Scaling Quality Education

Originally published on Medium with NECSI.

A complex systems science perspective on the education system can help guide improvement efforts. The New England Complex Systems Institute is conducting discussions to nucleate innovative efforts in action based upon this perspective. One example is the education system.

The education system performs a highly complex task. Many individuals are educated but their capabilities and other qualities are diverse and they will eventually do many different things in society. Despite this diversity, the current way of coping with the large number of students has been to evaluate success of the individual and the system through standardized testing. Many educators and parents are not happy with this approach. Standardized testing can be considered to be like asking different kinds of animals to compete in the same task, like climbing a tree. The commonly used alternative is portfolio assessment that does not give objective or comparative indications of capabilities or of the effectiveness of teaching. The biological analogy to animals, however, provides a different alternative, niche selection. Niche selection is the idea that each type of animal competes in a different set of tasks, but they do compete. In education this would correspond to having multiple tests that evaluate different types of capabilities, while still enabling competition that provides measures of success and guidance about where an individual can best contribute in society. Cohorts associated with a particular set of skills can move through the system challenged by their interaction with peers. This is one of the important ideas that are motivated by complex systems science others are discussed here.

On May 27th, NECSI welcomed a set of educators to discuss their viewpoints on the educational system: one focused on intrinsic motivation in learning from the perspective of an individual’s role in community (Olin College), one on interaction with difficult challenges in a way which helps the individual see their impact on larger society (Facing History), one on large-scale scaffolding for curriculum propagation (OpenEdX), and one on using the new abilities of technology to support outliers in learning (CMSAS). Each of these groups also distributed different components of their endeavors, and centralized other parts. Facing History centralized through slow training of instructors. Olin centralized through slow training of institutions. Both struggle with how to scale — because of the strong individual touch involved, it’s difficult to instill these approaches beyond the speed of individual instructors. OpenEdX centralizes the knowledge repository structure — anyone can spin up an instance, anyone can put material on it. They don’t do quality control for the hosted material, and struggle with how to reach marginalized populations. CMSAS has a model of small online classes which combine many of the above things. Want to offer up their model for anyone else to use as turn-key solutions for education.

Adam Strom at Facing History

from the Facing History website

Facing History And Ourselves is a human-centered program operating for 40 years. He tells us that “we teach teachers how to teach.” Facing History creates humanities curriculum for teaching about moral and ethical issues. They help teachers one by one, and treat them as professionals, just as we train doctors.

He asks us what can be systematized or at least tailored. We make complex choices about material, but in a structured model. What are all the factors that shape decisions, not just for education, but also in how we shape our worlds? What about how groups impacted by historical issues choices/made choices? How have those ideas changed over time? How did democracy unfold? How have democracies dissolved into dictatorships? Not just teaching the impact of the small results, but thinking in complicated ways about responsibility, and then look at their own roles in society. Facing History helps students and teachers look at the story, and to see how they can make a more positive impact in their communities. This takes serious intellectual rigor, ethical reflection, emotional engagement. All of these are facilitated by the teacher, who must always be reading the class. A teacher makes about a thousand choices in a classroom a day.

Adam points at the 3 things Facing History provides:

  • professional development
  • engaging resources
  • educator community

Their program is deployed teacher, by teacher, by teacher. One staff member becomes their lifetime coach. That’s a lot of work. But Facing History supports about 90k teachers, who then reach a half million students.


  • Teachers are adult learners
  • Working with, not around, teachers
  • Adolescents are budding moral philosophers
  • Universal insights come through studying the particular/Details matter
  • Part of being a good teacher is customizing curriculum
  • We have a pedagogical model that works

So, how do we scale this model?

  • Centralized is what Facing History has been doing
  • A next step would be being more decentralized — what can we start to give away to other groups to use?
  • What would it look like to become distributed?

Some questions to consider:

  • What does technology enable us to do?
  • How do digital technologies meet the realities that teachers face?
  • What is the role of a teacher? What needs to happen in the classroom? Build student confidence.
  • What kinds of education content can be systematized?
  • How can we support learning goals outside of traditional learning environments? The change we measure is in 46 week incriments. What happens if you don’t have that? Can you support larger learnings?


Teacher’s unions, and pushback or no

  • if it’s mandated by the district, that’s when unions have *sometimes* been an issue. But when it’s teachers coming to it on their own that it’s WAY more time than they would otherwise. The more it becomes systematized, the more you become a piece of a machine.

How much have you seen teachers taking the distributed technologies into their classrooms?

  • that’s super interesting. maybe a lot, but we don’t know. we had a digital initiative documenting, but couldn’t sustain it financially. What I am seeing is teachers doing professional development for other teachers. Can’t follow it.

Outside the classroom?

  • Scott O at MIT is talking about games environments. Should games be inside the classroom. Keeping the larger ideas in the curriculum. Play it outside the classroom, which reinforce the values, but aren’t the content. Then you teach the teacher every one inc awhile, tso they can make the connection. Reinforce.

