Category Archives: Travel

When the going gets weird, the weird go pro (2017 life update, part II)

man on grass hill in Astoria

I haven’t put this out there publicly yet, but should! I left Microsoft (and NYC) last week after 3+ years on the Technology and Civic Engagement team. I was extremely fortunate to get to serve on that team and learn about creating social impact at the scale of a giant tech company. The team, now Microsoft Cities, is in great shape — they’re expanding to more US cities, and will be covering more areas of social and civic impact work. I’m still deeply supportive of their work, if I can be of assistance connecting.

For a while now, I’ve been eager to get back to creating things myself, and I’m now in a great place where I can incubate projects again. Right now, I’m parked up in a beautiful place next to the ocean in Gloucester, MA. I’m going to hit the proverbial road and travel Latin America this winter, as well. Hit me up if you’d like to cross paths somewhere great. Ideally I find somewhere to park up relatively quickly.

Some of my upcoming work will go through the newly formed Bad Idea Factory, a creative collective of people building things to make you thinking face emoji. You can follow along with that crew’s misadventures on the popular microblogging service Twitter.

In terms of what I’m going to work on…here are a handful, in various stages of progress:

  • Revive and radically open up my puzzle states project to bring popular attention to the state legislators gerrymandering away our elections.
  • Build a web app to automatically track all of your giving across nonprofits, crowdfunders, and political campaigns. This one exists in alpha form, thanks to Justin Nowell. Hit me up if you’d be interested in trying it out.
  • Something, anything to detect capture more methane and buy us time to produce less carbon.
  • Make a game app that makes saving money anywhere near as fun as spending it.
  • Build a tool that helps people maintain a large number of healthy relationships, in excess of the Dunbar number, that isn’t a CRM or transactional, sales-based relationship model.
  • Publish more travel and freelance writing and photography.
  • Develop a noise sensor that lets you know midnight audio levels in the house you’re about to buy or rent.
  • See if we can invent washing machine filters that keep synthetic microplastics out of our oceans / oysters.
  • A bunch of random art projects to track your path across maps, an emoji alethiometer, turn street grids into sheet music, etc.

So, I plan to stay busy, while also adopting a healthier work-life balance and learning Spanish? Needless to say, I probably need to narrow that list down, but get in touch if you’re interested in collaborating. Or just want to get beers in a nice place together somewhere.

Tech in Cuba in 2015

Tech in Cuba 2015

Illustration by J. Longo

Last month, I had the incredible opportunity to visit Cuba with my global travel companion Marco Bani. It’s a dynamic place facing rapid changes. I talked to everyone I met – regular people, but for their exposure to the lucrative tourism sector – about technology. The result is this primer in Kernel, the Daily Dot‘s Sunday magazine, for their travel issue. Thanks to Jesse Hicks for his editing. More photos, below.

On feeling comfortable in new places

It can take some time (2.5 years?) before you really feel comfortable living in a new city. Some people jump right in, others need time. Even though I’m pretty nomadic and love things like bikeshares and coworking spots and Amazon Prime for purposes of pretending I live in places I don’t, I’m emotionally more in the latter camp.

I moved to San Francisco yesterday to try it out for a bit, and even though I’ve been all over the area on previous trips I haven’t been a good explorer these past 24 hours. For example, today I made the conscious decision to take a right hand turn for the sole purpose of breaking my one-street life thus far. It’s Catherine D’Ignazio’s thesis in real-time — she’s working to create a Fog of War for real life to encourage geographic serendipity.

I’m chatting with a friend in a new city going through the same thing. Her city is colder and darker. But I told her I’d write up my list of shortcuts to feeling like you belong somewhere. Here’s what I’ve got: Continue reading On feeling comfortable in new places

How to Grocery Shop in Shanghai

Another update from China. Thanks to the Great Firewall, I’m stuck in a Web 1.0 world of email and blogging.

Our group spent the day conducting ethnographic interviews of food sellers and consumers in a wide variety of contexts. We met with restaurant managers, supermarket shoppers, rice shop owners, and sidewalk crab hawkers. We interviewed people from several age brackets, to learn about the unique but also shared habits and concerns regarding food in China.

It’s hard to understate the level of concern around food safety. The elderly we spoke to actively avoid eating outside of the house, at any time, because of safety concerns. People who raise their own chickens and eggs take comfort in knowing that the food is not only fresh, but also safe.

