New York City at Dawn

I peeled myself out of my apartment this morning to join the group down at Pier 40 for this morning’s halloween themed Daybreaker party.

Daybreaker is a party series organized by some New Yorkers who wanted to offer an early morning, substance free dance party to the city. The crowd changes with every event, people are there to have fun, be completely un-self-conscious and welcome the dawn with upbeat music and happiness. The DJ this morning kept chanting “we love life” and that really feels like it embodies the spirit of the event and the crowd.

Not to mention the completely breathtaking views from the boat this morning:

Tribeca just before Sunrise
Tribeca just before Sunrise
Tribeca as the sun peaks over the horizon

We wandered around between the decks and the different rooms on the ship. Sometimes dancing near two guys in a siamese twin costume they had created, a glowing dinosaur, a guy dressed up as lady gaga, a series of tigers, and a zombie hot dog.

What a great way to start Thursday morning! I am surprised there aren’t sober early morning dance parties at TED… maybe it’s time to start them!

Live music, happiness and DJs at Dawn in the harbor

Boston for a Few Hours

In an interesting turn of events during my lunch break yesterday, I was sent to Boston for the night to attend a dinner and reconnect with some of the brilliant minds on the medical side of the Ebola response.

Over dinner, we discussed current hospital preparation plans in case another Ebola case appears in Boston or another major city. We talked about current testing methods, one of the guests had just developed a quick and very cheap way to test for Ebola. Jim Collins spoke about his work for the Ebola tests and how his work comes at the gathering point of engineering, medical design and medical research. It was really cool to see something like this happen so quickly!

While I was listening to the rest of the conversation between a number of really fascinating and important researchers, I realized that this was something unique to Boston/Cambridge. That a number of colleagues, distinguished as they were, could come to dinner in someone’s house and converse as easily about breakthrough science in Pharmaceuticals and engineering and the study of the Ebola virus, as one might host a tea party.

Living in New York now, Boston gets knocked regularly. New friends who joke, “oh it’s cute that you grew up in Boston. It is such a cute pretend city.” I also sometimes get, “Oh… Boston? What is there?”

Through the course of the dinner, I slipped easily back into the contentedness that comes from being around brilliant people who value ideas and bravery towards exploring those ideas. They asked me about my research in informal economies. [Very refreshing compared to the black stare, followed by an estimate on my salary and a “why do you do that?” or polite nod and silence]

So, among many other reasons, this is why I love Boston.

You can appear at an event in someone’s living room, and sit next to an expert researcher from one of the premier medical centers in the country and learn about the best ways to manage an Ebola response. It is a city that makes geniuses approachable. It is a city that values the content, ideas, and creativity.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things the city could do better. It is not without its problems and unpleasant quirks. But it is a magical place to be a student and researcher.

It is always wonderful to come back, even if just for a few hours.

Effective Recruitment Strategies: Voluntary Engagement

While I was working as a volunteer, trying my hand at community organizing and voter turn out efforts, I struggled to figure out the best ways to get people to show up to events and participate.

Time is such a valuable and limited resource. How could I convince people that my cause was the most worthy one for that block of time?

It is hard. Especially, in New York City. But we’ve had a lot of success with our current high touch model and salon program, so I wanted to share some of our successes with you. Maybe it will be helpful for people organizing other audiences.

The Salons: 

We just celebrated the first birthday for the Salon series I started with a friend while we were at Yale. The Fourth Wave project describes itself, currently, as:


Drawing inspiration from the French Enlightenment and consciousness raising groups from the 70s, Fourth Wave Salons aim to foster a tight-knit community of female changemakers through collective self-exploration. Each Salon is a small, intimate gathering of 15 women who commit to meeting regularly for discussions.

The group explores topics like the following: What is self-respect? // What makes a good leader? What does character have anything to do with it? // What do success or happiness even mean? // What is “being mature” or “growing up?” // What’s the difference between transactional vs. unconditional love? Is one better than the other? // Why is failure good for our souls?

All of these questions, we hope, lead back to the core investigation: What is a life worth living and how do I go about living that life?

We ran the first test of the project during my senior spring at Yale and then took it live in New York City a few months later. The group grew from 15 women to a little over 250 people in our mailing lists and attendee lists. We have salons running in Miami, Boston, Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are 4 salons running in New York City, regularly, each with their own loyal base of attendees. I have not yet attended a salon that did not have new faces and friends.

