of innovation and the lives that could be changed as a result.
It would also serve to attract and involve the minds of people who may not have otherwise been engaged. When I think about what could happen if the world would get together to think about social problems, I feel overwhelmed. On one hand the possibilities are extraordinary, on the other, its sad that it should take economic incentives like these to bring people to think about caring about their own fellow human beings.

I'd recommend watching other videos from the X-Prize here.

Back from Vacation

I've been off this week, and will start posting again by this weekend, if not sooner. As I'm catching up on the week, I'm finding that there is SO much to blog about that I'm searching for a place to start. In the days to come, please excuse the barrage of posts.

Thanks as always for your patience, and for sticking with me.