Tuesday, May 25, 2010

A thought about UNESCO and the Knowledge Society

I like to think of information as that which is transmitted from source to receiver, from person to person. Knowledge is an internalization of information. I know something or I do not. I may not understand or remember information that is provided to me.

UNESCO and the ITU held the World Summit on the Information society in the last decade. The International Telecommunications Union naturally focuses on information, for that is what is transmitted through telephone systems. I suggest that UNESCO also has a focus on information within its communications and information program, but the more important cross-cutting theme of UNESCO is knowledge.

UNESCO's flagship program, the education program, seeks to improve knowledge by helping people to learn. Interestingly, it also these days includes an emphasis on "information literacy", or the ability to judge the credibility of information and information sources.

UNESCO's science programs can be seen as promoting the global scientific system's ability to generate high quality information and the ability of that system to organize knowledge.

In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of UNESCO's culture program should be to promote cultural change that strengthens information and knowledge related institutions while fostering appropriate values and attitudes towards knowledge.

A key element of the overall program of UNESCO is to promote the improvement of knowledge in the societies of member states about the societies of other member states, and to do so in ways that promote peace.

Thus it seems to me that promotion of knowledge societies might be seen as a cross cutting priority of UNESCO -- an area in which synergies among its programs can and should be fostered.

Hans Rosling at World Bank: Open Data

Rosling is a world resource. I would agree with him except that he is so far ahead of me that my agreement would diminish his credibility.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

A great ICT application

Source: "Predictive Modeling Warns Drivers One Hour before Jams Occur," Mark Fischetti, Scientific American, June 2010

I quote:

Onboard navigation and mobile applications can tell drivers how to avoid traffic jams. Trouble is, most of the drivers are already on the road, perhaps already in the jam. But IBM is about to deploy a system that will predict traffic flow up to an hour before it occurs, giving travelers ample time to avoid trouble.

During pilot tests in Singapore, forecasts made across 500 urban locations accurately predicted traffic volume 85 to 93 percent of the time and vehicle speed 87 to 95 percent of the time. Similar results were achieved in Finland and on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Comment: As much as I hate traffic jams at home, I realize that they are much worse in the megalopolises that now exist and are growing in developing nations. While the cost of developing a traffic prediction system for Mexico City, Beijing or Cairo might he quite high, I bet it would be dwarfed by the amount of resources waisted in traffic jams.

Year ago I worked with a friend to develop a system to synchronize the traffic lights in Santiago, the largest city in Chile. We installed the system and tested it. For one day the traffic flowed in "green waves" down the main street in Santiago. Unfortunately, the city officials never updated the timing (which had to be done manually) and soon things were as congested as ever. Technology alone does not solve organizational problems!

Still, Microsoft will develop other applications of predictive modelling and they approach will be applied in some places. The congestion in places such as Bangkok and Sao Paulo may well be so bad that people will demand the technology be applied!

What will be the next revolutionary technology"

The industrial revolution was based on the steam engine, the use of coal rather than wood for fuel, mechanization of manufacturing, and the growth of the metals industries. Electification and the development of transportation systems based on the internal combustion engine, the oil economy, had huge economic effects starting in the first part of the 20th century.

I would suggest that the development of vaccines and pharmaceuticals had similar revolutionary impact, especially in the second half of the 20th century.

In my lifetime we have seen the Information Revolution based on advances in information and communications technologies. Biotechnology is having major impacts on agricultural and biomedical development and have major impacts on industrial processes. Nanotechnology has already been seen in the field of electronics and is likely likely to have many other positive impacts in other sectors.

I would guess that the next emergence of a revolutionary technology may be for a technology of thought. As in any revolutionary technology, there may be a variety of related manifestations. In the case of technologies of thought, I would expect one to be techniques, often medications, to reduce mental illnesses. Similarly, I would guess there will be a variety of pharmaceuticals which will enhance normal mental functions; indeed, I understand that the majority of college seniors today are using drugs to enhance their ability to study at critical moments in the school year and that the military is similarly developing use of drugs for critical combat situations. We are seeing a variety of applications of information and communication technologies to improve educational services, and I would hope that we will see an explosion of new and improved techniques to improve learning.

