Fellows at TEDGlobal 2014: Julie Freeman launches new online artwork, We Need Us

Above, watch a sample of Julie Freeman’s new data-driven artwork, We Need Us.

Artist Julie Freeman creates kinetic sculptures, objects, images, compositions and animations from nature-generated data – such as the motion of fish swimming. Today, Freeman announced a new piece of work from the TED Fellows stage at TEDGlobal 2014. We Need Us — an online, data-driven artwork that explores the nature of metadata — has just gone live on The Space, a new website for digital art funded by the BBC and Arts Council England. Here, she tells us about what we can learn from experiencing data, rather than simply drawing information from it.

You are known make art using data from natural sources. Where is the data for We Need Us drawn from, and how is it different?

This metadata comes from a citizen science website called the Zooniverse, which allows people to classify large data sets from all the over the world. Volunteers from all walks of life come together to do this in a very altruistic manner, helping scientists complete extremely labor-intensive tasks, freeing them up for other research and analysis.

Essentially, I use data as an art material. I take the metadata looking at Zooniverse user activity, and how they’re interacting with the site. I manipulate and process the data, and then that’s used to control the animations and sound compositions, which are made of field recordings.

What did you record?

All sorts of stuff – underwater sounds, recordings of the environment, of birds, insects, buildings, machines. Anything.

How is this different from straight-ahead data visualization?

Traditional data visualization is about how we understand data and the information it contains. What I’m doing is a lateral way of looking at data. How can we experience it? How can we feel it, and what does it mean to think about the life of data — how it lives, and what the dynamics within it are?

What is the structure of this piece?

The work is made up of 10 different scenes, if you like, and each scene relates to a project on the Zooniverse website. There’s one called Snapshot: Serengeti, for example, where volunteers look at photographs taken by motion-triggered cameras in the Serengeti, to help classify the animals appearing in the photograph — say a bison or antelope. But I’m not so much interested in the animals as taking the data of the people classifying the data. What do they click on? When do they click on it? Where are they from? Using that data, I animate an abstract illustration drawn from references to the Serengeti. The sounds are things like flies buzzing, grasses in the wind, bison making weird noises.

What was the impetus for collaborating with Robert Simpson and Zooniverse?

Robert and I met at TED2014 in Vancouver, and when he told me about Zooniverse, I thought, “I’ve got a great idea!” At the time, The Space — where We Need Us is hosted and which is a new online platform for data-based artwork — had approached me as a curator. I said, “Actually, I’m an artist that works with digital technologies and would like to make a work with Zooniverse data.” They loved it, so they, along with the Open Data Institute, commissioned the piece.

And as a scientist, what does Robert think about what you’re doing?

He thinks it’s brilliant. Interestingly, a group of scientists are working with exactly the same data that powers my artwork, but they are looking at how communities come together to collaborate, to solve problems. But I’m using the data for art, and they’re using it for proper social science reasons. It’s nice to know that this pot of data is being used by different people for different outcomes. Basically both projects are about the humanity in technology, exposing the altruism of how people use the web, and what we can learn from that.

To view We Need Us, which goes live on Monday at 2pm UK time, visit www.thespace.org/weneedus. And to learn more about Robert Simpson and the Zooniverse, read “You found a planet!: Robert Simpson crowdsources scientific research and accelerates discovery at Zooniverse“.


Drones for good

Image from Superflux

Image from Superflux

Imagine a world where unmanned aircraft – drones – move among us, delivering pizzas or acting as a first responder to major natural disasters. It turns out we may not be that from this kind of technology becoming the norm.

According to Virgin Unite’s recent article, “How will we live with drones?” drone technology will soon be massively integrated into civilian and commercial life. The article describes a world only previously recognizable as science fiction, bringing with it many complex implications.This is where TED Fellow Anab Jain’s company Superflux comes in. Superflux is an interdisciplinary design-tech organization, working at the crux of emerging technologies. Under Jain’s direction, Superflux is making efforts to safeguard the positive potential of drone use, in hopes that drones might gain a wider acceptance as tools to better connect and stimulate our communities.

