… My heart’s in Accra Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

March 19, 2008

Become Pop!Tech’s official blogger

My regular readers know that the Pop!Tech conference, held in October in beautiful Camden, Maine, is one of the highlights of my year. The conference combines some of the very best speakers on science, technology, society and social change with an environment designed to force people to make new friends and talk to people they’ve never met before. Plus, it’s in one of the most beautiful places in the world at the very peak of autumn. I spoke at Pop!Tech three years ago, and have worked the past few years to rope friends into the community as speakers and bloggers.

Pop!Tech is now offering a pretty fascinating job opportunity – official Pop!Tech blogger. This doesn’t (neccesarily) mean competing with me to liveblog the conference – though, hey, bring it on. Instead, it means that you’re responsible for maintaining the Pop!Tech blog through the year, featuring people and ideas that have been, might be or could be featured at the conference. The work that Wayne Hall has done on the excellent IdeaFestial blog is good example of what you can do with a platform like this.

Pop!Tech is looking for an established blogger for this position, and is offering $1000 a month, plus a pass to the conference (a $3500 value.) If you’re interested, drop a line to jobs AT poptech DOT org and tell ’em Ethan sent you. (More to the point, tell them where your blog is, point them to some of your best posts and write a great cover letter telling them why you’re the right person for the job. Jeez, do I have to tell you everything?)

July 27, 2007

The 5-4-3 double play, or “The Art of Conference Blogging”

When I was about seven years old, my father taught me how to score a baseball game. We were probably in Florida, combining a trip to a spring training game with a visit to one of my grandmothers. He explained the basics of the hieroglyphic system that both professionals and fans use to score games, the numbering of the position players, the difference between a forward and backwards “K”, and set me loose to scribble on a scorecard while he made his own illegible notes in his wire-bound, leatherette scorer’s book.

I’ve scored games ever since – only when I’m actually in the stadium, but religiously on those occasions. When scoring at our local ballpark, the elegant and ancient Wahconah Park in Pittsfield, MA, I sometimes get asked by other fans why I’m scoring the game. “Are you a scout? Are you a reporter?”

“Nah, I just like to score ballgames.” If pressed, I’d tell them that scoring a game forces me to pay attention, to be in the moment, to keep at least one eye on the action rather than on the hot dogs, the beer and the people I’m sitting with. I miss something if I’m not scoring a game. And I like being able to glance down in the seventh inning and see whether the man at the plate is 0 for 3 or 2 for 2 with a walk.

This may help explain my anti-social and obsessive attitude towards blogging at conferences. I’ve developed something of a reputation for blogging the conferences I attend with fairly obsessive detail. Some of my colleages are grateful for this “service”; some of my readers have stopped subscribing to this blog due to the volume of conference posts. If you ask me why I do it, the answers are similar to my reasons for scoring baseball games:

– Because David Weinberger does it, and David is someone worth emulating. Ditto Bruno Giussani.
– Because it gives me a record of a gathering that I can work from, quoting speakers and ideas in later blog posts.
– Because it forces me to pay attention to what’s going on at a conference, not just to visit with my friends, chat in the hallways, enjoying the spectacle.

As I’ve gotten better at conference blogging, there are at least three other reason:

– Conference blogging gets me invited to conferences I couldn’t otherwise afford to go to, and which I enjoy being present at.
– Other bloggers link to my conference posts, which raises my Technorati profile, my google juice, etc., and makes it more likely people will read my original writing.
– People expect me to. (This is a good and bad thing.)

A few kind friends have asked for thoughts on how to blog a conference in detail. I’m not convinced that there are many tricks to it, but here are a few things that help me keep pace at conferences like Pop!Tech and TED, where the talks come fast and furious:

The kit: I come to conferences with my beloved Mac, two charged batteries, a power strip, a digital camera and cables, granola bars and a lap desk. This last item is totally essential – I’ve turned my car around when driving to a conference to retrieve my lapdesk, knowing that burned knees and backpain await if I try to blog with the laptop directly on my lap.

The location: Bloggers rarely sit in the front row to blog conferences. We’re distracting to the people around us, especially people sitting behind us, watching our screens. It’s usually better to sit to a side, near the power plugs. The really big conferences often have “overflow rooms” where some of the audience can watch a talk on simulcast TV. These are a gift for bloggers. I learned this from Ndesanjo Macha, who blogged 2005 Pop!Tech almost entirely from outside the main hall, glued to a monitor and power outlet.

Some conference organizers are particularly good about creating a physical space for conference bloggers. TED in Monterey provides a table with power strips facing a monitor in their downstairs overflow lounge – it’s a great place to blog that conference, if you can wedge your way between me and Bruno.

Preparation: Conferences usually give you a speaker program ahead of time. Use it. Over breakfast before the day of a conference, I’ll type the names of each speaker and their talk title into a text file. If I’m really good, I’ll do quick Google searches on each of them and link their names to their blogs, research institutions, arrest records, etc. Prepare sufficiently and you’ve got the first paragraph of each post written ahead of time.

Macros: I write my blog posts – and, frankly, everything I write – in BBEdit, a remarkably powerful Macintosh text editor. One of several thousand reasons to use BBEdit is a feature called “Glossaries” or “Clippings”. This is a way of storing pieces of text that you use frequently and linking them to key combinations. My friend Daniel Beck turned me on to this powerful feature and developed a couple of basic clippings for me, which I use heavily.

So when I want to add a hyperlink to a document, I copy the address from Mozilla, highlight the text I want to link, and then type Shift-Apple-Comma, which inserts the following text into my file:

< a HREF="" >< /a >

around the highlighted text, and positions the cursor between the quotes. Press Apple-V and I’ve got a formatted hyperlink in two keystrokes. I have keys linked to blockquotes and to URLs I reference frequently, like Global Voices and this blog. I’ll sometimes create a glossary entry for the technorati tag associated with a conference, associated with shift-apple-T-R, or for the main website for a conference.

Even if you’re composing online, within your blogging platform, or if you don’t feel comfortable setting up macros, it can be a big help to put some useful snippets of text in a text file and cut and paste them into blogposts.