Molly DeBlanc with OpenEdX

from the Open edX github repository

Molly DeBlanc works with OpenEdX, the open curriculum platform started by MIT and Harvard. It hosts courses on the site, and has started offering low-risk credits (you only pay if you pass). There are all sorts of great partnerships listed on their site, and are worth checking out. Molly is focused on the code component behind the platform.

She tells us about the code as a bunch of files on github, which are used to supply courses. This code supports video and audio files, and questions and interactions between students and faculty. While the classes are not in real time, the basics are pulled from real time conversations. EdEx is in use all over the world in very different ways — they don’t know all the courses or organizations.

Many universities are using it — take courses and get it further out there. Some companies and organizations use it internally for their training material. Beyond that, there are some people are *only* taking classes online, who have strange schedules, or who are far from the offering institution. Even in more traditional educational setups, students are doing lectures at home, with classroom time doing more interactions and workshopping together, more problem sets. One class ditched the textbook and just had lectures online, to great ends. Nonprofit in DC using the platform for low income nutrition and financial education. Russian method of teaching mathematics, tailored it to an American audience.

Things to think about

  • How far can this be pushed? This is mostly universities pushing classes to audiences. What ELSE can we do? What about how teachers interact with each other?
  • Who needs to be using the Open edX platform? Most of the people using this are white, male, upper class. What about access to resources, what about language, etc?
  • What tools and features are needed? Not just about folding proteins, also maybe how to connect students doing well in one area connecting with students doing less well.
  • Policy, outreach, impact
  • Not just digital accessibility, but access to the resources needed to use it.


How do you help nonprofits understand the value of edx?

  • Talk with a bunch of different groups about what it might look like.
  • Talking with groups with work with a bunch of nonprofits

Signup versus completion?

  • Signing up is 2 buttons. 5% from signup to one course. First exam completed to doing more is 30%.
  • People are starting to make shorter courses. 8 hours a week from Harvard?! 16 weeks from Stanford?! No!
  • Smaller bites of information is basically you can watch your videos wherever you want.

Completion for self-paced?

  • All are arguably self-paced, material stays up.
  • Certificate for completion vs certificate for credit.

Third world use?

  • platform and courses, yes.
  • Use of vocational training.
  • Teacher training but also student training.
  • Lab simulations for use in rural Ghana.

Care about?

  • Platform, we’re delighted when we see people using it. There are some companies which say “if you complete this course within this time, you qualify for hiring” which is not “be a student at a fancy school”

Debbie Chachra at Olin College

from the Olin website

Olin has recontextualized what engineering education is done. They have guiding principles, and work with institutions around the world about how they work with their students. The most basic is intrinsic motivations, which is not whether someone is motivated or not as a quality of who they are. People tell Debbie, “your students are motivated and super smart,” but the reality based in research (Why We Do What We Do by Deci and Ryan) is that… We do lots of things we chose to do voluntarily, and many we do because we have to. Someone puts a gun to your head and tells you to do it. But that’s a terrible reason! If you tell people to do something because of the gun, it’s not actually going to stick, nor be fulfilling. There’s a somewhat similar thing called external regulation, which is when you chose to do something because you know it’s the right thing to do (like going to the gym). Intrinsic motivation is a bit different, and it’s when you teach yourself to do something. When you play guitar, you’re deciding when and how to do it. Often a link to community. You can tell you’re getting better at it.

To be intrinsically motivated, you need:

  • autonomy (setting it yourself)
  • purpose (often community)
  • competency development (know when you’re getting better)

Traditional education is REALLY good at scaffolding learning, but NOTHING else. People who are good students are not motivated, they’re motivated BY THIS SYSTEM. So Olin works on creating systems which create those three factors to foster studentsto be intrinsically motivated.

Debbie contrasts this model with MOOCs, which are focused on those who are already well served by the traditional educational system. Those who are instrincly motivated have much better learning outcomes over time. These are individuals who can’t tell you what was on a test, but can tell you about a report they wrote, for which they decided the topic.

Project based learning at Olin is about autonomy and purpose. Then our job as educators is to provide the scaffolding. The student makes a project which makes them the expert. The educator is here to provide scaffolding.


What is engineering specific?

  • very little of this is engineering-based. Adam spoke about it in another format.

How are you finding the continuity ? You had a vision, you’ve reshaped things, new people, etc.

  • I’ve been there from the beginning. The students are new every year.
  • Continuity is a virtue and a vice. We thought we’d restart every 5 years. Now we think about how to evolve parts. You don’t do a gut reno every year, you do a wing and then systematically renovate the entire house.

How do you handle evaluation without tests?

  • We had a huge fight at the beginning about grades. Good arguments for both. Grades as an API for the rest of the world — allows our students to get jobs and go to grad school. So we still use grades, but along different rubrics. Design and education (not about right or wrong)
  • Even if you have a math exam with right and wrong answers, and you are still making judgment calls about what you value. If a student misplaces a positive or a negative sign in an equation, do you mark the whole thing as wrong (because the final answer is wrong), or do students get partial credit (because the process is sound)?
  • That said, we’re accredited. We show that people learn and change things in a way the acredation body is interested in. We demonstrate that at an institutional level.

