History over space and time – via Wikipedia

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If you plotted Wikipedia articles over location and time, what would that look like? This video shows us exactly. Each dot that pulses is a Wikipedia article related to that specific location, for that year. Wait until about 1600 or 1700 for the “map” to become apparent.

It’s interesting at how many articles focus on Europe, while so few are centered on Africa, South America, and Asia for much of history. Certainly begs the question of what “history” is if it’s written primarily by a concentrated group of people about themselves. Draw your own conclusions.

A History of the World in 100 Seconds from Gareth Lloyd on Vimeo.

The good from destruction

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I was finishing my taxes this weekend, and faced the annual feeling of bewilderment at the byzantine system our government has established to calculate its cut of our paychecks. It’s no surprise that there’s always a politician advocating that we simplify the tax code. If that ever happens (and I earnestly hope that it does), the law firms, accountants, experts, books, forms, and websites that specialize in dealing with the old system would be rendered obsolete. Destructive, yes. But is it a good thing? I think so – propping up a creaky, value-destroying system simply to retain the “usefulness” of a few niche resources is a poor use of talent and wasteful to society.

Joseph Schumpeter popularized the term “creative destruction” to illustrate this concept years ago. While he was referring to economic theory, “creative destruction” is just as common in the context of development and human rights. Look no further than the political uprisings in northern Africa, and you’ll see this concept exercised daily. Even the latest round of the “election” process in Haiti had required people to oust a candidate who’d been kept in the race through corruption.

Anywhere that injustice, waste, corruption, or oppression exist, people must “destroy” old systems and ideas that damage society. But disrupting the old can bring uncertainty, chaos, anger, and even physical harm. And there’s no guarantee that the new will be better than what it replaced. But without the risk takers who are willing to endure whatever hardships the creative destructive process brings, our world would be a far less humane place.

Old school vs. new school

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old school

Above is the old school way of dividing organizations: for-profits and non-profits, or businesses an charities. Non-profits help social problems, for-profits make money. An easy categorization, but hardly accurate, and certainly outdated. It’s also makes a dangerous assumption, that the good created for society is most easily judged be assessing an organization’s tax status. This paradigm assumes that there is no overlap between the two (i.e. all non-profits create more good for society than all businesses). The world isn’t that simple, and below is a more accurate depiction of how organizations might be categorized (click the image for an enlarged version):
new school
At the left hand side of the spectrum are entities that harm society, and to the right are organizations that seek social good for society. For the purposes of this illustration, “social good” is the generally positive intent of an organization’s product or service, or the positive outcome sought from the way the product or service is delivered. Favorable results that stem from job creation, economic growth, etc. are not represented here.

These categories don’t imply that a business or charity is either “all good” or “all bad”, either; there are bright and ugly sides to any organization, but these nuances can’t be included here. Instead, this spectrum ranks how actively each type of organization generally seeks to better (or worsen) society.

For-Profit (Active Social Ill) – these are companies that actively harm the world through their actions. Thankfully there are few of these, but Girls Gone Wild is a good example. Sorry, no link included here.

For-Profit (Social Ill from Company) – a business that harms society through the way it runs itself falls into this category. A shady mortgage company certainly fits the bill.

For-Profit (Social Ill from Industry) – these are entities that operate in an industry in which unwanted social outcomes are generally unavoidable. Coal mining, for example, provides a needed product, but no matter how its done and no matter how coal is used, it harms nature.

For-Profit (Neutral) – a business that doesn’t actively harm society, but doesn’t go out of its way to improve it, could be defined as neutral. A large number of business would fall into this category, like a local car dealership.

For-Profit (Social Good at Discretion) - it’s not uncommon for a large corporation to develop its own foundation to make grants to other non-profits, and that’s how these businesses would be categorized. This is ranked lower than other categories, because donations are not necessarily tied to sales or the behavior of customers.

For-Profit (Social Good from Revenue/Social Good from Profit) – companies like Patagonia and Newman’s Own pledge a minimum percentage of revenue or pre-tax income towards causes. These arrangements directly link the success of the company with donations to charities.

For-Profit (Social Good from Product) – this is a gray area, but there are certainly some businesses whose products are genuinely designed to improve people’s lives. A medical device company, like Medtronic, fits this bill.

B-Corp (Social Good Before Profit) – these are a more recent creation, but more and more business are created with the intention of a double- or triple-bottom line, in which social outcomes are placed on par or even before the pursuit of profits. Better World Books is a good example of this.

