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…

View original 4 more words

Cloistered together: The illusion of racial diversity in neighborhoods

buying-rental-property-amazon-thumb-cover-240The following is an excerpt from my book, Before You Buy Rental Property: The ethical investor’s guide to buying a rental home:

Before you invest, you’ll need to think about how your favorite neighborhood will change in 20 years. Will there be a new shopping mall next door? Do you think the local shops will close because of a nearby superstore? Is crime getting better? Are the schools getting better? What about jobs? Have you thought about where your tenants are going to work? Why do you think the quality of life there is likely to improve? You don’t need to find them a job, but if there are no jobs nearby, they aren’t likely to sign a long-term lease.


This is a picture of the racial makeup of the neighborhood in Charlotte where I grew up as it changed from 2000 to 2010:

the illusion of racial integration

The darker the shade of blue, the more white the part of the neighborhood it is. The darkest shade is over 90% white according to the census. Little sugar creek forms a natural boundary down the middle of both maps, denoted by the solid white or blue line.

From 2000 to 2010, the whole map grew more racially diverse. But if you zoom in and study the map block by block, each block grew more racially homogenous.

In 2000, this was pretty much a white neighborhood on both sides of the creek. By 2010, blacks and Latinos made up nearly half of the neighborhoods on the left side of the creek, but the right side was still homogenous. It had gotten 10% more diverse on the right to 50% more diverse on the left side of the creek.

In 2015, home prices for the left and right sides of the creek differed by about $250,000. Crime was a much bigger problem on the left side. Schools were poorer on the left side. Economically speaking, the left side was the “wrong side of the tracks”, or creek, on every measure.

In my previous post, I explain that the current social science research finds that neighborhoods with more racial and economic diversity also have better growth prospects. Property values rise faster when communities are health.

So why did the increased diversity fail to yield an increase in property values?

There is no common ground or social meeting space in the middle of either neighborhood in the Charlotte map. Compare with this map of Northwest Washington, DC – where you find Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Shaw:


There are no highways, train tracks, rivers, creeks, or parks dividing these DC neighborhoods. And so racial makeup becomes more diverse and property values have increased. The people buying homes in the Charlotte case had a different attitude towards race. And they did precisely because those attitudes were never challenged by crossing paths with “the other” as would happen in a city with dense quarters, like Washington, DC. The “white flight” to the suburbs in Southern American cities served to calcify attitudes about the other.

What researchers found to be the case nationally – that diversity is associated with growing property values – played out in opposite directions in both the Charlotte and Washington examples. Where communities remain isolated, you find a neighborhood doesn’t blossom. Where they integrate around common meeting places, prosperity follow. For this reason, I would never invest in the area where I grew up in Charlotte today.

I would love to buy property in Northwest DC. In the middle of this DC map you find my church – All Souls Church. They fought for equal rights in the 1960s, set up fair housing enclaves in the 1970s and 1980s, and were the place where the DC mayor signed a marriage equality bill in 2013. Of course this church is not solely responsible for these communities coming together, but its presence is associated with many factors that make a community healthy. It is a proxy indicator of prosperous neighborhoods. The absence of common meeting grounds creates neighborhoods that are nothing more than ethnic cloisters.

The absence of a any facility or social institution that both communities share on the Charlotte map means it it likely that home prices will remain flat on both sides of the creek. People looking to move into a community with a healthy vibe will look elsewhere.

This is one example of the kinds of lessons I highlight in my book. How do you spot future prosperous neighborhoods that are “up and coming?” Study demographics and city plans and understand Gentrification’s effects on cities.

See also: Gentrification: solve for X

Why your home was probably worth more a hundred years ago

It will surprise you.


Homes usually don’t appreciate in real value, at least on average. Home prices rise and fall in cycles. Specific houses  and neighborhoods can become more attractive, but the average of all homes hasn’t increased. The exceptions to this rule (1980, 1987, 2007, 2013) are housing bubbles.

buying-rental-property-amazon-thumb-cover-240I explain how you can learn to predict which homes will increase in my book, Before You Buy Rental Property: The ethical investor’s guide to buying a rental home.

Investing in rental property is about growing equity and earning a monthly income once the house is paid off. You needn’t require the home to appreciate in value to succeed.

