CrisisCamp Boston and developing an app: InnCrisis

Last weekend I attended CrisisCamp Boston organized by the Hurricane Hackers out of the MIT Media Lab. I went primarily to work on the meta-community organizing stuff (as is my custom) but also ended up working on a crisis response app with some really cool peeps.

Before I get to that, a few links.

Many of you know that I use Evernote for absolutely everything.. but this was the first event where I experimented with publishing my personal notes as a means of public engagement. I found this really helpful for both communicating with collaborators as well as keeping my head on straight. My notes:

I ended up on video for this blog post. (I still find it awkward seeing myself on video.)

I was asked to follow up with a blog post on the Hurricane Hackers blog talking about how having  CrisisCamp events can help build disaster preparedness. I found the Occupy movement’s Occupy Sandy efforts to be especially inspiring, so I used them as a case study.

And now, onto the app!

Last weekend the NYC Office of Emergency Management put in a request for a hotel availability platform to streamline the process of sheltering people displaced by disasters like hurricane Sandy. A bunch of us naturally gravitated toward this project, and off we went!

We encountered a number of challenges (technical, legal, etc) along the way, and a few conceptual shifts.. but we ultimately decided on an app that:

  1. collects donations
  2. searches for hotel room availability with filters such as low cost
  3. enables hotel room booking using donations

We call it InnCrisis. Rather than deploying this app ourselves, we intend for InnCrisis to be a white label application that can be deployed by aid organizations to augment their existing placement efforts for people suddenly in need of shelter.

This app will be made possible by mashing up a few 3rd party API’s:

  • Kinvey as the app’s backbone
  • WePay for collecting donations
  • A hotel search and booking API. We’re currently looking at Cleartrip and Expedia‘s API offerings.

Over the course of the day, we were able to prototype the donation portion of the app. Here’s a video of Ryan Kahn presenting InnCrisis at the end of CrisisCamp Boston.

Blog  post with this video and additional notes at the Hurricane Hackers blog.

Ryan Kahn, Jonathan Wilde and I decided we want to continue working on this project, so we’re getting together today to discuss next steps.

If you’d like to track the progress of InnCrisis development, check out this google doc. And if you’re interested in helping out shoot me a tweet, or just start hacking away out our code on github.

being Clark Kent, investigative blogger

As I’m beginning to write this blog post, I see breaking news that the ‘New 52’ version of Clark Kent is quitting his job at the Daily Planet. I haven’t been following the development of this particular incarnation of the Man of Steel, but this turn of events feels right given the slowly ongoing agonizing death of print journalism.

As it turns out, I’ve been thinking about the dual identify of Clark Kent/Superman for the past few days.

Everyone wants to be Superman, myself included at one point or another. Over the past few years, I’ve been trying to act like Superman: capable of doing anything and everything. Oftentimes all at once. Reality check, I can’t.

But perhaps, neither can Superman..

A much explored theme in the DC multiverse: What’s it like to be Superman? He is essentially a beneficent demigod. He hears EVERYTHING and carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.. sometimes literally.

As Clark Kent, he has a completely different set of powers. He is a journalist. Whereas Superman is the focus of attention wherever he goes, Clark Kent has the power to direct attention. Superman is the stuff of legend, but Clark Kent is a storyteller who can actually write legend.

It just occurred to me that the lines of power between Clark Kent and Superman are beginning to blur in one key aspect: Clark Kent also hears everything. No, not because of his superpowered hearing, but because of Hootsuite.

Of COURSE Clark Kent uses Hootsuite! He’s a 21st century journalist and as of the latest comic book issue, he just up and quit the Daily Planet! Here comes Clark Kent, investigative blogger!

Clark Kent’s social network is more important than ever to not only grant him access to important happenings and secure his dual-identity cover, but also to maximize his unique brand of heroic impact. Social media is a valuable source of near-realtime information that would totally complement Superman’s super-powered hearing. Hootsuite is how Clark Kent would engage this power.

Superman may be as all powerful as he usually is, but Clark Kent continues to become more powerful as information technology continues to advance.

Clark Kent is becoming more powerful because we all are. Superman can hear everything and increasingly, so can we. Can we bear the same mantle of responsibility these abilities represent?

Social media represents an explosion of potential opportunities to do good, and even great things to make the world a better place. But how do you sort through it? How do you choose who and where to help when there is only one of you and a whole world in need? How do you decide where to most effectively focus your personal power? This is the same terrible issue Superman constantly has to wrestle with. No wonder he needs a Fortress of Solitude.

