Scientific research is generating far more data than the average researcher can get through. Meanwhile, modern computing has yet to catch up with the superior discernment of the human eye. The solution? Enlist the help of citizen scientists. British astronomer and web developer Robert Simpson is part of the online platform Zooniverse, which lets more than one million volunteers from around the world lend a hand to a variety of projects — everything from mapping the Milky Way to hunting for exoplanets to counting elephants to identifying cancer cells — accelerating important research and making their own incredible discoveries along the way.
At TED2014, Simpson took us through a few of Zooniverse’s 20-plus projects (with more on the way), some of which have led to startling discoveries — including a planet with four suns. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.
Are you a scientist?
Well, I’m a distracted astronomer. Yes, I’m an astronomer at University of Oxford. But I’m there to create crowdsourcing projects where we put data — usually images, but sometimes videos or sound — online, and ask the public to do research tasks that we used to ask postgrads to do. This helps us go through lots and lots and lots of data very quickly — which means scientists are free to concentrate on the hard, analytical parts of the problem.
So you’re giving volunteers the grunt work, basically?
Yeah, but what’s weird is that people love it. And not only do they enjoy it, and engage with each other online, they make discoveries, too. That’s what’s so special about it. We don’t just get the scientists’ science done. We open up the possibility for everyone to start participating in creating their own science projects using data.
We have really sophisticated computers. What can the human eye detect that a machine can’t?
A lot. I mean, a lot. With Zooniverse’s original project, Galaxy Zoo – which asked volunteers to discern between spiral galaxies versus elliptical galaxies — that was something that computers really couldn’t do at the time. Actually, they still really can’t do it unless we use the human data that we’ve gathered to train them. The computer can get it right maybe 85 percent of the time. But the 15 percent where it fails are the most interesting objects. So the reason it fails is they’re weird, funny shapes or funny colors. There’s something about them that’s slightly abnormal. These are the objects people can identify that the computer can’t — and those are precisely the ones that are scientifically interesting. So by definition, the computer isn’t doing the bit we want it to do.
Examples of the different types of galaxies Zooniverse volunteers help categorize. Image: GalaxyZoo.org
Having said that, we’ve been able to train the computer to do a much better job based on the human answer, which is great news. But still, we want to ask for more — we want to cover weird, harder galaxies. So that project will just keep going, because people will always be looking at the harder set.
In another example, our project Planet Hunters has people looking through light curve data from stars, gathered using Kepler. So we stare at 150,000 stars, and watch the light from them. The whole point of doing this is to occasionally catch a planet passing in front of the star, and see a dip in light as it goes past. That dip can tell you how big the planet is, how often the planet’s going around the star, all sorts of stuff. You’ve just got to stare for long enough, and you’ve got to do it with a really, really, really good instrument.
Now, NASA and the Kepler team have used computer algorithms to look through this data for years, and they find lots of planets. But based on our experience with galaxies, we thought there must be stuff in this data that people will see that the computer can’t, because a computer is trained to look for certain things. It’s programmed by a person. Sure enough, we found planets that they didn’t find. And we found ones that are in weird, amazing configurations — some of which don’t make any physical sense — but they exist. For example, we found a planet in a seven-planet system around a sun-like star. That was an amazing discovery, because the more planets you have, the more crazy and chaotic all these dips get as they go back and forth.
TEDFellows Retreat 2013. August 17 – 21, 2013, Whistler, BC. Photo: Ryan Lash
Thinking about applying for the TED Fellowship? The clock is ticking down!
The TED Fellows program is a global network of 328 innovators from a spectrum of disciplines. Twice a year, we select 20 additional amazing change-makers to join the pack. Last year’s 2014 Fellowship class included an eye surgeon using low-cost mobile phone technology to make eye care more accessible across Kenya; photojournalists documenting conflicts in Palestine and Bosnia; a biological anthropologist researching cancer in ancient skeletal remains; a biomechatronics engineer innovating prosthetics; a journalist investigating the fragile post-9/11 civil liberties; an astrophysicist investigating the origins of our universe; a new media artist rethinking our right to our own DNA; a space archaeologist – and many more.
In this final 48-hour stretch before applications close for the TEDGlobal 2014 class of Fellows, we asked program director Tom Rielly: “What do you look for in a TED Fellow?” Here, he chats about the unique qualities that make TED Fellows stand out, his evolving vision for the Fellowship, and why YOU should apply immediately!
