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Archive for July, 2009

Let me start by saying that we all view the world through our own biased filters.  As a data analyst and policy analyst, my bias is for data and in-depth information.  My all time favorite quote summarizing this belief comes from a cartoon I once saw:

In God we trust.  All others bring data!

Normally I do not editorialize on news reporting because I believe all information is valuable.  However, CNN’s current hype and hysteria approach to “news” makes it unbearable for me to watch.  “Experts” telling others what they should think about issues, often while screaming or raising their voices.

  1. What makes them an expert?
  2. Even if there are experts, where is the data to support their statements and theories?
  3. How has it been evaluated and scrutinzed (let alone why can’t we see it)?
  4. Why the need for screaming and loud voices?  Doesn’t everyone’s television set in this day an age have a volume adjusment control where one can raise the volume to above normal levels if one so desires?

Ok, the argument is the average viewer does not have the intelligence and attention span to understand the issues so they must be “simplified.”  First of all I take great offense to be called stupid.

Take the current reporting on the economic crisis.  Inquiring minds want to know: what exactly, specifically, in detail, brought on this global disaster?

I consider myself an average viewer.  Last time I checked I do not have a nobel prize in Economics or even a degree in Economics for that matter.

At the same time, I am definitely not the target audience for shows like The Real Housewives of New Jersey.  I shudder to think that anybody could live like this on a daily basis and if it is true and this is what “average” means then perhaps I should be making arrangements to go live on the space station.  Is it a wrong way of living?  I have no clue.  My basis for determining right or wrong is based on whether harm is caused to others and there does not appear to be any apparent harm being caused here plus those involved are (I hope) making a tidy sum from letting their behavior be portrayed on national television.  It is simply way too much drama and angst for my personal preference.

Back to economics and current global financial meltdowns (now this to me is real life drama and much more gut wrenching than any horror film).  A professor I had in undergrad once told me:

Never complain about a problem without also offering a solution.

Ok, in order to offer a solution I first need to understand the problem.  I watch CNN and, other than being told how bad things are, I cannot understand what the problem is.  I have asked others if they are getting a better understanding than I am and the consensus seems to be general confusion.   Then I see a BBC report such as this one

Global Credit Crunch Probed http://news.bbc.co.uk/player/nol/newsid_7000000/newsid_7000600/7000655.stm?bw=bb&mp=wm&asb=1&news=1&ms3=54&ms_javascript=true&bbcws=2

Which immediately raises the question in my mind, how is all this funny money even possible?

Ah, PBS has a very enlightening documentary called The Ascent of Money which explains the history of our modern financial system.

Current financial crisis in historical context  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ascentofmoney/featured/watch-full-program-the-ascent-of-money/24/

Episode 1: From Bullions to Bubbles (a history of the origins of money) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ascentofmoney/featured/the-ascent-of-money-episode-1-from-bullion-to-bubbles/44/

Episode 2: The Bonds of War (how public debt became currency) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ascentofmoney/featured/the-ascent-of-money-episode-2-bonds-of-war/90/

Episode 3: Risky Business (how insurance became currency) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ascentofmoney/featured/the-ascent-of-money-episode-3-risky-business/97/

While I do feel there is an anti George W Bush bias in the mortgage crisis explanation (i.e. the discussions about Enron implicate Bush but the activities described range from 1995 to 2001 which, considering the 1st year of a new presidential term is a transition year, are activities that took place entirely under the Clinton administration).   I also wonder what the hype over going off the gold standard is all about because the entire system has been based on trust and belief since its inception; we have simply substituted the belief that gold is valuable for a belief that certain currencies are valuable.

For those who find the PBS documentary too long, I recall a link a friend had sent which provided a great visual summary of what caused the mortgage crisis.

The Crisis of Credit Visualized http://www.vimeo.com/3261363

Notice something yet?  No need to understand 3rd order derivative calculus or have a degree in Keynsian theory or investment banking  in order to follow these explanations.  Why can’t we see more reporting like this and less hype?

Back to the funny money.  It is obvious that, even with the artificial construct of trust being a historic principle, something went gravely wrong here.  With this basic understanding of the problem, I now need data:

  1. How many bad loans (dollar terms, percentage of all loans)?
  2. How many of the bad have been classified or rated as good?
  3. Can we separate the good from the bad ones or is the financial entaglement the equivalent of trying to remove a gene from the human DNA sequence?
  4. What exactly are the bailouts targetted at doing?
  5. Yes, I know putting liquidity into the market but for whom? Are we strengthening good assets or pouring all this money into giving liquidity to those who are holding mostly bad assets?  If the latter, why are we doing this?

