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, ebolastories.wordpress.com 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 (w3.org), 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('http://wp.me/plX0C-1qp') #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 www.storylearning.org. 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!

Creating a book cover for kindle

I just published a 140 page ebook on Amazon called Ebola: Local voices, hard facts. Now there are a LOT of other books about ebola on Amazon. I needed a catchy cover to compete with all of these. As soon as you see what the competition looks like -book-coverwise- I think you’ll agree it shouldn’t be too hard to create one that stands out. After all, none of these other books seem to feature stories and interviews with the people directly affected by Ebola in West Africa.

First 40 book covers on Amazon when searching for “ebola” books

kindle-covers-1 kindle-covers-2 kindle-covers-5 kindle-covers-4 kindle-covers-3

The first result (top left) is the only one of this bunch that seems to be a non-fiction book I would read, with real research and an aversion to fear-based marketing. Half are fiction and the other half are end-of-the-world guides targetting the “prepper” community. The author of the top book, David Quammen, pulled a 120 page excerpt out of his much larger, older book on the emergence of new diseases, dressed it up, and republished it. It’s a clever trick – and clearly he’s selling a lot more copies this way.

In the same vein, I wanted my book to stand apart with a book cover that illustrates what it alone offers (among these ebooks) – people, voices, authentic perspectives, and an actual discourse on the disease with a non-apocalyptic tone.

My first iteration was inspired by an artist I found on eboladeeply.com while researching my book. I contacted the artist and incorporated one frame from her comic strip about ebola:


But it didn’t quite capture the feeling. The spacing was awkward. The title didn’t stand out. The cartoon made it feel, well, cartoonish. I loved this as art, but it wasn’t working on a cover. It didn’t send the message I wanted to send to my prospective reader. So I started over.

My next draft aimed to incorporate actual faces of the people in the book, or face like those described in the book:


One good thing about this is that the faces emphasize this is non-fiction, with real life sources. The light yellow/cream color burst really helped this look like a book with an image and words connected, and not some piece of junk (I tried white background before). I thought I’d nailed it and went to bed.

The next morning I still wasn’t satisfied. I looked at the revised book cover and it was too symmetrical. My wife thought the font wasn’t professional enough. And there is just too much border junk and unimportant words around the edges. I’m not well known as an author, so my name should be tiny. It was too busy. I started over a third time.

I read a blog on creating your ebook cover and this section gave me an AHA! moment:

Layout: Don’t Be Afraid of white space

On the design below, the right design is the final design design, but a designer worried about not using all the space might do something similar to the left or middle. I’ll let you make up you mind which has the most style and sets the best mood for a short story.

I spent hours on google image search looking for a picture that fit my title. Two images stood out as possibilities:


This is Pearlina (featured in the book) from Katie Meyler’s blog about MoreThanMe’s work in Libera at racingheartblog.tumblr.com.cover-maybe-13

And this one captures the reality – this is both a medical crisis and a family crisis.

I wanted something simpler, more personal. A single face:



I faded Pearlina’s face into a silhouette because I didn’t want her to be singled out as the poster child for ebola. She never got the disease, but was put in isolation. For the other image, I could never get it quite right. Looked like a photoshop job.

So I combined this with my previous iteration of faces, and I’m sticking with this for now. Combining pearlina with the vertical spread of photos sends a clear message that this is personal, authentic storytelling from the place where Ebola is actually affecting lives:

ebola-book-widgetIf you are trying to create your own book cover for Amazon kindle, I suggest these steps:

  1. Search Amazon for other books that will appear beside your own book. Study them. Be sure not to copy them, but think of what your book has that other books don’t. Emphasize that aspect in the cover and the summary. You only need to beat out the books that are similar to your book to get a sale.
  2. Keep your cover simple. Make a mock up in PAINT – a free built-in program on windows machines – and stare at your version. If you use cover art, use something that fits your title. You can use an image but it may work better modify the image to obscure and iconify it.
  3. Be sure you have permission or check that it is a public domain / creative commons image. I contacted the artist for my first cover about reprinting, and I contacted the blog owner who posted the images I used in the second draft. Google images are not always well sourced, but try your best. Some photo licenses allow you to reuse a photo if you drastically modify it to where it doesn’t look like the original.
  4. Don’t be afraid to start over. Move things around. Change colors, fonts, sizes. Try making your text very small except for one or two words you want to draw the reader to. In my case, the one word is obviously “ebola” in every draft.
  5. Use Pixlr.com if you don’t have a fancy graphics editor. It does the job. You can upload your images, turn them into layers (like photoshop) and apply filters to transform your images. These were all made on pixlr, after I found a good starting image online.
  6. Amazon has a free online book cover editor, but it is pretty limited and turns out covers that look like all the other ebook covers on amazon. I think it is better to make your own elsewhere just to stand out.
  7. Don’t center everything. Use the edge of the image to intrigue your viewer. Show half a face, or half a word.
  8. Make sure any face on your cover has strong direct eye contact. Research shows this makes a difference if you want to make an emotional connection.
  9. Another more complicated design I tried on a previous book used Pixlr to fade three images into one cover (like your typical suspense novel) — an old man, a child soldier, and fire in a village:


It’s not awarding winning work, but it does fit the genre better than anything I could create with Amazon’s cover making tool. I spent a while looking for the right old man face, and here I’d like to look further – even asking one old man I knew from Gambia to send me a photo to use. With the fading, you can obscure people until they are pretty much anonymous.

Last – give a new artist a chance. I worked with a teenager who wanted to try making covers for a while on this project. It took 6 weeks to write 140 pages, but she didn’t come through with a cover that would work. I wasn’t able to advise her on what to draw. Still, I’m hopeful I can use her art on my next book cover.




True narratives are rare in the nonprofit world

Lately everybody has been talking about speaking more through “story” and less through “reports.” Google search confirms this recent trend:


But before the bandwagon leaves, I think it is important to point out that for all this talk, stories and narratives are still quite rare. It makes me wonder what people are really saying in words, and whether we know how to tell stories like we think we do.


The evidence

This week I wrote an algorithm that scans huge amounts of text for actual narratives buried within – the story under the headlines. The rules about what defines a “narrative” from other writing aren’t super sophisticated. It needs to have a consistent story point of view, such as first-person-singular. It needs to be mostly letters and not symbols, and must be long enough. And it needs to contains at least some words that narratives often contain. Some mix of emotional words, time-space relationship chronology words, reflection words and so forth is enough to trigger a match for my algorithm.

By just imposing these basic restrictions (and allowing a little fuzziness in the ‘consistent point of view’ rule) to my test collections reveals that true narratives are very rare in the nonprofit world. Despite all this talk about ‘story’ being a great marketing tactic, 99 and a 1/2 percent of reports don’t pass the test. And when citizens get to talk about their needs in a story, over 99 percent focus on telling people what they need without showing others the why through stories.

Results of the filter:

  • Only 13 of first 10,000 stories in the http://storylearning.org/search/ collection qualify as strict narratives (0.13%).
  • Only 3 of the 641 GlobalGiving project reports from 2014 that received donations qualify (0.46%).
  • Only 144 of all 29,908 project reports qualify (0.48%).

So it seems that this kind of narrative is not only rare, but also has not measurable effect on whether people donate money after reading it. The percent of reports that have a narrative within it are the same for both the group that raised money and the group that didn’t (0.46% vs 048%).

What I really want to use this for is to find case studies that exist on the web, pull them down, and build a new body of knowledge about what nonprofits have talked about over the years. The filter allows me to change this form an ‘opt-in’ process to an automatic one. In the future, if you wrote a report and published it anywhere, regardless of whether you promoted it, my computer will find it and add it to the collection.

Examples of what the filter found:

From a project report: (POV: third person singular)

“Due to her socio- economic Minaz had to quit studies but due to her interest in computer she joined the course her family was not happy with her decision, her father told her that doing a computer course wont give you a job then what is the use of learning it? But she was determined to learn the course. One day she went to a nearby balghar(preschool) where she met  women development coordinator Zaheeda Shaikh , she asked her about her education and family background. Looking at her enthusiasm and determination Zaheeda offered her a computer teacher’s post at her center.”

From storytelling collection: (POV: first person plural)

“In March last year a woman told us from Bomi county how she was forcibly initiated into FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and had come to us seeking redress in this case involving two women who got her forcibly initiated into. We (West Point Women for Health and Development Organization) embraced her and decided we will help her by taking up the case of this sister because this was first of a kind in Liberia where a woman was willing to speak out on FGM. The WPW took the woman to hospital along with her twins who are a boy and a girl, when the woman came to us along with her children we make sure they seek medical attention because at the time, we found them to be in a deplorable condition and needed immediate medical attention. We also make sure we got a medical document indicating that she indeed underwent the process of FGM.”

Project report with donations: (POV: first person plural)

“The meals at the soup kitchen are still being prepared by our kind and caring Mongolian lady cook and the meals that she serves makes that statement and in the voiced opinion of our beneficiaries as well. We have had five major medical outreach programs with a team of doctors and nurses seeing 35-40 patients from amongst our beneficiaries and doing very thorough detailed checkups for them. We have also gone through the heavy expense of digging up our pipes from the well to kitchen, as our water pipes froze during the winter months and we had carry our water from the well to the kitchen during the winter freeze.”

The soul of justice to a scientist versus a lawyer

your-vote-counts-buttonIn October, 2014 I spent a weekend in North Carolina helping with voter registration. I went down with a nonpartisan coalition of church groups. New laws restricted voting rights there for the working poor, students, and the elderly, erecting obstacles in their path. I’ve already explained the new face of Jim Crow elsewhere – how those in power are now using data and statistics to ease the onramp for some people while raising the drawbridge for others, so I won’t revisit that here. This is about how we fight injustice, how we choose the course of action, and what results we choose to measure. My experience this weekend sharpened for me the contrast between what a scientist sees and what a lawyer sees.

barber01The Reverend William Barber and his Moral Mondays movement inspired me to spend the weekend fighting voter discrimination. Reverend Barber is a passionate and impassioned pulpiteer with a sharp understanding of the battle between the few and the many, the strong and the week, of what makes evil Evil and good Good. Few alive today can fire up a congregation to go out and march for Justice like he can. In recent months over a thousand went to jail in protest against the new laws. In October the North Carolina state attorney general threw out the indictments as being unconstitutional.

Public Protests got people organized and moving, but internally we argued over what the next tactic should be for a broader, more geographically diverse coalition. As a scientist impassioned about civil rights and not about politics, I felt like an outsider. The lawyers and activists wanted to replace leaders through voting to achieve justice. Looking at things, I didn’t think we had the leverage to do that, and moreover, new leaders in a broken system would not ensure a plural democracy, no matter how good their intentions were.

In his sermon that weekend, Barber said he drew his inspiration from Father James Groppi – an Italian priest in 1960s Milwauki that organized African Americans to march every night for 200 nights for fair housing laws. And later, he led a thousand welfare mothers in a twelve-hour sit-in of the Wisconsin state house. Their arrests were later thrown out by a judge who said, “You can’t arrest people for sitting in their own house!” Protests led by those most affected forced those in power to change.

The Reverend Barber is the spiritual leader of the movement, but he doesn’t control the process. This coalition of church groups is dominated by shrewd political advisors who practice the party machine politics that propagate the part-time-representation problem that plagues American democracy more than any other in the rich world. Here more than in Australia, Japan, Germany, UK, or even India, elections are an exercise and subtraction, not addition:


The United States has the lowest election turnout rate of any modern democracy.

Only half the people vote in US midterm elections, so parties discount what the other half cares about and pander to the few. Politicians choose their constituents and run get-out-the-vote campaigns for their chosen people, rather than people choosing their politicians. This is what the “party machine” does, and it is antithetical to true democracy.

The people who DO vote have historically had more privilege and power than those who don’t, and this is still true today.
1788-to-2010-voting-rights-vs-turnout-ratesWhat you notice is that striking down the laws that bar people from voting does not actually increase the percent of the people who vote. Citizen engagement is stuck at 40-60 percent in America because, even with legal protection, the party machine shapes who is encouraged to vote. And at least in my lifetime, both political parties (and their machines) have pandered to a different quarter of the population and ignored the rest. A lawyer dreams of a country where laws are enforced to allow everyone an equal opportunity to vote. But to a scientist, no calculus of success can be defined by “access” alone. Everyone’s views must influence the country in an ‘opt-out’ system in order for 21st century democracy to work.

Democracy should be an ‘opt-out’ system, like in Australia and 10 other countries. Australia fines citizens up to $170 for NOT voting and has a 92% participation rate. US democracy has always been a ‘opt-in’ system, giving rights to those with the most power – originally land-owning Christian men over age 18, and no one else. If voting was created today, it would be based on all the preferences you express daily while using the internet and your ballot would be cast automatically unless you intervened to change it. Cameras and computers track every aspect of our lives already. They know what we do and will soon infer how we feel and what we believe. Better to have a government that represents the plurality of life’s emotions than the paucity of one single page of paper every two years. Last week when I voted I found that most people on the ballot had no website and left little trace of their views on the Internet – so I was voting blind for some of them. Facebook and LinkedIn’s algorithms would have better match me with candidates that reflect my values. But for the immediate future, we have to fight to fix the system we’re stuck with, and that fight requires an honest appraisal of whether our efforts were successful.

The coalition was tasked with finding work for the hundreds of volunteers that Reverend Barber and our local Minister Rob Hardies inspired. In February our church sent three bus loads of people (over 200 in all) to attend a weekend of protest, spiritual gatherings, and strategy discussion in NC. I believed we needed to be send people door to door in poor areas and talk directly with those most affected by the new laws. First we gather stories, then we use their accounts to design approaches for getting them valid IDs.

I know that getting a photo ID is not easy when you have only 10 vacation days a year, live paycheck to paycheck, and have an employer that would fire you for missing a day. The process took three visits for me and seven visits for my wife, and we already had a valid birth certificate and social security card. All told we wasted parts of 12 working days over six months to complete a name change and get new drivers licenses. Spending those 12 working days in government offices is a luxury poor people cannot afford. If you’re poor, you’re more likely to spend your precious few days off taking care of sick children or elderly parents or fighting for food stamps and healthcare, not a voter card. If, on the other hand, we ran an opt-out voting system like we run the census, the government would issue you a new, valid photo ID and verify you received it – free of charge – before imposing any new restrictions on voting.

Instead, the church groups opted for phone banking and a modest amount of door-to-door engagement. Houses and phone numbers were a ‘convenience sample’ pulled from inconsistent voters in Charlotte, NC. No one who was actually excluded from the system was part of the effort or on the list.

During a summer church meeting about the campaign many of the volunteers wanted to talk about their feeling that phone banking wasn’t reaching the right people. “I think I might have made 50 calls and only talked to 3 people,” one said. He wasn’t exaggerating. A recent PEW survey found that the number of people who respond to phone calls has been steadily dropping. It was around 36% in the mid 1990s, 18% in the 2000s, and is around 6% today. The trend is a straight line down based on PEW sampling every three years. So whereas cold calling lists of people to get out the vote worked 15 years ago, it has no leverage in 2014. 19 out of every 20 people will hang up on you or not answer, and those that do hear your voice are probably not going to listen.


Face to face meetings were also ineffective. Last month I knocked on 133 houses over 8 hours in one Charlotte neighborhood. I talked with dozens of people and got about 30 of them to fill out a pledge card to vote. We only signed 5 people up to vote, and 3 of these were people already signed up to vote but weren’t sure if their address was correct. Voters with a mismatch between their voter information and their photo ID will not be allowed to vote in 2016. Therefore we only definitively facilitated two people voting in the 2014 election. And even worse, I don’t believe we encountered a single person who would have been denied a vote for the reasons the Reverend Barber was preaching about. Nevertheless, the church leadership put on a good face and touted its success using vanity metrics, holding up a stack of 150 voter cards as success. This is faux success if none of those cards came from the people we aimed to serve.

To counter voter suppression, we need to find the oppressed and really listen to their stories. Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi both understood that social change begins with good documentation. Take this example:

In 1916 synthetic indigo made local indigo farms unprofitable, so the European planters extracted money from the Indian peasants. The English landlords,who had permanent leases on the land, offered the Indian peasants an out from the tinkathia system, but only if they paid higher rent. When they refused, the planters beat the peasants, placed them in prisons, stole cattle, looted houses, and prevented the peasants from entering and leaving their homes. The planters also imposed numerous illegal taxes on marriage, homes, oil-mills, or even collecting special taxes when the planter wanted extra money for personal uses.

In December 1916, Rajkumar Shukla, a Champaran farmer no longer able to stand the oppression, went to see Mahatma Gandhi at an Indian National Congress meeting. Shukla insisted that Gandhi move a resolution condemning the situation and treatment of Champaran tenant farmers. Gandhi declined by saying he could not give any opinion without having seen the condition with his own eyes. Instead, Gandhi promised to spend a day or two in Champaran during his tour of India.

After seeing the conditions himself, Gandhi concluded that courts would be slow and impractical. He led a very detailed study of the 2,841 villages in Champaran, an investigation of the conditions of the peasants. The European Commissioner advised Gandhi to leave the district, because governmental inquiries were being made already. Five days later, they arrested him, but the surveying went on. As members of his team were arrested, other outsiders took their place, continuing to interview peasants and document their grievances against the landlords.

Aggravated by Gandhi’s popularity and the way he stirred up the peasants, the European planters began a “poisonous agitation” against Gandhi, where they spread false reports and rumors about Gandhi and his co-workers. Gandhi sent information to the newspapers, but they were never published.

By June Gandhi’s team had recorded over 8,000 statements. They filed a petition, held meetings with between 10,000 and 30,000 people attending, and by October, the Government accepted their recommendations. By March 1918 the government enacted new Laws against the corrupt landowners.


They were accused of being outside agitators because their volunteers went where they were not wanted, took testimony, and broadcast to a global audience. The people whose rights were denied, whether in India or the Deep South, were not welcoming at first – nobody likes going into a fight – but joined and later led the movement by gathering stories from the affected. Storytelling – inclusive data gathering – launches a successful campaign.

When I tried to make my case about this to the leadership, I was cautioned that as an outsider I could only follow what the local leaders wanted. They would be in charge of the tactics, and they had told our church that they wanted people to make phone calls and go door to door. Here I disagree. As insiders or as outsiders, those of us lucky enough not to worry about securing our own voting rights have the power to listen and tell the stories of others, giving their words an audience. Instead, the 2014 election came and the people who will be sent away from the polls in 2016 remain faceless, voiceless.

After the election the leaders sent out an epilogue email to the group, excerpted here:

I want to thank you for your astonishing commitment… over 8000 calls… registered 186 new voters… But I know it is hard to feel good about that when the news stories suggest our work was in vain. Turnout sunk to dismal levels, particularly among the groups we reached out to who are most affected by voter suppression…

I can offer a few glimmers of hope…. In Mecklenburg County, more people voted in 2014 than in 2010. Another bright spot is the astonishing levels of participation in the Reeb Project…

That last part concerns me the most. When over 200 volunteers pool their resources to do thousands of hours of work and yield less than 200 new voters (60% of whom are not “new” in my case), we aren’t on a trajectory to change a system. And change will elude us until the people being suppressed have names and faces. We need to return to the drawing board and focus on storytelling, if we want to sustain this effort.

A scientist looks at data and measures against the end goal. A scientist wants more data, embracing storytelling as a means. A lawyer, on the other hand, wants to see large numbers of people involved in the fight, because numbers give them the greatest bargaining power in back room legislation. Our democracy has been dominated by this kind of lawmaking for too long, and it is time for scientists to step up and teach activists about data. Getting thousands of people to show up to a protest or make phone calls or knock on doors is not success. Getting people to vote who would have otherwise been denied is success. Converting our opt-in democracy to an opt-out democracy would be even greater success.

Along the way I realized I am passionate about protecting others’ right to vote, but am turned off by politics. Putting the “right” people in power will not fix things – not without a tested means of ensuring everyone’s opinion shapes future law whether they actively participate or not. Abroad I work on these systems to fix international aid by letting those affected give feedback. We need the same thing at home. I’ve lost faith in a pure political strategy because it still keeps the lawmaking behind closed doors, under control of yet more lawyers. The only solution is flipping the system to be ‘opt-out’ for all voters, so that the political process is about changing voters feelings and values, rather than convincing them to (not) show up to the pools.

If we don’t change, we’ll be no different from the demographic politics of Kenya. In 2010 I heard Kikuyu leaders telling their tribal supporters to have more children so “we can be more people and win elections.” If the only way you can grow is to grow more people like yourself, your ideas have no merit, and you deserve to lose elections. It is an observed fact that opt-in elections put more extremists in power, and it gives all leaders the power to do whatever they please without any real threat of being thrown out. An opt-out voting system driven by algorithms that mine what people really think and feel every day would sooner elect a good third party candidate than give your vote to whomever has the most money. At least that’s how this scientist sees it.

Designs on Systematic Listening

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

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


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

whole bull planning process

Story-centered Learning Designs

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

If the goal is a needs assessment, do community mapping

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

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

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

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

Blogs on VAP forming a “case study”:

Mrembo Program

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

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

Kibera meeting and Kibera follow-up. Map Kibera project

Kakamega and Western Kenya



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Add survey questions

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

Hierarchy of needs

Which of these relate to your story?
Choose three.

Freedom |  Fun

Knowledge | Respect |  Creativity | Self-esteem |

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

Root causes

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

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

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

What else would have made a difference in your story?

Power relationships and social hierarchy

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

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

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

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

The actions people took | The way people felt

Ask beneficiaries two stories

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

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

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

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

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

Trigger conflict narratives

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


These tools live on storylearning.org.

What next?

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

Part I: Null hypotheses in international development


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