First stage of MobilizeMRS research

Day one in Arequipa: asking as many questions as I possibly could about how Health Bridges International‘s partner clinic in Alta Cayma operates. This research will serve two purposes: extensive background for how MobilizeMRS might be useful, as well as assessing resources for intra-clinic collaboration. 

A little background. The catchment area for the clinic in Alta Cayma includes 30,000 to 35,000 people. From this population, the clinic saw 22,000 visits in the past year, with between 15,000 and 17,000 unique patients. Recorded number of visits to the clinic is increasing at a rate of 4,000/year. The clinic is pretty well resourced, according to Wayne of HBI, with a team of physicians (rotating 5, not all full time), dentists (2), nurses (9, not all full time), pharmacy (4), management (2), and two specialists, a psychologist and opthamologist. Essential medications are provided through a Catholic charity program and they can get most others through donations. Where the clinic lacks is primarily in specialization, health education, and patient care advocates.

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Jarvis’ new world order

I still think the internet is a disruptive force. Jarvis agrees:

In this sense, media – music, newspapers, TV, magazines, books – may be lucky to be among the first to undergo this radical restructuring. Communications was also early on because it – like media – appeared close to the internet and Google (though, as I say in the post below, it’s a mistake to see the internet strictly as media or as pipes; it’s something other). Other industries and institutions – advertising, manufacturing, health, education, government… – are next and they, like their predecessors, don’t see what’s coming, especially if they think all they’re undergoing is a crisis. The change is bigger, more fundamental, and more permanent than that.

If you take this for granted, the trick is to now see what opportunities the change presents. At the top of my head right now are micro-credit systems, or supplemental currencies, which quantify knowledge creation/flow and social and environmental capital. There’s no time like the present to invent.

Internet as a utility

Here’s a thought: the internet is a utility much like electricity.

It offers a service, information, just like electricity provides energy. We talk about the internet quite a bunch now because it is a new service, a novelty. As it becomes more pervasive in society, and thus deeper engrained in what we do, we will talk about it less so. It is fundamentally changing how we operate; because of this, I believe the electricity parallel is an apt one.

Those companies who understand how to put the internet at the core of what they do will prosper, while those who do not will likely not fair well. It is very rarely this days I come across a business that does not use electricity.

Just a thought.

Peripheral education

There are two points I’d like to argue about education as it stands today. For one, the traditional university system is fundamentally incompatible with the information transformation we’re now swimming in. This redesign will have to happen in the next decade, or else major pipes are going to break just like they’ve broke with the music industry and how they’re now breaking with newspapers. Number two, a type of non-traditional learning has arisen which I find particularly valuable: peripheral education. Many of these ideas around these two points have been floating in my mind for the last six months, but recent events have made me more inclined to write them down. The first was a darn astounding Twitter conversation last Saturday night about J school educations, captured nearly in full by @greglinch, and the second was a recent post from Jeff Jarvis about hacked, organic education. As he argues, we’re moving from an analog world to a networked, digital one. The analog industries who do not make a hasty, well-executed evolution will be unsuccessful in the digital realm.

Let me begin with my first point: the traditional university system, just like newspapers and General Motors, is obsolete, ineffective, and outdated. It is a monopolistic institution designed for the 19th and 20th centuries, eras when information was a scarcity. In the networked world, access to information is ubiquitous. Of the five classes my friend DJ has at USC this fall term, he only goes to two lectures. One because he doesn’t have the textbook, and the other because it’s the only class he values. My other friend Shane feels most classes are just regurgitated from the textbooks, which I tend to agree with. Another friend, an honors student, is kept so busy that he doesn’t have enough time to do his homework. In the end, he copies it from cramster.com. Personally, I have to take school one term at a time because the things I’m learning in class are so far removed from the education I hold valuable outside of the university. Case in point: this term I am taking Physics 201 for my Environmental Sciences major. Unfortunately, most of the information covered in the course I already learned in my junior year of high school IB Physics. More than any other course I’ve taken, this one is just for the grade.

To work with the key issues, one needs to understand what the core strengths of universities are and how these traditional strengths are eroding. The why is ubiquitous access to the network. According to Jarvis, universities serve four functions: teaching, testing, research, and socializing. Teaching is imparting knowledge upon students, generally a one-way flow. Testing is ensuring the students memorize the information well enough to pass the final exam. Academic research is still a monopoly universities can hold, but does little to add to their business model. A parallel could be journalism to newspapers. Journalism is crucial service newspapers have provided in the past, but hasn’t been what pays the salaries of the reporters. Socializing is synonymous to both networking and group learning. Three of these four roles, in my opinion, are almost lost to the network already. Testing, the fourth, will be lost to the network as soon as a suitable ISO-esque certification for education is established.

