Samasource.org -> Google.org

Leaving Samasource.org

The Samasource.org team and I said our goodbyes Wednesday night, after a long evening of well-wishing and reminiscing (and strong drinks). We had a lot to celebrate about. I joined when Samasource was just Leila and two other insanely-devoted people working out of a conference room. Nine short months later, the organization has more potential than at any moment in its history. Every month, Samasource has brought in larger and larger contracts to bring ever-increasing numbers of people out of poverty in South Asia, East Africa, and Haiti. The young organization is proving its model.

The team has grown substantially, and fortunately I leave Samasource in very capable hands. David Yoon assumes technology leadership as the new VP of Engineering, after years of experience building sites like Donorschoose.org. Noah Bradach is the new VP of Sales, closing deals left and right. Chelsea Seale continues to wrangle order out of the chaos of their operations. That’s just a few of our amazing staff. The office is full of dedicated people like Caitlin, Luke, Rebecca, Joon-Mo, Kala, Marcia, Pamela, Tanya, and so many others before them who pour their heart and soul into the organization. And, of course, there’s Leila Janah, who continues to lead with immeasurable grit and intelligence.

The decision to leave Samasource was very difficult. The short of it is that I’ve found an opportunity to work on another problem of enormous scope. If you’re interested in this project, read on.

A prototype of Earth Engine shown almost a year ago at COP15Google Earth Engine

The world is slowly getting serious about putting a dollar value on greenhouse gas emissions reductions.* One of the mechanisms for mitigating climate change that gained substantial traction in Copenhagen last year was REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation). REDD is based on a simple fact: the world’s forests represent a massive carbon sink, sequestering huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. How much carbon? It’s estimated that the the amount of forest the world loses every year results in more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s cars, trucks, planes, trains, and ships combined. Clearly that the world’s forests represent an enormous value, even if we only consider the value of the carbon they sequester.

The major challenge to the REDD mechanism is verification: How can we know that our actions are actually preserving forest and reducing CO2 emissions? Monumental sums of money are at stake in answering this question properly, as the world must reduce CO2 levels at the lowest possible cost. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the effectiveness of forest preservation efforts. For example, legislation that protects forests in one region may simply push logging activity somewhere else. What’s needed is a global forest monitoring solution. Until we have this, only token investments will be made in REDD. Today, we see nations pledging a few billion here or there for forest preservation, but the market should theoretically support orders of magnitude more than this.

My new employer, Google (and more specifically, Google.org), is aiming to provide exactly this with Google Earth Engine. The product will serve as a central clearinghouse for all available satellite data and earth surface monitoring algorithms. It will be a place for scientists and policy makers to answer big questions at global scale, and to prove that their methods are best. If our small team succeeds, we will enable these forest preservation markets at a scale we have all only hoped for until now.

I’ve had the opportunity to work with the Earth Engine team half-time for a few months, now, but next week I will transition over completely. I’ll be returning to my roots in frontend engineering. This means designing and building the web applications that people will need to access and understand the vast stores of data that Google Earth Engine will be making public.

Wish me luck!

More great articles about Google Earth Engine:

* How much are our coastal cities worth? Stability for hundreds of millions of climate refugees? The avoidance of massive water shortages and resource wars? Economists, scientiests, and policy makers are having trouble wrestling with a problem at the scale we are currently facing.

One algorithm for analyzing satellite data

One algorithm for analyzing satellite data


“Being Someone Else’s Crop”

People often ask me why I take such issue with all of these moronic games people play on Facebook. This article articulates my unease with them better than I have in the past. In short: “Social” games like these aren’t actually based on strengthening our social ties — they’re engineered to exploit them for profit, creating incredibly low-fidelity simulations of gifting and reciprocity behaviors that are just compelling enough to addict players. These games use our nature for someone else’s profit.

This pattern isn’t anything new: our whole society is based on generally-less-egregious versions of it. But this is the point: stupid Facebook games aren’t just stupid: They’re dangerous because they prime us for more of the same exploitation everywhere else in our lives.

