The subsidy vending machine

By one estimate, the US government spends more on subsidies to oil companies ($52B) than they do in non-military foreign aid to the entire rest of the world ($32B).

vendingThis must have been on my mind when last last night, in a dream, I found this vending machine on the street. Inside were all sorts of useful items. There were LED lanterns on the bottom shelf, microwave dinners on the next, bottles of pills on the next, voucher cards further up, and on the top shelf were crisp twenty dollar bills.

“Hrmph!” I said. “Who would buy a twenty dollar bill from a vending machine!”

Then a man walked up, inserted his photo ID. The machine said, “Welcome!” and changed the pricing on everything. The twenty dollar bill was now selling for $15.00.

The man fumbled with bills and change for a while. He looked like a panhandler. He found $15 and put it in the machine and took out $20. At the same time, the machine dropped a bottle of pills for him to take. They looked like vitamins, but they could have been medication for a mental illness. He walked away content.

Subsidizing people, not things

I woke up amazed at the possibility of a subsidy vending machine. It is microfinance in a box, complete with a way to track each user’s behavior and provide different incentives to each person who walks up. The machine probably matched the photo ID to their tax records to see whether they qualified. I could imagine this being used to incentivize parolees to check in regularly – because they get a rebate or discount on an item.

The subsidy vending machine teaches people how to save money and plan for the future.

That’s the secret to fighting poverty. International development aid fails when it just hands out twenty dollar bills indiscriminately, and fails even more when the World Bank takes all the money in the machine and hands it to the richest person, relying on this “leader” to build its own vending machine for the rest. Throughout history, rich people have exploited poor people. That’s why their great grandchildren are rich. We forget this because the American experience is an exception to the rule. But in Feudal Europe, Russia, Asia, colonial South America, and Africa, rich people in power exploited poor people without power. Many are still doing it today. They deserve nothing from the subsidy machine.

Giving subsidies to the richest corporations in the world is no better. Most of the top ten most profitable corporations are oil companies. They are also among the most heavily subsidized companies. They exploit tax payers when they lobby for support that comes from citizens. If the US wanted to keep gas prices low, they should instead give consumers a subsidy.

On the opposite end, our greatest successes in aid have come from matching $10 saved with $10 from elsewhere, or investing in a community when a community invests in itself. This literal vending machine idea would make a wonderful kickstarter, because as simple as it is, its flaws are fewer than other approaches.

Why the poor don’t speak up

Katie Meyler has been telling stories of how the people of West Point slum in Monrovia, Liberia overcame Ebola:


This little girl and her brother and sister lost their parents. The auntie is asking me to help her by taking the kids. I asked her, “If someone helped you support and empower her, would you could feel happy raising your sister’s children?”

“Of course!” She said.

rebecca tells me she is scared aug 2014 racingheart

Rebecca tells me she has symptoms and is scared. I took my gloves off and let my hair down because I was leaving for the day. I wasn’t scared, because she looked strong. We are bringing her meds and will keep a close eye on her. Obviously this is agonizing but we are doing all we can. Please pray for Rebecca with me.


I talked to local medical staff about serving West Point. Everyone I met was really lovely. There were 20 or 30 body bags with deceased people inside. I was scared but also at peace. This place has things under control.


Community leaders made the rounds in West Point and found 45 sick people in the areas they were able to check. Unfortunately, all of the clinics are at capacity and not able to receive people.

These are stories of people trying to be resilient in the absence of any real government help. These slum dwellers had only two options if they wanted to survive: wait for the Powers to come save them, or become self-reliant. Resilience won, because they were used to being ignored. And while the medicine, supplies, and training were delivered by non-governmental groups like MoreThanMe, the people running the ambulances, screening citizens, and handing out the food were community members. The community saved itself. It illustrates a larger truism that we keep denying: Only the Poor can end poverty. Allow me to explain why.

First, a little more of my backstory. My job for the past few years was figuring out how to give Voice to the Poor. I ran an East African storytelling project with GlobalGiving from 2010 to 2013. It showed that the Poor clearly were the “experts” on what they needed, and knew how their governments could solve big problems. But my straightforward approach – collect their first-hand testimony and present it to those in power – wasn’t enough. Why? Because governments and international agencies are not built for listening. They have no effective mechanisms to redress complaints. They don’t give local leaders and local solutions a fair hearing.