Keeping Up:
I have a hard and fast rule for myself – I complete posts on a conference session within fifteen minutes of the end of that session. This isn’t because I’m obsessive about getting up the first post on a topic – it’s because I will miss the next session if I’m still writing the former post. Better to put up an incomplete and imperfect set of notes than to miss another speaker.

Many conferences break up speeches with “lighter” interludes – videos, music, or other less-bloggable forms of content. These are excellent times to finish blog entires. I will frequently use question and answer sessions to finish posts as well – this makes Pop!Tech easier to blog than TED, which provides less time for Q&A and squeezes in more speakers per day.

I have, once or twice, been forced to give up on a talk because it’s clear that I can’t transcribe it in time. I’ve never successfully transcribed a Yochai Benkler talk – he simply packs too much into a speech for a mere mortal to document.

Hard Talks:
One of the reasons I’m able to blog so many talks at conferences like Pop!Tech, TED, Idea Festival or PUSH is that the talks are, for the most part, really, really good. Experienced speakers are easy to blog – they follow a narrative path through their talks, speak at a pace the audience can understand, emphasize key points with visuals. Write down the points that they’re starting sections with or emphasizing, and you’ll likely have a finished post with little need to edit.

It’s much harder to blog inexperienced speakers. Some will speak too fast or too technically and many won’t have a clear path through their material. With an inexperienced speaker, I’ll often take notes on the talk and try to structure it into a blogpost afterwards, doing the work the speaker should have done before giving his talk. I do this often with panels, which rarely have as much structure as a formal talk and often need you to add a narrative after the fact.

If a talk is truly out there and hard to follow, I might skip it, or blog it really briefly, summarizing it into a few lines or combining it with the next talk. Don’t be afraid to give up on a hard talk . It’s the speaker’s fault if he or she can’t interest you in the material, so long as you’re paying attention and ready to listen.

Use your commenters:
Because I’m blogging ten or more talks a day, I get things wrong. Sometimes I get things egregiously wrong. Comments allow other attendees – and sometimes the speakers themselves – to correct me. I check comments religiously while I liveblog, and I try to thank commenters who correct my errors, as they’re doing me a major service. “Mental” notes that blogposts, when commented, critiqued, linked towards, can serve as “the blogger equivalent of a peer reviewed professional article in a professional journal” – that’s only true if your peers are working with you to make your posts better.

“Hash”, writing about bloggers at the TED Global conference in Arusha, used the Swahili term “harambee” to describe the ideal operation of a group of bloggers at a conference:

Harambee is a Swahili term that means “pulling together”. That mentality, the willingness to work together, was what made it possible to cover a busy event like TEDGlobal… Some of us decided to take pictures, some did interviews between sessions and others decided to summarize the day. Everyone who blogs has their own voice, and I think it showed in the coverage. What could have been an amalgamation of everyone saying the same thing turned into a fairly well-rounded coverarge of the event.

My goal in blogging a conference is not to be the sole, authoritative voice of the blogosphere. It’s to do what I enjoy doing: writing detailed summaries of each sessions. But that means I can’t take photos of the speakers on stage, can’t interview speakers between sessions, can’t monitor coverage of the conference in the blogosphere. At TED, we were able to split up the tasks, so that Hash and Andrew took photos, Ndesanjo blogged in Swahili, Juliana did interviews, June monitored blogosphere coverage, etc. It’s a whole lot more fun to blog these events in groups, even if that means sitting next to someone trying to liveblog at the same time as you are, arguing about how to spell a word the speaker has just uttered.

I go to conferences because they give me a wealth of new ideas to wrestle with, sometimes for weeks or months to come. I try fairly hard not to wrestle with these ideas as I’m writing about them – it’s hard for me to form opinions while talks are going on, and harder to express those opinions articulately. (This isn’t always true. The occasional conference will include strong opinions I feel compelled to disclaim are the speaker’s, not my own…)

So that I have a chance to wrestle with the big ideas, I’ll often try to write a summary or reactions post a week after a conference. These summaries are generally a great deal more opinionated than my reactions to the original talks. Good conferences have big themes that aren’t always apparent when you’re sitting in the hall… and these themes are frequently not the themes the organizers intended.

Have Fun:
Not everyone enjoys blogging at conferences. I have many friends who’ve tried it and discovered that it stresses them out or detracts from their enjoyment. There’s an easy solution to this: don’t do it. Most people don’t keep score at baseball games. That’s okay, as there’s an official scorekeeper, a scoreboard and at least one journalist in the stands. We don’t need everyone to become a conference liveblogger – just a few more of us.

If you’re a liveblogger at conferences and have tips that keep you productive and sane, please feel free to share them in the comments. If you try some of these out and find them helpful – or, especially, if you find them unhelpful – let me know in the comments as well. Thanks in advance.

April 18, 2007

Twelve great talks to watch, and no excuses for being bored. (Or boring.)

Filed under: Media,Pop!Tech 2005,Pop!Tech 2006,TED2006,TED2007 — Ethan @ 2:14 pm

I spent the last four days at a series of meetings for the Open Society Institute, a foundation I advise and serve on a sub-board for. The meetings were off-blog, but I can share one comment on the challenges facing newspapers, from the brilliant Thai journalist Kavi Chongkittavorn from Mr. Soros himself: “Journalists and prostitutes face the same challege: competition from amateurs.” (Friends who were in the meeting with me tell me I’m misremembering – Kavi had most of the good quips in the meeting, but Mr. Soros used this as his parting line…) I can’t wait for the next opportunity to use that quote in a speech…

One of my friends from OSI’s Information Program mentioned his excitement that the TED conference had started putting videos of talks from the last two conferences online, and asked me to recommend my favorites. By the time I got home and online, my twinblogger (a reference to our tendency to blog conferences in tandem) Bruno Giussani had posted a comprehensive guide to great talks, not just on the TED website, but from Pop!Tech and LIFT as well. He correctly identifies this is a new trend in operating conferences, an important one. Very, very few people are able to attend these gatherings – putting the talks online lets thousands of times as many people hear the ideas these remarkable speakers have to share.