The TED Fellows come from a zillion different backgrounds and are experts in a vast diversity of fields. Yet they all seem to have a unique personality streak that lets them interact with incredibly kinetic energy, on an emotional as well as intellectual level. It’s hard to put into words, but how would you describe this quality?
I’ll take a stab: intellectual, energetic, social and emotional fluency. Pick at least two or three. Add a porous-membrane attitude to collaboration, genuine optimism – and a love for playing idea jazz alone and and in “bands.”
Twice a year, you’ve got to get through applications from what must be hundreds of extraordinary people. Give us the inside scoop: what are the initial factors that indicate someone will make it through the process, and what are some of the deciding factors as you home in on the final set?
Succinctly put, we’re looking for achievement + character – that is, amazing people who’ve made major breakthroughs or have achieved outstanding output. But that’s not enough. We’re looking for certain kinds of people with strong character. Kind, genuine, generous, plus a certain je ne sais quoi. (Quirky is just fine.) We’re interested in people in the first half of their careers, usually between the ages of 21 and 45.
Towards the end of the process, we are looking at curating a class of 20 Fellows: can we create a group that is geographically diverse, from diverse disciplines, with complementary personalities? Think of it as putting together a college class. You want athletes, actors, engineers, and so on. The mix is very important.
Has it become any easier to identify what kind of person you want as a Fellow over the last several years, 300+ Fellows later?
Without question, it’s easier. We’ve evaluated thousands of submissions, and by trial and error, we’ve learned what makes stellar Fellows and correlated these qualities to their applications. We look at every application submitted, but it’s nearly at the point to where I can glance at an application and know when I’m excited to read further.
How has your vision for the Fellowship changed from 2009 to now? What is your ambition for the Fellows?
When we started the program, our vision was to bring extraordinary young people to the TED community, people who would not otherwise be able to afford to participate.
Today, it’s clear that the program’s largest value is the other Fellows. So we now think about the Fellows as a powerful network, where each node can profoundly influence each other node, and the group as a whole functions kind of like a supercomputer. We haven’t lost our focus on the amazing individuality of each Fellow, but now we look at each person in the context of a robust group that collaborates, communicates and achieves things together across disciplines, in a way they never could have alone. Don’t worry, it’s not the Borg. It’s just that each individual in a strong community benefits from that community.
The good kind of ambition is about striving towards a difficult goal. Our goal is that each of our Fellows and the group can use the Fellows program as a platform to reach seemingly impossible goals. Our focus is on the Fellows and their growth, not on the program per se.
A lot of Fellows speak of having felt lonely and isolated in their work before joining the Felllowship. While passionate about what they do, they weren’t convinced that anyone out there cared. Given this handicap, many incredibly talented folks out there might be talking themselves out of applying for TED Fellows. What would you say to them?
To address the first part of your question, it’s true that many Fellows are such mavericks they have not yet been recognized by their peers or received any validation for their work. That is one of the most amazing things about the Fellows program: it’s an instant peer group of people who understand and value you, who understand what it’s like to be on the bleeding edge, who appreciate unusual things. The Fellowship experience is transformative for so many Fellows.
If I can convey only one message in this whole conversation it’s this: If in doubt about whether you should apply, apply and let us decide. We hear frequently of people who haven’t clicked on the link because they don’t think they’re good enough, strong enough, haven’t done enough. But some we’ve heard about and encouraged to apply have been accepted. If you’re not sure, apply anyway! Only good could come of it. This is not the time to let doubt, loneliness, self-esteem issues or anything else keep you from a great opportunity. Applying is free! As they would say in a late-night American infomercial: Don’t wait – act now!
Sadness Never Loneliness: A self-portrait of the artist as a desperate bride, addressing the cultural expectation that every young woman desires marriage. Image: Uldus Bakhtiozina
A 12-year-old boy in a Stormtrooper helmet – and a tutu. A hulking man wearing a pre-Raphaelite collar of Barbie dolls. A bride standing wistfully in a garden, her face obscured by a wrestling mask. Russian photo-based artist Uldus Bakhtiozina’s whimsical and surreal images — which feature models as well as herself — raise an eyebrow at identity, gender and cultural stereotypes with humor and thoughtfulness. Exquisitely detailed and lit like classical paintings, her images reveal a vulnerability in her heavily costumed subjects, offering layers of meaning and emotion. At TED2014, we spoke to Uldus about her work and worldview. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.