Whether or not this is a feasible goal for the near future is difficult to say, since opinions about these technological developments can be polarizing. It’s safe to say, however, that people are certainly engaging in conversation. Richard Branson, a big-time drone investor, showed his support by retweeting Virgin’s article on September 21, 2014 with the hashtag “drones4good.” While not everyone shares Branson’s enthusiasm, Superflux is working to bridge that gap is by encouraging people to experience their specialized drones firsthand.

From this came “Drone Aviary,” an installation originally scheduled to debut at the London Design Festival. The idea behind the installation was to provide an interactive space to familiarize people with specialized drones, ultimately creating a connection between humans and these technological newcomers. Superflux operates under the vision of humans and drones interacting in a responsible, sustainable fashion, with an unlimited potential to improve the safety and efficiency of a wide variety of activities—ranging anywhere from education, to 3-D mapping, or agriculture.

It seems clear that drone usage is no longer a question of “if,” but “when, and in what capacity?” The more pertinent question now seems to be how to mindfully go about that adaptation. As a frontrunner in the technological movement, Jain’s multidisciplinary scope of experience is sure to give a uniquely relevant perspective and understanding to the ever-growing conversation about drone technology.

By Lauren Bugg

Fellows at TEDGlobal 2014: Street artist Mundano creates political art from election waste in Rio di Janeiro


Mundano's "Lixeira Eleitoral" ("Election Waste") bin in Rio di Janeiro's bustling Largo da Carioca neighborhood. Photo: Mundano

Mundano’s “Lixeira Eleitoral” (“Election Waste”) bin in Rio di Janeiro’s bustling Largo da Carioca neighborhood. Photo: Mundano

Today, as TEDGlobal 2014 prepares to open, there’s a kind of hush on the streets. Brazilians are voting in a presidential election. TEDGlobal 2014 Fellow Mundano, a graffiti artist best known for his project Pimp My Carroça — which drew visibility to the vital role of waste pickers in Brazil and around the world by customizing their carts — took the event as a call to artistic action. Arriving early in Rio from Sao Paulo, he has spent the last few days building an art installation in the busy center of Rio to call attention to the waste involved in elections, the pervasive corruption of the political system, and the terrible problem of non recyclable waste in Brazil. We asked him to tell us about it.

Tell us about this action – what did you do, and why?

Brazilian elections generate a massive amount of waste. It’s all about money: campaigns give money to produce all these ads, and pay for citizens to promote them regardless of their political beliefs. So the streets of Brazil become choked with banners, posters, flyers, stickers, racks – none of which are recyclable. They will all go to landfill.

So I came a few days ago, and in Rio’s busy center of Largo da Carioca, I built a trash bin in the shape of the electronic voting booth. I then filled the bin with the ads themselves.

How did the public respond? 

It’s funny — the first comment we got from the security guard was, “This is too small — it should be giant for all the trash they are producing.” A lot of people took photos, and these were posted to social media. And some people who work for particular candidates took their candidates’ materials back out of the bin, to prevent people taking photos of their candidate in the trash.

Some waste pickers rummaged through to try to find something of value — but only find politicians. In the past, I’ve written this message on the carts I’ve helped customize: “If corrupted politicians were recyclable, I would be rich.” I thought this message was great, but I have had a wastepicker say to me: “No, Mundano you are wrong. I won’t be rich because there are so many of them, the price goes down. They are worth less than cardboard!”

Is this something you often do, in other elections and in other cities?

Yes, for the past four election cycles, since 2008, I’ve been using election waste as material for art. I used take them home, change the messages, and put them back out on the streets. I’ve also built big installations. But this is the first time I’ve made something that is actually usable. I typically take such actions in Sao Paulo because I vote there, but when I realized I’d be in Rio for the elections this year – which are historical because there are more candidates with real chances, and no one knows what will happen – I thought it was the perfect moment.

But for every election, I use these  ads to make something to get people to reflect on the corrupted political system, all the false promises, the awful waste.

Describe these posters – from what you say, they sound pervasive.

First, the posters really show only a face and a number. There’s no information on who these people are, or their main objectives. So it’s hard for people to decide from this who are the best candidates.

