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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

Sgt. Audrey Johnsey (left) greets Sfc. Joshua Herbig (right), who she served with in Afghanistan, during the Welcome Home Heroes Parade in St. Louis in January. Three wealthy US families have pledged to create a $30 million fund to support programs that serve military veterans. (Sarah Conard/Reuters/File)

Three families pledge to raise $30 million in aid for US veterans

By Maria Di MentoThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 07.05.12

Three affluent families are forming a fund with the purpose of raising $30 million to support programs that serve military veterans, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America announced today.

The families have donated more than $1 million and plan to seek contributions especially from other wealthy people, including those without personal connections to any service members.

Philip Green, president of PDG Consulting, a health-care consultancy,  and his wife, Elizabeth Cobbs, chief of geriatrics at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Washington, D.C., joined with their friends Glenn and Laurie Garland and with the Jim Stimmel family to create the fund, Mr. Green said in an interview with The Chronicle.

IN PICTURES: The Next Mission: Veterans Returning Home

The money raised for the new Veterans Support Fund will be funneled to five nonprofits that help returning service members and their families.

In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which will operate the fund and conduct fundraising for it, the other beneficiaries include the National Military Family Association, Operation Homefront, Operation Mend, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.

Mr. Green and Ms. Cobb have donated $600,000 to start the fund, and the Garland and Stimmel families have each contributed $250,000.

Michelle McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the fund will focus fundraising appeals on people who can give at least $250,000, but will accept donations of any size.

The announcement of the fund comes at a crucial time. A recent Chronicle article reported that many charities that serve veterans are desperate for money.

The impetus for the Veterans Support Fund came from Mr. Green and his wife, who said they realized how fortunate they were that their three grown children were not involved in the wars and came to believe that soldiers and their families are owed a special debt.

“The message we’re trying to communicate to these families is this is a moral obligation rather than a decision to give a charitable donation,” Mr. Green said. “This is different because you really have a moral obligation to give, you actually owe [military families] money.”

This article originally appeared online at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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Schoolchildren wash their hands to mark Global Handwashing Day at a primary school in Kikuyu, near Kenya's capital of Nairobi. At another Kenyan school in Kiambu, student meals are cooked using biogas created at the school. (Thomas Mukoya/Reuters/File)

Biogas project helps Kenyan school save money, and trees

By Pius SawaAlertNet / 07.03.12

When Evelyn Mukami, a form three student, joined Gachoire Girls Secondary School in January 2010, she was very surprised to learn how the meals at her school were prepared.

The charcoal and firewood that are typically used for cooking in Kenya were nowhere to be seen. Instead, the kitchens cooked with biogas produced from the students’ own toilet waste.

“Before I came to this school, I was living in Nakuru (in Kenya’s Rift Valley) where we use charcoal and firewood for cooking,” Mukami said. “I didn’t imagine my waste being a source of energy.”

RELATED: Top 5 nations that use renewable energy

Since 2006, biogas has been a key resource for the 36-year-old school in Central Kenya, saving the expense of buying fuel and emptying latrines, while also preserving a significant number of trees and reducing carbon dioxide emissions from burning wood.

In the process, Gachoire has become a model of how the effects of climate change can be mitigated at the local level.

“If all schools, both primary and secondary, took up this initiative, I think after a few years we can count how much carbon we have saved from the atmosphere by sparing the trees and our forests,” said Esther Lung’ai, a local project officer at the Arid Lands Information Network, a nongovernmental organization.

Lung’ai added that she had eaten food from the school kitchen and there was nothing in the taste to indicate that it had been cooked using by-products of human waste.

Waste from toilets at the school is deposited into large pipes and pumped automatically into a bio-digester buried underground. Bacteria are added to break down the waste, and gas is produced as a by-product of this process. A pipe transfers the gas from the digester to the kitchen, which is about 200 metres (220 yards) away.

When the bio-digester is full, excess water and waste go to other chambers called breeders. As gas is used up, the water and waste in the breeders return to the digester for further processing. After the waste has been fully digested, remnants are stored in tanks from which they can be collected and dried to produce fertilizer.