Most people are eager to speak up at first, but experience teaches them that Power doesn’t care about the Poor. If they complain about a program, the donors too-often go elsewhere and start over, leaving those people with nothing. Spurned and punished for their participation, they don’t speak out.

It is not just organizations. Governments and business have also taught the Poor to merely accept what is offered. Business offers the Poor jobs that sacrifice wages or safety through the unregulated markets of Globalization. Governments are “representative democracies” at best, not direct democracies. Few representatives really listen to the Poor. Power listens to Power. The Poor survive on what they get, and only take to the streets and assert their rights when hardship becomes unbearable.

But sometimes a community does come together and builds something. Ebola’s demise in 2015 is the story of local leaders rising out of the chaos and helping neighbors choose resilience over fatalistic resignation, as I profile in my book.

Their stories are often untold, because telling their story to outsiders doesn’t help them along the path of self-reliance or survival. A reporter swooping in to get the story gives the storyteller fresh hope that someone will save him. There are millions of international do-gooders in the world spending their lives in an effort to help the Poor. We live among the Poor. We listen to them. We share their stories with a broader audience. Sometime we raise awareness about an issue. Occasionally we inspire the Poor. But mostly we offer a twisted hope that keeps them off the path of self-reliance. We cannot end poverty for the Poor, only enable to Poor to lift themselves up.

In a famous letter from a law professor to his student, Bill Quigley writes:

“Many come to law school because they want to help the elderly, children, people with disabilities, victims of genocide, victims of racism, economic injustice, or religious persecution. Unfortunately, the experience of law school and the legal profession often dilute that commitment.”

It is a harsh lesson I keep learning over and over. Regardless of my tactic, Peace Corps, science, banking, or medicine, the end result only moves the Poor a few feet from where they once stood. No mix of skills or tools or toys may ever work if I am the one holding the chalk, the shovel, or the smart phone.

Singing “No one is coming to save us!”

Katie Meyler once said that things started getting better when the people of West Point slum starting singing “No one is coming to save us!” It was a turning point. They understood that local leaders were their best hope for survival. The people were finally taking charge of their own future. The narrative changed from being about the failure of outsiders to the success of the community. And when West Point slum’s death toll fell far short of projections in the months that followed, locals could look at each other and say with pride, “We did this ourselves!

This isn’t about outsiders abandoning the Poor, but about truly Serving the Poor.

But in our world, when stories like these are told by outsiders, the people who supply the materials take the credit. The bags of rice are stamped ‘US AID from the American People’.

CENTRAFRICA-UNREST-US-AIDThe medicines and the trucks and the soldiers all have branding. But the people remain anonymous because they are the community being helped. It is a false narrative to separate the helpers from the helped. Serving the Poor means being in the community, without identity.

Instead, the locals are given supporting roles, first in the narrative, and later in the power restructuring following success (during the elusive “project replication” phase that funders seek). The meeting rooms usually look like this (a bunch of acronyms working together):


Newsmakers and storytellers and politicians must unlearn bad habits. Every success story is, at its core, about people helping themselves. We outsiders are mere bystanders. But with hard work we can become true servants.

Take another example, this time from the 1960s US Civil Rights movement. One witness tells the story of the political parade that was the funeral for Rev. James Reeb, who was brutally murdered in Selma in 1965:

From the balcony I saw a sea of dignitaries clearly unrelated to the events in Selma. Many faiths had come to pay tribute in this memorial to James Reeb. Until Dr. Martin Luther King himself spoke, it is hard to imagine a more jumbled collection of prepared prayers and speeches rattled off in a patronizing way. It was ecclesiasticism at its worst. James Reeb’s death was described as the most monstrous example of brutality, when in fact it was one more instance in a long series. Men who had not taken the time to meet any young people praised them for their courage. The men and women who had come “thousands of miles” for the memorial were extolled. I thought that it was not too difficult to come and go in 24 hours and have the vicarious experience of heroism through singing a few freedom songs.


When King began to speak, however, it suddenly seemed right that we should all be there. Everyone moved a bit in his or her seat when King asked rhetorically,

“Who killed Jim Reeb?”

He answered: A few ignorant men. He then asked,

“What killed Jim Reeb?”

and answered: An irrelevant church, an indifferent clergy, an irresponsible political system, a corrupt law enforcement hierarchy, a timid federal government, and an uncommitted Negro population. He exhorted us to storm the bastions of segregation and see to it that the work Jim Reeb had started be continued so that the white South might come to terms with its conscience.

This account captures the movement as well as a pan-out to illustrate the circus around the movement. Power lives a circus life. I too had that experience and blogged about it.

So if local efforts do succeed, outsiders swoop in and take all the credit, and the Poor are pushed out of the limelight. Outsiders get promotions and the Poor find themselves only a few feet from where they began. Though nothing is won entirely without cooperation – and everything is at least partly enabled by those in Power – the distortion of who deserves credit is so large in the International Aid world that we’ve forgotten why it ever works at all. Everything starts because a community buys-in, and ultimately survives because a community takes ownership. We are just drifters and gamblers in their story.

Only the Poor can end poverty. But the rest of us can make that journey lighter. 

One way is by emulating organizations like MoreThenMe.


It was no accident we find them in the slum at the center of a strong network of relationships. Katie spent 9 years there working for the community as a humble servant. Then in December of 2014, Time Magazine anointed her “Person of the year.” Now she’s brunching with billionaires instead of begging for books. But it is the same Katie, doing the same work. Serving Pearlina and Rebecca and other girls who deserve to go to school. She is part of the community. She was amazing and unknown before; now she amazes a bigger audience with grace:


They did not invent the process of community-building. It has been known for thousands of years. It is explained in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War:

“Come among the people.

Live among them.

Work with that they have.

Build on what they know.

And when the work is finished, they will say,

‘we have done this ourselves!'”

There has never been a better credo for fighting poverty, nor a better description of resilience. There are many technical ways to stop Ebola, but underneath every successful strategy is an appetite to empower resilient communities in precisely the way that Katie has. She didn’t know much about Ebola, but she knew a whole lot about inspiring people and organizing groups.

This is the most important lesson in my Ebola book for how we deal with the next crisis. Local leaders exist in every community, but too often our international systems co-opt their power and authority, replacing them in a state of emergency instead of empowering them. The sooner we can get a community singing, “No one is coming to save us,” the sooner that community can come together to save itself. Only then – and only through pre-existing local relationships – can international help be effective. No one from the Red Cross, WHO, CDC, and US army can live Sun Tzu’s credo in every town that might face a disaster in the future, and so these institutions need thousands of local allies. Only local voices can sing the melody in the resilience song.

A pro-Poor environment

If we want to hear the Poor speaking up, we must give them space to lead. We can create mechanisms to connect local voices with better performance in foundations and government (Keystone Accountability’s mission). We can reign in our proxy-democracy and make it more direct through functional citizen feedback loops (FeedbackLabs’s mission). We can listen to the Poor and let them speak in their own words (GlobalGiving’s Storytelling Project). These are all steps on the path to prosperity, but they are not the whole path.

I offer a deeper dive into these issues in my book, Ebola: Local Voices, hard facts on Amazon.


Hack to convert your word document to kindle (with images)


Amazon Kindle is quite flexible. But my Ebola book had 82 images, and I wasn’t about to re-import each one using the [ Menu | Picture | Insert | From File… ] command that Amazon publishing requires. Instead, I converted it to a “web page” in HTML format and used a free editor called Notepad++ to hack all the images at once. It works everytime.

The 5 minute word doc hack for Kindle

Note: I tested this on Word 2000.


Save a copy of your ebook manuscript in HTML format.

Don’t throw away the old version – you’ll want to use the word doc to make edits in the future. The HTML version the copy for Amazon, but disposable afterwards.


Move the HTML file to the folder of the same name.

If your book was called “Cooking with Martha” then you’ll find a sub-folder wherever you saved it called, “Cooking with Martha” with all of your images.


Use notepad to remove the paths to your images in the HTML file.

notepad-plus-plus-iconNotepad++ is my favorite choice but Windows default ‘notepad’ editor will also work. Open your file. Search (Ctrl-F) for ‘src=”‘ and file the path to your images. It will be something like “./cooking with martha/image001.png”.

Next, press Ctrl-H to bulk-replace every instance of that path with nothing. It will look like this:


Note that spaces in your title are replaced with %20s. That means ‘space’ in HTML. Remove everything between the src=” and the image01.gif” part of the code. This is what causes your images to break when you upload a word document to Amazon. You’re almost done.


Add all the files in your sub-folder to a ZIP file and upload to Amazon.

Be sure to preview your book and confirm that the images are showing up. IF you get a box with an X in the middle, Amazon did not find the image. It should find the image if it was included in your zip file and the name matches what was in the html file exactly.

The next hack I recommend is making your table of contents link to the chapters in your book. The short version is that you can use Word’s built-in [ Insert | Table of Contents ] so long as the chapter titles are “heading 1” elements, and not just paragraphs with larger fonts. Instructions on that here.

Why two thirds of cancer cases are not preventable

The lead

One of the most significant Science papers on cancer came out this month (Jan 2015). It shows that regardless of all future discovery about the nature of cancer, 65 percent of all people who develop cancer do so simply because we age.

Cell division is imperfect. That’s part of life. It if were perfect, evolution could not occur, and we wouldn’t be here trying to cure cancer. It is an unfortunate side effect of the process that created us, and it cannot be “cured.”

The argument


Vogelstein and Cristian Tomasetti used a mathematical formula to explain the genesis of cancer. Here’s how it works: Take the number of cells in an organ, identify what percentage of them are long-lived stem cells, and determine how many times the stem cells divide. With every division, there’s a risk of a cancer-causing mutation in a daughter cell. Thus, Tomasetti and Vogelstein reasoned, the tissues that host the greatest number of stem cell divisions are those most vulnerable to cancer. When Tomasetti crunched the numbers and compared them with actual cancer statistics, they fell along a straight line on the chart.

The statistics

There was a good linear correlation with strength r=0.81. The square of the correlation (r2) is the amount of Y predicted by X . In this case, Y is the risk of getting cancer and X is the number of cell divisions of this tissue in your lifetime. This, they concluded that this theory explained two-thirds (65%) of all cancers:


There is a linear pearson correlation of r=0.81 with an r-squared of 0.65, meaning variation in this chart explains two-thirds of cancer risk.

There’s more to that collection of dots than just a trend line. Look again:


Some types of cancer appear to occur more often than expected due to our environment. The red lines show how elevated each type is, presumably by our habits and environment. For example, smokers and non-smokers both get lung cancer, but smokers are much more likely to get lung cancer by the length of the red line connecting the two dots. The non-smokers’ lung cancer risk falls along the trend line, as expected.

The green lines are a little less intuitive. Cancers that fall below the trend line appear less often than expected because some body process is working to remove tumors in these tissues as they appear. The intestine, duodenum, and colon constantly slough off tissue as food passes through the digestive tract, so maybe any fledgling cancers leave the body this way. Likewise, AML and CLL are types of leukemia – white blood cell cancers. And something about blood cells in fluid make this type of cancer less frequent than expected.

All the cancers with ‘osteo’ with them are huddled in the lower left – low risk and low cell division – because bone cells rarely divide.

All of these deviations from the trend line represent logical explanations and strategies for preventing cancer. They only add up to 35% of the total explanation. But they’ll account for 99% of all the TV news headlines about cancer. That’s the sad part. Headlines focus on all the small deviations from the trend line, and ignore the existing of this trend line all together.

The message

The good news is that you can reduce your lifetime risk of getting cancer by up to 35% by eating well, exercising, avoiding smoking and drugs, and having a positive attitude about life and death. But we are never going to prevent cancer the way we ended small pox and (until recently) measles. That would require reversing the ageing process entirely, which is generally a bad thing.

Fugueing around with Sufjan Stevens


My buddy Nick started a year-long blog to accompany his reading of the book Godel, Escher, Bach – an eternal braid – by Douglas Hofstadter.

In his effort to explore Bach’s fugues… he explains recursion and performed a Fugue.

recursive-beardnessHere is my attempt.