Tell us about yourself and how you got started.
I found my way to photography six years ago. At the time, I was doing my art degree in England. There I was, surrounded with so many stereotypes around my nationality, which made me smile and feel inspired at the same time. That’s why I started with self-portraits: I wanted to lay open those stereotypes and change people’s perceptions.
After I graduated from high school in Russia at 16, I studied politics, but I didn’t finish, because I realized that’s not the thing I want to do. So I moved to London for art school and studied at St Martin’s. My first degree was in graphic design. Afterwards, I did a degree in photography. I worked as a graphic designer, then as an art director, while in the process of evolving as a professional photographer. I tried different disciplines: porcelain sculpture, oil painting, illustrations, mixed media. My exploration of the arts helped me to realize that photography is the best tool to express my ideas. That’s what I do now, and what I want to do for the rest of my life.
How did you stumble on photography after trying other media? And why do you describe yourself as a photo-based artist rather than as a straight photographer?
I don’t think there is a straight photographer in the world. Photography is a tool for sending a message, not just for capturing a moment or for fashion. I describe my way of photography creation as hand-touched within the picture. I stitch costumes, glue backgrounds, draw and even cook sometimes to create the whole composition. I shoot on film, with a Pentax 67-II. This makes the process much longer than digital photography. There it is hand-touched again. I develop prints and scan them again, so the whole process of one image can take up to three months or longer.
Your portraits seem to bring out people’s internal conflicts, and put them out there for all to see. You must get to know people quite well before you take a picture.
Yes. Normally, I meet with my models a lot before I photograph them. We talk, we hang out. I want them to feel warm and relaxed, and to trust me. My last project involved mostly young men. In the Russian mentality, heterosexual guys don’t really like to pose. For them to dress up or be confronted with a camera, it’s kind of doing something girly. To convince them to be my models was an issue. Their occupations are many, but all of them came to my exhibition and brought their friends. I was happy about this, because I could integrate people who are typically so far away from each other’s subcultures — some of them far from the arts field. There were punks, architects, dancers, anarchists, illustrators, graphic designers, hairdressers, old-school skinheads, all mixed together. That was the most amazing thing. I feel that my art should give a smile and positive energy.
Why is that important to you?
We already have so much negativity around us, and I want to balance this. People sometimes create very negative tragedy art — about war, illness, revolution, politics. And while this can motivate people to move toward more positive things, generally, when you open up any social network or news blog, there is bad news, bad news, bad news. I believe in motivation by creating something positive. Negative and positive emotions should be balanced.
I want to give to my audience a little bit of fairytale. I consider my photography something that makes people happier. Like a meditation. I’m happy to hear people say that they can look at my photo work for hours and they feel healed.
For much of the past 20 years, architect and engineer Aziza Chaouni has been battling to restore the Fez River, which winds through the city’s medina – Fez’s historic medieval center and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Heavily contaminated and covered over with concrete to contain the smell, the Fez River had been all but forgotten in recent decades. Not anymore: Chaouni has succeeded in uncovering the river, by working with the city’s water department since 2007, and she is now restoring and reconnecting the riverbanks with the rest of the city, while creating open, green public spaces, allowing the medina to breathe again. At TED2014, we asked her to tell the story of this extraordinary task.
How did you begin the task of uncovering the Fez River?
The whole story actually started as my thesis at Harvard. My thesis advisor told me to do something “that you feel passionate about and that could make a difference.” For years, I’d seen the river in my hometown being desecrated, polluted and filled up with trash and rats. It had become an open sewer and a massive trash yard at the core of the city.
The Fez medina has about 250,000 inhabitants, and all their untreated sewage went straight into the narrow river that runs through it. The river was also heavily contaminated by nearby crafts workshops and tanneries — with chemicals such as chromium 3, which is lethal. People working in the tanneries were getting skin cancer, and some of them were dying. It was terrible. Obviously the river started to stink, so people started building walls to block the view. Then, because it became a health hazard, they covered it with concrete starting in 2002. And because it was covered, people began using that open space as trash yard.
Actually, the first covering began in 1952, when Morocco was still a French protectorate, but it was for political reasons — so that French colonial power could easily enter the medina and control the population. Then, as the population grew and Morocco became independent, covering happened because of the stench.
In your Fellows talk at TED2014, you showed how the water feeds into both public fountains and those in private courtyards. Do people actually use that water? Were they getting sick?
