Solving the Up Goer Five problem with recursive search

I’ve been building a website that can calculate whether any organization report, blog post, or document tackles themes and conforms to a certain writing style. The hard part is that the rules I’ve been given are quite abstract. Examples:

  • “Lead off by framing the issue as being about people, not problems.”
  • “Talk about resilience, not needs.”

I took on this challenge because I assumed that I’d be given a collection of writing examples that my algorithm could learn from. Unfortunately, I only got two examples. This doesn’t really define something as broad as “resilience.” So I built my own set of examples.

This is how I did it:

  • Search through tens of thousands of reports for those that contain an obvious keyword, such as “resilience.”
  • Pull out the matching reports and run an analysis of phrases that most often appear in the same sentence as resilience, or in nearby sentences.
  • Use these new phrases to pull in new reports that don’t mention resilience but do mention several of these related phrases.
  • Analyse those reports, find new phrases, and repeat.

The evolving set of reports creates a tapestry of language variations that looks like this:


Imagine that different ways to describe “resilience” are represented by shades of green in that above graphic. Not every shade is exactly resilience, but the mosaic is a more reliable and complete definition of “resilience” than you started with.

This recursive, expanding search eventually generates a dictionary. Every word is somewhat related to “resilience.” Beside every word is a number for how relevant it is. Given these weighted words, I can score any other text and decide if is about resilience or not.

This works very well when the topics are actual topics with their own jargon. It works less well when authors are trying not to use jargon, and instead describe the concept with common everyday words. Resilience can be captured in specific statements like “after school she learned how to avoid dangerous street corners at night.” It can also be highly correlated with more general words, such as training. This poses a problem: some trainings increase resilience, but not all of them. However, if the words “training” and “post-war” or “aftermath” appear together in a paragraph, that’s probably resilience too.

Finding a Good End to the Up Goer Five Problem

The extreme case of this (the ultimate natural language processing challenge!) would be to write a computer program that can answer the question, “Is this text about rocketry?” and apply it to XKCD’s Up Goer Five cartoon.


Up Goer Five describes the Saturn V rocket in extreme technical detail using only the 1000 most common English words. In this case, there is absolutely no domain-specific bias to the choice of words, and the only language data you can use are combinations of everyday words and patterns (word order). It can be done, but the solution is not a simple 10-line script. I should ask my buddy Nick of fame what answer scikit.learn gives to this question. It is a lot like the Mona Lisa genetic algorithm problem from StackOverFlow, but for natural langauge processing / data mining.

Genetic Programming- Evolution of Mona Lisa - 4

Learning how to solving this challenge would yield some very practical solutions to real world problems. If you could feed the code the text from 100 of Keystone’s past clients, build a dictionary of the types of phrases that are often found, then use it to predict which of 100 other non-client organizations are the best prospects to court (e.g. business development: predictive client acquisition).

Or, if you’re an evaluator, you could search through hundreds of documents from the field and find clear examples of some concept that your organization works on. You could then create an external evidence base for reference purposes.

Writing this makes me think that I need to ask 10 experts on resilience to send me essays they’ve written about resilience in the past, as well as rewritten versions of these essays where only the “ten hundred” most common English words are allowed. This would help me train my algorithms to detect common everyday descriptions of resilience. It might also reveal more universal language patterns that people fall into when trying to write without using jargon.

Anyone up for taking the “is this text about rocketry?” challenge? If so, comment below or email me (on the about page).

Challenge accepted by @NicholasHamlin from the GodelEscherBLog

Solving the Up-Goer Five Problem with Machine Learning

This week, my friend Marc asked me how I’d solve the Up-Goer Five problem.  Specifically, how would you decide if a particular piece of text is about a certain topic (like rocketry)? What about if the text has no science or engineering jargon and only uses the most common words in the English language?

Let’s start with the first question.  Before we can get a computer to help unpack this problem, we have to convert the text into something that’s easier for a computer to understand.  Computers are better at numbers than they are at words, so we’ll look to translate our pieces of text into a set of numbers.  We can do this using a process called “vectorization”.  The simplest way to do this is to count all the times a word appears in each piece of text (we’ll call these “documents”) and then make a chart.  For example, let’s vectorize “My dog is brown” and “The brown cat jumped”:

Screen Shot 2015-11-21 at 6.48.53 PM

All we do is count the number of times each word appears in each document.  Each word is a column, and each document is a row.  The official jargon for what we’ve built is a “term-document matrix” (TDM).  If we had a set of training documents that we knew were about a particular topic, we could then use that to built a TDM and look for patterns of words that happen frequently in those documents (there are tons of different ways to find these patterns, which I’ll skip).

There are a few problems with this basic approach.  First, what happens when you have really long or really short documents? Chances are that the longer your documents are, the higher the values in your TDM will be.  To get around this, we may want to take each value and divide it by the length of the document.  Another problem happens when we have very common words.  “The” probably happens pretty much everywhere, whether a document is talking about rockets or kittens.  There are two ways to fix this.  One easy way would be to ignore these words completely (official jargon: “excluding stopwords”).  Another way is to look at how many of the documents contain the term.  If a word appears in every document, it probably doesn’t give us much special information about that document.  If it only appears in some situations, it’s much more likely to be useful.  So, in our rocket example, we might exclude a word like “the”, but include a word like “booster”. This process of creating a TDM by asking “How frequently does a term appear in a document?” and ” “How many documents have this term?” is usually called (official jargon again) Term Frequency-Inverse Document Frequency Vectorization, or TF-IDF for short.

Normally, TDMs created by the TF-IDF process are “sparse”, that is, most words don’t appear in most documents (especially if you exclude stopwords). This can make it hard to search for patterns, though there are ways of getting around this.  However, in the Up-Goer Five problem, there can only around 1000 possible words, so the TDM we’ll create should end up being more “dense” than if we were using more complex words. This may create other problems, since many words will appear in many documents, but, we can get around this based on the particular method we use to look for the patterns.

Want to try this yourself? Python’s Scikit-Learn tool is open-source, free, and great at machine learning problems like this.  For example, here’s how it might work using scripts from How I Met Your Mother. In the meantime, I’ll post more actual numbers if I make progress on Marc’s problem.

Marc’s Final Note:

After running Nick’s model on my collection of narratives possibly about resilience, the top two phrases in the strongly-aligned group and the strongly-NOT-aligned group were, respectively:

“be able to” – resilience

“step closer to” – non-resilience

So we think that those phrases, along with 5000+ other phrases, when used in the aggregate, can reliably categorize a narrative as being about “resilience” or not about “resilience” 70 percent of the time.

This is hopefully been a brief but clear primer on the power of natural language processing.

The disruptive potential of feedback

Originally posted on Nonprofit Chronicles:

Few institutions in the US are as undemocratic as endowed foundations. Those who run foundations answer to, er, no one. They give money away, so people tend to laugh at their jokes, tell them they look well, nod in agreement at their banal remarks. What’s not to like?

As for nonprofits, they pay close attention to foundations and donors, but they need not listen to their “beneficiaries,” unless they feel a moral obligation to do so. What if, goodness knows, the people they are trying to serve turn out to be unhappy with the service? Talk about inconvenient truths.

fbl-final-logoLast week in Washington, a group of about 70 people — the generals and foot soldiers of a growing movement to devolve power to mostly poor recipients of aid in the US and abroad — came together to talk about how to turn that power dynamic of philanthropy upside down. They…

View original 1,122 more words

Feedback loops can map local and government priorities

The social value of feedback loops can be a bit more abstract than the typical work of organizations, such as feeding children and innoculating babies. But organizations that gather information and facilitate its flow through village level and government level bureaucracy are no less valuable. To gleam its importance, take a look at what Sarathi does in Uttar Pradesh, India:


This is my vastly simplified outline of a more complex process that repeats every month in every village. The steps:

Define shared goals

The organization begins by hosting 5-day workshops in each one of the villages or slums. People define their own priorities (what NGOs call outcomes) – things that would make the biggest difference in their lives if they happened. Then this feedback is brought to the attention of local government offices and merged with their own itemized lists of internal goals. This step is a human algorithm that mirrors the “map-reduce” algorithm so popular in big data science in 2015.

Recruit and train local village volunteers

In the next stage, Sarathi recruits 4 to 6 volunteers per village or slum block and trains them in how to collect feedback. They are then assigned 25 households to visit each cycle. The open-ended feedback process involves families (usually women) drawing a map of the village and showing what services are working or not working for them. Then the volunteer summarizes this and writes it on a slip of colored paper. The colors represent which department in government that needs to follow-up on this issue, and it is already encoded into the checkbox format that defines already-agreed-to goals. I gather the person is converting open feedback into a list of checkboxes that relate to government key performance indicators at this step.

Issue tracking and resolution

In the third stage, that volunteer brings the slip to the appropriate office and follows it through many layers of Indian bureaucracy until it is resolved.


Sarathi has already replicated this improvement process in over 1000 communities, both rural villages and urban slums. Traditional NGO services, such as providing latrines in school or innoculating babies are actually getting done by others more efficiently because of this feedback process optimizing the coordinated work of all agencies responsible. It takes an NGO to find citizens who can represent communities before government offices without falling victim to the allure of graft and corruption, or who can really listen to their brothers’ and sisters’ needs.

Feedback on this process: How are we doing?

To make this complex process work, it isn’t enough to rely solely on the integrity and diligence of the trained community volunteer. Instead, they could use a one question micro survey after each stage to determine whether they are meeting the needs of the citizen.

  1. During the goal-setting and aligning process, they could ask, “On a scale of 0 to 10, how close do these merged goals align with what you wanted?”
  2. During the feedback collecting phase, they could ask, “On a scale of 0 to 10, how well did your community volunteer describe this issue to the authorities?”
  3. During the follow-up phase, they could ask, “On a scale of 0 to 10, how well was this issue resolved?”

The third question is just like the Fix Rate that integrity action uses. And these light-touch continuous micro-surveys are exactly what my latest Keystone tool makes easy to manage – check out where you’ll find you can pick from one of 8 net promoter-inspired questions that match up with the most common types of non-profit work:


Try it out:

A radically simple one question survey

sarathi-logo  fbc-logo  fbl-logo

Innovation Consulting in a nutshell

A colleague recently wrote, “you should share your technology masterplan with the rest of us.”

As an innovation consultant, I don’t have a specific master plan. I have a few operational guidelines for all projects.

Innovation Consulting Guidelines

  1. Interoperate – Make sure new systems are able to talk to the rest of the world’s systems when they replace old systems
  2. Keep it simple
  3. Reduce work – Never build a workflow that increases the NET work required for the team. All innovations should be “net work neutral” or reduce work. The only exception to this rule is where the bottom line (revenue) increases at a much greater rate than the additional work required. And in those cases, you hire more people, so the net work per existing employee likely goes down over the long term.
  4. Mechanize – Build systems that let computers handle the paperwork and drudgery for you
  5. When in doubt, refer to rule #2

The “how” of innovation

My consulting usually follows the same process to solving problems:


First, figure out what problem you really need to solve. Are you building a customer-relationship management (CRM) system when you really just need to bill clients, or report to funders? Then scope out what parts you will try to solve. Then do some experiments. Spend some time solving specific use-cases. Finally, operationalize your solution in the company’s system so that you haven’t added a new, time-consuming process, but instead replaced a bad approach with a better one.

Best Job Description Ever.

After 7 years Alexis left GlobalGiving today. Her parting words are the description of the ideal job:

Thank you for teaching me to never settle for good enough,  to believe that there is a better way to do just about anything,  as long as you design the right experiment to find it.  I learned so much here; I think differently now.  Thank you for showing me how to listen to the needs of others, to respect the individual dignity of everyone, to champion the underdog.  It's really hard to leave a place that asks how things could be better, and where we share moments of customer bliss at staff meetings.

Whatever job you seek, aim for a workplace that inspires and challenges you to be a better person.

The Vigilogue

In March of 2003 George W Bush ordered the US invasion of Iraq. Protesters, who had amassed about two million people in New York City on Feb 15, 2003 (wiki) took to the streets in small towns to make their opposition heard.


In my small town of State College, PA (home of Penn State University) this movement turned into an around-the-clock vigil in the town square. Accompanying this vigil were listeners, people who invited passers by to sit and answer one question:

What are your hopes and dreams for the future, and how has violence affected you in your life?

The street vigil lasted until June 1st, when we decided to pack it up. We didn’t claim victory, nor defeat. Listening is never about that. Instead, we claimed that we had ourselves somehow been transformed through the process of listening to hundreds of people tell sometimes deeply personal stories at the intersection of hopes and threats. Four people were really instrumental to keeping the Vigil going. And as a lesson about such things, none of these four were leading the protest movement.

The four people whom I credit as transforming a protest into a listening project, from the profane to the sacred were Nina, Rebecca, Scott, and Marc (myself). These are the names you’ll find in the transcript of the notebook about the Vigilogue throughout the day. A Vigilogue is a vigil combined with a dialogue. A physical space to discuss and a mental space where disagreements can be civil and meaningful. As a result of what I learned at the Vigil, I later joined the local free newspaper and became their political reporter for 2-3 years. Then I went on to run GlobalGiving’s storytelling project in East Africa. And today it continues to shape my thoughts about how we give voice to poor people around the world. Here is that notebook, followed by some PDFs of CitizenFM:


The Vigilogue – State College, PA 2003

Sunday, March 30th 2003 10pm(ish) Rebecca

Because the other vigilogue turned into what was described as the consistency of orange juice by the unexpected and mostly unwanted late March snow, another has begun. I meant to   write about last night (more correctly, this morning). I pulled the 2am until noon shift. It began snowing around 4:30am and, while state college is beautiful in the snow, it was not appreciated.

Last evening, though, around 2:30am we had one anti-war drunk show up.   Monica shared her blanket with him, so he was drawn to stay near us. He has a brother and a cousin in Iraq and doesn’t want them to die for a “smirking chimp.”

Soon, five belligerent drunk pro-war people and began an argument with us (Monica, Bart and I were on duty, though the actual argument was between drunk pro-war guys and drunk anti-war guy). I don’t know how or why, but more and more people kept joining the group around is including a male with two very inebriated females who would sit down on our rock structure of sorts and go between screaming “Kill them all!” to various, badly butchered, anti-war slogans while the two blinds fell drunkenly over him and off the rock structure.

The most dangerous type of argument began—one in which there is a crowd of people shouting back and forth with little one-on-one speech going on. Drunk pro-war guy and drunk anti-war guy began arguing loudly with frequent interruptions by another drunk guy who would break between them and repeat over and over the phrase of the evening: “A smirking chimp.”

When tomcats fight, they start off by standing defensively and growling at each other while their faces nearly touch… this is what these two men were doing.   The way to preemptively end a tomcat fight is to break them apart or feed them. Being that we didn’t have food, each of us, in turn, began top pull them apart or stand between them. The crowd of 12 gathered at the east-side of the gates did little to help the matter. Somewhere along the time, a younger male ran up and grabbed a burning candle and ran away with it.

Okay, I’ll finish this at a later date—it’s just too damn cold to write at the moment.

Monday, March 31st 2003 4am Scott

It’s not nearly as cold now as it was yesterday. Sometime around 4am yesterday it started to snow and it kept on getting colder and colder. In Flagstaff, I once saw four feet of snow in two days sometime in mid-April (1997, I think, the year Flagstaff received 12+ feet of snow), so I’m used to unexpected snowfall. Having Rebecca as company for most of the time made it easier.

Sometime around 2:30 yesterday afternoon, I met a Quaker who turned out to be pretty damn cool. I recommended to him Why Christianity Must Change or Die by John Shelby Spong, bishop of the Anglican [Episcopalian?] Church of New Jersey, for reading material.

The “Peace Tarp” shelter that was apparently set up last night or early this morning is nice. I also like the nifty chair with the footrest. If I had a sleeping bag I might be willing to be one of those brave people who sleep out here at night occasionally. I have a lot of respect for the people who stay out here all night and must be freezing, all to help maintain a symbol of hope and remembrance for the dead in Lil’ Bush’s nutbag war.

Monday, March 31st 2003 9:30am Marc

No one came up to talk this Monday morning. I arrived at 9am to find the flame unattended—the first time I have seen that since it started a week and a half ago. Of course, being 10 minutes late probably had something to do with that.

Sara—the organizer of Earth Day events at PSU visited and we talked. I stressed the importance of having tables for both the margined members of the community and all religious groups. This way, different aspects of the community can voice the environmentally related concerns. The theme is building community this year and I plan to run the Peace Corps table and the Anti-War info booth.

For a week now, I have been reconstituting my vigil candle fragments in the toaster oven and putting the children of yesterday’s candles of hope out to burn for the people of this town to see. My roommates say it smokes up the house, so I do it at work now instead.   Maybe the fume hood in my lab will be of use again to the chemist-turned-neuroscientist?

I nearly finished reconstituting the last vigilogue from the orange-juice consistency and typing it up. Many people will likely find a sense of grounded-ness in what we do from reading it.   I may even send copies to NPR.   There is hope here—this vigilogue us probably the best thing I have had the luck to stumble across and the honor of disseminating.   I’m sending a copy to my mother who prays for peace but lives surrounded by war, the war my father strongly supports and watches throughout his days of the TV. Perhaps this hope will find it’s way into her prayers.

Monday, March 31st 2003-1:05pm Rebecca

I love you people! I didn’t expect to be here this afternoon. I expected to be curled under the blankets in my dorm room.   Duty calls, however.

Where did I end last night? Oh, alright. So the pro-war knocks a water bottle out of the hands of the anti-war guy. We keep shoving them apart, getting between them. Chris showed up on his way home and saw this beautiful little scene occurring. By now, there is some degree of shoving going on. Chris calls 9-11, but due to the glorious statre college system, no one comes.   To complicate things, there is this naked guy running up the lawn of Old Main and the police are after him. Just when we finally see an officer, he’s running down the street after this naked guy. Now, I don’t know about you, but between a drunken fight and making someone put on his clothing, I’d stop the fight. So the angry drunk pro-war guy (things are now getting a little jumbled) is yelling at Chris—asking him if he was born in America and when he says yes, if his parents were born in America (this is the second racist insinuation I’ve heard here from pro-war folks, the first being when one of our vigil-watchers was told that if it hadn’t been for the Civil War, he’d be picking apples in the speaker’s backyard.) He knocks Chris’s cell phone out of his hands.

So the pro-war guy picks up a rock and throws it at the gates. He proceeds the pull a stick out of the ground, knocks over the twine fence and pulls down the large DIALOGUE sign (symbolic, no?).   He is then trying to pick up the “thoughts left but not forgotten” sign and I’m holding the other side and telling him there are people who have written on it that agree with his point of view and if he would only stop and read it… he throws it into the street.   Bart has gone over and hit the button on the emergency column to call the campus cops. By the time they get here, the crowd has cleared off, though the streaker’s friends have now joined us and are shouting “he was protesting his pants!” at the cops.

This is around the time I noticed that Monica was very upset… her arm had gotten hit by the pro-war guy, though she was more upset that someone would actually throw a punch here than the actual hurt.

Okay, the main points now: Why was this guy angry? He wais things like “I want to kill 100,000 of those Iraqis” and “I can’t wait to get sent over so I can kill them.” When I was holding the sign and he was pulling it, I asked him why. He said they’re all the same, all like their leader.   They’re a tiny country and they want to fuck with America. That’s why he wanted them to die. He had aid it is absolutely proper for us to invade them and take their natural resources—it’s our right. I’m going to end now… It’s snowing again.


This is a very dear-diary-esque moment entirely too reminiscent of my early adolescence. Perhaps we can use this as a segue to talking about my still sersistant youthful idealism of a peaceful world.

Ah, but let’s not.

I do want to make a brief statement—we should have people here constantly, kids. I walked by this morning, no one was around and a Collegian reporter was fluttering about looking panicked about having to cover this and state that no one was here.   Perhaps a pool of numbers and hours of availability. But that makes this sound like a job. All we need are nametags, uniforms and personal identification numbers.

Hi.   So I’m not very serious. But, aside from the lapse in vigiling this morning, you kids have been doing a great job of keeping this going. It’s quite nearly awe-inspiring. Much appreciation of all good will put forth. Peace.

Tuesday, April 1st 2003 3:10am Dallas

I sat for two hours wrapped in a blanket. Although it is cold I am quite toasty. Quite a few people stopped by to talk. Ian was worried about school. Bart just left the diner. Steve just offered to buy hot chocolate for Kevin and me. There is a good family feeling here, it gives me peace of mind and hope.   Quite a few people drove by this morning screaming indiscernible words, no doubt they were of the negative sort.   I always wear a smile. I hope they find fulfillment for their empty, angry hearts., because waging war for revenge or restitution is a sure path to an unhappy end. People are truly inherently good, I believe. They all want to collect and be understood. And that’s why I sit and keep the wicks lit.

Tuesday, April 1st 2003 10:50am Rebecca

I just need to write about this. I have a friend from back home, Kate. Politically, she is 180 degrees from me. I can’t express all the differences, but we meet together in poetry, spirit, smiles and love. Boy, does that sound corny! Anyway, I’ve been writing her about this vigil. She finally replied with something to this affect:

You have touched me, or your words have… You know, we don’t agree… I’ve started this website… It’s a vigil for a vigil… It’ll be my baby. Pacalis et fortis, peace and courage. I hope you like it.” (Someone just thanked me for being here) I’m so happy. I forget how much I love my friends sometimes.

And now for some vigil stuff:   Kathryn has invented a new artistic style called panic painting… also known as, it’s due at 2:30 today.

The other night—I’m still catching up with myse3lf and I feel guilty for it, but I’d rather put off writing than risk the vigilogue to the weather—I got called a spaghetti hippie… still trying to figure out what that is.

In the recent weather, people have been hesitant to roll down their windows or loosen their scarves to shout at is. I haven’t been called a dirty hippie fag in a few days… I’m starting to lose my identity.

Tuesday April 1st 2003 4:00pm

It is so beautiful out. The sun is shining and melting all the snow that came down on everybody here before me today. There are bunches of people going by and I don’t know whether to be afraid or eager that they notice me. Today this is a calm warm place. There are so many people in the world!

A man and two high school kids stopped by—one of the high school kids had started a newsletter to discuss world issues (as per Michael Moore’s suggestions in Stupid White Men) and he also started a peace movement within the high school. His last name is Olsen and it kills me that I forgot his first name!! Anyway he suggested a website:

(Not sure of spelling) as a great source of news articles.

