Programmers in San Francisco and Berlin got together recently to attempt to build a system that would allow immigrants to tell their families they’ve arrived safely at their destination without anyone else finding out.
All of them were volunteers, willing to lend their technological expertise to nonprofits and causes.
These projects and others were part of the “Random Hacks of Kindness” weekend, a twice-yearly, 36-hour work session for designers, programmers, and technology experts to solve problems facing nonprofits and other organizations interested in doing good. The most recent events, held this month in 25 cities worldwide, drew 900 participants, according to organizer SecondMuse, a consulting firm that works with companies and individuals on better ways to collaborate.
The event spawned from a 2009 “crisis camp” in Washington that focused on ways technology could help in natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, says Elizabeth Walker Sabet, a consultant at SecondMuse and an organizer of Random Hacks. At that event, employees of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, the World Bank, and NASA decided to work together to start regular “hackathon” events to put ideas in to action.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency joined in support and helped create software at the first Random Hacks of Kindness event that was later used to help Haiti and Chile following earthquakes in those countries.
From there, the events grew.
“The community really took over,” says Ms. Sabet. “There was an outpouring of interest from all over the world.”
Groups in different cities have gathered for six weekends—one in June, one in December each year—generating about 229 solutions to 444 proposed problems. The events are entirely paid for with donations from private sources and organized by local volunteers, helped with logistics by SecondMuse.
Local groups of technology experts are always looking for problems to solve, Ms. Sabet says, and are happy to work with nonprofits. All those groups need to do is submit their problem online and be prepared to do some work to sketch out what they need.
During the weekend of the hackathon, nonprofits work with the technology experts to explain more about what problem they need to solve to help guide the solution.
“That’s what gets people so excited about volunteering their time,” says Ms. Sabet. “The most rewarding thing we consistently hear back from the programmers is, ‘It was so amazing to be able to work with this nonprofit that knows the situation on the ground.’ ”
• In a video, Ms. Sabet explains how nonprofits can get involved with a local Random Hacks of Kindness weekend.
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For a man who has spent most of his life cracking jokes, Myanmar's most famous comedian and political dissident, Zarganar, has a sober view of the world and takes his self-appointed role as a custodian of the past seriously.
Since his release from jail in October under an amnesty for political prisoners, Zarganar has focused on ways of ensuring the atrocities of the past are recorded and not forgotten by future generations.
Zarganar hopes a similar center can be built in Myanmar (formerly Burma), perhaps by 2013. It would be a test of the Southeast Asian country's transition from military rule to democracy, since many of those implicated in the abuses are still in power today.
"As we embark on the democratization process, 1988, 1990, 2007, and 2008 are four historical years we cannot forget," Zarganar, whose real name is Ko Thura, told AlertNet.
"We need to document what happened," he said, denying that revenge was a motivation.
"We know who committed those atrocities, but we don't want revenge. We have a saying that you shouldn't retaliate [against] hostility with hostility. It would be a vicious cycle. We won’t be able to move forward."
Zarganar said individuals should no longer face being thrown into jail or being forced to take up arms because of their political beliefs.
"We can forgive but it's impossible to forget what happened because we were the ones who suffered," he said.
In 1998, soldiers from the military junta that ruled former Burma for nearly 50 years following a 1962 coup gunned down hundreds of unarmed pro-democracy students and protesters, arresting hundreds more.
Two years later, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won the 1990 election by a landslide but was never allowed to take power.
There were pro-democracy protests again in 2007, with Buddhist monks leading the so-called Saffron Revolution. It was brutally quashed with scores of monks and civilians killed and arrested.
Zarganar, who had been a focal point for the informal relief effort by private citizens into the delta, was sentenced in 2008 to 59 years in prison after criticizing the junta for its slow response to the cyclone.
Clad in a white T-shirt and colorful shorts, and sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor of his living room in Yangon, Zarganar said he hopes the new center would record past and present events, from revolutions to land grabs and rights abuses.
"There's a village in Monywa where a company is trying to evict the villagers. We've gone there and documented what's going on," he said proudly.
Scrutiny of donor aid
Zarganar's voice croaked from overwork and he apologized for the state of his apartment – with books and papers scattered on the floor and no furniture in the living room – and the constant ringing of his mobile phone.
He's been busy. In January he organized Myanmar's first film festival and screened a documentary about the military's crackdown on the 2007 protests, an unprecedented event in a country previously known for its iron-like grip on the media and intolerance of dissent.