I’ve often found myself paralyzed by this very question. In fact, I’ve spent the past few months trying to get out of a personal rut that stems from not knowing how to answer this question for myself. Now that I’ve decided that writing will be my primary focus for the near future, the evolving character of Clark Kent is very much on my mind.

Ultimately what makes Superman who he is, aren’t his superpowers but the strength of his character. This is what makes Clark Kent especially interesting to me right now. He’s not only a journalist, he’s now a free agent at large! His powers are constantly growing with the strength of his social network and technological innovation continues to augment that network.

If ever Superman lost his powers, investigative blogger Clark Kent would still be the heart and moral compass of the Justice League. And yet he’d still face the same fundamental dilemma: How do you decide where your help is needed most?

I still don’t have a personal answer to this question, but I do know that no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I’ll always be ready to do my part when it’s time to form an organization like the Justice League. All of us are stronger than one of us …even if you’re Superman. And especially if you’re Clark Kent.

rambling on fractal automata

I’m fascinated with the idea of Stem Cells and everything they represent. Not only in the realm of the scientific, nor merely the new horizons of medicine they promise. Stem cells are the perfect metaphor for my particular brand of futurism. They encapsulate everything that propels me irrationally forward through a life that I might otherwise choose to perceive as nihilistically meaningless. Stem cells are pure potential. The key to unlocking the secrets of time. To me they represent the promise of a rebellious syntropic universe fighting against the dying light of entropy.

I should be clear that I’m not just talking about biological Stem Cells here. I’m talking about a more general set of patterns that can be found across scales of reality. I’m talking about people, startups, cities, and planets.

I’m talking about patterns of renewal that build upon the scaffolding of history.

The Roots of Inspiration

Let’s take this from the top. New ideas can lead to bursts of creativity that define us. Over the past decade, few ideas have captured my imagination as much as that of STEM (Space, Time, Energy, Matter) compression. John Smart explains this concept in a blog post titled “The Race to Inner Space“:

As Carl Sagan famously argued in the Cosmic Calendar metaphor of Big History, life on Earth has been engaged in a continual acceleration of structural and functional complexity emergence since its birth 3.8 billion years ago. At the same time, each newly emergent complex system, from stars to cities, from prokaryotes to computers, uses vastly smaller quantities universal space, time, energy, and matter or STEM, per novel information production, computation, or physical transformation, than the system that came before it. We may call this phenomenon STEM efficiency and density increase, or STEM compression, and we can see and measure it in spatial, temporal, energetic, and material terms. Over time, the leading edge systems use ever less of the resources of “Outer Space” to generate ever more novelty, intelligence, and capability in “Inner Space”, an exciting and apparently universal process. If this astonishing trend continues, our and other universal civilizations may eventually reach black hole level computational efficiency and density  and transcend our universe, a topic I’ve speculated on in the Transcension hypothesis.

While the Transcension Hypothesis and the Technological Singularity are fun to think about, I’m less interested in arguing about where STEM compression might be taking us and more interested in exploring the how. This conceptual framework gives us a trajectory we can explore use to identify key opportunities for growth.


It’s striking how STEM compression seems to manifest by breaking through thresholds of emergent complexity. The big bang, single celled organisms, multicellular organisms, people, cities, mobile apps… there’s always a threshold of life (for lack of a better term) during which the same ol’ stuff keeps happening for a relatively long period of time.. until the dam breaks and a whole new order of complexity emerges on top of everything that came before. A new scale of reality is born. A new zoom level to explore and navigate.

Present at every scale are these ‘patterns of renewal’ I mentioned earlier.

I’m not entirely sure if these patterns are full contributors in or mere byproducts of passing through these thresholds (perhaps a bit of both), but I believe it’s when these patterns are formalized and aligned across multiple scales of life that threshold breakthroughs can occur.

Patterns of Renewal

If we identify the automata that make up these patterns of renewal perhaps we can replicate them across different scales of life and align them.

An example of what I mean: What can we learn about ecosystems that support biological Stem Cells that might inform how we construct ecosystems that support Startup businesses?

And then, what happens when we align our biological ecosystems with our business ecosystems? What happens when we merge information technology with our biological processes? Align the health of our internal organs with knowledgeable communities of practice?

Btw, this is already beginning to happen. Nike+ was just the beginning. When you combine cheap biosensor hardware, mobile web apps, cloud computing and medical practices focused on personalized medicine, a radical new vision for healthcare begins to emerge.