April 2nd 2003 12:02am Joel Wasko

“Read a History Book”

I don’t sit down here for more than a minute before a motorist yells this out to me. Thanks, buddy.

Actually, this is traditionally not bad advice. When we were children, our social studies teachers goaded us to read our lesson, much to our dismay. Now, people want to know about this critical time, wars and death. This can be for concern or morbidity, but in any case, no one wants to be in the dark.

The problem lies in the news sources of choice today. The most popular and most trusted are the colorful, loud, and fun ones. The well funded channels that draw the eyes. They are today’s textbooks. Do you trust them?

April 2nd 2003

I respond to this last entry,

Read People’s History of the United States–Howard Zinn

Wednesday April 2nd 2:01am Lee

“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human spirit on fire.”   -F. Fock

“Reason never makes sense to me.” -Joshua M.

(Different hand writing begin) “Give peace a chance.” –John Lennon (Different hand writing end)

Arrow points to different handwriting: Drunk National Guard recruit that disliked the “slaughter” sign. (though he came to talk)

April 2nd 2003 Sometime around 4am Scott Long

Latest news update: The United States State Department recently released it’s annual world human rights report. Although I have not looked at the actual report myself, the “news” says that the government of Canada and the Palestinian Authority were criticized.   Supposedly, the section on Canada goes of for 16 long pages. I don’t know how long the average section is, but it is hard for me to believe that there are huge problems in Canada. I’m aware of their misguided (racist?) program to assimilate indigenous people into “mainstream” Canadian society, but also consider the fact that Canada is one of the best countries to have a home by the United Nations. I liked how the Canadian government issued a travel advisory in relation to the United States, specifically that if you were born in any country on the United States government’s list of “terrorist states” or recently traveled to one of them, even if you’re a Canadian citizen, to consider avoiding travel in the United States because you run the risk of summary detention and will not be accorded the same rights as you would have in Canada. That is absolutely correct and both appropriate and courageous to say so. Supposedly, (again, I caution that I haven’t viewed the actual report myself) the Palestinian Authority was criticized for not having handicapped access to its government buildings. I think I’ll le that one go without comment.

I wonder what is said about the deterioration human rights situation in the United States. The USA Patriot Act gave the United States government such powers as the authority to view your email, identify books you have checked out of the library (the librarians are not allowed to inform individual patrons of any snooping by the United States government), and search your home without consent or notification.   Under the authority of a permit issued by a secret judge, they can confiscate anything and install trafficking software on your computer. The 90-day deadline of the government’s responsibility to inform you of their activities can be extended, again by a secret court. Another farther-reaching bill supposedly under consideration would extend the United States government’s powers of secret detentions (sometimes for an indefinite length of time without charge—Jose Padilla is being held withoug charge untilthe “War on Terrorism” is over, according to the United States Government—through the power to arrest anyone deemed to be a “terrorist” or associated with them (by, once again, a secret court), revoke their United States citizenship and export them from this country.

Someone once said that “democracies die behind closed doors.” Our so called “democracy” is spiraling down the toilet of fascism, fed by fear, ignorance, paranoia, and unjustified violence. The freedoms that George W. Bush says he’s defending are being ruthlessly shredded by the very same government. I think it’s shocking and sad.

I believe most of the blame lies wit h the United States mass media. It has done a pathetic and disgraceful job relative to reporting the crimes committed by the Bush administration and the fallout of his actions. Our slow march toward totalitarian society can only be assisted by a media that is complicit and spits out the same propaganda thrown at the United States government, uncritical of their lies and treachery.

To paraphrase Bill Maher of “Politically Incorrect”: How much does Bush have to sick before there’s mass opposition to him in this country? How much, indeed.

New Entry:

Q: What do you guys do this for?

A: Our candles cannot stop bullets, nor will they make bombs re-assemble and fly back up into airplanes. When faced with danger, there are two possible responses: Hope and Fear. What we guard is the Flame of Hope. This is what we vow to carry and uphold… which do you wish to carry in your heart?

Nai aman Nar-Estel, or si ufirura!

April 2nd 2002 1:57pm Rebecca Ruth Seidel

An older woman, maybe in her mid-50’s, just walked up the sidewalk with her two children, both pre-school age. As they passed us, the younger of the two boys stopped and stared at me.   The woman he was with reached over to his head, grabbed the back, and forcibly turned his head away from me while pushing him along… beautiful.

A woman, Donna, just stopped by. She asked me “are you for or against the war?” I love that question—so I gave my regular spiel about it being a neutral vigil… she said the son of her and her husband’s best friend just died. “He was 22,” she said. “And why did he have to die? He had his whole life ahead of him… when we get to Baghdad and the body bags start coming home, that’s when people will care.” She said bother her husband’s brother and her brother went to Vietnam.   “He came back alive,” she said of her brother. “But, he wasn’t the same…”   When talking about her brother-in-law, she said, “He beats his wife. He’s a nice guy, though. It’s war that does this to you.”

This, so far, has been the first person I’ve met who knows someone who has died as a result of the conflict and considering the numbers of Allied military casualities at this point, it is pretty amazing that I DID meet someone whose life has been affected.

The next entry begins without date or name. It is titled:

Rick T. (rjt159)

I want to cry. There is a guy here named Rick… Fuck this, I can’t handle this anymore. I’ve taken down the “Don’t send them to slaughter” sign and I’ve given it to Rick and told him to burn it. OK. I know this story is a little disjointed so I’ll start from the beginning.

Ryan is the duty guard and I encountered him in the crowd talking to a man who turned out to be somewhat drunk, in a bit of passion talking about how his brother is not a bad person and how worried he is about his brother.   He said repeatedly that he calls his parents every hour to see if they’ve gotten a call from the government and I believe he is telling the truth because I can hear the edge of pain in his voice.

Rick T. had one request. Actually, it was more like a plea, like he was begging us. The only thing he wanted, with tears in his eyes, was for us to stop calling his brother a slaughterer. Everything else about is being there he supported, he said; supported, but he genuinely hated us for calling his brother a murderer,

For a time, I denied vehemently that I or Ryan or Danny or Christine had any right to take that sign down because this community that we have built, I feel, is based on mutual agreement and little is down without consent of all involved. I believe in and respect that idea because I feel that it is this quality which had made this place so special to me.

Yet to see the pain in that man’s eyes and feel the sickness in my own stomach at calling men who I respect murderers made me want to cry. I found myself decinding on principle the utterly indefensible and I wanted to vomit from the self-loathing that induced.   Never have I felt so profoundly that no single principle can fully describe justice.

Feeling too disgusted with myself to continue excusing my actions to Rick I sat down to write about this situation feeling that doing so would build concensus that would help bring the banner down. The ellipses and foul language represent the moment when I became too fed up to continue my complacent acceptance of something wrong because of an essentially good principle.

I find I can look Rick T. in the eye.

Wednesday April 2nd — Thursday 3am 2003 Marc M

I am back—again spending a Wednesday night by the flame to encourage talk about the Iraq after the war. Tonight some guys with family in the military and former military experience came again to talk. While they support the troops and realize the need to honor the dead with a flame, they also see a lack of information and presentation of the ulterior motives as a concern. Because of past conversations here, one is not fully aware of the peculiar non-competitive contracts for rebuilding offered to companies tied to the administration and considers it a somewhat questionable approach to say the least.