Of course they were, especially from the toxic chemicals dumped in the river by craftsmen. It became dangerous to drink from a running fountain. Besides, a series of droughts and excessive extraction from the water table left little water available for the medina water network. By the 1980s, most of the fountains had become defunct, yet they had been central to its urban fabric. Imagine if Rome had no more running fountains! Can you imagine La Seine or the Thames being suddenly covered? The Fez River is smaller in scale, but the effect is similar: a central part of the city was amputated. When I witnessed all this, I was in college at Columbia University in New York at the time. I would have been 19. I was outraged; I wrote an article in the newspaper and I received hate mail, because of course it made the city look bad. At the time, I was an aspiring engineer. But due to my age and lack of experience, I was not taken seriously.
Contaminated water will also have been entering your food supply, your groundwater. Of course! Yes! Yes and yes and repeatedly yes. It would pollute the water table, which feeds the most fertile agricultural basin of Morocco. But this didn’t upset anyone. Environmental protection is almost seen as a luxury in developing countries: economic development, health and education are understandably bigger priorities. It’s a different mentality in Morocco. I heard many times: “Look, we’re eating the food and we’re fine, hence nothing’s wrong!”
Many people are eating food exported from Morocco.
I know. And of course it’s not just Morocco — in so many emerging countries, you have high levels of environmental pollution, but you just don’t know about it as there is not much control or accountability. But the point is that if you uncover such a large-scale environmental hazard, even as an architect, you feel outraged and want to do something about it. So I decided, for my thesis, to propose re-envisioning the medina if the river were to be cleaned and uncovered.
My thesis took a slightly different approach to what I’m doing now. You see, the medina of Fez used to boast one of the oldest universities in North Africa, the Quarawiyine, but after Morocco’s independence in 1956, the government established an American style campus outside the city, which symbolized modernity. The university’s move caused the entire cultural life of the city to fade away. In my thesis, I proposed building a university in the medina, with the various departments to occupy the urban voids along the river. These voids had been created when the river was covered: houses were destroyed to make way for the heavy machinery required. My vision was that, once uncovered, the river would serve as a pleasant green feature, and its banks would be used as a circulation system linking the departments. Classrooms would be located in nearby abandoned buildings. The university model was unusual and innovative: it would be one of a heterogeneous network of buildings embedded within the medina’s urban fabric.
For me, bringing back the water and the university represented a double win. The university idea hasn’t happened yet, but working on this thesis allowed me to start thinking about the potential of the river for the city and its inhabitants. Many ideas I developed back then became a solid departure point for the actual project, which I started in 2007 in collaboration with my then-partner Takako Tajima.
Artist and perpetual tourist Jorge Mañes Rubio makes art inspired by the unexplored, ignored, and abandoned places on Earth. (Read more about his current project to create a micronation in an underprivileged Amsterdam neighborhood here.) After TED2014, he stayed on in Vancouver to explore, and found a few spots you wouldn’t likely see on the beaten path, from a derelict floating McDonald’s to a Sikh temple.
“I was lucky to be able to spend some time in Vancouver after TED2014,” says Rubio. “I didn’t want to leave without having the chance to get to know the city a little bit better, from well known spots in downtown to hidden gems outside the city. During the very busy week at TED it’s hard to find time to explore the city, so if you didn’t have the chance, here are a few interesting places I came across in a post-TED state of mind…”
The McBarge was the first floating McDonald’s location in the world, built for Expo ‘86 in Vancouver. It was moored on Expo grounds in Vancouver’s False Creek, showcasing the newest technology and architecture. The restaurant was designed by Robert Allan Ltd. and was one of five McDonald’s locations on the Expo grounds. Although the floating design allowed for the barge to operate in a new location following the exhibition, the derelict McBarge has since been abandoned and anchored in Burrard Inlet. This abandoned floating restaurant reminds me of many other great structures and buildings built for very specific events – Expos and Olympics – all over the world, which a few years later fail to find a second purpose and end up forgotten in decay.
The gigantic Chevron Gas Refinery Substation is probably the most impressive industrial landscape you can find in Vancouver. It has been operational since the petroleum company set up operations in Canada in 1935. Here, crude and synthetic oils, condensate and butanes are transformed into 50,000 to 55,000 barrels of motor gasolines, diesel, jet fuels, asphalts and propane every day.