The collective purpose of engineering in society? Individual purpose and collective purpose.

  • individual purpose is often related to community. So often it’s thinking about what that community is. EdX has learning communities in different spaces. Curriculum is user-oriented design. People not like you. Humanities team.
  • Want our students to graduate as globally aware citizens.

Tamra Excell at CMASAS

from the CMASAS website

Students can take classes as-is, top to bottom, OR they can modify that, and demonstrate the mastery in another way. CMASAS students are from all over the world, learning differently, and some travel a lot.

As an example, a surfing student demonstrating physics learning by working on a surf board, otherwise top-down. That student later demonstrated business skills by starting a business around those surf boards.

Whether examining the CMASAS setup by grades, or student feelings, or college acceptance, they’re noticed by 3rd party ranking systems. Now that they’ve done this and are growing, how do they get this model out there more? Start other schools using our turn-key system? Partner? Learning centers? Training? Assist in untraining and retraining of teachers, administrators, parents. Take it to the next level!


Socioeconomic makeup of your students?

  • we’re tuition based, so higher-ish class, but about half the tuition of many places. (5k per year, 7k for unlimited credits)
  • the model does work in lower income places
  • want to get it into more public schools

Like the mastery model. How do you work with things that are a softer skill, not performance assessed? (classic model etc, studying a model)

  • have some explicit instruction in whatever parts they were going to study. talk with teacher about those aspects. What do they want to pay attention to? Reading comprehension, what did the character do versus interpretive. Take the students where they’re at, move them forward from that. The students have a lot of way in what literature they’re looking at.
  • Not going to fit on a SCANTRON. We’re doing more than that — we ask a lot of our teachers (and we pay them well). It’s scalable, but we have a smaller number of students per teacher to make it work. Want the student to be meta-cognitive.

Panel Discussion

Re-estabilsh trust in education?

“X is broken” — why are you saying that? What is the motivation? We have a factory model now. We think people have to have the same levels of skills, people as widgets, need quality control on our widgets. Education as a for-profit system, we want an ROI. Instead of an investment for its own sake. The other model is a garden model. You have a bunch of plants in your garden, they all grow into different plants. But we’ve decided that public education is a thing we don’t spend money on. We have to decide it’s something that matters to us. Not “do what we tell you.” — students AS WELL AS teachers.

Accountability goes from student to teacher to superintendent. What you’re doing as a good teacher is violating rules. I work at a nonprofit of people who broke the rules.

People not seeking a diploma, they’re seeking a different way. Needs to be possible and meaningful. Why do we need to know this stuff?

Focus on an individual student — what about groups?

At Harvard, of the 50k signed up to a Harvard edX class, the highest rates of completion were around students who were getting together themselves.

Encouraging networks, connecting people into the networks. When we talk about individualized education, we’re serving a learner for their needs… but those needs aren’t an independent thing. How do you let the networks emerge. Those clumps were an emergent property of the system.

Creating new habits. Hard to get people to listen to each other in a room. Hard when you’re in an online discussion space… Institute for the Future does a thoughtful space. But many people post without reading what’s gone before.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous?

  • Facing History: 50/50
  • Olin: synchronous. If you know students work better in a group, why wouldn’t you design for that? The community aspect of edX… it’s hard to have community online. Clear that people who have met before work better together. Being geolocated, having a learning community, having a study group has a huge impact.

Do you think that’s face to face or a certain style of interaction?

  • As a community manager, you have a different accountability to people after you’ve met them. You know “I have met PERSON, I know them, tey are nice.” I feel responsible to them now.
  • There are functional online communities. SciFi space where hundreds of comments on a post, all thoughtful.
  • People have met each other online, then met in person. There are caveats, of course.
  • Multiplicity of ways people interact, so we need to add to that.

Accumen has their own courses, you can take it at your own pace, but has to be with people.

How could you treat ethics without other people? It’s the meeting of different people together which builds tolerance.

Online homeroom for CMASAS, have meetups in different locations. Clubs to meet people from all over the world. Graduation ceremonies for those who can make it, help offered for those who can’t afford it. bonding had definitely happened for these students who had known each other for a long time.

How do you get people to be autonomous?

Autonomy isn’t binary. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. We scaffold autonomy just like anything else. Start with more, end up with way less. By graduation, they should be self-driven. First year is pass/no credit.

All the schools scored <25% on language. No shared history from which topics to emerge from. The kids demanded to be challenged, wanted ideas to challenge. What do you give up? Challenge the kids, otherwise they’ll spin in their own circles.

Technical communities. People get involved to have power, skill, ability. You point them at things they can handle themselves, and give them the tools to do it. Give them more responsibility over time. So when someone completes a project, you give them something else to look over. Add in more steps for responsibility.

What is the situation, who is the learner, where are they at? All the skills, anything they gain is still a gain. Sugatra Mitra talks about getting out of kids’ ways. We have an intro course to become self-aware and -directed.

No magical bullet. There are certainly ways to approach it, focusing on students and scaffolding etc. But the ways to implement are context-dependent.

