Greetings From the Christmas Markets!

Greetings from Munich!

I am here in a cafe called the “Hungry Heart” near the ancient part of the city, hanging out and wandering through the streets until my speaker rehearsal for TEDxMunich this afternoon.

I haven’t been back to Southern Germany since I was an exchange student in Ulm in highschool. This time, my German is much better, I feel comfortable wandering through the streets on my own, and the weather is much more Grey. It made my decision to bring my bright yellow coat better!

Grey Munich Skies

German design, at least on the larger scale, is much more sparse than the little nooks I know and love in France, Spain and the Netherlands. But then, sometimes, people leave the doors to their inner courtyards open and you see the whispers of bright, goldenrod yellow interiors… and I find that delightful. They are also very careful about details and functionality. For example, our bathroom in our hotel is very very compact, but as soon as you open the door, a little blue light goes on so you can see where you are moving in the dark, even while the rest of the lights in the room are off. The room is also carefully organized so you never feel cramped, though it is quiet small and compact. Clearly the work of some thoughtful engineers and designers. I expect nothing less from Germans!

Last night I wandered through the Christmas markets, which I am surprised to say I had never seen before in this scale and glory! They make the set ups in Columbus Circle and Union Square in New York seem like child’s play.

The streets all around the old part of the city were set up with little stands offering beautifully sculpted chocolate tools, shaped like little gears and wrenches that could move and be used together, curry wurst stands, christmas ornaments made from straw and glitter, felted tiger slippers, little wooden toy ducks and other critters, cheese, advent calendars, wreathes, beer, bread and everything else you can image. It smelled wonderful. Like mulled wine, fresh bread and evergreen.



It was a Thursday night but it was packed. Tourists and Germans alike came to see the live music and celebration. And even while it was packed, I didn’t mind — it felt less like the insanity of Time Square and more like gentle crowds of people enjoying the busy market place.

I love marketplaces, as many of you know. I can’t wait to go back and explore some more after my tech rehearsal this afternoon.

And tomorrow, see you at TEDxMunich! My talk is in the first session and it’s called “Lessons from the Informal Economy.” It’s a variation on the talk I gave at TEDGlobal in Rio in October. I decided to take some risks and play with new concepts that I am going to try to present tomorrow. Wish we luck!


This quote came up in my twitter feed last night and summarizes all of my sentiments about what is going on in Ferguson, Mexico City, and many other places that I know and love that suffer through injustice.

“They tried to bury us. They didn’t realize that we were seeds.”

When governments do not listen and engage with their citizens…

When a ruling caste degrades and berates the rest of the community…

When the “just” wrongly claim “justice is served”…

They bury the seeds.

But the seeds will grow and they will be strong and form their own gardens, to sow and reap the fruits of their labors.

Will these castes be part of it, or will they be left in the cold?

Assisted Contact Tracing — in Brief

I want to explain in a little more detail what I am working on now — I think the following, which I was working on for a press release, will help explain the project.

First off, ACT is a software used by healthcare workers, contact tracers, field organizers, and physicians working on the ground to track and predict the spread of the Ebola virus.

There are two components to Assisted Contact Tracing (ACT).

First, ACT collects and organizes data about the ebola outbreak through contact tracers. This data is available for us by organizations like the CDC and the WHO. Beyond that the identities of contacts and ebola patients is protected, allowing other organizations to look through the data for trends but not identify specific contacts.

Second, ACT helps contact tracers, health care workers and physicians prioritize cases that come up in the field. Rather than rifling through a gigantic list of contacts generated by an Ebola patient, the ACT system helps healthcare workers prioritize cases. The data provided by ACT provides contact tracers with context before they make visits: they will know before they walk into a community whether or not their contact is showing symptoms so that they can better prepare and protect themselves from infection.

ACT uses contact information collected by the initial contact tracers to generate automated calls in specific dialects back the contacts every day for the 21 day quarantine period to monitor for health/symptom changes. Once a contact reports that they are sick and their symptoms, ACT generates an SMS to local health care workers and physicians to report the case, contact information and location of the patient.

This measure cuts down on time for data collection and accuracy, and allows field workers and healthcare workers to build better strategies for patient outreach.

ACT is a critical tool for a few reasons.

First, it would limit the level of exposure to Ebola for healthcare workers, who are currently some of the people most at risk of being infected by the virus.

Second, the automated check-ups allow a suspected patient to remain isolated at home, rather than having to stay in an isolation ward. “ACT is important for the system to allow people to pursue their own healthcare, so [potential patients] don’t have to go into isolation. It also provides information on how to care for a family member in their home with limited resources,” say Camilla Hermann, Founder and Director for Odisi | ACT. ACT does not make cold calls. These automated calls are opt-in and only start after a doctor or contact tracer has first met and spoken with an Ebola patient or contact.