Thinking of property as an Investment

  • rental property income is a monthly dividend for owning a “stock”
  • the “stock” is the actual house, and a “stock portfolio” is a collection of properties.
  • stock price” is the potential sale price of that home.
  • renters paying a mortgage into equity is like an investor acquiring more shares of a stock each month.

How do property dividends compare with stock dividends? Look at the average quarterly dividend  for stocks since 1980 as a percent of return on investment:


Every dollar invested in stock in 2010 yielded 2 cents back each quarter of the year. Rental income tends to yield a similar percent to the owner after expenses. The yield is rarely better than stocks, but tends to be more reliable.

Stocks vs real estate: this isn’t a perfect apples to apples comparison. With stocks the amount of dividend cash you get depends on how many shares you own and how much per share the company pays out – typically in the $0.25 to $4.00 range quarterly. And stock prices range from $20 to $200 per share. But after all the math, property income yields a similar return.

So if houses are worth about as much as they were a century ago, after adjusting for inflation, what’s the advantage of buying property?


That’s the value of the property itself. Your house is a vault that your renter fills up each month by paying rent. And any improvements to the house are deductible “business expenses!”

It isn’t just homes – both income and property values have been pretty flat for decades. Did you know that if you earn under $50,000 per year, your real household income has been flat since the 1967?[i]


Paying a mortgage is really no different than putting your money into a non-interest bearing bank account, except that you get to deduct what you pay in interest from your tax bill. And there’s the benefit of putting that money into an account in the first place. If you rent, you’re putting that money into someone else’s bank account.

That wiggly red line at the bottom of the chart is the inflation adjusted value of the average American home from 1967 to 2015. It never rises more than 20 percent. Likewise, income for the bottom 50 percent of Americans has increased 20 percent at most.

How does real estate compare with stocks and mutual funds? It’s not as lucrative, but it is more reliable. Investments in the stock market have been quite a roller coaster:


Side by side, the stock market has grown 200% over the same time frame that homes grew 20%. Most of this growth really started in the 1990s when companies abandoned pensions in favor of 401k plans (which forces all employees to buy stocks), so it may not be sustainable indefinitely.

[i] Source:

See also: Gentrification: Solve for X

Gentrification: Solve for X.

buying-rental-property-amazon-thumb-cover-240Here are excerpts from my new book, Before You Buy Rental Property: The ethical investor’s guide to buying a rental home.

Historical Diversity

The United States is one of the more ethnically diverse populations, globally speaking. Here is the breakdown based on 2013 statistics:

White 77%
Hispanic or Latino 17%
Black or African American 13%
Asian 5.3%
American Indian, Alaska Native 1.2%
Hawaiian, Pacific Islander 0.2%
Two or more ethnic groups 0.4%

These proportions are even closer than they first appear. 15.1% of whites also identify themselves as Hispanics, leaving a mere 62.6% of the population in the “white European” category[ii]. Compare this with France, one of the more diverse countries in Europe:

White 87%
Hispanic or Latino 0%
Black African 3%
Asian 1%
North African 9%

You can see why America is called the melting pot. But in spite of our diversity, most neighborhoods are homogenous. Each group sticks to it’s own ethnic enclave and forms a dominant group within a few square blocks, while still remaining a minority group overall. This is New York City’s map of little Italys and little Bangladeshes:


New York City trends aside, most cities in the US have become less segregated since the 1970s. Sociologists use a “dissimilarity index” to measure how over- or underrepresented one ethnic group is in a neighborhood, compared to its proportion in the local population. When every neighborhood’s ethnic makeup matches that of the city as a whole, there is zero dissimilarity. All of the nation’s most segregated cities have become 12 to 40 percent less segregated in the last half century[iii]:


Both of these trends are happening simultaneously. Neighborhoods are getting more diverse as dissimilar groups choose to co-exist, and neighborhoods are continuing to remain “enclaves,” because similar ethnic or economic groups so often choose to live near people like themselves. The balance of these forces in each neighborhood determines whether diversity grows or recedes.

The best illustration of how personal choices transform whole neighborhoods comes from Mathmusician Vi Hart[iv] and “playables” programmer Nicky Case[v]. They published the “parable of the polygons” to illustrate the network effect of one harmless preference. Let’s say you have a neighborhood full of squares and triangles. Each person says, “I wanna move if less than a third of my neighbors are like me.” See what happens:



Every time you restart the scenario with a random assortment of polygons, playing this rule out (making every triangle or square happy) leads to a city of self-segregated, totally isolated square and triangle communities.