Right now, if you go to Largo da Carioca, you’ll see them everywhere. There is a law that you can only put up these ads from 6am to 10pm. But I saw many yesterday at midnight. If this were policed and the candidates fined, it could raise money to encourage a reuse project. If the materials were even recyclable, garbage pickers would get rich selling them. But after the election, millions of ads will litter the streets — paper, folders, flyers, but also synthetic banners and trestles that can’t be recycled. And they will all go to the landfill.

How would you like to see this change? 

Brazil is well known for its creativity, so if parties are going to invest all this money in ads, they should have the forethought to plan to make them useful afterwards — recyclable materials, or something of practical use — something intelligent.

Candidates' representatives remove posters from Mudano's Election Rubbish bin. Translation of text: "There's not enough space here for all the election waste. Build your own Election Waste bin with only two trestles." Photo: Mundano

Candidates’ representatives remove posters from Mudano’s Election Rubbish bin. Translation of text: “There’s not enough space here for all the election waste. Build your own Election Waste bin with only two trestles.” Photo: Mundano

TEDGlobal 2014 Fellows arrive in Rio!

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A panoramic panoply of Fellows. Click to view larger image.

A panoramic panoply of Fellows. Click to view larger images.

Ever wondered what an aggregation of globally based healthcare innovators, marine biologists, conservationists, astrophysicists, cosmologists, war photographers, artists, entrepreneurs, musicians, and neuroscientists looks like? We took a few spins around the room tonight to capture the just-this-minute landed, newly minted class of TEDGlobal 2014 Fellows – as well as Senior and visiting Fellows – here in Rio for the Fellows four-day pre-conference. Things got giddy pretty fast – and no, their heads don’t really do that.

We’re headed into an exciting week, so stay tuned for much more! And if you can’t wait, check out the video below for an introduction to the TEDGlobal 2014 Fellows, or read this interview with Brazilian Fellow and molecular biologist Marcela de Silva on her work to protect the Amazon from the invasive golden mussel.

Invasion of the golden mussel: A TED Fellow wields genes to protect the Amazon

Back in the ’90s, the golden mussel (Limnoperna fortunei) hitched a ride on ships traveling from Asia to South America. In the past decade and a half, the mussel has proliferated through South America’s river systems, destroying the native habitat and disrupting the operation of power plants and water treatment facilities. This invasive species now threatens the delicate ecosystem of the Amazon.

Computational biologist and TEDGlobal 2014 Fellow Marcela Uliano da Silva is working to put a halt to this. A native of Brazil, she’s sequencing the golden mussel’s genome for the first time; she tells the TED Blog how she hopes to use information gleaned from its molecular profile to stop current invasions and forecast future ones.

Tell us about the golden mussel — why does it pose a problem to South America?

The golden mussel originates from Asia, and arrived in South America in the early 1990s, carried in ballast water of ships. The first golden mussels were deposited in La Plata estuary in Argentina, and began to spread via the Parana River, going up all the way to the Pantanal wetlands. In these basins, golden mussels reproduced at high rates, fouling and clogging up the pipelines in power plants and water treatment facilities, as well as taking habitat away from native species. The mussels have made their way to Itaipu — one of the biggest power plants in the world — and they also do damage to many power plants in São Paulo and Minas Gerais in Brazil.

But the golden mussel doesn’t only spread via ballast water and larvae that swim upstream — the public play an active role in the invasion, too. There are several famous fishery festivals in the Brazilian wetlands, and people come by car, towing private boats from the south. When they put the boats in the water, they introduce golden mussels to new rivers. That was how it was introduced in the wetlands. That’s why awareness-raising and education are important: we need to avoid introducing mussels in new locations.

How do the mussels affect the native ecosystem?

Scientists are now calling the golden mussel an “ecosystem engineer,” because unfortunately, it changes environments very efficiently. One of its characteristics is that it reproduces a lot, creating huge populations. It’s a filter feeder, so when there are many mussels in one area, water transparency increases. Sunlight penetrates the water more deeply, changing phytoplankton levels and the balance of species living at the surface of the water. In some rivers, there is evidence showing that the fish population has increased 20% because they have a new food resource in the mussels. But when you increase the number of fish, it has a domino effect, as they are at the top of the food chain. Ultimately, when the mussel invades, it transforms the ecosystem, decreasing biodiversity and homogenizing the environment.

