Wudie Aymero is a 26-year-old young woman from a rural village in the Amhara region of Ethiopia. While some of her friends in the community completed their schooling, Wudie was not able to pursue her education beyond grade ten, leaving her out-of-school and without decent job prospects. In 2016, Wudie learned about the Young Entrepreneurs in Silk and Honey (YESH) project, a partnership between the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) and the Mastercard Foundation. In Ethiopia, where more than 75 percent of the population is under 34 years old, YESH empowers unemployed youth to establish technologically modern enterprises and increase their access to financial services and formal markets. Excited about the opportunity to learn new skills and earn an income, Wudie enrolled in the YESH beekeeping program being offered in her community.
Beekeeping is a long-standing and widely practiced activity across Ethiopia. In recent years, there has been an increase in both local honey consumption and global demand for quality honey and honey by-products. The practice of beekeeping has remained constrained by a dependence on traditional harvesting techniques that are inefficient and unprofitable. Moreover, it has remained largely a male-dominated activity. Hives are traditionally hung on tall trees far away from the home and honey is harvested after dark since it is believed to minimize the aggressiveness of bees. These practices have historically made beekeeping and honey production inaccessible for many women and girls as it is considered unsafe and inappropriate for them to travel long distances at night.
The YESH program took this into consideration in their planning and became the first of its kind to engage large numbers of young women and girls in beekeeping value chains in Ethiopia. YESH plans to reach 10,000 young people over five years, with at least 30 percent being young women. During its first two years in operation, YESH recruited 2,900 young people to its apiculture sites of northwestern Ethiopia...[more]
The us/them mindset of most corporate customer service is simple:
- When you can, get it over with.
- If at all possible, evade responsibility.
Which means that when things go wrong, you’ll likely encounter a legalistic mentality that begins and ends with, “it’s out of our control.”
There’s an alternative.
It begins with understanding the economics of loyalty. Saving a customer is ten times more efficient than finding a new one. If it costs an airline $1,000 of marketing and route development to acquire a first class business traveler, it’s worth at least $10,000 in customer service to keep one. And that means that an extra ten minutes on the phone clocks in at a high value indeed.
And it continues with a simple tactic: Instead of defining the minimal legal requirement, outline the maximum possible action you could have taken.
“You’re right ma’am, that was a terrible situation. And we could have alerted you in advance that the plane was late, and we could have trained the flight attendants to be more aware of situations like this and we could have been significantly more responsive when we saw that the whole thing was going sideways. That’s incredibly frustrating–you’re right.”
Because it’s all true. You could have done all of these things. And it’s true, it was frustrating. If it wasn’t, she wouldn’t have called.
And then, after learning all the things you could have done, send the ideas upstream. It’s free advice, but it’s good advice.
Because the race doesn’t go to organizations that do the minimal legal requirement. The race goes to those that figure out what they could do. And do it.
Here’s how you diversify a nation’s economic base: take longstanding strengths in particular sectors, and build on them, creating wholly new industry clusters that are a logical extension of the original sector. That’s what Ghana’s Nora Bannerman did on a small scale in the 1980s, when she started Sleek Garments, a clothing manufacturing business based in Accra...[more]
The disposal of used cooking oil and fat from food waste is an issue facing cities around the world. Without proper management, it can clog up sewers and drains, pollute the environment, and spread disease. Martial-Gervais Oden Bella, an industrial chemistry technician from Cameroon, has turned his scientific expertise to finding an innovative solution to this problem. His Douala-based company, GIC Bellomar, finds local solutions to the problems and needs of the population. Its operations range from manufacturing essential oil from orange peels, to making pot bags that help households save gas by finishing cooking without a heat source.
Leaders create the conditions where people choose new actions.
The choices are voluntary. They’re made by people who see a new landscape, new opportunities and new options.
You can’t make people change. But you can create an environment where they choose to.
The ability of Sassda to boost entrepreneurial development in the African stainless steel market is clearly illustrated by the success of Zambian Inventor Arnold Nyendwa who as a result of his win at the 2018 Sassda Columbus Stainless Awards, is now poised to open his first production facility thanks to a R1.4-million grant from the Zambian Ministry of Youth and Sport.
This stems from his invention of the Juvin Stainless Steel Cooking unit that is able to perform seven cooking functions – cooking, baking, frying, roasting, drying and warming – and provides clean energy by minimising the amount of firewood and charcoal required for these processes.
“My win at last year’s Sassda awards opened up huge opportunities as it was the first time I had been acknowledged on the international stage which really put my product on the map, by giving more weight and credibility to my endeavours.”...[more]
Find the right clients
Earn their attention and trust
Identify the problem
Find their fear, embrace their objectives
Prototype possible solutions
Create an architecture that supports your solution to the problem
Build a minimum viable solution
Program a well-documented, resilient piece of code
It’s easy to get distracted by the part of the stack that we consider to be our job or simply our expertise. But it’s all connected.
My friend Christian Sandvig, who directs the Center for Ethics, Society, and Computing at the University of Michigan, started an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday. It began:
“I’m super suspicious of the “rush to postdocs” in academic #AI ethics/fairness. Where the heck are all of these people with real technical chops who are also deeply knowledgeable about ethics/fairness going to come from… since we don’t train people that way in the first place.”
Christian goes on to point out that it’s exceedingly rare for someone with PhD-level experience in machine learning to have a strong background in critical theory, intersectionality, gender studies and ethics. We’re likely to see a string of CS PhDs lost in humanities departments and well-meaning humanities scholars writing about tech issues they don’t fully understand.
I’m lucky to have students doing cutting-edge work on machine learning and ethics in my lab. But I’m also aware of just how unique individuals like Joy Buolamwini and Chelsea Barabas are. And realizing I mostly agree with Christian, I also think it’s worth asking how we start training people who can think rigorously and creatively about technology and ethics.
It’s certainly a good time to have this conversation. There’s debates about whether AI could ever make fair decisions given the need to extrapolate from data in an unfair world, whether we can avoid encoding racial and gender biases into automated systems, and whether AI systems will damage the concept of meaningful work. In my area of focus, there are complex and worthwhile conversations taking place about whether social media is leading towards extremism and violence, whether online interaction increases polarization and damages democracy, or whether surveillance capitalism can ever be ethically acceptable. And I see my colleagues in the wet sciences dealing with questions that make my head hurt. Should you be able to engineer estrogen in your kitchen so you can transition from male to female? Should we engineer mice to kill off deer ticks in the hopes of ending Lyme disease?
That last question has been a major one for friend and colleague Kevin Esvelt, who has been wrestling with tough ethical questions like who gets to decide if your community (Nantucket Island, for instance) should be a testbed for this technology? What is informed consent when it comes to releasing mice engineered with CRISPR gene drive into a complex ecosystem? Admirably, Dr. Esvelt has been working hard to level up in ethics and community design practices, but his progress just points to the need for scholars who straddle these different topics.
I think we need to start well before the postdoc to start training people who are comfortable in the worlds of science, policy and ethics. Specifically, I think we should start at the undergraduate level. By the time we admit you into somewhere like the Media Lab, we need you to already be thinking critically and carefully about the technology we’re asking you to invent and build.
I was lucky enough attend Williams College, which focused on the liberal arts and didn’t seem to care much what you studied so long as you got into some good arguments. I was in a dorm that had a residential seminar, which meant that everyone in my hall took the same class in ethics. Arguments about moral relativism continued over dinner and late into the night, in one case ending with a student threatening another with a machete in her desire to make her point. It wasn’t the most restful frosh year, but it cemented some critical ideas that have served me well over the years:
– Smart people may disagree with you about key issues, and you may be both making reasonable, logical arguments but starting from different sets of core values
– If you feel strongly about something, it behooves you to understand and strengthen your own arguments
– You probably don’t really understand something unless you can teach it to someone else
My guess is that courses that force us to have these sorts of arguments are critical to unpacking the intricacies of emerging technologies and their implications. To be clear, there’s the field of science and technology studies, which makes these questions central to its debates. But I think it’s possible to sharpen these cognitive skills in any field where the work of scholarship is in debating rival interpretations of the same facts. Was American independence from England the product of democratic aspirations, or economic ones? Is Lear mad, or is he the only truly sane one?
The fact that there’s dozens of legitimate answers to these questions can make them frustrating in fields where the goal is to calculate a single (very difficult) answer… but the problems we’re starting to face around regulating tech are complex, squishy questions. Should governments regulate dangerous speech online? Or platforms? Should communities work to develop and enforce their own speech standards? My guess is that answer looks more like an analysis of Lear’s madness than like the decomposition of a matrix.
But liberal arts isn’t all you’d want to teach if the goal is to prepare people who could work in the intersection of tech, ethics and policy. Much of my work is with policymakers who desperately want to solve problems, but often don’t know enough about the technology they’re trying to fix to actually make things better. I also work closely with social change leaders like Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She came to our lab to learn about algorithmic bias, noting that if the NAACP LDF had been able to fight redlining two generations ago, we might not face the massive wealth gap that divides Black and White Americans. Sherrilyn believes the next generation of redlining will be algorithmic, and that social justice organizations need to understand algorithmic bias to combat it. We need people who understand new technologies well enough to analyze them and explain their implications to those who would govern them.
My guess is that this sort of work doesn’t require a PhD. What it requires is understanding a field well enough that you can discern what’s likely, what’s possible and what’s impossible. One of my dearest friends is a physicist who now evaluates clean energy and carbon capture technologies, but has also written on topics from nuclear disarmament to autonomous vehicles. His PhD work is on Bose-Einstein condensate, a strange state of matter that involves superimposing atoms at very low temperatures by trapping them in place with lasers. His PhD and postdoc work have basically nothing to do with the topics he works on, but the basis he has in understanding complex systems and the implications of physical laws means he can quickly tell you that it’s possible to pull CO2 from the environment and turn it into diesel fuel, but that it’s probably going to be very expensive to do so.
I’m imagining a generation of students who have a solid technical background, the equivalent of a concentration if not a major in a field like computer science, as well as a sequence of courses that help people speak, write, argue and teach technological issues. We’d offer classes – which might or might not be about tech topics – that help teach students to write for popular audiences as well as academic ones, that help students learn how you write an oped and make a convincing presentation. We’d coach students on teaching technical topics in their field to people outside of their fields, perhaps the core skillset necessary in being a scientific or technical advisor.
There’s jobs for people with this hybrid skill set right now. The Ford Foundation has been hard at work creating the field of “Public Interest Technology”, a profession in which people use technical skills to change the world for the better. This might mean working in a nonprofit like NAACP LDF to help leaders like Sherrilyn understand what battles are most important to fight in algorithmic justice, or in a newsroom, helping journalists maintain secure channels with their sources. I predict that graduates with this hybrid background will be at a premium as companies like Facebook and YouTube look to figure out whether their products can be profitable without being corrosive to society… and the students who come out with critical faculties and the ability to communicate their concerns well will be positioned to advocate for real solutions to these problems. (And if they aren’t able to influence the directions the companies take, they’ll make great leaders of Tech Won’t Build It protests.)
(I was visiting Williams today and discovered a feature on their website about four alums who’ve taken on careers that are right at the center of Public Interest tech.)
Building a program in tech, ethics and policy helps address a real problem liberal arts colleges are experiencing right now. The number of computer science majors has doubled at American universities and colleges between 2013 and 2017, while the number of tenure-track professors increased only by 17%, leading the New York Times to report that the hardest part of a computer science major may be getting a seat in a class. Really terrific schools like Williams can’t hire CS faculty fast enough, and graduates of programs like the one I teach in at MIT are often choosing between dozens of excellent job offers.
Not all those people signing up for CS courses are going to end up writing software for a living – my exposure to CS at Williams helped me discover that I cared deeply about tech and its implications, but that I was a shitty programmer. Building a strong program focused on technology, ethics and policy would offer another path for students like me who were fascinated with the implications of technology, but less interested in becoming a working programmer. It also would take some of the stress off CS professors as students took on a more balanced courseload, building skills in writing, communications, argument and presentation as well as technical skills.
Christian Sandvig is right to be worried that we’re forcing scholars who are already far into their intellectual journeys into postdocs intended to deal with contemporary problems. But the problem is not that we’re asking scholars to take on these new intellectual responsibilities – it’s that we should have started training them ten years before the postdoc to take on these challenges.
It used to be that a well-tended lawn of 50 by 100 feet was wasteful indeed. Today, it’s in the by-laws of the local housing association. You could impress the neighbors with a new Cadillac, now you not only need a Tesla, but you need a new Tesla. And you could show off by flying first class, but then you needed to charter a plane, then charter a jet, then charter a bigger jet, then buy a fractional share, then own the whole thing, then get a bigger one and on and on.
Conspicuous consumption is not absolute, it’s relative.
It’s sort of a selfish potlatch, in which each person seeks to demonstrate status, at whatever the personal or societal cost, by out-consuming the others.
Social networks have amplified this desire, at the same time they simplified the execution. Now you can waste time and dignity instead of money. Who can you tear down? How much time can you waste? What’s it worth to you to have more followers than the others?
It’s a lousy game, because if you lose, you lose, and if you win, you also lose.
The only way to do well is to refuse to play.
Earning trust outperforms earning envy.
*For three million, the users could have bought it pretty easily.
Guts, because it might not work.
And generosity, because guts without seeking to make things better is merely hustle.
The innovator shows up with something she knows might not work (pause for a second, and contrast that with everyone else, who has been trained to show up with a proven, verified, approved, deniable answer that will get them an A on the test).
If failure is not an option, then, most of the time, neither is success.
It’s pretty common for someone to claim that they’re innovative when actually, all they are is popular, profitable or successful. Nothing wrong with that. But it’s not innovative.
Allow generosity to take the lead and you’ll probably discover that it’s easier to find the guts.
Optimists are always a little disappointed.
If you live with possibility, the idea that things can get better, that with consistent generous effort you can make a contribution, then you also end up feeling just a bit let down that it didn’t happen this time.
The alternative is to insist on limits, to be a pessimist, to simply play it as written and only do your job, expecting the worst.
Sure, you could probably avoid a little disappointment that way, but how could it be worth the journey? What’s the point of all this risk, effort and connection if we’re not going to use it in search of better?
Are you hesitant about this new idea because it’s a risky, problematic, defective idea…
or because it’s simply different than you’re used to?
If your current normal is exactly what you need, then different isn’t worth exploring. For the rest of us, it’s worth figuring out where our discomfort with the new idea is coming from.
Discipline, rigor, patience, self-control, dignity, respect, knowledge, curiosity, wisdom, ethics, honor, empathy, resilience, honesty, long-term, possibility, bravery, kindness and awareness.
All of these are real skills, soft skills, learnable skills.
But if they’re skills, that means that they are decisions. A choice we get to make. Even if it’s not easy or satisfying in the short term.
These skills are in short supply sometimes, which makes them even more valuable.
BeepTool’s Oyi-1 affordable smartphone makes smartphone technology accessible to everyone in Nigeria and Africa. Secure, reliable, and affordable — Oyi-1 provides practical solutions to life’s everyday problems. Oyi-1 is an affordable smartphone for the rural and poor Nigerians and Africans to access digital services such as finance, telehealthcare, Agriculture, communication and educational services etc.Tekedia reports:
BeepTool makes small satellites with its partners. With its Oyi-I smartphone, you can access the web using a mobile application in areas its satellites cover. The satellites are engineered to serve largely small geographical areas and well optimized...[more]
...Chioma Ifeanyi-Eze happens to be the founder of Accountinghub — a professional services online shop, focused on offering brilliant bookkeeping and tax support to startups and small businesses. Accountinghub helps “small businesses” set up accounting systems quickly, painlessly and affordably...[more]
In every era, traditional media channels will diminish, dismiss and ignore the new ones. They do this at the very same time that they are supplanted by the new ones.
While they will occasionally spend some time or money testing a new medium, they rarely leap.
This is the posture of the business people/publishers, but it also has an impact on their editorial approach.
Radio shows rarely became TV shows. TV networks didn’t embrace cable as they could have. The book industry generally ignores every innovation in tech.
As late as 1994, Bryant Gumbel was spending time on network TV being befuddled by the ‘internet’. And in 1999, Conde Nast bought the print half of Wired but intentionally left the web version behind.
Twenty years ago, newspapers were in a perfect position to establish blog networks—they had their reader’s attention and advertiser’s trust. But they blinked.
New media tends to be adopted by amateurs first. And it rarely has a mass audience in the early days (because it’s new). But professional content for the masses is precisely what old media stands for. As new media gains traction, the old media doubles down on what they believe to be their value, because they no longer have a monopoly on attention.
The editors at Encyclopedia Brittanica were proud of the control they had over every page, so they ignored Wikipedia. The producers and directors of movies love the gloss of film, so they ignored video games. And the editors of newspapers like their local hegemony so they fight against distributed content.
So the Times publishes a snarky, poorly written takedown of podcasts. Not because it’s based on the economic or cultural reality of today, but because their self-esteem requires there to be a chasm between all of these amateur podcasts and the few professional ones that they deign to create and publish.
Businesses make their own choices and suffer the consequences. The Mutual Broadcasting Network was a powerhouse in radio, but no longer. The problem is that these media businesses also narrate our cultural conversation, and that narration is historically wrong and prevents people from seeing what’s possible until it’s already well underway.
There were thousands of newspapers before there were only a few profitable ones. There are millions of YouTube creators, but only hundreds make a great living at it. And the same will be true of podcasts.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start a podcast. You should. Because a podcast is a generous way to share your ideas. Because it gives you a way to clarify your thinking. Because you can assemble a group of people who want to go where you’re going.
The Podcast Fellowship starts this week. Check it out.
Today’s the 11th year in a row of daily posts on this blog. Nearly 5,000,000 words since my first post twenty years ago, and I haven’t missed a day (given some time-zone wiggle room) since 2008.
Streaks are their own reward.
Streaks create internal pressure that keeps streaks going.
Streaks require commitment at first, but then the commitment turns into a practice, and the practice into a habit.
Habits are much easier to maintain than commitments.
I’m pretty sure that the blog would still have an impact if I missed a day here or there, but once a commitment is made to a streak, the question shifts from, “should I blog tomorrow,” to, “what will tomorrow’s blog say?”
And once you’ve made that shift, it’s 100x easier to find the voice that you’re looking for.
I didn’t set out to have this particular streak (I don’t remember the day the blog went from ‘most days’ to ‘every day’) but I’m glad to have gone on this journey. Thanks for being part of it.
Around 4.5 billion people don’t have adequate access to sanitation. And to deal with the problem, there are a number of new technologies that try to deal with human waste in a safe and useful way. Some toilets can save water and some can produce limited amounts of electricity. But for these toilets to be useful to people who don’t have access to proper sanitation, they need to be created in a way that is inclusive of those without access...[more]
‘STEP’ identifies school for training in agribusiness
Fasola Grammar School (FGS) in Oyo, Oyo State, has been identified as a training center for the Start Them Early Program (STEP). The program, which is designed with the objective of erasing the bad perception of agriculture among secondary school students, aims to raise a generation of young leaders with education in agribusiness...[more]
It’s essential that we make new mistakes.
We don’t make nearly enough of them. Not enough original effort, not enough generous intent, not enough daring in search of something better.
But at the same time, we need to stop making the old mistakes again and again. What did you expect to happen when you did the very same thing that didn’t work last time?
For some of us, it’s more frightening to do something new than it is to retry something that failed.
This is the moment, right here and right now, to start your podcast.
Not because it will make you rich. Hardly. There are too many other ways for people to spend their attention for you (or me) to possibly assemble a large enough audience to make a killing selling ads.
There are three good reasons to start a podcast now:
- You have something to share, and a podcast is a great way to share it. It gives you a microphone and a platform to say what’s on your mind, to generously share what you know.
- It will connect you. A podcast connects you to those you interview, and it also connects you to the listeners who have enrolled in the journey with you. Drip by drip, your narrative has a chance to resonate.
- A podcast helps you think more clearly. When you know you need to talk about something you care about, you’ll work to make your thinking more accessible and cogent–and because it’s spoken, not written, you may very well get past that block we were taught in third grade.
Over the last year and a half, Alex DiPalma and I have offered the Podcasting Fellowship, an Akimbo workshop that helps people find their podcasting footing. (Alex is the producer of my podcast and many others). Nearly 1,000 people have been through our Podcasting workshop, and it works. Our alumni have created thousands of hours of material, including at least one iTunes Top 10 podcast.
We’re running it for a fourth time, because this is the best moment to begin.
Enrollment starts today. I hope you’ll check it out at the link below. Look for the purple circle today to save a few dollars.
My friend and (lucky for me) boss Joi Ito has an excellent essay in Wired which considers the challenges of measuring the impact of philanthropy. For Joi, one of the key problems is that social problems are complex, and the metrics we use to understand them too simple. Too often we’re measuring something that’s a proxy for something else – we can measure circulation levels at libraries as a proxy for their usage, but we’ll miss all the novel ways libraries are reaching communities through makerspaces, classrooms and public spaces. What we need are better ways of understanding and measuring the resilience and robustness of systems, not just simple proxies that measure growth or contraction.
Joi’s meditation on measurement is consistent with his current intellectual interests: irreducible complexity and resisting reduction. And, like Joi, I’m obsessed with how philanthropy could do a better job at making progress on social challenges. I’ve done my own work around measuring impact with the Media Cloud platform, as my friend Anya Schiffrin and I explored in this article on measuring the impact of foundation funded journalism.
But I came away from Joi’s article wondering if there wasn’t a major factor he missed: the disappearance of governments from the equation of social change. Joi works with some of the biggest and wealthiest players in American philanthropy – the Knight and MacArthur Foundations. I work with some of the others – the Open Society Foundation, the Ford Foundation. We’ve both been involved with helping invest enormous sums of money… and we’ve both learned that those sums aren’t so enormous when you put them up against massive social challenges, like addressing poverty through improved school quality. There are models that could work at scale – the model pioneered by Geoffrey Canada as the Harlem Children’s Zone starts working with children pre-birth, through parenting classes and follows students through high school and into college. But it’s depended on massive infusions of private investment, and when the Obama administration sought to replicate its success as “promise zones”, the project received only a small percentage of the funds the President sought for it, and its impacts are likely to be quite diffuse.
It’s possible for philanthropists to fund experiments, even multi-decade experiments like Harlem Children’s Zone. But it’s unlikely that philanthropists can, or should, take responsibility for solving problems like intergenerational poverty in African American communities. At best, we ask phianthropists to enable and lift up promising experiments, in the hopes that governments could learn from those results and adopt best policies. But since the Reagan/Thatcher moment of the 1980s, we’ve expected less and less from our governments, and they’ve seemed less able partners to transform societies for the better. I’m increasingly worried that working with philanthropies – something I spend a great deal of my time doing – is missing the larger point. We need revolutionary change, where government becomes part of the solution again, not better metrics within philanthropy.
In the spirit of the mid-2000s, Joi, I’m opening a blog conversation – do I have it right, or do you believe that philanthropy without handing ideas off to governments to scale? And if those governments aren’t there to receive these experiments, what are we spending our time on in philanthropy?
Take it seriously. Of course. That’s required.
But you don’t have to take it personally.
In fact, if you want to be a professional, it’s impossible to do both at the same time.
While many would look down on local businesses and business owners, it appears a lot of them are actually making a whole lot of money. Katsina-based businesswoman, Ramatu is one of such ladies who is making a lot from her seemingly small business. Ramatu who is a resident of Fadima village in Katsina, makes N1.4m weekly from producing and selling local sweets popularly known as Charbin Malam in the Hausa community...[more]