Dichotomy of Individual or Societal Benefit

One of the things we have to do from a complex science perspective, fostering individual development becomes synergistic instead of oppositional.


My students just gave their final presentations. Their projects are the most important part of this entry, but because of narrative arcs, come last. If you read only one section of this, please read that.

Last summer, I was looking for more paid work. A job posted to some list I’m on, for a Digital Storytelling position at Brown. It didn’t require a degree, surprisingly, and I thought I’d take a shot. I sent some of the digital animation and community work I’m proudest of, and crossed my fingers. They wrote back to tell me it wasn’t exactly digital storytelling, but it was something, and we should chat.

And so I embarked on the rather bizarre adventure of creating a syllabus (so many thanks and props to Jo, Debbie, and Susan in this especially), and of planning my life around being in Providence every Thursday. At least. I do, in theory, live t/here. Each week, I would stay until the last second of the Civic lunch talk, endure the anxiety of attempting to catch a very exact train to Providence (and sometimes pay the cost for the Acela which departed slightly later), walk or cab to the Nightingale Brown House, and teach a class.
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.

The “Make the Breast Pump Not Suck” Hackathon

Author’s note: I go to, organize, and facilitate a *lot* of hackathons, and while I’m thrilled about most of them as chances for people to learn and get involved in a field of research, I’m also fairly skeptical of them. So I’ve limited myself lately to events that can really make a difference, not only for the participants, but for the people who would benefit from the things they work on. Most recently, I’ve been doing events in Dar es Salaam with Taarifa and Geeks Without Bounds around water point mapping. I think this event has an opportunity for significant impact as well – this event especially in the arenas of health and gender equality. The following post was written by the hackathon team, of which I’m honored to nominally be a part.

Why Breastmilk and Breast Pumps?

Breast pumping is an experience many women dislike, yet it saves the lives of premature babies and permits working women to continue a nursing relationship with their babies. The health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby are numerous, and include reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, female cancers, heart disease, and osteoporosis. Despite the overwhelming data and worldwide endorsement of breastfeeding for the first two years of life, many women do not breastfeed at all or wean after several months. In particular, low-income, working women are rarely able to take extended maternity leave, afford the cost of a pump, or pump breastmilk at their workplace. In emerging economies around the world, women who go back to work wean their babies rather than using a breast pump.


The breast pump is the rallying cry for the event because it is a symbol of a technology that could be better integrated into people’s everyday lives in order to save lives, save money, and lead to healthier and happier families. At the same time, our goal is to make space for innovation in family life more broadly, and to support a wide variety of different kinds of projects at the hackathon- and beyond.

This is the second of these events, with a writeup of the first here. Check out some challenge definitions and inspirations on the Tumblr, and join us if you can!

When: Saturday, September 20 & Sunday, September 21, 10am-6pm

Where: MIT Media Lab

Win! World-class judges will be giving cash prizes to the best ideas

Register Now (Registration is free but space is limited)

Bringing together parents, medical professionals, designers, policymakers, MIT students, and engineers to radically redesign the breast pump, as well as explore other innovations in maternal and pediatric health to improve the lives of families and children around the globe.

Our generous supporters of this event include Vecna TechnologiesMedela and Naia Health.

Presented by the MIT Media Lab with organizational support of iKatun.

Pre-Hackathon Movie Screening

Join us for a free public screening and discussion of Breastmilk: The Movie on Wednesday, September 10, at 7pm at MIT Bartos Theater, 20 Ames Street, Building E15, Lower Level, Cambridge, MA.

No RSVP required! Babies welcome.

Questions? Check out our website or contact us at

Expressions and Understanding

We have such an investment in the written word in our world right now. And it’s beautiful. Uses different parts of the brain at the same time, allows for storage of thought to be passed down and through and re-examined and loved through time. I love the written word.

But I am also dyslexic. I love books, but I hate reading – I feel like an idiot. I have to read each sentence twice (at least), at the same pace that I’d read aloud. I still don’t always understand what I’m reading – not the concept, mind you, simply the written words which are used to express it. I know the deep knowledge represented on each page, and yet I dredge through it like a 7 year old, frustrated by the time it takes to get through the simplest components. Still. At 30.

Listen – I ingest information best audibly, loving stories read aloud, going through most of my online reading through text-to-speech (thanks, Quinn), and learning best from the lecture, not the readings. Because of this, my writing cadence matches my speaking cadence nearly exactly – mainly because there were years where I would record myself speaking, and then transcribe it. It wasn’t writing. I don’t know how to write. I know how to speak. But that dyslexia isn’t just in reading, it’s in general language processing, and that includes the spoken word. Which means I miss chunks sometimes – able to hear beyond the normal audio range, but the content simply doesn’t land at times.

When I started drawing, 4 years ago, it helped me link together what I was hearing, with what I knew, in a way I could see how it all connected. No more missing gaps. There was something new that was coming out in this way of understanding and expressing the ideas that were already being expressed verbally or textually. It seemed that I like to ingest information audibly, but process and re-state visually. And try this out – I can make a proportional sculpture, because it feels right, while my stick figures are disproportional in order to indicate movement, and because I can’t get two dimensions to be technically correct. Each method lossy in its own way.

