For more tolerance, we need more… tourism? Aziz Abu Sarah


Aziz Abu Sarah is a Palestinian activist and cultural educator with an unusual approach to peace-keeping: tourism. In this talk, Sarah tells of how years ago, his older brother was arrested on charges of throwing stones, was beaten — and died of his injuries. Sarah grew up angry, bitter and wanting revenge. But later in life, coming face-to-face with Jewish people, Sarah realized the “enemy” were ordinary human beings who share his love of the small things in life – food, music, culture. He founded MEJDI Tours to send tourists to Jerusalem with two guides, one Jewish and one Palestinian, each offering a different history and narrative of the city. If more of the world’s 1 billion tourists were to engage with real people living real lives, argues Sarah, it would be a powerful force for shattering stereotypes, while promote understanding, friendship and peace.

For more from Abu Sarah, read his piece on the TED Ideas Blog, “What to do when your government collapses.”

Follow Asha de Vos to the Indian Ocean & help save whales from ship strike!

Marine biologist Asha de Vos (watch her TED Talk, “Why you should care about whale poo”, above) is preparing to set sail in her native Indian Ocean to undertake  research about the rare Sri Lankan blue whale and the tragedy of ship strike. To help fund this exciting expedition, she’s launched a campaign on David Lang’s new crowdfunding platform OpenExplorer, which supports new ideas, research and expeditions in science and engineering. Here, she tells us about the expedition and how you can join her in helping to save the planet by saving blue whales.

Tell us about your project.

I’m embarking on an expedition to save a unique and endangered blue whale from getting killed by ships in Sri Lankan waters – the core of what I have been doing for many years. Right now, I’m preparing to kick off my fieldwork in Sri Lanka between February and March 2015. The problem is that unlike most blue whale populations, these are pretty confined to the western part of the Northern Indian Ocean, so are exposed to the risk of ship-strike 365 days of the year. Given that ship traffic in this region has quadrupled since the ’90s because of how trade is changing in the oceans, and is predicted to double in the next two decades, the problem is only going to get worse. We urgently need to solve this problem.

During my field season I will be heading out on the water to look at where the blue whales are and, more importantly, where they overlap with the ships. This will help me understand where they are at highest risk, and enable me to come up with some realistic ways of reducing whale mortality.

I’ll also be taking photographs of all the whales we see, which will be added into our existing Sri Lankan Blue Whale Photo-identification catalog. Photo-identification is a low-cost technique used to identify individuals in the population. It’s commonly used for a lot of species. All you need is a decent DSLR that enables you to take photos of characteristic permanent marking patterns on specific parts of the whale’s body. This can be used to identify an individual because, like our thumbprints, the markings are unique to each animal.

This data will allow us to come up with an estimate of population size for these whales — an essential ingredient for answering a suite of other questions about them, including how threatened this non-migratory population is, and how we can help one of the least-studied and most unorthodox populations of blue whales in the world.

Whale poo is an essential part of the ocean ecosystem's nutrient cycle. Photo: Asha de Vos

Whale poo is an essential part of the ocean ecosystem’s nutrient cycle. Photo: Asha de Vos

Why do you care about these whales so much?

Everyone should care about whales because they are really important for nutrient cycling in the oceans. Their poo holds vital nutrients that enable the growth of plankton (some of which produces the oxygen we breathe!) and their carcasses remove excess carbon in the atmosphere by taking it to the depths of the ocean. So whales potentially play a role in reducing climate change. Saving blue whales in Sri Lanka isn’t just good for Sri Lankans, but is important for a healthier planet overall!

To be honest, all of us are to blame every time a whale gets killed by a ship. Ninety percent of everything is shipped, and the industry is driven by human need and greed. So we should care about resolving this problem, too.

Why did you choose OpenExplorer to fund this expedition?

I chose OpenExplorer because it primarily acts as an expedition field journal, which allows people to follow me from inception to completion of a particular mission. I’m curious about using this function during my field season to see how it works and what its reach and interactivity will be compared to my blog. I think it might be a cool way for more people to feel they are part of my day-to-day experiences. Apart from that, it enables people to contribute funds to the expedition at any time, so it’s not designed for just front-end funding, like a lot of other platforms. It seems like a great way for people to follow, get excited, fund, watch, interact and feel like they are part of the expedition from start to finish.