While the roots of Vancouver’s Chinese community go back a long way, there have been large migrations from Hong Kong and China in the past 30 years. I’m always very interested in ancient Asian culture, temples and rituals, and the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden was definitely worth the visit. Vancouver’s Chinese Garden was built in 1985 and 1986, inspired by the principles and techniques of the original Ming dynasty garden, creating a huge contrast with the city’s landscape. Even though this is a public garden, it was surprisingly quiet compared to the much busier Chinatown, right on the other side of the walls.
A few stops on the Skytrain and you’ll go from downtown’s high skyscrapers to real suburban neighborhoods. This was the most unique and authentic house I found, right across my friend’s place. It reminded me of many other pictures I’ve seen in suburban American neighborhoods such as in Detroit. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to talk to the owners to find out more about this house and its story, because there must be something special about this place. By the way, even if they might seem small, most of these houses are divided, with different tenants on the ground and first floors.
After taking a wrong turn on the highway in Richmond, I ended up in the Nanak Sar Gurdwara Gursikh Temple. This is a place of worship for Sikhs, but its location and architecture adds a great deal of uniqueness to the temple. Its bright colors, flags and plaster animals got my attention as soon as I drove by. Located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, it features all kinds of decorative elements such as lions, elephants, fountains… My first thought was that it might be an exotic theme park, till I drove into the parking lot and saw the elegant and colorful clothes people were wearing. Turns out that it was Sunday morning, probably the busiest time for a Gurdwara. At that time I didn’t know, but Gurdwaras are open to everybody, despite your religion, age or sex. I didn’t dare go into the building, but I had time to take a few pictures and enjoy what ended up being one of the most unexpected sceneries during my trip.
Gabriella Gomez-Mont receives the 2014 TED Fellows Hero Award. Photo: Ryan Lash
At TED2014, Fellows director Tom Rielly presented the 2014 Fellows Hero Award to 2009 inaugural Fellow and Senior Fellow Gabriella Gomez-Mont, arts-and-culture curator turned Chief Creativity Officer for Mexico City. The award recognizes outstanding service to the Fellows community, an exemplary member who takes the time to work with, create opportunities for and build collaborations with other Fellows. We were delighted to catch up with Gomez-Mont at the conference to congratulate her, and to find out how she’s settling into her new role as director of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, Mexico City`s brand-new creative think tank that is revisioning the city as an international vortex for creative and multidisciplinary urban thinking.
Were you surprised to receive the TED Fellows Hero Award?
I was completely surprised and blown away. I really did not see it coming this time around. I’m grateful and touched and inspired and all sorts of other things. Taghi Amirani [who won the award at TED2013] and I were saying we now have to go buy a billowing cape and get ourselves into all sorts of heroic adventures.
How is your new job unfolding for you?
It’s unfolding very quickly and at an amazing pace. I’m very excited about getting a better and better sense of everything that’s possible working from within government structures–structures that cover the whole city–creating collaborations across borders and disciplines. In these last months, I’ve been transitioning into a completely new space; before TED I was very much interested in multidisciplinary work within arts and culture, but now the conversations, tools, methodologies and input come from an even wider array of disciplines. And now it is the city itself that must become a surface for ideas, for experimentation, and Mexico City’s creative ethos must be let loose into other areas, beyond those usually thought of as “creative fields.” I also find it fascinating to think of government as a place to catalyze all of this. It is both seemingly a counterintuitive yet also very powerful idea. Imagination is not a luxury, I will say over and over again.
Many of the things that are coming into play have been inspired by the conversations I have had in recent years with people from all sorts of fields and walks of life. When I got Senior Fellowship, for example, I kept meeting such inspirational amazing people at TED — both the speakers but also the Fellows themselves and the people that attend the conference. As a result, I’ve become more interested each time in blowing open what “multidisciplinary” means and starting to work in new ways.
It’s been a very interesting exercise, extrapolating all the lessons that there are in the arts and culture space, working with narrative and metaphor and creative methodologies, but now applying them to the urban space itself, to social practices, and to this hybrid world in the making–between government and civil society–which is our lab. So now instead of it being a museum or an art project, the city — the whole delirious and intricate megalopolis — becomes the site for invention, the space to infiltrate our questions.
Tell us about some of the initiatives you’ve been working on.