To get my head wrapped around Bach’s Fugues, I made a Fugue version of some Sufjan Stevens songs. This artist writes really interesting, melodic music with some sparse parts, making it easier to fugue.

The song: We are Night Zombies!! has a perfectly Fugueable opening line, it turns out. It even follows the rule, as the first four notes are the theme for the fugue.

Here is a link to the original song, along with my fugue version:

Play original version

Play original version of They are Night Zombies!!

America at the Crossroads (Complete MP3)

The Fugue of They are Night Zombies!!






The Fugue is a style of music composition with strict mathematical rules. I learned that these rules make creating harmonies easier. When I tried to write something in totally free form, it usually was harder to do.

Most of my efforts were failures. Banjo music with chords is very hard to Fugue, but one song with a clear opening melody did work.

Writing a piece with more than two “voices” in Fugue form was exceedingly difficult. Now I understand how amazing Bach was to write a fugue with six voices.

Only certain instruments were good for Fugue. Guitars and Banjos are harder because they use chords. You also need a musical theme that has some emptiness in it in order to leave space for more voices.

In this song I used all of these allowed transformations of the original musical theme:

  • Pitch shift (playing the same piece up a 5th of an octave)
  • Time shift (playing the same piece time-shifted against itself)
  • Tempo shift (slowing down or speeding up the theme against the original voice — both kinds of shift appear in it)

I could not manage to fit an inversion of the Fugue theme in here, though that is also allowed.

It was interesting that I could make reasonable chords with a pitch shift and change the song’s key.

The only tools I had available were copying pieces of the music using the Audacity MP3 editor.

I also remixed one of Sufjan Steven’s longer musical pieces (All Delighted People, 2010) into a shorter one that combines the best of both his published versions:

Play All Delighted People (hybrid remix)

Play All Delighted People (hybrid remix)


Images and memes of 2014

December-January 2014 Fast for Families starts a group hunger strike for immigration reform in front of the US Capital Building.

obama_fast_for_families dog-shark-octopus

The Sochi Olympics happenedsochi-toilet-rules angry mop

Kids get to buy pink Ouija boards pink ouija board

Human rights campaign becomes the meme of the year, as marriage equality wins over homophobia.marriage equality emergence australian earthworms

Looking for synonyms for… tuberculosis?

synonyms for autocomplete search

I started a second blog, to help others hear from ebola survivors in West Africa over the media noise.


Meanwhile, filmmakers in Nigeria release the worse ebola movie imaginable, and spread fear and misinformation while trying to make a buck.


In September 2014, America suddenly freaks out about Ebola. (Twitter activity below)

ebola hashtag map USA oct 4 2014

… and indicts all of Africa.


Africa is huge.


The media does its customary sloppy job of reporting and applauds itself for saying anything about Africa at all. Newspapers continue to count revenue as the only measure of “good journalism.”

we only care about white people with ebola

NGOs step up when the WHO fails. More than Me in Liberia gives people in West Point Slum, Monrovia hope and respect.


I write a book about ebola, from the local perspective.

pearlina-color-title-5 ebola-baby-4 ebola_liberia_2014_08_17

Violent extremism rises in Iraq in Syria as ISIS / ISIL becomes a country. And a girl in Pakistan gets the Nobel peace prize for fighting extremism by getting more girls into school

Electric cars finally get respect. Tesla motors gives away hundreds of its patents in order to grow the market of competitors (thereby making e-cars cooler than e-cigarettes)

What it s like to own a Tesla Model S   A cartoonist s review of his magical space car   The Oatmeal

E-cigs arrive, giving a whole new generation the chance to build their own personal brand of douchebaggery.

e-cig-douchebag e-cig-ad-douchebag

Yeah, sure. Let’s start smoking again.

In 2014 millions finally get healthcare because of Obamacare. And a few states successfully deny their citizens access to healthcare (Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Virginia, and Colorado see no gains despite millions of uninsured, while most of New England sees no change because everyone is already insured.)


But 1 in 5 in the South and most of Red State America remains uninsured in 2015.


While wealth inequality remains, some prosperity comes to the Midwest and Northeast but is denied to the South

USA doing better vs worse map

The Reverend William Barber starts his Moral Mondays movement.barber01

No long after, in another part of America, Black Lives Matter becomes the mantra.

BlackLivesMatter BLM_Photo_Collage unintended-murder-but-not-a-mistake


Google image search for “iconic image” in 2014 reveals this mix:iconic images

The Internet is almost 20 years old now, and one browser remains timeless.internet-explorer-sucks

Serial becomes a podcast phenomenon.

SERIAL_Podcast-board snl-parodies-the-popular-podcast

Memes propagate.

fabulous-llama-movie baboon-baby-zoo-butt-spank
My family prepares for its first child.

Pregnant Love

Happy 2015!

See 2013’s memes and images

See 2012’s memes and images

Ebola: How local voices are transforming our strategies

Chris Burman is an “action researcher” in South Africa. I admire his work and asked him to review my recent book, Ebola: Local Voices, hard facts.


(Now available in print or as a kindle ebook!)

Chris writes…

I came across the work of Marc Maxmeister some years ago while he was collecting stories in East Africa for Global Giving. As an action researcher I have been involved with a number of initiatives designed to highlight and emphasise the very powerful role that communities play in negotiating challenges such as HIV/AIDS in South Africa. I found this book to be a dynamic read because — all too often — the actions of the people directly affected by crisis are often erased, while the voices of the international experts are shouted out from the roof-tops. Maxmeister reminds us that both are relevant and that — in a perfect world — improved alignment between community and international efforts could have impacts that we have yet to imagine.

Ebola: Real Voices, Hard Facts takes us on a harrowing journey into the transformed realities of communities affected by Ebola in West Africa. Stories of resilience, suffering and the human spirit vividly illustrate the way in which communities respond at a time of crisis, regardless of the resources they have to hand. The detailed account of how real people navigate emotional trauma, health service provision and personal survival with good humour, tears and dedication to caring for their neighbours is a timely reminder of the role individuals, families and communities play in humanitarian disasters. Equally timely, is the reminder that all too often these voices are under-represented — if not marginalized — in decision making processes that directly affect their lived environment.

Maxmeister frames these firsthand accounts with a snap-shot overview of the ‘bigger picture’ beyond the world of the community which is both insightful and accessible for the reader.

The message these vivid accounts leave behind is the way in which the Ebola crisis has transformed lives and the way in which communities have responded, thus transforming the epidemic within diverse communities. It is not so much a story of crisis — it is more a number of stories, with different messages about transformation and the relevance of every voice in that process.


Standards Utopia or a Beautiful Soup Universe?

For years the UN has been funding an internal agency called UN Global Pulse to coordinate information flowing among all its member agencies. The UN organizational chart is daunting:


UN Global Pulse is charged with the task of managing data for all of these agencies, getting them to share data with each other, and ensuring that data supports decision-making.

UN Global Pulse recently released a report, A World That Counts: Mobilizing the data revolution for global development. It outlines their vision for how to solve the data problem within the UN and the development world.

A world that counts - UNGlobalPulse

How UN Global Pulse intends to fix the data problem:

  1. Develop a global consensus on principles and standards.
  2. Share technology and innovations for the common good: We propose to create a global “Network of Data Innovation Networks”, to bring together the organisations and experts in the field.
  3. New resources for capacity development: A new funding stream to support the data revolution for sustainable
    development should be endorsed at the “Third International Conference on Financing for Development”, in Addis Ababa in July 2015.
  4. Leadership for coordination and mobilisation: Start a “World Forum on Sustainable Development Data” and A “Global Users Forum for Data for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)” and Brokering key global public-private partnerships for data sharing.
  5. Exploit some quick wins on SDG data: Establishing a “SDGs data lab” to support the development of a first wave of SDG indicators, developing an SDG analysis and visualisation platform using the most advanced tools and features for exploring data, and building a dashboard from diverse data sources on ”the state of  the world”.

I think their plan is folly. Agreeing on a set of standards doesn’t actually lead to standardized content. More groups and meetings won’t necessarily lead to more coordination. And their description of a “quick win” under item #5 sounds like one of the more complex tasks the UN has ever undertaken. Fixing the measurement, analysis, and visualization problem is not a “quick win,” but rather – it’s the whole ball game.

