Register Wednesday | June 7 | 2023

Web 2.0 to the Rescue

To "bootstrap" is to use technology to boost our collective IQ. Shaun Pett profiles five bootstrappers who are changing the world.

Douglas Engelbart is quite possibly the most important inventor you’ve never heard of. As a young electrical engineer and World War II radar technician, he was a key contributor to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the 1960s precursor to the internet. And during a legendary demonstration in 1968, he astounded colleagues with a panoply of never-before-seen devices intended to “augment” human intellect: hyperlinks, windows, email, a homemade modem, on-screen video-conferencing, and most famously, a mouse (it was carved out of wood and mounted on motion-tracking wheels).

As Engelbart saw it, his inventions were not products in themselves but a means for individuals to more easily interact with computers and, by extension, each other. He believed the world’s problems were becoming more urgent and complex, and that the only way to fix them was collectively. By building faster and smarter connections between people, computers could be harnessed for collaborative problem-solving. Skills could be shared and new solutions discovered. What Engelbart envisioned, in other words, was the marriage of technology and humanitarianism—an idea he called “bootstrapping.”

Engelbart was marginalized for decades, but now, at the age of 83, he has lived long enough to see his ideas vindicated with blogs, wikis, search engines and social networking platforms like Facebook. But while the Web 2.0 boom has exploited the interactive possibilities of Engelbart’s innovations, his original ambition—to boost mankind’s “collective IQ”—remains relatively uncharted. Will the twenty-first century be the era of his long-envisioned bootstrappers?

Here are five Englebartians who think so. They belong to a movement that believes the rise of Web 2.0 spells promise for web-enabled social tools. As Clay Shirky writes in Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (2008), such tools threaten the existing order by “allowing loosely structured groups, operating without managerial direction and outside the profit motive” to tackle problems traditional institutions cannot. Whether the crisis is poverty or health care, the line of attack is simple and potent: like-minded strangers point their browsers to the same site, and brainstorm.

Cameron Sinclair

Modest Wish: Improve the living conditions of five billion people.

In 1999, as an architecture student in London, Cameron Sinclair was moved by reports that Kosovo refugees were returning home to bombed-out villages, without food, shelter or tools to restart their lives. Feeling something needed to be done, he and his wife, Kate Stohr, started Architecture for Humanity (AFH). They held an online competition to build low-cost, quick-assembly housing for families forced to endure winter under plastic sheeting and tents. The response was overwhelming: more than 220 design teams from thirty countries submitted plans.

Logistical hurdles prevented AFH’s most promising prototypes (a cabin made of wooden shipping pallets, a fiberglass drum “tube house”) from being deployed. But the experience convinced Sinclair that thousands of computer-assisted designers—“CAD monkeys,” he calls them—could play an invaluable role in disaster relief. He was also pleased to see that, during an era of prima donna architects, many in his profession had arrived at the same conclusion he did: “It is not just how we build but what we build that truly matters.”

Nine years on, using nothing more than a laptop and cell phone, Sinclair now oversees a global network of socially conscious architects and designers who offer their expertise to clients who need it most: victims made homeless by natural or man-made calamities. AFH embraces an open-source business model, allowing anyone in the world to start up a chapter. There are now forty-nine chapters in 103 countries totaling more than 40,000 members. These digital pipelines and the collective intelligence they tap into have allowed AFH to help displaced populations rebuild after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake. Drawing on local materials like cardboard, thatchwork and concrete blocks, AFH has designed schools, orphanages, community centres and, in one case, a soccer field that doubled as an outreach medical clinic.

In 2006, AFH collected its best plans—a concrete-infused cloth shelter, for example, currently being tested by Médecins Sans Frontières—in Design Like You Give A Damn, a 336-page cri de coeur. Why the cri de coeur? Because although AFH competitions have demonstrated the web’s ability to amplify innovative solutions, the response from aid organizations and international bureaucracies has been glacial. You need only look at the United Nations’ “new” humanitarian tent—twenty years in the works, from design to implementation—to see an example of what Sinclair calls a broken system. “There’s a problem here,” he says.

The annual Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference agreed. It gave Sinclair its $100,000 TED prize in 2006 and granted him “one wish to change the world.” Open Architecture Network (OAN) was born. Its purpose is, quite simply, to give away elegant and ingenious crisis-inspired designs (like a South African water pump powered by a merry-go-round).

In its first year, the OAN website—which Sinclair hopes will become “the YouTube of architecture”—has enabled nearly 15,000 users to upload and share design plans under flexible Creative Commons licenses. The motivating principle is that good design should be shared, not hoarded. “Work without ego,” Sinclair calls it. Anyone in the developing world, from community leaders to NGO officials, can take and adapt what’s there. Last year, an OAN contest helped place a media lab and library in one of Nairobi’s slum settlements. The 2009 challenge? Portable classrooms.