Non-Profit (Advances Culture) – organizations like the art museums, opera houses, performance centers, and the like all seek to improve society, and in general, the more of these, the better.

Non-Profit (Corrects Social Problems) – these are charities that seek to feed the hungry, house the poor, heal the sick, and so on. It would be difficult to make an argument that these types of organizations don’t deserve their won place at the far right of the spectrum.

Disagree with any of the categories or rankings? Have a better way of breaking out types of organizations? Be sure to leave a comment.

Resources from World Water Day

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In case you missed it, yesterday, March 22, was World Water Day. The United Nations designated this day in 1993 to raise awareness of water issues around globe. A different theme is focused on each year, and in 2011, it’s Water for cities, responding to the urban challenge. The goal is “… to spotlight and encourage governments, organizations, communities, and individuals to actively engage in addressing the challenges of urban water management.”

While the official World Water Day site can be found here, I put together five resources for more learning about water issues. Happy learning:

The Freakonomics blog discusses a simple “nudge” that can dramatically increase the frequency in which people in Ghana treat their water.

Forbes magazine blogs on the need for innovative water technology, particularly in heading off water shortages in urban areas.

Joseph Bergen put together an amazing interactive map that allows you to compare water statistics between any two countries around the world.

- Don’t have much time? Take a look at charity: water’s brief interactive on how water changes everything. When you’re done there, have fun playing with their projects page.

- Decided that you want to get involved? Huffington Post has some great suggestions on organizations that promote clean, safe water to support.

Is the US prepared for a disaster at home?

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Two leaders in supporting the needs of children in the United States posted an article yesterday on the Huffington Post, titled “Japan: What if It Happened Here?”. Irwin Redlener, M.D. is the President and Co-Founder of the Children’s Health Fund, while Mark Shriver is Vice President and Managing Director of US Programs for Save the Children.

The authors point out two issues. First, the National Commission on Children and Disasters has found some significant shortcomings in how well our federal and state governments are prepared to respond to a disaster at home. Secondly, since the Commission is about to wind down, it’s likely that the attention paid to this issue will only wane. Poor timing; if the government’s response to Katrina was any indicator, I doubt our country is as prepared as we might like to believe.

Not only does a lack of government preparedness mean that children and their families will suffer needlessly in the event of another domestic tragedy, it also means that an increased burden will fall on charities to fill the gap. And since donations to U.S.-based non-profits dropped by a staggering 11% between 2009 and 2010, the organizations we’ll rely on to as a backstop may not have the resources they need to come through.

Excerpts from the article are below, and the full text can be found here:

In a strange turn of events, a mind-numbing humanitarian crisis caused by this month’s massive 9.0 earthquake, an enormous tsunami and hundreds of aftershocks has been nearly overshadowed by a growing crisis from damaged nuclear power plants along Japan’s northeast coast…

At the end of the day, if it is ever possible to determine precisely how many people perished in this cascading disaster, the fatality count will surely exceed 10,000. And victims from the most vulnerable populations will be disproportionately affected: the elderly, the hospitalized, the homebound and, of course, children…

Whether or not Japanese authorities planned sufficiently to care for its children caught up in such horrific events is not yet clear. But it is at our own peril that we, in the United States, will fail to grasp the importance of making sure that children in this country are protected during and following disasters.

Unfortunately, in a case of particularly bad timing, the National Commission on Children and Disasters, chartered by Congress following Katrina, is about to fold up shop — just when it is most needed…

The Commission has uncovered glaring problems, including the shocking fact that 80 percent of ambulances don’t carry equipment specifically designed to protect children. Only 12 states require minimal preparedness for child care facilities and schools. And, in relation to Japan and radiation, the Commission has found that our nation doesn’t have the capacity to adequately stockpile and rapidly distribute iodine in proper doses for children.

After a decade of unrelenting and unprecedented natural disasters and terrorist attacks in the United States and around the world, the question of whether or not another tragedy will eventually strike the United States is clearly a matter of when, not if. That said, we have an opportunity to make sure that, whatever happens, the nation’s children will be maximally protected. Reauthorizing the National Commission on Children and Disasters should be a Congressional priority.

Dr. Irwin Redlener and Mark Shriver are members of the National Commission on Children and Disasters.

 

A Japanese girl looks for a new shelter following the earthquake. (Courtesy surfwithberserk.com)

What can Google tell us about natural disasters?