He continues to call for the release of more than 470 remaining political prisoners. He’s also providing money, food, and clothing to current and former political prisoners and their families who are struggling to make a living.
He set up a company to produce documentaries, is involved in a biopic about Myanmar's founding father, General Aung San, and travels abroad and within the country extensively, taking his messages to international donors and the Burmese diaspora.
Zarganar had a specific appeal to foreign donors looking to ramp up their assistance to a country where a third of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.
"Please scrutinize carefully to ensure that the money gets to the people who are actually doing the work," he said, adding that civil society in Myanmar is still in its infancy.
The Burmese have seen Zarganar transformed from a dentistry student telling jokes at university fairs to a successful comedian and national treasure, and now a fierce critic of the government.
Despite his outspokenness against the government, he said it was equally important to applaud the authorities when they did something right.
For example, last year, in what was one of the first signs of Myanmar's new era, President Thein Sein bowed to public pressure and cancelled the Myitsone dam being built on the Irrawaddy River by the Chinese. Power generated from the $3.6 billion project would have gone to neighboring China.
"That was good, and we should encourage them to do more good things like that," Zarganar said.
He still has misgivings towards the year-old nominally civilian government, especially over its treatment of former and current political prisoners, but said the situation in Myanmar has improved vastly.
The government has been lauded by the international community for introducing unprecedented reforms since coming to power last year. Its efforts to reform have also prompted the European Union and the United States to suspend their sanctions.
"There's a lot more opportunity to do things and more authority to speak," he said.
"I was only released from prison seven months ago. I've been working nonstop since. Some say I'm going too fast. But I think I'm actually quite slow," Zarganar concluded. "I have a handicap – I spent 11 years in prison."
• You can read the full interview on AlertNet.
• Sign up to receive a weekly selection of practical and inspiring Change Agent articles by clicking here.
What does sustainable development look like? It’s sitting in the palm of Jill Van den Brule’s hand.
She and a handful of other social entrepreneurs have come up with a blow-up solar-powered lantern that squashes flat like a child’s beach toy for easy transport. The elegant clear-plastic lantern has white LED lights that produce as much illumination as a 60-watt bulb, charges itself when left out in the sun, lasts a year, and costs $10 – a sum its inventors expect to be able to reduce.
“It cuts across a lot of problems,” says Van den Brule, who previously worked with United Nations children's agency UNICEF in Haiti following the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake and is now introducing the lanterns there.
Finding ways to create “energy for all” has been a focus at the Rio+20 sustainable development summit, which ended June 22 in Rio de Janeiro. The push, led by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, aims by 2030 to bring power to everyone around the globe, to double energy efficiency, and to double the share of renewable energy being used.
It has so far won commitments of more than $50 billion in private funding, as well as tens of billions of dollars of government, development bank, and civil society backing, UN officials said in Rio.
At least 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency, and as many as 3 billion – half the planet – have only irregular access to power.
But a range of innovative efforts aim to change that – including projects like Luci, the solar lantern that Van den Brule is now rolling out with her partners at MpowerD, based in the United States and France.
Solar lanterns aren’t new – at least 10 are on the market today – but they will have a growing role to play in providing inexpensive and safe evening lights in parts of the world without the money or grid access for electricity, or in places looking for more sustainable sources of light, experts say.
Van den Brule said many children in Haiti study at night with kerosene lamps, which can cost at least $10 a month to run, produce toxic fumes, and can cause burns if knocked over.
Indoor smoke from cooking fires and lamps also contributes to nearly half of the world’s 2 million pneumonia deaths among children each year, and to cancer in women – two-thirds of female lung cancer victims in the developing world are nonsmokers, Van den Brule said.
The lanterns could also improve women's safety. Rape has been rampant in camps for families displaced following Haiti’s earthquake. But when lights were introduced into the camps at night, the number of rape cases per week fell from 57 to 2 in just one week according to UN statistics, Van den Brule said.
The lights used in the camp were not solar lanterns, but the value of access to portable lights at night, including for women or children going outside to toilets, is evident, she said.
There are other potential benefits. The lightweight lights could be included in kits for midwives. And the inventors are looking at creating a model that could also be used to charge mobile phones – a big demand in Haiti and many parts of the world – and at building the lanterns from recycled plastic bottles.
“We want the communities to come up with ideas of what they want,” Van den Brule said.