It is not as though education is becoming any less important, however. Part two of my argument is that one type of learning, what I call “peripheral education”, is becoming increasingly valuable. There are three types of education relevant now: technical, experiential, and peripheral.

Technical education is the knowledge you learn to fulfill a specific role or position. Let’s talk metaphors. If I wanted to be a mechanic, learning the different car parts, how they work together, and what to fix when they didn’t work together would be my technical education. If I were a developer, this education is technical knowledge to prove my skill in Python, databases, etc. For journalists, technical education is learning the tools of the trade. When Pat Thornton went through J school, the tool was Quark. In my case, the tool is InDesign. These tools don’t need to be imparted in class, however. Greg Linch taught himself InDesign in high school, and I’d like to say I’ve taught myself 99% of what I need to know based on previous experience with Photoshop (which I learned on my own in high school). With exponential change in the tools, it is more efficient to teach technical education via tools like Lynda than in the classroom environment. It is simple economics of scale.

Experiential education is learning through the hands-on application of knowledge. Whitman Direct Action, and our Sadhana Clean Water Project of last spring, is one approach. Students give themselves specific goals, and learn on their feet how to achieve those objectives. In our case, it was compiling a book on water development issues in India, hosting a conference in Mumbai, and researching the socio-political constraints to clean water access. This type of education serves two purposes: the students learn leadership, planning, and implementation skills through the process, and the project results in valuable contributions towards whatever issues it is trying to address. Institutions need to make the transition from squandering student creativity and brainpower, to applying those characteristics to solving some of the world’s most pressing issues. Taking this to journalism, many newspapers and news organizations are shutting down their bureaus as cost-cutting measures. If universities were innovative, they would launch foreign bureaus staffed by J school students to steal that market back. To date, I haven’t ever heard this happening.

Peripheral education is learning through continuous exposure to the increasing quantity of quality information. It is the hidden pearl of networked education, the process culling information you push yourself to absorb, letting it change the way you think, and then understanding the connections between the information. In an increasingly digital world, understanding how information works together is critical. One key part of this philosophy is that the information you absorb at any given point isn’t necessarily related to what you are working on at that given moment. Instead, peripheral education is about exposure to a wide variety of information types. Podcasts are one enabling tool of peripheral education. In Our TimeTED Talks, and Social Innovation Conversations are all information sources I consider as valuable, if not more, than classes in the traditional university system.

In addition to the types, the tools for education changing too. Blog posts are the new social essays. The traditional format, obviously, is to write an essay, submit it to the professor, have the teacher’s aide grade the work, and then recycle the paper. The essay served a single, cradle-to-grave purpose. Blogging, however, is the art of cultivating conversation. When I write a post, I can be quite certain to get organic feedback on both the content of what I write, and the format it takes, by more than one person. Twitter is the new class discussion. Saturday night’s conversation about the future of J schools was far more enriching than most any other class I’ve had this term. Twitter offers somewhat organized, niche conversation about a wide range of topics. In the “traditional” classroom setting this is almost unmanageable, but on Twitter it can happen organically. I think having this type of valuable, enriching, and constructive conversation via Twitter, and not in the classroom, only strengthens the argument that real education can easily happen outside of the university system. Furthermore, I completely disagree with Kevin on podcasts. Podcasts, audio and otherwise, are the new lectures. It’s about sourcing your information correctly, just like picking the right university or the right professor.

Schooling has traditionally been a top-down approach. We are quickly moving to a networked paradigm. For universities to survive the changes, they need to transition to an approach which fosters creative action. To take a newspaper parallel, this is early 2001. The internet has been around for several years, but doesn’t pose a serious threat to their core business. Yet. What happens to the paid teaching positions, though, when the students can educate one another?

Correction: I inappropriately attributed the Twitter conversation transcription to @gmarkham when it was really @greglinch. My sincere apologies for the error.

Student news as process

Will Sullivan asks, “What are small, incremental steps one can make to fuel change in their media organization?”

Why, adopt the technologies that are changing the media organization, of course.

Disclaimer: I’m no formal contributor to this October’s Carnival of Journalism but, y’arr matey, I be boarding the ship anyway. 

Online publishing mediums are in flux and will continue to be as time progresses. This is a truth. At the moment, you’ve got RSS, a website, Twitter, blogs, etc. to deal with, all of which have distinct cultural assumptions as to content form. Were all of these distribution mechanisms around five years ago? For the most part, no. What mediums will be added in the next five? It’ll be interesting to see.

There won’t be a stable “e-newspaper” product which parallels its predecessor, the print product. To my understanding, this is largely due to inherent qualities of the internet as a technology. It’s more of a paradigm shift than anything else. Journalism now has to contend with ever evolving distribution mediums. Websites, the mobile web, SMS, and the Kindle are all, ironically, examples of nearly the same thing, but not the same thing. There are different cultural expectations for content delivery depending on the type of device.