I was hired about a year ago, but it took awhile for me to get a team together and figure out the administrative and legal structure, as well as the funding. It comes with inventing a non-existing government office from scratch, I guess. So, in fact, the Lab has only been operating for the last six months, and we had our first budget allocated in December 2013. Momentum has really sped up since then. My team is multidisciplinary in nature. I have architects and artists, designers, urban psychologists, historians, writers, internationalists — a motley crew for sure. It’s lots of fun.
We have very wide mandate, and so we decided we had to design constraints for ourselves (a beautiful problem to have) and to work in the framework of what we are calling “provocations”: open-ended questions that spin off events, interventions, pilots, workshops, and so on. Our Provocation no. 001 is “Government as Platform”; Provocation no. 002, Walkable Megalopolis; Provocation no. 003: Urban Imaginaries and Residual Spaces; Provocation no. 004: Sharable City. I could go on. I won’t. There are around 10 of them, and we’re opening them up slowly.
I must say we have had a fantastic response from civic society and press, as well as huge government support, specially from our mayor. Our first civic hackathon filled up in 4 days: we hosted 500 young programmers, with more than 200 people on the waiting list. We’ve just had our first conference on the walkable city, which was filled to the brim with 500 people — standing-room only, projects and pilots to follow. Our international guests were really surprised with the civic energy in Mexico City. In terms of open government, we are already working with 13 ministries, and the legal department just jumped on board. It told us it wants to put Mexico City on the map with the most progressive legislation on the subject. Very exciting.
The core question is, how do you put out these themes that can be very complex but also make them engaging, and gather passionate communities around them, within and outside of government? How do we create a culture of great ideas and swift implementation?
One of our next experiments will be “Mexico City: The Largest Dance Floor in the World,” for which I received a grant from the TED City 2.0 Prize. It’s a citywide happening and competition that will bring together Mexico City’s love for public space and crazy street dancing, and will offer a different way of thinking about health-related urban culture, taking advantage of the natural energy and effervescence that the city has while tackling the obesity related problems we are also facing.
It sounds like you’re trying to get conversations started, circulating ideas so that the ideas create momentum for change to happen.
Absolutely. One of the most important experiments coming from the lab is how to start marrying interesting public policy with unbound social energy, articulating common efforts. How can we start identifying the interesting things that are happening within government — such as its interest in making the city more walkable, or more healthy or so on, and surround these initiatives with active communities and provocative accomplices? Projects and themes must function as strange attractors and form multilayered realities. Government lays the groundwork. Social energy gives public policy a grounding in reality instead of it hovering above our heads as law. Academia gives it depth, a framing device and a language. Private initiative funds, promotes, shares values. Instigators drive the questioning two notches further, into more unexplored terrain. We at the Lab bring together, articulate, pilot, experiment, rethink, provoke.
It’s truly a collaborative process, very much about co-creating the reality of the city. It’s different type of city, beyond the pragmatic precepts of modernism and into the experiential city, the human-scale city, the creative city. At the Lab, we truly believe that cities nowadays should not only house the human body but also the human imagination.
You’ve often talked about involving people from all over the world in this project, including TED Fellows. What about all the creative people in Mexico City who want to be involved?
The thing is, this is not about an either/or in terms of local versus global. Nowadays, the city cannot necessarily be defined by its borders. On the contrary, it’s about how many bridges, how porous and intensely connected it is within itself and with other cities.
One number that doesn’t often get thrown out often is that 90% of the new cities and the megacities of the future are going to be in the emerging world, so many of them are going to be a lot like Mexico City. We are an emerging-world city–with all the challenges that entails–yet Mexico City is also the eighth largest economy in the world, plus it is truly one of the most fascinating places on Earth. So it’s the perfect ground to pilot futures — to instigate international conversations that are very relevant not only to ourselves, but to a whole populous worldwide.
One of the changes we’ve been seeing in the last decade is this contagious effect between cities. For example, you have a successful bike sharing program in Paris and suddenly we have it in Mexico City and we have it New York. It starts creating this worldwide momentum. So one of the things that we’re doing is actually marrying the most creative minds of Mexico City with the most creative minds that the world has as well–this new generation of provocative city thinkers from different disciplines–and then see what happens in that space of interaction and friction. It’s not necessarily about people coming to Mexico City to stand on the podium tell the people about the truth with the capital T, but creating a space for questions and passions, collaboration and mutual intoxication.
Above: A video selfie of Uldus in the immersive digital experience Social Soul, TED2014.
