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


Haiti Interview, Raw Footage

Samasource just got a bunch of HD footage that Ushahidi took for us in Mirebalais while we were over there. It will be a while before we edit it down into something presentable to the public, but here’s a short segment of me, talking about our work there and my own motivations for joining Samasource.

We also recently put up interviews with a couple workers in Mirebalais. Here’s a small excerpt from Richard’s powerful account:

Frednel: How do you feel about doing SMS translations to help survivors of the earthquake?

Richard Pierre: Sometimes, I feel very sad when I translate a tragic message; for example, there was a message that said that there was a person who was still alive under rubble. Sometimes, it’s a baby who is under the rubble, or sometimes it’s a 6 year old child. My heart tears up when I hear these sorts of messages, but I oblige myself to stay strong and make the translations because life is not really easy. Life is difficult, know that anything can happen in life. Life has its ups and downs; this means that a person should be strong and have a lot of courage to resist difficulties in life. Life puts up great fights. In order to live, you have to be a good soldier; when you fall, you have to get up.

I translate the survivors’ messages at the best of my ability in order to understand what they desire to say. This is nearly all I can offer them in assistant. After that, I couldn’t do anything else because I don’t have other opportunities to help them.

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“Rebuilding Haiti: Samasource’s Part”

I finally got around to writing up some of my experience in Haiti on the Samasource blog. Here’s a snip:

Unfortunately, the Haitian government is struggling more than ever to serve its people. Aside from the vast neighborhoods that were leveled by the earthquake, there was nearly uniform destruction of all of the government institutions in the center of town. This included the national palace, supreme court building, government ministries, and police headquarters. Almost every institution struggling to serve Haitians today was reduced to rubble.

The resource that remains in abundance in Haiti is human spirit. It is here that Samasource is investing in Haitian recovery. Our newest digital work center is being built by our service partner in Mirebalais, 1000 Jobs/Haiti. Mirebalais is one of those towns many Haitians have fled to. This underdeveloped region is a particularly important long-term focus for Samasource, because a stronger economy here will draw more people from the overcrowded city of Port-au-Prince. By bringing digital work to this area, Samasource is creating high-value jobs where they are needed most.

Here’s a Flickr set of photos I took in Mirebalais, Haiti. And here’s one video, of me teaching one of our students to speak Vietnamese :)

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How to use Basecamp for Agile Development

“Agile” software development is something I have used in limited forms for a number years. Agile has always made sense to me: it puts control in the hands of developers, reduces conflicts in an organization, and is eminently practical for small organizations.

Now that I’m at Samasource.org, I’ve had a chance to implement an Agile development process for an organization that really needs it (we’re small, growing fast, and with many competing priorities.)

Below are some brief thoughts on Agile, but the real point of this post is to explain how we’re using Basecamp to conduct an Agile development process. Enjoy!

Basecamp is an awesome project management tool that Samsource uses to implement an Agile development process

Read the rest of this entry »

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Now that I’m at Samasource, I get to indulge my fascination with the ideas around “crowdsourcing” a lot more. It’s a new enough concept that even that term is falling out of favor. The whole idea tickles me because it allows for a whole new speculative realm of problem-solving.

First, here’s Clay Shirky from a year ago, breathlessly describing the Big Deal that crowdsourced collaboration models represent in the historical context of human production:

And below is a more recent, deeper look into these ideas, by Jonathan Zittrain. As it turns out, there are many issues to mull over with crowdsourcing: How do labor laws apply? What are the social effects of disaggregating and anonymizing your work to the point where you have no idea what ends your efforts serve? Zittrain does a back-of-the-envelope calculation: A brute-force Amazon Mechanical Turk search could identify any single Iranian protester out of 76 million photographs for a mere $17k. What are the implications of this? The first half of the talk is interesting and entertaining (and Samasource gets a mention, about 15 minutes in) but there is really good discussion with the audience in the second half: the place is packed with big thinkers:

UPDATE: Zittrain lists as one of the potential negative effects of crowdsourcing the ability for political operatives to simulate large-scale citizen actions online. This is also known as “astroturfing” (a play on the term “grass roots”), but crowdsourcing has the potential to reduce the cost of it dramatically. As it turns out, this potential negative effect has been realized: Here’s an article describing how rewards (offer) systems in online games are allowing the health insurance industry to get gamers to fill out surveys and send letters to their representatives. Done well, this would be very difficult to distinguish from genuine political expression. Thanks to Health Policy Dialog for the link.

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