At Wikimania, I’ve been surrounded by incredible, intelligent people… all of whom place a huge value in cataloging, expressing, and defending through the written word. They use copyright to protect copy. It’s been like visiting an alien world I know I can never emigrate to, where my methods of expression are valued but not import-able. Something you’d see in a museum, but never purchase a gift for your loved one as you exit through the shop.

Understand this: When Tricia gave her talk at Berkman, she had visual cues, she delivered verbally, on a subject she had written about, and I expressed that visually. Each of these is a different expression of the same idea. It is not the same expression re-done verbatim (ha!) in another format. I don’t want to listen to a re-reading of the transcript of the audio. I want to listen to the writing on the subject she did. These are different aspects of the same knowledge set.

Another example: when the always fantastic RadioLab did a particularly stunning episode on color, there was a bit on the visual capabilities of the Mantis Shrimp. While a diagram of the eye’s capability can be drawn and compared (see diagram), and what happens with that extra perception vectors can be described in text, it was the choral rendition of complexity of vision that made what was actually going on readily understandable to we who have 3 vectors in our eyes.

Coding and software, and more recently the opening up of fabrication technologies, are about more people being able to express themselves in a way that is best for them, and that also means people who ingest information in those formats have a better chance to understand more of the world. The more vectors we have of expressing, the more vectors we have of understanding. And isn’t that what being human is about?

If that’s not enough, consider this: one of the things about code is that it has opened the doors for some to income and prestige that otherwise would have been closed. It broke down entrances to what “legitimate expression” is. When we stick to only the knowledge expressions and storage we understand, those who are best able to use those (i.e., those who have already been in long practice) will continue to benefit. And now, so many other things are possible to digitize, to pass on and posterityze. Why remain so hyper-focused on the written word?

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”
Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History

I care less about “accessibility” as “bringing ‘disabled’ people into a world as ‘able’ people experience it,” and more into “everyone having the best opportunity to express themselves, and to be understood.”

How I Got Here (the unused Statement of Objective)

This is about 3 times too long, and definitely too waxing-poetic to be my statement of objective for grad school applications. But I’m proud of having written it, and wanted to share.

Back in 2006, I was discovering my first ever capital-F Future. A class at Indiana University called Religion, Ethics, and the Environment took a couple weeks to explore transhumanism. As a superhero-apathetic comics nerd, I had known about weird futures, but had never quite understood that I could have a role in building them. Suddenly, here was a route to building a better world, rather than failing into another stopgap of less-wrong. I was set on a path of not only understanding, but intentionally building a world in which our constructed technologies meant making it easier to be a Good Person connected to other Good People.

A year later, having completed a Bachelor’s in Sociology and an honors thesis, I landed on my feet in Seattle. I was ready to go to one of the law schools I’d been accepted to, around the overly specific topic of the meeting of organic and digital in prosthetics. Who would own the data going through your cochlear implant? Could you opt into a more dexterous mechanical hand if you still had a healthy biological one? Continuing on with the transhumanist discussion groups I had been organizing and moderating in Bloomington, Indiana, a new community of Future-thinkers began to form in Seattle, from all sorts of backgrounds and disciplines. Upon discovering the Electronic Frontier Foundation, I suddenly had the freedom to build those strange Futures alongside the likes of those in the discussion group, those I would have dedicated my life to defend.

But in building those strange Futures in hackerspaces, -camps, and -conferences, I started to be unable to ignore a concerning trend: these were event and physical spaces for those already self-aware- and resource-enabled-enough to participate. Where were those who were less advantaged? The appalling narrative of “they’re just not trying hard enough” made me reconsider the groups I had come to call family. The lack of historical awareness in the entire community was in myself only mitigated by an acceptance that the world was full of things I had not yet learned. Focusing on spawning our future family, I turned attention to establishing Jigsaw Renaissance in 2009, one of the first makerspaces.

Makerspaces are schools of the future, intergenerational and transdiciplinary project-focused communities. They are extroverted versions of necessarily-introverted hackerspaces. I spent another two years focused not only on Jigsaw, but also on Space Federation, a way to link together spaces, to share non profit status, tax processing, zoning negotiation, etcetera in the same way we geographically shared milling machines. We were more frightened of papercuts than of laser cutters, and making do in the existing world while building a new one was no small task. Again, we intentionally built the Future we wished to see. But this time, the arc matched that of my (arguably onging) goth and cyberpunk days. The idea was so good and accessible that everyone wanted a piece of it, at least for a moment. We fought internally about who we were and what was worth negotiating. The clear paths to legibility which would make rent easy to pay also made us less of what we were. We had been a new Future, but slowly changed instead into blocks filling gaps in understood structures. Shop class returned to high school, but what made  makerspaces what they were (and some still are) – the wide open space of possibility and innovation – instead stifled in the inorganic and proscribed state that also made your insurance agent know what box to tick.

