Civics in an age of mistrust and decentralization

Originally published on Medium with NECSI

For the January salon at NECSIEthan Zuckerman and Erhardt Graeff led a discussion and workshop on civics in a distributed society. Both are at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, Ethan as director and Erhardt as a PhD researcher. We explored how people with influence/power/money try to create change in the world, how those affected by those changes view and respond to those attempts and changes, and also what we would do as people of influence/power/money.

Many thanks to Ethan and Erhardt for their valuable time and attention as well as images used in this blog entry, and to Erhardt especially for designing such a great workshop, and for suggesting edits to the blog itself. Y’all are pretty great. ❤ – w

Many people want to change the world.

Leverage through money or power

Democracy as it tends to be generally practiced is the act of selecting people for positions of power, and then pressuring them through petitions, protests, and letters. Ethan remarks that this is a remarkably impoverished view. We also interact with governance and our social systems based on what we buy (and don’t buy), where we live, how we speak. However, today our trust is low, and not just in government, but in institutions as well; and not just in the US, but all over the world (see Figure 1). (note: The origins of distrust may be traced to the high complexity of society that makes centralized decision making ineffective.) Many of us would like to change the systems we live in to improve the world. What strategies are available to make such change?

Figure 1

Among those who are trying to make changes are individuals and foundations with large amounts of wealth who strive to act in ways that will improve the world according to their perspectives and understanding. What strategies do they use to exert influence? How successful are they at achieving their objectives? Examples ranging from the Koch brothers to George Soros provide some insight. They might invest in think tanks, in market-based interventions, in campaigns to affect public opinion to place pressure on courts and elected officials.

Regardless of whether an individual came to have influence through an electoral process or through access to wealth, Lawrence Lessig provides a framework in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace on which most (if not all) change is attempted.

Four fulcrums

  • Laws are explicitly stated codes of behavior, created and enforced through governance systems.
  • Norms are often implicit social expectations, enforced through social pressure and assumptions of media and other communications.
  • Markets shape behavior by making some actions more or less expensive financially or time.
  • Architecture/Code are the frameworks that surround us and must be adhered to because we act within them. Today many of these frameworks are technological which might be called: the tyranny of the database, or how interfaces demand obedience.

How do you know if what you’re doing is working?

The enforcement of laws can be tracked. Market costs can be quantified. The use of an architecture implies success of its constraints (though choices of what architecture to use, and innovators, hackers and other reappropriators, provide freedom). Ethan and Erhardt primarily focus on changing norms. These are also arguably the most difficult to characterize and to discover if a hoped-for-change is occurring, as norms are often implicit, rather than explicit, and are distributed across the statements of individuals, groups and media sources.

At the Center for Civic Media, they think about norms and the attention economy, and one way of seeing shifts in norms in this view is by tracking how the media talks about a topic. They use a tool called Media Cloud for gathering media sources, creating visualizations, and comparing the words used to talk about topics of discourse. For instance, Erhardt analyzed the dynamics of the media conversation around Trayvon Martin through the roles of broadcast and participatory social media.

In short, creating change is hard, even if you’ve got money and/or power.

Here’s the video from our salon

More on the topic of civics in a distributed society from Ethan’s post about his keynote at Syracuse University’s Humanities annual symposium on Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust (highly recommended, and most of the images on this blog comes from the associated slide deck).

How would YOU create change?

With this framing, this question was posited to the salon attendees. Erhardt facilitated an interactive workshop: “So let’s say you have 10 million dollars. What would you do, about climate change? Fund think tanks and organizations? Fund advocacy groups / passing laws? Fund research? Create tech to do things we can’t otherwise do?” The room divided into 4 groups, and then picked one of Lessig’s four means of interventions and brainstormed ideas.

What would you focus on doing, and how would you know if it was working?

Architecture/Code: Attach sensors to cars, trucks, and environments focused on transportation-based discharges of greenhouse gases. The emissions sensors could provide immediate feedback to drivers and city officials when emissions go to high and trigger sanctions.

Markets: Invest in a startup that offered green logistics/delivery services such as bicycles that would compete with truck-based last-mile services such as UPS and FedEx. Gain market share not just by comparative cost but also by being better for the environment.

Norms: Incorporate data about individuals’ carbon emission from how they live into their online social profiles so that their is an opportunity for social sanctions and desire for self-improvement is publicly viewable.

