Designs on Systematic Listening

In my last blog post I introduced five testable hypotheses that apply to many designs for helping people. Some examples of those were:

  • cash-48Cash control group: Instead of the program, give them the equivalent cash it would cost.


  • decision-making-behaviorDecision control group: Let the people decide what intervention they want to join, and compare to the choices experts make for another group of people. For example, do food stamps recipients make smarter decisions and get better value with cash than with vouchers that are limited to only what the experts think they should buy?
  • effort-matchEffort matched control group: Split the recipients into smaller groups (like micro-lending does) and require each group of say, a dozen people, to match the aid money with some effort of their own. For example, in exchange for getting a bio-waste energy tank, a group could be required to clean trash in the neighborhood regularly – to be verified by satellite imaging. This commitment and verification would prioritize allocations to groups that are most committed to “working” for them. And it lets them “earn” aid instead of simply passively receiving aid.

whole bull planning process

Story-centered Learning Designs

Here I introduce different ways to design a storytelling project with one goal in mind: Systematically listening to people and benchmarking narrative patterns against some control group. It dovetails with the previous post because program design dictates which listening design will work best.

If the goal is a needs assessment, do community mapping

Focus on the location and the people that live there. Ask an open-ended question like,

“Talk about a time when a person or organization tried to help someone or change something in your community. What happened?”

From 2010-2012 we collected nearly 60,000 responses to this question, searchable online.

All stories in a collection will be connected by their proximity in space and time, and often this alone is able to reveal patterns that should inform project design. For example, the Kenyan NGO VAP interviewed girls in their program and learned that rape was a major life issue. Too many girls were bringing it up in generic “community mapping” stories – more than a third – to ignore. So they changed the program to address this immediate need. The following year they used this process to hone in on aspects of youth crime that were amenable to after-school lessons.

Blogs on VAP forming a “case study”:

Mrembo Program

Comparing two rape-prevention programs – this one illustrates how a nearby outside organization can be a good benchmark for your program.

In 2012 our GlobalGiving storytelling project was based in many parts of East Africa. We collected and published community maps for each community:

Kibera meeting and Kibera follow-up. Map Kibera project

Kakamega and Western Kenya



In the past creating these maps was a manual process, but soon they will be automatically visualized from the stories and their meta data. “Meta data” are the little bits of related data around stories, such as who scribed them and where the story took place. It is safe to assume that stories with overlapping people and places and dates are important signals for program managers, and that visualizing it can help them make smarter decisions (or even make them smarter decision-makers).

If goal is measuring a program’s impact, these designs will help…

Impact is a messy, vague, ambiguous loaded word. It gets tossed around casually by board members and funders and served on a silver platter to rich people who want to try their hand at being a development agency. This is my attempt to disambiguate Impact into different approaches to measuring them, and tying these back to the best way to gather signals from people.

Customize the story prompting question to map the root causes of a problem

Some past storytelling questions give you a sense for how to map the problem, or issue, that comes to mind in association with a topic:

Please tell a story about a time when you had to choose between protecting the environment and maintaining a livelihood. Include if/how individuals or organizations were involved in the conflict.

אנא ספר סיפור על זמן שבו אדם או ארגון ניסה לעזור למישהו או לשנות משהו בקהילה שלך.

Please tell a story about a time when you tried to get a job. What helped you get a job?

Please tell a story on a most significant change that you have observed based on your experience as a participant in our program(s).

Please talk about a specific time that you felt more visible in your community. What happened and how did it expose some hidden need or issue? What would you like to do to help address it?

In the space provided, please tell us about a childhood experience when you did something you believed you never could have done.

And these illustrate how GlobalGiving used it in our own network:

Talk about your experience approaching a grantmaking or funding organization that either did or did not grant you funding. What was your relationship like? Did you receive support from them?

Please tell a story about a time when when a nonprofit listened, acted, and learned to become more effective at fundraising on GlobalGiving. Did they became more effective in real life?

As a past global giver, why did you give to GlobalGiving or to this project in particular?

Good story prompting questions undergo design evolution based on early testing:

Version 1: Please tell a story about a time when you had to work with someone different from yourself.

Version 2: Please tell a story about a time when a conflict arose because you had to work with someone from a different background (religious, cultural, ethnic etc.) to yourself.

Version 3: Please tell a story about a time when a person changed someone else’s perception of them or challenged a prejudice or misunderstanding.

Some prompts are too specific to be comparable to any other stories:

Please tell a story about a time when YaLa Africa tried to help and empower you or your community through micro-gardening and nutrition training.

You’ll notice that these questions are still much more open-ended than program evaluations use. We don’t ask them to describe the impact directly – we ask them to describe specific events and categorize experiences, so that impact can emerge from the collect as a whole in an organic (less biased) way.

Add survey questions

Certain follow-up questions will extend these narratives in ways that allow for specific quantitative comparisons:

Hierarchy of needs

Which of these relate to your story?
Choose three.

Freedom |  Fun

Knowledge | Respect |  Creativity | Self-esteem |

Food and shelter|  Security|  Family and friends|  Physical needs

Root causes

What is needed to address the problems in your story?
Choose all that apply.

Money | Change to government and institutions | Individual behavior change | Change to society’s attitudes

Give two words to define this problem 
The events in this story…
Choose a point on the line.
Happen often exactly as I told it
Has a different ending from what usually happens

What else would have made a difference in your story?

Power relationships and social hierarchy

Who would you go to if you wanted to solve the problem in this story?
Choose only one.

Chief or local authority | Family member | Religious leader | Vendor or business leader| Friend, neighbor, or community member | Teacher, health, or government worker | Somebody else (none of these)

The events in your story happened mainly because of…
Choose all that apply.

The circumstances people found themselves in | The resources people had available to them  |

The actions people took | The way people felt

Ask beneficiaries two stories

Sometimes it makes no sense to interview neighbors of the people you serve. In that case, each program participant can serve as his or her own control if you invite them to share two stories. The first story can be “How does organization X help you?” and the second one, “how has some other organization helped you?” With variations on this within-subjects control design you can make many comparisons.

What else do the people you serve care about or need?

What other organizations are having an impact on the lives of the people you serve?

How do people feel about various life issues that intersect with the problems your program claims to address?

Is there one demographic group that you are reaching more (or failing to reach)?

Trigger conflict narratives

Good writers know that narratives require conflict to be interesting. There are as many different kinds of conflicts in fiction as there are in program design. Conflicts can be internal and external. They involve human against nature or against each other. Family conflicts differ from community ones. And all of this needs to fit inside 150 words for good storytelling. Frequently, our stories are boring. The authors are reluctant to describe the conflict because it is not their own self-interest, or because their culture forbids it (Lookin at you Japan!):


As a result, evaluations are often conflict-free, or at least the conflicts are severely dampened and couched in euphemisms. We’re trying to change that. We’ve giving organizations to probe for conflict, and training scribes to give citizens permission to give feedback in a safe space.