After early experimentation, a first batch of 10,000 lanterns are headed to Haiti soon, she said, and at least one UN agency is pondering carrying out a pilot project using them.
Van den Brule suspects the hand-held lights may eventually find another home in camping stores in the developed world and could even end up on fashion catwalks or hanging outside hotels to provide evening lights.
“We’re empowering communities but also creating things that are aesthetically nice,” she said. “There’s no reason something going to a developing country has to be ugly.”
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It’s hard to describe how endearing it is to look over my shoulder and see a line of cycling children stretching a block behind me. I feel like a mama duck, leading a line of two-wheeled ducklings.
It’s the inaugural ride of the Thornton Creek Elementary School Bike Train, the first bike train in all of Seattle.
In 1969, according to the National Center for Safe Routes to School, 48 percent of kids aged 5 to 14 regularly walked or biked to school. In 2009, it was just 13 percent. A major reason for the change is that parents don’t feel safe letting their kids bike on their own.
Bike trains – in which an adult chaperone rides a predetermined route, picking up children along the way – are a way to make it easier, and safer, for kids to bike to school.
We round the corner to collect two more kids waiting patiently with their bikes at the ready. The train slows enough for the kids to hop on board, and then picks up speed again. By the time we reach school, our train is comprised of 13 laughing children, all proud to have made their morning commute on their own. With high fives and whoops, we are greeted by the 20 riders who took the north-bound route riders. The school’s three bike racks are already overflowing with bikes, and the nearby posts are quickly filling up.
The Thornton Creek trains are just a small piece of the burgeoning Seattle bike-to-school network. Bike trains, which were part of my senior capstone project at the University of Washington, introduced me to some of the most inspiring people I know: families who have never owned a car, 10-year-olds who have cycled from Seattle to Portland, students who ride to school daily, rain or shine.
Bike-to-school programs are taking off all over the city. On Bike-to-School Day, for instance, 120 people participated in Bryant Elementary’s group ride. Biking to school may be simple, but its positive impact is enormous. Bike-to-school programs address large global issues from climate change to childhood obesity. With each group ride, children are empowered to take charge of their own transportation – they learn to be more confident cyclists, and that they don’t have to depend on cars to get around. They (and their parents) learn which of their classmates live nearby, making it easier to build networks for friendship and support.
Perhaps the most inspiring aspects of these programs are the communities they form, the confidence they instill in our youths, and the promise of a healthy, playful, and environmentally conscious generation.
Some DIY tips for starting a bike train:
- Involve your community: Find a group of interested parents through school and neighborhood message boards, listservs, or newsletters.
- Assess your location: Is it hilly? Flat? Busy? Residential? Map safe and dangerous streets, as well as general topography.
- Create routes: Using your school directory and your knowledge of the area, design safe, accessible routes that allow as many students as possible to join in. Routes two miles or less are most accessible for young children.
- Get feedback: Display preliminary routes for other parents, finesse routes for safety, accessibility, and efficiency. Do a trial ride.
- Determine bike train dates: Chose one or more days a week for the bike trains to run. Implementing these trains during more pleasant weather is a good way to ensure ridership!
- Get the word out: Host a meeting, post your routes online, flier your school and neighborhood.
For the millions of freelancers, entrepreneurs, and travelers who desire a flexible work environment, coworking has become a way to maintain productivity, build community, and get out of the coffee shop.
Thousands of spaces in cities around the world are inviting people in to share work space, wi-fi, and coffee. Spaces that were created as coworking spots are leading the way, but in the spirit of Airbnb, people in a variety of office situations are renting out desks, sofas, and studios to people seeking a place to work.
But with a growing number of spaces to choose from, how does one find the one that is right for them?
Enter Loosecubes. A “global office-sharing community,” Loosecubes helps people find spaces that suit the “vibe” they’re looking for and to fill spaces with people they think would be a good fit for them. Going beyond simply listing available co-working options in a given area, Loosecubes seeks to connect people with shared interests, encourage relationships, and to create a network for the thriving co-working community.
What follows is a Q&A with Loosecubes founder Campbell McKellar, in which she talks about her motivation to create Loosecubes, the growth of the mobile workforce, the benefits of workplace flexibility, and how co-working can propel us out of the recession.
Loosecubes grew out of your own need to find a place, or various places, that you could work out of. Can you talk a bit about your own inspiration and the importance of having workplace freedom?