Peter Muraya, a teacher who was involved in the project from its inception, said the bio-digester was built with the school’s planned expansion in mind. It has a volume of 21,000 litres (about 5,500 US gallons).

“When we started we had around 600 students,” Muraya explained. “But now we have 849 students and the number is increasing each year. So the bio-digester is large enough to supply the gas to the kitchen” for all the children’s needs.

The Gachoire biofuel project was initially funded by the European Union.

The project is saving wood that would otherwise be needed to cook the school meals. Muraya said that Gachoire previously bought three lorryloads of firewood for each three-month school term.

“That was 21 tons of wood, which would translate into 50 mature trees,” said Muraya. This means that the school is now conserving 150 mature trees every year that would otherwise have been felled to cook for the students and staff.

Gachoire’s principal, Naomi Njihia, said the school has been able to save more than 10,000 Kenyan shillings (about $117) each month on fuel.

“It is very helpful,” said Njihia. “The school has also saved money by (not having to empty) the pit latrines.”

Samuel Githumbe, a Gachoire cook who has worked at schools that used wood for cooking, believes that cooking with biogas has a number of advantages over firewood.

“This gas is very fast,” he said. “If you have a big number of people to cook for, the work is faster, you don’t waste time splitting the firewood, and besides that the gas does not produce smoke that is dangerous to the health and the eyes.”

Githumbe, who was born locally, has also seen the negative consequences for the environment of using fuel wood. He says the climate of the area today is different from when he was young.

The hills across from the school are treeless, cleared for firewood, farming, and construction by the growing population. This has allowed strong winds to destroy crops, while floods wash away the soil during heavy rains, according to Githumbe.

The school has been able to preserve four acres of its own woodland that without the biogas project would eventually have been felled for fuel. School officials say that the trees not only absorb carbon dioxide but help create a cooler microclimate around the school.

Gachoire is also growing vegetables on school land. There are plans to produce fertilizer from the by-products of the biogas production.

The project has excited the communities around the school. When it began, the school hung a banner at the gate, and local residents came to see how the bio-gas was being produced, according to Muraya.

Now they have started producing their own biogas at the household level, using animal dung.

“The whole world ... is talking about climate change,” Muraya said. “But many people are just giving lip service. I know in our small way we are helping to address the impact of climate change by saving the trees and using this clean energy source.”

Student Evelyn Mukami is now gathering youths from her church and the community to tell them how human waste can save the trees.

“I can tell the world that the waste we produce is really not a waste, but we can combine it to produce biogas,” she said.

Samuel Githumbe put it even more bluntly.

“I urge every person here to start using biogas so that we can save our environment,” he said.

• Pius Sawa is a freelance science journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

This article originally appeared at Alertnet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Traffic moves across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. A new smartphone-based ride-sharing program called SideCar matches drivers and passengers headed in the same direction. (Eric Risberg/AP/File)

SideCar offers smartphone-based ride-sharing

By Kelly McCartneyShareable.net / 07.02.12

After a four-month beta program in San Francisco with a reported 10,000 test rides, SideCar officially launched today (June 26) as “the first on-demand rideshare community.”

Though the company's beta test was invitation only, the service spread by word of mouth, and SideCar enjoyed high numbers of repeat participants in both the driver's and passenger's seats. The peer-to-peer ride-sharing service claims to be more than just a platform — it's being dubbed a transportation community which brings one more option into the shareable transportation fray.

Using the free SideCar mobile app, drivers and passengers can find each other instantaneously and share on-demand rides. Rather than call a cab, riders can use their smartphones to find a SideCar ride. Passengers use the app to set their pick-up and drop-off locations, then track their SideCar driver in real-time to get an estimated pick-up time.

The app also tracks progress to destination in real-time, offers a constantly adjusted ETA, and lets riders easily message arrival information to those at the destination. I especially like the progress tracker that uses mapping software. It offers added assurance that you're actually headed in the right direction.