Russian artist photographer Uldus often makes herself the subject and object of her own work, both poignant and ironic as it explores the contrasts and contradictions inherent in being an individual within Russian culture. We’re working on a full-length interview with Uldus, but in the meantime asked her to share a snippet of her experience at TED. True to form, she sent us this video self-portrait…
How was your TED2014 experience?
My TED experience was awesome. Things happened in easy ways – like meeting Cameron Diaz, who said she loved my work and my talk. I met creator of Siri (for iPhone), which I use a lot, the creator of Kickstarter Perry Chen, and many people I wouldn’t have expected to meet! I also experienced meeting my social soul in the Social Soul exhibition. That’s a funny one: you log in to your Twitter handle, and when you enter the room, all your Tweets and your friends’ tweets come to life – you hear them and see them. After you exit you get your social soul mate profile, someone who is supposed to match you perfectly. Did being at TED change your perception of your own work?
Not really, but it proved to me that my work is more understandable outside of my own country, at least at the present time.
Uldus with TED2014 roommate – fellow photographer Kitra Cahana.
TED2014 Fellow Eman Mohammed became the Gaza Strip’s first female photojournalist at the age of 19. Now, six years later, she still holds the distinction. A feature-length interview with Eman about her life and work is forthcoming. Meanwhile, she shares with us some of her portraits of Fellows from this week. We asked her – on this last day of an exhilarating week – how she feels.
“It has been an overwhelming fairy tale to be among the TED fellows in such an empowering atmosphere. It’s definitely going to take some time to process my journey from Gaza to Vancouver. I’m very happy and proud to be here. Meeting the Fellows and bonding like we are best friends is definitely a precious feeling I’ll carry with me.”
What’s this galaxy-like cluster of dots and lines? It’s a still shot from the TED Fellows Collaboration Network MAPP, a rich and interactive network map documenting the patterns of cross-disciplinary collaboration among TED Fellows over the past four years. Presented by Eric Berlow at the TED2014 Fellows talks, the visualization was created using MAPPR, a new cloud-based network mapping tool – launched here at the conference – that allows anyone to author shareable interactive network visualizations.
The TED Fellows program began as a way to support and amplify the work of original young thinkers and innovators. But then something unexpected happened – the professionally diverse community, which includes scientists, makers, civil rights activists, artists, technologists and beyond – became its own living, breathing organism. Fellows began reaching out to each other for all manner of cross-disciplinary collaboration far beyond original expectation. Some unusual examples include a sitar player collaborating with an open hardware maker to incorporate Arduinos into a new carbon-fiber sitar, and a microbial ecologist collaborating with a journalist and a filmmaker to create a sci-fi graphic novel about the human microbiome set in Paris. A whopping 84% of the Fellows documented in the collaboration network had at least one cross-disciplinary collaboration.
MAPPR itself is a creative collaboration between three Fellows: ecologist and network scientist Eric Berlow, artist/designer David Gurman and computer scientist Kaustuv DeBiswas, who have launched Vibrant Data, a data storytelling boutique located in Chinatown, San Francisco. They’re currently focused on building MAPPR to enable collaborative understanding of complex networks. Current custom projects include mapping the collaboration network of faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, and visualizing the ecology of human creativity – all built on top of the MAPPR architecture.
We asked Berlow to tell us more.
What is MAPPR, and what does it do?
MAPPR is a cloud-based tool that lets you create interactive visual data stories about how things are connected. These network stories can be about anything – from MAPPing the network structure of collaborations among the TED Fellows, to identifying patterns of funding among donors and grant recipients, to unraveling the Goridan Knot of regional interests in the Syrian Civil War.
How does it work?
MAPPR allows anyone to upload custom datasets of relationships and publish them as online custom network visualization stories. Each node and link in the network can be its own multimedia microsite. For example, in a network of who collaborates with whom –such as the TED Fellows collaboration network — each node can contain people’s bios, images, videos, and so on, and each link can display multimedia information about that specific collaboration.
Who can use it?
Network visualization isn’t new, but it has remained relatively inaccessible to non-experts. But anyone can use MAPPR. It’s designed to make network science accessible to anyone interested in visualizing and sharing a story — or Network MAPP — about how things are connected. MAPPR is currently in private beta, and people can sign up at Mappr.io. We’ll notify them when it’s ready, likely the end of April 2014.