So here are some of my top picks from TED and Pop!Tech, the two conferences I’ve been attending and blogging the past two years:

Hans Rosling is probably the best speaker on international development issues I’ve ever seen. He’s done remarkable work with statistics, helping people visualize long-term changes in international development in a historical and global context. He’s given two TED talks – the first is available here. I’m waiting patiently for this year’s talk, which concluded with Rosling swallowing a sword.

On the subject of development economics, Emily Oster stole this year’s TED (for me, at least) with a virtuoso talk on new research she’s done on the effectiveness of AIDS prevention strategies in Uganda. She ends up arguing that the “success” of the abstinence-focused strategies of the Ugandan government had far more to do with external factors – a temporary decrease in international trade – than to these prevention efforts. Her talk – or at least my notes on it – have generated some very critical comments over at Worldchanging.com. (The talk’s not up yet. Sorry about that – I’ll add a link when it’s available.)

Giving a much more personal story of the impact of HIV in an African context was Zinhle Thabethe’s speech at Pop!Tech in October 2006. She’s the director of the Sinikithemba Choir, a group of HIV-positive singers based in Durban who use music to educate communities about AIDS. Her story makes clear the agonizing choices individuals face when local health systems can’t provide anti-retroviral drugs for everyone in a nation – she’s surviving AIDS, but watches her brother die, unable to share her drugs and save him.

If it were socially acceptable to follow scientists around the world, hanging on their every word, as some people follow rock bands around the world, I’d be an Amy Smith groupie. Dr. Smith’s TED talk focuses on “carbon macrotubes” – charcoal, in other words – and the tremendous health importance of producing sustainable, clean-burning cooking fuel for the developing world.

I missed Iqbal Qadir’s talk at TED last year, but I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the stage with him at the PUSH conference two years back. His realization that mobile phones could be income-generating devices for the very poor in Bangladesh is the sort of big idea that can transform entire economies. Iqbal is one of the very best people to listen to in sorting fact from fiction in the whole “fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” set of ideas.

I didn’t expect to like Tom Barnett when I heard him speak at Pop!Tech. He’s got the bearing and delivery of a military man, the product of years of briefing generals in the Pentagon on the importance of transforming the US military. But he’s got an incredibly broad understanding of global security issues, failed and failing states, and the role that humanitarians and aid workers have to play in conflict situations. I came away from his first talk at Pop!Tech with dozens of questions and ideas, and his second talk opened as many new questions for me as it answered.

If you care about free speech, you need to listen to my friend Sasa Vucinic, the founder of the Media Loan Development Fund. Sasa’s firm finances newspapers, radio, television and interactive media in places that wouldn’t otherwise have access to a free press. He does it well enough that MDLF has been able to list on an european stock exchange, a remarkable achievement for a social venturing organization. The secret is his realization that for media to be truly independent, it needs to be fiscally sustainable… something I keep reminding myself as I write endless grant requests for Global Voices.

James Nachtwey was one of this year’s TED prize recipients, and bloggers are already buzzing about the “secret project” he’s planning on taking on with TED’s support. His images of conflict areas were some of the most arresting I’ve ever seen. His talk is almost too intense to watch – there’s simply too many searing images to digest in a very short period of time. the only other photographer who’s affected me this way in recent memory is my friend Ed Burtynsky, whose images of human impact on the earth also sear their way into your head. (Ed recieved the TED prize a year before Nachtwey and has used the prize to help support Worldchanging.com, where I serve on the board of directors.)

To end this top ten on a positive, hopeful note: Majora Carter, the director of Sustainable South Bronx, brought the house down last year at TED when she talked about greening the ghetto, coining the phrase “Green is the new black“. Her group has done remarkable work demonstrating that environmental and social justice are tightly linked, and in challenging the good and the great (including Al Gore) to focus closer to home in their attempts to heal and transform the world.

If that top ten leaves you hungry for more, there’s lots more on both sites. Or if you just need something to clear your head, let me point you to two of the smartest and funniest men on the Internet, Ze Frank and Jonathan Coulton. Both have taken the radical step of putting their work directly onto the web at an alarming pace, Ze with a year-long daily podcast, and Jonathan with a new song written and recorded every week over the course of a year. They’re two of the bravest and funniest guys I know, and two guys I’m very happy to have discovered through the moving circus of the conference scene.

November 4, 2005

Missed the Africa panel at Pop!Tech? Listen in.

Filed under: Africa,Pop!Tech 2005 — Ethan @ 1:45 pm

Two weekends ago, I wrote about a great session at Pop!Tech, a two hour conversation where African attendees at the conference got to talk about their view of the problems facing Africa and their reactions to conference presentations.

If you missed that incredible session, you’ve got a chance to catch up on what transpired. IT Conversations is posting two hours of audio from the discussion – part one and part two are both available on for free download now.

And there’s a great set of pictures from the stage and around the Opera House from the Sunday session. Check the photos and the audio out for a great example of cultural encounter in rural central Maine…

Thanks, Pop!Tech, the UN and Sun, for making the session possible, and Doug Kaye for making the audio available to everyone.

November 3, 2005

One Laptop Per Child – a preview, and a request for help

Filed under: Developing world,Geekery,Pop!Tech 2005 — Ethan @ 1:54 pm

I took a day off from this year’s Pop!Tech conference to hang out with some friends in Portland. But before driving from Camden to Portland, I dropped into the Opera House to check email and bumped into Nicholas Negroponte, who’d given a talk the day before on his work to produce a laptop that costs less than a hundred dollars.

Negroponte was an advisor to Geekcorps and was extremely helpful to me as we figured out whether the organization would be supported by corporate sponsorship, foundations or government largesse. So he knows about my long-standing interest in technology in the developing world. He asked whether I was interested in coming over to the lab and seeing a demo of the machine, and talking about strategies for deployment.

Hell yeah.

The demo was yesterday afternoon, and while it didn’t include a functioning prototype, I learned a great deal more about machine than I have from previous articles, or Negroponte’s talk at Pop!Tech. He was able to answer a whole set of questions for me, and raise an entire set of new ones, which, I suspect, will take a number of years to answer accurately.

