“Economists believe the best way to deal with poverty is to create prosperity, and that works, but not everywhere. Engineers, by contrast, like to invent things that might help. At the Blum Center we're putting them together; it's a different approach.”
Former Secretary of State George Shultz
By S. Shankar Sastry
Today, access to water, energy, health care, and financial services remain the greatest challenges to alleviation of extreme poverty, which affects nearly half the world’s population, more than 3 billion people. United Nations officials designed the 2000 Millennial Development Goals and the successor Sustainable Development Goals of 2015 to mobilize resources against the massive challenges. As such, the UN blueprints identify targets for progress in the four crucial areas of water, energy, health care, and wireless, along with the intertwining challenges of hunger, education, global warming, gender equity, environment, and social justice.
In many ways, the Millennial/Sustainable Development Goals are the most pressing problems of development. They are the challenges that must be of actionable focus for years to come. They are the wicked problems, as UC Berkeley Professor Horst Rittel coined them in 1973, “whose social complexity means that it has no determinable stopping point.”
Yet there are new and emerging technologies in our midst that are changing the 40-year dialogue about development interventions and disrupting the very idea of how intertwining problems can be “fixed.” These technologies are responsible for the many digital transformations that are revolutionizing the global economy. From banking and transportation to agriculture and health care, a multi-trillion information technology industry is in motion that is changing how human beings move, work, live, and think. This Information Age, this Third Industrial Revolution is leading over the next decade to an economic system in which more than 70 billion Internet of Things (IoT) sensors will be installed across all sectors to provide unprecedented volumes of data.
Of course, data is not water, energy, health care, or wireless communications access. Yet data can be inexpensively stored and processed, enabling the utilization of computer-intensive machine-learning algorithms that—if correctly directed—can bring down the cost of access to necessary goods and services. In addition, although artificial intelligence is still in its infancy, it is poised to make advances that will affect the development sector as much as the hospitality sector. Indeed, the trifecta of IoT, AI, and cloud computing offers a vision of digital transformation that will alter business models, services, and how every single person on the planet lives.
How might these digital transformations affect the poorest of the poor? How might they improve quality of life and access to goods and services? We at the Blum Center are focusing on how the next 10 years of digital transformation can be harnessed to provide new and sustainable solutions for extreme poverty alleviation. Here are some examples of digital transformations that we have invested in and tested to scale at the Center:
In Energy Access: REPP
Efforts to electrify rural communities in developing countries have been plagued by energy theft, unaffordable connection costs, intermittent supply, and poor maintenance. Despite ambitions of governments and donors to invest in rural electrification, decisions about how to extend electricity access to almost 1 billion people worldwide are being made in the absence of rigorous evidence. The Rural Electric Power Project (REPP) originally sought to address this problem by incorporating new technology, such as village-scale clean energy microgrids, as well as sustainable financing and distribution mechanisms to better serve the rural poor. REPP has been utilizing novel data collection and analysis tools to inform the redesign and refinement of the technology and rigorously measure impacts in the field. Researchers from the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) group, the Center for Effective Global Action (CEGA), and the Energy Institute at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business have been working with local government and industry partners to generate real-time user data (using “smart” meters) and to collect comprehensive household survey data before and after electricity deployment. Currently, in a partnership with Kenya’s Rural Electrification Authority, the researchers are studying the demand for and impacts of electrification in a large-scale, randomized controlled trial. By offering subsidies of varying amounts to “under grid” households—those located in close proximity to the national grid—the team is measuring people’s willingness to pay for power, and tracking what happens after they connect.
In Health Care Access: CellScope.
In developing regions, where health care infrastructure is limited, there is an urgent need for greater access to reliable diagnostic testing, particularly for infectious diseases. The objective of CellScope, invented by Blum Center Chief Technologist and Bioengineering Professor Dan Fletcher and his lab members, is to establish mobile digital microscopy as a platform for disease diagnosis that can be used by non-expert health workers to in remote settings. The mobile phone-based, easy-to-use platform can rapidly capture images blood, sputum, or other patient samples and wirelessly transmit the data to clinical centers, allowing the patient to be evaluated and treated at the point of care thanks to algorithms running on the phones, with data uploaded wirelessly (when connectivity is available) for epidemiological purposes and quality control monitoring. By using existing communication technology and infrastructure, CellScope moves a major step forward in affordably and innovatively taking clinical microscopy out of specialized laboratories and into field settings for disease screening, diagnoses, and treatment.