These are the issues I would like to see reported.  Not other people’s opinions on whether or not we have a problem  In my opinion, unless you just landed from another planet outside this galaxy, the problem is self evident.  What we need now is in-depth reporting that will enable us to come up with solutions to this mess.

Do I think my posting this will change CNN’s reporting style?  Nope.  However, perhaps if others read, start saying and posting the same sentiment, maybe, just maybe, a change can happen.

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I find it sad that most religions focus on teaching one dogma and emphasizing how religion makes us different instead of how it makes us similar. Even though I practice as a Catholic, I find great enjoyment in learning about other forms of practicing one’s spirituality.

Overall I am fascinated by how religion/spirituality shapes our view of the world.  In particular, I want to learn about non-dominant religious/spiritual beliefs and traditions (as well as languages) that offer insights on how we can peacefully co-exist with nature and each other.  I also love mythology and currently want to learn more about Nordic mythology. Stories and videos are easier for me to digest rapidly so links to these are deeply appreciated. Here are examples of what I’m trying to learn (not limited to these cultures):

Ojibwe culture http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ojibwa

Luo culture (I’m half Luo and interested in stories from the diaspora of Luo people) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luo_(family_of_ethnic_groups)

Islam (this is a dominant religion but the Islam I grew up observing is not the Islam I see being practiced today. Especially with respect to the role of women.  Hence I am very curious to hear traditional Islamic stories that glorify the role of women) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam

Maori (I looked up Mauri and it is defined as a word that means “the life force which all objects contain;” the language is dying and it would be a tragedy to lose its insights) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maori_language

Nordic mythology (in college I was taught about Roman and Greek gods but not about Nordic ones and yet Nordic beliefs have influenced Christianity) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nordic_mythology

Vedic mythology (lately every time I come across a fascinating concept I find it has its origins in Vedic teachings and yet I know nothing about these teachings) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vedic_mythology

The Akan from Ghana (one of my favorite books: Conversations with God, states that text is the most primitive form of communication and symbols represent highly evolved civilizations with mind-to-mind transfers being the highest form of communication; we are only taught about Egyptian hieroglyphs but these are equally fascinating) http://www.marshall.edu/akanart/AKANCOSMOLOGY.HTML

The Zohar. One day I would like to learn Hebrew and Aramaic so I can read the ancient texts for myself instead of having to rely on translations. Of course this means I would also have to learn Sanskrit and Persian. Hopefully I’ll have many years during “retirement.”  http://www.kheper.net/topics/Kabbalah/SeferZohar.htm

Numerology. Yes, Numerology. Even if you don’t believe in it one has to wonder how weird ways of adding up the letters in one’s name or one’s date of birth can yield any information that is even remotely relevant to one’s personality. Do I believe in predestination/immutable fate? No. Would I use this to guide my decision making? No. Is it fascinating nonetheless? Absolutely! Why does it work in any way? http://www.ehow.com/how_2098450_understand-destiny-number-numerology.html

http://www.awakener.com/introduction.html

Why am I interested in this?  There is much hype about “The Secret” and many are promoting teachings as new discoveries but in reality the lessons are from ancient peoples who have kept traditions and knowledge systems alive.  Scientific research is now validating what were previously viewed as mystical beliefs.  While science catches up to ancient wisdom, I want to learn more about the wisdom that has been ignored.

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I am focused on Kenya but interested in learning and collaborating on the following issues:















Sustainable Development http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sustainable_development





Tools:





Virtual Factory Model (farm = factory unit, aggregated farms = manufacturing facility)

Example SCAN model http://www.cababstractsplus.org/abstracts/Abstract.aspx?AcNo=20063141997

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According to the old adage, a picture tells 1,000 words. In my opinion, a map tells 5,000; an interactive map 1,000,000. Yes, this is very geeky so let me just show you the power of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) in community settings.

Eliminating Transportation Barriers for Low-Income Job Seekers

A project I was involved with in 1999 turned into an ongoing endeavor now called the Access to Work Interagency Cooperative.

The problem: how to help those needing to comply with new welfare reform regulations get to jobs by using public transportation?

Most of the entry level employment positions in Allegheny county are located at suburban retail centers. At the time, most of those needing to comply with the new welfare regulations were living in public housing communities located within the city and the southern portions of the county. There was a need to readily share data which would enable various coordinators from different agencies (Port Authority Transportation, Job Developers, Social Service Providers) understand the data in a way that would help them to create solutions.