In the example where the person was asked to tell a story about having to choose between protecting the environment and securing a livelihood, we are mapping out an internal values conflict. Other conflict stories can be about working with “other” (see above) or understanding corruption. Impact is not the absence of conflict or measured by how many people make the “right” choice (e.g. choosing the environment over one’s livelihood is not success), but rather comes from understanding the issue on a deeper level and building bridges or designing projects that allow people to have more prosperity and face fewer tough trade-off decisions.

Measure change with a before, during, after program listening design

Impact is positive change over time. The number one reason Impact is hard to measure is that the people with the money and the power don’t want to wait for time to pass – they want to know immediately. But if you don’t ask people to describe life before an intervention, you will find it hard to measure change. Mathematically, it is impossible, though people often use weak data from elsewhere as a proxy for the baseline.

To be able to look at how a collection of narratives is changing over time, you need (at a minimum) to ask people before and after the program. If programs are ongoing, then you can ask periodically. Very strict researchers would ask the same people at regular intervals, but in the real world getting an organization to just ask two times (before and after) would be a huge improvement over what they have done in the past.

Journaling – if you have volunteers working for weeks or months, have them keep a journal. After, scan and datify the content as stories. So instead of two stories (pre and post), you would have a dozen or more stories from the same person about an issue. Growth is easy to see with journaling.

Focus groups – Informal discussions can be augmented by during a transcript of stories shared into data. Leave a tape recorder running, or use an app like dictadroid to convert it to MP3 and email for transcription immediately after.

Use our 60,000 story repository to build a reference collection for comparison

The best data is the kind that already exists. All you need to do is add your unique part and use our comparison tools to look at how peoples’ experiences differ. This isn’t as powerful as some of the other techniques, but it can be done for free, and sometimes done even when the project is being designed, before there are any “beneficiaries” yet.

Example: Two rape prevention programs or Planning to fight stigma after the ebola epidemic


These tools live on

What next?

This is Part II of a blog series on story-centered learning and hypothesis-based international development. Read more!

Part I: Null hypotheses in international development

Virtual APB finds the criminal and reveals the power of offline social networks


Ten years ago Eli and I were housemates. I moved away from State College, PA but she knew I still knew people there. That is this week why she tagged me and 100 of her closest Facebook friends with this message:

State College/Centre County friends, past and present- I seriously need your help! Today, I was the victim of a hit and run accident. I was outside of my vehicle, and the woman came within a foot of hitting me. She hit the car door that I was right inside of as I was buckling my toddler into her carseat. She did not apologize or ask if I was OK. She asked if I wanted to exchange insurance info, and I told her that I was going to call the police so they could take a report. I reached into my vehicle to get my phone, and when I next looked up she was gone. The police called an ambulance to check my vitals because I am due in less than two weeks and I was shaking and my heart was racing from the shock of the incident. Thankfully I am OK, but this woman came within inches of killing me and/or my unborn child.

Unfortunately, the police say that it is unlikely that they will find this woman because I was unable to give them much information. It all happened within a few minutes. I never imagined that she would take off. If I had, I would have taken a picture of her plate and vehicle.

Please help me find this cold hearted woman by looking out for her as you drive around! Or if you no longer live in the area, please tag anyone you know who still does. She needs to be caught. She was a white woman in her 70s or early 80s. She had white hair and wire rimmed glasses. She was driving a sporty compact vehicle that was FIRE ENGINE RED. Her passenger side view mirror was knocked off during the accident. The accident occurred near the corner of Burrowes and Fairmont Ave in State College.

If you see a vehicle fitting this description, please take the license plate information and message me immediately. Also please share this status with anyone you know who lives in this area. I have made it visible to all.

Like — with 46 others.


4 people like this. 235 shares

Later that day she posted another Facebook update.

So today was a crazy day. I ended up visiting the ER because I had so much adrenaline pumping through my system that my heart was racing, I was shaking violently, and I felt ice cold. After 3 hours, an IV, bloodwork, an EKG, and an ultrasound, I was sent home as OK.

Then I came home to a message that a local insurance agent (who had seen my post because a friend had shared it) might know who hit my car. An 83-year-old woman called the agency stating that she needed to get her side view mirror reattached to her car, which was red. She wouldn’t give details of the accident but said that it had involved a pregnant lady! The agency called the police but had to leave a message because the detective was out.

Isn’t Facebook amazing?

And within twelve hours from the hit-and-run accident, someone with the power to bring justice had been alerted and had taken action.

Elizabeth Anne Bragg 21 hours ago – In case you missed it:

Hit and run case tentatively solved thanks to Facebook! Almost 300 people shared my story, and one of those people just happened to be Facebook friends with an Allstate agent. Shortly after reading my story, the agent overheard that an elderly woman had called in to ask about having her side view mirror reattached after an accident involving a pregnant woman. She was vague at first, but Allstate did some investigative work and determined that it was the same woman that hit me. They immediately called the police and sent me a message via Facebook inviting me to call the agent at home until 1:00 a.m! I have been blown away by their care and concern, and I’m seriously considering transferring my coverage to them. Go Allstate!

This wouldn’t have been possible if so many people hadn’t reached out to help me. I had two news agencies offer to cover my story, body shops messaging me for further information, a resident of the neighborhood where the accident occurred offering to review surveillance footage on their home security system, and countless strangers offering sympathy, support, tips, and assistance.

This truly is a wonderful community where people reach out to help those in need. If you shared my story with others, please share this happy update on your page. We no longer need to look for the driver. It’s time to share the good news of the power of small acts of kindness.

This story is less about Facebook and mostly about human kindness and concern. It was Allstate agent who was a friend of a friend of a friend of Eli’s that saw the story and overheard an offline conversation and connected the dots. The woman called his office (and given the insurance market, there were really only about six offices she could have called) and he realized who she must have been.

The six-o-clock news version left out all the emotions that her 100 friends had that caused us to take action, and focused only on the victim’s pain:

If you want to see me awkwardly retelling my story, watch the 5:30 WJAC-TV news. The live broadcast can also be viewed on I was very nervous, but I am certain that they will make me sound eloquent and confident. :)

And later…

Ha ha! According to WTAJ my name is actually Emma Braggs which is hilarious since Emma was my dog’s name and the footage that they showed of my Facebook page showed my name as ELIZABETH BRAGG.

It was very short. Let’s hope that the story that will run on is more accurate and thorough!

