Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Yosemite fire in images

That spectacular but frightening photograph is of the Yosemite fire, one of several that TheAtlantic.com published yesterday, available here.

And from Grist.org, here is what they call a list of 9 scary facts about that fire. If you have time, watch the video they've embedded - taken from a plane dumping retardant at the edge of the fire, it's got some amazing views.

Amazon deforestation - as seen from space



There's a series of GIFs from Google Earth's Landsat satellite images available - that's the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon, above. The picture quality isn't great, but the degree of change is pretty clear. You can also see a series showing urban growth around the world here.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Code for America's useful new startups


I've embedded the Code for America webinar introducing the first three startups its incubator has produced. It's an interesting hour in which three developers describe their software: all three applications provide tools that engage citizens with local government, not-for-profits, and community groups. I can think of lots of uses for each of them. They are:

Localdata - Localdata provides tools, both electronic and paper and pencil, that allows local organizers to collect data - on anything: how many trees need trimming? Where are the commercial corridors in a neighborhood? Once data are collected, the app allows you to analyze and map the data easily.

Textizen - Provides a text message survey platform - each survey gets its own phone number and residents phone in their thoughts. And each response can be turned into a conversation, engaging the resident more deeply.

CivicInsight - CivicInsight brings all government data about a community's empty spaces available in one place in a way that is easy to understand. You can try it out for New Orleans.

All three apps provide quick analytics.

You can see my last post about Code for America here.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Mark Edmundson on teaching - and learning

If you haven't yet read about it, Mark Edmundson's new book "Why Teach?" sounds quite interesting - for a start, to anyone with kids in high school and college, but also for people with an interest in the future of education (not to mention the costs of college). There's an excerpt from the book on TheAtlantic.com titled "'Where Should I Go to College?'" in which Edmundson distinguishes universities that are more scholarly enclaves from those he calls "corporate cities." (He acknowledges that neither exists "in its pure form.") Here's how Edmundson outlines high school preparation for either kind of college:

High school now is about being an all-arounder. You've got to be good at your classes, but you've also got to shine as a citizen and a general hand- waving, high- enthusiasm participant. To do this, you've often got to make yourself into a superb time manager. You give each activity the amount of time and effort required so that you can reach the so- called standard of excellence. You give it that much, but you give it no more. Do I really need to read the whole book to get an A in English, the student asks herself? Probably she doesn't. Do I need a tutor and extra time to score a top grade in math? Perhaps yes. If so, the money is well spent and so is the time. Will it look better to put in two hours a week volunteering at the hospital or four at the soup kitchen? Does the guidance counselor say that both will look about the same to the college admissions board? Then better to do the hospital: You'll need those extra two hours for prom committee.
The article is worth reading in its entirety. You can also read a review of the book in the NY Times here. I hope you - and your kids - find the great teachers out there.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Peter Singer has an interesting Op-Ed "Good Charity, Bad Charity" in yesterday's New York Times, in which he argues that there are clear answers to the question 'to which charity should I donate?' He argues that there is a stark choice between donating to organizations that provide medical and social services, and to cultural organizations like museums.

I tend to agree, though I question his assumption that donating to a cause overseas is more important than donating to an organization that serves people in the US. (I can also see an argument that funding a museum is important - future artists need a place to go and view art, and without public museums most art would be in private collections. The rest of us sometimes need to see art too.)

But what's most interesting about Singer's piece, and the reason I'm linking to it here, is his final point: there is now objective evidence of a charity's effectiveness available, and donors can use it as part of their decision-making. Singer links to both the sites of GiveWell and GiveDirectly. The former ranks charities by their effectiveness. It's still fairly small, and focuses on finding outstanding charities rather than ranking all (or many) charities but to its credit GiveWell is open about its processes and its mistakes.

GiveDirectly, which is highly rated by GiveWell, transfers donations directly (and electronically) to recipients' cell phones. Recipients then use the money for whatever is important to them. GiveDirectly reports:
  • The most frequent self-reported use of funds is purchasing a metal roof. We estimate the annual rate of return on on metal as opposed to thatch roofing to be 15%-20%, suggesting this is an attractive investment.
  • 1% of recipients report regrets about the way they used their transfer. For example, one woman chose not to pursue a business opportunity but later wished that she had.
  • 1% of recipients report having had some of their transfer stolen.
  • On net, 100% report being better-off as a result of the transfer.
Helping organizations understand the impact of the work they perform is one of the most important things I do so it's heartening to see the progress. Organizations don't have to wait for a a GiveWell to tell them how they're doing - with a little effort, they can do it themselves. It's well worth the investment.

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