First, the name. I’d been calling the project the sub-hundred dollar laptop… the acronym of which is the unfortunate “SHiL”. Negroponte’s now calling the project OLPC – One Laptop Per Child. It does a better job of defining the project, I think – not taking the bottom out of the consumer laptop market, but providing a learning tool for students around the world.

On to the machine. While the actual prototype is being actively banged on (in preparation for a live, but tethered, demo at WSIS on November 16th), Negroponte keeps a cardboard mockup of the machine on the conference table in his office. It’s a clever little thing – I had a hard time putting it down after picking it up. You can see a design close to the prototype I saw on the front page of Design Continuum’s site – they’re evidently doing the case design for the machine… and, actually, pretty far from the design reported on in the AP story about the project.

The mockup I saw was about the size of a large paperback book. There’s a stiff rubber gasket around the edge of the machine, which can double as a stand. The keyboard on the mockup was detachable, but will probably fold out on a hinge. The system is designed to work in three modes: laptop mode (screen up, keyboard down, handle behind as a stand); book mode (screen on the front, keyboard on the back, comfortable indentation for holding it in the left hand. Pressing on the keyboard “accordian-stype” – as Negroponte puts it – allows for page scrolling); and game mode (screen in the front, keyboard in the back, held sideways, like an oversized PSP. Two trackballs, surrounded by four way buttons, on each side of the screen act as controls, and function keys on the back act as additional buttons.)

Unlike in the prototype featured in the AP story, there’s no large gap between the screen and battery section, designed as a handle. While it looked very cool, it was also a bit too fragile for the conditions being considered. The handle now is either the rubber gasket or the indentation in the back. I wonder if the hinges are going to be a problem – the current design requires a hinge for the gasket and a separate hinge that allows 340 degrees of freedom between the screen and the keyboard. Negroponte pointed out to me that the hinges in the average consumer laptop cost about $5 each, and have a complex clutch mechanism that allows a screen to be smoothly rotated and repositioned – it will be interesting to see what can be done on a machine where the hinges will need to cost pennies, not dollars.

The keyboard on the prototype I saw was removeable – I think this was a nod to the idea that separate keyboards will need to be produced for different markets. In China, the appropriate device might be a stylus and pad rather than a keyboard, making it easier to enter ideograms.

Much of the conversation about the laptop has centered on the display, one of the most expensive components of a modern laptop. Early designs called for an e-Ink display – while Negroponte keeps a large e-Ink display on his conference table (about twice the size of the one in the Sony Librié), he tells me that eInk is for the second generation of the device. (It’s easy to see why e-Ink is compelling. Not only is the display extremely crisp in black and white, it remains crisp and readable when the display is turned off, as the molecules that make up the letters retain their orientation despite the absence of current. This makes power requirements for texts that don’t change continuously very, very low.)

Instead, the first generation of devices will use an LCD screen, though one rather different from the ones in most consumer laptops. The screen I’m staring at as I type this is backlit with white light – it’s what’s called a transmissive display. To produce colors on the screen, there are three colored filters that can be selectively applied to each pixel – these filters allow each pixel to display a huge range of colors. But these filters block a huge amount of the light a display transmits, up to 85%, which make displays extremely power-hungry.

There are other strategies for producing color from a transmissive display – one can create the illusion of colored pixels by flashing red, green and blue pixels in sequence – unfortunately, LCD displays don’t refresh quickly enough to make this technique workable. So Negroponte is using a display that puts red, green and blue pixels near each other, blurring into a single, colored pixel. The monitor will have three colored backlights, and each pixel on the monitor will have three small lenses, etched into a lenticular screen – each lens will pick up only one of the three backlights. The screen will also be able to work in a black and white, reflective mode, useful when the laptop is being used in bright light or sunlight.

While the display is going to need to be custom manufactured, Negroponte believes it will be possible to produce it at a fraction of the cost of traditional displays, and his team is already negotiating with display manufacturers in Asia to produce the product. It’s likely to be significantly less sharp than the LCD displays we’re used to, but will use far less power. Negroponte’s goal is for the machine to work on a 100:1 crank ratio – one minute of hand cranking generates sufficient power for the laptop to operate for 100 minutes.

I had several dozen questions based on my work with computers in challenging environments, and Negroponte had excellent answers to almost all of them. 12 volt power? There’s an adaptor for that. Voltage surges? Shouldn’t be a major problem given the most power draw of the machine. Cooling? The machine doesn’t have a fan since the processor is fairly slow and there’s no disk drive. The one hardware area where I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the answers had to do with mesh wireless support – some work in mesh suggests that it’s useful to have two radios per machine to provide robust backbones for sharing connectivity, and the current machine has only one radio, likely as a cost concession.

I didn’t get to see the software being designed to operate the machine, but learned a bit more about the team working on it. A small team of Red Hat engineers are customizing a Red Hat distro to the processor and hardware specifications of the machine. They’re doing some work on the GUI as well, as are Alan Kay and Seymour Papert – the total development team is about 18 people, including Kay’s students at the media lab. The machine will come with tools to encourage students to experiment with programming, including Squeak (a graphical environment for the Smalltalk programming language) and Logo. The plan is to make the software available online in a few months so that testers can bang on it and suggest features.

Localizing the software for different languages, learning styles and environments is going to require local production of software, which Negroponte appears to be planning for. Production of the hardware locally, on the other hand, is going to be “optional”… by which he seems to mean, “Some countries are going to insist on producing this lately, but it will be near impossible for them to do so at quantities that make it affordable.” Scale is clearly a major part of what will make the laptop succeed or fail – the laptop won’t be produced unless at least five countries sign up at a million laptops each. With an initial production run of 5 to 10 million laptops, the price is likely to be between $130 and $150 per unit, not including any distribution costs, marketing, or any digital content that comes pre-installed on the box. As the project scales up, the $100 per box target comes into sight.

The laptop is not “for sale” – it’s going to be available for students only, and will be distributed through the same channels that school books and uniforms are. The laptops will be the property of children, not of the school. Colin Maclay, a Berkman colleague who’d joined me for the visit, pointed out that in many countries, school books and uniforms are sold by (highly profitable) local businesses, and that losing a book contract might be a major blow for local employers. Negroponte points out that this doesn’t have to be a revenue loss – publishers could sell the electronic rights to textbooks on a per copy basis, which might make electronic textbooks even more attractive, on a revenue basis, than paper ones.