Elli’s Facebook updates were the best and most accurate retelling of the story, because everybody who was involved was on that page. The kind of swift justice she got is the sort of thing – based on feedback loops and engaging people with the agency to change things that I work on at Feedback Labs:

feedback loop members

The null hypothesis for international development

As a nonprofit organization, the question we should ask ourselves is “how do I know if some new approach is better than what I’m already  doing” for this community?

Many programs don’t improve lives that much on the whole. But there are several simple ways to quantify exactly how much benefit they have, compared to something else. The “something else” can be quite simple, as you will see.

cash or goat

1 – For every intervention, the control group gets cash instead.

GiveDirectly takes money and gives unconditional $1000 cash to poor people, then tracks what they do with it and how well they live afterward. Chris Blattman believes this should be the null hypothesis for all foundations: What do people do with money themselves, given unconditional cash?


#2 – Citizens allocate the dough. Compare with foundation experts.

Another example is what I call “Pay it Backwards” where we take the thousands of do-gooder citizens that people have already written a story about in our storytelling project and give them $100 to do something good for someone else with. Afterwards, we ask the do-gooder, the inidivual donor (who put up $100), and the beneficiary what happened and were they happy with it? Here it is not GiveDirectly choosing the people, but rather, good citizens whom we empower to act and little micro charities. And the question is, “are people happier when individual helps than when foundations help them? What do they do well? And what do they do poorly (compared to charities)?


#3 – Pay the actors cash not to do something you think is important.

A third model of rethinking the null hypothesis is to split the pool of qualified organizations (that you would normally give a grant to) into two groups. To one group you deny them the grant for a year in exchange for a little cash now and their commitment to give you data about what they are doing. Then you can compare the data with data you collect on your grantees. You should expect that your grantees are doing better work, if you data system is worth anything. Otherwise none of your data is reliable and it’s possible that your grantees would be better off being given nothing but grants. We at globalgiving have considered this. It shows what drastic extremes we in the nonprofit world must go to. For in order to “prove” that our products have value, we have to take some of our customers and pay them not to buy our products, so we can show the product works.


#4 – How much much you pay someone not to doing something?

A variation on idea #3 is to find out how much a person needs to be bribed to try something new. If a foundation isn’t collecting feedback from the people they serve, how much could you pay them to do it? And if they are already listening to a community (because experts at foundations encouraged them to do it), how much would you need to pay them to leave it out of a proposal? If they truly believe that the information is valuable, you would need to pay them to omit it, and how much you need to pay is a measure of what perceived value it has.

The same applies to microloans. If training with a loan is really valuable, could you ask people to give back 10% of their loan to pay for the training? That would be a strong bit of evidence that the training has value.


#5 – All projects must have at least a 25% local matching effort to proceed.

I am a huge fan of the Peace Corps Small Project Assistance (SPA) program. When I was a PCV in Gambia 99-01, I never used SPA myself, but many other PCVs did so successfully. The design of a small budget with minimum 25% community effort match should be the design that all other projects are benchmarked against. If a community is unable or unwilling to quarter-match a project, then the budget is too large or the money going to the wrong thing.

Conclusion: There’s too much talk about impact from people who aren’t able to measure it.

If you’re thinking, “I don’t need to know whether we are better than something else” because your grant funding is restricted to exactly the one thing, you should give up talking about impact. You cannot prove you had a big impact on anyone if you are unable to offer more than one kind of aid to a person. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

If your next grant proposal is all about implementing one idea without comparing it to anything else, then don’t try to claim you’ll know what its impact will be. Instead, rewrite your grant so that you can at least say that it was better/worse than cash, or use one of these other approaches to demonstrate there is demand for it.

The ‘null hypothesis’ in any experiment doesn’t need to ask, “is this new thing is better than some old thing?” Instead, show that the intervention is more effective than cash. Cash is the equivalent of placebo for international development.

If you want to say something like “X foundation is 25% more effective than the rest,” you’ll need a better baseline to compare against. That means you need benchmark data and a null hypothesis to test against.

Listen, act, and demonstrated learning for organizations

In 2014 GlobalGiving made significant upgrades to their tools and training. Most of these improvements came directly out of the feedback organizations gave in their annual survey. They added web analytics:
They measured every organization’s behavior and put it on a dashboard to give personalized feedback on their performance:
 effectiveness-dashboard-head effectiveness-dashboard
And for the first time, organizations that strive to be better get credit and recognition for learning:
GlobalGiving now awards points for using any external tools we know about that can help organizations grow:
external learning tools
The process involves three steps – Listen, Act, Learn – and demonstrating that this has happened with a little feedback form:
LALR storytelling form

Formula: Demonstrated effectiveness => Visibility => Funds raised

Later this year, everything that organizations do to listen, act, and learn will increase their visibility on GlobalGiving, as it will soon factor into the partner rewards criteria:

These are the existing criteria, which omit points for good behaviors such as attending webinars, using SWOT analysis, community listening, and sharing knowledge with others.

But before we make drastic changes, we’d like to hear from everyone. If you work for an organization, please take our ‘learning how you learn‘ survey:
Help us learn how you work.

Learning Organizations

 A learning organization is one that transforms continuously based on evidence and helps its staff grow. We believe that learning organizations are going to drive change in the world in the future. But no two learning organizations look the same, or need the same things. This is your chance to help us learn what you need, so we can provide it. And if you are already doing something that makes you effective, we want to hear about it so that we can award more credit for doing what matters.

Changing the world

Dennis and Mari started GlobalGiving in 2002 because they believed most of the money was not making it to organizations that were doing great work. And in the decade ever since, we’ve moved over 100 million dollars to thousands of these great organizations. But that is not enough. We also need to demonstrate how and why these “other” organizations are a better investment, so that bigger deeper pockets will open and join us. That begins by tracking behavior and using market mechanisms to get more organizations doing more of what matters. We’ve explained our world view in this infographic:

Storytelling to change the ending of the ebola story

Following the present course, prospects for containing ebola are dim. Yesterday CDC predicted over 1.4 million ebola cases by the end of January 2015 unless something changes. The lag adjusted estimates of ebola’s fatality rate show that over 80% of people die, and this epidemic continues to grow exponentially.

This epidemic is growing because the standard approach – quarantining the area – doesn’t work where corruption is high (powerful people don’t obey the quarantine if they believe they can get better treatment by fleeing) and the ability to isolated infected people is low.

More importantly – if the public sees that 90% of the people who go into a hospital come out in a body bag they are not going to visit hospitals anymore.

Under these circumstances, some other approach may work where quarantines and hospital triage cannot. Last week Sierra Leone tried a three-day lockdown. This may be a test-run at a permanent curfew to prevent people touching each other.