The mobile app includes sharing and rating features (for both riders and drivers), as well as an electronic tip jar so the rider can help cover the driver's expenses. SideCar is finding that the contributions often cover drivers' vehicle maintenance and operation costs. And voluntary online donations keep the service within the definition of ride-sharing instead of a taxi service, though the latter is exactly what Sidecar aims to disrupt.

But, as SideCar driver Eric Janson notes, it's not all about the money: “I started out driving to cover the cost of my car, but now I just love meeting all the interesting people this city has to offer. I often see the same people, and I'm getting to know them. It’s more fun than you can imagine at first. The other great thing is I can log in to the app whenever it suits me, so it’s completely flexible for my schedule.”

To bolster trust and safety of all concerned, SideCar offers a number of impressive features. They seem to have taken this aspect of the service quite seriously, and for good reason given high-profile incidents at sharing economy leaders Airbnb and RelayRides. For passengers' safety, SideCar offers:

  •  Criminal background checks for all drivers.
  •  Confirmed drivers license and screening of DMV records.
  •  Interviews with all drivers before allowing them onto the system.
  •  The location of the vehicle is tracked by GPS.  This location is recorded by SideCar and the passenger can also share this.
  •  Tracking with friends during your ride.
  •  Passengers rate drivers, and SideCar investigates any low ratings and removes members who get consistently bad feedback.
  •  Photos of the driver and the car are provided through the app.

For drivers, SideCar encourages civility by passengers in a few ways:

  •  No anonymity: a valid credit card and smartphone are required to be a part of the community.
  •  Drivers rate passengers, and repeat offenders are removed from the community.
  •  No cash changes hands.

SideCar's CEO and co-founder, Sunil Paul, boasts, “SideCar is more than just the easiest way to get around the city. We have created a platform for the first-ever crowd-sourced transportation network. With SideCar we can help reduce urban congestion, fight climate change, and bring back a sense of community and connection to our cities.”

This article originally appeared at Shareable.net, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

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Ethiopian farmers walk in their wheat field. For centuries, farmers have eked out a living in Ethiopia's central lowlands, tending tiny plots of maize, wheat, or barley. Climate change threatens their livelihoods but a return to old crop varieties may be an answer. (Barry Malone/Reuters/File)

Turning to old crop varieties for tough times

By Charlie Pye-SmithAlertNet / 06.29.12

How will Ethiopian farmers cope with the climatic conditions that are likely to prevail in 20 or 30 years time? One of the answers lies in an unexpected place: the genetic diversity of crops stored in the country’s own gene banks.

Traditionally, gene banks have been established to store material for plant breeders to use when developing new varieties, not for direct distribution of seeds to farmers.

However, a new project led by Bioversity International, a center of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) is reconnecting farmers with landraces. These are varieties developed by farmers over millennia – but never been bred by scientists – that have been largely lost from the landscape.

Researchers working with the "Seeds for Needs" project, which is jointly implemented with Ethiopia's Institute for Biodiversity Conservation and the National Agricultural Research Institute, have developed a tool to help farmers choose varieties to suit their future needs.

The research initially focused on providing new varieties of barley and durum wheat to 100 women farmers at three sites of varying elevation.

During the first phase of the project, information about more than 12,500 samples of seeds of different varieties was gathered to identify the ones from areas currently experiencing the climatic conditions – in terms of rainfall and temperature – projected to occur at the pilot sites in a generation’s time.

The most promising 100 varieties of each crop were then tested on-farm by the women, using their land and labor.

After the first growing season, the women selected the varieties with the traits they considered most valuable. These were then distributed to other women within their communities to be grown during the next cropping season.

Even though the women did not specifically choose varieties for their ability to cope with future climatic conditions, the initial selection provided them with a range of seeds and options that they didn't have before.

"If they grow a few varieties that are tolerant of climate change, then they will be in better shape to face the future than they would be otherwise," said Laura Snook, an expert on forest genetic resources with Bioversity.

The project “is also drawing the attention of agricultural ministries and research institutions to the important role gene banks can play in climate change adaptation strategies," she said.