We have perhaps not so named them, but there are already many applications of information and communications technology which enhance human thinking ability. They enhance information gathering, data mining, and analytic capabilities. There should be a continued elaboration and extension of such applications.

It is increasingly recognized that Homo sapiens is a species that has evolved in communities and that we think and think better collectively. Social networking technologies are already enhancing our ability to think collectively, as is clearly the case with Wikipedia and the World Wide Web. The further application of technology to enhance collective cognition should be another part of the revolution in cognitive technologies.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

UNCTAD - Technology and Innovation Report 2010

This report focuses on the challenges of improving agricultural performance in Africa and the role of technology and innovation in raising agricultural production and incomes of all farmers, including smallholder farms. The report argues that the main challenge that lies ahead is one of strengthening the innovation capabilities of African agricultural systems in order to be able to successfully address poverty, improve food security and achieve broader economic growth and development.

Friday, May 21, 2010

From Bob Park's What's New


"On May 28, 585 B.C. the swath of a total solar eclipse passed over the Greek island of Miletus. The early Greek philosopher, Thales of Miletus, alone understood what was happening. The world's first recorded freethinker, Thales rejected all supernatural explanations, and used the occasion to state the first law of science: every observable effect has a physical cause. The 585 B.C. eclipse is now taken to mark the birth of science, and Thales is honored as the father.

"What troubles would be spared the world if the education of every child began with causality? We might, for example, have been spared the absurd cell phone/cancer myth."

Understanding quantitative relationships really helps in life!

Source: "Subprime borrowing and innumeracy / The fear of all sums: The role of mathematics in America’s housing bust," The Economist, May 13th 2010

I quote from the article:
Even accounting for a host of differences between people—including attitudes to risk, income levels and credit scores—those who fell behind on their mortgages were noticeably less numerate than those who kept up with their payments in the same overall circumstances. The least numerate fell behind about 25% of the time. For those who did best on the test, the number of payments they missed was almost 12%. A fifth of the least numerate group had been in foreclosure, but only 7% of those who were more numerically adept had.

Surprisingly, the least numerate were not making loan choices that differed much from their peers. They were about as likely to have a fixed-rate mortgage as the more numerically able. They did not borrow a larger share of their income. And loans were about the same fraction of the house’s value.
Here is the source research quoted in the article published by The Economist.

This is the first article I recall reading indicating that numeracy really makes a difference in ones success in real life. The link seems obvious, but not all that is obvious is true.

Engineering Degrees Awarded in the United States

The following graphs show that Bachelors degrees in engineering peaked in the mid 1980's, and masters and doctoral degrees a decade later. The rates have come back to earlier levels in the last decade, but the willingness of the country to slow down in training of technical people for so long a period is worrysome.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Thought About UNESCO's Future

The new Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, has announced three immediate priorities:
  1. Climate Change
  2. Dialog Among Cultures
  3. Culture, Heritage and Development
The 800 pound gorilla disrupting each of these areas is globalization. It is the shift of industrial production to developing nations that is the underlying factor preventing agreement between newly industrializing and post-industrial nations on the limitation of the production of greenhouse gases. It is the cause of the increasing interaction of different cultures which leads to friction and the need for dialog. It is the main vehicle for development bringing with it rapid cultural change and stress on cultural heritage and values.

UNESCO's program on intercultural dialog has been somewhat shaded by the UN Alliance of Civilizations program, in part because UNESCO failed to move sufficiently expeditiously and forcefully to promote dialog between Western and Islamic cultures, especially after 9/11. I suspect that while the West-Islamic culture clash has drawn our attention in the last decade, the coming decades will see other clashes arise as globalization continues. I can imagine that clashes between Western and Asian culture may occur as China and India play greater roles in the global society and economy. There might be clashes between Asia and Africa as Asian industries seek to penetrate African economies in the search for more and more raw materials. The East-West divide may become more demanding of international attention as the Russian economy grows.

UNESCO is a laboratory of ideas and a clearinghouse. It can provide a forum not only to promote understanding between civilizations in increasing contact due to globalization, but to predict the tensions that will arise and to prepare to ameliorate them by education and cultural diplomacy that will promote mutual understanding.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How should UNESCO manage promotion of both ethics and cultural diversity?