The daily grind

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“Tulum:” A 100-Word Story

The allure of microfiction is that I can write quickly and imagine that I’ve written well. Here’s a little piece that I may submit to a competition, “Stories for the end of the decade.”. I wrote it in twenty minutes, and most of that was spent getting it down to exactly 100 words, so I imagine they’re going to be swamped with entries.

TulumRemains, by Jessica Hinel

Your hand runs along ancient stone. You contemplate this forgotten polity, once ascendant. These walls were defended with the blood of countless people.

You. What brought you here? A feed sparked your interest, maybe. You let your browser book a flight.

You ponder the gulf that separates you from your brothers, the ones who gasped, dying on this wall. You try to divine their minds in the hieroglyphic curl of pelican wingtips, see their gods in the gathering clouds.

You think of those who will come after you. Not long, you imagine. You hope they will see you more clearly.

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Harvesting Rainwater

Here’s a great piece about a guy who was able to produce a bumper crop on a vacant lot in Tuscon, Arizona by harvesting runoff from roofs and streets around the lot. It’s a nice bit of daydreaming for the wannabe urban farmer.

Here’s a map of the growth of his terraced gardens over the years, which I include because it’s a lovely small-multiple visualization:

The Evolution of the Russ Farm

The Evolution of the Russ Farm

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WattzOn: Personal Energy Profile

My Share

To left is a live meter, showing the current estimate of my personal energy footprint. This combines all my energy usage (electric, natural gas, oil) encompassing transportation, the embodied energy of my possessions, and my share of the energy used by the governments of the USA and California.

You can make your own energy profile at WattzOn.com. They have incredibly easy-to-use interfaces for quickly estimating your energy profile.

Compared to What?

More importantly, the site provides some very useful context for your profile. I’ve included some screenshots, below. The first is a pie chart showing the relative magnitudes of different parts of my energy usage. I don’t commute by car, so the vast majority of my energy usage comes from the energy expended by government and by airplane flights. For example, the nearly 2000 Watts of energy I expend flying comes from six short flights and four long ones I take each year, on average. You can also see that food and my home heating are also big energy expenditures.

There’s also a screenshot showing how I stack up amongst world citizens (somewhere between Japan and Russia, less than 2/3 the energy consumption of the average American.) After than is a graphic showing how large of a solar panel would be required to power my lifestyle, if it could all be powered by electricity (one enormous panel, 15m square, or somewhere between $50k and $100k worth of solar panels!)

The Big Picture

How much energy should we be using, though? Saul Griffith (MacArther Genius Award winner, head of Makani Power, parter of Squid Labs, and one of the founders of Instructables) is the man behind WattzOn. He created WattzOn in response to a year of thinking he did on climate change. You can see the very well-thought-out, very straightforward presentation of his ideas, below. The bottom line? To stabilize the climate in the next few hundred years and restrict the impact of climate change to moderately-terrible effects (“only” 20% species loss, tens to hundreds of millions displaced, etc.), each of us need to reduce our energy usage to 2,250 Watts. 2,250 Watts! That’s the energy usage of the average Chinese person, a third of what I currently use. When I look at the numbers this way, the future looks pretty grim.

Improving WattzOn

Of course, every bit counts, and being able to visualize my energy usage goes a long way towards changing my behavior. I’m certainly trying to fly less, these days, eat less meat, and ease up on using the heaters in my room. I think WattzOn has a lot of potential to do the same for others. I’m sure they’re working on new features that the public doesn’t know about, but I’ll take that risk of telling them what they already know and make some suggestions.

My biggest one is to allow people to interact with this data socially. It means one thing to be able to visualize one’s energy usage, but the application’s spread and impact will increase dramatically if people can show off their numbers and compare with others. Here are some example social features:

  • SNS widgets: Being able to place a badge on my blog is one small step (the badge in the upper left of this post is a javascript widget.) Better if it can live on my LinkedIn or Facebook profile.
  • Data sharing: My roommates should be able to “duplicate” my profile as a starting point for their own.
  • Trend data: Am I reducing my energy usage? By how much? I want to see graphs showing my progress.
  • Pledges: Public promises to change behavior are strong incentives to follow through. Making a promise to your friends reinforces the action, and spreads the message.
  • Competition: Race your friends! Or, make a group pledge so that many people can work together to meet targets.
  • Viral Challenge: Make a profile for someone close to you, based on what you know of their lifestyle. Let them take ownership of that profile, correcting assumptions you may have made. Challenge them to reduce their footprint.