This might complicate the economics of the device. The idea is to make the laptop required equipment for all school students and price it on a basis where it replaces textbooks. In some of the developing world school systems Negroponte has investigated, textbooks cost $20 per student per year – if the laptop is sold to students (or provided by the national government) with a five-year financing option, it costs the same amount as annual textbook spending. Except that, if schools need to license intellectual property from existing publishers, the cost would certainly increase.

Talking through the structure of the OLPC initiative, Negroponte mentions that he was having a tough time figuring out who could be the CEO of the entire project. “In the startup phase, we need someone who’s halfway between Michael Dell and some great supply-chain genius. But in three years, we’re going to need someone halfway between Kofi Annan and Seymour Papert.”

The solution – run three separate groups: OLPC hardware (possibly based in Silicon Valley or Asia), OLPC software (likely based at the Media Lab) and OLPC International (based in New York, Geneva or another global hub.) It’s this third unit – the one charged with distributing, localizing and supporting the machines, and figuring out how they get used in global schools – that I’m most fascinated by.

While Negroponte has some general solutions to the interesting problems around distribution and usage, I got the sense that there hasn’t been as much detailed thinking about the on-the-ground challenges as there has been about the physical and software design of the machine. Colin wanted to know how Negroponte was navigating the complex internecene politics of working with the various ministries of a government – is this project owned by the Ministry of Education or the Ministry of Information and Communications. Negroponte explained that he was just working with heads of state, counting on them to get their teams to implement the project. Colin and I exchanged glances – we’d both worked with President Leonel Fernández of the Dominican Republic, a visionary leader who’d dedicated himself to bringing technology to the DR in 1996. His party was voted out of power in 2000 by a kleptocrat who ran on a platform of “Plantains, not PCs”, and pro-IT reforms were rolled back. (Fernandez is back in office now, after last year’s elections.) I’m guessing that a OLPC project started under one leader could stall under a future leader.

My questions largely had to do with how the laptop would be used in the classroom. I made the mistake of asking a question of how the laptop would be used as “a teaching tool”… like Papert, Negroponte’s a big believer that students simply need access to technology and can use it to teach each other and to make discoveries themselves. When I expressed some skepticism about teachers’ willingness to use the computers in the classroom, he referenced Maine governor Angus King’s initiative to bring computers into middle school classrooms throughout the state. Initially unpopular with teachers, the laptop project is now widely viewed as a success and is being replicated in other states. It’s clear that the strategy behind the device is a trojan horse one – sell the device as an e-book, then see what students are able to do with a flexible, net-connected, programmable tool.

After peppering Negroponte with two hours of questions, I’m fairly convinced that this laptop won’t suffer the problems the Simputer did – I believe it will get produced and distributed and that the software will enable e-books, web browsing, word processing and programming. As much as I enjoy the geekery of challenging Negroponte and others on the fine points of hardware and software design for the developing world, I’m convinced that some extremely smart people are working very hard on the hardware and software side of things. While I might question some of the decisions made, I don’t know that my second-guessing is helpful at this point.

On the third and fourth fronts of the project – the marketing, distribution and maintenance of these devices and their connection to the Internet, and their use in the classroom – I think there’s a lot of unanswered questions and I think the global community of folks interested in IT in education, especially in IT in the developing world, could assist Negroponte and team with their thinking.

Specifically, I think it would be great for the OLPC team to have a set of requirements and suggestions for nations participating in the program on how to distribute, link, support and teach with the laptops. It sounds like Negroponte would like to make it a requirement that every student in a classroom has a laptop. Should it be a requirement that schools implementing laptops have internet connectivity? Can this connectivity be used the way it is in the SchoolNet Namibia project, to let schools become ISPs, using revenue to subsidize the net connection and, perhaps, the laptops? Will businesses repair the laptops? Or will students do it informally, or start their own businesses?

Colin and I are talking about soliciting suggestions on the distribution and use questions surrounding the One Laptop Per Child project and compiling them into an advisory paper for Negroponte and crew. (If you’ve got questions or suggestions, posting them on this blog is a great way to start a discussion…)

One Laptop Per Child is an amazingly ambitious and radical project. If it succeeds, it will radically change how the world learns, communicates and interacts over the next couple of decades. And if it fails, it will likely scare off anyone from trying anything this radical in technology and education for many years to come. For that reason alone, I’d like to make sure it doesn’t fail, and would love your help in figuring out ways to make sure it succeeds.

October 24, 2005

Looking at Africa, from Camden, Maine

Filed under: Africa,Pop!Tech 2005 — Ethan @ 10:08 pm

When you hold a conference on changing the world for the better in rural Camden, Maine, it’s a challenge to ensure that your audience is a diverse one. The price tag of a conference like Pop!Tech keeps some people away, while Camden’s relative inaccessibility is a barrier to others. And, as anyone who organizes a conference these days has discovered, it’s increasingly difficult to get international attendees to a conference in the US, as visas are hard to get and some folks are unwilling to jump through immigration hoops to come stateside.

With this in mind, I’m truly impressed by Andrew Zolli was able to accomplish at this year’s Pop!Tech, with help from the Sun Microsystems and Dr. Djibril Diallo from the UN Office of Sport for Development and Peace. Sun made it possible for ten young African innovators to attend the conference, and Andrew reconfigured the schedule, so that Sunday morning featured reactions to the conference by the African attendees.

The Sunday session was moderated by Fortune Magazine’s David Kirkpatrick, a well-respected technology journalist who has some personal experience with Africa, spending part of his childhood in Nigeria. He had the unenviable task of giving time to ten speakers and a handful of invited guests (myself included), who’d been seated in the front row to engage in dialogue with the Fellows… all in the course of a two hour session.

Kirkpatrick asked the attendees to reflect on what talks had been most useful to them in thinking through problems in their home countries. As one might expect, Negroponte’s proposal for a $100 laptop received a number of mentions, as did Bunker Roy‘s work on the Barefoot College.