But whatever the solution may be, I know it won’t be apparent without some people listening to citizens, gathering feedback and opinions, and aggregating it into data mining tools – exactly what we at GlobalGiving have done elsewhere.


I wrote to some friends who know people in Liberia and Sierra Leone. I have a dozen prospective volunteers to start a “Ebola Listening Brigade.” This is a Public Facebook Group For people in Liberia who are willing to interview a citizen for a “day in my life” story during the ebola epidemic. Life is changing rapidly there. These stories will help others understand the need and nature of the crisis beyond the narrow lense of the media.


Ebola Listening Brigade

Five minutes of listening a day

The goal is to keep the commitment low – 5 minutes a day – and simple, using technology. Here’s how stories will get aggregated and disseminated as they come in:

Step 1 – a listener approaches some person they know in Liberia and asks a question like, “What was your yesterday like? how did the ebola outbreak affect you?”

That person talks for at most 3 minutes. Their response is saved in a simple android app. Dictadroid seems to be simple and free. iTalk recorder for iPhone seems to work too.


Using a smart phone with the dictadroid app and internet access, they email it to me.

Step 2 – I take the WAV file they emailed and get it transcribed. Then the text appears at and becomes part of the story archive.

Step 3 – We keep collecting and sharing this so that others can use it as they think about the next approach to containment. If we can predict that what works for hundreds of patients doesn’t scale to a million, now is the time to explore plan B.

I’m happy to say that we already have a few people interested in contributing. The technology isn’t the barrier – it’s finding the time and keeping the process simple, while at the same time unleashing the power of narratives to reveal something deeper.

Narratives may seem unstructured, but they are quite structured. They are time-bound bits of information, pre-organized into a series chronological events. They include emotional perceptions and point of view markers in the pattern of pronouns. And they encode first-hand accounts with more that can reveal than a summary. So that’s why I’m trying to get more of them.

Nightly I scanned every wordpress blog on the net tagged #ebola and found that less than one in ten had even so much as a quote from a person in the affected area. The other 91% was just opining by outsiders. These opinions cannot reveal a solution, only first-hand accounts can.

Africa rising (against African elitism)

I seldom waste time blogging about Newspaper editorials. I understand these people are paid to vomit through a keyboard. The less nuanced an opinion, the better the clickbait. But this Guardian series about whether Africa is or isn’t “rising” triggered my ire.

Eleven years ago I wrote a novel called The Devil’s Right Hand. In it two men go into the jungles of Sierra Leone on a manhunt to bring down a warlord who betrayed his people and helped Charles Taylor, enslaving child soldiers and lording over the maiming of a generation. Writing this fictional book helped me understand the nature of war and warlords, and the nuances behind taking sides. It also surprised me as Timboki (the warlord) turned out to be a lot more resourceful and wise than the men who sought him, and understood “magic” on a psycho-social level.

Much of this novel was lifted from headlines of the 1990s and from researching the Kamajors – a secret society of hunter mystics who believe they can turn bulletproof and invisible as they charge into battle. The Kamajors are not a fringe group, but more the heart of how half of Africa thinks. But Americans are no different. Half the world accepts science with one foot planted in superstition.

Enter Ebola.

When faced with the ebola epidemic, it is natural for so many people to respond with superstitious cures or quack remedies. And these examples of rampant fears from The Guardian article illustrate the reaction I’d expect any society to have when half of the population doesn’t fully embrace science:

A Cameroonian friend shares a conversation between two of his fellow nationals in an airport. One of them remarks that he is not feeling too well. The immediate, and hysterical, reaction of the other is that he must have Ebola.

“Maybe you’ve been infected with Ebola from those Lagos passengers at the arrival hall,” my friends recounts one of them saying.

On Twitter, a Kenyan user notes that passengers on flights from Entebbe to Nairobi are not being screened for Ebola. The checks are inconsistent, he notes, implying that the disease could be brought in to the nation via Uganda.

Last week, a hoax did the rounds on Whatsapp as Zimbabweans shared a Photoshopped version of a local newspaper with a headline claiming that the country had confirmed its first Ebola patients.

Their mistake it to explain it as an African problem. It is not. Their interpretation:

Over the last few years, meticulous work has gone into crafting the ‘Africa rising’ narrative; a narrative founded upon the continent’s rising economies (like South Africa and Nigeria), the emergence of tech and innovation (think Kenya) and the growth of a middle class that we might call ‘post-African’; savvy, urban, cosmopolitan with no flies to swat off their faces and no begging bowls in their manicured hands.

In a May editorial, David Brooks of the New York Times wrote about ‘The Real Africa’ in which he cited various economic measures – trade and mobile phone growth among others – to show why Africa has become “the test case of 21st-century modernity”.

The problem I have always had with this narrative is that while the statistics do point to a truth, another truth still prevails.

What’s missing from this two sided debate (is Africa rising or is it just a hopeful myth?) is the nuance that economic prosperity is happening despite another reality remaining entirely unchanged: Ever since the 1960s there has been a small group of African elites that hoard power and money and live above the law. This is the kleptocracy culture Nigeria is famous for. Recently the masses have gotten a larger share of the prosperity than they did before (good!), but without these elites having to let go of their privileges.

When the rule of law doesn’t apply to you as en elite, why should a quarantine? The ebola epidemic is spreading because in case after case, of one these elites break quarantine, leave the country and hide from the health system. In the process they infect 60 others. Ebola will continue to get a foothold wherever the masses have low mobility and limited power and elite doctors and government officials can breaks the rules with impunity.

This is the pattern. Ghana is entirely ebola free and Nigeria is not. Sierra Leone and Liberia spiral out of control while Guinea and Senegal doesn’t. Check the corruption indexes on these places and you’ll find it fits my narrative. And so in the rewrite of my novel The Devil’s Right Hand,the ebola epidemic continues to spread wherever elitism is rampant, making Nigeria ungovernable six months after the outbreak there and leaving Ghana unaffected.

So the question of Africa Rising misses the point. The debate should be about where in Africa is elitism and a two-class society entrenched and where is it going the way of Apartheid and segregation? Prosperity will follow wherever citizen masses wake up and realize that corruption (and the culture it creates) are disarming the quarantine meant to protect them all. Quarantines cannot work amidst corruption.