Map of the mussel migration. The golden mussel originated from Asia, and was introduced into the river basin systems of South America in the 1990s via ballast water. Today it has proliferated throughout the region’s wetlands and is threatening to reach the Amazon. Image: Julia Back

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



Imagination in health and medicine? 11 fresh ideas from the TEDMED stage

Nassim Assefi directed the stage program for TEDMED 2014, a conference which brought out unexpected ideas in medicine—like how one can help cancer patients with a pink tutu. Photo: Sandy Huffaker Jr.

Prosthetics as sculpture, the maternal benefits of breast milk, Cuba’s radical approach to free medical education. These are just a few of the subjects tackled at TEDMED 2014: Unlocking Imagination, hosted last week simultaneously in San Francisco and Washington, DC, with a stage program directed by TED Fellow, physician, novelist and activist Nassim Assefi. On two stages over three days, 2,000 conference-goers and 80 speakers and performers gathered for an idea exchange on a vast range of subjects relevant to innovation in health and medicine.

A medical edition of the TED conference that was founded in 1995 (it’s now independently owned), we asked Assefi what made this TEDMED different from those in the past. “This was the most diverse TEDMED conference in its 19-year history,” she said. “We had slightly more women than men, more ethnic and international diversity than ever before, and a tremendous variety of fields. We didn’t point this out much during the program, but the impact of it did not go unnoticed.”

This year, it was truly a global event. “The conference was livestreamed to 146 countries free of charge, which felt like a democratizing coup,” Assefi added. “I believe being radically open is the wave of the future.”

In that spirit, for those of us not lucky enough to attend, the TED Blog hand-picked 11 of the most intriguing ideas presented on the TEDMED stage, and asked Assefi to tell us more about them. Find them below, grouped by theme. And for more speaker highlights, visit the TEDMED blog.

Photographer Kitra Cahana turned her lens on her father to capture his experience with “locked-in” syndrome. From “Father; Inchoate, Sub-Planetary, Protozoan.” Montreal, Canada, 2013. Photo: Kitra Cahana

Reverberations in global health

1. Financial compensation for living kidney donors may be a reasonable way to handle the kidney shortage crisis. Iran is the only country in the world that has legalized the sale of kidneys from living donor volunteers. The government-endorsed program has been in existence for over 25 years and is implemented by non-profit health charities. Bioethicist Sigrid Fry-Revere went on an underground research mission to investigate, and her counterintuitive research reveals that the Iranian solution may be the least exploitative, most equitable policy given the current kidney shortage crisis.

2. Offering a free medical education could have big benefits for the world. Cuba-based American journalist Gail Reed describes a radical experiment of solidarity undertaken by the Cuban government — founding the largest medical school in the world that freely provides training to students from the Global South, educating them to be humanitarian, holistic doctors. That experiment in radical generosity is now paying off: there’s a disproportionately high number of Cuban doctors currently volunteering in the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and these new graduates are quickly becoming a significant force in combating the global physician shortage in low-income countries.

Bob Carey started taking self-portraits of himself in a pink tutu for his wife when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Now, his images cheer others up too. “Jump”, from the Pink Tutu Project. Photo: Bob Carey

Art therapy

3. Creativity can come from something as difficult as ”locked-in” syndrome. Photographer and TED Fellow Kitra Cahana is well known for documenting marginalized communities. (Watch her TED Talk, “A glimpse of life on the road.”) But when her beloved father, a rabbi, suffered a stroke resulting in “locked-in” syndrome — he could move only eyelids but had full cognitive functioning — she turned her camera inward to document his experience. Instead of pitying himself for his near total paralysis, Rabbi Cahana finds spiritual liberation and blinks out long, transcendent sermons to Kitra and her family, who steadfastly watch over him. The result of their three-year journey is a new visual art form that’s both eerie and beautiful, matching her father’s extraordinary spiritual resilience.

4. A photograph can be grown. Zachary Copfer was a microbiologist working for a pharmaceutical company who fell out of love with his profession and escaped to art school instead. In the process, he invented bacteriographs, a new photographic process where he literally grows photographs in living bacteria — and, paradoxically, reignited his passion for science.