UNESCO has been called the conscience of the United Nations system. It has programs specifically focusing on Ethics and Human Rights, promoting ethical conduct and protection of those rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in the 1940s but it has taken decades to agree on the Conventions by which nations agree to establish laws to protect those rights and many countries (including the United States) have not ratified all those conventions. Not only do some governments have specific policies to limit or infringe on human rights, but there are serious debates about the universality of the rights set forth in the declaration. The religious freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration are examples of areas under discussion. Moreover, there are many ethical issues such as responsibility for environmental sustainability and the appropriate treatment of animals that are not "human rights" and are not universally agreed upon among peoples and nations.

UNESCO also is concerned with the promotion of cultural diversity and indeed has a program specifically chartered for that purpose. Last year it published a UNESCO World Report titledInvesting in Cultural Diversity and Intercultural Dialog.

To what degree should UNESCO's tolerance of cultural diversity be limited by its concern for ethical behavior? Should UNESCO militate against coercive governments that do not respect internationally agreed upon human rights of their subjects? Should it militate against religious leaders who call for sanctions against those expressing views which they feel to be sacrilegious? Should UNESCO seek cultural change in Africa to abolish female circumcision" Should UNESCO reject applications for recognition of bull fighting as an expression of Spanish culture because many people feel that the practice imposes ethically unacceptable pain and suffering to animals?

UNESCO's Director General, as a matter of policy, issues a public protest whenever a journalist is assassinated, calling for investigations of such killings. It offers a prize to recognize those reporters who place themselves in danger in order to report stories important to their audiences. On the other hand, UNESCO does not seem to have a comparable policy to publicly intervene to protect the human rights of scientists, nor does it seem to be prepared to intervene forcefully on behalf of educators and cultural leaders whose human rights are infringed upon.

UNESCO is construed as a laboratory and a clearinghouse for ideas, and perhaps it should promote discussion and debate on the intersection of the promotion of ethical behavior and respect for human rights with the development of cultural diversity policies. Yet the culture of UNESCO's governing bodies would seem such as to make such a course of action likely or even possible. Agreement among 58 representatives of member nations in the Executive Board or among the 193 delegations of member nations in the General Conference is fragile and is managed by a diplomatic process in which the most controversial issues are usually finessed or deferred. (The lesson of the debate on the New World Information Order which was not adequately contained and which is thought to have been a major reason for the withdrawal of two of UNESCO's largest donors may be germane here.) How can a body of nations including the worst offenders against human rights come to debate productively about efforts to protect human rights? How can a body of nations currently divided along cultural lines debate productively about the promotion of cultural changes which are needed to preserve human rights?

While the ideas expressed above are my own, I owe thanks to Ignacio Barrenechea for bringing the subject to my intention and helping to inform my thinking.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Clean your copier before you dispose of it!

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Check out Bracing Books

My old friend and colleague Noel Vietmeyer is making a number of books available via this website. Importantly among them are reports which he put together which were originally published by the National Academies Press on underutilized plant and animal resources of potential economic value in developing nations.

A thought about science and innovation for development

The United Nations Computer Center was established in the 1940s. I worked in computer centers in Chile as a Peace Corps volunteer in the mid 1960s, and I worked on a project seeking to introduce computers in health planning in Colombia in the early 1970s. We got the first personal computer in USAID in our office in 1981, and under a project I managed the National Academy of Sciences held a series of meetings and published a series of reports on the role of microcomputers in development in the 1980s. My contractors organized a meeting for USAID on internetworking of computers in 1991. There has been a similar long term development of telephony, including fiber optics and satellite communications and importantly the development of low-cost mobile phones utilizing micro-electronics and improved battery technology. The Information Revolution is far from over and the diffusion of existing technology to developing nations is far from complete. I suggest that it was important to start six decades ago to initiate the capacity in developing nations to participate in the Information Revolution half a century ago, even though the major benefits from that participation would be long in the coming.

In 1981 the National Academy of Sciences program that I managed held a major project on the applications of biotechnology to development, leading to the creation of a number of programs in USAID to support the development of biotechnology capacity in developing nations through the 1980s and 1990s. It seems clear that it is only now that the applications of biotechnology to improving agriculture and health technologies are really taking off -- that there will be decades of productive effort to develop and diffuse biotech based technologies for developing nations. Yet I believe that the work starting three decades ago to build the technology to appreciate and utilize (and regulate) biotechnology was important to the diffusion of the technology now and in the future.

In the early 1990s I helped create an online database on the applications of nanotechnology for developing countries. That technology is now developing quickly and applications are beginning to appear for developing nations. Like biotechnology, there are concerns specific to nanotechnology that require unique capacities to be created in developing nations, including the capacity to regulate the use of the technology.

Last week the USAID Science Advisor asked me what might be the next emerging technology with potential revolutionary potential for developing nations. My response -- the technology to improve our ability to think and to teach. That technology will emerge from neurobiology, cognitive science and indeed artificial intelligence and computer science. I believe now is the time to begin making small grants for exploratory research in these fields in developing nations, perhaps funding collaborative research with centers of excellence in these sciences in the United States and other developed nations.

Whenever the funding for early efforts to build capacity in an emerging technology in developing nations is discussed, the issue is raised as to how such investments can be justified when there are so many competing needs for adaptations and applications of existing technologies, not to mention direct aid to the poor. Yet without the early capacity building efforts, the life saving applications of the emerging technologies in developing nations will be delayed by years or decades. Indeed, even with the early capacity building efforts in information and communications technology there has been an enormous "digital divide". So too, there is a huge bio divide between the applications of biotechnology that could have been possible in developing countries and those which have in fact emerged.

At the least, there need to be small programs to fund research and development using new and emerging technologies in developing nations -- efforts which will build capacity by working in the fields, the best of available approaches.

Talk by Gordon Conway: Science and Innovation for Development

I attended a talk yesterday by Gordon Conway, former Science Advisor of DfID and former President of the Rockfeller Foundation. He spoke on his new book, Science and Innovation for Development. Al Watkins, the head of the Science, Technology and Innovation program of the World Bank, introduced the talk while describing efforts to increase the STI efforts of the Bank. Alex Dehgan, the new Science Advisor in USAID, also spoke describing the increased attention to science and innovation in that organization. All of this is great!

Yet I recall that there was a United Nations conference on science and technology in the 1960s that marked an increased international attention to science and technology, perhaps related to the enthusiasm for space technology generated worldwide by the space programs of the Soviet Union and the United States. I also recall the United Nations Conference on Science and Technology for Development in 1979 and the interest and enthusiasm for building scientific and technological capacity in developing nations that the conference represented. I recall the creation of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development in the 1990s, another landmark for global interest in the subject. Following each of these events, it seems to me that the initiatives failed and support for science and technology capacity building deteriorated.

Is there a difference this time? Will the new initiatives succeed where previous similar initiatives did not? Perhaps each of the preceding initiatives left a residue of increased capacity on which the current one can build. Certainly some countries -- India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Korea, Singapore, Thailand among others -- have worked very hard and successfully to create scientific and technological capacity over the decades. Certainly there is more global consensus that science based technology can be the most important motor for economic development, not to mention a necessary tool with which to approach global systems problems such as climate change, environmental deterioration, and endemic and epidemic diseases.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A thought about the change in American culture

Recall that that Vice President Chaney shot a companion in 2006. I bet Treasury Secretary Tim Gaithner is glad that dueling has gone out of favor since Vice President Burr shot and killed former Treasury Secretary Hamilton in 1804.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Video: Science as a way of knowing / Skepticism as a way of deferring knowing

Video: Science & Skepticism

Posted using ShareThis

Eugenie Scott, the Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education, discusses science as both a method and a body of knowledge obtained via that method, and as such as a way of knowing. She describes skepticism as a process of deferring judgement until adequate evidence allows reasonable certainty, and thus as a way of deferring knowing.

I found this useful, but also was annoyed by some of the simplifications. Especially:
  • A lot of science is simply observation and the recording and sharing of observations. Think of astronomy or systematic botany.
  • A lot of science is taxonomy -- grouping observations into classes based on similarity. While this is obvious in systematic biology, think of Newton. He had the great insight that the falling apple and the orbits of the planets were similar processes, to be explained by a common theory.
Dr. Scott stressed testing of hypotheses, which of course is also a very, very important aspect of science.

I might have stressed more the social construction of scientific knowledge than she did, recognizing that authoritative scientific knowledge is based on the sound functioning of the institutions created in science to warrant scientific statements.

Economic multiplication

In my history book club the other night we got talking about banks, which perform a kind of social magic. A few investors can loan out a lot more money than they invest by borrowing from depositors. Thus the paid in capital of a bank is only a few percent of the bank's loan portfolio. Of course, banks charge more interest on the loans that they make than they give on the money they borrow; the difference covers the risk of loans that they make not being paid back and the profits to the investors.

In the field of development economics it has become clear that one of the problems faced by poor people in poor countries is that they have their capital tied up in economically unproductive assets. Thus they may own a house, the land on which it is sits, and even some land used for agriculture. However, the system for land titling may be poor so that they can not prove that they own that property, the banking system may not serve them so that they can not mortgage that property, and the legal system may be inadequate to allow lenders to be sure that they can appropriate collateral if loans are in default.

In the United States one may own a house, a business and a car with only the investment of a small part of their total value, borrowing the rest of the value from banks. The paid in value generally provides lenders with the guarantee that they can retrieve the money that they loan. If the portfolio owned by the person is well chosen, the income and savings it generates will more than pay for the cost of the borrowed money. Of course, if one borrows unwisely to consume rather than invest, or to purchase property in a bubble only to see it depreciate to less than one owes on the property, one gets into financial trouble.

I suggest that there is a basic similarity between the social mechanism that allows banks to loan more than they have in paid in capital, and the social mechanism that allows individuals to buy more than they can pay for in cash. In both cases, with good management, borrowed funds can be used in such a way as to profit the borrower and produce economic benefits to society. And of course, in both cases unwise management can result in bankruptcy.

Nicholas Christakis: The hidden influence of social networks

My friend Julianne recommended this great video talk:

I have recently been reading about the creation of the U.S. Constitution, and been struck by the fact that individually the creators of the Constitution had a lot of crackpot ideas, but together they constructed a system that was capable of improvement over time and that has served the nation very well. This would seem to be an example of the good that can come out of social networking -- the theme of Christakis' talk.

I was also struck some years ago by Orhan Pamuk's thesis that Istanbul's population share a certain sadness and that in fact many cities are characterized by their own characteristic emotion -- an emotion that differs from city to city. Christakis' talk would seem to suggest ways that such a situation could develop, based on the genetics of the population and the social network of the city, as well as contingent on the history of that population.

It will be interesting to see how the changing global information infrastructure affects society. In the 20th century, mass media resulted in a very few people being connected by one-way channels of communications to very large numbers of people; those mass media networks were primarily constrained within national boundaries. The Internet now connects many people to relatively large numbers of others, often via two way channels. Think of email, social networks, blogging, etc.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Our concept of morality seems based on the genetic endowment of our species.

Source: "The Moral Life of Babies," Paul Bloom, The New York Times Magazine, May 3, 2010.

"Morality, then, is a synthesis of the biological and the cultural, of the unlearned, the discovered and the invented. Babies possess certain moral foundations — the capacity and willingness to judge the actions of others, some sense of justice, gut responses to altruism and nastiness. Regardless of how smart we are, if we didn’t start with this basic apparatus, we would be nothing more than amoral agents, ruthlessly driven to pursue our self-interest. But our capacities as babies are sharply limited. It is the insights of rational individuals that make a truly universal and unselfish morality something that our species can aspire to."

U.S. Employment in Science and Engineering Occupations reached 5.8 million in 2008

Source of table: NSF Infobrief

"The Washington-Arlington-Alexandria Metropolitan Division had the highest estimated number employed in S&E occupations, 244,950, followed by the New York-White Plains-Wayne Metropolitan Division with 208,210.[9] Due to their large workforces, three metropolitan areas with large numbers of workers in S&E occupations actually have proportions of workers in S&E occupations that are below the national average: the metropolitan divisions that include the central cities of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago."

We need a new kind of travel TV program

I am a fan of the travel shows on public broadcasting like those of Rick Steves and Rudy Maxa, but I would love to have series that would be directed to more serious travelers. They might be the television equivalent of the CIA World Factbook (or indeed a streaming video version of the Factbook). They would serve the business man planning a visit to a foreign country to explore business opportunities, or as the first step in the briefing of a diplomat or Peace Corps volunteer about to be assigned to a country.

Think about series of programs devoted to South American nations, the "stans" of Central Asia, East Africa or West Africa. What would an hour long program contain?
  • A brief historical statement of why the country exists in its current form.
  • The geography: where the country is on the globe, a map with major cities and views of the different ecological zones.
  • The population: How many people live in the country? What is the age distribution? How is the country divided among ethnic, religious and other groupings.
  • The economy: Is the country rich or poor? How extreme is the distribution of incomes? What are the chief products?
  • Politics: The form of government, levels of democracy, and political dynamics.
Instead of interviewing travel guides and chefs, the program would interview former Prime Ministers and university presidents.

I would hope there would be an audience interested in watching such series, and I think there might be a continuing market for DVDs or online versions of such documentaries.

Think about how much one could learn about the world spending an hour a night, weekdays, for a year, watching such a series!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Why future generations will suffer more than necessary

Der Spiegel has an interesting article on the failure of the Copenhagen climate summit last December. Basically, China, India, Brazil and South Africa stood fast against any targets for greenhouse gas emissions for developing nations; they would not reduce their rates of economic growth as would be necessary to achieve reasonable targets. Obama recognized that the U.S. people and Congress would not support an agreement that did not involve cuts from developing countries (recognizing his inability to get support if he agreed to such an treaty). So a target of two degrees of warming by the end of the century will almost surely not be met, sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, major agricultural dislocations will occur, and mass population migrations will be required.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


The practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.
Barack Obama

Can we stop worrying about Malthus?

My friend Charles Kenny has an article in the current Foreign Policy magazine in which he wrote that Thomas Malthus' "predictions have been wrong from the start." In spite of the billion people in the world who are hungry, Charles is right that it is still possible to feed the world's population and that resources should be sufficient to feed the world for decades to come. Why are we not now running out of food, according to the current ideas:
  • Population growth has abated. Birth control technology has improved greatly. People's desired family size has gone down, in part because improved quality of life and health care technology have increased survival rates.
  • Food production has increased radically, in part because of more land being used to produce food and in part because food production technology has been radically improved. More energy is being used to produce food, and food distribution has improved.
Importantly, policies and institutions to reduce population growth and increase food supplies have been introduced and strengthened worldwide.

Are there threats to the success in forestalling Malthusian famine? I would suggest that there are if we think in a time scale of generations or centuries.
  • Food supplies could fail to grow sufficiently. Agricultural research is lagging and there may be limits of plant productivity that we will find in the future. Energy supplies might fail to meet future needs. Environmental problems ranging from soil loss to climate change, from desertification to failure of water supplies might limit food production.
  • Population growth rates might increase again. The reduction of preferred family size could change on a global level, especially since the trends of the 20th century are relatively recent in terms of the history of the human race. So too, radical increases in life expectancy (reduced death rates at older ages) could result in both increasing dependency ratios and increased rates of population growth.
Perhaps most of concern would be a failure in policy. The policies used in reducing population growth have ranged from modest to the draconian Chinese policy of one child per family. If governments come to believe that the Malthusian prediction is unreal, or if policy fatigue were to set in, birth rates could again increase. Alternatively, policies that promote the increase of food production could fail, or policies to prevent environmental degradation reducing food production could fail.

Malthus had an important intuition some 200 years ago, albeit one that was far less than complete and was wrong in many details. Svante Arrhenius a century ago perceived that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas and its accumulation in the atmosphere could lead to global warming. His intuition, similar to that of Malthus, lead to a vast amount of research which greatly clarified the situation. The limitations of either man's foresight should not be confused with challenge to the fundamental insight.

There have been famines in the past, and indeed I am old enough to recall the time before the Asian Green Revolution when people discussed triage strategies to deal with Malthusian hunger. We can see signs of global warming in the sequence if very warm years in the past decade. I take these events to be indications of the need for strong policies to prevent worsening of global hunger and climate change over the long run. The fact that a century or two has passed without cataclysmic disaster does not mean that the need for good policies is over.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Esther Duflo: Social experiments to fight poverty

This talk is really worth watching, certainly for those interested in knowledge for development.

Duflo points out that case controlled studies can inform policy decisions on how to allocate resources to alleviate aspects of poverty, and does so with real data from her own field work. Far too much time and effort is spent on things that don't work, and consequently not enough is spent on the things that are really cost effective.


“Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his or her goals.”
Dorothy Height, quoted by Esther Brimmer

Six Questions You Should ask Before Donating Goods Overseas

Source: Saundra Schimmelpfennig, The Huffington Post, April 23, 2010.
  1. Is the donation appropriate for the local climate, culture, and religion?
  2. After a disaster, will an influx of donated goods clog the ports?
  3. Are the items actually needed?
  4. Are the goods available locally?
  5. Will the people receiving the goods be able to afford to fix or replace the donated item?
  6. Will donating this item do more harm than good?
I am no expert on disaster relief, but I was told how bad the situation was after a serious earthquake a few decades ago. Tons of stuff, all tax deductible for the donors, arrived and was never inventoried. People came and took away "surprise packages" of stuff.

Drugs came in by the ton, many expired and few linked to the specific needs of the population. There was little likelihood that it would be properly prescribed or even reasonably distributed.

Think about Katrina, and how much harder it is to deliver disaster relief well in countries that you don't know well, with corrupt governments, different languages, and uneducated populations.

Even money may not work, if it goes to the wrong intermediary.

I have a lot of respect for the experienced NGOs that really know the countries in which they provide disaster relief, and indeed in the government agencies such as the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Relief.

I also recognize that there a billions of people whose daily lives are disasters due to extreme poverty. Sometimes you can do more good donating to a good foreign assistance program than to a weak disaster relief program!

Why Predictions Fail

Rob Cosgrave has a useful post on his blog, Tertiary21, on why predictions fail. He cites six reasons why predictions of the evolution of (higher) education systems fail:
  1. Failure to account for economics as a key driver, rather than technology.
  2. Failure to consider human factors and rates of change.
  3. Predicting out of area of expertise
  4. Failure to account for changes out of area of expertise
  5. Wishful thinking.
  6. Predicting the Weather, not the Climate
I would add "anchoring", the tendency to be too conservative in projection of radical changes from the status quo. I don't know how many people predicted the growth of a number of very large open universities, but I suspect they were very few. Comparably, I suspect few people predicted much in advance that MIT would put its curricula freely available online.

Evidence that we evolved to learn from others

Source: Mairi Macleod, "To be the best, learn from the rest," The New Scientist, issue 2758.

The article examines a competition organized and run by Kevin Laland of the University of St Andrews, UK. He created a game of survival, taking place in a computer-generated world" and offered a tournament to produce the best learning strategies for the game with a €10,000 prize for the tournament winner.
Virtual agents would have the potential to acquire 100 possible behaviours, each with a different associated pay-off that would change over the course of the game. The pay-off represents the benefit an individual gains by performing a particular behaviour, its changing value reflecting the fact that information can become outdated as the environment changes......

Entrants to the tournament would start with 100 agents each, which would accumulate a repertoire of behaviours over their lifetime through learning. At every round of the game, each agent would have three options: innovation, in which they randomly acquired a new behaviour by individual learning; observation, in which they acquired a new behaviour by social learning; or exploitation, in which they used a previously learned behaviour and so gained its pay-off. The entrants had to devise a strategy that their agents would use to decide between these options. The challenge was to create the strategy that generated the most successful or "fittest" agents - a criterion measured by dividing an agent's accumulated pay-off value by the number of rounds it had survived.
The competition drew more than "100 entries submitted from a variety of academic disciplines, ranging from philosophy to computer science."
So what did they discover? It seems a successful strategy rests primarily on the amount of social learning involved, with the most successful agents spending almost all their learning time observing rather than innovating. However, avoiding spending too much time learning either socially or individually was just as important. "Between a tenth and a fifth of their life seemed to be the optimal range," says fellow organiser Luke Rendell, also from St Andrews University. "If they did more learning than that it seemed that life was just passing them by."
Read the published findings in Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1184719.