The idea for Loosecubes was born one summer when I decided to cut a deal with my (then) employer and work remotely from Maine. Though I enjoyed our cabin escape and the ability to do my job hundreds of miles away from my company's office, I found that barking dogs, crying babies, and other perils of vacation homes didn't make for a sustainably productive work week. I dreamed of a nearby artist's studio where I could plug in just a day or two a week and be really productive. And if that was possible, why couldn't I tap into other such spaces pretty much anywhere in the world? A passionate traveler at heart, I decided that I wanted to make that vision a reality: to create opportunities for a fulfilling and mobile work life, whether that be in Brooklyn or Bhutan.
Co-working spaces are springing up all over and have become a vital part of the new economy. Through Loosecubes, people now have a way to connect with spaces in hundreds of cities around the world. What do you think is driving people toward a more mobile work life and where do you see this trend headed?
A fundamental shift in the way people work is occurring. Although a number of factors are contributing to this sea change, technology, women's role in the workforce, and the rise of the freelance and independent workforce are making significant impacts on the way we work. The Internet, smart phones, and cloud computing allow us to do work just about anywhere. At the same time, family dynamics are shifting as women become household breadwinners. Parents struggle to balance dual incomes with child-rearing duties, and opt for work-at-home arrangements and flexible work policies. Meanwhile, more people are opting to ditch careers at large companies in favor of gaining flexibility as a freelancer. The independent workforce is 42 million strong and continues to grow. With no corporate office to report to, mobile work is quickly becoming the norm — coffee shops, co-working spaces, and other third places serve as ad hoc workspace. I think we're only going to see these trends accelerate in the coming years.
Through Loosecubes, people can find not just co-working spaces but a variety of office or work situations. That seems to open up the possibilities, whether someone wants a small corner in a quiet office or to be in the middle of a large, buzzing co-working space. Was that your intention from the beginning?
As a college student, I studied wherever I felt most productive — whether that be in the library, in my dorm room, or at a coffee shop. When I graduated into the world of traditional employment, I quickly realized that the notion of selecting the environment that would allow me do my best work wasn't the norm. At Loosecubes, we're focused on curating a network of spaces that aren't homogeneous, rather, that meet the different needs of our community — whether that be a co-working space or a company office. Tackling an email inbox or writing a blog post might require a quieter, less social space (and a spot on the sofa), while strategy and product-development work might be best achieved in a gregarious space where coworkers are up for providing feedback and problem solving.
Loosecubes provides a way for businesses and organizations to invite people to work in their space. This is a bit of a twist on the co-working concept. What was your motivation to open it up in this way?
Loosecubes was started in New Work City (NWC), a community co-working space in Lower Manhattan. One of the things I loved most about NWC was the serendipitous connections made by virtue of sitting next to someone working on something different than me. Through casual conversation, I connected with people that helped me solve problems, get advice, and motivate me. The ability to tap into the collective expertise of the group without having to attend a networking event was invaluable.
Taking the lessons learned from traditional co-working spaces and applying them to company office environments lends many of the same effects. By hosting coworkers, companies reinvigorate their work environments, meet potential collaborators, hires, and friends, and embrace a new work culture. Even more exciting is the potential for host companies to help shape our economy — by offering a desk or two to entrepreneurs and small-business owners, they can incubate the companies and build businesses that will propel us out of the recession.
Having a personal workspace, with all the resources you need to be productive, anywhere in the world is new experience of work and place. Can you talk about the social network of workers and spaces that is growing out of Loosecubes? How does Loosecube's new mobile app add to this movement?
As opposed to just connecting people to space, we're focused on connecting people to people. We're working to create a network of friendly offices around the world that also results in relationships being formed on a broader scale. Through each coworking experience, our members make connections that they then impart to other Loosecubes (and Loosecubers). It's a bit of a network effect. Our integration with Facebook (LinkedIn coming soon!) also allows people to work where they have mutual connections, thus accelerating those delightfully serendipitous aspects of co-working.
In building our platform and community, we strive to help our members be as productive as possible, both from a professional and social standpoint. Our mobile site, for example, helps on-the-go and traveling coworkers find and book a convenient place to work in 42 countries. What's more, those coworkers are then able to meet potential collaborators, hires, and new friends wherever they go – just by walking into a Loosecube.