As the Fellows program turns five, we catch up with Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani – a member of the Fellows inaugural class and the first recipient of the TED Fellows Hero award – to get the scoop on the premiere of Amirani Media’s latest film, We Are Many (see trailer, above) – a documentary on the 15 February 2003 global demonstration against the invasion of Iraq. In between mainstage sessions at TED2014, he offers his old-timer’s perspective on the latest class of Fellows, the evolution of the Fellowship program, and how the Fellowship dared him to dream big.
You’ve just released a trailer for Amirani Media’s feature documentary We Are Many. You’ve been working on this project for as long as I’ve known you; it must be very satisfying to have finished it!
Absolutely! Seven years in the making, We Are Many has been a labor of love directed by my brother Amir. It tells the story of the largest protest march in history, when up to 30 million people in 800 cities on one single day marched against the invasion of Iraq. Although we didn’t stop the war, the consequences and the legacy of that day — which will be revealed for the first time in the film — will blow you away.
We have a great cast of individuals on and off the screen who have made this film possible, including executive producers Signe Byrge Sorensen (The Act of Killing); Steve Milne of Molinare (The King’s Speech); actor and comedian Omid Djalili (The Infidel) and filmmaker Wael Kabbani. Music is by Brian Eno and Simon Russell. The cast includes Damon Albarn, Richard Branson, Danny Glover, Hans Blix, Mark Rylance, amongst many others. The film is almost done, and I am excited to say it will have its world premiere soon at a major film festival I can’t yet disclose. (Watch this space!)
Fellows director Tom Reilly honored you with the first-ever TED Fellows Hero award at TED2013. Did that change things for you?
The TED Fellows Hero award happened to coincide with the beginning work on a new film Coup 53, my first feature documentary. Coup 53 is about Operation Ajax, the CIA-British secret service coup d’etat in Iran in 1953 that overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstalled the Shah. For a bit of fun with Ben Affleck, we say our movie is a prequel to Argo.
Getting the award totally fast-tracked the project. I’ve been trying to get this film off the ground from the beginning of my TED Senior Fellowship. But after the TED Fellows Hero award, the dam burst, and the project gathered momentum to the point where a year later we have just signed a development agreement with a company whose leaders and work I’ve admired for years, and passionate creative collaborators who believe in me and the need for this story to be told well.
There’s no question that the TED Fellowship has made me think bigger. The Iranian coup of 1953 – I grew up with that story. You know how when there’s something that’s very important to you, which means a lot personally, politically and creatively, but because it’s so big, you’re scared of it, and don’t dare take the jump? When I was invited to apply for the Senior Fellowship, I thought, here’s this community that could potentially help make this film a reality. And that’s exactly what’s happened. I’m still scared of it, but in a good way. And if all that was not enough, because of connections made through TED, I got to meet and interview the legendary film editor Walter Murch at Sheffield DocFest 2013.
You’ve been a part of the Fellows program since day one. What changes do you see?
The program has grown in leaps and bounds and is now almost unrecognizable from what it was back in February 2009. And I think Tom Rielly and his brilliant team have done a magnificent job. They are the real heroes. The Fellows Talks in the first year were in a small room somewhere in the nether regions of the Hilton Long Beach, and it was brilliant in its own charming way. But now, the production values, the attention it gets, the slot it gets – it’s just amazing. I hear over and over from veteran TEDsters that the Fellows are now one of their favorite parts of TED. And the caliber of the new Fellows every year — this is not false modesty — if we, the first class of Fellows, were running against these guys now, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Well, I wouldn’t anyway.
What was your career trajectory?
I did physics at Nottingham University, then went to film school at University of Bristol and got my break as a director in 1989 with a film about amateur astronomers that was inspired by the great Carl Sagan and Mr Happer, Burt Lancaster’s character in the wonderful movie Local Hero. Then I went on to set up Amirani Media in 1993 and made some 30 documentaries for broadcast networks such as the BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic and PBS. By the time I applied for the TED Fellowship, I had been making films for 20 years.
So you are an older Fellow.
I think I’m a Senior Fellow on account of age. Not for any brilliance. I’m 53. On paper I shouldn’t even be here. I don’t qualify. Whenever I read Tom’s description of the Fellows program — young trailblazers — I’m thinking, well, I’ve got an old blazer in my wardrobe. That’s as close as I will ever get.
What are your duties now as a Hero?
Hoping they don’t include having to wear my underpants on top of my jeans. And I’m so happy, delighted and excited that Gabriella is now the new TED Fellow Hero. I feel like I’m Miss Universe about to pass on my crown to the new Queen.