Supermarkets offer a wide range of processed carbohydrates in shiny packaging while promotional specials blare out of speakers. Major brands offer a trusted name to wary consumers. They also offer a range of imported fruits from all over the world: apples from Washington state, bananas from Chile. The supermarkets do not even bother trying to compete with local produce markets, an interesting behavior I’ve also seen in Liberia, where Lebanese-owned supermarkets complement fresh produce at traditional market stalls. Traditional and local crops are fresher and cheaper at traditional markets, and consumers shop at both types of market for to combine their needs. A weekly trip to the supermarket provides a bounty of shelf-stable goods and supplies, while the more perishable items can be found at small vendors closer to home. Given this split in offerings, there might be potential to get some of the local market supply chain into the larger supermarkets, the way Target has introduced fresh groceries, and Walmart and Whole Foods have incorporated local offerings into their national supply chains.

Restaurants signal their quality by posting licenses and certifications at the entrance. Meat and seafood are considered fresh if it’s still alive in a cage or tank at the market. One of our group members said she never sees people buy fish at one market, because it’s already dead, and therefore not as fresh as it could be.

Local vendors are creative in augmenting their offerings. A woman selling live crabs also offers bath towels (which we purchased, to augment our hostel’s offerings). A vegetable seller gets higher profit margins on the fried turnip cakes she cooks while watching over the produce.

We’ve generated a wide spectrum of ideas, and begun to qualify them on axes of potential scale and the amount of time required to implement. We then bucketed them into a handful of themes, which emerged rather organically across our many post-it notes:

  • Markets (the physical place – e.g. a seed market)
  • Distribution of food, to improve the supply chain from producer to consumer
  • Building integration (e.g. vertical farming)
  • Sharing and coops offer communal opportunities
  • Our island’s surrounding waterways, polluted as they are, offer unique food distribution opportunities.
  • The branding of the island and its products in the mind of Shanghainese

Tomorrow we jump into full ideation and selection mode, and begin to tear into a specific proposal.

Designing Urban Food Systems in Shanghai

I’ve joined the Media Lab’s Changing Places group for a week in China to design the future of sustainable cities in Shanghai.

China presents enormous challenges and huge opportunities, all at a dizzying scale. 300 million Chinese, the population of the entire United States, will move to urban areas over the next 20 years. 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in China. Only 1% of China’s 600 million urban residents have access to clean air, as measured by EU standards. Anyone serious about climate change, human welfare, and other challenges of the 21st century must consider China’s role.

We’ve joined up with students from Aalto University in Finland and Tongji University in Shanghai. It’s sort of like the Wizarding Cup in Harry Potter, with three nations of mages converging to meet and work together. Our Powerpoint slidedecks paint similar utopian cityscapes comprised of mixed use city blocks, local food production, and chic cyclists. We’re moderating these dreams with what we learn of Shanghainese culture and the built environment already in place.

Our groups are broken into five areas of urban sustainability:

  • Food systems and urban farming
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Housing and buildings
  • Macro-scale urban planning

Our worksite is a small banana-shaped island in the Huangpu River, separated from the rest of the city by a canal. It’s essentially a 3.5 kilometer brownfield, full of former and current industrial sites. A shipyard occupies much of the land. Any food we grow here is going to require imported topsoil or aeroponically-delivered mist.

The government has requested that we propose new designs for the island, and is in the process of constructing a subway stop to better connect it with the rest of the city. The subway stop represents new energy, and likely a sharp spike in traffic and land values.

We’re struggling to determine how seriously our proposals will be taken, as well as the degree of freedom we can exert in redesigning the island. It’s certainly not a blank slate, but at the same time, as many as 50% of the existing structures could be torn down to make better use of the land. The island is open for new urban experiments, and the government seems receptive in that these innovations could attract further investment and development to the somewhat dreary existing landscape. Our professor, Kent Larson, is encouraging us to think big, and establish dramatically progressive goals. Perhaps the island will be made car-free, or produce 50% of its food locally, or go completely carbon neutral.

I’ve spent the semester in the urban food systems group. It’s an opportunity to work in several areas of passion, from nutrition to local food to city environments. Our group has investigated a variety of ideas, including aeroponic vertical farming systems, a social network and identity campaign to unite the nascent class of urban farmers, and a buy-one, give-one urban farming kit subsidizing agriculture in informal settlements. But we’re eager to design a realistic urban food system that will scale, and not remain confined to designers’ concept videos.

In true Media Lab spirit, my group is comprised of an extremely interdisciplinary group of designers, venture capitalists, artists, and community organizers. Each of us brings unique skillsets and experience, and also ambitions. Fortunately, we’ve combined enthusiasm with agility, and not become too married to any one proposal, because the local situation is quite different than the LEED-certified condo buildings many popular urban farm concepts take as a prerequisite. Since the beginning of the semester, we’ve kept an eye on those complicating human factors like income, cultural norms, and reaching meaningful scale.