But other answers surprised me. Ory Okolloh saw value in the Ansari XPrize as a technique for getting people interested in tackling large challenges, even as she had a hard time seeing how space exploration was relevant for Africans. My friend David Gyewu (my former boss, as well – he was deputy minister of Communications in Ghana when I was doing a good deal of work there on telecommunications policy) found some hope in Dr. Kuiken’s work on bionic limbs: even if it’s going to be a long time before Ghanaians can afford computerized limbs, perhaps manual versions of these limbs can help the thousands of Africans injured by disease and by land mines. Lydia Muchodo – a peace campaigner in Uganga – took a very different message from Rebecca MacKinnon’s China talk than I did – where I saw a government repressing dissident voices, she saw a government working to create access and jobs in rural areas.

It took a while to get beyond the participants’ overall enthusiasm for Pop!Tech and into debates about the contents and structure of the conference. Clement Bwalya saw a missed oppportunity in the conference to talk about how the technologies discussed could affect people in Africa. (This was in part a structural difficulty – most speakers didn’t know about the Sun fellows program until very shortly before their talks, and very few were able to change their schedules to attend. But there’s an open question about to what extent Pop!Tech could change to have an African focus without alienating existing members of the community. On the other hand, asking speakers to try to make their remarks relavent to Africa would have forced discussion of some interesting issues.)

Ory had another suggestion – instead of making Pop!Tech more African, why not make an African Pop!Tech? Her idea: conference focused on innovators in Africa, organized by Africans, for Africans, held in Africa. The idea had lots of heads nodding, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ory finds her phone ringing with any number of people who want to collaborate on this idea.

But the real debates had less to do with the conference and more to do with change in Africa. Several of the participants – especially Eric Osiakwan – were enthusiastic about the sub-$100 laptop, while others were tremendously skeptical. Neema Ngana noted that she’d taught four computer science courses at a university in Tanzania:

When I entered the computer labs, half of the time we didn’t have computers, so we used blackboards. In the medical center, 80% of the time, we didn’t have water. If the basic infrastructure for technology isn’t there, it’s pointless. While the $100 laptop could solve some aspects of the issue,what’s the value added within the school or other environment? If the child has a laptop, but his belly is empty or he’s worried about a parent dying of AIDS, the impact of the technology is radically lessened.

Lydia Muchodo wondered whether the money being spent on laptops would be better spent on community radio, a medium better suited to users who have a low degree of literacy than electronic textbooks or the web.

In a surprise to moderator Kirkpatrick, Ngana’s mention of AIDS in the quote above was the only time AIDS came up, unprompted, in the discussion. Ninety minutes into a dynamic discussion, Kirkpatrick decided to force the issue, noting, “I don’t think we can end this conversation without mentioning AIDS.”

Ory jumped in immediately, asking, “Why not?” She noted that everyone on the stage was profoundly aware of AIDS – she’s lost several family members to the disease and is raising an AIDS orphan – but that discussing the crisis didn’t seem central to a discussion of technology and its potential to change Africa. As the mood on the panel – and in the audience – got angrier, Emeka Okafor pointed out:

My problem with the question is that when mainstream media frames Africa, two or three topics come up again and again: AIDS, AIDS and AIDS. The relentless focus on AIDS plays into the framework of helplessness associated with the continent.

Okafor’s (brilliant) work on Timbuktu Chronicles focuses on scientific and economic innovation on the continent – he’s a firm believer that Africans can build brilliant, internationally succesful businesses and that weallth creation is a critical part of Africa’s economic development. It’s no surprise that he’s closely attuned to media portrayals of Africa as something other than the dynamic, creative place it is.

David Gyewu used the subject of AIDS to raise another issue – the role of the North in the southern “brain drain”:

When you strip away AIDS, life has to go on. How does government afford antiretrovirals? How do we innovate and create jobs so we can collect taxes and pay for the drugs we need?

Furthermore, where are our doctors and nurses? They’re all in Europe or the States – there are about a thousand doctors left in Ghana. You’ve got the technology to keep terrorists out – surely you can track doctors who come in then send them back. Let them stay for a while, then come back in five years to share their skills with their countrymen back in Africa.”

If the African panelists didn’t want to talk about AIDS, they did want to talk about corruption. Issues of transparency, good government and outright theft of tax dollars came up again and again. Okafor mentioned that “Africa needs its own Al Jazeera”, an independent journalist body to shake up existing institutions and expose corruption. He pointed to Elendu Reports, a new web site in Nigeria that’s exposing corruption by showing photos of mansions overseas owned by members of the Nigerian government.

While there’s frustration with corruption, there’s also extensive grassroots action to combat it. Ory mentioned that she’s working with other Kenyan bloggers on a site similar to Thomas.gov, showing the attendence and voting records of Kenyan parliamentarians. Ndesanjo Macha mentioned an effort in Tanzania to write a new constitution – one that recognizes the reality that Tanzania is now a multiparty state – on a wiki, to allow widespread participation in the process.

Eric Osiakwan captured the crowd’s attention with his passionate remarks about African leaders:

Africans need to fix Africa. We as Africans must take responsibility for where we are, and take responsibility for changing Africa. We have enough resources that we can develop africa. We have a big problem with leadership – if we have corrupt leaders, it means that we are corrupt. The African people are corrupt. Africans must be responsible for fixing corruption in Africa.

Fixing corruption is going to require some of the panelists to get involved with politics, former deputy minister Gyewu pointed out. He mentioned that his mother continues to ask him why he “threw away” a good job in Europe to get involved with Ghanaian politics:

“We can blame our leaders, but until people sitting here get in and do it themselves, nothing can change. If you want good politicians, you have to bite the bullet – get in there and do it yourselves. It’s hard to do politics without getting your hands dirty. But you can lead by example – if you can work in politics and remain free of corruption, you’re setting an example for the next generation of leaders.

It was an absolutely amazing morning. I think it was clear to everyone in the audience that the experiment had worked far better than anyone could have imagined – not only did the Sun Fellows find inspiration in Pop!Tech, Pop!Tech found inspiration in the Fellows.