At the request of Jane Downing, Senior Program Officer at The Pittsburgh Foundation, employment centers, day care establishments, demographics for selected communities, bus routes, travel times, and, number of bus connections required were mapped. The group discussions instantly shifted from questions such as “how many are really affected?” and “is this a significant problem?”, to statements such as, “oh my God, this is incredible” and, “we have to do something.” Over a 2 year period the immediate employment transition goals were met. Mapping concentrations of employers and the residence location of workers is now being used to analyze employment issues for all income levels.

Here is the latest report from the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board http://www.trwib.org/3D2009/index.php?id=6

Participatory GIS for Community Resource Mapping

The best source of knowledge about any community are those who are its long time residents. Even more so when there is a generational legacy. Such knowledge has typically resided in the heads of a few community members and the challenge has been finding a way to effectively share such information, especially across generations. An exciting approach called Participatory GIS is proving to be a highly effective solution, even in rural communities in Africa.

Here is an example of a project done with the Ogiek people in Kenya. http://pgis.cta.int/completed-initiatives/35-completed/46-mau-complex-kenya

This technique is also known as Public Participation GIS. You can read this Wikipedia article for more details http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PPGIS or visit the PPGIS Open Forum http://www.ppgis.net/

Teaching Youth about Environmental Resource Management

The beauty of spatial analysis is that data can be readily understood by all ages and skill levels.

Here is an example of how maps are used to train fourth graders on biodiversity and environmental issues in their local community http://www.esri.com/news/arcuser/0207/horny-toad.html

In this example youth are trained on how to inventory trees in urban areas as well as how to assist with park and greenspace maintenance. http://www.esri.com/news/arcnews/winter0506articles/4h-clubs.html

Interactive Mapping with Open Source Tools

The biggest drawback to using spatial analysis has been the need to have a technical specialist familiar with GIS data analysis techniques, expensive baseline maps and data sets, as well as high powered machines.  While publicly available tools still do not offer the full power of GIS software, this day is coming. In the interim, individuals and communities have a powerful new tool they can use to convey information.

Understanding the Impact of Hurricane Ophelia in North Carolina http://www.communitywalk.com/north_carolina__hurricane_ophelia_impacts/map/143

See the world’s population density http://www.google.com/gadgets/directory?synd=earth&cat=featured&url=http://www.google.com/mapfiles/mapplets/earthgallery/World_Population_Density.xml

For those wanting a more technical discussion of these issues, visit James Fee’s blog http://www.spatiallyadjusted.com/2009/04/21/sharing-cartography/

In short, why read a data report when now you can see it!

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I was very excited to see in this week’s Japan for Sustainability digest that the World Business Council for Sustainable Development has created an Ec0-Patent Commons (www.wbcsd.org/web/epc/)

Here are excerpts from the site which explain the purpose of the EPC

“The Eco-Patent Commons is an initiative to create a collection of patents on technology that directly or indirectly protects the environment. The patents will be pledged by companies and other intellectual property rights holders and made available to anyone free of charge.

The Commons is a resource for connecting those who have had success with a particular challenge in a way that benefits the environment and those who are facing similar challenges.

Experience has shown that free exchange of intellectual property fosters innovation by allowing new players in and freeing resources to work on other problems and improvements—working on the gear rather than reinventing the wheel. The Commons provides an opportunity for businesses to identify common areas of interest and establish new collaborative development efforts.”

It is very heartening to see a shift from Competition to Collaboration and Restriction to Sharing.  Conventional business wisdom focused on scarcity and the notion that the only way to succeed in business was to limit how others could use one’s intellectual property.  Perhaps this is why we live in an age where we have more problems than solutions.

Leading business research is causing a paradigm shift towards Open Business Models.  More information can be found here:

Wikipedia summary http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_business

Harvard Business Press Book Open Business Models: How to Thrive in the New Innovation Landscape

UC Berkeley Haas School http://openinnovation.haas.berkeley.edu/openbusinessmodels.html

As with any new business model, there will be a lot of different approaches, many will not work, eventually a best of breed model will emerge.  Until this happens, the shift in business consciousness is an encouraging one.

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http://telstar.ote.cmu.edu/environ/m1/s3/nair.shtml

You know the type. Quiet, never pushy, always smiles. Forces you to think deeply about things. Doesn’t let you run away from the hard stuff. Always patient (even when you are talking about something she already knows). Always there to help you and pick you back up when you are fed up.

You approach thinking you’ll learn about the environment and instead you are taught a lesson about life, love, and humility. We need more Gurus in this world!