I believe crowdfunding will become an increasingly important source of money for people like myself. Many of us from small developing nations don’t have access to research funds because the vast majority of the larger grants are provided by developed countries for research in their own waters. In my case, the sad reality is that Sri Lanka is one of the 40 worst-funded countries for conservation research. I get no internal financial support but have raise all my funds from outside. Given that blue whales are important for the global ocean ecosystem, I feel crowdfunding is a neat way for people from all over the world to get involved..

Photo: Erik Olsen/NYT

Photo: Erik Olsen/NYT

Do you need to raise this money before you go on the expedition itself, or are you hoping the campaign will sustain you as you go?

In the grand scheme of things, I would like to raise money for the longer term to create sustainability for this research. But right now, I am only fundraising for this initial trip. The costs are pretty high because boat time is always expensive. The other issue for me is safety. I have spent many hours far out at sea, on 6-meter boats with a single engine and no safety equipment, puttering around between the biggest container ships you can imagine. I would really like to raise enough money to pay for a safer platform – for my mother’s sake! So if you can help me fundraise $20,000, then I can collect data while reducing the risk of getting run over by ships. Any extra money I raise will go towards buying actual safety equipment like flares, an EPIRB and walkie-talkies, and saving for the next field season!

Is it true that we can get the opportunity to name a whale?

Sure thing! For $500 you can adopt a blue whale and help us name it! I will send you a photo of the individual you adopted, along with details of where and when it was sighted. These are limited edition, though because it’s limited by the number of whales we see. The more days I spend on the water, the more whales I photograph and the more there are to name – so help me stay out there! There are also a bunch of other gifts to reward different levels of donations here.

To donate to de Vos’s Save the Blue Whale expedition, visit her page on Open Explorer.

Above, watch Asha de Vos’s video about her passion for the Sri Lankan blue whale.

Pimp my … trash cart? Watch Mundano’s TEDGlobal 2014 talk

Graffiti artist and TED Fellow Mundano describes his project “Pimp My Carroça,” in which he transforms the trash carts of Brazil’s rubbish pickers into works of art – while providing them with essential services and public recognition. Watch this talk, then read about how Mundano made a statement with election-waste art on the eve of this talk at TEDGlobal 2014!

 

 

Eye phone: How a TED Fellow’s new app could help restore sight to millions

Andrew Bastawrous shares the idea behind Peek at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Andrew Bastawrous shares the idea behind Peek at TED2014. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Around 39 million people in the world are affected by blindness — 80% of which could be avoided if people had timely access to diagnosis and proper treatment. The problem is that in many developing countries, most eye care providers are in cities, while the majority of patients live in hard-to-reach rural areas. To bridge this gap, London-based opthalmologist Andrew Bastawrous created Peek — an app and adapter that turn a smartphone into a comprehensive, easy-to-use, accurate eye-exam tool. Peek makes eye tests affordable and easy to administer, bypassing the need for expensive, fragile equipment. (Watch his TED Talk, “Get your next eye exam on a smartphone.”)

Bastawrous developed and extensively road-tested Peek during a research expedition in Kenya, and has now launched an Indiegogo campaign to set up manufacturing process for the Peek Retina adapter, which allows health workers to peer into the eye and capture images for diagnosis. If successful, Peek will soon be rolled out worldwide with the help of eye NGOs. Here, he tells the TED Blog how his own childhood experiences with poverty, inequality and impaired vision led him to devote his life to restoring sight to the world.

How long has Peek been in development?

I’ve been working on it for around three years, and the team came together about two years ago. We’re now at the point where we’ve got a proven, tested prototype, and we want to make it available. We’ve had so much demand — over 4,000 eye organizations in 180 countries are asking to use it, and we want to make it available and keep the cost low. We evaluated options, and recently won the TED Mazda Rebels award. We’ve used the majority of that to fund set-up of the manufacturing pipeline to develop the adapter, and that takes us to about the halfway point.