There are many other sites experimenting with this idea. See eco:Drive, Positive Energy, and the Climate Pledge Facebook App. The Nike+ workout tracking system has also implemented many competitive social features that would be useful for the WattzOn team to examine.

Good luck, WattzOn! In the meantime, I hope everyone signs on and takes a hard look at their own energy usage.

Note: Jay also mentioned that his company, SolarCity, also has cool information visualizations for its solar panel clients. Here’s a nice example.

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“Big Bailouts” by % of GDP

Some friends sent me this blog post, which shows how the current planned bailout exceeds the combined expenditure of a number of government spending events from the history of our nation. That post uses the current cost of the bailout ($4.616 trillion), which some friends have noted is closer to $7.6 trillion if one includes unspent guarantees.

These numbers are inflation adjusted, but I was still curious to see how they stacked up in terms of national GDP at their time. I wanted to know how big each event was in proportion to what our nation was producing, since this number has grown dramatically over the last century.

The figures aren’t really apples-to-apples comparisons, since all of these expenditures were multi-year affairs. Having each of them broken into expenditures per year would yield some neat %-of-GDP graphs (different bumps for each item, % of GDP on the y-axis, years on the x-axis; volume representing the total cost of an expenditure.)

In any case, here are the non-matched-fruit comparisons. As you can see, the bailout is still truly massive, on par with (but lower than) the New Deal and WWII (which I added):

SpendingCostCost (Inflation-Adj.)%GDP (Year)
Marshall Plan$12.7 billion$115.3 billion5.20% (1947)
Louisiana Purchase$15 million$217 billionunavailable
Race to the Moon$36.4 billion$237 billion3.70% (1969)
S&L Crisis$153 billion$256 billion2.79% (1989)
Korean War$54 billion$454 billion14.23% (1953)
The New Deal$32 billion$500 billion56.74% (1933)
Invasion of Iraq$551 billion$597 billion5.03% (2003)
Vietnam War$111 billion$698 billion6.78% (1975)
NASA$416.7 billion$851.2 billion3.02% (2007)
WWII$288 billion$3,290 billion129.09% (1945)
2008 Credit Crisis Bailout$4,616 billion$4,616 billion32.65% (2008)

The spreadsheet is here.

Note: WWII cost figure from the National D-Day Museum


“Tips for New Paupers”

Marc sent me this short, autobiographical piece. It’s heartbreaking, scary, and timely:

My wife and I fell through many layers of poverty in a few months. First we revisited the genteel poverty known to grad students, the sort of poverty where you have scary dreams about the rent and eat a simple, wholesome diet towards the end of the month. But we fell right through that into the sort of Dickensian privation spoiled first-worlders like me never expected to experience. That’s the kind of poverty a lot of people are going to be experiencing soon—because I’m here to tell you, it can happen here and it can happen to you. And it’s remarkably unpleasant. You may be saying “Duh!” here but you’re probably not imagining the proper sort of unpleasantness. So I’ll try to lay out what to watch for, how to hunker down when it’s not just a matter of cutting back or selling your second car but having no car at all, having no money for heat or food.

Look beyond the heartbreak and scariness, however, and you will find some very, very pragmatic pieces of advice. If you want more, check out this guy’s blog which I wrote about a long time ago.

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Downward Spiral

I’ve finally started educating myself on the current economic crisis. However we move past this current credit crunch (soft landing vs. hard landing), the fact is that Americans will likely face a lower standard of living within our lifetimes. You might not have believed that the decline of the American Empire had begun up until 2008, but it’s clearly in motion now.

Unfortunately, the imperial decline could have dire effects, worldwide. Whatever your opinion on the fairness of an empire, one thing it can promote is stability. If our capacity to service our national debt diminishes to the point where we have to remove our military presence from the hundred or so nations where we have bases, we may see scores of regional wars in the power vacuum.