Buried deep in a mountainside located in a group of islands nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) off the northern Norwegian coast lies a vault charged with the task of safeguarding nearly three-quarters of a million seed samples from around the globe. It might sound like something out of a movie, but this seed preservation bunker is very much a real-life agricultural security project.
Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located near the village of Longyearbyen, Svalbard, a far-northern location that exists in total darkness for nearly four months out of the year. The vault serves as backup to living crop-diversity collections housed in “gene banks” around the world and is designed to protect seed varieties from both natural and man-made disasters.
Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, explains that the seeds that the vault receives are crucial to preservation of global crop diversity: “Our crop diversity is constantly under threat, from dramatic dangers such as fires, political unrest, war, and tornadoes, as well as the mundane, such as failing refrigeration systems and budget cuts.
"But these seeds are the future of our food supply, as they carry genetic treasures such as heat resistance, drought tolerance, or disease and pest resistance.”
The vault currently secures over 740,000 samples, which are kept frozen by layers of permafrost and thick rock that insulate the vault and keep its inner temperature far below freezing, even in the absence of electricity. Its initial construction was funded entirely by the Norwegian government, but it is now maintained through a partnership between the Norwegian government, Nordic Genetic Resources Center, and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.
In late February and early March, a total of 24,948 seed samples arrived at the vault, just in time for celebration of its fourth birthday. Three particularly interesting and celebrated arrivals included wheat from a remote region of Tajikistan, amaranth that was once cultivated by the Aztecs, and barley that is now being used to brew beer in the American Pacific Northwest.
The wheat originated in the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, one of the highest mountain ranges on the planet. The region, fraught with hot summers and frigid, snowy winters, harbors an impressive variety of wheat, much of which is especially interesting to scientists as they search for a variety that is resistant to a powerful strain of wheat stem rust that has been known to devastate crop yields.
The amaranth, sent by the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS), was first cultivated by the Aztecs and Incas 8,000 years ago, and its seeds were once eaten as a nutritious grain by these ancient cultures. Amaranth has recently been “rediscovered” as a high-protein, gluten-free alternative to wheat and has once again risen to popularity as a result.
Some of the varieties sent to Svalbard were also once used for healing and medicinal purposes, and today the red pigment in amaranth stems gives a rich red color to colada morada, a traditional South American beverage drunk in Ecuador during its annual Day of the Dead observance.
failing refrigeration systems and budget cuts.
Another contribution by the NPGS included several subspecies of barley that were first imported to the United States in 1938. These grains are modern varieties of “Betzes” barley, an old German variety that was grown in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and is now the ancestor of 18 modern varieties growing in the region, including the malting barley known as “Klages,” a favorite in America’s expanding craft beer movement.
Although the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is sometimes referred to as the “Doomsday Seed Vault” because of its role in protecting global agriculture systems from natural or man-made disasters, the part it plays in protecting global seed diversity is important even today. Seed banks in Iraq and Afghanistan have already been destroyed in the conflict there, and another was looted during the uprising in Egypt last year.
It is important to examine and preserve as many varieties of seeds as possible because even those that may not seem important now could turn out to be a critical link to survival in years to come. Some varieties that were first collected in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, have recently been found to have very high flood or drought tolerance, rendering them incredibly valuable as climate change increases the frequency and severity of each of these extremes.
• Eleanor Fausold is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.
The amazing generosity of Tunisians who opened their homes and hearts to people fleeing Libya is revealed in the latest issue of Forced Migration Review (FMR), which looks at last year’s Arab Spring revolutions in North Africa.
“The response from ordinary Tunisians was remarkable in its altruism,” Antonio Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), says in an introduction to the FMR report published on the eve of World Refugee Day.
“I witnessed villagers sharing their homes and land while others drove for miles to provide sandwiches for those stuck in the crowds at the border.”
The first people to arrive in southeast Tunisia were migrant workers who had been employed in Libya’s huge oil industry, agriculture, and elsewhere.
Tunisian villagers organized cooking crews and took food to Djerba airport as the migrants waited for flights home, writes Katherine Hoffman, associate professor of anthropology at Northwestern University in the United States.
As the civil war escalated, Libyan families also began pouring into Tunisia.
"We helped the Egyptians, we helped the Chinese, we helped the Bangladeshis. So when the Libyans came to stay, how could we not help them too?” one man in Djerba, Tunisia, is quoted as saying.
Another describes how he and his friends raised money for food, diapers, and mattresses, piled it into 20 trucks and headed to the border where tens of thousands of people were massed.