In Papua New Guinea, farmers and scientists are using a similar methodology to identify varieties of sweet potato and yam – both crops that can’t be stored or sown as seed and are instead reproduced as clones of the parent plan t– that will help farmers cope with climate change. ‘Seeds for Needs’ projects have also been launched in Mali and India.

While in some areas of the world farmers will be able to adapt to climate change by switching the crop breeds they use, in other areas they may have to plant different crops altogether. In Colombia, for example, farmers in some regions have had to abandon growing coffee due to rising temperatures and are now planting crops such as peppers and pineapples.

In other areas, farmers may have to abandon activities altogether if the climate becomes too harsh for farming. The CGIAR, through its research program under Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), is working worldwide to understand not only how climate change will impact crops, fisheries, livestock, and forests, but also to help develop and disseminate the best opportunities for farmers to adapt to, and help mitigate, climate change.

• Charlie Pye-Smith is a science writer for the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture, and Food Security (CCAFS).

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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A man walks past a Google logo drawn with chalk on a wall at a Google campus near Venice Beach, in Los Angeles. Employees at Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other technology companies volunteer for 'Random Hacks of Kindess,' helping solve problems for groups trying to do good. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters/File)

‘Random Hacks of Kindness’ uses technology to solve problems

By Cody SwitzerThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 06.28.12

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.

In Nairobi, a similar group worked on a system to report election results in real time, including incidents of election violence and accusations of voter fraud.

In Toronto, others worked on a system that could allow Nepali women to send ultrasound pictures via mobile devices.

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.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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Supporters of Myanmar's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, hold candles and a banner in her support during a protest in Yangon May 25, 2012. As Myanmar emerges into democratic rule, Zarganar, a comedian turned political dissident, wants to ensure that the atrocities of the past are recorded and not forgotten by future generations. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters/File)

Forgive but don't forget, Myanmar comedian-turned-activist says

By AlertNet / 06.27.12

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.

A meeting in Cambodia with the head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, a private organization that has collected documents, films, and photographs of the Khmer Rouge, has inspired him.

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.

Military crackdowns

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.

In 2008, Myanmar suffered one the worst disasters in its history when Cyclone Nargis struck the Irrawaddy Delta killing nearly 140,000 people.

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.

Myanmar changing

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.

This article originally appeared on AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Children at Edeyo School in Port au Prince, Haiti, examine Luci, a blow-up solar-powered lantern. (Courtesy of MpowerD)

Blow-up solar lantern lights up Haiti's prospects

By Laurie GoeringAlertNet / 06.26.12

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.

RELATED: Top 5 nations that use renewable energy

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.”

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Bike trains encourage children to bicycle to school. An adult leader collects a 'train' of student riders who join in line as the bike train passes their homes. (Maya Jacobs)

How to build a 'bike train'

By Maya JacobsYES! Magazine / 06.25.12

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.

RELATED: 10 great books about cycling

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:

  1. Involve your community: Find a group of interested parents through school and neighborhood message boards, listservs, or newsletters.
  2. Assess your location: Is it hilly? Flat? Busy? Residential? Map safe and dangerous streets, as well as general topography.
  3. 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.
  4. Get feedback: Display preliminary routes for other parents, finesse routes for safety, accessibility, and efficiency. Do a trial ride.
  5. 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!
  6. Get the word out: Host a meeting, post your routes online, flier your school and neighborhood.

• Maya Jacobs wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

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Loosecubes helps mobile workers find cool places to work near home or when traveling.

Loosecubes supports mobile workers of the future

By Cat JohnsonShareable / 06.22.12

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.

 This article was originally published at Shareable.net, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

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Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Fund, holds seeds inside the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. The 'doomsday' vault could one day protect millions of varieties of agriculture seeds from man-made or natural disasters. (John McConnico/AP/File)

Buried seed vault guards thousands of crop varieties

By Eleanor FausoldNourishing the Planet / 06.21.12

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.

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"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.

• To purchase "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

This article originally appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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