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I’ve been curious to look at the staying power in the news for recent major natural disasters, so I took at Google’s results a bit closer. You may not know this, but Google allows you to hone in on a specific day, and it will tell you how many results it thinks were created on that day alone. So by entering in consecutive days, you can build a daily timeline.

I compared four natural disasters: the Pakistani floods, the Haiti earthquake, the Chilean earthquake, and the Japan earthquake/tsunami. Here’s the average number of daily results for one week following each disaster:

  • Pakistan: 0.6MM (search for “Pakistan earthquake”)
  • Haiti: 1.6MM (search or “Haiti earthquake”)
  • Chile: 0.6MM (search for “Chile earthquake”)
  • Japan: 23.9MM (search for the greater of “Japan earthquake” or “Japan tsunami”)

Japan outpaced the other disasters by far. Hard to believe that there was an average of 24 million results created on a given day during a week following that disaster. But what’s really interesting is the degree to which daily results for Japan plummeted. The day of the earthquake in Japan, there were 36.8MM hits. Yet one week later, the number dropped to 10.2MM, nearly an 80% drop. Compare that to the other three disasters, where daily results held their own, and even increased, during the following week.

The anomaly has left me with two questions: why were the initial results so much higher for Japan? And why did the number of results drop so quickly? The numbers are graphed below: each line shows the change in daily results as compared to the day of each disaster itself. Anyone who’s bright enough to come up with a reason for this, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Why NGO work matters to policy

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Akhila Kolisetty recently posted an entry to her blog titled “Pangs of Disillusionment”, in which she expresses her frustration in seeing the effectiveness of direct development work. An excerpt is below:

The non-profit sector generally fills the gap left by insufficient or ineffective government services, not just in the U.S. but across the globe. In my opinion, this gap shouldn’t exist in the first place… Ultimately, I believe we should all be working to ensure that governments are providing the necessary services and social safety nets to their people, and that other needs (such as employment) are fulfilled by the economy… The organization(s) I work with may be providing certain services, but at times this all feels so distanced from the large scale change that seems to be needed in the world.

Sometimes, I feel hopeless that NGOs can truly change things. After all, it seems that broad, meaningful change and paradigm shifts will not be influenced by the operation of thousands of NGOs, but rather by political change, good (or better) governance, policymaking, and economic growth…

I’ve not worked for an NGO or in development myself, so I can only speculate on how easy or difficult it is to grasp the efficacy of one’s work in the field. So I’m not going to argue for or against Akhila’s point. But I will argue that there isn’t such a strong disconnect between work on the ground and policy change. Looking at things from the other side of the coin (the “consumer” side that NGOs turn to for donations and support), I can see two ways in which there is a strong connection:

#1 – The amount of attention governments pay to development policy is related to the degree to which voters care about these issues to begin with

First, a generalization: governments are usually selected by the people whom they govern. Whether it’s an election, an overthrow, a revolution, or otherwise, the people’s voices tend to play a part in selecting their leaders. If we want policy makers to make good decisions about promoting basic rights at home and abroad, then we need to make good choices about whom we put in office in the first place. Thus, if we believe that people have a voice in selecting the government, then surely it’s essential that voters understand and value good development policy to begin with.

And how do individuals learn about and appreciate this? NGOs often provide that gateway. Sure, news media can inform, but NGOs allow people to get involved more directly in supporting causes, making their connection to development work much more meaningful. Think about how hard many NGOs work to engage their donors and keep them up to speed on issues – unless they can keep donors well-informed and inclined to donate, they’ll perish. As an example, how many more people are aware of the issues surrounding clean water since Charity:water began its aggressive marketing a few years ago?

To summarize, governments won’t be effective in promoting human rights unless they are composed of officials who value this agenda. Those officials are unlikely to reach office unless voters are development savvy, and these voters won’t be nearly as well-informed unless NGOs do a good job of educating them.

#2 – Work on the ground can serve as grassroots advocacy in and of itself

I recently read “Three Cups of Tea”, about Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute, and have blogged about that NGO in a previous post. They are worth mentioning again here. CAI focuses on building schools, particularly for girls, in Pakistan and Afganistan – two countries with which the United States hasn’t exactly had smooth relations. In these parts of the world, Islamic fundamentalists have been actively promoting hatred against the United States and Western society in general. The fact that our military has caused the death of numerous civilians in this part of the world hasn’t exactly helped the situation, either.

