CAMDEN, Maine — We’ve heard about “freakish” waves, fake Indian currency, meditation in the military and the relationship between happiness and money (not as strong as you’d think). All of these ideas have, in one form or another, been used to effect social change, in places as far-flung as Hawaii and Chennai.
These “accidental breakthroughs” are the specialty here at the Pop Tech conference. But there’s another, more essential component: unconventional collaborations. Pop Tech organizers strive to put people with diverse, even incompatible talents in the same room, talking to each other about their failures and successes in social innovation. For example, there’s only one event at a time here, forcing everyone to cram into the same opera house at once. Authors, rock musicians and scientists share the same stage, talking about the same topics.
Even the lunch breaks are venues for collaboration: Each participant is randomly assigned a local restaurant to facilitate unlikely conversations between thinkers, activists and innovators who don’t know each other.
A case study in these sorts of planned accidents is a collaboration unveiled today at Pop Tech called PeaceTXT. The program is a joint project between a violence prevention initiative in Chicago called CeaseFire — which was featured on Need to Know in August — and Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing platform that enables users to share information about disasters and other international crises through mobile devices. The service has been used to map human rights violations in Kenya and, most recently, user-generated reports on the effects of the earthquake in Haiti. The idea, as Patrick Meier, the director of crisis mapping at Ushahidi, described it, is that “you’re more likely to be dug out from the rubble by a neighbor than by a search and rescue team.”
Meier and his collaborator Josh Nesbit, executive director of FrontlineSMS: Medic, a service that enables health workers in underserved communities to communicate through mobile technology, joined CeaseFire founder Gary Slutkin on stage at the Camden Opera House to discuss the new project. The planning sessions for PeaceTXT, which took shape over the course of a year, were facilitated by organizers from Pop Tech.
The plan is still in its early stages, Meier said, and the general idea is to use technology to help CeaseFire’s on-the-ground “violence interrupters” detect and interrupt the flow of gun violence more effectively. It would also enable members of the community to report incidents of violence, and perhaps potential solutions, through mobile devices and social media services like Twitter.
Meier’s and Nesbit’s mission, they said, was to share their expertise with the organizers of CeaseFire — who treat violence not as a criminal problem but as a behavioral response — and “let them know, from the technology end, the range of possibilities,” Meier said.
“This is very clearly a proven model, so what we’re trying to do here is figure out how we turn technology into an amplifier,” Nesbit added of the CeaseFire program. “We’re really excited to dive into, basically, matching tools with needs on the ground.”
Not all of those tools were immediately embraced by the CeaseFire team.
“The most interesting thing was, for them it was insightful, but then they very quickly said, ‘Well that’s not going to work,’” Nesbit said. Some of their grander notions about how technology might be integrated into CeaseFire’s mission were outright rejected. “That’s great, that’s really fancy and stuff, but that’s not going to work,” Nesbit recalled the CeaseFire team saying.
But the process of floating and discarding unworkable ideas is the hallmark of Pop Tech. And that process has led to an unlikely partnership here between an infectious disease expert fighting gun violence in Chicago and an open-source crisis-mapping platform run by two students of health care and international law.
“I can’t tell you whether it will work or not today. I have no idea,” Andrew Zolli, the curator and executive director of Pop Tech, said in an interview after the announcement. “But that’s what our job is: to find out, to try things that have never been tried before.”