Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Technology for a better world.

Great Resources for Non-Profits June 26, 2008

Filed under: non-profit,philanthropy,technology — pdxbob @ 4:54 am

Last night I attended the monthly Portland Net Tuesdays meetup, which meets at the AboutUs headquarters in SE Portland. This meetup brings together people interested in the use of technology in non-profits. I’ve been going since February, when the second Pdx Net Tuesdays meeting was held. The topics last night were Connec+pedia and Squarepeg. Bram Pitoyo has written a comprehensive review of the two presentations here. These are great resources for non-profits.


Game Programming Competition & Making Learning Fun May 20, 2008

Filed under: education,energy,OGPC,technology — pdxbob @ 5:11 am

As a former high-school teacher and parent of two children, I have always had an interest in seeing how education can be made to be fun. I’ve seen a lot of different styles and even experimented with some of my own unique approaches, but still the statistics ranking students in the United States indicate that there are many kids falling through the cracks. I don’t need to bore you with those numbers. Instead I want to reflect on a great experience I had this weekend as a judge of the Oregon Game Project Challenge where about twenty teams of high school students presented and demonstrated the computer game they created over the last month or two. For specifics on the competition and the top grand prize winner, see fellow judge (and fellow Corillian-CheckFree-Fiserv-ian) Stuart’s post here.

What most intrigued me about the experience were two things: 1) the students showed a lot of positive team-building skills as they regularly commended each other’s work, accepted a degree of specialization and were proud of their contribution, and in some cases exhibited a synchronicity in their story-telling presentation to the judges. The second thing that intrigued me was that the competition had a theme: energy, which each team was to incorporate in some way into their game. Since I was judging in the category of Game R&D, it was important to me to see how the students obtained information on energy and how they applied it in the game. Just having a theme (that was something other than killing all of the zombies or another worn-out game idea) gave team participants who were not the jedi programmers on the team a chance to apply themselves to research and to creatively incorporate their ideas into the game design.  It was so cool to hear stories about “ethical decisions” that a player had to make in a game, and about “monitoring the pollution level” as different actions were taken in a game.

This was the first programming game competition put on by TechStart and I am looking forward to the second OGPC next year. If you know high-school students who might be interested in this type of challenge, or even teachers who could share the idea with their students, please contact TechStart.

A week or two ago I picked up a book at Powell’s Technical entitled How Computer Games Help Children Learn by David Williamson Shaffer, an Associate Professor of Learning Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I just started reading it yesterday and I am very impressed with his approach. The book is intended to show how we can use game technology to teach children and young adults how to think as if they are in the real world of work. That’s not exactly how the author put it but it comes close. This type of thinking is really close to what I envision as necessary in educational thinking. To give you an idea of what I think really works, I’m going to relate an experience I had as a “seminar” leader way back in 1976 when I led a seminar on the topic of Government & Business for the National Junior Achievement Conference held one week in the summer at Indiana University.

I had attended the conference as a student delegate two years earlier after I had graduated from high school, and returned as a counselor the previous summer. In 1976, I decided to lead a seminar and chose that Govt/Biz topic. All of the seminars that I had attended as a student had been really boring: the seminar leader presented slides or gave a talk with notes. There were questions and answers afterward. Sound familiar? My approach was radically different. I devised a simulated scenario where a company had the right, to a degree, to pollute a nearby river (this was the 70’s ok) and recent studies indicated that there were more environmental effects on the ecosystem than originally thought. The company also wanted to ramp up its production to meet a growing demand. After explaining the scenario to the students in a ten-minute lecture-style address, I walked them to a classroom where they were instructed to form teams of 6-8 to a table and discuss the open-ended questions that had been written on the blackboards (remember, it was the 70s). Ultimately, each team was expected to provide a resolution to the government – business conflict that had occurred.