“I want to encourage the design profession to respond to the 98 percent of the world that does not benefit from our services,” says Sinclair. His target, in fact, is even more specific: to reach five billion people, including the one-third of humanity who will live in slums by 2020. Low-cost projects for clean water, proper sanitation, medicine, education and technology will be in even greater demand—but not, if Sinclair has anything to say about it, in short supply.

Marty Tenenbaum

Modest Wish: A collaborative healthcare system.

As one of the executives of the high-flying startup Commerce One, Marty Tenenbaum saw firsthand how the internet could transform an inefficient process. Founded in 1994, Commerce One developed software that cut costs for all parties involved by creating a single electronic marketplace where buyers, sellers, distributors and suppliers could complete transactions.

In a research paper written around that time, Tenenbaum applied Commerce One’s concept to the health care industry. Could the same circle of online exchanges, he wondered, help simplify and accelerate the discovery of cures?

But it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma that Tenenbaum dedicated himself to transforming these ideas into reality.

That’s because what he witnessed on his treatment odyssey was the “insanity” of an industry where valuable time is eaten up negotiating contracts; where scientists and biotechs work in isolation, unsure of what others have done or are doing; where the development of a therapy can take seventeen years and one billion dollars; and where more than 5,000 rare diseases are too uneconomical for traditional pharmaceuticals to invest in.

Health Commons is Tenenbaum’s bold answer to the failed system. A multi-component interactive hub, Health Commons is expected to one day replace the counterproductive “business model” that governs current research by allowing companies, foundations, laboratories and individuals to exploit the economies of scale afforded by integrating hundreds of databases. For a standard fee, users would have access to 25,000 medical journals, as well as tissue samples, cell lines, and clinical trials (rights holders to any proprietary information would make money by agreeing to take a cut of the discoveries made).

Along with unfettered access to the same online libraries, archives and repositories as large pharmaceutical departments, users would also be able to purchase services—drug screening, animal testing, biostatistics—without the delays that hamstring smaller biomedical teams. As the white paper states, “a researcher will be able to order everything needed to replicate a published experiment as easily as ordering DVDs from Amazon.”

CollabRx, a company that Tenenbaum seeded with his own money, creates virtual biotechs that are testing the collaborative platform that will be the foundation of the Commons.

Tenenbaum, however, also sees CollabRx tapping into an underappreciated R&D resource, those most interested in seeing a cure: the patients themselves. “In order to make this meaningful to them you have to lower not just the cost so that they can afford it—but also the expenditure of time.” Virtual biotechs will put this information online and allow disease communities or individuals to take control of their health care by developing personalized therapies (the just-launched CollabRx One, for example, offers cancer treatments based on each patient’s unique genetic profile) or by following up any promising leads pharmaceutical company won’t exploit.

While CollabRx ramps up several virtual biotechs, Tenenbaum has two other ventures on the go: Patients Like Me (a social networking site that allows patients to share treatment experiences and advice) and Health 2.0 Accelerator (an initiative that tries to bring together healthcare specialists to explore potential collaborative projects and organizational structures). All of these projects could one day be part of the Health Commons.

It requires lots of pieces coming together, but as an example of what could be achieved in this new system, Tenenbaum cites the SARS outbreak. Labs around the world worked together to identify and sequence the coronavirus in weeks, what would have individually taken them months or years. “That showed the power of collaboration to get stuff done quickly.”

Ethan Zuckerman

Modest Wish: Shrink the planet by bridging cultural and linguistic divides.

“If we had a clearer sense of what people in the developing world thought and felt,” says Ethan Zuckerman, “a clearer sense what things were priorities to them and what things were difficult for them, it would be much easier for the rest of us to make a real difference.”

Back in 2004, Zuckerman realized such information already existed in plain sight: blogs. The explosion in global blogging—from Iraq to Latvia, Malaysia to China—had created an army of far-flung citizen journalists whose connection with on-the-ground realities was deeper than the mainstream media could ever replicate. But with the blogosphere doubling every few months (15 million active blogs by last count) how to sort out all that material?

Enter Global Voices, founded by Zuckerman and former CNN reporter Rebecca MacKinnon. The site was initially envisioned as a kind of clearinghouse for any interesting non-Western anglophone blogs the two editors came across. Using the web’s potential as a corrective force, Zuckerman hoped to refocus attention on unreported international stories.

But soon, he started having doubts. Despite good intentions, stereotype-strengthening biases might still creep into their decisions about what was newsworthy. And what about blogs in other languages? Iran, at the time, had upwards of 40,000 Farsi-speaking bloggers flocking to the internet in dissent. What valuable perspective was Global Voices overlooking?

“You can’t edit this stuff by being a well-educated, well-meaning liberal American,” is how Zuckerman sums it up. “The only way to really understand what’s going on is to be deeply involved in the culture.”

So they recruited prominent bloggers to become regional editors and thus help the website bridge cultures and languages. These volunteer “bridgers”—nearly 150 on active duty—locate the key conversations and provide context for the reader (the site, in its own words, “aggregates, curates, and amplifies”). Veronica Khokhlova, for example, was the point person on the conflict in South Ossetia, Georgia. A professional translator, she translated a selection of Georgian blogs from her home in Kiev during the war.