Law: Create policy that forced power suppliers to develop more resilient grids from renewable energy sources. The data would be monitored by the government for compliance.

We were also joined on Twitter:


To shift the world, even with massive funding and assumed power, is difficult. All of the interventions discussed at the salon were at a speculative pilot/demo level. To know you’re succeeding through an intervention is also difficult. There was a realization that those who have money and power are often not wildly successful at changing the world because of the difficulty of understanding how constructive change can be achieved. Perhaps a few “why don’t you just…” phrases were put to rest. At the same time, as individual citizens, we saw how much of a role we have to play in societal shifts — perhaps more effectively in our distributed and connected networks.

“The exercise of designing a method for evaluating your campaign’s success often forces you to rethink and get more specific about your original intervention idea. When you need to turn your target and goals into dependent and independent variables to study and then worry about the timeline for change — it really complicates your view of how to make change. And I would say each of the groups felt this.

There was also a clear bias amongst participants toward norms-based change even though they were addressing legal fixes, market forces, or technical architectures. We all want to think that people will know what behavior is the right behavior once they have enough information. The fact that such a process takes many years and many interventions and runs up against cognitive biases where information counter to your position can leave people stronger in their problematic ways, is what makes norms-based change so hard. The goal of making sure that everyone in the workshop had a chance to think about laws, markets, and code as well helps concretize the need for many different approaches: carrots and sticks in various guises needed for a movement to make its mark. And $10mil is not a lot of money to start with.” – Erhardt

Homelessness, an Initial Inquiry

Originally published on Medium with NECSI

Homelessness is a persistent problem in US cities and elsewhere. Homelessness should not be viewed in isolation, as it is coupled withhealth, career, family and socio-economic context. Recent innovations in approach to addressing homelessness and associated problems in the US, particularly “housing first,” have been hailed as major advances by providing housing and services, without imposed limitations around behavior or curfews. Still, the problem is far from resolved. NECSI dedicated both of our July salons to the topic of homelessness, as well as returning to the topic in October.

We started by building a basic map of the problem/solution space of homelessness — what is the current understanding, strategies to address it and key actors? Participants in our discussion group have contributed to an ever-growing list of initiatives, research, and reflections on this topic.

The difficulties in effective response to homelessness include a mismatch of complexity and scale similar to problems in the health care system. The capabilities of response organizations do not match the scale across the population and complexity of individual circumstances. An industrial one-size-fits-all approach does not address diverse individual problems, but efficiency is necessary in order to address the largest scale societal aspects of the problem at sustainable cost. Moreover, there is limited effort to analyze the underlying drivers and the opportunity to change them so that the problem itself diminishes in scale.

Among the issues that may be exacerbating the problem: weak social support systems of family and community; poor state of mental health care; lack of ready access to adequate medical care; the coupling of poverty, crime and a revolving door prison system; economic developments affecting the relationship of employment opportunities, income and housing costs; geographical dimensions of housing; and the increasing complexity of successful participation in the socio-economic system. We can consider the dynamics of individual participation in society and how it can be disrupted. People may be compelled to depart from established paths of societal participation due to medical emergencies, family conflict, mental health complications, employment problems, or even endemic poverty. Such individuals can get caught in what appear to be similar to the turbulent eddies that accompany rapid flows of fluids, cycling in and then out of jail, halfway houses, homeless shelters or other short-term “solutions.” Escaping these cycles to restore effective participation in society is difficult to achieve without addressing the entire context. The barrier to to such an escape appears ever growing. Prevention may not attract sufficient attention when the limited support programs are available only in extreme cases. In short, by stripping away social support, we’ve made the gaps through which some might fall wider and deeper.

Many cities and organizations are engaged in solving the problem of homelessness, demonstrating a variety of approaches with lessons about what is and is not effective under different circumstances. These initiatives address: access to housing, work, food, healthcare; specific needs such as mental health, addiction, youth & family services; support networks including mentors, social contact with wider community, support for marginalized groups. Enhancing coordination among various types of activities may increase effectiveness. From a complex systems perspective, separating different types of activities may limit their ability to address the complexity of individual circumstances, and perhaps also the scale of the problem across many individuals, but may also enhance innovation. Innovation is particularly helpful if there are opportunities for subsequent integration or scaling up of these efforts. Few efforts are focused on addressing underlying societal drivers, such as reforming the mental health, legal or prison systems. Recent attention to minimum wage can be considered part of the larger framework of economic issues that impact homelessness among other societal problems.