I’m at the GlobalVoices Citizen Media Summit in Kenya

I’m in Nairobi for a few weeks, primarily for the GlobalVoices Citizen Media Summit, a biannual conference with many of the network’s top bloggers, translators, and editors, who hail from all over the planet. Here are a few liveblog posts I wrote the last couple of days to give you a taste of what we’re talking about:

More to follow, mehopes.

The Internet Exposes Tensions and Opportunity Between Nations and their Diasporas

Liveblog from the Global Voices Summit (#gv2012) here in Nairobi.

Diasporic communities can now take virtually full part in national political and civic life in their countries of origin, thanks to new media. From the academic and activist perspectives, what are the consequences?

Inside/Outside: Diaspora Influence  #GV2012

Left to right: Gershom Ndhlovu (Zambia), Elaine Diaz (Cuba), Susan Benesch (American University, School of International Service), Nanjira Sambuli (Kenya), Fred Petrossian (Iran)

In addition to teaching at American University, Susan Benesch is a human rights lawyer and journalist in the US. She argues that the issue of diasporic voices are the story of the 21st century. It is the story of migration, and many of the Global Voices bloggers here this week are migrants themselves, living and writing in new countries. It is the modern human experience to travel to a new country, temporarily or permanently, and live in a different culture while still thinking and dreaming and remembering another country, culture, set of songs, language, and politics. Those of us whose grandparents or great-grandparents migrated in earlier centuries might recall that they almost never went back. If they had communication with people in their former countries, it was by letter, and this is where we see letters that speak of streets paved with gold. Gradually over time, 3 enormous technological changes have affected how diasporic communities stay in touch with the people and culture in their countries of origin:

  1. Cheaper airfare, so people could physically return
  2. Cheaper telephone communications, so could people could talk
  3. Technology and social media, which radically changed how people who have moved can communicate with those in the country of origin

We have on the panel members of the diaspora as well as people who still live in their countries of origin, where they feel the impact of diasporic communications.

Fred Petrossian (@fredpetrossian | bio) is an editor at Global Voices and from Iran, as well as a professional journalist based in Prague working with Radio Free Europe. He sees many Iranians forced into political exile by waves of political repression and mass executions. Not all Iranians left for political reasons, but a significant percentage of the diaspora is outside of the country because of political beliefs.

Fred has seen examples of how a diaspora can successfully help those still in the country, but also how it can hinder local movements. The internet in Iran is very slow, by government design. The diaspora plays a very important role in amplifying the message. Demonstrations after abductions or executions, or to save a dying lake, pass through the diaspora, where the word travels quickly on social networks. This is very helpful, and in some cases even a matter of life and death.

But sometimes the diaspora is trapped in its own bubble, and their knowledge of what is occurring is influenced by the media they are consuming in their new country. They sometimes have to rely on television and radio to understand what’s taking place in Iran. When they look at Facebook, they see an overwhelming revolution bringing about the regime’s last day. But the security forces have access to social networks, too.

Diasporas can talk online and spread messages quickly, but the heart and the soul of the country must be involved or nothing will happen. Fred sees a slacktivist aspect of diasporic involvement online, creating a disconnection and a gap with those still living in Iran. But diaspora do play a critical role in putting international attention on cases of political persecution, thus protecting activists.

Nanjira Sambuli (@NiNanjira | bio) introduces us to the Kenyan diaspora’s “Call Washington” mentality. Local consulates have information about the home country for those living in the diaspora, but this information is only periodically updated, and technology moves quickly.

The Kenyan diaspora online is segmented based on where they are. The online communities often started as email listservs, and grew from there. Following the election and subsequent violence, though, divides between tribes had a severe impact on the online diaspora, and killed discussion in many fora. The diaspora has blogs, but rarely have people in Kenya been involved with them, and vice versa.

Last week saw a “love protest” in Nairobi by Boniface Mwangi, bringing people out into the streets to unify and call for an end to the nation’s culture of impunity. For the first time in 45 years, the diaspora was able to see the events unfold in real-time on Facebook and elsewhere online without calling Washington for information. They actually participated, in at least a minimal way.

There’s sometimes alienation between those who left and moved upwards economically, and those still here. It’s important that the diaspora bring money home to invest, and continue talking to people here so their information is accurate. The “Call Washington” mentality, at least, is fading away.

Elaine Diaz (@elainediaz2003 | bio | blog) speaks to us in Spanish, with Susan translating. As a professor at the University of Havana, and as a blogger, she has a unique perspective on the role of the diaspora online. In order to understand the relationship between Cuba and its diaspora online, you must understand the same relationship offline. It’s a very difficult relationship. Large numbers of Cubans migrated to the US following Fidel Castro’s rise to power, particularly Miami.