Why does this model work?

1) Make sure the leadership is accessible. We are very high touch. I reach out to and talk to every potential salon attendee about what we do, what the atmosphere is like, and what the program means to me.

2) Keep building and growing your team/base. We are constantly reaching out to new people and inviting them into the fold.

3) Offer options. Each salon has a different flavor to it — we try to fit people into the best fit for them.

4) We created something unique and high quality. Women are generally excited about the work we want to do here. The honest, open spaces of our salons feels like a real contrast to a lot of the social spaces in New York City. People open up to strangers, because we create spaces where people are immediately accountable to each other. We dig into complicated and personal topics and ask our attendees to give full picture stories of what they are thinking about/experiencing.

5) Culture matters. Set an example early on. Our discussion moderators and organizers start off conversations by being honest and contributing deeply to the conversation. They set an example early on that it is ok and safe to be honest in these spaces.

6) Give everyone some responsibility for making the experience run smoothly! Each person contributes to the experience: we usually host potluck brunches or dinners, and each person is responsible for something.

7) Choose an appropriate setting. We host all events in our living rooms. I think this adds a degree of intimacy and sharing a space that belongs to other people.

8) Ask for feedback. We are constantly asking our attendees what salons mean to them, what they enjoyed and what they would like to change about the experience. The whole experience is meant to be a collaborative effort.

That’s it for now, but I am sure I will keep adding points as I go through our year in review documents.

UX Design and Hacking Survey Models

To the dear friends who watched me squirrel away into working on my TED talk and do my “homework” for a mysterious class… here is my confession.

I am working on something really cool. Something really cool, that I hope will change the way we do data collection for especially complicated fields like… informal economies.

One reason I decided to come work in New York City instead of going back to Mexico or Colombia for more research is that I wanted to learn more about smart design and business models. I started taking the General Assembly User Experience design course this fall to address my interest in design… and smart research. I like the way designers think and problem solve, sketch, test and produce work that is meant to appeal and engage with you. UX goes a step beyond that and designs based on input and existing behaviors observed in their customers. US designers notice how people interact with technology and images on small iphone screens or larger web based programs. I like how carefully it combines new design features with existing behavior patterns.

UX designers create products with specific goals for their users in mind… their job in general is to advocate for users! The types of questions we discuss in the course are about aesthetics, mechanisms that can be learned by playing with the program, and using existing behavioral cues to help people navigate software. Maybe the best line of the introduction class was:

“The best art makes your head spin with questions. Perhaps this is the fundamental distinction between pure art and pure design. While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.” – John Maeda

I am spending a few hours a week sketching and thinking through the details of survey design, from the point of view of the individual administering the survey and the person receiving the survey. For especially complicated data sets, I think this will really make a difference.

In my time in the field, I have tried a variety of different information gathering techniques. I canvassed for several of the past election cycles while I was a student in New Haven, I ran surveys on the informal economy and urban development in a dense Mexican city and again in a rural town of 350 people. I ran a second series of surveys on the undocumented population in Boston and New Haven to understand public opinion on the Dream Act as it was going up for a vote. These are just a few examples, but each of these events had different goals and audiences in mind.

I learned a few things early into each process that I think are important to keep in mind throughout this redesign process:

1) Surveys CANNOT be too long. Short and sweet, figure out in advance what information you need and what holes are missing from the data set you are trying to build. For some of these longer conversations, explain that it will be a longer conversation and not a standing-in-someone’s-door-way-this-will-be-really-quick-I-promise conversation

2) If you have to explain the question beyond basic clarification questions, this piece of the survey has failed and will probably not yield great results from this particular question

3) the advice I received (if you are quiet and wait long enough, people will keep talking and providing more info. Sometimes information that is more useful or relevant than you would have thought to ask for) is particularly relevant for Americans, who really do tend to fill silence when they are uncomfortable, and not applicable across the board.

4) Just like business negotiations, the best case scenario for surveys is when both parties have time to make small talk and get comfortable with one another. The answers tend to be more authentic and it is possible to explore beyond the initial questions the survey listed going into the conversation. This is also a difficult piece to navigate.

For these next few weeks, I am thinking through technology and design opportunities for survey design. It’s been a fun process — much more zoomed in to specific locations for buttons, gestures, design features, information storage and organization, and a number of other things that I took for granted before this course. But so far, the results seem promising.

