What’s the Catch?

Chaos Communications Camp is something that happens once every four years, and it is My Favorite. It’s a few thousand hackers etc camping together in Germany. There’s brightly colored hair everywhere, and a slowly improving gender ratio, and stickers on laptops, and a gigabit to the tent. There are disco balls in trees, and competing soundscapes of German techno and old rock and roll or hiphop, and a giant sparkley rocket ship called Fairy Dust. I’m camping with Norton’s Obscure Phoggy Embassy (the manifestation of a few Bay Area hackerspaces), which is successfully trolling much of the rest of Camp through their assumption we’re being colonial (because Emperors), as well as having an inflated shark Rubin‘s been shouting at people to jump over. Also, NOPE attire are booty shorts.

I was invited to sit on a panel called “What’s the Catch?” put together by nat from Open Technology Institute. Josh (also from OTI), Kate (from tor), and myself were the three panelists. We each attempted to speak for about five minutes, and then we focused on questions from the audience. Our topic was an ongoing debate in infosec (and other) circles : is it possible to take money from governments and corporations while maintaining a project’s integrity? I vote yes, if you work really hard at it. The talk will eventually be up on the CCC wiki (and I’ll likely post it here once it’s up) but for now, this is the rant I put together when I was considering how to concisely state why I think this is the case.

In relation to this, and the other existential questions which I continually struggle with, I refer often to a quote from the Zapatistas, one of the few groups to maintain a governance structure after their revolution: “Caminando preguntamos,” which roughly translates to “we walk while asking questions.” To me, it means that we should move, but let’s analyze as we do. Let’s be in both critique and solidarity with each other.

I’m going to attempt to touch on three points, alliterated for your memory: perfection, pluralism, paternalism.
Continue reading

Accountability in Response

I’ve started writing about response over on the Aspiration blog, but this one still has cursewords in it, and is very much in my own language, so I figured I’d post it here first.

The problems our planet is facing are becoming more extreme. People and politics mean there are larger populations more densely packed in cities. Nomadic populations traveling along their historical routes are now often crossing over arbitrary (have you *seen* some of the country lines people in Western countries have drawn in places they might never have even been!?) political boundaries, making them refugees or illegal immigrants. Climate change means more and more extreme events are impacting those populations. We have *got* to get our shit together.

In all this, the people who have been historically marginalized often become even more so as those in power see scarcity encroaching on their livelihoods. But the ability to hold people accountable in new ways (through things like social media), as well as (I hope) a real awareness and effort in the long arc towards equality, means there are groups of people seeking new ways to better allocate resources to those most affected by these events. Often, these groups are also in a post-scarcity mentality — that, when we work together, wisely, we can do a whole lot more with a whole lot less. These are folk who think we *can* reach zero poverty and zero emissions (within a generation). These are the folk who see joy in the world, and possibility.

The resource allocation and accountability necessary for these transitory steps towards a world that can survive and even thrive won’t happen in a vacuum. In the organizations, governments, and grassroots efforts there are entire supply chains, and ways of listening (and to whom), and self-reflexive mechanisms to consider. In these are embedded corruption, and paternalism, and colonialism. In these, too, are embedded individuals who have been Fighting The Good Fight for decades. Who have added useful checks and amplifiers and questions. It’s into this environment we step. It is, at its core, like any other environment. It has History.

It’s in this context that I’m so excited about Dialling Up Resilience. It taps into questions of efficacy in programming by using and contributing to metrics for success in building resilience. It assumes good faith in policy makers and implementers by offering up data for them to do their jobs better. It protects against bad actors by providing granular, speedy data aggregated enough to protect data providers but transparent enough to be clear when a program is working (or not, if those we’re assuming good faith in don’t actually deserve that). And, my favorite part — instead of contorting and posturing about what makes people able to bounce back faster after a climate-related shock… we just ask them. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that. But the core is there.

We’ll be working with a few different groups in Kenya, including the National Drought Management Authority (and their Ending Drought Emergencies program) and UNDP on their existing surveying initiatives, as well as groups like GeoPoll (SMS), Twaweza (call center), and Kobo (household) on stand-alone surveys about how communities estabilish and track their own resilience. If we get the grant extension, we’ll work more directly with communities using tools like Promise Tracker and Landscape (a digitized version of Dividers & Connectors) to be closer to their own data, and to subsequently be able to have more agency over their own improvement as well as accountability.