Only 14% of the Cuban population has access to the internet, so it can seem that even talking about the relationship between Cuba and its diaspora online is a dream. Of that 14%, most are only using email. So it might seem like a dream to talk about a relationship between Cuba and its diaspora online. But that’s not the case. There are many Cubans using new technologies to communicate, inside and outside Cuba. Social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and open source blogging on WordPress are popular means of communication and ways to talk about the harsh realities of the Cuban experience.

The online space for Cubans is a battlefield between the diaspora and those still living in Cuba. The #cuba hashtag is an open political battle between government sympathizers and opposition.

A younger generation of Cubans online are looking for new spaces to communicate with one another. There are some common points of agreement, particularly around immigration reform within the Cuban government. In spite of political differences, everyone agrees it’s necessary to eliminate the exit permit the Cuban government currently requires, among other migration-related issues. Another interesting point of agreement is around access to the internet and the sorry state of internet penetration in the country. Cuban civil society is demanding access to the internet not only for commercial services like email, but also for public participation in society. They seek the ability to debate, but also a role in decisionmaking. As a scholar of the Cuban blogosphere, Elaine finds this consensus meaningful. Although we don’t live in Cuba, we can assist. We can watch it unfold online.

Gershom Ndhlovu (@GNdhlovu | bio) is a Zambian living in the United Kingdom, with firsthand experience of life in the diaspora. In the last 20 years, Zambia has changed presidents four times. The Zambian diaspora understands what’s going on at home. Those Zambians working in the media understand local events up to the very minute. Many are fighting for dual citizenship. Most of the Zambians who have migrated in the last 20-30 years have gained dual citizenship in their new countries of residence. Unlike the other panelists thus far, Zambians migrate primarily for economic, rather than political, reasons.

Zambia is currently rewriting their constitution, and the diaspora is seeking inclusion of a clause about dual citizenship. Much of the government sympathizes, but the new president who took power ten months ago opposes the provision. Last year’s constitution included the clause, but was defeated in Parliament. With that decision, the dream of dual citizenship went with it. Diasporic Zambians are also seeking a right to vote and be directly involved in the political process. “Ours is a straightforward case.”


Markos: If online communications facilitates contact between exiles and the home country, does it make it easier for journalists and others to leave the country in the first place? And how would you define good journalism conducted from exile? What advantages and disadvantages does being outside of the country pose?

Fred responds that he monitors local Zambian news websites, and runs an online news station where they interview Zambians still in the country. They’ve reached the point where Zambian newspapers actually monitor their show for news, indicating a level of trust despite their physical location outside of the country. They have built credibility.

Kenyans on Twitter (#kot) are trying to change the rest of the world’s perception of Africa, and of Kenya in particular.

What happens when a particular person in the diaspora becomes a voice representing the home community? When the international media seek them out to speak for others? In effect, how does the diaspora community deal with representation?

Elaine says it would be extremely difficult for Cubans living on the island to accept a representative voice in the diaspora as legitimate, because they are the ones living their lives in Cuba. When she found herself at a conference in Rio de Janeiro for a couple of weeks, she found herself having nothing to write about Cuba on her blog. She argues that being physically present in a place is mandatory to forming an authentic opinion about events there. You can really only know what’s going on in Cuba when you’re there, when you get a feel for what’s really going on on the ground. Susan points to Yoani Sanchez’s Generation Y as another example of a blogger who no longer claims to represent Cuba, having left the country.

Nanjira says that Kenyans in the diaspora have a duty to communicate about the country to the rest of the world. The real story gets oversimplified. For example, there are several advisories against traveling in Kenya right now due to recent grenade attacks, and that’s what gets international press. But there’s also the Global Voices Summit taking place this week. Journalists and others in the diaspora need to tell that story to the world, and counter mainstream media organizations like CNN, whose coverage is sometimes completely inaccurate, or at best incomplete.

Nanjira warns that anyone in the diaspora who takes a preachy, condescending approach when talking about the home country is not very highly regarded at home. People in the diaspora write op-eds for foreign newspapers, but these individuals rarely engage online. Kenyans still in the country try to get in touch with them, but they never hear back. There’s little conversation that continues, such as in the comments sections on online newspaper op/eds.

Overall, new media is having a huge effect: the diaspora goes to new sources for breaking news and information (e.g. the Red Cross for on-the-ground news from grenade attacks) on the same online platforms on which they are engaging.

Nanjiru responds to comment from a Kenyan (who’s lived in the country and in the diaspora) about generalizing others’ experiences: How do you bridge the gaps in the current engagement between those here and abroad? It starts with the dialogue, and social media can help. She says Kenyans are very divided as a people, both here and abroad. We need to have a “think tank”, to have that dialogue as a people and unify.