What took me 11 years of mulling on this novel was on how to tell a story about the crumbling of society under war without trivializing the people into caricatures of Africa. Here are some parts of telling the story that helped to avoid caricatures:

  • One of the foreigners in the novel plays the ugly American, using “African” and Sierra Leonian interchangably (as newspapers do, sadly).
  • In this mystery-suspense thriller, the African characters and the foreigners seem equally witty, devious, and resourceful.
  • The ebola quarantine story provides a perfect foil to show how power held by anyone – white or black – can endanger all of society when abused. It becomes a story about the destructive nature of people against nature, set in Africa, instead of being about the destructive nature of Africans against each other (the usual way conflicts are framed by news media). Understanding Africa as a “man vs (human) nature” conflict is richer and more accurate than seeing events as a “man vs man” conflict.
  • Part of the novel was already about the nature of magic in modern society. Juxtaposing it with a battle of modern medicine against nature provides a stronger contrast to sharpen the insights between the lines of dialogue here.

I’ll be kindle publishing my novel at the end of this month, with a new parallel narrative of how the ebola outbreak foments a new warlord rising as the rule of law disappears from rural areas. Page 1 now describes the chaos that ensures when the WHO imposes a quarantine around Sierra Leone, Liberia, and southern Guinea (a bad idea, but great fiction).


Storytelling to understand the needs of ebola victims and war victims

When you think of storytelling, I’m guessing that your first thoughts are more about the emotional potency of stories to enrich our lives and expand our awareness, and less about about rigor. But over the years GlobalGiving has developed an approach to storytelling that allows organizations to map much more of the complexity of any social problem or conflict than they could do with surveys and old-school evaluations.

A crux of our approach is to get organizations to embed people in communities and teach them how to listen. A “listening project” can be focused on any issue, so long as the question is open-ended, and it is the storyteller deciding what to share, not us. All of these stories are fed into a global collection where patterns emerge out of the sheer volume.

This is the best of both worlds: Humans engaging with each other yields deeper insights, while computers mining the narratives yields the hidden patterns that matter, and statically speaking, are the real story. Stories are anecdotes, but collections of anecdotes yield “meta stories” about peoples, incidents, issues, and conflicts.

Security forces control a checkpoint outside the Ebola quarantine area of West Point as relatives carry food and essentials for their family members, in Monrovia

The story behind Ebola headlines

Take the current ebola epidemic. I’ve been mining blogs for the past two weeks in search of the rare authentic first hand report from West Africa, and reposting them at It’s quite clear that for ebola survivors, social stigma is the number one issue they care about:

“The Lagos State government sent health professionals to check on me regularly to know how I was doing or if I had the signs of the virus manifesting. The officials created scenes with their visits. I was embarrassed and I was stigmatized…. It got to a point vendors stopped selling things to me, because of stigma.” – Dennis Akagha


Outside the hospital, they continue to face stigma. Some of Ms. Sellu’s staff spoke of husbands abandoning them and neighbors shunning them. One nurse told of returning home to find her belongings in suitcases on the sidewalk, and her spouse warning her to stay away. Another nurse, seeking lodgings, lied to the landlord, telling him she was a student.

“If you meet with them, they will balance this way and that not to touch you,” said Veronica Tucker, a nurse who survived an Ebola infection, doing a little jig to demonstrate her experience on the streets of Kenema.


But I only have three stories mentioning stigma so far (out of a dozen blog posts), so how would I make quantitative predictions and design a good social-stigma fighting programme? Let’s face it folks, this the 21st century. If you’re not working with quantitative predictions, you’re not innovating; you’re a dinosaur.

Using our current collection of 60,000 stories as a benchmark, the storytelling method and tools returns 120 stories that mention “HIV” and “stigma” – a pretty good proxy group for designing a solution to the impending problem of “ebola survivor” and “stigma.” The meta-narrative comes in many forms. Visually, I prefer to read a wordtree map of these stories before digging into specifics:

There are many aspects to the problem in that chart. So I reran it ( with all stories split into blue or red, depending on whether the outcome of the story was positive or negative, respectively:

Here some themes emerge. A submovement called “living positively” seems to be yielding some positive stories about people living with HIV. Also, counseling and taking care of people helps. In Dennis’s ebola story, the worst thing the Nigerian government did (or failed to do) that augmented his stigma was, in his words:

“It took them two straight weeks to visit my home and to disinfect it.” – Dennis Akagha

With just a few minutes of searching, I have a ton of useful leads and at least one behavior change framework to research (“living positively” movement). But I’m not done. This is a form of “iterative learning.” I reinserted my assumptions back into the story search ( and compared hiv stigma stories with those that also meantion counseling, or talk or listening. To my surprise, stories with these elements are successful for men but not for women, and they are not associated with this “living positively” approach:


Understanding “stigma” is an issue that keeps coming up. Maybe it’s time for funders to mine stories to understand what they ought to be prioritizing?

Getting our partner organizations to try this more potent but very different approach has been a journey. One of them has shared her own insights about it on a blog:

Over the past three years storytelling has become central to most of what I do. I never paid too much attention to it before, but since first coming to Bosnia I have begun to purposely acknowledge how both myself and others around me used it. I had positive experiences: listening to inspirational stories that in one way or another changed my life and the path I followed, and negative (but constructive) experiences: witnessing hopelessness, trauma, anxiety, anger, disillusionment.

Basically Globalgiving does not only provide you with the basic tools that any other fundraising website would, they also put a lot of time into training community based organisations. A new, easy to use analysis tool was developed and all the stories now make up a huge database. Organisations can input their stories, analyse and improve their programmes according to findings from the analysis. This led to a new model to be adopted by globalgiving: listen, act, learn.

Last night I got a tip from a globalgiving staff member, used it, and got a great reaction from a volunteer I trained, which was very rewarding. I met some volunteers from another local organisation which has a soup kitchen and a hostel for people in need of food and shelter. Once I witnessed a violent scene with a homeless person who was very drunk. I asked people what was happening and they said he was an alcoholic who lost his whole family during the war, developed an alcohol addiction and lost everything. The locals I was with said that no one pays attention to him, and ignore him completely. It is a memory that really stuck with me. As a peacebuilding organisation that focuses mostly on youth, we don’t usually have access to people in such situations, and I think it would be good for us to document their stories. So we did.

It was heart-breaking when people who are some of the most disadvantaged in the community had their houses completely destroyed, and now, once again they are left with nothing. First their families were killed in the war, and now, just when they managed to rebuild their homes and move on, the catastrophic floods occurred, and they lost everything again. There were many organisations people mentioned helped them. One person in particular really moved us by saying how grateful he was to us personally and to CIM for recording their stories and telling the world what conditions they have to live in. Indirectly, the lack of services, the poor economy, and most of these problems that people face are a direct result of the conflict, and poor political decision-making and cooperation at the national level. Whilst we try to overcome these obstacles and do our best to have programmes that address the issue of national and grassroots reconciliation, I am also thankful to Fenix and all other organisations in the local community who deal with the consequences of the political and economic situation in Bosnia.