Additionally, an empire in decline has few resources to devote to stewardship of the enviroment (or, put more simply, long-term planning.) We can elect as progressive a government, come November. The US may simply be unable to withstand the political and economic costs of raising energy prices in order to combat global warming.

Perhaps another nation will take up the role of “global policeman.” Perhaps dramatic new technologies will save our GHG-saturated climate. The future is unknown, but the dire scenarios are looking worse and more likely than ever.

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A Lovely Apocalypse

I had a dream last night about the world ending, but everything turned out okay.

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TED Talks: Humanity’s Violent History, Developing Rwanda, Redefining “Bioenergy”

Here’s another batch of notes on three TED Talks (you can see all of them here). The Pinker one is particularly interesting, to me; I’m going to solicit comments from an email list I’m on.

Steven Pinker: A brief history of violence

Pinker lays out a story of humanity that I believe to be true, but has been challenged repeatedly by those I’m close to: A long history of dramatically-declining violence and a commensurate increase in our empathy towards the other. He describes this history at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and individual years, calling it a “fractal” decline. He also draws from thinkers over the last hundred years to lay out four explanations for why this decline has occurred:

  1. Thomas Hobbes: Life in a state of nature is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The Hobbesian solution to this problem was the “leviathan state,” a central authority with a monopoly on violent power. The Machiavellian explanation here would give some credit to the rise of central governments for the
  2. Life is Cheap: When suffering and early death are commonplace, the consequences of violence seem less dramatic to us. As wealth and quality of life increase, so does our value of that life, even if it is of the Other.
  3. Robert Wright: Nonzero-sum games can often result in parties benefitting when they trade or cooperate rather than enter into violent conflict. Over time, the greater ability of parties to communicate has allowed more and more people to discover these nonzero-sum dynamics in more and more situations.
  4. Peter Singer: The “expanding circle” of empathy. This, too, has been borne along by increasing wealth, access to communication technologies, and education.

There are holes that one can poke in this description of our history. Pinker’s narrative is very Euro-centric (what happened in China during these centuries? Africa?) It also completely ignores the incidence of sexual violence towards women; It’s hard to say if that how much that has declined over the ages, if it has.

Overall, though, I think Pinker is right. I’d be interested to see any data that contradicts the trend line that he can draw from hunter gatherer times to our own.

Bill Clinton: TED Prize wish: Let’s build and health care system in Rwanda

Clinton discusses the work of his foundation, and how it fits into the larger picture of social inequalities and development work. He stresses the importance of focusing on systems rather than taking on problems piecemeal. The Clinton foundation cut out middlemen in Haiti, cutting per-annum costs of anti-retrovirals from $3500 to $500, and then reduced it further to $190 by helping the pharmaceutical companies change their business models (from “jewelry store” to “grocery market.”) Mentions Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health; they are working with PIH to reproduce that system in Rwanda. In time, they want to develop a health administration system that can be adapted for any number of other countries. An interesting thought on “fund leakage”: On corruption in developing nations, Clinton mentions that he believes that lost opportunities due to health problems are a much greater problem, and they in fact feed corruption.

Juan Enriquez: Why can’t we grow new energy?

Playing on words, Enriquez extends the definition of “bioenergy” to include coal and oil, which of course were originally plant and animal matter, eons ago. He describes the possibility of using biological processes to convert underground oil and coal into gas, thus allowing us to extract the energy content without mining, and thus greatly increasing the reserves we have access too (3x, possibly.) He likens the possible growth of such an industry to the “green revolution” that allowed the productivity of agriculture to boom in the 20th century: think in terms of biology, not chemistry, in order to scale massively.

Of course, this is not a carbon-reduction technique (in fact, it sounds like a perilous way to keep dirty energy costs very low.) Enriquez proposes it only a “bridge” to new tech.

Another, separate idea: stabilizing oil prices by taxing to set a floor on oil prices, giving alternative fuels a floor to work with (and thus be able to invest against.)

As usual, you can see all of the TED talk notes, here.

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