The benefits of resolving these issues are massive — ethically, as well as pragmatically. Ethically, housing can be linked to basic human rights. The rights of the individual, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, cannot be viewed independently of the systems that enable them to have or exercise those rights. Society also benefits by providing systems that enable individuals to contribute to collective advancement through economic activity and social participation. Pragmatically, the cost of effective safety nets that enable individuals to be productive members of society are lower for many individuals than the alternative — providing housing and rehabilitation for marginalized individuals. Resulting costs include food and shelter, uninsured health care, law enforcement, prisons, etc. When individuals are marginalized, multiple problems reinforce each other. This is compatible with the mathematical model of an attractor in which multiple interacting components self-consistently reinforce a system state.

Cities across the country are renewing their focus on this topic. The White House’s ‘Opening Doors’ initiative asked cities to make 2015 the year ending veteran and chronic homelessness. This time of renewed attention may provide a chance to apply complex systems theory locally, in practice. We are seeking partners with whom to develop a program of engagement, analysis and policy recommendations in our area, and beyond.

the Complexity of Ebola response

Originally published on Medium with NECSI

These notes were taken at the 2014.Dec.18 New England Complex Systems Institute Salon focused on Ebola. Sam, Willow, and 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.


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

Collective understanding, action

Educating people, also incentivizing doing the right global thing

Organizational Inertia — shifting mindsets

Look at reactions of the press

some people saying it’s foolish to talk about Ebola, it doesn’t cause enough deaths — measuring car accidents in the city reqs a small sample; to rule out ebola you need a larger sample.

Treating the community vs individual

Medical risks and questions

Question about door to door: hospitals can be a place for transmission; when you move door to door how does this spread?

Who goes door to door? (send teams. food, &c. they got neighborhood reps to do it)

Marshall / LBR implementer

Medical decision of how to respond

Interrelationships & measurement

Multidimensional; interrelated

Appreciating flexibility of complex analysis to provide new angles

How can we gauge effectiveness in real time? / control groups

General questions:

Building plans over time: how do we share understanding over time

Sharing practice across diseases

? what happens to ‘ECFs’ after the outbreak?

Breakout Groups

We then broke into small groups to continue speaking about these various aspects. The rough notes follow.

Collective Action

Medical response is an individual response.

Go to where the problem is. Impacting people at different stages. Less disruptive to do at a community level. Leaves people where they are and acknowledges that there’s a problem, with a beginning, a middle, an end. Fear is enormous, people begin to see what they might be able to do. 6 years of war isn’t just psychological, it’s structural. So when it goes to the community, it changes that abandonment. Shifting a system

Active demonstration of care. Not just “you have to go to the hospital.”

Have to give up crucially important cultural burial practices.

Close to social unrest in Spain because of the nurse with Ebola.

Treating it as a community problem lets you treat things better on an individual level.

A village in SLE had 7 RC volunteers killed. So who goes door to door? If it’s someone from the community who knows, that’s great. How do you get the communication out there? how do you convince people? how do you get the thermometers out there? There’s an emerging best practice, how do you get the supporting best practice tools out there?

Would opening up internet access to more than first responders be “good” in that people could communicate and self organize, or “bad” in that people would aggregate to the area with wifi for easier transmission?

How is media doing on this? If effective community response is about people having the same idea of the problem, what would US fear-mongering media deal with this?

We live in an information junkie culture. Public health issue at the level of action.

Everything old is new again. We created our public health systems around Cholera, which is twice as infectious and terrible. But our additional systems and structures take us away from our roots.

Social democracies in Denmark, Sweden come out of the Cholera outbreak; the class warfare in England and Russia is in part because they didn’t figure it out.

Want to know how the communities had people going door to door

Burn down Alter incentives for mainstream media to get it right (even if they’re being sensationalist). PRI is doing it right. Build from that.

We need to learn from history


Vulnerability by transmission, what about transmission that can counter vulnerability?

Propagation of disease and information. Overlap with media issues.

Risk assessment from door-to-door, does it introduce a new transmission risk?

Are community level interventions only diagnostic, or also educational?

Given the dangers of connectivity, how do we exploit those dangers to expose them? Model for hostile agents to move place to place. Immunity at a

Good information and bad information. Effective and ineffective. How do we not just track the disease but the information about the disease? Door-to-door.

  • Ask Lyre if the above covers all that should be brought back to the filed
  • Get the word out: on the necessity of contact tracing

Interrelationships & measurement

How do we know the impact of door to door work? or the evaluation of a particular model?

  • use confidence intervals. widely, to clarify what isn’t yet known.
  • find data you can measure quickly everywhere; see what you can learn from them
  • set up systems measuring this continuously; or on demand when risk rises
  • find alternatives to controls (where traditional c. is immoral)
  • (had a real control here: in opinions about how authoritative to be and act) define how [a place?] to set up and publish about such experiments
  • it’s hard to measure where things start; focus on where thing are transmitted. that changes less over time.
  • identify and track possible levers in this area
  • Can’t observe causality. Could say, under model A it’s more likely that things went down because of change C.
  • Be sure to include confidence intervals, not specific propbabilities find the parts of the system that don’t change. find where decisions have to be made, and which ones make a difference
  • Need broad spectrum activity: you can’t simply test one action at a time, you are often hedging
  • Trade-offs: problems with running a pure control. There’s risk aversion; morality; and uncertainty about how harmful both activity and inactivity would be.


How to act?

  • How do you get such a bound when statistics are small? Perhaps you only have 4 distinct outbreak regions.
  • How do you know treatment regimes (social as well as medical) work?
  • Are there moral ways to run a control? Looking into the past, before you applied it; or in regions where you can’t do it for some reason. find systemic shocks, other forced variation real-time understanding is still a problem reporting is complicated as well. who and what gathers data?
  • find data feeds that can be gathered quickly (and learn ways to extract what you want from that sort of data) Try to iterate: to get enough statistics to say something meaningful Fever sensor (for flu) — can be used at a distance.
  • How do you prevent it?
  • YB and NT have written a paper saying it’s a fallacy you see a lot of false positives if you overfocus

Related past discussions

  • Systemic v. idiosyncratic risk
  • Lots of diseases that may come from Ebola (different imprint)
  • Wei (from Hong Kong): Makes me think of swine flu.
  • Even the govt didn’t really mention transmission; and people immediately started to cover themselves and put on masks. Distributed response and decision-making is possible There are things about disease that we can learn, so it’s clear how to react / how to avoid overreacting.
  • Compare computational effects in finance. Similar distributions: fat-tailed. Don’t have the option to cut transportation (there: of data, here: of medical personnel)
  • The # of pre-panics is monstrous. This is dealt with using circuit breakers. Consider creating similar circuit breakers. That’s the only way to avoid the fat tail.
  • Final note on false positives (making people not take alerts seriously). Find a non-binary approach. “If X occurs here, it will be due to amplifying factor Y” — so you can target a response that way in each environment.
  • We could know in W Africa: there’s a risk from having too few clinics & community centers. Early disease: 1900s. John Snow knocked on doors to find cholera. Early crisis maps.
  • We started a war with journalism over ebola: empiricism of the idiot: saying that more people X than die of ebola. overreaction irrational; we had to fight to say it is rational: panic, but early and in the right spot, not late and everywhere else.
  • Think about framing the conversation when publishing to social media. Bypass the press, since they focus on naive issues. And set up a relationship for future communication

Reflection on the Salon’s Structure

Distribute info beforehand: compile readings, slides.

More flipcharts, sharpies, sticky notes. Up on the walls.

Not enough disagreements. Invite a journalist. Someone from other sides. A non-complexity person.

Invite more practitioners.

Return to the topic: revisit, learn, apply.

Multiple breakouts, idea transmission between them

Skepticism makes it easier to take decisive action? The more uncertainty there is overall, the more conservative.

We’re in a time of great risk. How do we respond?

Our current vulnerabilities are growing; without a better avenue for global response, we won’t survive. We have to build those mechanisms.

How do we engage with these problems, how do we discuss them?

How do we develop and propagate these ideas, and welcome more participants?

Expand the community engaged here. We dont need to coordinate a UN meeting to bring about global consequences.

Connected world. if we do stuff here, it can have global consequences.

Renew the way we tackle problems.

Ongoing structure

Once a month — targeted at doing something.