I’m honored to have had a small role in helping the event come together, challenged and humbled by the wisdom expressed in the session, and hopeful that Pop!Tech, Sun and the UN will ensure that there’s an African contingent at Pop!Tech in the future.

“Backwards and in High Heels” – Ndesanjo Macha blogs Pop!Tech in Kiswahili

Filed under: Africa,Blogs and bloggers,Global Voices,Pop!Tech 2005 — Ethan @ 12:26 pm

ndesanjoI tried to blog the recently past Pop!Tech conference in a bit more detail than I normally would, in part because David Weinberger decided to take this year off. I often rely on David’s near-transcript summaries of conferences I don’t attend and did my best to cover the three days I was actually at the conference to a standard near David’s. (And I still need to post Benkler’s talk from Friday and the Sunday events…) I wasn’t in the hall on Saturday, but am grateful that Buzz, Dina, Ory and other friends did a great job of covering the talks I missed.

I received lots of kind words about blogging the conference and more than a few questions about how I was able to get so many long posts up in a day. The truth is, what I was doing was simple compared to the tour-de-force Ndesanjo Macha pulled off during Pop!Tech. As the old line goes, “Fred Astaire was a great dancer, but Ginger Rogers did everything he did, only backwards and in high heels.” In other words, what she did was at least as impressive as what he pulled off…

Ndesanjo liveblogged the entire conference in Kiswahili. This means he wasn’t just notetaking and transcribing, as I was – he was translating hugely complicated technical terminology and concepts for his audience while writing in realtime. I could cheat and grab a whole paragraph from a speaker, writing it either with quotes around it or changing a word or two to make it a paraphrase. Ndesanjo had to figure out how to express a concept like “peer production” in Kiswahili while not losing the thread of Yochai Benkler’s argument. I noticed that, after a couple of sessions, Ndesanjo wasn’t even sitting in the main hall of the Opera House – he’d staked out a corner in front of a video monitor where he had access to an electric outlet, and he sat there for hours with his eyes locked on the speaker and his laptop. The rest of us are amateurs in comparison.

If you speak English and missed the conference, you can rely on the podcasts from ITConversations to fill your iPod and keep you busy for the next month’s worth of commutes to work – in this way, Pop!Tech is able to positively impact many more English speakers than the folks who filled the hall in Camden. But for the 50 million people who speak Kiswahili better than English, Ndesanjo’s work is the only way people will have a chance to participate in these conversations. His work explaining ideas like Bunker Roy’s Barefoot College and Nicholas Negroponte’s sub-$100 laptop ensure that these ideas will be discussed by people who can directly benefit from them, not just by the digital elite in the north. (And yes, I understand that many of Ndesanjo’s target audience don’t have regular internet access… but his dispatches often end up being picked up in Tanzanian newspapers and reaching a much larger audience as a result.)

What would it mean for Pop!Tech and other conferences to commit to including a set of brilliant multilingual bloggers in their conferences? What if we had Hausa, Arabic, French, Spanish and Chinese bloggers lined up, ensuring that the ideas expressed in these fora reached a truly global audience?

Congrats, Ndesanjo – I know your readers are very grateful for the work you put in the last few days. And for my non-Kiswahili readers, show the man some love on his English-language blog

October 22, 2005

Leading the Flock

Filed under: Pop!Tech 2005 — Ethan @ 8:59 am

Bart Decrem, one of the folks behind the Get Firefox campaign, and a founder of digital divide organization Plugged In, is now working on a new project called Flock.

Flock is a new web browser. As he points out, a truly new web browser is a pretty radical concept – despite Firefox’s stability, it’s still got all the same buttons as the original Netscape browser. Flock is based on a new paragidm, Decrem tells us – rather than treating the web as a library, it treats it as if it’s a stream of events and a set of interactions between people.

We get a quick preview of the browser – it’s in alpha and available for download, though there are lots of caveats to expect that the browser won’t quite work yet. A couple of interesting bits:

– Bookmarking is a single click. You’re welcome to tag pages, ala del.icio.us… or you can just click a button and put them into a pile of bookmarked pages. Either way, bookmarks are stored on the web as well as locally. Like del.icio.us, bookmarks are social – everyone else can see what you’ve bookmarked and use that information to find new sites.

– There’s a search engine built into the browser. It can search on webpages you’ve viewed in the past – very cool for finding the fact you know you saw and didn’t make a note of.

– There’s an aggregator built into the bookmarking function – you can suck in RSS feeds, including flickr and del.icio.us tags and have them assembled in simple, cruft-free pages.

– In the spirit of the Berners-Lee read/write web, blogging is tightly integrated into the browser. It’s very easy to hilight a passage of a page, click a button and get a post fragment that’s formatted and properly cited. There’s a “shelf” tool, which seems to act like the old Macintosh “scrapbook”, capable of storing several cut and paste entries. And Flickr is very tightly integrated, making it easy to add photos to a post.

On the one hand, I’m looking forward to trying it once I’m on broadband sufficient to download the tool. On the other hand, so far it looks like a good merger of a browser and Net News Wire – cool, both not earth-shattering. Technologically speaking, I’m a pretty conservative blogger – I write using BBEdit (notepad on steroids, for you non-Mac folks) – I’m not convinced that Flock is sufficiently cool enough to move me away from my simple but effective blogging tools.

And I wonder whether forking Firefox is a great recipe for innovation, or a problem, taking momentum away from one of the most successful client-side open source projects yet. But hey, it’s in alpha – why worry about the implications before we figure out whether or not this is the next big thing or just a cool idea…?

I will end up blogging Yochai Benkler’s talk, but it’s going to take me a few more hours to process. Several people needed to be carried out of the hall after they collapsed from acute information overload when he finished – the man is so smart, there should be a warning label. Give me a few more hours to digest.

October 21, 2005

Negroponte and the $100 Laptop

Filed under: Developing world,ICT4D,Pop!Tech 2005 — Ethan @ 6:42 pm

Nicholas Negroponte is speaking about the $100 laptop, and the long path that’s led to his interest in the topic. Ultimately, Nicholas believes that in all the problems we’re considering at a conference like Pop!Tech, education is part of the equation. If you can change education, it’s a key to peace, prosperity and widespread social change.