After we had these pro-troops but anti-bush guys talking for a while, another very drink former Army Ranger turned Historian came up to tell us we are a disgrace. For a change, it was the pro-troop guys who immediately jumped to defend the calue of a place to talk about the war and remember the human cost with flames of hope.

This guys was belligerent and incoherent except when we could get him to talk about his Kosovo war experiences. Eventually, after seeming to make sense for a while, he switched to telling us, “I want to kill all of you. That’s how I feel.” Not understanding this sudden threat, left the four of us, three of whom have military experience and the fourth a returned Peace Corps Volunteer) wondering why we were so provocative. He kept asking me what my point in coming here day after day was, and my answer—“To hear what you have to say,” didn’t seem to sound like a point. It irritated him—it bothered him that someone would waste so much time listening to opinions on a street corner—and he resulted to insulting me and all antiwar protestors for “not having a point.”

I wished he wasn’t so completely sloppy drunk, that he may have given me some insights about war. Instead, he eventually threatened to beat us all up again and again before staggering off.   Thankfully the big “slaughter” sign was down and the pro-troops guys were here to salvage the dialogue with the sloppy-drunk ranger. I imagine he would have become violent—a deadly weapon—had he found a reason like that to provoke wrath.

April 3rd 2003 4am Scott Long

In my previous rant I mentioned an article in the mass media that said the United States State Department called Canada a human rights violator in is recent world human rights report. I read the section of Canada myself and I don’t know what to make of it. The report made clear that the Canadian government was a strong supporter of human rights both in theory and practice, but at the same time the report went on and on about incidents that were clearly isolated and were dealt with effectively. I need to read commentary on other countries to see if this is typical for commentary on other governments.

I did notice that commentary on the USA was absent—a glaring omission.   Maybe it’s too sensitive an issue for the United States State Department. I’m also eagerly anticipating the volume/lack there of commentary on the government of Equatorial Guinea (population~500,000, on the Atlantic coast of Africa). Their previous president crucified people and put them on display for

[… fill in this 20 page gap with transcription…]

Visiting foreign dignitaries. The current president of Equatorial Guinea is executed him and promised reforms, the critics of this administration still mysteriously disappear.”

Peter Arnett, formerly a journalist for NBC, was recently fired for recent interview. On Iraqi television. His crime? He said that the war in Iraq is going according to the United States plans and predictions that the United States military had had to adjust accordingly. So there is

to be an absolutely corresponds to what both the media and the government commentators have said. A spokesperson for the Bush administration said that Peter Arnett comments were based off of a total quotes ignorance” of the facts. Mule muffins!

This is an extreme form of censorship. Anyone who says the United States battle plan had worked out perfectly susceptible to such treatment! Happily, London mirror has hired Peter Arnett. I wish him luck with his new employer.

The United States main media sources are already doing a terrible job of reporting the news from a fair viewpoint. Fox news is probably the worst. Anchors on Fox news and call these demonstrators “terrible” and “whiners”. I don’t like it when they and people like them tell me that I “hate America.” In fact I do not hate this country. It is for the reason that I want to see this country go on but I support peaceful United States foreign-policy that respects and assists other people and uses force only as a last resort, exploring peaceful solution except when massive destruction appears imminent. There are many very bad aspects United States government where life in general, but they’re also very good thing that I like and build on. Dissent is not by definition people – said is absolutely necessary and healthy society.

If anyone reading this with light to learn a extreme racial hatred like today, I would strongly recommend the Turner diaries, a work of fiction about white supremacist revolts in the United States. The author is the head of the national alliance, whose membership coordinator back in September 2001 said, “we may not want them marrying our daughters but anyone willing to fly a plane into a building to kill Jews all right by me. I wish our members at half the testicle fortitude.” Scary.

The center of contemporary American society question. Let’s work on fixing problems or we demand regime change in other countries.

Scott Long

April 3, 2003 10:13 AM

thank you God for this new day and for the chance to work and play – a verse from childhood of prayer from childhood beautiful morning, three stolen parade across the street, woman in a yellow headscarf. I’m reading these letter tau, a collection of 1972 – the freeing of the dust – her cloud poems about imagination and possibilities – taken by the people who walk by, Lance precipitously at the shrine, with worried sullen faces.

Even a man I know – my smile met with a glance away. I want to call him back, say, stop take a real look! We are only engaged in the best of Boy Scout Way. Be prepared. These little fires here, rising to meet the unholy fire across the sea.

– Jean

Thursday, April 3, 2003 12:30 PM 65°F partly cloudy

today’s been such a beautiful day. I’ve done my classes so relaxing here for a while. There was this dude crossing the street and I swear to God that you look just like Col. Sanders. Ha ha… Okay anyway… I had two tests today: sociology, and Poli Sci. I feel like I did good on my SOC exam with that Poli Sci test totally “liberated” the crap out of me!!!

Get it?

Today’s the day of silence… I remember last year when I was a senior in Sun Valley high school. This guy named Tom was pretty much the only openly gay person in school. During the day of silence, he walked around school with a message about the purpose of it, and he didn’t say a word. Many kids made fun of him, but some respected him for what he was doing… At least I did.

well that’s all for now…

Peace, Adrian Mercado

PS I’m not a hippie

I’m not a traitor

and I’m not a terrorist.

Thursday, April 3, 2003 1:30 a.m.

I have I have not been here since Saturday night after the violence that occurred. I have been feeling pretty discouraged by the ignorance I see. I definitely have seen so many good things and was having a very good night until the drunk belligerent showed up. I’ve been feeling kind of writing. Dreaming about the angry “American police” (that’s what I call the people spit out propaganda and tell us to leave the country) chasing me. I wish I wasn’t so sensitive, angered, intimidated by the hateful people in this town. I just can’t understand or deal with people who wants to indiscriminately kill all Arab people… Or whatever the Zeitgeist/villain of the movement might be. I am sorry to be negative, I do not cope well, when I want to all of you who maintain, or seem to maintain, such a positive attitude – how you do it? I’m amazed by everyone’s dedication. How do you fend off pessimism?

Monica Antonazzo

April 4, 2003 4 AM

This is the last in Scott’s series of the annual human rights report without by the United States State Department. I was pleasantly surprised when I read the section on Israel – report clearly criticized Israeli governments actions in the “occupied territories.” I do think the report was unfair to the Palestinian Authority. They couldn’t do much even if they wanted to because of the occupation. Scott’s plan to begin a revolution (peaceful!) In the United States:

One. Re-institute regulations on the media. No government censorship – that’s not on saying estimation point what I want is to diversify the media and to allow as many viewpoints as possible. I want wide coverage of the facts, not a regurgitation of propaganda by the government. The United States government continues to weaken rules on media ownership such as the same corporation owning both a newspaper and radio station in the same city. A key component of a healthy society’s wealth or population.

  1. A second critical component of a healthy society is a population that can choose their leaders. Ignoring the so-called presidential election of 2012 the total fraud with disgrace and insult of democracy… I could go on and on… This situation has been deteriorating rapidly in the United States.the Wall Street Journal published an article several years ago that call the Republican and Democrat parties that Coke and Pepsi politics statement with which I have a certain amount of sympathy.what this country needs is what these some countries in Europe have – instant runoff voting. it would be necessary to lead to some sort of socialist utopia but in conjunction with public financing of elections much of the money and disgraceful corporate influence on candidates would end.

Two events yesterday reinforce the importance of dialogue. Yesterday morning someone stopped and asked what the purpose of this was. I told her that the praying the purpose is to remember the dead on both sides – remember United States soldiers it by suicide bombers as well as the Jordanian students who were incinerated by an American missile – she said that she was both surprised and happy to hear me emphasize both sides. I imagine most people viewed as an antiwar protest more than his later, but that’s not what this is. You will find you believe the latest war is a total disgrace and a potential disaster for the world like me, but the point of this video is for dialogue and remembrance of the dead.