What’s also exciting is that our means and our ends match. I was recently in Nairobi for a stakeholder workshop with not only the project partners, but also with the organizations which would eventually make use of the data. We’ve been conducting community workshops to test our basic assumptions and methods against reality, as well as to be sure community voice is at the core of each component we consider. We’ve thrown a lot out… and added some amazing new things in. We’re hoping to break down the gatekeeper dynamic of accessing communities in the Horn of Africa, and we want to be coextensive with existing programs (rather than supplanting them). It’s feminist and it’s development and I’m kind of fucking thrilled.

Humanitarian Technology Festival

I came on with Aspiration back in January as the Community Leadership Strategist, to merge the work I’ve been doing in the humanitarian and disaster response space with Aspiration’s practices and team. It’s been a *blast* so far, and continues to be.

Most of the work I’ve done in the last 5 years has been about what social justice looks like when we’re doing response, with a focus on technology (as that opens up paths to conversations we otherwise quit having). With Geeks Without Bounds, we did hackathons all over the world, including Random Hacks of Kindness and SpaceApps Challenge. I’ve been a coordinator for the Digital Humanitarian Network, keynoted the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference, was invited to the White House to talk about Sandy response, facilitated the first hackathon IN (not just for) Haiti, etc etc etc. I’ve also had a huge organizational crush on Aspiration since my first DevSummit in 2013, attending as many Aspiration-connected events as possible. When I was able to join Team Aspiration, I was overjoyed — even while much of the work I’ve continued to do on response had already existed, it’s been a slow shift to get those previously-defined objects to be a bit more Aspiraiton-shaped.

The Humanitarian Technology Festival in Cambridge May 9+10 is the first event that is both committed to response and framed on Aspiration ethos. I am SO EXCITED about this it hurts. Let me explain why.

The very way we deliver aid perpetuates the need for more aid, both for fast- and slow-onset disasters (or “extreme events” or “humanitarian issues” or “earthquake” or “famines” or whatever you’d like to say). When people need lodging after a hurricane, they’re either told to evacuate and/or they’re put into temporary homes, away from neighbors and family. There is little impetus to return and rebuild both social and tangible structures. People are uprooted, and must start from scratch. When, instead, we see that people don’t just need lodging but in fact need social fabric, responders (and the technologies used for response) can focus on how to maintain family and neighborhood ties. People are then less stressed as well as being more likely to take their own actions to return and rebuild.

For humanitarian aid, this is even more paternalistic and stratifying… while not actually “fixing” any of the things it aims to. Aid is primarily about making the giver feel better. But like Tom’s Shoes picking up on the “buy one, give one” idea that OLPC actually handled with cultural grace and systems thinking, instead Tom’s put some people out of work while trying to provide something THEY thought others needed. Even if it had been delivered in a less-jerky way, aid often ends up with locations dependant on that aid, rather than internally strengthened. This is one way we keep extracting resources out of other places without actually contributing to those locations. See also this bit of the paper I’m still working on. This allows the worst parts of globalization (erasure of cultures, consolodation of wealth, etc) to continue.

Some might say “fine, let them fend for themselves,” but that’s not ok either. When we don’t have to look at our neighbors (when we build walled housing complexes, or segregated schools), we can ignore how bad things are for them. And that’s also not an acceptable answer.

What we need are ways to listen to what people can offer, and what they need, under the assumptions that we are equals. This is why I’m so excited to see how the participatory methods I associate so strongly with Aspiration come to bear on this space. Just do a search-and-replace for “Nonprofits” to “Affected Communities” on our Manifesto and Participant Guidelines. People in these fragile situations are NOT a population to playtest new tools. Not only do failures have a larger impact in these spaces, but to think of another location and its people as “demo” space is undignified and unjust. We need better ways (not just better tools) for life EVERYWHERE, and to assume that we WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic)-o’s have all the answers is downright arrogant. By instead, as we do at Aspiration events, speaking to each other in easy-to-understand language, under the assumption that everyone is bringing something meaningful to the table, and that together we’ll figure it out; we can shift not only how we do response, but the after-effects of that response.

I’m especially excited to speak to people about distributed response, and how the tools we build for ourselves can be welcoming to others using as well. Check out NYCprepared and Taarifa to see what this can look like.

Distributed and Digital Disaster Response

Been working the new job with Aspiration in SF (while I still live in Providence and Cambridge), which is outstanding. Also been working on a paper about the topic I’m focused on with Aspiration, of how we perform mutual aid, at scale, specifically in disaster response and humanitarian aid. It calls for what we’d call a “mixed-mode system” in Complexity Science. I gave a talk at Berkman Center yesterday on the topic, and they’ve already got the video live. I had a great time! Thanks to everyone for coming out and sharing your brains with me.

Closing out at Geeks Without Bounds

One of my favorite parts of being a part of an organization has come again: the off boarding. Many might be anxious about such a time, but I see it as the glorious moment of truth where you trust that what you have helped to nurture and build is bigger than you are.

Geeks Without Bounds has always striven to be an organization where Lindsay, Lisha, and myself came together as equals to perform the visioning, pragmatism, and yes – adminis-trivia of creating and maintaining a non profit. I’m thrilled to trust the organization to grow and change in their capable hands in ways I would never have thought. This is a good thing – if I had been able to predict where they go, the results would be flat, and without scaling ability. Together, they’ll focus on building GWOB into a 501(c)(3) focused on education and hackathons, with a continuing commitment to seeing projects through the first phases of creation and launch, from good idea to actual deployment.

I’m headed off to two new hats: community leadership strategist with Aspiration, whom I’ve had a huge organizational crush on for a couple years now. There, I’ll be seeing what of Aspiration’s highly interactive event stylings transfer into the digital disaster and humanitarian response space, continuing to explore the effects of social justice on networks via events like Weaponized Social, and documenting methodologies for use across languages and cultures. The other hat is as a professor of practice at Brown, teaching a class on digital communities.

I look forward to working with you in the future, either as partners or allies!

-Willow Bl00

NECSI Salon: Ethnic Violence

On January 28th, the monthly salon gathered at NECSI to discuss ethnic violence from the lens of complex science. Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of NECSI, gave a brief talk about NECSI’s paper about modeling violence. Marshall Wallace, past director of the Listening Project, also gave a quick talk about his field experience with communities who opt out of violence. Again on Feb 4th, NECSI hosted an informal discussion around the case study of Libya. What follows are my big take aways and Sam’s asides, embedded into the fairly rough live notes from the salon. I call out these take aways and asides specifically because note takers often are lost in the notes, just as a photographer is never in the picture.
We hope you’ll join us on Wednesdays of this month to begin exploring medical systems, on ensuing fourth Wednesdays for structured discussion, or on other Wednesdays for more informal times.
wednesdays
Register for this fourth Wednesday here.

I am primarily left with a sense of purpose towards fostering collective intent towards alleviating suffering. In this entry, you’ll see a few ways large-scale violence is posited to be avoided. It is my personal opinion (of which I will opine at the end) that diversity is the key to equality as well as dignity, based on both the complex systems modeling and field experience framing these discussions.

But first, what do we even mean by “violence”? We’re referring to violent events occurring at level of massacres or bombing. These levels do seem to be slightly contextual based upon general violence levels in the area. Continue reading

Complexity Salon : Ebola

These notes were taken at the 2014.Dec.18 New England Complex Systems Institute Salon focused on Ebola. Sam, Willow, Yaneer contributed to this write-up, and 20 people were in attendance. We hope you’ll join us in future. We’ll have unstructured meetings each Wednesday from 18:00 to 20:00 (6p-8p) starting Jan 21st, with the fourth Wednesday of each month structured towards contribution towards a global challenge. The next such structured event will be on January 28th, on the subject of ethnic violence. You can see notes on this and potential future subjects here, and can register here.

About Ebola at NECSI [briefing by Yaneer]

NECSI has a history of studying Ebola models, and has predicted something similar to what is currently going on in West Africa for some time now. NECSI started with a model of pathogen evolution in which the most aggressive stable state has virus constantly passing slowly through populations, creating islands, dying out as people expand into areas with no disease.

Aggressive diseases plus long-range transport

Then if you add long-range transport, you get more and more aggressive strains. The more long-range transport you have the more aggressive the strain can be without dying out; and eventually could kill an entire global population. Paper published in 2006, mentions risk of Ebola.

As transportation becomes more pervasive, vulnerability increases.

Early warning and preparedness

Presented to the WHO in Jan ‘14. They were respectful and excited by the work. Discussed other public health issues faced by WHO, however didn’t return to pandemic models.

Since then: outbreak happened. Lots of discussion. Why don’t we engage in risks in a more serious way? Everyone thinks their prior experience indicates what will happen in the future.

  • Look at past Ebola! It died down before going far, surely it won’t be bad in the future.
  • Models of outbreaks look at existing conditions, which prove to be too limited here.

Example: with flu, people take exactly that disease and known circumstances, and simulate an outbreak, ignoring changes in the disease or in the conditions (and: nothing has to change in order to have huge risk). the same properties could remain, but a low-probability event could unfold, “fat tail distribution” – past experience isn’t necessarily a predictor of what will happen in the future.

Individual and community

Contract tracing, the standard public health method, doesn’t work well when there are more than just a few cases. Stop thinking about the contacts of the person, think about the community. Travel restrictions so new communities aren’t infected. Now that people go door to door for symptom screening, the cases have decreased dramatically in Liberia.

People were saying: “The beds are empty!” Authorities responded: “We can’t figure out why. We think people are still sick!” Why are the hospitals and authorities waiting for the sick to show up? Going door-to-door in the neighborhoods shows what’s going on, and is what is effective.

Once you know the right question, the answer is clear.

Interests

We then stated our interests – each person said one thing about the topic or intro talk they’d be interested in diving into more during breakout groups Continue reading

Museo aero solar

Years ago, after Chaos Congress, Rubin insisted we go to some art show. I, as always, preferred to stay at home — whatever continent, country, city home might be in that day. But Rubin can be lovingly persistent. It would be worth it. It would be beautiful. We went, mere hours before I boarded a plane from somewhere to somewhere else.
blue-haired willow has her back to the camera, focused on a large transparent orb. Children play in the orb, suspended on a clear sheet of plastic. black lacing holds the orb in place. Rubin took this picture, and Willow is fond of Rubin.
Biosphere was a study in liminality to me, suspended spaces tethered to more commonly understood as habitable floors and walls. Perfectly clear water in heavy plastic and vast space define in clarity and iridescence. It was a liminal future, an in-between home, the moment the wheels leave the runway. The terror of my anxiety and the complete love for the possibility of Something Different, wrapped up in the moments of stepping into the future. In short, Rubin was right.

Jump forward a few years.
When Pablo invited me to Development and Climate Days in Lima, I was glad to go. Even before the deeply pleasurable and productive Nairobi gig with Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and Kenya Red Cross, I trusted Pablo to have spot-on inklings of the future. Maybe all that climate forecasting has gotten into his social forecasting as well. His efforts around serious games resulting in their now being generally accepted, he told about an art-involved step to get people to think about the future differently. Something about plastic bags, and lighter than air balloons. Would I be willing to, in addition to my talk, document their process of creating a Museo Aero Solar for others to participate and replicate? Of course – distribution of knowledge, especially with illustration and technology is kind of my jam. It would also help me venture into the city.

I arrived at 2a to a deserted city and a vast and rolling Pacific out the cab window. I cracked jokes with the driver based on my poor grasp of Spanish (“ehhhh, Pacifico es no muy grande.”) He humored me. And in the morning, mango that tasted like sunlight, and instant coffee, and the Climate Centre team of whom I am becoming increasingly fond. And a new person – the artist Tomas, with whom Pablo and I ventured to an art space to join the already-started process of community building and art creation, large bags full of plastic shopping bags ready for cutting and taping. Pablo eventually had to go spend time at COP20, I relished not going.
a phone-camera captured image of a pamphlet instructing how to create a museo aero solar. it instructs the collecting, cutting, taping, and combining of plastic bags.
I took such specific, ritualistic care with each plastic bag. Cut off the bottom, cut off the handles, cut a side to make a long rectangle. Lay it gently on top of the pile, pressing down to smooth and order. Pick up the next bag. Feel it on my hands. The crinkle, the color. Smooth it out. Cut. Place. The sound of tape being pulled, torn, applied, and stories told in Spanish. The slow joining of each hand-cut rectangle. I smiled, to dedicate so much care to so many iterations of things which are the detritus of life. Francis laughed with me, saying she felt the weight of each one. A heavy statement for something so light. Tomas walking around, constantly seeming to have attracted a bit of plastic bag handle to his heel, no matter how many he peeled off, a persistent duckling of artist statement.

We went to the Lima FabLab to speak to a hackathon about making a GPS and transponder so we could let the creation fly free without endangering air traffic. And this time I saw it from the outside – seeing Tomas speak to a group of self- and community-taught Peruvian coders, and seeing their faces display disbelief and verge protection against the temporal drain of those outside your reality. Then, as he showed step by step, and finally an image, that these can fly, their cousins can lift a person, grins break out. Peoples’ hearts lift, new disbelief replaces the jaded. There is laughter and a movement to logistical details.

And then we took it to the D&C venue, and it worked.

I imagine what Pablo must have gone through, to get bureaucratic sign-off on this. No metric of success. No Theory of Change. Him, fighting tooth and nail for a large and hugely risk-adverse organization to trust fall into the arms of a community, an artist, a facilitator, and a game maker. And they did. And it changed the entire event. People in suits crawling into this cathedral made of plastic bags, each individually cut and added with love to the whole. A pile of fancy shoes outside the entrance, like a ballroom bouncy castle. People’s unabashed joy watching art some of them had made become a room, and then lift off to become a transport.

This future we want — it’s hard work, it can seem impossible. But it’s right here, we made it. It works, and it is beautiful.

I brought up ways for other people to participate. In a beautiful act I would associate with Libre ethics, the Lima crew have opened up not only our stories, but our process. We want you to join us. We want you to be a part of this future, and it means hard work. The fledgling wiki and mailing list can be found here. I hope you hop on.

Heatwave Hackathon

Hugs and thanks to Lindsay Oliver and the Kenya Red Cross team for their contributions to this entry.

On November 15th, I helped facilitate the Red Cross Crescent Climate Center’s HeatHack 2014, a gathering of amazing people to collaborate on solutions to climate-related challenges. This event focused on the risks and impacts of heatwaves, and how to provide community care and safety nets for at-risk people during extreme weather episodes.

In case you wonder what a hackathon is:

A hackathon is a gathering of diverse people who form teams to work on addressing challenges over a short period of time. These challenges can be technical, physical, resource-based, or even social. During HeatHack, participants learned about heatwave challenges from climate experts and people who have experienced heatwaves firsthand. Teams formed around potential ways to address these challenges, and worked together to come up with solutions to present to the judges. Prizes were awarded based on innovation, documentation, usability, and inclusiveness.

Why “HeatHack”?

Heatwaves can cause power outages, wildfires during a drought, buckling and melting roads, burst water lines, and serious health effects such as severe sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and death.

  • According to NASA, when the temperature hits 95*F (35*C) your ability to function drops by 45%. Your loss of accuracy is 700%.
  • MPR News reports that body temperature can rise to 105*F (40.6*C) if working outside in a heatwave. Death occurs usually when a body temperature reaches 107.6*F (42*C).

Despite the severity of heatwaves, the health risks often go unnoticed because the people most affected are easily overlooked in a large population, especially if they are poor. We need to create ways of responding to these challenges to care for people who are currently at risk and to prepare for future heatwaves. As the effects of climate change become more severe, the number, length, and temperature of heatwaves will increase – including in Nairobi! Climate change affects the entire globe, and Kenya can lead the way in creating solutions that help as many people worldwide as possible. Continue reading

A month in Nairobi

Background of the gig

Pablo and games

I met this guy named Pablo Suarez in a pub in Boston, when our mutual friend John Crowley insisted I leave my introvert-hole. When John insists, I tend to listen. And as always, it was totally worth it. Pablo plays games. As a climate scientist, he got tired of people falling asleep in meetings. He was aware of the direness of the situation, but no one else felt the same urgency. So he started expressing probability and costs and delays through dice, and beans, and objectives. He’s played these games with people who live in disaster-prone areas on through people at the UN who make policy about resource allocation. He’s created actual, connected change through an entire system. We’ve since embarked upon a few event adventures together, and I’m glad to call him friend and cohort.

My experience with KRCS

And so I met this guy named Dr James Kisia, when Pablo suggested I take a gig at the Kenyan Red Cross. In a continuing trend, when Pablo suggests things, I tend to listen. James has become well known as an innovator in the NGO/innovation space. As an example, reframing the understanding and practice of social entrepreneurship in resource-poor settings. Exploring sustainable resource mobilization for an organization whose relevance in disaster-prone Kenya is increasingly becoming apparent. The KRCS runs 3 hotels in Kenya, taking advantage of the fact that conferencing is a major business in Kenya, and in Nairobi particularly. It might seem paradoxical, having a five star facility on the campus of the a humanitarian organization, but the money the hotels make is ploughed back into the humanitarian work of the organization — including non-funded sudden onset disasters.

Based entirely on good faith, shoe strings, and a few well-placed calls, James and I embarked upon a trust fall with each other, based entirely on Pablo’s word. The Web of Trust in real life. I arrived to Nairobi for 4 weeks of work with little guidance beyond to lay groundwork for a Dadaab-focused intern or contractor, as specific to what would be applicable to climate change issues as well. Continue reading