Consider the Internet

The Internet is truly global, and we have both “common standards” and it’s antithesis – BeautifulSoup – to thank. HTML standards are set by W3C – world wide web consortium (, but they are not enforced, and often get ignored. Browsers and the programmers who must make web content understandable to billions of people decide what parts of the W3C standards matter. Microsoft’s IE browser interprets the same HTML pages somewhat differently from the rest (Chrome, Safari, Opera, Firefox). As a result, their share of the browser market shrinks every year. People don’t like the way IE interprets the Internet, so they switch browsers. The standards are suggestions, but heuristic codes (living inside browsers) define what the Internet actually looks like.

If the Internet is to be a model for international development, then the lesson is that smarter code, and not smarter standards, is the solution.

The people who define the rules are rarely the people who must fit the messy real-world content into software and websites for people to use. The gatekeepers are people like me, modest programmers with an immediate problem to solve and disdain for standards that slow down the work. I am aware of the current standard data format for international aid work, called IATI, but I generally ignore it. Practically none of the data *I NEED* is already in that format, and the format makes it harder to navigate the data than many other non-standard formats I use instead, such as JSON.

The Beautiful Soup approach

BeautifulSoup is a python module built for people like me. It parses non-standard HTML and even broken code with about a 98 percent success rate. This example reads the HTML of this blog post into a machine readable format:

from bs4 import BeautifulSoup
import requests
html = requests.get('') #this blog post!
soup = BeautifulSoup(html.text)
soup.findAll('p') #text of every paragraph of this blog in a list

Where standards have failed, BeautifulSoup prevails. Where people have been “doing their own thing” all over the Internet, BeautifulSoup is the Rosetta Stone for reading all HTML pages in every language, no exceptions. I suspect that all web browsers have a section of code that works the way BeautifulSoup does. Its philosophy is “try this, then if it fails, try the next thing, and so on.” It even contains a section called “UnicodeDammit” that exists because yet another standards-setting body failed to get uniform adoption of its rules. Unicode is the way that non-English characters are saved in documents and not lost. It can be a headache for programmers to read, and errors in encoding can lead to permanent data loss (unrecoverable gibberish). BeautifulSoup can sometimes read this gibberish using heuristics and a working knowledge of the most common errors that lead to gibberish in the first place.

I believe in BeautifulSoup. It works. I’m doubtful a UN agency can beat this approach. So if UN Global Pulse wants to make headway, they can write standards for data, but they will also need to invest in Beautiful Soup style solutions to the problem. These solutions include heuristic functionsgenetic algorithms, and web-content or legacy document restructuring. These approaches move us closer to the pythonic way of improving the lives of people around the world.

The future is quasi-unstructured data and the path looks Beautiful (Soup).


Going the extra mile help a soul in Nairobi

Today I received a compelling email from Nancy, who runs a program to help girls in Nairobi slums.

Life coices

I was thinking of telling you about an event we are hosting tomorrow – The Miss Mrembo Beauty Pageant / Football Tournament. This year we thought of taking it to another level with our Nitakomesha event. As my former Swahili student, you should translate this Marc.

(Nitakomesha means “to put an end to.”)


We are calling the whole community to put an end to defilement among adolescent girls.

We have invited 16 teams to participate in the procession which will mark the end of 16 days of activism against gender based violence. And as you know, December 10th is also world human rights day. 

Today we are giving out manila papers for participants to write their pledge in the fight against girls defilement. I am just about to write mine.

Parents too will be involved. We will stop at the local chief, who will address the participants. He will pledge on behalf of his office to also “komesha” (put an end) by ensuring defilers suspects are arrested.

The procession will end by both girls and boys playing football without a referee. We want them to learn how to work out differences with each other, and this approach leads to more discussion. VAP uses football to increase gender equality, social inclusion, build peace, and grow youth leaders. We can see the difference it makes.

Rape stories are still streaming in from our storytelling project. As an organization I feel we are obliged to do much more. We cannot read the stories again this year and afford to do less!