The lesson is that we cannot form community if we harbor rigid ideas about who our neighbors ought to be. We must meet and greet our neighbors and learn to feel more comfortable walking down a street with strangers of all colors, rich and poor, immigrant and native. In cities, young people with less money and fewer options are often the trailblazers integrating a community. They fill the “gaps” in the polygon map above.

Gentrification has as much to do with shifting economic classes as it does with ethnic groups.

Adding just a few non-white residents to an all-white neighborhood doesn’t make it “diverse” in practical terms. The psychological effects seen in the polygons game affect the first minority residents to move in. They’ll feel out of place until enough people move in to change the overall vibe.

So how do you define “enough” and “vibe?” This is the fuzziness that epitomizes the clash of perspectives on race and wealth in America. I define them based on the census makeup of that city. When a single dominant group (whites of European descent in the American case) is less than 70 percent, the other groups feel less “out of place” and start to do all sorts of good long-term investing in that place’s future. They join the PTA, vote in local elections, plant trees, start businesses, volunteer at the food bank, and pick up trash lying in the gutter. They plant roots. When it doesn’t feel like home, they engage less.[vi] The neighborhood doesn’t grow, and fails to evolve into a community.

The tricky problem is that whites see a few minorities move in and call that “progress.” And from their perspective, they are right. In 1960, a fifth of all census tracts had exactly ZERO black residents.[vii] Today, all tracts are somewhat integrated. But to the people moving in, this is just the beginning of progress. For them, a neighborhood with 90 percent white people is still a “white neighborhood.” It isn’t diverse until that fraction drops to around 70 percent. Counting from the other direction, a “black neighborhood” or “Hispanic neighborhood” is one with over 50 percent black or Latinos, respectively. Different groups have different comfort levels for co-existence with “the other,” making this difficult to nail down with a one-size-fits-all definition.

Gentrification is really the absence of a community

The real question is not who lives beside whom, but whether people from different backgrounds are forming a community. Triangles and squares have only one defining characteristic – race – and therefore is unsolvable. Real people have many facets to their identity. Similar income, culture, careers, tastes, and aspirations can give the problem sufficient dimensions to be solvable. Individuals form communities, rather than factions, when they make a conscious effort to be a part of everyone’s lives, not just the neighbors that look like them.

This is what I mean by “solve for X.” If we think about ourselves as more than just a racial or economic status, we can and should create communities. Every community we build will have a different solution to the equation, but they will all be healthier and wealthier.

Ethnic diversity is now correlated with faster home value appreciation. Neighborhoods with higher ethnic diversity — including Latinos, Asians, African Americans and others — experienced higher housing appreciation over the past decade[ix].

When gentrification is evil

If corporate developers focus exclusively on high income when they re-engineer a city neighborhood, tearing down public housing to put up expensive condos, they destroy community. They leave no poor people behind. Even people who live nearby the projects are forced to move, as the higher property values can double or triple their property tax burden overnight. This is evil.

Take this example of a demolished public housing project in Southeast Washington, DC called Barry Farm. This account comes from Truth-Out:[x]

One person pointed to boarded-up windows and doors of units that were no longer inhabited. “The government is purposely making these units uninhabitable,” she said. “It’s another tactic they’re using to move people off the property.”

Another resident said, “there’s been nothing effectively implemented in our communities to uplift people. We’ve got a lot of liquor stores and fast food places that are bad for our health. But we don’t have services that would help people in public housing maybe form a small business and hire people in the neighborhood. We have a lot of social service programs, which do help, but nothing that’s going to effectively deal with the issue of crime.”

After one resident moved in, she was recruited to join the city’s six-person planning development team – made up of two Barry Farm residents, two members of the DCHA and two people from the deputy mayor’s office. She ultimately quit after concluding they weren’t interested at all in her input and only wanted residents on the team to give the appearance of resident approval for development plans. She said, “In one instance, DCHA offered to pay residents $25 to fill out a survey with questions that, depending on the answer, could instantly disqualify people from public housing.”

“The government has divested in these places for so long that some of the people who live there actually start to believe that it needs to be shut down,” another said. Dominic Moulden, an organizer with the grass-roots organization One DC, agrees. “If anything is wrong with Barry Farms, it’s because the government didn’t take care of it.”