You grew up in England. What made you want to practice in developing countries?

I was born in York, but my parents are both from Egypt, and I grew up between cultures. We spent most of our holidays in Egypt, and I always felt a little like I didn’t know where home was. When I visited Egypt, I witnessed things I didn’t see in the UK. My father’s a doctor, and he’d always visit the village where he grew up whenever we went back. He would be inundated with requests for medical attention.

It really inspired me, the way he never said no to anyone. Once a woman complained to him that she couldn’t have a child. My father, who is actually a bone doctor, did some general blood tests, and said, “Look, as far as I can see, everything’s okay.” When we went back the following year, she had a child with her — and everyone else in the region who couldn’t have babies started coming to see my dad to get it sorted out.

So I think seeing such things left me with a very deep sense of inequality. I also realized I’d had a very privileged upbringing. Within Egypt, my relatives are quite well off. But my grandma lived on the first floor, and the family that lived on the basement floor were effectively working for the apartment block. There was a kid there the same age as me, and every year we’d diverge more in terms of our opportunities. When we first met, we both just wanted to play football, but by the time we were 18, he’d had a kid, and his opportunities were very limited. Meanwhile, I had so many fantastic options for my university, career. It just seemed deeply unfair.

A Peek healthcare worker examines patient in her own home. Photo: Courtesy of Peek

A Peek healthcare worker examines patient in her own home. Photo: Courtesy of Peek

But why eye care?

I grew up very short-sighted. I was at the bottom of my class until I was about 12, when my mum dragged me kicking and screaming to the optician’s and insisted I get some glasses. Suddenly I could suddenly see everything perfectly — and I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten that moment. So I’ve always been struck with the power of being able to have sight returned, the impact it can have. After that, I started to do well at school, and was better at sport. I looked a bit more geeky, but I was doing better in a lot of other ways.

So it had always been in my mind at medical school to go into ophthalmology. I spent my summer holidays traveling, visiting people who were doing eye care in resource-poor settings, and just really fell in love with the possibilities. There are so many people who are unnecessarily blind. Had they been living in the UK, they would have never have gotten to the point where their vision problems were anything more than a nuisance. I knew this would be how I’d spend my life.

Untreated eye disease must be a problem in many developing countries. Why did you choose to focus on Kenya?

I’d worked in various countries short term, from Uganda, Sierra Leone and Madagascar to Peru and Belize. I then got the opportunity to work at the International Center for Eye Health on a PhD program. We were to do a large trial in Kenya, for which we’d be required to take lots of expensive equipment to 100 different locations to try and work out why people were going blind. I was excited because I knew this research would result in change, as opposed to only lead to papers and publications.

The most common causes of blindness are the same everywhere in the world — with cataract the top cause. In developing countries, blindness is an issue of access to healthcare, not usually a result of weird and wonderful tropical diseases, although there are certain infectious diseases that are more prevalent in Africa.

To read the full article, visit the TED Blog >>>

Sparks, spies and space: 12 surefire holiday gift ideas from the TED Fellows

‘Tis the week before Christmas, and still looking for stocking stuffers? In the nick of time, we’ve rounded up a dozen charming and original offerings, sure to delight your hardest-to-please people. There’s something for everyone — fine-art photographs, rugged mobile wifi gear, plenty of world-class, cutting-edge music, games, sweetly satiric tees, a chance to save blue whales, and much more. Happy holidays from the TED Fellows!

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1. The gift: Fine-art photographs of faraway ruins
Perfect for: The armchair adventurer
Spanish artist Jorge Manes Rubio seeks out the world’s abandoned places and creates art that memorializes them. His project Buona Fortuna, for example, celebrates the lost churches in the mountains of the Parco Nazionale del Cilento in the south of Italy, abandoned after a series of devastating earthquakes and landslides decades ago. Rubio is working to make these beautiful ruins safe and reopen them to the public in 2015. And to fund the project, he is selling limited edition, large-format color photographic prints of the sites.
Get it: Order directly from the artist (Between €1500 and €3000, depending on size and frame choice)