While ACT is currently geared towards the Ebola crisis, we think this program will have broader implications and potential applications in public health infrastructure around the world. I will continue to update based on our progress as we start getting into better field testing and data collection work.

Find the Numbers!

This is a story about hunting for the numbers, the origins of those numbers, and the full story of the Ebola crisis in Western Africa.

Disclaimer: I do not have the full story of the crisis, but I am trying to track down the numbers I need to explain what is going on a little better and how we can mitigate risk through automated contact tracing. This is part of measuring impact of the start up I started working for in October.

For now, the narrative around ebola is constantly changing. With each article, you see a new layer. The UNFPA offers information about the children and women at risk during pregnancy and childbirth from the crisis and crumbling health systems.

NPR digs into some of the trust issues and limited access to healthcare facilities that are a reality for many people in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

We hear about new outbreaks in Mali when sick patients go untested for ebola and cross borders…

We hear the numbers of the death toll with each article that goes up, hoping to provide the reader with context in a situation more complicated than any of us can begin to image from afar.

From the floods of articles and coverage and organizations presenting their side of the story, their role in recovery and crisis management, and the climbing death tolls… it’s hard to understand the full network of people interacting and offering support on the ground.

This is partially why I am spending some time this week digging through numbers. How many contact tracers are there? Where are they concentrated? How many doctors do we see in the field and who are they answering to? What organizations have their hands in different processes, etc.

It’s a map of social networks, resources, and… the limits of communication between them.

[Hopefully] more to come!


International Crisis Mappers Conference

This past weekend in New York City was the International Conference of Crisis Mappers, which meant four days of workshops, panels, discussions and seminar style brainstorms for people working on humanitarian projects, people working in data, and others who are obsessed with maps and/or design.

The conference was very well organized — things ran smoothly, the tight scheduled they arranged for the “ignite” sessions had clearly been practiced and moved flawlessly. There were a lot of moving parts going into this conference, so this really was a feat! Nigel Snoad from Google was MCing the conference and he was an excellent fit for it. He was funny, charming and had the kind of track record that earns respect and admiration from the audience and the speakers alike.

It was a little weaker, however, in content. The speakers had clearly practiced but most of the content was not well packaged. A few of the key note speakers also seemed to be entirely unaware of the audience they were speaking to: instead of delivering detail rich talks about the work they were doing and pushing forward, they gave very generalized talks about data and the world and whatever else they decided to talk about. This was unfortunate, since the audience was so excited and ready to support them, and they were, overall, very impressive speakers.

The ignite talks were the strongest piece of the content. These were sessions of around 12-15 speakers who gave short talks about the specific projects they were working on. We heard about mapping programs in Indonesia, the trouble with crowdsourced maps, troubleshooting for maps where information is either missing or incorrectly displayed, maps for services and organizations working in Haiti, what Ushahidi was up to, etc. These were quick and very content driven talks; overall a great choice for a conference that wanted to cover many different methods and ways of working in a short period of time.

The audience, as you can image, was equally enthusiastic about all things related to mapping. I spent a long time talking to a guy who runs, in his free time, a mapping software that highlights specific issues after major disasters in the US and builds a sign up form for different organizations to sign up to handle a specific case and report their progress to the rest of the users. This project is called Crisis Clean Up. I was really excited about the possibilities this project offers for organizing communities and making the clean up process clearer to everyone involved!

There is a lot to be said about a room full of tech-savvy humanitarians. Overall, a very interesting weekend full of new ideas and creative thinkers. Really refreshing!


October Interrupted

Sometimes, opportunities throw open the door, turn over the furniture and still manage to get you to come running after them.

I left my full time job at a Think Tank to come work for a start up in possibly the most chaotic field possible. We are working on technical and data support products for the Ebola crisis in West Africa. I am spending my days simultaneously figuring out how to build a business, work through organizational steps, networking, learning everything I can about Ebola, technology for contact tracing, medical procedures for an epidemic, public health, information mapping… and just about everything else you could imagine. And I love it.

It’s been a juggling act to get through the homework for my UX design course, learn this job and produce good work on the job, figure out when/how I would like to return to school, talk to mentors, attend all the lectures and things I enjoy going to… and have friends… but I like it. I’m also trying to get through the final rounds of edits for my TEDxMunich talk this fall. But this is where I am supposed to be right now.

I hope to be able to share more success stories from this end soon, but just wanted to leave a brief update for now.