5. A pink tutu can be a tool in cancer treatment. Another photographer, Bob Carey, turned to self-portraits as a form of self-soothing when his wife Linda was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. His favorite prop was a pink tutu, which cheered him from the bleakness of Linda’s diagnosis and made her laugh. When she shared his images with her fellow chemotherapy patients and saw the comfort they offered, The Tutu Project was born. Today, Bob continues to do ballerina self portraits all over the world, donating a portion of profits to help cancer patients cope with health care expenses. The hilarious and beautiful photos remind us that sometimes, laughter heals best.

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

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Fotokite! Sergei Lupashin brings aerial photography down to Earth

A stunning image of the stars in the Okavango Delta in South Africa. Sergei Lupashin gave his friend Steve Boyes, also a TED Fellow, a Fotokite to help him capture the landscape from unusual angles. Photo: Courtesy of Steven Boyes

With his tethered quadcopter Fotokite, Russian-born inventor Sergei Lupashin plans to put aerial photography and the power of unmanned aerial vehicles in the hands of of journalists, architects and artists. Interestingly, this device was actually inspired by a 2011 protest in Russia. We talked to Lupashin to find out more about this inciting moment, and about how he plans to push past the public’s fear of drones.

You’ve said that the idea for Fotokite came from witnessing a protest. Can you tell us more about that?

The protest I was referring to took place in Bolotnaya Square, in 2011, in response to massive irregularities in federal elections. Something very rare happened — a lot of people came out to protest in Moscow. For Russia, this was a huge event. But for whatever reason, the world media pretty much ignored it.

There happened to be a group of photographers nearby who usually do nature shots. They take quadcopters and octocopters to, say, the Sphinx or the Pyramids, and take these fantastic panoramas. They happened to be just around the corner, so they did a few panoramas of the protest. In a single image, you really got an the idea of the scale of this event. It was really eye-opening. Ironically, these photographers were completely apolitical. They were simply documenting what was going on near them. It struck me how powerful it is — how even a single photo from an aerial perspective can really change the world’s perception of situations and events.

This is still a motivator for us, and we’d like people to take the Fotokite to breaking news events. TED Senior Fellow Teru Kuwayama once said to me that you only need a very small shift in perspective to be able to make a great, unique photo. This is also quite interesting to me, because the Fotokite really opens up your envelope in terms of where you can place the camera.

You first came to TED as part of the team manning the Flying Machine Arena at TEDGlobal 2013. (Watch the talk, “The astounding athletic power of quadcopters.“) What’s the difference between the quadcopters you demonstrated there and the technology you use for Fotokite?

The quadcopters we showed at TEDGlobal were part a larger system. The Flying Machine Arena is essentially a motion-capture space configured for robotics, surrounded by a net cage. Motion capture is usually used in Hollywood to track actors, but in this case, we used it to track vehicles. The quadcopters are only able to fly so precisely because they’re being tracked by external cameras, in real time, with extraordinary accuracy. It’s a very expensive—a very specialized system that you couldn’t actually use in the real world beyond performances and installations.

So the question was: how do we build something for the real world, something really simple that you could use outside of a very controlled setup? The Flying Machine Arena served as an incredible sandbox for exploring various directions and concepts with the technology. We learned to build the Fotokite in this environment.

Every photographer knows how to use a tripod. So the idea emerged to build a tripod that could extend very high up, say, 100 meters. Initially, we were using different algorithms to make this “flying tripod” work, but ultimately, a tether proved to be a very elegant solution. The tether is always taut, so we can use it for two things. One is to interact with the vehicle — you can control it like a flying pet. The other is to let the vehicle know where it is, relative to the user. This replaces expensive cameras and GPS.

Lightweight and small, the Fotokite can be launched and ready for action in a minute. Photo: Milan Rohrer/Fotokite

How does it work? Is there a camera that reads where the tether is?

That’s the magic of it: there are no special sensors. It’s using the same sensors you have in your phone, for example. The magic happens is in the algorithms. So we’re using inertial sensors, very simple sensors that have been made affordable and incredibly reliable thanks to smartphones and consumer electronics, to measure accelerations and rates of rotation. Then we apply estimation algorithms to figure out the angle of the vehicle relative to the user.

So the sensors figure out the angle of the quadcopter to the person using the algorithms, with the tether as a reference point?