Weekly discussion → action. (what could be done, with whom, how to communicate?)

Rather than looking at one problem per week, look at one type of action per week and look at how it applies across problems.

NECSI Salon : Ethnic Violence

Originally published on Medium with NECSI

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.

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.

When doesn’t violence happen?

Violence doesn’t happen when

  1. all your neighbors are like you, or
  2. all of your neighbors are varied (integration of diversity).

The space between these is where difficulty lies, when not all of your neighbors are like you, but not so consistently unlike you that diversity is the norm. Well then, what do we mean by “neighbors”? It ends up this is very geographically based, and roughly the distance you can traverse in a day by foot or horse (20–40 km), which leads us to believe these tendencies might skew with new travel abilities. Running these models matched up to actualities in Yugoslavia, India.

Some examples

Can either impose integration or separation, intentionally or subconsciously:

  • Singapore forces integration, “to prevent sectarianism.”
  • Greece and Turkey offered to send each other their people.
  • NYC has small patch sizes geographically. But we don’t know how things scaled, the density of people.

A third way to avoid violence: boundaries

The distance you might walk in a day-if there are boundaries around this, unlikely to have violence. These boundaries can be either political or physical. The idea behind this is that if there’s a grouping of a people of a given size in a certain space, they start to impose their values on that space. Others coming through, or “encroaching” who don’t hold the same values would seem to be intruding in a way which violates those values.

If we have patches of that size, can we create peace? Tested the models in Switzerland, which both has diversity of values as well as a general lack of violence. It ends up the mountain rages act as boundaries. Where these boundaries are insufficient, as represented in the models, is where the people do enact violence. Switzerland’s response to these rare pockets was to place a canton, which reduced that violence. Cantons throughout Switzerland are thoroughly mixed by demographic or not at all, which coincides with no violence in these models.

Field Perspective

The clashes in India indicated by census-data overlay are also the area called the Red Corridor, where the Maoist insurgency takes action. That doesn’t show up on the census — and so doesn’t show up on the map models. Gujarat in the West has occasional flareups. There patch sizes may be 20–40km, a lot has intense mixing as well. But there’s a lot of political effort to create separation. It’s intriguing to me that patch size [and equivalents, in other jargon] comes up again and again. Population of Kenya is really dispersed, but the patches of conflict is indeed on the 30/40 km range already referenced. In short, there are alternative explanations for what’s going on — which significantly match up with the models, which is interesting.

from Wikimedia Commons

Creating boundaries

In Rwanda, there were many separations as well as integration. What was happening there? There were boundaries — were these simply in the wrongplaces? In India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the borders are in the wrong places. The people who live there will tell you that. It’s nice to have models which indicate the same.

Creating new provinces: Kenya has also tried this. [aside: contrast w/ gerrymandering? -s] Power dynamics come out in these processes — people aren’t putting borders in right places. What are their intentions?

Lots of Marshall’s work is on the unintended consequences of delivering aid. Interventions often see the arbitrary boundaries which exist, and work with those boundaries. As an example, one hotbed of violence in Kenya had a mass migration. Those migrating clustered as the villages they had previously been in, but settled across a border between two states was. One state side was Anglican, the other side was Protestant. As the aid agencies only worked on one side of the border or the other, religious conflict emerged as one area simply got more attention and aid than the other. Religiously-aligned people previously uninvolved due to geographic distance got caught up in the conflict because of the way resources were brought into the space.

This relates so painfully to my experience in humanitarian and disaster response, where funding and support are silo’d arbitrarily or based on arbitrary policy, rather than on actual need and people. Marshall’s experience is in the extreme of how this can play out, and we must be cognoscente of it as we build tools and engage with communities lest we fall to the same fate.

Field and Model

YBY: the largest Swiss canton is also separated into circles, separated by religion.

In Rwanda before the violence, the Muslim population was about 10% of the total. The Muslim community as a whole stayed out of the genocide, didn’t kill others. The Hutu Muslims didn’t kill Tutsis, et cetera. Some people suggested that they didn’t participate because they had clustered themselves. This model would say those patches should have been targets for others… note there was also class-based violence within whatever else was happening. Maoists would tell you this is what’s happening there as well, not linguistic or religious conflict.

Are these patches the right size? Too small? Too far apart? People tell stories afterwards, but want to see the system.