Comment: This is an interesting research approach, tapping social behavior of ICT literate experts to explore a complex space by simulation. I especially like the challenge with a relatively small prize (compared to the time spent by the many contestants to theorize and program their approaches. The result is not a scientific proof that it is smart to spend a lot of time learning from others and a lot of time living, but it adds evidence to our common sense (which of course is predicated on the way our brains evolved to work and our culture evolved to have us work).

Measuring the environment

There are a couple of articles in recent issues of Science magazine describing ambitious initiatives to improve our environmental information:

The Barometer of Life
This initiative would need to unite taxonomists, biogeographers, ecologists, conservationists, and amateur naturalists in a coordinated exploration of global biodiversity, with an emphasis on identifying which species are threatened. While the EOL will provide a Web page on every species, the barometer would compile conservation-related data on distributions, threats, and assessments of extinction risk on a subset of species broadly representative of biodiversity as a whole.
The National Ecological Observatory Network
(A) $434 million project funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will usher in a new era of large-scale environmental science. The project, called the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON), represents the most ambitious U.S. attempt to assess environmental change on a continental scale. Next month, NSF's oversight body, the National Science Board, is expected to give its final approval to NEON, and NSF has requested $20 million in its 2011 budget to begin construction.

Scientists divided the United States into 20 ecological domains. Three sites within each domain will be instrumented.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Knowledge, Rights and the Desire for Knowledge

I have been posting on the general topic of knowledge for development for some years now. I tend often to focus on knowledge for economic development. I believe that knowledge of resources, of how those resources can be used well to produce goods and services, and about the institutions involved in the economy can be used at all stages in economic development to increase productivity and improve the physical conditions of life.

It seems clear to me that knowledge can also be a key factor in political development. I think the American founding fathers had it right when they said that governments are instituted among men in order to secure their rights, and people need to know how better to do so, and how better to manage their governments. Knowledge is the key to good government policies, and that transparency that allows people to know about the actions of those with power helps to control the corruption that so negatively affects governance in so many societies.

I suggest that knowledge is also central to social and cultural development, and indeed a population in which knowledge is widely spread and valued seems to be an important index of social and cultural development.

I see the rights to create and share knowledge as being fundamental, and of course instrumental to development. Freedom of investigation and freedom of speech seem obviously both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable.

It seems to me that many people in many countries are willing to trade these freedoms for security. Of course, there are survival needs that take precedence over the desire for knowledge and freedom if survival is threatened. Does the starving man stop the search for food to have a stimulating conversation? However, people seem often willing to give up knowledge-related rights for comfort rather than survival.

Of course, rights to knowledge should be but often seem not to be combined with a thirst for knowledge. That thirst is a cultural trait, and the respect for cultural diversity would seem to be perverted if it is interpreted as a relativistic acceptance of passivity in the acquisition of knowledge.

Why do some cultures incorporate a thirst for knowledge -- think of Jewish or Hindu. Why has anti-intellectualism been characteristic of so many Americans for so long a time? How does one attack American black culture's too frequent attribution of a thirst for knowledge in its young members as selling out to the larger society? Why do schools so often dampen children's thirst for knowledge rather than reinforcing it?

Of course some answers are easy. The thirst for knowledge should be encouraged in the young, not discouraged. The knowledgeable and wise should be respected; those who acquire and utilize knowledge for development should be encouraged, not discouraged. Yet where do people start, especially in those societies in which the power elite have developed anti-knowledge policies and institutionalized anti-knowledge practices?

With half the world's population, some 3.5 billion people, living at the threshold of survival, how do you empower poor people in poor countries to want more knowledge?

Perhaps knowledge for development policies should be based on approaches which combine:
  • cultural approaches to increasing the thirst for knowledge
  • socio-economic approaches to giving people the luxury of searching for knowledge without endangering their very survival
  • political approaches to dis-empowering those who would deny their fellows access to knowledge or benefits from the utilization of the knowledge they acquire.