As this happened, before it was a clear pattern, I had also started building Geeks Without Bounds. The same primordial ooze of possibility and energy in hacker- and makerspaces was also in digital humanitarian and disaster response space. They made things, but they also made them with purpose, many focused on not leaving populations affected by horrible situations dependent upon the aid sent to them. This was it for me – all of the starry eyes, coupled with an ability to get hands dirty, and the clear intention based on historical awareness of including all parties in the process. I still travel the globe helping people from San Francisco, to Port-au-Prince, to DC, to Nairobi, to Berlin understand just how much they have to learn from each other. Unsurprisingly, the formal sectors in this space care to learn from the informal and disruptive – but many of us on the informal side have gone through the co-option cycle at least once, and are wary of how to interact. In part due to this, no one benefits from the experience and ability of the other.

The same tensions from hacker- and makerspaces exist here, manifest most clearly in hackathons. Born from hacker-spaces and -cons, adopted by open source and commercial endeavors, now taken up by entrepreneurship initiatives and my own response and social good space, these events have the promise of actual revolutionary innovation in the same shallow breath as being mere publicity stunts. Digital response groups struggle with, I kid you not, nearly the *exact* same issues that hacker and makerspaces have as they gain traction. This is most clearly an issue of how to standardize and transmit history in an agressively informal space. I simply cannot stand by and watch these trends happen again, especially not in such a promising endeavor. With the clear understanding and credibility a Master’s degree would provide, this is a trend that can go less wrong this time with the right sort of guidance, and even better in the future. We can have that capital-F future, but it’s not just about building another technological advancement.

At first we spoke of a gleaming future, but didn’t know how to build it. Then, we could build things, but didn’t understand to what purpose. Now, snuggled (or forced?) down into this niche, any lesson learned is necessary to extrapolate by setting it up to be translated and universal. This is not a universal-design approach, this is a self-examining and correcting social script. First, we reach the people building things with purpose and awareness, to make their lives and their interactions building that Future easier. From there, we will mentor those building things, but lacking awareness. Then we can move to those who wish to build but also need context. These are social constructs which can be built with the same intent as our well-designed technologies and transmitted via workshops and comics. More than a possibilty, though – this is an imperative.

These trends are so clear cut as to be glaring. And the solution is not more technology, it is stronger social fabric through intentional building. If the distributed, adaptive, aware systems we build truly are to make humanity better off, humanity itself must also be tended to.

In the same way I used to shake my cyberpunk fist at my steampunk friends, the issue is this: to act upon, rather than bemoan an incomprehensible system does not mean recreating steam engines so you can see where the gearing is warped, it means learning how to solder. In this moment, we cannot blame socioeconomic differences, atrocities, and low adoption rates on failing computer technology, we must start to look instead at understanding human connections in the new digital age, and constructing that with even more intent than with which we lay out a new circuit board design.

Creating (New) Collaborative Spaces

There’s this ongoing sense of frustration from the adaptive, iterative, inclusive informal side of disaster response with the formal side. While we often focus on how to get members of a population not accustomed to collaboration to feel empowered to speak and act, and that is a core component of any work I do, that’s not what this entry is about. In the same way that I think many people don’t engage in their environments when conflict is a possible component, I think the lack of collaborative and codesign approach in the formal sector is simply a lack of exposure and understanding.

Come with me / and we’ll be / in a land of pure collaboration – sung to the tune of Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination

The thing to understand is that after Kindergarten, most people have been discouraged from being collaborative. While it comes easily in our youth, when we haven’t built up the skills (social and technical) to operate from that source, it can be difficult. When creating codesign space with members of a formal or traditional organization, they come with the mentality that experts are the best (and perhaps only) people equipped to know how to assess and respond to a challenge. In this mentality, only academics have time to think, only corporations have access to resources, and only people who have been in the field for decades can see patterns. Often, because of the constructs around being an expert or specialist, people considered as such have had difficulty finding cohorts. In fact, you’re often actively discouraged away from it – anyone who shares your field is a competitor for limited resources. Any remotely collaborative activity is done asynchronously and piecemeal, cobbled together later by yet another specialist. This backdrop should indicate the importance of providing safe and guiding space for learning collaborative methods to those coming from traditional sectors. Here’s how I’ve done collaborative space-making in the past.

First, we must understand the codesign methods we aim to use by making it safe and inviting to work collaboratively, and ways to ask questions and with the expectation of listening. We call this “holding space,” through facilitation methods of encouraging inclusivity like paying attention to equal speaking time and accessbility of language. Within this space, we set a North Star, the purpose of the group. Frame all conversations and problem solving trajectories by that North Star.

With the Field Innovation Team (FIT) for FEMA’s Hurricane Sandy response, our North Star was “helping members of the affected population.” This might seem obvious, but formal organizations have been set up to help the official response organizations – Office of Emergency Management, or Red Cross, or the local police department. This has happened in the past because of scaling issues of knowledge and delivery abilities. Any situational knowledge was based upon limited aerial imagery (difficult and expensive), people who were in the area but are now able to report by being in an office (stale information), and past experience (misaligned patterns).

With things like crowd mapping, a higher resolution of situational awareness is possible. People on the ground can tell you where they are and what they see. With this ability comes a new responsibility, to deliver response at a similar resolution. This setup also includes an ability to directly interact with members of the affected population, so it’s important to refocus our efforts on our end users.