Questions and Answers

Can be found where we took live notes, to be aware of attention spans and word counts. My favorite bits include:

  • Can we us stories to change a zero-sum mentality to a winning™ mentality?
  • MLK talking to white America about their myths of fairness and justice and equality.
  • Breaking points, with examples from peace demonstrations that devolved into violence after a rock was thrown through a window, often by non-participants.

Breakout Sessions

Conflict patch analysis: what’s needed next?

Many times people make up differences if they don’t exist. So to what degree is this inescapable? How to identify the identity the factors that matter the most at a given time?
Again, more in-depth notes exist on our live notes, with top-level thoughts as:

  • How do we get to predictions or global scope?
  • How do we refine the model / what might be changed?
  • What other data is possible?
  • How do we prioritize where to look?

Failed States

Belgium as a stable failed state: little violence, garbage still gets picked up. Libya as an unstable failed state: lots of violence, no civic infrastructure. Often places in distress are able to ask for, and hopefully receive, outside assistance. Bolstering from the UN, outside trade support, etc. Besides this large-scale response, local individuals can also receive training and credibility from well-respected and known entities such as UNHCR, Red Cross, or academic or medical institutions; then return home to increase the quality of life and stability of an area. Groups like ISIS break these models, as any external entity (and representatives of such entities) are met with dangerously high levels of threat.

I’d like to point out that the Kurds seem to be doing pretty well (not to diminish their substantial losses) at responding to these sorts of issues, as a distributed group as well. We just don’t like to pay attention to them, as they’re feminist Anarchists.

Closing thoughts from salon

There are a lot of people working on peace and negotiation in Boston (where the Salon took place). We (NECSI) don’t know them yet, we need to start reaching out to them and offering to engage with them. We have a simple model that provides a deep lens, and would like to help move beyond the meme of “all just get along” to an understanding that this may not always work.

NECSI takes part in ongoing conversations with military groups. Do theytalk about these issues — ethnic violence? Yes, with a focus on anchoring discussions in the sense that we’re really an integrated world now. The US is no longer in “out-group” conflict: we are an integrated system. [socioeconomic; also environmental ++] Military is vey forward thinking, compared to health care.

Strategists tackling complexity are often still constrained by policy. We still believe we’re looking at a whole system. The approach of blaming individuals versus governments in recent conflict is related to this shift, represented in part by things like not being able to work with refugee groups in Syria because they’re classified as terrorists. This also relates to how difficult things are with Dadaab, the Somalian refugee camp in Kenya, based on migratory patterns and tribal tensions.

People also talked about scales and stories. A single person can do a thing that matters, and that’s exemplified in both the model and from the field. Does that make this a universality class? In a similar thread, we wondered what can be done in actuality, within people’s comfort levels? How do we encourage people to understand complexity so it’s in their intuition when they make choices?

Maryam and I joined remotely, and had a discussion in our chat about if it’s ethical to separate people by imposing boundaries, or by opting for the “my neighbors should be like me” model over avoiding violence through going for “all my neighbors are different from me (and each other), and that’s ok!” model. In the social sciences, there’s a strong advocating for integration because of the empathy it forces. People tend to self-segregate (this is called homophily, or “birds of a feather”) as it’s easier to be around people who already “get it.” But it’s also easier to avoid noticing how badly others might have it, if you don’t have to see them on a regular basis. See also gentrification, gated communities, slums, etc. When schools in the US were being racially integrated, that was the point that was made (and what proved true) — ends up “separate but equal” does not, in fact, work. Maryam pointed out that the schools are still gender specific in Iran, and that she fears this adds to tension and lack of understanding on all sides. So, while separating out genders, or races, or religions might make things safer in the short term, wouldn’t this lack of empathy and understanding make things less stable and healthy (read: equal, just, dignity for people) in the long run?

My lingering question is about how to maintain important cultural practices while also advocating for enforced empathy.

NECSI Salon: First Day Celebration

NECSI’s action-based 4th Wednesday Salon focused on First Day. This is an event which provides the resources, framing, and impetus to take personal responsibility for community health. It is not a fix-all, but is it an important, missing piece in the US health care debate, and a fulcrum for connected shifts to a healthier society.

On Wednesday, March 11th, we will hear talks from Deb Roy from the MIT Media Lab, Devin Belkind from OccupySandy, and Sam Klein from Wikimedia on Distributed Organizations. Register here.