In any regard, while going through Jeff Jarvis’s “New business models for news” slides, a few small to medium-size content/distribution projects relevant to the student media arena came to me. First, student news organizations should be compiling community blog round-ups. Synthesize the local discussions. There are surely at least a few students blogging on campus about various popular topics of the day. The recent political debates come to mind at the moment. News stories without links are static, but think of what would happen if you started quoting student blogs and encouraging participation. Bam, community. Furthermore, this organizing power increases if you do two things: have an email address where your audience can send in leads or links, and read regularly as many campus blogs as you can. 

Second, Twitter-source coverage of hot topics, especially politics. Obviously it shouldn’t be all of your converge, especially because Twitter only covers a certain demographic, but Twitter is certainly an interesting source of content. In Eugene, the Weekly Enema has almost scooped the Daily Emerald on this one.

Lastly, build up your email newsletter product. Include a big image or two at the top, summaries of the leading stories, and a list of the most popular blog posts. Craft the newsletter just like you craft the paper, and get people to sign up for it. For some odd reason, I’ve heard more about this recently than our website (might it be that people haven’t discovered the wonders of RSS?). Tying your email edition to a CRM product and use the wealth of click data to create tailored, personalized emails.

The business model, of course, is the elephant in the room. There are plenty of innovative minds working on this issue, however, and, with money to be made, I’m not too worried. Monetize as you evolve in tune with the changing formats.

Ideas for a UO Sustainability Conference in October?

Steve Mital, Sustainability Director for the University of Oregon, recently sent a call for ideas to help guide a Sustainability Conference tentatively planned for the 23rd and 24th of October, 2008.  It is being organized by Sustainability Directors at Portland State University, Oregon State University, and the University of Oregon, and the second day will reportedly be “entirely devoted to students and sustainability.”  My suggestions for the conference, written in full on the Oregon Direct Action blog, revolve around these ideas:

  • Planning this conference digitally and in the public eye so that students can be a part of the entire process
  • Adding an international component to help bridge the local-international sustainability gap
  • Networking with local sustainability non-profits
  • Drafting a set of sustainability guidelines for campus community to voluntarily adopt (i.e. minimizing paper use, using Tupperware instead of styrofoam, etc.)
They are looking for ideas on “workshops, themes, keynote speakers, etc.” until July 3rd.  Let’s make this conference worth attending!

Adhoc transportation

Here’s the problem: I, like many people I know, drive too many places all alone in my car.  One person in a three ton metal vehicle that could easily transport five.  To move all of that mass around, with such unused, waste internal space, is an inefficient use of energy.

Money is made by identifying and capitalizing on inefficiency.  Inefficiency in the market, inefficiency in a business, and inefficiency in moving humans to where they want to go.

Here’s one solution: ad-hoc transportation.  Capitalizing on the triple convergence between location-aware devices (iPhone 2 on June 9th, anyone?), social networking (Facebook, Twitter, et al), and an absurd number of nearly empty cars on the road (suburban America), the goal should be to connect people with people who are pointed in the same destination.

We’ll call it Me Drive We for the time being.  It’s the most creative, available domain I could find in 30 seconds of searching.

Say, for instance, I have a ’99 Subaru Outback Legacy, Forest Green, and want to go out to Hood River for the day to photograph a windsurfing competition.  To get directions and a forecasted drive time on the day of the event, I’d most likely use my GPS-enabled device to search up the destination.  After I’ve decided on a route, Me Drive We could give me a wee little pop-up asking if I would like to publish my trip to the public.  Me Drive We would then send me a text message with the names and numbers of people either in my area or along the way who are interested in making a similar trip.  Or it could send my contact information to them, it doesn’t matter how the connection is made so long as it is made and made effortlessly.

It shouldn’t need to be limited to one platform, either.  If I had rock-solid information on what the wind conditions were going to be the week before (and we’re speaking a lot of hypotheticals here), I would be able to use a website to report where I’m going and when.  The value in having at least one mobile tentacle, however, is that I’ve never seen something like this done, and I read a lot of tech news, and you can make it brain-dead simple with one device: the cellphone.

Apple’s new iPhone is highly likely to be released in the next month with these features:

  • 3G high-speed internet
  • An official SDK (Software Development Kit) with first-round applications
  • GPS

It’s always going to know where I am, and I might just want it to also know where I’m going.

Wait, what if I don’t want to drive or ride with complete strangers who might axe me to steal my wallet?

This is where the social networking should poke its head.  Leveraging a social graph already created with Facebook or, heaven forbid, MySpace, I could choose to ride or drive with people I already know who have shared where they want to go too.  The service (ideally) would only reveal my location and travel plans to the circle of friends I’ve already identified.  If someone I didn’t know wanted to get a ride with me, I could again capitalize on the social graph to see if we know anyone in common.  