Any time any question came up, or any difficulties got in our way, we reminded ourselves about our main objective. From this, we immediately saw many paths to achieving the objective such as education, housing, heat, and connectivity. Through skill and connection discovery, we determined what the best focuses were, based on the team members present. We were already collaborating – by focusing on a main objective, and outlining various ways of achieving that objective, people start to consider how they can offer ways of getting there. Too often, we delineate our jobs and then figure out what we can do – which would have limited our creativity by leaps and bounds.

This is when it’s important to have a slew of collaborative tools in your back pocket. What will kick up this new track of collaboration with productivity? Just as importantly, what will be so easy to use that your newly-fledged collaborators won’t trip over install processes or learning curves, losing this precious momentum towards beautiful new worlds? I really like etherpad, hackpad, or google docs as a starting point for this: nearly everyone uses a word processor, and it’s immediately evident as to what is going on. Suddenly, there is a shared view! The common problem of resolving differences across multiple word documents has disappeared in this setting! Reports begin to write themselves out of meeting notes! Butterflies and bluejays are frolicking in the sky. Be wary that during this part of the process, it is important to both make sure people understand what is going on, while also not becoming their administrator. Help people put their own information into the platform, don’t do it for them when they stumble. Other great platforms are trello, basecamp, and loomio for near-immediate recognition of usefulness. People will sometimes stumble in the transition – simply take their recent update on the old method (email, anyone?) and continue the discussion on the new collaborative platform.

Once that objective is set, everything else is just problem solving. Things which would have kept us waiting to act instead became new opportunities to try things out.

Back in New York, the Joint Forces Office wouldn’t allow the FIT team in, because not all of us were federal employees, a few of us were foreign, and some of us were *cough* activists */cough*. Instead of twiddling our thumbs, we instead worked from the apartment of a friend-of-mine. They had better (and more open) internet, far superior coffee, and great serendipity liklihood. While working from there, we linked the OccupySandy volunteering map into the Google Crisis Map and (unofficially) chatted with UNICEF about what options we hadn’t yet looked at for resources. The neutral space allowed us to accomplish far more than we would have in the official offices. It also meant that as we tried out collaborative tools, firewalls didn’t get in our way. When we were later welcomed into the official offices for their first-ever design jam (with Frog Design!), the indignation about Basecamp and hackpad not loading was so great that the FEMA firewalls are now on different settings!

Remember that people are delicate. What most people in the formal sector have been missing for a long time is the ability to SPEAK and to ACT, just on a different vector than those in historically marginalized populations. We are asking all parties in the codesign process to be active and engaged. In distributed and collaborative spaces, this is something we excel in. It is therefore our responsibility to show all newcomers how awesome it can be. Stand with them to make more space. Sometimes as manifest in blanket forts.

Things to Care About

GWOB’s IndieGoGo

Geeks Without Bounds, the thing I’ve given my life to over the past 3 years, has launched a fundraiser to hire a fundraiser. It’s all in the video, but it basically boils down to this: the internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, but it isn’t. People with technical skillsets need a way to help other people. We bridge that gap. Go help us grow. There are only a couple days left to contribute in this way.


All over the place, the internet is showing itself as what it is – not only owned by private interests, but also tracked. We’re building a prototype template of group-held servers for people who don’t know how to run their own servers. Email, Calendar to start, all sorts of other goodies as it builds. Join in the first round to help us build the future we were supposed to have, and to keep your data.. yours.

Moonlet will be a small scale personal cloud services collective. Our goal is to pool together about 20-40 peoples’ resources to pay for the hosting and sysadmin time necessary to replace most or all of the cloud services we use with ones we can trust.

Our goals are:

  • To offer cloud-replacement services at a reasonable price to members
  • Security and privacy are primary priorities
  • Ensure a useable and well-integrated solution that replicates the hassle-free convenience of the better existing cloud services
  • Document the process clearly so other people can replicate the experience

NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge

Some mornings, I wake up and watch the NASA/Sagan YouTube series. It gives me hope and peace to remember what humanity is capable of. All the shit we do to each other, rather than focusing our efforts of banding together to overcome the natural obstacles around us, is trumped when Us/Them mentality replaces the “Them” of other people with the “Them” of the unknown. NASA represents that. They’re also a manifestation of a gov org trying to do it right – massively pooled resources to conduct collaborative exploration turned atrociously bureaucratic. They’ve started releasing datasets, opening up their processes, engaging the public, etc. And now they have a grand challenge around finding asteroids. I’ll probably post more on this one later, but check it out now.

The Ethics of Ethical Review

My lit review is coming to an end. My beautiful, ingest knowledge constantly, lit review. I’ve read more books1 in the past two months than in the last two years combined. Having space to sit and read is an amazing thing. The most spoiled, as it were. But the time of ingesting existing information is coming to a close, and the time to start interviews is approaching. And that means ethical review of my process.

