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In Baltimore, victims meet face-to-face with their offenders

Lauren Abramson speaking at Pop Tech 2010. Photo: Kris Krüg

CAMDEN, Maine — Putting victims and their offenders together in the same room and letting them “work it out,” as Lauren Abramson, the founder of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, put it, may seem a tad naive.

In fact, it can be a more effective — and perhaps more serious — approach to juvenile justice than what judges and prosecutors do now, which often amounts to no more than temporary incarceration and release.

As evidence, take this: The dismissal rate in the juvenile justice system in Baltimore, a city with one of the worst crime rates in the country, is around 50 percent. That means half the young offenders who cycle through the court system, for anything from robbery to felony assault, are released without so much as a lecture. “It’s either not much happens, or you get put in detention,” Abramson said of the youth offenders. “A lot of them do see it as a joke.”

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Using cell phones to deliver health care to African children

Matthew Berg speaking at PopTech 2010. Photo: Kris Krüg

CAMDEN, Maine — Much of the Do-It-Yourself foreign aid movement taking shape these days is focused on how to make new technologies applicable to old problems. In Africa, for example, there is one simple yet seemingly intractable obstacle preventing the successful delivery of health services to poor women and children: Not everyone gets counted.

“If you’re born at home in a rural village, you’re not born in a health facility, and you die of pneumonia, other than your family, there’s a real chance that no one ever knew who you were,” Matthew Berg, a programmer and social innovation fellow at PopTech, said in an address to the annual conference here.

This anonymity stands in stark contrast to the ubiquity of mobile phones across even the most impoverished regions of Africa. As Berg put it, “more people have access to mobile phones now than fever treatment, diarrhea treatment.”

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Crowdsourcing ‘violence interruption’ in Chicago

Patrick Meier at PopTech 2010. Photo: Kris Krüg

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.

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Fighting corruption in India, one ‘zero rupee’ at a time

CAMDEN, Maine — Birth certificates. Driver’s licenses. Ration cards.

In India, these and other documents are the essential records of everyday life, as they are in most of the developed world. Government papers are necessary for virtually every aspect of professional and family life: applying to college, getting a job, buying a home.

They also come with a price — on top of the government fee.

The large and unwieldy Indian bureaucracy is rife with corruption, advocates say, and Indian officials have made a regular practice of extracting bribes in return for government services. The most glaring examples are pervasive horse-trading in the Indian political system: officials handing out lucrative government contracts in exchange for under-the-table bribes.

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Celebrating failure, and other novelties, at Pop Tech

Alan Rabinowitz, David de Rothschild and Susan Casey at PopTech 2010 in Camden, Maine. Photo: Kris Krüg

CAMDEN, Maine —  Need to Know has arrived in Camden, Maine, the site of this year’s Pop Tech conference. Two producers — Abigail Leonard and Alex Nikolchev — and I will be reporting from this bucolic summer colony on the coast of Maine, where a diverse array of musicians, artists, programmers, scientists and social entrepreneurs is gathering to share their successes — and failures — in attempting to change the world.

The schedule is a dazzling list of innovators, policymakers and celebrities (John Legend and OK Go are here, and we’ll hopefully be talking to one or both of them in the next several days). And there’s so much going on. Right now, Amishi Jha, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami, is on the stage of the Camden Opera House on Elm Street talking about “failures of attention,” and her work — funded by the Department of Defense — teaching what she calls “mindfulness” to members of the military: “Paying attention in the present moment, with a nonjudgmental and nonreactive stance,” as she describes it. “Cultivating a present-moment experience.”

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