First Day is about taking personal responsibility for your own wellbeing at personal and global level. Inspired from the idea of regeneration and new year resolutions, First Day wants to create a community level engagement at a personal level and community level.

Deck created by Catalina Butnaru

We assumed those attending would be both in a position to, and have a desire to, act. The Wednesday before had provided space for folk to ramp up to this state, including review of readings about a similar Wal-Mart initative. We were additionally inspired by Boston’s own First Night and City Awake.

After very short reminders of what we were there to accomplish for the day, each person introduced themselves and what they were interested in specific to First Day. From these, we pulled out a few break-out sessions tasked with creating an actionable list or guidelines for organizers to work with. The overarching points we ended with were an appreciation of the need of safe space for people to ask questions which might otherwise be taboo (especially around health), comfort in complex problems having interventions (especially with a light hearted attitude!), an appreciation for existing cultural events (Days of the Dead as well as Chinese, Tibetian, and Indian celebrations of new cycles and health), and holistic approaches to mental and physical health.

Slightly curated notes follow:

Refining the Message

learn + care + act: as leitmotif for everyone there. First Day for partners, participants, sponsors: to learn, care, and act

about yourself, your family, about your network or patients, about particular communities or conditions

make this informal and welcoming. not a sale, no marketing. focused on topics, not on selling a solution

Existing networks focused on outreach and some of the above:

  • health service initiatives (startups, tools)
  • charities, publicity campaigns (often by condition)

Topics for the Fair: areas of most uncertainty, people need reassurance

  • old age : alzheimer’s, self care, company
  • insurance: finding doctors
  • getting regular care: what is available; insurers: in position to ensure people go to the doctor
  • intervention: what is possible, appropriate [mental health, &c]
  • maternity: starting a family, childbirth,
  • chronic pain: exercise, rehabilitation

Stakeholders, defining motivation for each community

  • Business
  • Academic
  • Public

Something the community wants to give, or to solve. A reason to meet together, around what subject. Totally open, or guided topic. If you have a different parts of the community get together and decide on the community level about commitments.

A topic that you care about is more attractive than a generic health fair; which is more attractive than a topic you don’t care about. A celebration is more attractive than an informational event.

So — Invite people to ‘come find your health problem’ at a gathering? Have something like this founded in games and science and discovery?

We focused on ‘Health’ rather than personal resolutions and commitments (compare WalMart’s annual event). What if this broadened to personal improvement?

How to make the event actionable in the moment

Optimize for games and Aha! moments. Fun, Groups, Feedback. How we provide value to the community: value as an outcome, fun as a driver.

Creating a network — Learn and Connect. Make friends.

  • example of phones off in class — bigger reward when the group acts in a certain way (Minority Problem).
  • community or neighborhood paired to itself. Not just an aggregation of individuals, but something you participate in together. Collective.

Make it Fun

Gamifying the event + identification with a group + finding incentives to do more given group identification It’s empowering to make it feel comforting, so we can break the barriers of shame, taboo, to actually address serious problems in a comforting way FUN is the reason to bring them together, and the outcome is learning, value and community building

Working through one Topic

This group discussed if we’d like to focus down on one topic. Topics that impact people’s lives, but action can be taken from prevention to treatment at community level based on how far along a condition is. Possibilities included chronic inflammation, lack of sleep, water, allergies/intolerance, addiction.


Distributed component in addition to central fair?

Checklists for different levels of society

  • for cities: checklist for things to do on First Day: walk in clinics, talk about collective obligations, &c
  • for community leaders: checklist for your flock, events and outreach
  • for individuals: checklist for self, talk to your close family (and friends)
  • for organizations: send people to learn, reflect on what you can improve
  • for sponsors: ways to reflect, amplify this community process (compare WalMart day of health & resolution)

Things to worry about

How to vet organizational participants. Choosing a date that makes sense. First day makes sense;

Deck created by Catalina Butnaru

also considered existing health related holiday things that we might plug into. Boston: marathon! Chinese / Tibetan New Year. (Tie in with each community)

Avoiding duplication, can we build, augment, etc? Or is redundancy ok? Preventing across co-option. Trademark transmission

Closing Comments

Thanks to everyone who came out and made the event amazing. We look forward to building First Day with you!

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.