Some 60,000 to 80,000 Libyans arrived in Tunisia during the revolution, which erupted in February 2011 and which eventually toppled strongman Muammar Gaddafi. Some went to camps, wealthier families rented hotel rooms or properties, but many Libyans ended up living with Tunisian families.
In addition, Hoffman describes how one person in each village or town took responsibility for collecting keys for abandoned houses, emigrants’ summer residences, and other empty housing.
Villagers cleaned and refurnished homes, put in stoves and fridges, and turned electricity and water back on.
“Even seasoned aid officials said they had never witnessed such a reception by a host country during a refugee crisis,” Hoffman says.
Although the UNHCR referred to these arrangements as ‘rentals’, money rarely changed hands, she adds.
In a separate article, UNHCR staff say when Tunisian families were offered financial help with water, gas, and electricity bills, many took offense, saying they did not expect compensation.
The UNHCR subsequently arranged a contract with Tunisian utility companies to provide subsidies directly.
The UNHCR staff in Tunisia highlight other acts of kindness.
One doctor traveled hundreds of kilometres to offer his services. When he learned the Tunisian Red Crescent did not take new volunteers in the middle of a crisis he made a donation and then started picking up the rubbish left by all the people passing through.
There is also the story of a cook who arrived at Shousha transit camp with bread and rice. He only planned to spend one day, but was so moved by the sight of so many traumatized and hungry people that he returned the next day with friends. They put up a tent and started cooking with supplies provided by locals.
After two weeks the Red Cross began funding them, and from there the camp’s main kitchen was born, providing up to 28,000 meals a day.
This outpouring of generosity came without high-level orchestration – people simply responded with compassion, the UNHCR staff write.
Some contributors to FMR contrast the response in Tunisia to the reaction in Europe where the media and politicians fretted about the prospect of a mass influx from North Africa – a prediction that never materialized.
There is criticism of the lack of willingness among EU countries to accept refugees displaced by the violence. Those who fled Libya included many sub-Saharan Africans from countries like Eritrea, Sudan, and Somalia who cannot go back home. Many are still in camps.
Other unresolved issues following the revolution include the future of people still displaced in Libya where property confiscations and redistributions during the Gaddafi era have complicated access to housing and land.
FMR also looks at the repercussions for the vast numbers of unemployed migrant workers who have returned to their home countries and the fate of other migrants who are detained inside Libya.
By all statistical accounts, the United Nations' Millennium Development Goal of halving the world’s population without access to sanitation services is failing. Some estimate the world won't reach that goal until 2049—34 years late.
For many of the world’s poorest, access to clean sanitation—like toilets and hand-washing stations—remains a luxury. Annually, 50,000 Indonesians die as a result of poor sanitation; one person every 10 minutes.
The gravity of this problem, combined with the failures of previous efforts to solve it, led Mercy Corps’s Indonesia team to author a public health project in Jakarta with a nontraditional approach. Instead of simply funding a project to build latrines in Jakarta’s slums, they take a market-development approach that will strengthen the value chain of Jakarta’s private sanitation services industry, utilize new technology to enable sanitation companies to access previously unreachable people, and turn those people into customers.
Basically, they want to fundamentally change the sanitation industry in Jakarta.
A Mercy Corps project titled PUSH (Program of Urban Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion) undertook a market analysis of Jakarta’s sanitation industry. Funded by the Suez Environment Foundation, the project found a massive untapped market of potential customers in urban Indonesia.
Around 94 million Indonesians live without access to sanitation services and 22 million people—more than two and a half times the population of New York City—have to pay for the use of communal latrines. This incredible number of people, who live mostly in urban slums, have long been overlooked by traditional markets under the assumption that they cannot afford sanitation services.
It became clear that improvements in this system could lower prices, reach more customers and, through marketing and education, encourage more Indonesians to value and pay for improved sanitation services.
To include more people in the market, costs had to fall and products had to specialize. By this time the PUSH initiative had ended, and a new Mercy Corps program called RW Siaga++ (“neighborhood alert”) began to take over the design and development phase. Funded by Coca-Cola, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and in coordination with the local ministry of health, the project designed two specialized products that helped increase access to the unmet sanitation market:
1. Custom Sludge Cart: Innumerable inhabitants of Jakarta’s urban slums are considered unreachable by modern sludge-removal techniques because they live down narrow pathways where large sludge removal trucks cannot pass. RW Siaga++ designed a custom-made, three-wheeled sludge cart, called Kedoteng, equipped with a mini-sludge removal tank and a pump that can access latrines up to 50 meters (164 feet) away.