Here’s one interesting group focused on driving this change: RockHealth

The political dialogue around healthcare reform doesn’t yet take the fact into account the fact that we’re well on our way toward becoming fully integrated iCyborgs over the next few years and decades. Maybe it should?

Back to Startups! They’re hard! They take a long time! Sure, the cost of bootstrapping a web startup has dropped to mere thousands of dollars from the millions that typified the original dotcom boom, but building infrastructure to start a new business still takes a lot of time and effort! Where are we at in the maturity of our Startup ecosystems, and where will the next breakthroughs come from that speed up our collective ability to innovate, profit and build a better world?

As Startups are where the majority of economic growth comes from, we should see them as a source for hope. In fact, I see Startups as the diametric opposition to Terrorist cells. I intend to develop this idea further in future posts. So much of the discussion regarding national and global security is purely reactionary. This is extremely counterproductive and I have a feeling that Startup ecosystems could and should form the backbone of proactive global security strategy.

Cities! Of everything I learned during my time working with John Smart, perhaps the most valuable has been this phrase: “Density is Destiny.” Cities exemplify STEM compression like nothing else! The speed at which things happen in a city with strong rapid transit and high population density is astonishing. Between Atlanta (my home city) and Boston (my current city) it’s like night and day! As humans, we tend to clump together, and we’ve already passed the half-way mark in terms of populations clumping in and around cities worldwide.

The discussion regarding global sustainability is tightly linked to that of local resilience, so it’s clear that developing strong Startup ecosystems is key pattern of renewal at multiple subscales.

Renewal of the Spirit

At the core of all this is the exploration is the human spirit and the drive toward creative expression. We’re hardwired for it. We like to explore our limitations and break through our boundaries. We fall in love and make things. Sometimes these labors of love take the form of art, business, technological doohickies, and other times, children.

I saw a meme the other day which struck me. It went something like: “Food is healthcare, Medicine is lifecare.” This made me think about the Native American (or at least Lakota?) notion of ‘true medicine’: continual growth and renewal in harmony with nature. It makes me think of the Japanese principle of ‘Kaizen‘ and the Zen Buddhist principle of ‘Beginner’s Mind‘. These are all things that have inspired me and remind me what I find to be important.

We live in exciting times of unprecedented opportunity, but taking full advantage of them requires a mindset shift. And then another. And another..

I suppose in a sense, I’m not writing about renewal of the human spirit in a general sense as much as I’m writing about my own. It’s important to shed old skins, and over the past few months I’ve gotten stuck trying to wear some old ones instead of moving onto the new. Oftentimes, it takes a return to basics to make this happen. That’s what this post is for me.. a personal but public reminder of what’s important to me and what drives my curiosity and everything else that I do.

I’ve spent the past decade learning a great many things while working with a number of inspiring people. I’ve been driven by the question of how to make the world a better place, and this past decade has primarily been an exploration of this question. I didn’t fully expect to, but I ended up finding answers to my questions! Then I froze for a bit. :)

Now, before I’m able to move on to applying what I’ve learned in my short (nearly) 28 years, I know I need to synthesize much of it in writing and share it. So, that’s what I’m up to.

So, here’s to the spirit of renewal! For the foreseeable future (the next few weeks/months) I’ll be defining myself as a writer and exploring these ideas in more detail. And who knows what after that?

Hypervideo and the “Temporal Web”

The current developmental trajectory of the web as the platform could actually be threatening what makes the web webby. While I’m a huge fan of Mozilla’s work toward parity of capability with native operating systems, I’m anxious that the current vision of the web being worked toward is incomplete and a bit short sighted. If web technology is used to create apps, is what comes out the other end still the web?

This is constantly on my mind these days, and I’m constantly on the lookout for deeper understanding of these issues and visions of the future that not only preserve the hypermedia experience that is the open web, but hints at deeper integration with deep seated cultural forms.

It’s been a long time since I’ve found anything that has changed my ideas of what the web -could- become. Mozilla’s Popcorn project is accomplishing this in spades!

Mozilla Popcorn “makes video work like the web.” Check out this intro video for a taste of what’s possible:

(If the video doesn’t play for you, it’s because I screwed something up. Try this link instead:

I’ve been experimenting with the toolkit for the past week, and I’m convinced that this doesn’t just completely redefine our conception of video, Popcorn could completely change the way we create and experience media of all forms. Popcorn represents the future of storytelling. …and possibly mastery over time itself!! (srsly.)