One economist found that stories of city governments divesting in poor, black neighborhoods like Barry Farm are the norm. Statistically, they are “representative” of trends across the country:

 In cities with a higher share of the population who have moved locally within the urban area in the last 5 years, there are significantly fewer community improvement organizations per capita. The organizations present spend less. This is true even after adjusting for differences between cities in the level of affluence, ability to pay (as measured by the average household income), the structure of the local housing market (as measured by the share of renters), and the level of local need (as measured by the poverty rate). There are only two variables that are statistically significant in every specification of the model: average household income and the measures for risk of displacement.

This underscores a central point: diversity is not the problem, but rather, community instability.

Conflating this trend in income with trends in diversity leads to misleading headlines. A recent Slate article claimed that “gentrification is just a myth:”

 “[The claim] that gentrification displaces poor people of color by well-off white people is so common that most people accept it as a fact of urban life. It’s not. Gentrification of this sort is actually rare…. In fact, so-called gentrifying neighborhoods appear to experience less displacement than non-gentrifying neighborhoods.”[xiii]

This statement does not conflict with the other findings. It affirms that forces which diversify communities also strengthen them, while others show that American cities are threatened when forces transform all the property in a neighborhood into homogenous units for similar-income dwellers. Plowing over and erecting seas of condos equals income segregation. And rising city-wide income does not benefit all peoples equally. In recent decades, among the American cities that grew the most, the economic benefits almost exclusively went to white populations. Black income grew little if at all.[xiv]

This book is not a how-to guide for “redevelopment.” I don’t advise “flipping a neighborhood,” but rather, “investing in a community.” The difference is aiming for continuity, so that ten or twenty years from now, the neighborhood is still diverse, and declassified, and growing in value. It is the only reliable way to achieve sustained growth of your investment.

Next: Why your home was probably worth more a hundred years ago.

[i] Note: If the 77.7 percent of Americans who self-identify as white, 15.1 percent of these are also Hispanic. For this reason and similar overlapping groups, the totals for this chart exceed 100%.




[vi] Economists have taken this phenomenon seriously as the core problem with gentrification.






Solar: the problem was never the technology

Planet Money has an excellent episode, 616: How solar got cheapI see a parallel here with the recent interest in listening to the world’s poor, citizen reporting, and “feedback loops” in general. Most people think it is about enabling conversations with new technology. But, like the solar panels story, I think it will be about rethinking the conversation and the context that makes it ultimately work.

Quick recap: In the podcast three things happened between 2009 and 2013 that changed the solar market:

  1. China flooded the market with cheap solar panels, because they oversubsidized production and to many companies jumped in. This caused legacy companies in USA, Japan, Germany, and Korea to be forced to cut costs and offer their products at competitive rates, or get out of the market. Most found they could sell a panel for $200 that used to cost $1000 without needing to fold. So the price resettled at $200 per panel.
  2. Financing changed: Companies like SolarCity will convert your home to solar for $110 a month if you sign a 20-year contract. They make money at this price point, and the homeowner saves 30-60% off their existing power bill. Now banks are “owning” solar panels and collateralized debt obligations on panel installations to finance this long-term savings.
  3. Marketing changed: Out is “this is the right thing to do for the environment!” and in is “this will save you money.” Also, they’re no longer talking about the long term return on investment. They’re provided immediate savings on day one, through financing.

What didn’t change: The Technology

I shared this with my team at KeystoneAccountability as an allegory for the feedback business. We are wrestling with the pressure to deliver community feedback to Ebola actors in Sierra Leone and Nepal earthquake recovery actors at lower cost. There’s a tendency to focus on better technology as the answer. I suspect it is more about financing, marketing, and process enhancements around existing technology.

One of them commented, “they [Planet Money] left out that panels have also became a lot more efficient in the last few years.” To this, I replied with some charts:

The efficiency of solar panels has increased every year, but no dramatic improvements have happened since 1996, and they are not projecting any breakthroughs this decade.


For comparison, this 20% increase in solar cell efficiency in the last half century is pretty small compared to the 10,000,000-fold increase in processor power: (note the logarithmic scale).


Solar has a theoretical maximum efficiency of 95% on Earth, and we’re hovering around 25% in 2015. But it turns out that we didn’t need to get much more efficient to make solar a viable alternative energy source. The cost of solar energy per Watt decreased dramatically starting in 2009 – when the Chinese flooded the market with cheap panels.