2. Improved Septic Tanks: A custom, specially designed septic tank made from available, local materials was designed to meet the needs of up to five people. The tank requires limited ground space, has a built in bio-filter that separates and cleans the refuse without the use of chemicals, and only requires de-sludging of fecal waste once every two years.
By sharing these innovations with the private sector, PUSH showed that the size of the potential sanitation-services market had grown exponentially, simply by making new clients physically accessible.
While working to bring supply costs down, the team recognized the other side of the market equation—demand—needed attention as well. Taking a cue from the for-profit world, Mercy Corps built some buzz about the innovations by launching a marketing campaign to educate consumers about the importance of sanitation.
The campaign included radio and billboard ads, full-color comic books, and school bags for children. It even hired a well-known comedian to talk up better sanitation systems.
To date, the project has surpassed many of its original objectives, having already increased access to more than 9,000 individuals in 1,800 households. The project is not only achieving its own objectives but also having multiplier effects: Jakarta’s district health offices have replicated some of the educational aspects of the project, and the project’s authors claim that community and local government participation in the project has been one of its biggest successes.
Mercy Corps found that even with the sanitation market model in place, there is lot of work left to do. Consolidating services and improving the supply chain has lowered costs significantly but installation still costs the target demographic 150 to 250 percent of a month's income. To address this, Mercy Corps Indonesia has been working with microfinance institutions to let customers spread the costs of their sanitation systems over 20 months, allowing families to pay for their new, private latrines with the savings they would otherwise spend on communal latrine access.
Still, the cost of materials to create the septic tanks and carts fluctuates, making it challenging to keep prices low. Microfinance institutions are interested in staying involved, but aren't yet convinced that the sanitation market is a priority worth investing their own resources. Private sanitation companies have also been slow to refine their models in response to changing consumer demands.
The project’s ambitions are huge: it hopes to tip the scales by introducing lower-priced products, facilitating the entry of the private sector, and improving awareness of the necessity and affordability of sanitation services. If ultimately successful, millions of Jakarta’s poorest residents will have access to microloans to pay for better latrines and sludge removal, which will keep them healthier and leave more cash in their pockets in the long run.
Despite—and perhaps because of—the challenges that lay ahead, this idea is worth following. By adding value to the demand and supply side of the sanitation industry, Mercy Corps is proposing a sustainable and mutually beneficial solution that addresses one of the most dormant Millennium Development Goals and fundamentally changes the role played by international aid groups.
Maia Nativ’s job involves a lot of dirty work, and she loves it. She works as a fund raiser at Depave, a charity in Portland, Ore., whose mission tagline—“From parking lots to paradise”—upends the old Joni Mitchell song.
True to its name, the organization promotes the removal of urban pavement to create community green spaces, not just to prettify cities but also to prevent stormwater runoff from sweeping pollutants into streams and rivers.
Depave got its start in 2007 when Arif Khan bought a house in Portland that had a driveway and a garage—but he didn’t have a car. Mr. Khan demolished his driveway and garage and planted fruit trees in their place, giving birth to an idea. Over the past five years, Depave, his brainchild, has organized 24 events to remove 94,100 square feet of concrete and asphalt from sites around the city of Portland, soaking up more than 2,221,000 gallons of stormwater that otherwise would have gone into storm drains.
Depave hosts four to six “prys” each summer, recruiting an all-volunteer labor force to break, pry up, and remove pavement from unused parking lots and former playgrounds. It is arduous and filthy work, yet 60 to 100 supporters show up each time to help.
“People ask why we use human power instead of renting a machine to remove the asphalt,” Ms. Nativ says. “Well, if 100 people come to an event and then each go home and tell just one friend how they spent their Saturday, then our mission and our goal just spread to 200 people.”
Depave makes extensive use of social media to spread the word about events, but representatives also attend neighborhood meetings and distribute fliers near a planned “depaving” site.
The charity is currently run by two part-time staff members, who donate their time during donation droughts. Ms. Nativ first showed up to help with a depaving event in 2009. She oversees fundraising and management of the group’s $65,000 annual budget, 95 percent of which pays for the depaving site work. About 10 percent of revenue comes from individuals; the bulk of Depave’s operating budget is covered by local government grants, chiefly from soil- and water-conservation bureaus.