Over twenty years ago, Steve Jobs gave Seymour Papert and Negroponte some computers – Apple IIs – and put they put them into a lab in Senegal. The lab wasn’t sustainable and didn’t survive, but a later lab in Costa Rica did, primarily because a local foundation was formed to support it. Nicholas sees a connection – if not a cause – between this success and the fact that Costa Rica’s main export is microchips.

Negroponte has been involved with a number of rural connectivity efforts in Kashmir, Cambodia and elsewhere. By giving laptop computers to Cambodian schools, Negroponte became enamored with the idea of having laptops in developing world schools… and homes, where they’re often the brightest light sources.

So Negroponte became engaged in the idea of building a $100 laptop, which he says is not so difficult to do. 50-60% of your laptop cost is marketing, distribution and profit. The remainder – a quarter of the total price – is the cost of the display. The remaining quarter is processor, disk and everything else. How do you get those costs down as low as possible?

The answer, beyond the display: don’t use a fat operating system. The processor speed is largely used by bloated operating systems. Five years ago, he says, his laptop ran faster and more reliably than it does today. Software developers are paid to create new features – if developers got paid to remove lines of code, we’d have a very different world. So the processor’s not a problem.

The display, though, is harder. The first idea was a projector – a screen would be a white sheet of cardboard, and the image would be created by a small set of LEDs. It’s too fragile for use in the field. So Negroponte went back to looking at LCDs. Much of the power consumption of a LCD display comes from running color filters. Negroponte says you can run a display in two modes, a higher power color one, and a brighter, lower power black and white display. In low power mode, the laptop should draw less than 1 watt.

Negroponte talks about the laptop as a “trojan horse” – he’s selling at an a ebook, costing $20 a year, amortized over 5 years. After all, governments buy books – the World Bank will probably provide loans to purchase these machines. Negroponte has been visiting large developing nations – Brazil, Egypt, China, Nigeria and South Africa – and trying to convince governments to buy into the idea in a big way.

There’s a scaling issue that will make the laptop idea work, Negroponte believes. Not only can you buy components cheaply, but it enables you to ask a component manufacturer go in a different direction – developing components specifically for low-cost machines.

Negroponte gives some interesting hints about what the machine might look like, and offers a promise that we’ll actually get to see one in November, when he shows it at the Vatican and then WSIS on November 16th. It sounds like the keyboard will fold over to the back, allowing users to look at the screen and type on the back, accordian style. The images he shows are significantly different from the images shown in a recent CNet article – there’s a hint that the keyboard may be customizable for different applications and might not be considered part of the $100 unit. Negroponte also suggests the keyboard could be a fabric keyboard, in some cases.

Interesting to me, the display Negroponte talks about doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the flexible eInk displays some people have talked about in conjuction with this device in the past – it sounds like we’re talking about something much more similar to an LCD screen, with two modes.

Responding to questions, Nicholas tells us that the machine will work on a form of Linux, with a GUI being built by Alan Kay. Asked about networking, Nicholas mentions that the team is looking at the possibility that the machine might be able to function as a mesh node even when not in use.

There’s an interesting question asked about the maintenance of these devices. Nicholas argues that giving students ownership of these devices will guarantee they’re well cared for.

The most interesting thing to me: Negroponte says at one point – “What would it mean for this project to fail? That we get a device six months late that costs $122.50?”

Uh, no. That would be great. Failure would be something that never ships, or never ships in volume, or never gets below $300. Or worse, never gets used in classrooms. I hope that’s not the case, but I still worry that even a $122.50 latop is very hard to accomplish, and I’ll still have some trouble believing it until I see a) a physical prototype, b) a manufacturing process and c) the first ten million ordered…

Moving on to serious stuff, like Grand Theft Auto

Filed under: Pop!Tech 2005 — Ethan @ 5:09 pm

I spoke to Steven Johnson briefly before his presentation at Pop!Tech. He told me he was going to try to add some seriousness, gravitas and weight to our discussions, trying to move us beyond the trivialities of life – global warming, biodiversity, the rise of China – and onto talking about serious subjects like Grand Theft Auto.

This is a tough point in the program to give a talk on a book called “Everything Bad Is Good For You”. But hey, it’s a great book and a good talk.

Johnson starts by telling a story about giving his seven year old nephew a tour of Sim City, showing him the buildings and basically assuming the kid knew nothing about the game. He showed him a part of his city that wasn’t thriving and explained that he didn’t know what to do to make this district thrive. His nephew looked at the screen, thought for a moment and said, “I think you may need to lower your industrial taxes.”

It’s rare that most seven year olds show a gift for urban planning. But clearly games can help us be smart in ways that books sometimes don’t.

Johnson believes that part of this has to do with the complexity of narrative we see in modern games. He points out that in an old video game like PacMan, there are really only two or three objectives. But in newer video games like Legend of Zelda, the narrative involves dozens of subgoals and objectives, none of which are explicitly spelled out. Adults encounter these games and say, “What am I supposed to do?” Kids say, “You’re supposed to figure out what to do.”

He shows us a clip from the TV show “Lost”. He makes the argument the show is structured like a game – you need to explore along with the characters. And the show has details that only become clear if you pull it apart screen by screen. He argues that the scene we’re looking at is basically a televised version of Myst, one of the paradigmatic exploration games. It’s one of the first TV shows designed for multiple viewings – for exploration, just like a game.

Johnson talks briefly about virtual worlds like there.com and Second Life – he points out that people have been predicting for many years that these graphic environments would happen, and now people are actually building these things. It’s becoming somewhat routine for people to have avatars. That said, it’s not all good news – he tells us about his sister’s (presumably ex-) boyfriend, who became increasingly addicted to a massively multiplayer online game. One night, when he missed a dinner date, she confronted him… and he responded by saying, “Can’t you understand, I’m growing stronger!”

Johnson believes that there’s a strong tendency for tendency to standardize on a single platform – we may well see this happen in MMPOG spaces as well, as users decide they’re pissed about high switching costs, the impossibility of communicating between systems, and the need to reinvent structures built in one world for another world. Johnson doesn’t mention it, but I’d not be surprised if an open platform were capable of being the one game that rules them all.

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