While foreign diplomats and ambassadors will certainly play their role in improving relations among these nations in the years to come, the “advocacy” work that the CAI has done in educating children will likely have just as profound an effect. In the local regions where Greg and the CAI have worked, the United States isn’t hated; it’s respected – all because of the devotion an American gave to improving the lives of children and their families there.

When those Pakistani and Afgani children grow up, what do think will matter more to them – visits from a US official in the capital cities, or the fact that an American and traveled halfway around the world to provide education for their impoverished families? Which will have a greater effect on policy in the long-term?

Why engineering saved lives in Japan, but not in Haiti

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[Update - I posted this entry a bit premature, as the death toll in Japan has risen considerably since a few days ago. And one could argue that the engineering of and subsequent damage to Japan's nuclear power plants excacerbated the problem, not lessened it. In any case, I will leave the original post below, as much of the point remains the same, and the numbers are no longer accurate.]

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The disaster in Japan today is a poignant reminder of why (good) engineering matters so much in saving lives. The strength of the earthquake there this morning was 8.9 Mw, several orders of magnitude higher than the quake in Haiti just more than a year ago (at 7.2Mw). Yet Japan will likely suffer a far fewer deaths and sustain much less of an economic setback, all because it’s structures were engineered, constructed, and maintained at a far higher standard.

Japan’s population, at 127 million, is 13 times that of Haiti’s. The population densities are roughly equal. But today’s death toll in Japan of about 300 (as of this afternoon), is about 1/100th the number of mortalities in Haiti. In other words, 1 out of every 32 people died from the earthquake in Haiti; in Japan, 1 out of every 423,000. That means that a person would be about 13,000 times more likely to die during the earthquake in Haiti than in Japan.

Peter Haas’s TED talk, entitled “Haiti’s disaster of engineering” is a few months old, but it certainly is worth watching again today. He makes a clear case for why investing in safe structures can be one of the most effective ways of saving lives:

For another perspective, take a look at the UN News piece, “Japan Earthquake vs 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami vs Haiti Earthquake“.

Why working at a startup is easier than being in Port-au-Prince

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The past few days at work have revealed some disconnects in our team. One person thinks the sky is blue, another green, and a third, pink. While dealing with this is never fun, we can always work through the communication breakdowns because the number of touch points is small, we communicate frequently, and we’re all aligned on the same end goals.

As I was thinking of how to improve upon this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of being in Port-au-Prince last week and listening to the challenges organizations working there face in helping rebuild the city. If clear communication can be a periodic challenge for startup (like where I work) that’s well equipped to deal with disruption, think about the difficulties involved with coordinating a loose network of disparate organizations and individuals like what exists in Haiti. Visit the country’s capital city, and you’ll find mixed together an impotent and corrupt government, a series of buttoned-up, big-budget international NGOs, and a smorgasbord of small-scale, fly-by-the-seat-of-the pants local organizations. Not exactly a easy group to try to put on the same team.

Not only are there few good ways of networking these organizations together, but the associations that do exist (like the UN cluster system) have no formal authority to get things done. The only body that should possess any legitimate power, the Haitian government, hasn’t developed enough trust with either the local or international community to be much help either. Adding to the challenge is that each organization has its own set of objectives, processes, cultural norms, donor requirements, etc. While you hear plenty of criticism in the media about why more hasn’t been done, what’s amazing to me is that things get done at all.

My point is that organizations that have achieved results in Haiti, especially in Port-au-Prince, deserve credit (and lots of it); especially those who have been there long-term. If you know of an NGO that’s been successful there, be sure to thank them, and pass along your encouragement and support to keep working there as long as necessary.

Port-au-Prince: peaceful from up here, but crazy down below.

Running for your life

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I’ve flown into Port de Paix, a small rural town located in the Northwest Zone of Haiti, on many occasions. But today, we chartered our own plane to fly us there from Port au Prince. So instead of taking the usual 15-20 seat aircraft, we ended up with a tiny Cessna that could barely hold three people and a couple of suitcases. One thing about these planes: you can’t hear then until they’re right on top of you.

So I’ll never forget this morning’s flight, as it served as a first-hand lesson as to why most airports have restricted access, no pedestrian traffic, and a wide berth of space between the landing area and any other thru-way. Watch the guy in the clip below as he tries to avoid getting landed on, and you’ll see what I mean. “That’s what I call running for your life!!”, the pilot laughed as the oblivious pedestrian narrowly escaped death. From this day forward, I’ll always be thankful for the fact that I never have to worry about running out of the way of an airplane.