Exactly. There’s always a tether, and because it’s always kept taut, it’s always stretched, it’s always producing a force pulling on the quadcopter. We can observe this force using these sensors, and therefore, if we know what that force is, we can figure out where the quadcopter is relative to the person. This means we can also stabilize and do intelligent things based on that data.

There’s something really cool there as well. The quadcopter is aware of the user, of the person pulling on the leash. So we can actually use it as a communication channel. So you can do things like walk around with the leash, and the quadcopter moves with you. But you building on top of that, you can actually communicate with tugs and things such, so you can give it commands by physically pulling on the tether and it can even give you feedback by tugging back. It’s as if it’s a flying dog.

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




4 Tips For Applying for the TED Fellowship: an intern shares her advice

TEDFellows Retreat 2013. August 17 - 21, 2013, Whistler, BC. Photo: Ryan Lash

The following is a guest post from Stella Carnegie, a Junior at Boston University, who was an intern for the TED Fellows team for a week this past summer. She is currently studying abroad in Madrid, Spain.

I had the unique opportunity of spending a week this summer working with the TED Fellows team during their selection of their TEDGlobal 2014 class and was enlightened and inspired by the time and energy the team put into each prospective Fellow during the round of phone interviews. I have a few pieces of reflection I would like to share with anyone who is applying to become a TED Fellow themselves:

1. What exactly is the TED Fellowship? The TED Fellows Program mentors individuals who have dedicated themselves to a specific cause, project, or research with which they aspire to have a strong positive impact on the world. The resources of the Fellows program include an official coaching program, PR team, and relationships with speaking and book agents, and you get to go to TED. Also, I know first-hand that the team will do all they can to support the Fellows, both professionally and emotionally, in their world-changing work!

2. Being honored as a TED Fellow is not simply an individual achievement. Once selected, you become part of a class of twenty Fellows, and after attending the TED or TEDGlobal Conference, an integral part of a loyal, vibrant, and incredibly caring network of all 348 (and counting!) Fellows from around the world. 

3. When applying, think about why you want to be a TED Fellow. What specifically about the Fellows program will help you achieve your personal and professional goals? Becoming a TED Fellow means identifying specific challenges you face in your daily work, and knowing how the TED Fellows program can support you in overcoming those challenges.

4. Be yourself in the interview process! If you’re lucky enough to make it to the round of phone interviews, the Fellows team is already very interested in getting to know you and hearing more about your groundbreaking work. Stay relaxed and let your true colors show.

Good luck! Thanks to the innovation and collaboration of each new class of Fellows, the program continues to grow into a vast and diverse network making a positive impact all around the world. You can apply to be a TED Fellow here.


Need help? Ask Aunt Bertha! Erine Gray helps people in need find social services in their area



Most of us will, at some point, face a life crisis — divorce, job loss, illness, eviction. In the United States, 95% of social safety nets are provided by charity organizations and NGOs, so finding help in a crisis situation can be confusing and distressing. Erine Gray is the founder of Aunt Bertha, a free-to-use online platform that makes it easy for anyone in the US to find and apply for social services — anything from Medicare to food stamps to housing — just by typing in a ZIP code. Aunt Bertha serves people in all 50 states, with in-depth coverage in Texas, Colorado, Central Florida, and Richmond, Virginia. Starting this week, Aunt Bertha has added New York City to its in-depth coverage list. We took this moment to talk to Gray about how Aunt Bertha was born, how it works and how it’s shaping up to be a valuable tool not just for families and individuals in need but for policy makers, advocates and community workers as well.

Aunt Bertha started as a response to an illness in your own family. Can you tell us about your experience?

I grew up in a small town called Olean, New York, an hour south of Buffalo. When I was almost 17, in the summer of 1992, my mom, who worked as a janitor at the community college at the time, caught a rare disease called encephalitis. She needed to be rushed to Sayre, Pennsylvania, which was a four-hour drive. She flatlined twice on the way there, but made it to see a brain specialist. She went into a coma and survived, but she suffered brain damage. Her memory was essentially wiped out — everything after her childhood and the first few years of the birth of her first daughter was gone. She had no memory of me and my little sister.