The Institutional Review Board exists for good reason. We’ve done some awful shit to each other in the name of science. IRB is there to be sure human subjects are treated with dignity and in a safe manner. It is also required by many institutions to embark upon research, to get funding, and to be published. IRB has a section on its form to indicate institutional affiliation – a section which, if left blank, doesn’t allow you to submit the form. Both academic institutions and the IRB are predicated by the other.

This set up makes it nigh impossible to do “legitimate” research involving humans in the academic context2. I find this morally reproachable. I think anyone should have the opportunity to do research, so long as they do so ethically3. So what’s a robot to do?

I’m looking at having an Informal Review Board, comprised of respected folk around the area of my research, to still assess and push back on the ethics of my study. The questions around IRB are good ones – potential harm to participants, benefits, complications, etc. I would still structure around those, and publish my responses to those questions to the internet and to participants. The people on the board would be putting their own names behind the work I’m doing, which adds in a layer of accountability of me to them, and them to the world.

If I were only to go this route, the costs would be that I wouldn’t have my research explicitly tied to Center for Civic Media at MIT’s Media Lab, tho I as an individual would be. I wouldn’t be able to publish via MIT’s press. The research wouldn’t show up in academic journals. IE, it wouldn’t have the easy notoriety boost up of academic affiliation with such a respected institution. My access to get funding would also be drastically reduced.

The cost of success of the Informal approach gaining legitimacy (regardless of how the research is taken), is informal review becoming a thing which can be done. And what if someone puts people in harm’s way because their board wasn’t as rigorous as an institution which can be held accountable via traditional means? IE, someone doing research on a vulnerable population accidentally pushes personally identifying information out with their results. How would that person be held accountable?

The cost of not taking this approach is being complicit in an institutional system which locks out citizens from the process of research and contribution. And I think that is worse than the other potential costs. But I have to see what the folk who would be on my Informal Review Board say. I’m still looking for someone who is willing to push back on me, constructively but aggressively, who is also willing to be on such a board.

The balance to be had, and thanks to Mako for talking through this with me, is to do both at the same time. This would lay the path for the institutionally unaffiliated while also making use of a solid resource of COUHES (MIT’s IRB), addressing my deepest concern. To mitigate the potential harms of this approach gaining traction in worrisome ways, I’ll be working with the engine room to examine the process itself. And the issues of not having access to institutional credibility and funding will be alleviated by taking the formal route as well. Sure, it’s more work, but I think it’s worth it. I’ll publish my responses and process here in fairly short order.

1a. Book List:

  • Thinking in Systems – to gain a shared language with systems thinkers
  • The Fifth Discipline – to expand on that language, gain antedotes
  • Protocol (How Control Exists After Decentralization) – about new social structures and expectations
  • Revolutions in Reverse – what winning looks like, group creation and unification
  • Take Back the Land – internal conflict and societal skewing
  • The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It – costs and benefits of generative systems 
  • Poor People’s Movements – costs and benefits of scaling up

1b. Theses

2. Sure, you can work with a non-academic research lab, but even that is based upon affiliation with a formal organization, with its own expectations.

3. “Ethically” of course being a contextual term, but still one worth striving towards while also examining on a regular basis.

News From the Outside

I’m sitting on a repurposed fishing boat, which is now an art, music, and hacker venue. Last night I toured the guts of it, slipping between shoulder-high engines, the air smelling of diesel and slick oil. Doors hiding computer terminals, and audio mixing setups, and soldering stations, and a lathe so large they must have built the ship around it. Blo letting me onto the bridge, where the only piece of new equipment is the mandated ship locator and broadcaster. The crew asks for your preferred language and then your name when you enter the tiny mess hall, a window cracked for the hand-rolled cigarettes. I now have just enough German to nearly state that for my language, but am still too self conscious, so instead I listen to theirs.

view of Canary Warf from MS Stubnitz

View from my room on Stubnitz

It’s the first quiet time I’ve had in a week, the last being a six hour moto ride through the English countryside. Sheep perched on stone walls, eyeing us as we went by, hugging curves and throttle. Between then and now have been hours of hard work, rockstars of response tech tools building and conversing, finding overlaps and launch points. Between that and the ship were also bombs in Boston, staying up late into the night funneling the energies of people seeking information, freeing up brain cycles to respond rather than question.

And today was Camden Market, strange back alleys and food smells. Wandering aimlessly with no purpose, simply to see and examine, ask and listen. The papers held by passengers on the London Underground all have Boston on their front pages. Half the emails in my inbox are the same, the vast myriad of my social (fingers in) pie (charts) exhibiting ripples. I find a shop that sells mediocre doner and examine horse statues. Tomorrow is Krakow, after the flight to Warsaw and the 3 hour express train. The distraction and calm are perfect in coping with the vast ocean between me and anyone I could be hugging, which is the most I could be doing right now anyway.

Tonight I’ll sit on my tiny bench on Stubnitz, with my too-quickly-ending book, and listen to sounds of an empty banking hub from out my window. The disco balls will hang deep in the ship, refracting light inside the hull; and I’ll daydream about sailing away with them, with spotty wifi and floors to scrub, to write about what I haven’t yet researched.