Thus, economics and not better technology has caused the price to plummet. This has the effect of making solar look like a more efficient technology, but the energy conversion efficiency hasn’t changed.

Only the way that people think about it and pay for it has changed!

Lessons for citizen listening projects:

  • Let’s stop focusing entirely on the technology. It’s there. It’s sufficient. Even paper surveys can support feedback loops, if needed.
  • Let’s focus more on “flooding the market” with the feedback equivalent of solar panels. This comes in many forms when the goal is to help citizens change their governments. You have the Arab Spring approach, or the Facebook Zero effect (free internet on phones for the poor enables more social change), or maybe some kind of citizen-advised-experts talking to governments (the GroundTruth model), or something else.
  • Market reliable and accurate citizen voice sources: If good, reliable information was coming in from many places and we can show that listening to citizens solves the problem, people will use it.
  • Different financing models: Right now these listening experiments happen slowly and rely on grants for funding, if they are funded at all. More often they’re volunteer led out of necessity, or use tons of micro-payments like Storytelling did in Kenya. What would a 20-year contract on citizen feedback look like for a government agency? Could we cost out the long term savings and deliver those benefits to the payer up front and recoup this cost over the life of a loan? The possibilities intrigue me.

Listen to that podcast!


Despite these impressive declines, the United States still has the highest prices where data is available for residential and commercial solar. US installed PV prices are more than double German prices for systems under 100 kW, and much higher than prices in the UK, Italy and France.

Obamacare stories


Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers decided to post an anti-Obama graphic on Facebook marking the five year anniversary of this “debacle:”anti-obamacare-cath-McMorris-propaganda

This backfired, as hundreds commented in protest and told their personal stories about how Obamacare has improved their lives. These are their stories:

Erika Dennis My whole family now has coverage. The ACA is the cause for this, I work in health care, I have seen the increase in covered patients first hand. The next step is universal coverage, this will truly lower costs and provide the best care. Cathy, you barely work, spend most of your time catering to special interests so you can be re-elected.. All while receiving a large wage and the best health insurance and care. Stop telling us how it doesn’t work while enjoying your tax payer funded care and life.
  • 77 Replies · 49 mins
Allan Massie Thanks to the ACA, my cousin was able to get affordable insurance despite her preexisting condition. So grateful.
  • 6 Replies · 4 hrs
Bink Olney It’s working fine – you and your Republican cohorts aren’t.
  • 13 Replies · 41 mins
Denise Foster Lockamy And now my daughter, diagnosed with MS at age 22, can have insurance. What do you plan to do with her?
  • 56 Replies · 3 hrs
Shar Van Winkle Obama Care saved us when my husband was unemployed and we couldn’t afford coverage. We might have been ruined without it. My husband could not have had the eye surgery needed after an accident. So grateful.
Janice Grounds With the ACA my partner is able to FINALLY get health insurance. She has severe arthitis….you know the kind that the wealthy golfer talks about helping with the magic of humera…only this medication is $$$$. She has lived with, worked with severe pain for years. Once she got the insurance, an MRI showed a huge tear in her hip….yep, this tear would catch and be so intensely painful she fell several times-twice breaking her wrist (which cost several thousand out of pocket). She was pulled overby our dog two weeks ago fracturing several ribs, ambulance, er, w nights in trauma ward…..imagining what this would have done without insurance??????? You sit on your high horse talking platitudes and right wing talking points. You and all the other flaming GOP “faith and family” hypocrites make me sick. If you truly believe this crap, you’re even worse. Thank yoy President Obama and Democrats for the Affordable Care Act .
  • 10 Replies · 43 mins
Steve Verhey My sister, a breast cancer survivor, couldn’t get health insurance, and now she has it. Thanks, Obama!
Justin Jensen It needs some tweaking, but is headed in the right direction… The affordable health care has allowed me and my son to have affordable insurance that we would not have been able to afford otherwise.
  • 1 Reply
Jennifer Holden My biggest problem with Obamacare: My partner and I no longer have health benefits from an employer, and the ACA has made health insurance more accessible and less expensive for us.Oh wait, that isn’t a problem!
Carla Carnegie I and my husband now have really truly affordable insurance. In the past 20 years, as small business owners, whatever any insurance company offered us as ‘affordable’ was not affordable in the least, and had pretty high deductibles. I have had nothing but praise for what we have now, and I am sure it could be made a little better with some tweaking, but compared to where we were without—there is no comparison.
  • 2 Replies · 1 hr
Earl Roney My wife is disabled and she could not leave her current plan that sucked, $40 Dr copays and no limit out of pocket and because of preexisting conditions couldn’t leave. Obama care gave us a plan through BC/BS $120.00 per month cheaper 3 times better, See More
  • 24 Replies · 1 hr
Melissa Kelly 5 years of not waking up in the middle of the might panicked that my child won’t ever be able to get health insurance thanks to a brain tumor at the age of 2. Thank God for Obamacare. Anyone who ever fought an insurance company for pediatric neurosurgery coverage knows there was NEVER a hassle-free system in place and Obamacare is light years better than what we had.
  • 10 Replies · 24 mins
Ryan Boddy My premiums have risen in the same amount as they had previous to the ACA and my coverage is better. Thanks Obama:)
  • 9 Replies · 3 hrs
Katy Killilea With Obamacare, my child with Type 1 diabetes can not be denied insurance.
  • 5 Replies · 1 hr
Dale Lindekugel Having looked through these comments it appears that the jury is in. I trust you’ll be changing your position in the face of the evidence.
  • 18 Replies · 1 hr
Gary Downing When someone asks you what good is Obama Care.. Tell them.. give them the numbers.. 16 Million Americans have health care… 76 Million now have preventive care.. and 129 MILLION AMERICANS WHO NEVER COULD GET HEALTH CARE NOW CAN.. On top of this See More
  • 22 Replies · 1 hr
Linda McHenry Why do you only want to hear the bad news? Tryjng to resurect another Bette?
  • 1 Reply
Justin Konrad My small business has been greatly benefited by the ACA; we’re able to offer our partners and staff less expensive and more comprehensive plans. Shame on you for lying and fearmongering about this for political gain.
  • 1 Reply
John M Moros I got insurance, I got a job, I have some dreams taking root…..I can honestly point to the failed republican horrendous, 1 percenter policies for the things that I have lost….I am a working man, not wealthy, and feel that we need another democrat in office if we are ever going to have a decent middle class again
  • 8 Replies · 53 mins
Benjamin Calvert I had to quit my job to take care of my father after he had a massive stroke. After my work insurance had to drop me, I applied and got health insurance in 15 minutes… Full coverage, no questions, and with all the stress I’m under now knowing that I have no co-pays and everything covered is the biggest relief. Explain yourself madam.
  • 2 Replies · 2 hrs

Shana Cuddy  I work in a bone marrow transplant unit at one of the top rated hospitals in the country. Although the ACA has had its problems, I have seen numerous patients get life saving transplants when previously they did not have insurance coverage, or they had sub par coverage that would not cover this service. I think it is wonderful that the ACA has allowed people not only to get this life saving procedure, but allowed them to get it at a top notch hospital where they will receive the best care possible.Our hospital, like many other health care organization, lobbied in favor of the ACA, and we are very happy that it has been implemented and allows us to save even more lives.

Karen Hawkins I have 3 cousins I am immediately aware of that can now buy insurance whereas they previously couldn’t. At my company, we have seen a very low increase of 4% per year in premiums per employee for the last 3 years, where the prior increased premiums ran 8-20% per year. No one has had to change plans or doctors. It’s all good.
  • 2 Replies · 5 hrs
Cathy Scott As the president of the board of directors for a local nonprofit childcare facility, we were spending upwards of $40k to insure 5 of our full time teachers (a benefit choice of range of options). We recently elected to get rid of this policy in order to free up those individuals to shop for their own healthcare plan on the exchanges. We now have more teachers covered than ever before and are able to reinvest that money into add’l salary and benefits for our employees. Win-win!!
  • 5 Replies · 2 hrs
Edina Meiners 5 years later I am finally getting treated for multiple sclerosis and no longer have nightmares about hospital bills! Thank you Obamacare!
Mark Griffin  I spent $60,000 dollars in five years on medical insurance and was looking at another $60,000 before I was eligible for medicare. That is more than I spent to own my house. I now pay $200 a month instead of $1,200 for exactly the same policy from the same company. I have recommended Obama care to over 30 friends and family who thank me every time they see me for taking the pressure off and giving them hope if somethimng went wrong. I just had a retinal surgery that would have cost $5,000 out of pocket…under Obamacare it was $50. Why don’t you Senators and Congress people who get Medical for life …even if you quit your job…want anyone else to have it?
Dawn Smith Health care is a human right. In my community I have seen people who could not go to a doctor or dentist for 10 years now able to go and get some treatment. If I had to pay a few dollars more myself it is worth it to be part of a country that doesn’t only have access to medical care for the wealthier people.
  • 2 Replies

Al Petterson I’m doing fine, I’ve got a good job I enjoy, I had insurance before the ACA, I still have insurance today; it hasn’t particularly helped nor hurt me. But millions of my fellow citizens didn’t have insurance, and now do. Only a sociopath would be angry about that.If the ACA had been in place fifteen years ago, I might well have been an entrepreneur – I’m well-educated and ambitious, I had ideas I was willing to pursue, I was willing to work hard and take chances. But I never even considered self-employment, because for my family, with mild to moderate health issues, covering insurance myself would have been prohibitively expensive. I made the right choice for my family given the circumstances, but if health insurance hadn’t been the factor it was, things might have gone quite differently. I might even have made a difference, in a significant industry. Or not – but I didn’t consider taking the chance, because of the pre-ACA state of health insurance in this country.

Someone in my position but fifteen years younger is now more likely to start his own business than I was. That’s *good news*, Congresswoman.

Like · Reply · 85 · 22 hrs · Edited
  • 3 Replies · 4 hrs
Chris Jacobson Your questions on the web page is set up to receive negative input. I’m a conservative, but this has been a god send for millions of people. Fix the problems and move on. Tell your republican boss (Mitch McConnell) to move on. And by the way, everything I read about his state is how much of a success ACA is!!
  • 1 Reply

Bart King My wife and I are both self-employed. Three years ago, we had extraordinarily expensive and substandard health insurance. With the ACA, we’ve enjoyed quality coverage at a reasonable price for the last two years. (And no, we don’t receive subsidies.)So Obamacare has been a complete success for our household.

  • 1 Reply
Rosie Lineham “Obamacare” saved my daughters life. She was in critical care for 4 days, and is a single mother of a 6 year old daughter. Now, she will never be denied insurance for a pre-existing condition thanks to The Affordable Care Act. We were born and raised in Washington State, and honestly, you are Washington’s Sarah Palin.
  • 6 Replies · 43 mins
Peter Rothbart My premiums went up, but if that’s what it takes to bring healthcare to millions of Americans who would otherwise be without coverage, then so be it.
Like · Reply · 76 · 11 hrs
  • 3 Replies · 29 mins
Peggy Munson Please stop saying you are proud to represent this district and the people. You do not have our best interest in mind. Anyone that is only interested in collecting fabricated horror stories and has shown no interest in improving the situation to help people is evil!

And now… disclosing Cathy’s handlers:

Is this a coincidence? Cathy McMorris Rodgers top campaign funding source are health care professionals. Data provided via the Chrome Greenhouse plugin, written by a teenager:


Godel Escher Bach: Tessera ex Machina

Marc Maxson:

Nick (author) is one of the guys I work with at GlobalGiving. You can see why it is so much fun. This what he does (and blogs about) on his DAY OFF. Imagine what he does when he’s on.

GlobalGiving is full of creative people dedicating to making the world a better place. Seriously. And I’m not just talking about the staff.


Originally posted on Godel, Escher, Blog:

My self imposed quota on this project is a minimum of one post per week: 12:00am sunday through 11:59pm on saturday. So far I’ve made every deadline, but I’ve been creeping closer and closer to midnight on saturday as I write these (it is currently 9:58pm). This week, I started to worry a bit that I wouldn’t make the cutoff, as saturday morning had arrived and I still hadn’t planned out what I’d write. Furthermore, it was my birthday, and Lauren had just passed her medical boards. To celebrate, we had plans to go to Rose’s Luxury, our favorite restaurant in the District, which doesn’t take reservations. As such, eating there requires a multiple hour-long investment in line-waiting that wouldn’t leave much time to blog about frivolities like podcasts and slinky bracelets.

The literary term for what happened next is Deus ex Machina, literally, “God from the…

View original 408 more words


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