What Nancy doesn’t share often enough are the extreme measures she will go to in order to help people. She doesn’t seem to sleep. Recently, she sent us another 100 or so local stories (as images) to be transcribed into GlobalGiving’s storytelling collection. This collection has over 60,000 stories from 6 countries around the globe, and anyone can search for stories about anything at Barbara our transcriber caught one alarming story and immediately forwarded it to Nancy:


URGENT: please call and intervene!

See the first link in Nancy’s latest batch, story number 46
Actively talking about committing suicide.  14 yo male
[storyteller’s phone number]
Less than an hour later, Nancy replied:
Wow I missed on this one. Oh my, I have tried the whole day calling the number and it is out of order. The boy comes from [neighborhood]. From the story form it seems this happened in [his town]. I assume the boy has some relatives in Majengo and when he visited them that is when the whole story took place.
This means a lot to me as an individual and as an organization. I want to talk to him. My basic counseling education may be handy. I shared the story to our staff and we felt helpless. We want to reach out to the boy but his number is out of order and the schools are closed.*:( sad
Barbara thank you for reading our stories and alerting us on this.
Thank you for trying so hard.
 It is our obligation to serve the community. Together, it is no longer a drop in the ocean.
Nancy I am impressed with the swiftness this was acted on.  From the suburbs of Salt Lake City, to our nation’s capitol, to Kenya, three people worked quickly to attempt to help a little boy who needed a hand.   Thank you both for your speed in action.  I’m proud to be called a colleague.  :0)

I will keep on trying to call the number in the hope I might find him. I could try tracing his exact location or his name by the assistance of the police and safaricom (our mobile phone company) but then I would have to disclose the reason for the trace. The explanation would lead to disclosing his HIV status (his reason for contemplating suicide) – which is unethical.
It is little stories like these of trying to help one person that keep me from leaving the nonprofit world. I’m sure there are other greener pastures where I could have a bigger influence, do more good, work more efficiently, or make more money, but I’ll never find people with bigger hearts and a tireless dedication to giving back.
These are my nominees for GlobalGiving “employee of the year.” They embody the credo on our wall:

Always on.

Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat.

Committed to WOW.

Never settle.

After introducing our story-centered learning concept to hundreds of others, Nancy’s organization is the only one that has kept doing it year after year. She could do less, but something pushes her to go the extra mile. And Barbara has transcribed thousands of stories in 2014 practically for free. She helps because these stories are peoples’ voices, and she wants to ensure that every voice is heard by people who can help. When dozens of other organizations found it tedious to convert a story on paper into a story in a database (where shared learning can occur), Barbara stepped in and made it happen.

Mrembo’s girls’ football club take gold at local tournament


GivingTuesday and the coalition to end ebola

Today I gave to support More Than Me in Liberia, who is part of the Coalition to End Ebola.


The Coalition to End Ebola by More Than Me

The Coalition to End Ebola is a group of government, community, and NGO partners working together in Liberia to end the Ebola epidemic and stop the spread of the virus. The objectives of the coalition are simple: to provide information to communities about Ebola and coach them on prevention, identify the sick, treat the ill, bury the dead, reintegrate survivors, and support the families of the affected.
Katie Meyler, MTM, with MSF workers
I was honored to be able to tell part of their story in my book, now available via Amazon:

Ebola is one of the greatest threats modern society has ever faced, but not for the reasons you might have heard. It compels good people to do great things and not-so-good people to do horrible things. This is the story about resilient communities, strained systems, lawless nations, and individual people becoming leaders.

I wrote this book because I was appalled by all the misinformation. As a scientist and a non-profit analyst I could share both perspectives. I wanted to infuse facts with as much first-hand perspective as I could, letting the people who are battling Ebola in West Africa tell their own story. My life’s work has been a search for ways to let citizens speak for themselves about what they want and who is or is not giving it to them. Now, more than ever, someone needed to project their voices out above the noise.

Nonprofits need to tell this kind of story more often. It makes abstract concepts digestible to people who don’t want to talk about development economics. They just want to know why things got so bad, and what solutions we can offer. The second half is all about positive deviance, behavior change, agile / lean thinking, systems, countering corruption, technology, and most of all- how empathy makes our work possible.

After you donate on #givingTuesday I hope you’ll grab this book and tell others about it!


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