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We hear a lot about poverty in Africa. Many assume it is inevitable. Some assume, wrongly, it is because people are lazy. My hope is that by sharing details about a project I am collaborating on, these myths are dispelled.

Background:

Kenya’s economy

Work force (1.95 million formal sector wage earners): public sector 30%; private sector 70%. Informal sector workers–6.4 million. Services–45%; industry and commerce–35%; agriculture–20%. Structure of Economy (% of GDP) Services–58.2%; industry and commerce–19%; agriculture–2%. About 75% of the work force is engaged in agriculture, mainly as subsistence farmers. Kenya faces profound environmental challenges brought on by high population growth, deforestation, shifting climate patterns, and the overgrazing of cattle in marginal areas in the north and west of the country. Significant portions of the population will continue to require emergency food assistance in the coming years. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Effects of Climate Change

Contrary to those who still believe this is hype, arid and desert lands are expanding in many parts of the world. Kenya is one of those places. Farmers are faced with the following quandary: how do you farm when there is very little or no water? My father, Shem Wandiga, and his colleagues have focused their scientific expertise for 3 years on helping 140 farmers over come this hurdle. Details on their work can be found here (click on text next to each bullet to be linked to relevant content):

The project is located in Kenya’s Makueni District. If you have never heard of the place you can see it on a map

http://www.maplandia.com/kenya/eastern/makueni/

Here are articles talking about development issues in Makueni.

http://unjobs.org/duty_stations/kenya/eastern-province/makueni

Business Development

It is often said that fools go where angels dare not tread. Fool or angel, I wrongly assumed that once farmers could grow crops, it would be very easy to open markets for their produce. Right!

First of all, vegetables are perishable, roads are bad to non-existent, there are no cold storage facilities. So, how do you get fresh produce to market?

Not a problem, we just convert it to shelf stable products and then schedule pick ups. Ok, what are they growing?  Maize, soybeans, sorghum, beans, cowpeas…And what appealing shelf stable products can you make from this? How are you going to make these products? What is your production cost per unit?

Let’s start with the easy stuff, production cost per unit. I’ll just ask farmers to let me see there accounting books. Their what???? Ok, I’ll ask them directly for the cost of production. Some give you figures by month, by season, by year. No, I need per acre. What??? Ok, let’s start with how much you grow in a year. “These three crops, I just started so I don’t know.” “This other one I sell at market 2 times a year.” Yes, but how much of it do you grow? “Two bags.” That is what you take to market but how much of it do you grow versus how much of it do you take to market? Now folks are getting vexed. Time to tone down the Type A personality and breathe…!

Let’s just start gathering our data from scratch.  I need weekly production updates. How are you going to get these? All the production experts are in Nairobi. Ok, I’ll ask farmers to text me their updates, and, to give them an incentive, I will also send them information they want via text. Now, you see, just because one asks the questions more frequently over mobile phone does not mean the answers get any better. Farmers are keenly aware of the skills and resources they lack so they start making requests. As we start answering their mobile charges for text messages get astronomical and they cannot afford to continue to receive messages.  You can find more details by clicking here to visit my company website and view the reports referenced under Sambaza Wakulima.

Solution:

1. Find someone who knows more than I do about training farmers to do business. Wait a minute, extension workers face the same challenges I just went through. Click here for an AllAfrica.com article citing issues. Well, at least we are all talking about the same need: communication linkages.

2. Find a mobile communication system that works and adopt it. Ah yes, well there is no complete package. Click here to see study details.

3. Ok, let’s build one. Ahem, there is the little issue of money. No problem, I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, I’ll ask for help. Of course conceptualizing a system and designing a system that actually works are two different things. It would be a lot easier if we could start from a solid experience base and build from there. Lots of prayer! Ah, Ben Kanyi from KEFGA is asking me to screen a group that has been doing 90% of what we are proposing to do. Don’t you love Synchronicity! Let’s begin collaboration with TIST. Click here for more details on TIST.

When will the network be ready???  Stay tuned…..

Future Issues:

Generating economies of scale – each farmer has about 3 to 5 acres on which multiple crops are grown. Great for biodiversity and maintaining soil health. Not great at an individual level for generating profitable economies of scale on each farm.

Shelf stable products – yes, things like Goji juice seem self evident but it takes a lot of research and development to create a product like that. You have to get the taste right, set up food security measures, packaging…Impossible to do, not by a long shot. Just an added step.

Creating markets – ah finally, how do we make money! First we need to find socially conscious purchasers who want to purchase produce and goods from rural Kenyan farmers.

As you can see, it is all pretty simple when you think about it! It’s the doing that makes things a little more complicated.

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