A million visitors drop by every month and drop in on places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Fiji and Armenia. The BBC, the Guardian and the New York Times have all used Global Voices to enhance their coverage.

Zuckerman sees this as a partial victory. He had hoped Global Voices would play a role in shaping news agendas but “getting people to pay attention to a different part of the world is extremely difficult.” More tellingly, he admits “we’ve been less successful at trying to get people to pay attention when there’s no breaking news.”

And there are challenges with the technology itself. Blogging requires four things that are hard to find in the developing world: electricity, a computer, an internet connection and basic literacy. One result is that the blogosphere perpetuates existing class divisions. “Who is blogging from Angola?” Zuckerman says. “You’re not getting the man on the street.”

Rising Voices, an initiative started in 2007, is an attempt to see how far down the social chain blogs can go. Thanks to micro-grants and tutorials, slum dwellers in La Paz are now blogging. And the succès fou of FOKO, a blogging club set up in Madagascar which provides workstations and internet access, has triggered copycat groups across the country.

As news agencies continue to close foreign desks, Zuckerman keeps expanding the website’s reach. Lingua, an all-volunteer translation project, now allows Global Voice’s content to be read in sixteen languages (with more to come). Advocacy, another arm of the organization, focuses on teaching users how to blog anonymously in repressive regimes. Also in development is a dial-up program that enables people with access to cell phones to “blog” a podcast directly to the website.

Matt and Jessica Flannery

Modest Wish: Eradicate poverty.

Back in 2003, when the subject of career goals came up, fiancés Matt and Jessica Flannery hit what other engaged couples would call a serious problem. Matt’s dream: to be a San Francisco Bay-area entrepreneur. Jessica’s plan: to help entrepreneurs in Africa. They saved their marriage by forming Kiva, a web-based startup in San Francisco that works in Africa.

Jessica had been inspired by “banker to the poor” Dr. Muhammad Yunus. Yunus’s idea—which earned him the Nobel peace prize in 2006—was to give miniscule low-interest loans to poor families seeking self-employment. It started in 1976 when the US-trained economist Yunus loaned $27 to forty-two Bangladeshi stool makers too poor to buy materials. When they paid back a loan that permitted them to keep their business and support their families, Yunus realized that you don’t improve the poor’s lot with complex monetary theories. You improve it with actual currency. The Grameen Bank, based on his micro-credit theory, has today loaned six billion collateral-free dollars with an over 98 percent rate of repayment.

Before the couple started Kiva, Jessica had gone to East Africa to work for Village Enterprise Fund, a Grameen-like nonprofi t that provides local businessmen with financial aid. While visiting her, Matt was struck by how similar the stories of those entrepreneurs were to their American counterparts. Instead of the usual tales of hunger and war, “I saw a lot of people trying to put their kids through school, and trying to strategize about how to expand their business.”

Unable to obtain credit from traditional banks, local cottage industries had turned to micro-finance institutions (MFI). But even MFIs couldn’t help everyone. What was needed, Matt realized, was a way to radically expand the pool of lenders—to find do-gooders who, rather than provide donations, would be willing to enter into business partnerships with small entrepreneurs in the developing world. That’s when it came to him: go online.

The concept is simple. Kiva— which means “unity” in Swahili— uploads the profiles of qualified, low-income entrepreneurs. Interested lenders create an account, browse each business pitch, and, if they like an idea, make a loan via credit card ($25 minimum). Lenders receive progress reports—Kiva strives for a FedEx-like tracking of funds—and money is repaid as the entrepreneur pays it back.

Kiva’s beta site, set up in April 2005, featured seven Ugandan entrepreneurs (among them a fishmonger, a clothes reseller, a goat herder and a produce vendor). Matt and Jessica, who had gotten married in 2003, went back to their wedding guests and asked them to be Kiva’s inaugural lenders. The loans were filled in a weekend. Like any startup, trying times followed. But now, two years since its official launch, Kiva partners with eighty-eight MFIs which recommend the entrepreneurs and administer the loans. Kiva has been featured on Frontline and The Oprah Winfrey Show and has received a plug from Bill Clinton. Supply presently outstrips demand; it’s not unusual for featured entrepreneurs to secure their money within hours.

Grace Ayaa is a Kiva recipient with thirteen children, who used to make peanut butter by hand with a mortar and pestle. Each semester she had to decide which of her children she could afford to send to school. After saving up to buy a processing machine to make more peanut butter, she then had no way to store it. With a $475 loan from Kiva, she bought a fridge. After six months she paid back the loan, hired an employee, and had enough left over to buy a small piece of land.

Nearly 430,000 lenders have now handed over nearly $60 million to 134,000 entrepreneurs in forty-three countries. The great appeal, says Matt, is that “it’s real. People are used to donating money and having it disappear, not knowing where it goes.” What’s more, the lenders also gain a personal stake in the entrepreneur’s success. By 2010, Kiva expects to have loaned $100 million.