Yesterday morning I debated a series of issues with the person I know who is a libertarian, trying to find a free boundary between legitimate personal freedom and criminal activity. I discovered that as a socialist of you many activities as criminal that he views as personal freedom issues. Name a few examples: I believe the tobacco companies should pay through the nose for all the damage they have done,; the energy companies in this country should be nationalized; corporate ownership of the media should be strictly limited and regulated; and that city governments should have the authority to regulate water usage during times of drought. I will understand now if he said I was against many personal freedom issues, although I would not agree with the statement like that. In fairness he said he doesn’t believe I’m against freedom.

Okay, now doesn’t want to unfair representation of this visual. A recent issue of the daily collegian published a cartoon of the vigil, showing the dialogue and peace signs dripping with blood parentheses oil. I can’t tell which one is either. You have to see it for yourself – got me very upset I see on the bottom of the picture that it was apparently drawn by Dan Singerman. Has he even visited the site? Well apparently he has, but did he speak to us and anyone else here? The phone with an open mind? The ring with him a willingness to engage in dialogue, like the sign he disrespects encourages everyone to bring?

I have a hard time dealing with people who have an opinion on various issues – which is okay by itself – or unwilling to base this opinion on the facts and to investigate issues on their own. I’ll admit that I need to continue to work in this respect, with the fact that I’m here willing to discuss issues with people here proves that I’m not legally closed minded. I wish other people try to do the same instead of seeking a few images thrown at them by the corporate media, either corporate issued food, and call everyone who disagrees with them ignorant liberals. Yeah, a very liberal, and proud of it, dammit! I’m a socialist because I believe that socialism is possibly the best alternative to a profit driven free market system and the generation of private profit above the needs of society as a whole.

The dumb down ignorant society that is currently corporate America’s dream is possibly the most significant threats to the future of this country. And for the population is possibly the only force powerful enough and the relentless assault on freedom championed by the Bush administration and his fellow far right lunatics.

Scott Long

Friday, April 4, 2003 6:30 AM

I actually slept here and feel great I have only been two hours but it was warm and well deserved two hours I arrived here a little before midnight. What if you men were talking to the people on digital watch(and we call the vigilantes). In this group of men, one of them stood out the one that had caused trouble last Saturday night/midmorning. I don’t know what he was doing here again. I called the police because they still want to charge him with destruction of property and assault. By the time I had finished making a phone call with group at left. sigh – I don’t know what to think. I’m a vengeful person, what I would like to see this man captured and charged so I have proof of the system works as well as a feeling of semi-safety. I don’t like feeling that I neurotic person or one easily scared, but I don’t know what this guy has in mind and often the ruthlessness experience last weekend… Monica’s back – I’m glad to see it.

Moving to the experiences of last night, dialogue wise, it was very productive evening. I don’t have any grandiose plans about changing people’s hearts or minds, but creating thought, respect, and understanding even minimal quantities – that is. I always invite people to return when they are sober.

Funny events of the evening:

the “I want to sheeeet on your flag” returned and demanded to know why we don’t have a French flag – and again, fairly drunk. I told him to make one and we’d be happy to put it up… I wonder if you’ll remember.

On the kind of funny/disturbing note, I was arguing with two fairly drunk man. She skipped over to inform us that while we had been talking, she had urinated English – this is PSU.

Now my favorite part of the evening:

two members of the van – my comments – and their manager came over to talk to us – honestly, there were plenty of people have been here so far. They offered to play here sometimes – but not the same bill follow through with it… They’re all antiwar and said we were doing a “very beautiful thing.” It was great they stop by – they made my evening.

I was halfway, it sounded like Scott and some good conversation from what I heard inside my sleeping bag/Kate. Unfortunately we’re in for another load of crappy weather this weekend.

Rebecca Seidel

Friday, April 4 10:50 AM

I’m thinking about the whole debate around support our troops… I think about the masses of 18 to 20 something year olds bravely and perhaps naïvely charged up to go “defend” our country. Now that the war has been underway for a couple of weeks and those same soldiers are getting a taste of the realities and horrors of war, will that somehow affect the gung ho sentiments, once those who survived start coming back with their stories and nightmares?

I know I know that it happened before with Vietnam and to some much lesser expense the Gulf War. And our government has not been very gracious and taking care of our vets at least not from what I know. Nope, not good at fostering mental health. Where is Jung when you need him?

I wish that guy who just drove by honking with his finger in the air yelling kill Saddam had the balls to stop and talk. I wish George Bush had the balls to have a public debate with Saddam. I did have a short chat with the bloke from Ireland wanted to talk about it all – how outrageous it is that our government basically gave the finger to the UN… How this has been in the works since Bush was in charge… That history repeats itself…

Kerry Z.

Saturday, April 5, 2003 10 PM

One man, Isaac, came by and lit a candle for those who died in this war. He was a Marine with enlistedand talked about the last five years of ROTC – Marines, and who then drop out because he “got drafted”. Meanwhile, a group of 10 boys ran by, took Isaac’s hat and threw it in the fire. Isaac got angry and an altercation started between the two groups of pro-war people who simply did not take the time to engage in discourse before starting provokation.

Marc M

The digital log. [Vigilogue]

Yesterday the propaganda machine a.k.a. the news reported that John Bolton Bush administration nutbags who claims that the Cuban government is giving biological weapons to the Iranian government said that the government’s of Syria, Iran, and North Korea should” learns from Iraq” specifically that possessing weapons of mass destruction is not in their national interests. Joyous days are here note sarcasm) is this a prelude to future wars? Violence cannot be the method of solving international disputes-if the society is to survive and evolve. Problems are solved by the general population of a given country; it is the governments and their propaganda that feeds the ignorance used to justify international murder.

Such reasoning is probably lost on this population. It will be necessary for the USA to experience mass destruction firsthand for the citizens of this country to wake up and realize that our outlook needs to change.

Scott Long

Thursday, April 10, 2003

waiting for it to get warmer-waiting and waiting under a sick blanket. So everyone wants to proclaim the war is over

quote we won the war and no thanks defragments” we shouted at us last night. I’m sure they did a lot to help to. People are still talking to us-last night we were talking to a guy who just didn’t know what he thought. I’m frightened by the American apathy I’ve met here-people just don’t want to be bothered. More later-Rebecca

Thursday, April 10, 2003 I’m still wondering quote exactly what am I doing here?” I don’t know, maybe I do but I just can’t seem to put it into words. Then, something I realized in my 23 years of life is that not everything in life can be put into words. If it just feels right it’s right. It’s a little windy but sunny-probably the first glimpse of the April son. Like I go now sign, harsh.