If I ended up riding with some I didn’t know, Me Drive We could even give me suggestions for ice-breakers, based on data culled from other social networks.  For instance, 90 percent of the music I listen to is scrobbled to Last.fm, and leads to very interesting charts.  This week, my top artist seems to be Gangstagrass, who released a stellar hip-hop/bluegrass album I would highly recommend downloading if you haven’t already.  Me Drive We could take this information, or knowledge of the recent books I’ve enjoyed from Good Reads, and give me and my passenger quality cultural artifacts to discuss. 

The most obvious constraints are usability and critical mass.  By riding on the shoulders of two giants moving through the forest at the moment, Facebook, or Facebonk as I call it affectionately, and Apple’s iPhone, I think Me Drive We could easily overcome them.  Integration with existing devices and sites would super necessary for successful adoption.

You build it for us lonely drivers and I will use it.  It’s time to be more efficient with our energy.

Components of an open-source organization: Part one

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles on applying the concept of “open-source” to a non-profit organization.

A month or so ago, I was hit with the notion that the open-source movement might be applicable to systems beyond software. What I quickly realised, much like when I “invented” the word guesstimate, is that someone had probably already thought of this idea. Undaunted, I began to brainstorm on how I might apply it to an organization I’m working with called Whitman Direct Action, primarily because I feel the concept behind the organization itself is revolutionary and could prove to be a useful model for other colleges and universities to build upon.

For those who are not well-versed in open-source’s history, the philosophy could be argued to have gone pop culture with Linux, a free-to-use and distribute operating system licensed under the GNU Public License. The idea of free software had existed long before Linus Torvald started working on his operating system but, from my uneducated viewpoint, that’s when it began to go mainstream. At present, Linux has become the dominant operating system for many of the internet’s web servers, and a popular distro called Ubuntu is rapidly gaining popularity as a free and open alternative to Microsoft’s proprietary Windows operating system. Unless the trend changes, and again from my viewpoint, open-source architecture will continue moving broadening its marketshare because of the speed at which intellectual property now moves across the internet, as well as the apparent mutual advantages to people who collaborate on open-source projects.

This change in scenery is also apparent with the rapid rise of Wikipedia, a system that encourages adapting and building upon intellectual material. Wikipedia, for those who have been living under a rock for the past few years, is “the free dictionary” where anyone can edit and improve upon its articles. It relies on the collective intelligence of the masses, something normally believed to be inferior to a professional editor. However, a recent study found the Encyclopaedia Britannica had just a small percentage less errors per article than the seven year-old Wikipedia. Considering Wikipedia now has 8.29 million articles in 253 languages compared to the Britannica’s 29 print volumes, it’s no stretch to say the writing is on the wall.

Open-source is a tricky concept to explain to people who have little to no experience with programming. For those beginners, the term “source” refers to the structure of commands which lie behind any digitally created object and “open” implies that the code is free to use and distribute. Take, for instance, the construction of an automobile. Most cars and trucks have, among other things, an engine, a drivetrain, and a way to control the vehicle, sometimes called the wheel, gas pedal, and brake. Those systems are parallel conceptually to code in the digital world because they are the means to an end. They determine the overall output of the product. When you apply open-source to a car or truck, this means that the parts, or information to create the parts, is to be freely used and distributed. If person B wants to improve upon person A’s automobile, they would be free to copy and adapt person A’s orginal designs. Of course, persons C and A could then have access to the adaptations as well. In fact, a system like the one illustrated is beginning to take place in China. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything documents how businessmen in China have opted to open-source the designs of their motorcycles to cut down on the costs associated with developing intellectual property. Working together is now becoming a very smart business decision.

In another example, this piece of writing is being published by the open-source blogging software WordPress, and some of its research has been done on Wikipedia. The list goes on.

Jumping the fence from open-sourcing intellectual property such as code and blueprints to the functional structure of an organization has only recently become possible; thanks for the ability to do this goes to the spreading ubiquity of the internet, and the brilliant tools some companies are building on top of it. An open-source organization is one which seeks to become completely transparent to the public, meaning that any or all of its processes are easily visible and adaptable.

With Whitman Direct Action, or at least initially, we hope to:

  • Podcast all and any of our staff meetings or phone calls
  • Transform the departamental update emails into blog posts, and encourage interstaff discussion in the form of comments
  • Make our financial strategies and budget freely available online
  • License applicable content through Creative Commons
  • Actively seek feedback from the community on any aspect of our organization, and make that conversation open to anyone

The driving philosophy, of course, is to make our organization “open-source” in the same sense of any software code: free to use, distribute, or modify.