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2. The gift: Sunken Cathedral
Perfect for: The vinyl fetishist
Bora Yoon’s epic sonic odyssey Sunken Cathedral is a multimedia treasure-trove ready to be explored. The album can be experienced as a CD, as a 12-inch, two-disc limited edition blood-red vinyl LP, and as an interactive app. Seven years in the making, Yoon’s project is on the first-round ballot for the Grammys — including best classical solo vocal, and best-engineered classical album of the year.
Get it: Order it from the artist. ($12-$35)

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3. The gift: Nikko & the Spark
Perfect for: The kids
Energy-efficiency entrepreneur Jen Indovina moonlights as an app-creator for kids, making engaging with science history and concepts exciting and fun. Her interactive storybook app Nikko & the Spark introduces young people to electrical energy via a story of a child inventor, based on the life of inventor, scientist, and entrepreneur Nikola Tesla. Once the story’s over, you can dive into action with selected labs and interactive games based on Tesla’s work in electrical engineering.
Get it: Download from Play and iTunes ($2 – a steal!)

letsnevergoback_red copy

4. The gift: Existential casual wear
Perfect for: The romantically world-weary
Designer Safwat Saleem’s world is populated by the characters who are fed up with bullshit — but in the funniest and sweetest possible way. “Coupled” is a series of designs depicting somewhat complex relationships between random objects. We love this one of two people floating off into space. And it’s available in a variety of colors and sizes.
Get it: Order through Safwat Saleem’s shop at Society6 ($22), and while you’re at it browse a huge selection of his greeting cards, mugs, prints and pillows!

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5. The gift: Animal Madness
Perfect for: Cat people (and dog people, and donkey people, etc.)
Part-memoir, part history, part research adventure, Laurel Braitman’s book delves into the wild world of animal psychology. From depressed and anxious dogs and cats to traumatized elephants, distressed zoo animals and beyond, Braitman not only sheds light on animals’ emotional responses and coping mechanisms, but reflects on what they tell us about human mental health.
Get it: Order from Amazon ($19)

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6. The gift: BRCK
Perfect for: The road warrior
When the folks at Ushahidi get fed up with unreliable power and internet infrastructure in Nairobi, they responded by creating BRCK: a rugged, rechargeable, mobile wifi device with a battery that lasts up to 12 hours and can be shared with 20 people. BRCK is currently taking the device to rural schools in Kenya to give kids access to the internet. But the ultraportable BRCK is equally good for anyone who needs to stay connected in remote areas.
Get it: Order from BRCK ($199)

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7. The gift: Lonesome Roads
Perfect for: New-school classical music fans
Dan Visconti is breaking new ground as a 21st-century composer who uses classical music as a tool for social justice and community interaction. Lonesome Roads is the first full-length album of his works, a blend of American folk and pop and classical avant-garde — recorded by members of the world-class Berlin Philharmonic and the Horszowski Trio. One reviewer calls it “just plain rapturous.”
Get it: Order from Amazon ($17)

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8. The gift: So the Arrow Flies
Perfect for:
The politically intrigued
Actor and writer Esther Chae’s So the Arrow Flies is a political thriller about an alleged North Korean spy and the FBI agent who interrogates her. Written and performed as a solo piece by Chae, the play explores complex political and social issues, including America’s national security apparatus, global identity and gender roles. This volume contains both the English language script and its Korean language translation.
Get it: Order it through Amazon ($10)

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9. The gift: Ouya
Perfect for: The gamer
Award-winning game creator Kellee Santiago left thatgamecompany to throw her weight behind Ouya, an Android-powered wireless console and controller that you can plug directly into your TV. The huge variety of games available — shooters, RPGs, action games, and so on — are downloaded directly to the console, and are free to try before you buy. You can also use Ouya to stream music and video, and surf the Web.
Get it: Order it from Target ($90)

Meklit-We-Are-Alive-digital-cover

10. The gift: We Are Alive
Perfect for:
 World-music lovers
Ethiopian American singer and cultural activist Meklit Hadero’s music is imbued with poetry and multiplicity. Her hybrid sound draws from her Ethiopian heritage, jazz, folk songs, hip-hop and art rock, soulfully and intimately bridging frontiers between language, tribes and disciplines. (Check out the title track on YouTube!)
Get it: Order it from the artist ($10)

Photo: Erik Olsen/NYTPhoto: Erik Olsen/NYT

11. The gift: Saving blue whales
Perfect for:
 Animal lovers, conservationists
Sri Lankan marine biologist Asha de Vos is setting sail for her native waters to undertake crucial research to prevent blue whales getting killed by ships. To fund her journey, she has launched a campaign on Fellow David Lang’s new science-funding platform Open Explorer, where supporters can follow her adventures. Fund her research in the name of your recipient, and they may get the chance to name one of these endangered giants!
Get it: Visit de Vos’s page on Open Explorer to donate

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12. The charitable contribution: Embrace Baby Warmer
Perfect for:
Those with hearts of gold
Every year, millions of infants around the world die due to conditions related to premature birth and low birth weight — including hypothermia. This is especially a problem in developing countries, where families have little access to hospitals and incubators. In response, Jane Chen created the Embrace baby warmer — a low-cost, portable, easy-to-use, sleeping bag–style infant warmer designed to regulate the temperatures of infants, without the need for a power supply. Embrace has already reached 144,000 infants in 105 countries, but needs help to continue rolling out its life-saving work. Bonus: donations received by December 31, 2014, will be matched by the Peery Foundation.
Where to donate: Visit Embrace to read about the program and to make a holiday donation.

 

TED Fellow organizes blood donations for victims of the Peshawar tragedy

Image by TED Fellow Usman Riaz. "No one should be made to suffer, especially innocent children."

Image by TED Fellow Usman Riaz. “No one should be made to suffer, especially innocent children.”

As the world comes to terms with the horror of Tuesday’s school massacre in Peshawar, Pakistan, health care workers are tending to the scores of wounded survivors. Pakistani tech entrepreneur and TED Fellow Faisal Chohan and his team at BrightSypre have responded by creating a Web-based app to connect potential blood donors with hospitals and health care organizations.

“The scale of the Peshawar tragedy is huge,” he says. “Everyone in Peshawar is directly affected. Masses of people are gathering outside hospitals and blood banks offering to donate blood to the victims, but they are being turned away because of lack of capacity.”

If you are in Pakistan and wish to donate blood, Chohan asks that you visit the Web app and enter your name, contact details and blood type. BrightSpyre is currently working to forward this information to hospitals and blood banks, so that donations can be collected as and when needed.

Meet the 2015 TED Fellows!

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We are thrilled to announce the new class of Fellows for TED2015. These 21 game-changing thinkers represent 15 countries—including, for the first time in our program, Vietnam, Romania and Tunisia. They work across disciplines, at the forefront of their fields. They include a South African physicist using lasers to target HIV and cancer; a German/Moroccan paleontologist who discovered the first semi-aquatic dinosaur, the spinosaurus; a Vietnamese entrepreneur who is helping rice farmers use biowaste to earn a living growing mushrooms; and many more.

Below, meet the new group of Fellows who will join us at TED2015, March 16-20 in Vancouver.

Trevor Aaronson (USA)
An investigative journalist who reports on the FBI’s misuse of informants in counterterrorism operations, Trevor asks the question: Is the United States catching terrorists or creating them?

Benedetta Berti (Israel + Italy)
A Middle East policy analyst, Benedetta researches political violence, focusing on issues of human security and conflict resolution.

Laura Boykin (USA + Australia)
Laura is a biologist who uses genomics and supercomputing to tackle food security in sub-Saharan Africa. She’s especially interested in figuring out what to do about whiteflies, which are devastating local cassava crops, a staple food in many countries.

Camille A. Brown (USA)
Camille, a choreographer, explores and exposes cultural, gender and social-justice issues through contemporary dance, musical theater, arts education and community outreach.

Tal Danino (USA)
Tal is a bioengineer who uses genetically programmed bacteria to create a cancer diagnostic tool. After it is ingested, this bacteria changes the color of urine to signal the presence of a tumor in the body.

Jost Franko  (Slovenia)
A 21-year-old documentary photographer who focuses on forgotten populations, Jost Franko is interested in the loss of traditional values in the modern world and the often-unseen consequences of conflict and war.

LaToya Ruby Frazier (USA)
LaToya uses photography to investigate issues like Rust Belt renewal, environmental justice, communal history and the line between private and public space. Her works often blur the lines between self-portraiture and documentary.

Tharanga Goonetilleke (Sri Lanka + USA)
A Juilliard-trained Sri Lankan opera singer, Tharanga has sung internationally — including with the New York City Opera and the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka. She is committed to sparking love of opera in both South Asia and the United States.

David Hertz (Brazil)
A popular chef, David is the founder of Brazil’s first socio-gastronomic organization, Gastromotiva, which brings culinary education to favela residents, to create employment and empower communities.

Jonathan Home (Switzerland)
Jonathan is a physicist working to build a quantum computer, attempting to achieve high-precision control of individual atoms in order to build up quantum systems, atom by atom.

Nizar Ibrahim (Germany + Morocco)
Paleontologist Nizar scours the Sahara Desert and Northern Africa for clues to what things were like there in the Cretaceous period. He has spearheaded the search for the semi-aquatic dinosaur spinosaurus.

Jedidah Isler (USA)
Jedidah is an astrophysicist who studies blazars — the hyperactive supermassive black holes at the center of massive galaxies. She is also working to make science, technology, engineering and math accessible to new communities.

Matt Kenyon (USA)
Matt uses sculpture and a wide range of media to explore the effects of global corporations, military-industrial complexes and the line between human and artificial life.

Danielle N Lee (USA)
This behavioral biologist researches the ecological and evolutionary behaviors of African giant pouched rats. A popular blogger for Scientific American, she uses hip hop to teach science.

Cosmin Mihaiu (Romania + UK)
The CEO and co-founder of MIRA Rehab, Cosmin has developed a software platform that engages patients in interactive, therapeutic games. The goal: to make physical rehabilitation fun.

Lerato Mokobe (South Africa)
Lerato is a 19-year-old slam poet who explores social injustice and gender identity issues through fast-flung words. She is the founder of Vocal Revolutionaries, a volunteer-run literary organization that empowers African youth.

Patience Mthunzi (South Africa)
A “biophotonics” physicist, Patience is working to discover medical applications of laser technology, including the targeted treatment of HIV and cancer.

Sarah Sandman (USA)
Sarah uses design to create social experiences that bring people together. Take for example, the Gift Cycle project, through which she helped neighboring communities exchange gifts of art.

eL Seed (Tunisia + France)
el Seed blends the modern art of graffiti with the ancient art of Arabic calligraphy, all with an eye to encouraging peaceful expression and social change.

Aomawa Shields (USA)
This astronomer and astrobiologist studies the climate and habitability of planets around low-mass stars. A classically trained actor, Aomawa also engages young girls in astronomy using theater and writing.

Trang Tran (Vietnam)
A social entrepreneur, Trang is the co-founder of Fargreen, which empowers local rice farmers to use biowaste to grow high quality mushrooms. The goal: reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve livelihoods.

For the full article, including an introduction to the new class of Senior Fellows, visit the TED Blog >>>

How mega-landscaping might reshape the world

“I believe that this boundary we’ve created between humanity and our environment is artificial,” says Bradley Cantrell, a computational landscape architect. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

“I believe that this boundary we’ve created between humanity and our environment is artificial,” says Bradley Cantrell, a computational landscape architect. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED

Picture a spillway gate that doesn’t just release water from an overflowing river, but manipulates sediments to create new streams, islands and wetlands. And imagine that the gate does this autonomously, guided by ecological data and shifting needs — essentially allowing nature to “evolve.” Computational landscape architect Bradley Cantrell is figuring how to do this by applying environmental sensing, machine learning, predictive modeling and robotics to environmental engineering.

The TED Blog asked Cantrell to talk to us about his ideas, how they would work, and how computational landscaping may change the relationship between human beings, machines, and nature.

What is our current relationship to the natural environment, and how do you envision changing it?

Right now, human beings are really good at saying, “We want this river to move very quickly, and we want it to always be predictable.” So we can engineer a predictable river. Take the Los Angeles River, which is a simple example. It’s basically a concrete channel. We’ve taken all the unpredictability out of it because it used to jump its banks and flood a large part of the Los Angeles River basin. We said, “We want it to be within this 20-meter-wide zone and to never move, and we want it to always run at the same velocity so it never backs up and floods anything.”

But that’s not the way an ecosystem or river works. It actually has a whole range of behaviors. We currently don’t allow these systems to have a range of behaviors. I would like to change this so that our infrastructures allow the creation of evolving and changing ecosystems.

A diagram of landscape monitoring and synthesis. Image: Joshua Brooks, Devon Boutte, Martin Moser, Kim Nguyen

A diagram of landscape monitoring and synthesis. Image: Joshua Brooks, Devon Boutte, Martin Moser, Kim Nguyen

Where does the idea of computational landscape architecture fit in?

Computational landscape architecture is the idea that, using computing and machine learning, we can build physical infrastructures and natural landscapes that relate symbiotically with our cities and natural systems.

In theory, what we’re doing is embedding the complexity that exists in natural ecological systems into our own manmade environments. We do this by feeding computers data from natural historical records. So, for example, you might have a set of records about how a particular ecosystem performed, such as the behavior of a river’s water levels and velocity. Then you might have a series of predictive models, about how sea-level rise due to climate change will affect this local ecosystem, for instance. These predictive models are used to develop a computational logic which allows them to make autonomous decisions about how it uses infrastructure — like spillway gates — to prevent possible problems.

This means that computers end up having a life of their own, within our design goals. Machine learning can be compared to how we make decisions: we make choices for the future based on data from experiences we’ve had in the past.

In your talk, you offered the example of the Mississippi River, for which you’ve prototyped a computational infrastructure. Walk us through the process of how it would work.

The example I most often give is a system of spillway gates that, instead of simply allowing river water to flood a lake when it gets too high, precisely controls the flow of water to create landscapes that benefit biodiversity or protect cities from storms — and does so in an automated way.

A prototype of the robotic spillway gate, which automatically distributes sediments according to computational instructions. Project: Bradley Cantrell, Justine Holzman, Prentiss Darden

A prototype of the robotic spillway gate, which automatically distributes sediments according to computational instructions. Project: Bradley Cantrell, Justine Holzman, Prentiss Darden

The Mississippi River has always jumped its banks. If you look at the shape of Louisiana, its shape is the result of the sediments in the floodwater building out land. Left to its own devices, once the river finds its longest route, it jumps its bank and tries to find a shorter route. Rivers naturally do this kind of cycling.

In the last 100 years or so, we’ve built levees all the way down the river. If you look on a map, you’ll see the Mississippi River now has this really long route, and it’s just continued to build and build and now its dumping dirt off the continental shelf into deep ocean water. There’s actually a shorter route for the Mississippi river: it naturally wants to jump its banks and go down what’s called the Atchafalaya Basin. The US Army Corps of Engineers built a structure where it wants to jump, forcing it to go the long way.

Why? Is it because people are there?

No. The Atchafalaya Basin could easily be flooded, with few consequences. But New Orleans sits further downstream, and if you change the route of the Mississippi River, suddenly New Orleans becomes completely irrelevant in terms of a city. It would be sitting out in this exposed area with no river next to it. So for the sake of commerce, we still want ships to come through. There’s all kinds of mega-engineering going on to keep that river the way we want it to be.

The problem was, in the past the levee would just break down in certain areas and start to flood out into the bayous. This happens whenever the river is very high. It breaks free in certain areas and it just floods, and all of this dirt carried down from Iowa and St Louis dumps out into the area, basically replenishing the land there. People have said, “Well, we should just begin to build massive gates on the river, and whenever the river gets to be too high, we’ll relieve the pressure by flooding these areas.” So the safety aspect is already in place. There are two spillways: one of them floods the whole Atchafalaya Basin, and the other one floods Lake Pontchartrain, north of New Orleans.