Laura Niemi, community-gardens program coordinator at Portland Parks & Recreation, has worked with Depave to create green space on a former city playground.
“I was really impressed because they were able to pull off a large, complex, and impressively professional event as an essentially all-volunteer group,” Ms. Niemi says.
Beyond carrying on with Depave’s mission, Ms. Nativ says, the charity intends to begin focusing on policy issues, putting pressure on city lawmakers to lower the number of parking spaces required per building and increase parking spaces for bikes. Over the long range, she says, the charity hopes its approach will spread to other American cities.
“After all,” she says, “anywhere you go, there’s a lot of unnecessary asphalt.”
Community is not just for extroverts.
For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in barrios, hamlets, neighborhoods, and villages. Yet in the time since our parents and grandparents were young, privacy has become so valued that many neighborhoods are not much more than houses in proximity.
Now, many activities take place behind locked doors and backyard privacy fences. The street out front is not always safe for pedestrians, and is often out of bounds for children. With families spread across the country and friends living across town, a person who doesn’t know their neighbors can feel isolated and insecure. And when the links among neighbors are weak, security relies on locks, gates, and guns, rather than a closely knit web of connections.
Building a community from scratch is daunting. But the good news is that vibrant communities can grow over time from existing neighborhoods.
Right here, right now: 10 ways to build community:
1. Move your picnic table to the front yard. See what happens when you eat supper out front. It’s likely you’ll strike up a conversation with a neighbor, so invite them to bring a dish to share.
2. Plant a front yard vegetable garden. Don’t stop with the picnic table. Build a raised bed for veggies and plant edible landscaping and fruit trees. Break your boundaries by inviting your neighbors to share your garden.
3. Build a room-sized front porch. The magic of a good porch comes from both its private and public setting. It belongs to the household while also being open to passersby. Its placement, size, relation to the interior and the public space, and railing height are both an art and a science. Make it more than a tiny covering under which you fumble for your keys; make it big enough to be a veritable outdoor living room.
4. Add layers of privacy. Curiously, giving your personal space more definition will foster connections with neighbors. A secure space will be more comfortable and more often used, which will increase chances for seeing your neighbors – even if only in a passing nod.
But rather than achieving privacy with a tall fence, consider an approach with layers: a bed of perennial flowers in front of a low fence, with a shade tree to further filter the view. These layers help define personal boundaries, but are permeable at the same time.
5. Take down your backyard fence. Join with your neighbors to create a shared safe play space for children, a community garden, or a wood-fired pizza oven. In Davis, Calif., a group of neighbors on N Street did just that. Twenty years later, nearly all the neighbors around the block have joined in.
If that’s too radical, consider cutting your six-foot fence to four feet to make chatting across the fence easier, or building a gate between yards.
6. Organize summer potluck street parties. Claim the street, gather the lawn chairs, and fire up the hibachi! Take over the otherwise off-limits street as a space to draw neighbors together.
7. Put up a book-lending cupboard. Bring a book, take a book. Collect your old reads and share them with passersby in a cupboard mounted next to the sidewalk out front. Give it a roof, a door with glass panes, and paint it to match the flowers below.
9. Create an online network for nearby neighbors. Expand the survey into an active online resource and communication tool. Find a new home for an outgrown bike. Ask for help keeping an eye out for a lost dog. Organize a yard sale.
Take advantage of free neighbor-to-neighbor networking tools such as Nextdoor to facilitate communications and build happier, safer neighborhoods.
10. Be a good neighbor. It’s easy to focus on your own needs and concerns, but a slight shift in outlook can make a big difference in the day-to-day lives in a neighborhood. Check in on your elderly neighbor if her curtains aren’t raised in the morning. On a hot summer day, put out a pitcher of ice lemonade for passersby, or a bowl of cool water for dogs on walks.
To be sure, grievances among neighbors are common. But when a neighborhood grows from a base of goodwill, little squabbles won’t escalate into turf fights, and neighborhoods can become what they are meant to be: places of support, security, and friendship.
• Ross Chapin, FAIA, wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Ross is an architect based on Whidbey Island, Wash., and author of "Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World" (Taunton Press). Over the last 15 years, Ross has designed and partnered in developing six pocket neighborhoods in the Puget Sound region – small groupings of homes around a shared commons – and has designed dozens of communities for developers across the US, Canada, and the UK.