April 11, 2003 4 AM

I spoke with two people yesterday one of them was nice enough despite quote sharing the message of Jesus Christ” with me the main point on which we both agreed was that the media conglomerates in the United States are disgrace. I spoke with the other person for while on the topic of the importance of voting. He said it doesn’t matter who is elected; I said it that, attitude, that is extremely dangerous for a quote democratic” society. It does matter who quote wins” the elections. I fully support instant runoff voting and public financing of campaigns to make the voting process more democratic but, in many respects the beginning of the change or lack thereof is this country begins at the ballot box. Is anyone aware of the United States almost elected a socialist president? Eugene Debs received many votes despite being in jail for opposing United States involvement in World War I. Those were the days; now are stuck with the fascist doesn’t even elected. At this exact moment’s it’s raining and I’m cold, but I’m not wet because of the tarp it’s still better than mixing polymer solutions and measuring fluorescence intensities, but that’s another topic entirely the streetlights parentheses traffic lights) link repeatedly until 6 AM. Someone else told me that they start doing that at 3 AM. Maybe I should tie George W Ward Bush to a chair, take his eyes open and try to hypnotize him with the lights. Quote you are getting very sleepy… You won’t start anymore wars… By Scott some nachos…” There been plenty of scary times in United States history; maybe it is just one more scary time. I hope the history records George Bush the third of the terrible president rather than some sort of hero. Quote and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.” Not me thank you-you’re not getting my vote. – Scott Long

[End of transcript]

Citizen FM (02-11-2003)

Citizen FM (02-18-2003)

Citizen FM (3-5-2003)

Citizen FM (04-01-2003)

Citizen FM (05-01-2003)

Vigilogue (downloadable) (4-28-2003)

Slack: Mastering your mental friction


Eight months ago my python guru Jason told me to check out slack. “It’s like IRC on crack!” but I was too busy.

A few weeks ago I finally took the time to integrate slack into my work, and it has been transformative. It will definitely be one of my future ‘book of the month‘ topics. Here is a taste of slack:


This is one channel, a timeline of activities related to a single project. In this case, it’s managing user experiences on – the website we’re launching. As you can see, I am managing the work in Trello, but the code is being updated using GitHub. In addition to that, whenever a user creates a new survey, a custom bot (feedback-bot, the super spy squirrel) puts a message in this channel for one of our team to follow up. And of course the rest of my life is happening, so there’s google calendar reminder not to miss our weekly Nerd Lunch.

In the past all of this would’ve gone into my email box. And gmail has done wonders to keep things organized. But slack is a step beyond gmail. One fundamental difference is that in gmail, each member of the team has to create his/her own labels and organizing scheme. There’s no coordination. If you have 10 members, that’s 10X the work of having one person create an organizing scheme for everyone.

Slack is exactly that. As I extend a channel’s integrations, I’m also relieving everyone else of replicating that data structure. And slack is more extensible. If I wanted the feedback-bot to show daily google-analytics stats or the number of new users, anything is possible, and everything is faster/easier to write than doing it some other way. Feedback-bot is just three lines of python code inserted in the middle of one of the website’s functions.

Think of it this way. The current office 21st-century office environment revolves around a gmail interface:


What I’m just waking up to realize is that over time, gmail’s interface gets bloated and unwieldy just like outlook folders used to get, and pop3-based eudora did before that. Eventually you have a class of helper tools to keep things under control:


This is what I mean by mental friction. A typical worker has over a dozen overhead apps in play just to manage their core communications. For a long time I’ve benefited from simplifying work-flows using Trello. But now I am seeing the benefit of aggregating all internal communications through an agregator. Many startups have tried to do this, but Slack is the one that seems to have solved the problem. Not because it does anything magnificent on its own, but because it can absorb the greatest number of these in a reasonably flexible way. Slack is also better because it means that only a few people need to manage the channel (reducing meta-work and mental friction), while the rest just use the channel to do actual work.

Most conversations are on a specific topic, and we all agree what those topics are. So why not archive them in a topical way for everyone? This means slack also doubles as a knowledge repository. You can scan a channel to catch up on a specific project. Slack kinda looks like this to me:


My brain finally sits in between two main channels. One is for personal communications – gmail and it’s tools. The other is for accomplishing the actual work, and slack is the logical hub for that activity. No more should be be sending data through email or trying to manage work-flows in a text-dominated system that has not upgraded its capabilities since the beginning of the Internet. HTML emails are not universally supported, and CSS / Javascript are not supported at all, even though these are the defacto languages that today’s web uses. Slack makes more sense. And he who innovates faster, wins.

More Slack Mastering ideas to come.


Features of great organizations

CycleOfProgressThis week our team at GlobalGiving upgraded our website and expanded the way we measure and reward our thousands of partner organizations.  Two years ago we began this journey on the hunch that curious, learning-focused organizations grow up to become the most effective organizations at changing lives — the ones that deliver high-quality services to those in need. We believed that cycles of learning turn into virtuous cycles of impact.

Our philosophy draws from Lean Startup principles, Agile Software Development, and Information is Power. I’m excited to share yet another line of evidence that we are on to something.

BigMLToday I took 1,325 evaluations from hundreds of in-the-field travelers to GlobalGiving projects over the past 5 years and analyzed them. BigML, the DIY machine learning site, allowed me to understand what defines a great organization in about 15 minutes. That alone is cool, as this type of analysis would’ve taken weeks just 5 years ago! Given one column in the data that represents the outcome you want (or don’t want) to achieve, BigML organizes the rest of the data into a branched contingency tree, like this:


Reading the tree reveals which other questions in the evaluation are the most reliable predictors of answers in that primary outcome column. Statisticians run something similar called a principal component analysis. The labels at the top of each branch of the tree define what makes a great organization, apart form an average or a poor one.

I chose for my outcome column the net promoter question:

How likely are you recommend this organization to a GlobalGiving corporate partner, on a 0 to 10 scale?

So what are the most strongly correlated answers with great organizations?

  1. transparency organization management: at least average
  2. online fundraising capacity: high
  3. collecting feedback from the community: yes


I was excited to see this. Although more than 50 possible features were in the mix, the top three align exactly with what we encourage oraganizations to do in our GG Rewards program (launched today).

This is a totally separate line of evidence. Evaluations didn’t inform our design; partner organization feedback did. But the results of this analysis validate the direction we’re taking. Great organizations are more likely to have a clear management structure and be actively collecting community feedback, just as we seek out feedback from our community of partner organizations and work to clarify how we decide what we do.

Curious what else made the “great organizations” list?

4. this organization is a good fit for our storytelling project

5. project descriptions on GlobalGiving are reasonably accurate

6. the in-the-field traveler was able to visit other projects during their site visit beyond the intended project

What is characteristic of poor organizations (those least likely to be recommended)?

  1. not very clear how organization is using funds
  2. unclear management structure
  3. poor online fundraising capacity

And what are common characteristics of average organizations:

  1. they are clear how funds are being used
  2. project leader was very transparent (this is a separate question from whether the organization is transparent as a whole)
  3. they don’t excel at the things that great organizations do (above).

I hope this illustrates what evidence-based planning is all about, and how it fuels smarter, leaner social change. If we are ever going to transform the way do-gooders make progress around the world, it is going to come on the heels of learning more, faster. That’s why I’ve chosen to work on a group of aligned projects, including GG Rewards, the storytelling project, Keystone’s Feedback Commons, The feedback loop diagnostic quiz, and Feedback Labs. They’re all components in a system to evolve smarter solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Round 2

Nick, a colleague, thought we could be more rigorous in this experiment. So he suggested I use a different outcome for this analysis: the number of rewards points these organizations had earned prior to the day we launched our GG Rewards program. So I did.

A slightly different set of the 64 characteristics we tracked in evaluation profiles seems to best correlate with earning enough GG rewards points to earn Superstar status.


Superstar organizations are most likely to…

  1. have high fundraising capacity (we already knew that our legacy rewards system was too-heavily weighted towards this one factor. That’s why we revised it to weight learning higher yesterday.)
  2. not use our “tribute cards” feature (this one is baffling. But it’s data all the same)
  3. evaluator comments didn’t include the word “visit”
  4. the organization is pleased with GlobalGiving
  5. introduced the evaluator to beneficiaries – the people served by that project – during their visit
  6. have at least an average level of transparency around organization management
  7. be meeting the needs of their community, at least in the eyes of the visitor

In a similar analysis that only uses the points earned for engaging on our platform (and not any points awarded for learning outside of GlobalGiving), we found a similar but encouraging set of features correlating with the best organizations:

  1. evaluators would recommend them to family and friends
  2. organization is meeting needs of the community
  3. community identifies the needs
  4. the community works with other organizations, not just this one
  5. the visitor spoke with the GlobalGiving project leader directly

Because “engagement points” are so closely tied to tools, training, and fundraising that GlobalGiving offers, it is wonderful to see that many of the features of great organizations are community-centered, rather than centered around our website and products. The GG Rewards status of great organizations is less correlated with their capacity to fundraise on GlobalGiving and more correlated to their commitment to be a community-focused organization.

Modeling and rewarding learning with GlobalGiving’s community

(I originally posted this on GlobalGoodness)


GlobalGiving‘s mission is to help all organizations become more effective by providing access to money, information, and ideas.

GG money, info, ideas

That is a lofty, aspirational goal. To everyone else, it might look like all we do is run a website that connects donors to organizations. But internally, I serve on a team that has met every week for the past 3 years to pour over the data, to find an efficient way to help organizations become more effective. We call ourselves the iTeam (i for impact).

GlobalGiving's i-team. We try not to take ourselves too seriously.

GlobalGiving’s iTeam. We try not to take ourselves too seriously.

It is hard to move thousands of organizations in one shared community forward. We use gamification, incentives, and behavioral economics to encourage organizations to learn faster and listen to the people in whatever corner of the world they happen to operate.

Before 2014 we used just six critera to define “good,” “better”, and “best.” If an organization exceeded the goals on all six, they were Superstars. If they met some goals, they were Leaders. The remaining 70% of organizations were permanent Partners – still no small feat. Leaders and Superstars were first in line for financial bonuses and appeared at the top of search results.

In 2014 we unveiled a more complete effectiveness dashboard, tracking all the ways we could measure an organization on its journey to Listen, Act, Learn, and Repeat. We believe effective organizations do this well.

But this dashboard wasn’t good enough. We kept tweaking it, looking for better ways to define learning.

What is learning, really?

How do you quantify it and reward everyone fairly?

The past is just prologue. In 2015 organizations will earn points for everything they do to listen, act, and learn.

LALR cycle-dark-bg lalr-2015-explained

This week I put together an interactive modeling tool to study how GlobalGiving could score organizational learning. When organizations do good stuff, they should earn points. If they earn enough points, they ought to become Leaders or Superstars. But how many points are enough to level up? That is a difficult question.

Here is the evidence we used to decide. The current distribution of scores for our thousands of partners, leaders and superstars looks like this:


How to read this histogram

On the x-axis: total learning points that an organization has earned.

On the y-axis: number of organizations with that score.

There are three bell curves for the three levels of status. It is significant to notice that these bell curves overlap. It means that some Superstar organizations in our old definition of excellence are not so excellent under the new set of rules. Other Partner organizations are actually far more effective than we thought; they will be promoted. Some of the last will be first, and some of the first will be last.

The histogram shown mostly reflects points earned from doing those six things we’ve always rewarded. But in the new system, organizations are also going to earn points for doing new stuff that demonstrates learning:


And that will change everything. “Learning organizations” will leapfrog over “good fundraising organizations” that haven’t demonstrated that they are learning yet.


Not only will different organizations level-up to Leaders and Superstars, everyone’s scores will likely increase. We’ll need to keep “moving the goal posts.” Otherwise the definition of a Superstar organization will be meaningless.

The reason this is a modeling tool and not an analysis report is that anyone can adjust the weights and rerun the calculations instantly. Here I’ve increased the points that organizations earn for raising money over listening to community members and responding to donors:


This weighting would run contrary to our mission. So obviously, we’re not doing that. But we also don’t want to impose rules that would discount the efforts organizations have made to become Superstars under the old rules.

So I created another visualization of the model that counts up gainers and losers and puts them into a contingency table. Here, two models are shown side by side. Red boxes represent the number of organizations that are either going to move up or down a level in each model:


We’d like to minimize disruption during the transition. That means getting the number of Superstars that would drop to Partner as close to zero as possible. It also means giving everybody advance warning and clear instructions on how to demonstrate their learning quickly, so that they don’t drop status as the model predicts.

This is a balancing act. Our definition of a Learning Organization is evolving because our measurements are getting more refined, but we acknowledge they are a work in progress. We seek feedback at every step so that what we build together serves the community writ large, and not just what we think is best.

More instructions on what happens after launch are coming next week. This post is just the story of how we got to where we are, and a few lessons of what we’ve learned along the way.


  • Fairness: It is mathematically impossible to make everybody happy when we start tracking learning behavior and rewarding it.
  • Meritocracy: We will need to keep changing the definition of Superstar organizations as all organizations demonstrate their learning, or else it will be meaningless. The best organizations would be indistinguishable from average ones.
  • Crowdsourcing: The only fair way to set the boundaries of Partner, Leader, and Superstar is to crowdsource the decision to our community, and repeat this every year.
  • Defined impact: We can measure the influence of our system on organizational behavior by comparing what the model predicts with what actually happens. We define our success as seeing everybody increase their score every year, and earning more points each year than in the previous year. Success is also seeing a normal distribution (e.g. “bell curve”) of overall scores.
  • Honest measurement: I was surprised to realize that without penalties for poor performance, it is impossible to see what makes an organization great.
  • Iterative benchmarking: We must reset the bar for Leader and Superstar status each year if we want it to mean anything.
  • Community: We predict that by allowing everyone a say in how reward levels are defined, more people will buy into the new system.
  • Information is Power: By creating an interactive model to understand what might happen and combining it with feedback from a community, we are shifting away what could be contentious and towards what could inspire stronger community.

We were inspired by what others at the World Bank and J-PAL did to give citizens more health choices in Uganda. What the “information is power” paper finds is that giving people a chance to speak up alone doesn’t yield better programs (the participatory approach). Neither does giving them information about the program alone (the transparency approach). What improves outcomes is a combination of a specific kind of information along with true agency – the power to change the very thing about a program that they believe isn’t working through their interpretation of the data.

The model I built can help each citizen of the GlobalGiving community see how a rule affects everyone else, and hence understand the implications of their choice, as well as predict how they will fare. If we infuse this information into a conversation about what the thresholds for Partner, Leader, Superstar ought to be each year (e.g. how much learning is enough?), this will put us in the “information is power” sweet spot – a rewards paradigm that maximizes organizational learning and capacity for the greatest number of our partners.

I predict that giving others this power (to predict and to set standards) will lead to a fairer set of rules for how learning is measured and rewards dolled out. It ain’t easy, but it is worthy of the effort.

#DeepDream’s Greatest Hits

Originally posted on Godel, Escher, Blog:

I wrote recently about Google’s “DeepDream” algorithm, which uses an Artificial Neural Network connected to itself to form a feedback loop that generates some pretty wild results. Since then, the trippy results of this algorithm has made its way into the bloodstream of the internet and gone fully viral. Happy to encourage some unbridled nerdiness, the Googlers turned around and completely open-sourced the code. Once the nerds got their teeth into it, #DeepDream (which has now been hashtagged) showed off what’s going on in the internet’s id. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of weird-looking puppies.

And scenes from Mad Max that resemble Hieronymus Bosch paintings

There are waytoomanyfantasticimages to showcase here, but I can’t help but include the monstrosity below.  If there’s ever an effective “Hey kids, maybe doing acid is a bad idea” campaign, it’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, as processed…

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