This “game” as I like to think of it, had no single winning team, but the enthusiasm shown by the kids was at a high level. They loved having the ability to discuss amongst themselves these tough problems and to debate solutions. I facilitated, walking around answering questions mostly by pointing the discussion in a direction. This teaching approach is obviously more adaptable to social sciences and humanities than it is to the hard natural sciences but I’m confident that if the topic were the chemical analysis of the environment that we still could have had a roaring good time debating how to go about doing the research and completing a study (ok, yeah I was quite a nerd in hs).

There are a lot of ways to get students engaged in learning. I see another recent interest of mine converging on the motivational education plane. Within the past couple or few years we’ve seen an explosion of APIs (application programmer interfaces) to gazillions of databases of data or services on the web. ProgrammableWeb is a site that follows the evolution of the “programmable web.” In this article, it proudly states that there are over 3000 mashups in its online repository! Each mashup is an application that uses data from one or more web sites to present it or use it in a unique way. Thirty-nine percent of those, it reports, are mashups involving mapping such as Google Maps. On their “Mashups” tab, you can see what the “Mashup of the Day” is. Today it is one called “ResumeDroppr.” There is a popular mashup called “Follow Oil Money” whose description is

An interactive tool that tracks the flow of oil money in U.S. politics, displaying Federal contributions as maps and drillable tables.

Now, getting back to education. Imagine students creating mashups. There are tools for building them (Sprout comes immediately to mind) so teachers/facilitators/educators have a way to focus the less-tech-savvy students by directing them to easy-to-use tools. I’m personally excited about this as an instructional medium that I might even start working on something for teachers and students to use.

What are your thoughts about using games, mashups, other media, as teaching tools and environments? and Dr. Joel Selanikio receive Knight Foundation Grant May 14, 2008

Filed under: journalism,mobile,news,non-profit,technology — pdxbob @ 11:29 pm

Just a day after I posted about the wireless report of the UN Foundation, one of the case study subjects in that report wins a Knight Foundation grant in the second year of the foundation’s news challenge. Dr. Joel Selanikio, a founder of,  won the $325,000. grant with the ‘News on Cellphones’ idea of delivering news to the poor via text messaging!. develops open-source mobile technology which is used in developing countries to improve the health care system for the rural poor.

You can see all of the winners of Knight Foundation grants here.


Mobile Phones and Wireless Technology streamline social progress

Filed under: health,mobile,philanthropy,poverty,technology — pdxbob @ 4:49 am

I just finished reading the Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use report issued by and written by Katrin Verclas and Sheila Kinkade. The report is based on case studies of the use of mobile technology around the globe including Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, South Africa, Argentina, Syria, Indonesia, Peru, the United Kingdom and the United States. A survey of over five-hundred NGOs was developed by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research as part of the research project.

There is an estimated 3.5 billion mobile phones in use throughout the world and 86% of the NGO employees in the survey use mobile phones as part of their work. Not surprising, mobile phone use at work is more common among NGO employees in Asia and Africa than it is in developed areas with more wired infrastructure.

Reading the individual case studies was fascinating. A few highlights but there are a lot more in the actual report:

Point-of-care access to health information is provided in Kenya and Zambia using EpiSurveyor, a free mobile software application that was developed by DataDyne, a non-profit consultancy founded by a medical doctor and an ex-Red Cross IT consultant. EpiSurveyor not only delivers information to the device, it allows the easy creation of custom forms for download to the mobile device. The user-friendly interface has allowed organizations to collect diagnostic health information from people in the field and improved the monitoring of diseases. One of the challenges facing organizations deploying these field applications is the aggregation and analysis of large amounts of data. This is an area in need of scalable solutions.

In South Africa, an info-line service allows people to text their location to a phone number and receive the location of the nearest clinic testing for HIV. lets parents enter the name of a toy and receive back whether lead or other toxins that may have been found in it.

The Open Medical Records System (OpenMRS) is a free and open source electronic medical record application for developing countries.

There is growing evidence that mobile phones can move people to action more effectively than other media. A number of campaigns reported to the authors show a response rate of 20 to 45 percent for text appeals, which is considerably higher than that recorded for email alerts. The report also noted that, in the commercial market, people have an increased likelihood of purchasing a product or service when notified by text message, and that reliable data is not yet available for the non-profit sector.