She was released from the hospital three months later. It was me and my dad and my sister, just trying to figure out how to take care of her. Obviously you don’t get a certification for these types of things. Nobody is ever really prepared. She recovered, to some extent, but she suffered from seizures on a regular basis—they would sometimes knock her out for the day. My dad did the best he could to take care of her, and he did, for nine years. He did it alone for the most part. We didn’t know what services were available. And when we did find programs, it was difficult to get through the application process.

I went off to college, studied computer science, but ended up getting my degree from Indiana University in economics. I was working as a contractor in Austin, Texas, when I got a call from my dad. He needed help. My mother was getting older and started to have early-onset dementia. I flew up to New York and packed her things, and moved her to Texas, and became her legal guardian. So there I was—unprepared—trying to figure out how to navigate a system for somebody who needed help.

What kinds of services are available with people in this position?

Unfortunately there are not a lot of resources available for older adults with mental illness in the US. There are private care facilities, but these are financially unattainable for many. All too often, people either end up in the prison systems, homeless or, if they’re lucky—in a nursing home.

I went through a long process of looking for a nursing home, but many of them discriminated against people with signs of mental illness. If you think about it from their perspective, they don’t want people who might want to run away, or people who are difficult to deal with. We must have been rejected by 15 to 20 nursing homes. I had a social worker give me advice on how to find a place that would take her. She told me to dress up, wear a jacket and go meet the administrators in person. I’d be invited to submit an application—but the only response I would get would be very concise rejection letters that said, “We can’t meet your mother’s needs.” It seemed at the time to be a legal form of discrimination.

It was navigating this system for somebody who’s disabled that made me see how broken the system really is. So I went back to graduate school and got my masters in public policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs here in Austin. I ended up working as a contractor for the state of Texas, essentially looking at improving the way people find out about social service programs like food stamps, the food subsidy program in the US, Medicaid, the US welfare program and how they apply for them. The company I worked for also ran a call center that helped people get enrolled into these programs.

During those four years, 2006 to 2010, there was a big economic downturn. Texas is the second largest state in the US—a huge, huge economy . Enrollment levels grew significantly, but the state didn’t have the capacity to deal with that much growth. So it was a challenge to figure out how to get everyone connected with what they needed. On most nights, my car was the last car in the parking lot. I’d analyze calls, and realized a lot of people were ringing just to say, “Hey, did you receive my application for food stamps?” “Or I sent you a fax, can you confirm you got it?” We figured out pretty quickly that this information was stored in the system, so our team redesigned the menu, allowing much more self-service. This meant people in need could get answers in 30 seconds rather than having to wait on hold for 30 minutes.

We worked on several big projects like this that made things more efficient. The number of calls and the amount of time spent taking them went down. These efforts helped turn the project into an operation that could scale.

It was this work, as well as my family’s experience caring for my mother, that led to the idea for Aunt Bertha. I thought to myself, “Well, if we can visualize data for complex programs like the food stamps program, would more self-service options in social services be cheaper to implement and less frustrating for the person in need?” And that was the a-ha moment—the big idea.

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



Apply to be a TED2015 TED Fellow!


The TED Fellows program is a global network of 348 innovators and trailblazers representing all disciplines – from art to science to business to entrepreneurship. Twice every year, we look for twenty additional change-makers to join the pack. Think that might be you? The application for the TED2015 Fellowship is now open and you can find the application announcement in 14 languages below. The application closes on September 21, 2014, so mark your calendars and apply here!

Arabic translation: قم بالتقديم اليوم!

Chinese translation: 今天就来申请!

Dutch translation: Meld je vandaag aan!

French translation: Postulez dès maintenant

German translation: Bewerben Sie sich noch heute auf

Hebrew translation: הגישו מועמדות היום!

Italian translation: Presenta la tua candidatura oggi stesso!

Korean translation: 바로 지원하세요!

Persian translation: ھﮪﮬﻫمﯿﻴن اﺍمروﻭزﺯ اﺍقداﺍمﻡ کنﯿﻴد

Portuguese translation: Inscreva­se hoje!

Russian translation: Подай заявку сегодня!

Spanish translation: ¡Participa ya!

Thai translation: สมัครวันนี้

Vietnamese translation: Hãy đăng kí tuyển chọn ngay hôm nay tại