After playing with Popcorn, I’m starting to see an image of the future in which any data with a time stamp can be replayed, remixed, and recontextualized in webby fashion as part of larger narratives. (Annnddd….I spent way too much time on the last sentence and it still isn’t clear as I want it to be. Let’s try buzzwords.)

As Google Maps, mobile devices and the like have driven the emergence of the “geospatial web,” Popcorn is a major step toward the emergence of the “temporal web”. (A quick google search tells me I’m not the first to explore this idea! Validating.)

Let me try my hand at adding some definition to the idea: The “temporal web” is not just about cold digital time. Ultimately, it’s not about temporal quantification of data but the qualification of data within the context of narratives.

The “temporal web” is all about building hypermedia connectivity (links) between the past, present and future in a way that is human-centric. It gives us access to history in a way that enables us to continually re-experience it, revise it, and build on top of it.

The “temporal web” could turn us all into futurists by baking tools of strategic foresight into the core experience of the web.

The “temporal web” is an integral piece of figuring out the information overload/big data puzzle.

(Blah blah blah.. next big thing, blah blah.. you get the idea.)

Mozilla’s Popcorn project isn’t the only thing leading to the temporal web. Real-time web technology is a prerequisite. Activity Streams feed the temporal web.. with data feeds. (Hehe.)

I could go on all day talking about this, but you know what? I’d much rather make this thing. I have stories to tell, and nascent hypervideo technology to break. Back to that!

Note the wikipedia page for “hypervideo”: There’s no mention of anything interesting beyond academic exercises that are well over a decade old. Youtube is mentioned, but youtube is not the open web. This tells me the early days of hypervideo on the web have barely even begun! (Note: this wikipedia page will need some major revamping in a few months.)

I think we need to put Popcorn within the proper perspective of the larger web narrative. “Popcorn makes video work like the web” is great for communicating the project to the outside world, but how does Popcorn fit into Mozilla’s overall mission?

How about something like this: “Mozilla Popcorn prototypes an ecosystem that upgrades the web creative experience from the incumbent static hypertext document paradigm to a dynamic hypervideo paradigm.”

The ambitious scope of this framing adds clarity to how the web developer experience (#devexp) can be reconceived in a way that’s more in line with the interactive nature of today’s web as well as more accessible to the masses. This is a central strategic trajectory for Mozilla’s Webmaker program to accomplish its goal of closing the global hypermedia literacy gap.

At its core, the Mozilla Popcorn project is prototyping a hypervideo ecosystem via a javascript library: popcorn.js. As the ecosystem emerges and conventions are established, a natural step will be to begin the process of proposing hypervideo html5 and css3 markup. I think it will be valuable to begin this conversation as we progress toward the release of PopcornMaker 1.0 around November. We naturally wouldn’t want to make any real proposals too soon, but it’s an important variable to keep in mind as we begin to learn what kinds of hypervideo markup work best in the field.

As a relevant next step to addressing Mozilla’s internal communication and storytelling needs, it’s become clear to me that experimenting with Popcorn as a tool for internal engagement is absolutely badass. It’s in Mozilla’s dna to build their internal collaboration tools internally. The development of the web is happening so fast these days, why not develop next generation communication tools in parallel with the platforms upon which they depend.

My primary project for this next week: producing Popcorn hypervideos of Mozilla’s weekly Webmaker and All-hands community calls. I’ll report back what I’ve learned and my process sometime next week.

Quick update

I’m in Atlanta this week tying up a few loose ends and  loosening up a few pesky knots. Will be back in Boston next week.

I’ve decided to start an experiment in personal transparency using Evernote. I’ve made my primary notebook in Evernote public, and I’ll be using it as my personal workspace on the web.

Everything there is part of my work process, so assume that the majority of posts will always remain half-baked or incomplete . Link to the full Evernote notebook here.

I connected with Mozillians Matt Thompson and Philip Smith last week to talk about next steps regarding the idea of rebooting Planet Mozilla. My gut feeling is that news filter problems within Mozilla are only going to get worse as the organization begins to grow by orders of magnitude. These problems won’t be solved by higher quality storytelling nor marketing of said content alone.

The problem is systemic, and potential solutions must be operational.

Soooo.. I’m riffing off of all the amazing work going into Grow Mozilla to create a companion initiative focused on processes for narrative engagement and organizational alignment with mission.

Here’s my work in progress (in Evernote) for the curious: