PopTech Maps Course of Social Change

PopTech Maps Course of Social Change reports on Chicago salon speakers who shares breakthrough applications of social technologies.

poptechPopTech’s Social Mapping Salon was 12 May 2010 in Chicago, and its evening component featured three ultra-creative leaders whose teams were using mobile technology to vastly improve business processes, within the context of disaster recovery, incarceration and violence. PopTech itself is focused on creating and nurturing disruptive innovation through design, technology and cross-boundary collaboration. This salon was about using social mapping to create breakthrough. Although I didn’t attend the day part of the salon, I gathered from talking to people that it’s about using social connections to disrupt lock-in thinking and unnecessary assumptions. Social maps (below, right – or, even bigger) are visual representations of connections and breakthrough areas.

poptech2010may_socmapThe evening part of the salon really delivered on that premise. The folks over at Wired have been writing for years about the impact of information on assumptions, boldly stating that it would soon do away with theory and the scientific method—because they would no longer be required for much longer! The digitization of communication is creating petaflops of information every [short interval]. By statistically acting on this information, we can take a big chunk out of the unknown. Gary Slutkin, Laura Kurgan and Patrick Meier related case studies about how they were using new information (mobile, geomapping), tools (phones, open source software) and techniques (crowdsourcing, mashups) to vanquish some of yesterday’s intractable problems: human violence, massive incarceration and mass death by natural disaster.

First I will publish my notes of their remarks before adding my thoughts in Analysis and Conclusions.

Gary Slutkin, M.D., Executive Director of CeaseFire

ceasefireCeaseFire’s premise is as inspiring as it is breakthrough: it is perfect example of a Knowledge Economy Mashup that reuses epidemiology methodologies to fight violence: epidemics break out when a contagion achieves the mechanics of transmission from one person to another, thereby becoming self-perpetuating. Epidemiologists study the science behind the mechanisms of reproduction, incubation time, and means of transmission, with the aim of creating a mechanism to disrupt a crucial part of the cycle, so fewer people are affected. CeaseFire breaks the violence cycle.

Before launching CeaseFire, Gary had spent years studying and fighting epidemics like tuberculosis, cholera, typhus, AIDS and others in Africa with the World Health Organization (WHO). He realized that two things had caused mass death to mankind from time immortal: epidemics and mass violence (war). Moreover, although we have come a long way in thwarting epidemics, we have not made much progress on violence. As a doctor and scientist, he reflected on how we had succeeded in drastically reducing the impact of epidemics: we had used a scientific approach to make the invisible visible, leading to immunization, quarantine, education and other tactics. What if we could use a similar approach in the service of vanquishing human violence? CeaseFire’s tagline is “New thinking about violence,” and they reuse epidemiology methodologies to combat violence.

When you use a scientific approach to violence, there is no “bad,” “right” or “wrong,” you are focused on the mechanisms without judging them. You have desired outcomes and predictors, behaviors. Violence is a collection of unconscious behaviors that are rooted in modeled group behavior. Copied behavior. Through group behavior, people create neural pathways without being aware of the process. First, a (young) person observes people that the group considers “leaders” and models and exhibits that behavior him/herself. When other members of the group show their approval, that locks in the behavior, and social pressure perpetuates the cycle. The main driver is social expectation and norms.

In legacy thinking, there are people who exhibit bad behaviors, thereby becoming judged and punished. However, scientists are focused on mechanisms and have a relatively dispassionate approach. By not judging, they can get past the desire to punish undesired behavior. Instead, they can focus on interrupting the behavior, preventing infection and transmission, and anticipating metamorphosis (how the behavior evolves by responding to the environment).

CeaseFire’s methodology involves: 1) observing and anticipating characteristics of violence; 2) interrupting behavior and the cycle of reprisal, which is the flywheel that perpetuates it; and 3) changing group norms. Their team members specialize in various parts of the cycle: violence interrupters are carefully selected and trained to address acute situations and prevent imminent violence. Outreach team members focus on preventive action by dealing with potential violent situations. They model and role play alternative behaviors. A third group emphasizes group reeducation by partnering with trusted members of the community like clergy, public education and other leaders. They use social media and the Web.

Most important, CeaseFire has numbers that show a significant decrease in violence where they operate, which is in many U.S. metropolitan areas.

Laura Kurgan, Director, Spatial Information Design Lab

sidlLaura teaches architecture at Columbia University, and she’s come to specialize at using geomapping to learn more about space, design and how they affect crime. SIDL uses information to study and change behavior around incarcerated people and their local communities. She pointed out that, in Brooklyn, $360 million is spent annually on Brooklyn residents that are incarcerated in upstate New York. In effect, that represents a $360 million transfer of wealth from Brooklyn to prisons. This in money spent on the neighborhood but not in the neighborhood. The average inmate is imprisoned for three years. By studying behavior and connections between prisoners and their neighborhoods, SIDL aims to reduce recidivism and racial segregation.

Laura showed the fascinating case of New Orleans, where SIDL has traced trends in incarceration as the city recovered from Katrina (incarcerations increased as the city recovered). She implied but didn’t state that (I’m assuming) many of the crimes of which the incarcerated are guilty were committed in those neighborhoods, too.

Finally, SIDL looks for patterns in architecture and its contribution to violence. They use social networks to change behavior, for example, Facebook to connect with health organizations, education, housing, employers and businesses in the neighborhood.

Patrick Meier, Director of Crisis Mapping, Ushahidi in Haiti

ushahidiUshahidi means “witness” in Swahili, and it first appeared as a website that was quickly developed during the 2007 Kenyan Crisis and post-election violence. The website enabled people to SMS (text message) or email reports of violence, which were displayed on a Google map. Subsequently, the software was abstracted, rewritten and open sourced so that people around the world could use it. It enables mass crowdsourcing of incident reports by mobile phones.

Patrick Meier was a Ph.D. student at Tufts University when the earthquake in Haiti struck. He told the story in which he initiated a joint effort among Ushahidi, The Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University, UN OCHA/Colombia and the International Network of Crisis Mappers (CM*Net). They used Ushahidi to “crisis map” all types of “incidents” in Haiti. At this point, Ushahidi operates (in my mind) very similarly to Twitter: people can report by SMS, shortcode, email and voice, and people with smartphones can attach photos and video to their posts. Patrick shared another instance of needed knowledge coming from across the world. For many days after the quake, infrastructure was paralyzed, and they wanted to reach (Haitian telecom) to set up (program) a shortcode (4636) for the project, so people needed fewer digits to send messages. Via a friend on Cameroon, they were able to find someone in Haiti to program it.

It became quite an operation: as people on the ground in Haiti found out about it, mountains of data flowed in. Many of the text messages were in Creole and other languages, so they had to be translated before being posted on the site. Here the Haitian diaspora was invaluable. But it wasn’t only a question of reporting, the group was trying to save lives by showing where dangers were emerging, near real-time, and relief workers quickly came to depend on the Ushahidi team. The gory details were hard to take at times; it was like an emergency room, people were texting as they or loved ones lay dying.

A person would report a fire, rape, robbery, etc. “by the post office in xyz,” and the team had to translate the information into exact GPS coordinates so that choppers could respond. For example, a fire would be reported, and its spot on the Google map would grow, so helicopters would be dispatched. Within two weeks, the team scaled to hundreds of people in Geneva, Boston, London and Montreal, so they could work around the clock. The United Nations, the U.S. Marine Corps and relief workers came to rely on Ushahidi to triage scarce resources. The team also set up pre-set replies in various languages, so they could reassure people that they were heard, right away.

The Haiti Ushahidi team coalesced around the effort out of a desire to help, and they were surprised to learn later that they were often the de facto news source for many types of relief operations. At one point, FEMA told them, “Don’t stop, no matter what, you’re saving hundreds of lives!”

Q & A

  • poptech2010may_kickoffPatrick pointed out that the Haiti case study showed that people globally now have tools to increase situational awareness. In Haiti, 30% of people have cell phones, so now incident reporting (“status” in Twitter-speak) can be distributed to normal people. He suggested that we could enhance readiness by adopting global standards to improve response, for example, standardized shortcodes. He emphasized that large organizations take days, implying that people working with low tech distributed technology can learn to help themselves. In addition, relief and government organizations are ten years behind tech organizations (I thought that was generous).
  • He subsequently launched a similar operation to assist in the Chilean earthquake.
  • However, with open source crowdsourcing, there will be misinformation reported when “incidents” involve politics. In Haiti, politics played a much more minor role than in Kenya or Sudan in which some regimes wanted to discredit crowdsourced information by reporting misinformation. However, the teams can introduce verification processes in those cases to help distinguish real from fake information.
  • Gary painted a gripping scenario in which a mother, upstairs, heard family members loading guns downstairs, preparing for a reprisal. He emphasized her conflict: she doesn’t want to call the police because potentially several of her family and friends would be jailed. But she can call CeaseFire because they aren’t law enforcement, and they don’t judge.
  • To enable interrupters, CeaseFire works to establish credibility ahead of time because they depend on people invoking them at critical times.
  • Laura emphasized that it is very difficult to get information that connects prisoner and community. Moreover, police and government organize information to maximize their funding, implying that their motivation is my necessarily to reduce violence (the more violence, the better their job security). SIDL wants to get the information so that they can prevent recurrences of violence (and the need for police and prisons). She stated flatly that entire towns in upstate New York wouldn’t exist without the prison economy.
  • Gary stressed that they used an evidence-based approach and have numbers showing results. But, the challenge is always changing thinking locally, interrupting old thought patterns, attitudes and habits.
  • Speaking about the ROI of CeaseFire initiatives, Gary declared that it’s often within days that savings are larger than the cost of CeaseFire’s programs. In Chicago, for example, shootings cost the city $2.2 billion annually. The state of Illinois spends an additional $1.2 billion.

Analysis and Conclusions

  • These three examples showed how digitally produced social information could change entrenched human problems like war, excessive punishment and imprisonment and mass death by natural disaster. As such, they serve as examples of widespread change that will occur thanks to social networks and attendant collaborative work processes.
  • Each of the presentations was compelling at illustrating how it was possible to use techniques and tools and ideas to challenge the status quo. As Adam Hartung puts it, companies get locked in on their success formulas, from which they are usually unwilling to veer away, even when they are dying (they go down with the ship). It’s a very short hop to observe that society and government exhibit the same behavior by failing to question assumptions that have outlived their usefulness. We can disrupt ossified lock-in thinking by using new information and questioning assumptions.
  • One such assumption that people entertain, especially in rich countries, is that the government should take care of them. Most citizens of “western” countries are very passive. However, open source tools and processes are beginning to show that crowdsourcing can accomplish amazing feats, as Patrick’s story aptly illustrated. With some simple tools, people can help themselves far more effectively.
  • CeaseFire’s strategy of mashing up epidemiology and violence is so intellectually elegant and practical that it’s easy to see how it can produce breakthroughs. I was constantly thinking about The Tipping Point while Gary was speaking. Although he didn’t say it explicitly, I think the tipping point for drastically reducing (urban) violence may well be exchanging judgment and punishment for interruption of transmission.
  • When Laura was talking, I kept thinking about Everyblock, and am connecting her with Adrian because he has some techniques and technologies that could probably help SIDL. Here again, I can imagine that we could use new information to understand the real problem and interrupt the behavior. The U.S. has a staggering portion of its citizens incarcerated, and recidivism is much higher than, say, Japan.
  • In sum, it was a great program that really lived up to the concept: creating white space to change thinking and achieve uncommon results. I am definitely considering attending their 2010 fall confab.
  • Update: more coverage #socmap or @poptech

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