Adelina’s story captures both the promises and the woes of embracing the complexity of really listening. We may find that we are small against problems so big, but at least we can feel the edges of the monster and work together to overcome it – the way charity work has to be done going forward.

Local reports on the Ebola epidemic


I’ve been scanning the Internet nightly for any reputable eyewitness accounts on the ebola epidemic. Sadly, nearly everything appears to be repostings of the same soundbytes recycled in the 24/7 news echo chamber. These are the noteworthy exceptions – first hand accounts and important developments about the ebola epidemic:


Today: Nigerian government postponed the resumption of primary and secondary schools across the country a month, until October 22nd, instead of September 22nd. This announcement came just hours before claiming that officially, ebola is contained and exactly one patient has it in the whole country.

Vectors: Are Bats Spreading Ebola Across Sub-Saharan Africa?

“We have no idea how it’s moved from Central Africa to Guinea,” says primatologist Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. A leading suspect is fruit bats. In Central African rainforests, several species have shown evidence of infection with Ebola without getting sick. And at least one of the species, the little collared fruit bat, Myonycteris torquata, has a range that stretches as far west as Guinea. “We’ve always been very suspicious of bats,” says William Karesh of EcoHealth Alliance in New York City, who studies the interactions among humans, animals, and infectious diseases.


Conflicting info:

There has never been an Ebola outbreak in West Africa before.

The EBOV strain from Guinea has evolved in parallel with the strains from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It came from a recent ancestor and has not been introduced from the latter countries into Guinea.

Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, one in a village near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the other in a remote area of Sudan.

It would seem that even though outbreaks are rare, they happen in multiple parts of the world simultaneously. This suggests to me a migratory vector – like locusts that swarm once every 30 years with imperfect precision. (I’m not saying “locusts” but something that carries the disease and has the same chaotic rise and fall).

Source: bush meat:

The rise of this epidemic comes from a tradition of buying “bush”meat, specifically monkey meat in Liberia back in January of 2014.

EBOLA: Ghana To Place Blanket Ban On Buying & Selling Of Bushmeat

NIGERIA: The women under the aegis of Bushmeat Sellers Association protested that since the announcement that the deadly disease could be caused by eating bush meat, spell had been cast on their sales.

Senegal and Gambia – August 12, 2014

Right now I just returned from Dakar, as I was visiting my brother who came from the USA with his colleagues from Purdue to implement a grain storage set up in Senegal, on flying out all officers where in gloves immigration to customs etc, flying in you arrive at the terminal, you have a sanitiser at the entrance to watch your hand prior to going straight to medical clearance where you get your passport checked by the medical officer to see country of departure and if you stay in Gambia when you left, after thast you get a sensor temperature meter pointed at your eyes to get your temperature if its good, you cleared to go to immigration, this also applies at all Gambia border post.

West Point slum in Monrovia Liberia

The policy implications of this next item are what started me researching everything Ebola-related as fodder for a fiction novel:

The army has moved in and surrounded a slum of over 50,000 Liberians with orders of “shoot to kill” in order to contain the possible spread of Ebola. This act is in effect isolates a 99.99% healthy population inside a zone with known Ebola carriers. …

Liberia said a ban on travel to the region imposed by neighboring countries was complicating the fight against Ebola and leading to shortages of basic goods.

“Isolating Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea is not in any way contributing to the fight against this disease,” Information Minister Lewis Brown said. “How do we get in the kinds of supplies that we need? How do we get experts to come to our country? Is that African solidarity?”

At least 1,427 people have died and 2,615 have been infected since the disease was detected deep in the forests of southeastern Guinea in March. A separate outbreak was confirmed in Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday.


The characters in this next story are fictional, but the events occurred on Saturday, 8/16/14, and are tragically true…

Charles Smith had been afraid when he first heard of Ebola. Rumors had been swirling for weeks, but he had not believed them until men from the government rode through West Point with loudspeakers telling them that Ebola was in West Point. They warned to watch for people with fevers and vomiting.

That was also when his doubts about Ebola began. Fever, vomiting? Malaria causes those symptoms too. After 14 years of civil war, he had been lied to by the government before and this did not ring true. His doubts were increased when “health workers” came to West Point wearing suits that we all white and covered them head to toe. He had seen things like this in American films.

West Point, a peninsula in Western Monrovia, was known for its poverty and squalid conditions. 50,000 people share two groups of public toilets (that most can’t afford). The beaches are littered with human waste waiting for the tides to come in and wash it away.

When he heard from friends that even doctors were saying there was no such thing as Ebola, he knew this was a coverup for something else. Something evil. Rumors were spreading that white men were eating people in the white tents and at the ELWA hospital. The posting of signs throughout Monrovia did not impress Charles. Like 75% of Liberians, he couldn’t read them, but signs told more lies that truths in his mind.

Charles took comfort that the Ebola liars were mostly on the other side of Monrovia. The JFK Hospital is uncomfortably close, but still far enough away. West Point had its problems, but the Ebola liars were not one of them.

He was awakened Sunday morning by his friend Thomas. The Ebola liars had come to West Point. A clinic had been opened in West Point itself!

“How can this happen? How can we let them eat our own children,” asked Charle
He went to visit several friends to discuss this new clinic. Many could die if they don’t act quickly. The small crowd around him swelled to about ten as he discussed fervently how they must stop the clinic. Joseph, an old friend ran up.

“Charles, they have taken Jimmy into the clinic.”

Jimmy, one of Charles’ nephews, had been sick for a few days with Malaria. Now they had brought him into that death trap.

“Come with me friend. Come, let’s stop this madness” cried Charles. The crowd of ten swelling to over one hundred within minutes. Fueled by a smoldering anger at the lies about Ebola, burst into an angry trot.

The clinic was a converted school which was now going to hold patients who had been identified as having Ebola. The plan was for these patients to then go to a hospital when a bed became available.

The shanty gates to the clinic were easily ripped off their posts. The small clinic compound was quickly filled with several hundred people.

“The President says you have Ebola. You don’t have Ebola, you have malaria” Charles yelled, “Get up and get out.”

Many of the patients in the clinic left, including several children. Charles was quite relieved when he saw Jimmy. He had not been sent away to those hospitals to be eaten. Jimmy, clearly weak but able to walk, stood gingerly. Charles walked over and grabbed him under the arm and assisted him out of the compound. Jimmy was safe.

The others did not have such charitable motives. The mass of humanity quickly stripped the clinic bare of all food, mattresses, sheets, and gloves. Charles was indignant with the mob. He was here to save his nephew, not to steal from the clinic. He knew right from wrong and this was wrong.

With his nephew in tow, Charles was in no position to stop the mass looting. Within minutes, it was done. There was nothing left in the clinic except about ten patients who refused to leave and some desperate nurses who wondered what to do next.

Charles took Jimmy back to his small home. Jimmy was feverish and clearly needed Charles’ care. He brought him food and water. Jimmy was shivering despite his fever. Charles laid next to him on the mattress and pulled him close to warm him. As they both fell asleep, Charles took great comfort that those he loved were close.

They were safe.


(Another first hand account from West Point slum via local newspaper)

Youths angrily threw stones and tried to tear down the the barb wired barricades created to prevent the people from leaving the area which was written off by Government. soldiers were used to control the rebellious crowd, driving hundreds of young men back into the neighbourhood, a slum of tens of thousands in Monrovia known as West Point.

“This is messed up, They injured one of my police officers. That’s not cool. It’s a group of criminals that did this. Look at this child. God in heaven help us.”

LIBERIA: This boy suspected of having Ebola. Residents in Monrovia dressed him and then left him in the streets before he was transported to a hospital.

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 11.08.03 AM

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John Moore / Getty Images / Published by The New York Times


Ebola has definitely changed the way we do things…and this will probably have to keep evolving until we kick this bug. The catholic churches have suspended ‘offering each other the sign of peace’ which involved handshakes with people all around you. In the same way, I see people becoming more orderly as they try to reduce body contact with other people in the market and outside of the market.


(This post was writer’s gold for actual details on the medical side.)


I have been here for 7 weeks, working as a nurse and emergency coordinator for the Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) Ebola response. Today we’re lucky: it’s raining, so we won’t be too hot in the personal protective equipment (PPE) we must wear. We control who goes into the isolation area, how often, and for how long. No one should wear the PPE for longer than 40 minutes; it’s unbearable for any longer than that, but it’s easy to lose track of time, so we have to monitor our colleagues. The process starts in the dressing room, where getting into the PPE takes about 5 minutes. We have a designated dresser, responsible solely for making sure that we are wearing our equipment properly and that not a square millimeter of skin is exposed. In case one layer is accidently perforated, we wear two pairs of gloves, two masks, and a heavy apron on top of the full-body overalls. When we exit the isolation area, we are sprayed down with chlorine solution and peel off the PPE layer by layer. Some of the equipment — goggles, apron, boots, thick gloves — can be sterilized and used again. Everything else — overalls, masks, headcover — is burned.

In the suspected-case tents most patients look well, but the probable-case area is a different story. Patients here have fever, pain, anorexia — but these symptoms could indicate malaria. A polymerase-chain-reaction (PCR) test determines if a patient has Ebola. When results comes in, the patient is either moved to the confirmed-case tents or discharged. Knowing what it means to be moved to these tents, patients are understandably frightened. We have a psychologist, a counselor, and health promoters to help and support patients, but there are just too many of them.

Standard treatment for Ebola is limited to supportive therapy: hydrating patients, maintaining their oxygen status and blood pressure, providing high-quality nutrition, and treating any complicating infections with antibiotics. Supportive treatment can help patients survive longer, and that extra time may be what their immune system needs to start fighting the virus.

There’s also a tent for the most severely ill patients. I try to spend more time there than in the other tents, if only to hold patients’ hands, give them painkillers, and sit on the edge of their beds so that they know they’re not alone. But spending time is always difficult — there are so many patients waiting for help.

Evading the quarantine

A doctor, who secretly treated a diplomat who had contact with the index case, Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer, has died of Ebola in Nigeria.

The doctor, who has yet to be named, died on Friday. His wife has also taken ill and has been quarantined in Port Harcourt. Interestingly, the diplomat the doctor treated is still alive.

The diplomat, who was part of the team who met with Patrick Sawyer in Lagos, flew to Port Harcourt, Rivers State for treatment, evading Nigerian federal government surveillance for the disease. The late doctor then took him to a hotel for treatment.

As a result of this, 70 people have been quarantined. The doctor’s hospital, Good Heart Hospital in Rivers State, has been shut down. The unnamed hotel, where the secret treatment took place, has also been shut down.

History and ebola facts

Ebola first appeared in 1976 in 2 simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan, and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.

Genus Ebolavirus comprises 5 distinct species:

Bundibugyo ebolavirus (BDBV)
Zaire ebolavirus (EBOV)
Reston ebolavirus (RESTV)
Sudan ebolavirus (SUDV)
Taï Forest ebolavirus (TAFV).

Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can also play a role in the transmission of Ebola. Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to 7 weeks after recovery from illness.

Signs and symptoms

EVD is a severe acute viral illness often characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. Laboratory findings include low white blood cell and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes.

People are infectious as long as their blood and secretions contain the virus. Ebola virus was isolated from semen 61 days after onset of illness in a man who was infected in a laboratory.

The incubation period, that is, the time interval from infection with the virus to onset of symptoms, is 2 to 21 days.


An Ebola treatment clinic in Monrovia was attacked by a group of youngsters claiming that the disease was made up by the West. In the process, many sick patients have just disappeared into thin air. The marauders looted the clinic (how smart is that?) and made off with mattresses and other items that were soiled by the body fluids of the sick. It’s worth mentioning that the virus is spread by contact with body fluids of those showing symptoms of being sick. In other words, those idiots just screwed themselves and anyone else that came in contact with the items from the clinic.

At the same time, there are sick people crossing from Liberia into Guinea, even though the Guinea border was supposedly closed around two weeks ago. It seems as though many people there don’t believe this stuff is real. I can’t grasp that given that there are reports that the government is very slow about picking up the dead bodies. It seems that leaving the bodies around will lead to the spread of this instead of trying to limit the exposure by picking up and placing the bodies in quarantine as quickly as possible.

There’s also the thinking that the current counts are underrepresented of the true number of cases. That may have some validity since patient zero was determined to have gotten sick in December of 2013. That’s eight months plus of this virus being spread around. I’m amazed that it didn’t jump the borders of the three original countries until Patrick Sawyer landed in Nigeria.


Introducing my other blog:

This blog aggregates anything worthwhile from google alerts, two google groups, globalgiving updates, wordpress ‘ebola’ or ‘liberia’ tagged stories, and other useful sources, since none of these feeds is more than 10% wheat to 90% chaff.

Ebola: Threat or Hype?

Curious about the health risks of the current ebola epidemic but too lazy to absorb all of the 125+ academic papers about it on PubMed? Then use the djotjog report tool to assimilate the papers into a quick summary.

Here is a wordtree built from the full text of these four articles:

Reston ebolavirus in humans and animals in the Philippines: a review. Miranda ME, Miranda NL.

Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fevers: neglected tropical diseases? MacNeil A, Rollin PE.

Assessment of the risk of Ebola virus transmission from bodily fluids and fomites. Bausch DG, Towner JS, Dowell SF, Kaducu F, Lukwiya M, Sanchez A, Nichol ST, Ksiazek TG, Rollin PE.

Management of accidental exposure to Ebola virus in the biosafety level 4 laboratory, Hamburg, Germany. Günther S, Feldmann H, Geisbert TW, Hensley LE, Rollin PE, Nichol ST, Ströher U, Artsob H, Peters CJ, Ksiazek TG, Becker S, ter Meulen J, Olschläger S, Schmidt-Chanasit J, Sudeck H, Burchard GD, Schmiedel S.


There are many topics that spring out of the map. Here is the area I was interested in, because it pertained to the risks:


EBOV – abbreviation for the ebola virus – is transmitted via direct contact with bodily fluids. You do not need to worry about Ebola in the United States, unless you work in a hospital. The biggest problem in Africa has been that people who died of Ebola can infect others as their bodies are prepared for burial. It is uncommon for diseasses to be viable after the host is dead. Ebola is a rare exception. Given the difficulty in educating the public in rural Africa, it was no surprise that outbreaks happened. Nobody told the undertakers to take care.

The maps are probably not terribly informative. But I wanted to see what sense the algorithm would make of academic papers.

Other key phrases it pulled out were “breast milk”, “medical equipment”, “animal handlers”, and “day 4″.

The algorithm highlighted this sentence as a representative summary of the whole: “We found EBOV to be shed in a wide variety of bodily fluids during the acute phase of illness, including saliva, breast milk, stool, and tears.”

The function word patterns for medical journal text shows an absence of just about everything that makes language compelling to humans:

Function Word Patterns
(How much more or less often do they appear than expected?)

Relationships words appear 97% less often
Exclusives words appear 20% less often
Black White words appear 65% less often
Tentative words appear 23% less often
Positive Emotion words appear 83% less often
Question words appear 21% more often
Discrepancy words appear 31% more often
Gratitude words appear 67% less often
Analytical words appear 79% less often
Cause Effect words appear 73% less often
Negative Words words appear 60% less often
Organization words appear 80% less often
Aspirational Words words appear 88% less often
Negative Emotion words appear 91% less often
Cognitive words appear 71% less often

What FCC public comments on proceeding 14-28 are saying on the whole

I build tools that help nonprofits and activists listen to what a whole community is saying at once. It builds up the ‘meta story’ out of hundreds of stories. The FCC’s public comments on proceeding 14-28 are a perfect use case.

There were 271,710 public comments on the net neutrality ruling as of today. You can read them one at a time with this link, but the website was incompetently designed so as to make any bulk exporting of comments impossible – or cleverly designed – if you think the FCC never wanted us to understand what EVERYONE was saying.

Impossible is a relative barrier. With brute force (and Amazon’s mechanical turk) I was able to get the most recent 511 comments out and run them through my instant word analysis tool, found at

Here is a taste of what everybody is saying about net neutrality:


The first thing it tells me – by the shape of the overall wordtree – is that there are several very different issues being discussed. In a sense, people are talking past each other, because none of their words overlap in comments.

The second thing to zoom in on are those desnse clusters of words. Dense clusters are where many people are talking about the same thing in slightly different ways – just what you’d expect when a particularly contentious issue is at hand.

Third – net neutrality is at the heart of the map. Connected to it are four main branches of ideas:

  1. The principle of the Internet
  2. Business use of the Internet
  3. Internet is about Open and free speech
  4. Net neutrality is about access, and possibly destroying access, to the Internet


A fifth and totally separate branch of these comments are about the two corporations that essentially control all public bandwidth in the United States: Comcast and Time Warner.


The public seems to single out Time Warner and Comcast in their comments and narratives, mentioning some “trick they pulled” or “this time that Comcast…” did something. The public doesn’t trust these two companies in particular.

Computer written summary of all comments

Djotjog chose these sentences to represent the sentiment of everybody:

While the system of accessing the internet via subscriptions to service providers such as Comcast may give the appearance of a luxury service defined by a free market which we are welcome to avoid should we so choose, this view is, at best, anachronistic and out of touch with the role the internet plays in today’s world. What we all need to understand is this: Internet service providers already charge a premium to content providers in that the more popular a website is, the more they have to pay for bandwidth and traffic from their servers – to the network of computer servers that represents the structure for what we call -the internet- – in other words, the -on-ramp- to the internet. Were we in a country with true competition among internet service providers then the market would be able to respond by choosing the providers who refused to engage in this practice.

When ISPs can slow your site and destroy your business at will, how can any startup attract investors? For Internet service providers, I am lucky to have a choice of two companies. If big, powerful companies can do things like that to WikiLeaks I am sure Internet service providers can and will do the same thing to any organization that rubs them the wrong way, if they are ever allowed to treat some customers less favorably than others. My friends, family, and I use the Internet for conversation and fun, but also for work and business.

As you know, without guaranteed Net Neutrality, internet service providers such as Time Warner and Comcast can provide better service to preferred web sites. When you let ISPs mess with our Internet experience, you are attacking our social lives, our entertainment, and our economic well being. I ask that you treat Internet service providers as utility providers and make sure that all, rich and poor alike have adequate access.

Word usage patterns

Mouse over each word category for examples of such words.

Compared to other writing samples, this group wrote…

Relationships words appear 96% less often
Exclusives words appear 42% more often
Tentative words appear 93% more often
Positive Emotion words appear 40% more often
Question words appear 3X more often
Discrepancy words appear 4X more often
Gratitude words appear 46% more often
Analytical words appear 79% less often
Negative Words words appear 31% less often
Organization words appear 93% less often
Aspirational Words words appear 16% less often
Space Time words appear 51% less often
Negative Emotion words appear 52% more often
Cognitive words appear 41% more often

Pronoun usage

Overall, 5.9 percent of the words in your text were pronouns. Typical reports have 5.6% pronouns and stories have 7 to 9% pronouns. How many times does each type of pronoun appear?

first singular:2386
first plural:1192
third plural:1005
third singular:67

Note: “I” = first singular, “you” = second, “we” = first plural, “he/she” = third singular, “they” = third plural, and various words organizations used to decribe themselves are “fourth” person point of view.

NPR reports on a larger sample of FCC comments (August 13, 2014):

Source: Quid (commissioned by the Knight Foundation) analyzed of a sample of 250,000 public comments submitted to the FCC about net neutrality. Templated responses were collapsed into a single node. (About 30 percent of the sampled responses used “copy pasta” templated language.)


Download 511 FCC comments (August 1-4th, 2014)


You can also find a curated article on what people are saying about net neutrality on Singlehop.


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