TEDGlobal: Recap

A week later, and still revealing in how amazing TEDGlobal was this year.

The experience for me at TEDGlobal for the last few years has changed a little each time. Last year, I went to give a talk on Best Practices for a New University Level TEDx. It was great to spend time with other TEDx organizers from all over the world. I keep in touch with many of them, and have run into organizers from Egypt, Pakistan and all over the US in my travels to various countries. It brings a lot of great content and thinking into my inbox all the time, which is a gift.

This year, I was attending as a TEDUniversity speaker and was able to think about and produce my own content. I remember walking onto the stage after practicing some Amy Cuddy power poses in the hallway (they actually really helped!), took a deep breathe and felt myself grinning. The talk flowed out of me, just like I had hoped it would. And it was real and it was my own. I learned a lot about getting feedback, editing mercilessly and drafting from this experience. I realized how very important it is to find editors and brainstorming partners that you really trust and respect. The TED team was fabulous throughout the process — and when it was finished, they were the first people I heard from and hugged.

For the rest of the event, I wound up having the most interesting conversations about my field, technology and maps.

One evening I talked through data visuals to explain my mapping ideas for the informal economy with a software designer. We talked about the future of cities and software.. and he gave me some ideas to help clarify my work and objectives.

A long time mentor sat me down and gave me feedback on my lifestyle (read: totally crazy, doesn’t sleep and desperate to learn as much as possible… sometimes at the expense of sleep/health/social life). We talked through my goals and the work I want to accomplish… and I left with clarity knowing where I need to go and feeling centered for the first time in a while.

I talked to a series of infrastructure designer and builders about cities and informal economies. As it turned out, they each had a very different and interesting perspective into the wild world of city planning and economies. They pushed me and gave me things to read and encouraged my work. I have endless respect and awe for this particular team and cannot wait to see what else they accomplish all over the world!

In essence, the TEDGlobal conference was like being at an endless dinner party with smart, obsessive researchers, creative minds and artists, designers changing all of the experiences around us, and people that I am humbled to call friends. I am one of those people who somewhat frequently feels alone in large rooms of people, and that was never the case at TED or TEDx events.

On a side note, Other exciting follow-up from TEDGlobal news: I was asked to give a talk at TEDxMunich in November! It was be great to be back in Munich. I have not been able to visit since I was an exchange student in nearby Ulm in highschool…

I am still processing a lot of what I learned at the event and what I am taking away from it as I determine my direction for this and next year. I will post more soon.


TEDUniversity at TEDGlobal 2014

On Tuesday, I presented my talk at TEDGlobal 2014 to close out the TEDUniversity session. Here is a recap of the full event.

It was a really great experience. I rewrote and edited this talk frequently to get it right and try to fit my 7 minute mark. I had a lot of help and feedback from a number of mentors and the TED content team, which really helped me think through the content, sequence and strategy of the talk. It was, in essence, a very basic intro to why informal communities are interesting. I hope I will get to dig into more of the reasoning slowly as I keep moving forward with research.

I think I ran over in the end, but I was really in the zone during delivery… so I never looked at the clock beyond the 2.30 mark, where I was still making great time. After nervous run throughs all week and early early that morning in the hallway of the Copacabana Hotel… it felt good to walk on stage. Take a deep breathe and grin before delivering the best run through of my talk I had done yet.

It felt so good.

I received a lot of wonderful feedback and had really wonderful conversations about informal economies for hours (and now days….) afterwards. Which is essentially my ideal place to be.

It’s also helping me find ways to explain the ideas floating around in my head. The larger reasons why informal economies are interesting and worth noting. Especially for governments that want to understand fuller profiles of their cities.

To end, I’ll share one particular victory moment. A personal hero is a really talented researcher who works on black market/criminal activity and has spoken at TED before. I have asked him to advise my work before and he has been very supportive of me/my research. He was at TEDUniversity and saw my talk on Tuesday. And then found me Tuesday evening to tell me that I had done a great job. The feeling was comparable to what it would be like if Neil Armstrong told a young Astronaut that they had done a good job on a NASA mission. Not to say that my work is anywhere near as complicated and/or delicate as a NASA mission. But this was… well. I am very pleased with how this all turned out!

Thank you to everyone who sat through edits, run throughs, exhausted and frustrated phone calls/drafts/discussions with me. You are all so wonderful 🙂