Those projects were both built in the ’50s and ’60s, right after they forced the river into its current configuration. But these solutions haven’t been about pushing water into land we want to build. They’re pushing it into places that we then have to go back and dredge out so that the Ponchartrain can still be a lake, and the Atchafalaya Basin can still be a river.

Above: Watch Bradley Cantrell’s spillway gate “print” a landscape by controlling the flow of sediment-laden water.

With your solution, what would happen?

I’m adding a layer to this. Let’s say we go ahead and open up these spillways in a range of new locations that are already being proposed. What if each of those spillways had a whole range of things it could do, rather than simply flooding or not flooding? And how can we speed up or slow down the velocity of the water coming through? The answer is by opening these gates in different sequences. Think of the way you put your finger over a water hose. When we slow the flow down, sediments fall out of it, and by speeding it up, it carries sediments further, or breaks obstacles down and pushes beyond them.

So just using those two mechanisms, we plan to push the water and the dirt to go where we want it to go. If we have control over the land-formation process alone, we can start making choices about whether ecosystems should evolve in a certain way, and we can help nudge things in that direction. Once the system is fully functioning, it would form landscapes on its own, but it will have had our curatorial help.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>

 

The small and surprisingly dangerous detail the police track about you: Catherine Crump

A very unsexy-sounding piece of technology could mean that the police know where you go, with whom, and when: the automatic license plate reader. These cameras are innocuously placed all across small-town America to catch known criminals, but as lawyer and TED Fellow Catherine Crump shows, the data they collect in aggregate could have disastrous consequences for everyone the world over. Watch this talk and prepared to be shocked. And watch this space for a full-length interview with Crump, coming soon.

Let’s kickstart Science in America – David Lang

kickstart_science_in_america_ted

Science funding is broken. To fix it, we need to empower a new class of makers, citizen scientists and explorers

The troubling state of science funding in America goes by many names: sequestration, the profzi scheme, the postdocalypse. Because it can take extensive planning over years in academia to gain research funds from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, “nobody takes risks anymore,” writes one researcher in his “Goodbye Academia” letter. “Nobody young jumps and tries totally new things, because it’s almost surely a noble way to suicide your career.” The result? We are on the verge of losing a generation of scientists at the exact moment we need to embolden them. Biologist Michael Eisen sums up the effects of the funding crunch: “It is an amazing time to do science, but an incredibly difficult time to be a scientist.”

It’s not all bad news for the thousands of science and conservation ideas that fall outside the traditional funding rubric. Fortunately, new citizen science models are emerging — along with a new class of philanthropic backers to fill the funding voids left by the NSF and the NIH. Our experience developing OpenROV (an open-source underwater robot) into one of the largest (by volume) underwater robot manufacturers in the world is illustrative of this shift.

Looking back at the sequence of events, it seems improbable that such a small amount of initial funding could have made such a large impact, but it makes perfect sense when you break down all the contributing factors. Two years ago, we weren’t even part of the oceanographic community. Our ideas and techniques were outside the playbook for experienced ocean engineers. And since we only had enough money to test the first thing, not the whole thing, we started by creating a prototype. Using TechShop equipment in San Francisco, we able to create several iterations of a low-cost underwater robot that was suitable for our purpose: exploring an underwater cave and looking for lost treasure. After sharing our designs online, we found a community of like-minded developers. Together we raised over $100,000 on Kickstarter to do a first run of manufacturing.

This experience made us think: How can we make more microsponsorship opportunities available in science, exploration and conservation?

OpenExplorer was our response. Instead of providing seed funding, we’ve created a model that gives everyone a chance to sponsor new ideas, research and expeditions in science and engineering. One success: TED Fellow Asha de Vos‘s work on preventing the ship strike of blue whales in the Indian Ocean.

In a world paralyzed by apathy and inaction, this is a first step. Where will it lead? Let’s find out!

This piece was originally published in the http://ideas.ted.com/2014/12/03/lets-kickstart-science-in-america/