Oct. 22, 2010

PopTech Day 2

by Milbry Polk

TalkingScience is delighted to have recruited Milbry Polk as our POP! TECH correspondent. Over the next few days, she'll be reporting from the annual POP! TECH conference in Camden, Maine. You also can hear the amazing talks firsthand through the livestream at http://poptech.org/live

Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

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The wonderful thing about the POP! TECH Conference is that all the lectures are streamed live on line and will be up there for all to listen to. In fact, last year tens of thousands of people followed POP! TECH online. So I won't simply recap the talks. Instead, I will also tell the stories of the several hundred people here who are equally amazing as the speakers because of the wonderful things they do, think about, and enable.

POP! TECH is not just about science or innovation it is also about art and society on every level. The music we have heard and products we have been introduced to are awe inspiring. First I have to urge you to watch the amazing Reggie Watts http://www.reggiewatts.com/ He easily gave one of the funniest comedic interpretations of pretention I have ever seen. I've also enjoyed artist Peter Brandt, who interprets every speaker.

POP! TECH randomly divides people up for lunch so you never know who you will meet. I was lucky enough to have lunch with Hayat Sindhi, Nigel Waller and Andre Yap -- who come from Mekkah, London, and China by way of the Philippines respectively. A typical lunch in Camden Maine…. during POP! TECH.

Andre Yap has created a fascinating ancient/future-type advertising company located in New Haven and Manila that is based on storytelling. When he describe what his team at Ripple100 the Storytelling App | Agency was doing, all I could think about was a fire circle with awed uplifted faces listening to a storyteller. He said he thinks of stories "as golden eggs.” He uses the cast of characters around the subject or object to tell their stories.

One example he told me about was related to the New Haven Symphony Orchestra, the country's 4th oldest symphony. Realizing they had to expand their audience and support base, Andre and his team began to collect stories to change the perception of the symphony audience and to recruit new members. They interviewed a variety of people on camera to learn what it was about the symphony they liked. One woman told him that she got a call early one morning telling her that her mother had just died. She had tickets to the symphony that night and debated whether or not she should go. Ultimately, she decided to go and she said the decision began her healing process. (See more about this story here http://symphonycity.tumblr.com/post/954002723/healing.)

What was achieved through this story was a direct connection with a person who was impacted by the symphony, placing a value on the symphony beyond just listening to great music. So a story gives value to a product and human beings give immeasurable value that is best captured through their own words. There is a truth Ripple 100 identifies that is far different, more compelling and more real than traditional models of selling.

Andre described the latest Ripple 100 project, DreamHaven, which just launched last Saturday at Podcamp, CT. They seek to have Storytelling Booths all over the New Haven. “We only have one booth currently, plus 24/7 web booths where people record their dreams," he explains. Andre and his team are interested to see if the process of articulating their dreams for the city, in fact, helps individuals work to make the dreams a reality. I, for one, am really interested to see if this will work.

While much of his work is web-based, Andre describes Ripple100 as sociology hacking. It's figuring out how to marry technology with good-old fashioned community-building through stories. Check out Andre's work on his website www.ripple100.com.

I heard Hayat Sindhi last year at POP! TECH. She was a Fellow in social innovation last year and a science fellow this year. She just blew me away. Having spent a lot of time in the Middle East and in Saudi Arabia, I know what an anachronism she is. But she told me today at lunch that because of her example, many more young women in Saudi Arabia are now following their dreams and getting advanced education. She worried that such a huge percentage of the population in Saudi Arabia is under 14. "What are they all going to do?" she laments. Her answer is to inspire them to get involved in science.

When Hayat was young, growing up in Mekkah, scientific explorers where her heroes. She wanted to become a scientist and do good in the world. Her parents believed in her dream and -- against the community norm -- sent her in her teens to London to learn English and begin her training. She ended up at Kings College and then Cambridge University and then, eventually, Harvard. She became the first woman in the Gulf region with a PhD in biotechnology.

Hayat knew instinctively that breakthroughs would happen through synthesizing several disciplines. In her case, it was pharmacology and acoustic and electromagnetic sensors. One of her first inventions was device that detects cancer at early stages (Sonoptix). Now she has started a new company, a non-profit called Diagnostic for All that is based around a test that detects various liver problems. The tests once required multimillion dollar machines, but now can be done with a piece of paper that costs 1 cent. The test is color coded for those who can't read and it is easily disposable, therefore private. She is working now on further developing this idea and will be rolling the product out soon in the hopes of making high-tech science affordable and accessible to all. Learn more atwww.dfadx.org.

Nigel Waller grew up in Manchester in a family engaged in the law, but his own interests lay in science and technology. He became a software engineer and worked on aircraft communications. When mobile communications took off, he jumped in. He was engaged in developing, selling, and running companies that managed the backend of the computer infrastructure of mobile systems. He lived all over the world working in emerging mobile markets.

Seven years ago, someone started talking to him about the people at the bottom of the pyramid -- the more than 4 billion people who live on less than $2 a day. They use phones, so the question was how to capture this market. He realized that they could not reduce the price of phone hardware to fit these poorest people. So he took his experience and applied it to the problem.

It took a while and a number of dead ends before he came up with the idea, a spark he says came to him while he was driving a car in Moscow in the snow with his wife. He wanted to figure out how mobile users could dial into the Cloud the way that internet users do -- but on a phone rather than from a computer. He didn’t need to produce a super-cheap handset because people were already sharing handsets. He needed to devise a new system allowing people to log into their own personal number.

Nigel quoted Esther Duflo from MIT "Poverty is not about lack of money it is about lack of identity". You can't receive a phone call saying report for a job if you don’t have an identity -- a phone number that is your own. Privacy is also a huge issue. People don’t want others to know who they are talking to or about their health issues. Personal SIM cards don’t work well as they are easily lost; it is hard to take phones apart; and when you put a SIM card in someone else's phone you lose your privacy.

In response to these concerns, Nigel created the Cloud phone. A user goes to street corner to buy their own phone number for about 10 cents. Then, for all time, he or she can log onto the phone network. He or she can then buy call time from the same local vendors. To encourage phone sharing, If you use a friends phone, the log-on software gives compensation time to the owner.

Now there are 5 billion phone connections. 1 billion of which are duplicated so about 4 billion people have phones. A huge number of people don’t own phones, but use them, either sharing them or buying a call for 10 cents from street vendors. The Cloud phone has launched in Africa, and Nigel is realizing his dream of helping bring communications to people at the bottom of the pyramid.

One of my heroes, Alan Rabinowitz, then spoke. He has written best selling books on his work studying large cats around the world and has created preserves to save jaguars, tigers, leopards, and lions. He spoke about his life and work. He called himself a failure because he was born with a stutter and later he was placed in classes for retarded children. He identified with animals who were locked away in cages who, like him, could not communicate. He eventually became a large cat biologist – studying animals we knew very little about at the time.

Ironically, while being lauded by the world and moving ahead in his career, he knew he was losing the battle to protect the large cats. The animals were dying. He could not keep pace with the efficient way people were killing these animals. The animal populations were plummeting and their area was shrinking. Then his epiphany came. He needed more land. He realized that the reason conservation was failing is that it was not thinking of scale. So he went back and made the preserves larger. However, this was not a sufficient answer. His new answer is to make corridors that allow the large carnivores to move through human areas, not just pristine areas. He began with jaguars and has created a corridor connecting jaguar populations throughout central and South America. He is currently working on corridors for other large carnivores. Check out www.Panthera.org.

Don Ingber, founder of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard and Harvard Medical School gave an inspiring synopsis of the work the institute is doing as a result of the collaboration between academia, technology, and institutions. The institute funds technology platforms so that all kinds of things that touch on different disciplines can be built from them.

All kinds of breakthroughs have come from this unique collaboration. One of the devices they are working on is an iphone app that picks up on your personal body rhythms and predicts health problems before they arise. Another is a shoe insert that has actuators that restore balance. The inserts enables an 85 year to walk like a 25 year old. Don was talking so fast and introducing so many very cool innovations, that I can only say please go check out the website. http://wyss.harvard.edu/

This is only a fraction of who is here, of the conversation and lectures I have heard today. And there are two more days….

Milbry Polk is the Founder and Director Emeritus of Wings WorldQuest, the preeminent organization supporting women explorers throughout the world. She is the author/editor of a dozen books including Women of Discovery, The Looting of the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, and Egyptian Mummies; and she is the book reviews editor for The Explorers Journal.

About Milbry Polk

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