Greenpeace Argentina created a powerful advocacy system by maintaining a database of 350,000 mobile phone numbers. Other Greenpeace offices are planning on testing the Argentina method of mobile activism of advocacy in 2008. Greenpeace Argentina is planning on expanding its mobile infrastructure with a more robust platform.

The report is available here. Thanks to the authors for this valuable report.


Technology and Service in Cambodia November 27, 2007

Filed under: Cambodia,philanthropy,technology — pdxbob @ 4:30 am

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Cambodia lately including Michael Freeman’s book, various blogs and some MDG materials. Tonight I came across a growing social business named Digital Divide Data (DDD) that is set up as a 503-C in the US and as an NGO in Cambodia. DDD’s mission is two-part: to deliver high-quality digitization services to clients (one of which is the Harvard Crimson newspaper, and to provide to their employees “fair wages, health care, education, and career advancement opportunities”. Many of the employees, moreover, have physical challenges suffered because of land-mines, polio or other misfortunes of their poverty-striken lives in Cambodia.

I can’t say enough about an organization like DDD. They not only bring technology work to a country trying to raise itself out of poverty, but they bring work to the very people who have the most difficulty finding work: the physically challenged!

Their latest newletter reports that their employment has now reached 450 (from an original 18 in 2001) with an annual budget of $1.5 million, sixty percent of which is from earned revenues with the remainder from donations. There are a lot of people in need of work in Cambodia, both in the city of Phnom Penh and in the countryside. You can participate in DDD’s mission to raise up this wonderful country by helping their employees with their education. DDD has a scholarship program where an employee (referred to as an operator since they operate using computers) pays half of their educational costs and the donor pays the rest. They ask for $240. per year from a donor to cover the educational costs of the scholarship.

If you’re moved by this type of investment in a country’s and a person’s future, go to their web site and look at some of the videos. They are moving.


Papert-style education and locative media devices November 18, 2007

Filed under: constructivist learning,education,Papert,technology — pdxbob @ 11:11 pm

Seymour Papert, formerly an MIT professor and now at the University of Maine, is famous for his studies and publications on enhancing students’ creativity in education with the use of technology. He professes the use of constructionist learning as opposed to instructionist learning. See this Papert speech for more information.

I just came across an interesting project named Frequency1550 by Waag, an organization in the Netherlands whose original mission was

“to make new media available for groups of people that have little access to computers and internet, thus increasing their quality of living.”

Frequency1550 is a mobile game uses 3G cell phones and GPS devices to transport students back to medieval Amsterdam where they compete with other students to find answers about the city in those days. Although I love the idea of putting the control in the hands of the students, this is part of the constructivist learning strategy, I was surprised that students can sabotage other students by planting bombs to go off in particular locations.


One Laptop Per Child (and One for your child) September 25, 2007

Filed under: Classmate PC,Intel,MIT,One Laptop Per Child,poverty,technology — pdxbob @ 6:07 am

The One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program started at MIT that had the goal of creating a $100 laptop for children in developing countries has announced an offer for donors to not only donate a machine to a child in a developing country but to get one for their own child to use. The program will be for a short time in November and is revealed here. The original $100 price-tag goal, however, has been raised to $188. And the program requires you to pay $399. for the two laptops, one going to a child in a poverty-striken area and the other to you.

This gives OLPC an opportunity to expand the distribution of the laptops throughout the world while generating excitement about them among families in the developed world. For kids interested in programming, it provides an additional opportunity for developing and testing software for the machine. Presumably a separate Linux machine would be necessary for software development; not sure.

Intel’s Classmate PC is their own attempt to inject a low-cost laptop into the developing world. Apparently Nigeria has adopted it in some of their villages because it runs Windows, which presumably will give high-school age students a better chance of getting work. That’s Intel’s claim I believe, not mine.