In Wireless Access: Community Cellular Network.
Today over one billion people worldwide live beyond the reach of cellular networks. Many live in sparsely populated rural regions, with weak power infrastructure—making it prohibitively expensive for most telecommunication companies to invest. Living outside the network means lack of access to important services like emergency communications, market price information, and job opportunities. To address this challenge, Computer Science Professor Eric Brewer and his lab members, developed the Community Cellular Network (CCN). The CCN is a complete “network in a box,” enabling remote communities to both own and operate their own cellular systems. Designed to be deployed by people with limited technical skills, CNN, which became Endaga under the leadership of Kurt Heimerl, costs less than one tenth the price of traditional cellular equipment, runs solely on solar or micro-hydro power, uses less than 50W average power draw, and can provide kilometers of coverage to rural communities. In 2015, Endaga joined forces with Facebook to scale Internet access to rural communities.
Many who follow these transformations in development are concerned about digital ethics, privacy, and fairness. We need to understand how AI (primarily machine learning and cloud computing) is being used to understand poverty and economic development in urbanization, population density, traffic demand, housing, crop yields, and food security, among other topics. Questions of particular relevance to development include:
Is it fair to be denied a program because the people you talk to on your cell phone make you look less creditworthy or less in need of a service? What rights do people have to privacy in an environment where satellites are photographing their homes, phones are tracking their locations and communications, and their moods are being analyzed on social media? And how much access to this type of data should development researchers have?
The fact is (per the economic concept of competitive equilibrium) if you give up more of your data, you may get lower prices. At the same time (per the Nash theory in economics) decisions about giving up data for individuals can sometimes be terrible for groups, causing users who have high privacy settings to “free-ride” at the expense of those with low privacy settings. Thus, if we want to optimize the utility of the common good around data sharing and AI in development, we may well need to institute societal side payments—means to induce recipients to take part in the transaction that are legitimate and corruption-free, and redress underinvestment in the common good.
This will take as much analysis, debate, and social justice action in development as in every other aspect of digital transformations. It is one of the Blum Center’s stakes in the ground for the 2018-2018 academic year and the years ahead at UC Berkeley.
S. Shankar Sastry is the Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He is a Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Bioengineering, and Mechanical Engineering.
"The trifecta of IoT, AI, and cloud computing offers a vision of digital transformation that will alter business models, services, and how every single person on the planet lives."
Digital Transformations of Development
"This research moves at the speed of trust."
A Decade of Development Engineering with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation
By Tamara Straus
For the Pinoleville Pomo Nation of Ukiah, California, collaboration has not historically been a word used to describe interactions with white Americans. As late as 1950, native people were not permitted to walk on both sides of the street and signs in Ukiah’s storefront windows read, “No dogs or Indians allowed.”
Angela James, vice chair of the Tribal Council for the Pinoleville Pomo Nation, remembered this history was she was approached by David Edmunds, her tribe’s environmental director, about a possible collaboration with UC Berkeley. The goal was to co-design a sustainable housing project for the low-income families of her 300-person nation.
On the one hand, James, a mother of four, was eager to advance the education of young tribe members and teach them to live in two cultures. Yet her mind jangled with stories from her grandfather Smith Williams. He had told her about Ba-lay Ba-lin—the Bloody Run—an 1871 atrocity in which white settlers violently forced Native Americans off their land, turning the Eel River red with their blood. In 2007, when James first stepped onto the UC Berkeley campus to talk with Mechanical Engineering Professor Alice Agogino, now education director of the Blum Center and chair of the graduate group in Development Engineering, and graduate students Ryan Shelby and Yael Perez, she was aware that this was the place where Ishi, the so-called “last wild Indian,” became the research subject of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber. She also knew there was an ongoing dispute about the Hearst Museum’s return of 12,000 Native American remains to California tribes.
James’ warm-up to the UC Berkeley engineers was slow. She recounted how, because Shelby is African American and Perez is foreign (Israeli), she felt they might be worthy of her community’s trust. She also wanted to believe that “science can cross cultural barriers,” and she observed from Agogino’s classroom that engineering was no longer “just a field for white males.”
At the same time, the interdisciplinary UC Berkeley group called CARES—Community Assessment of Renewable Energy and Sustainability—was seeking to tread new water in the field of development. “As we worked with the nation on the sustainable housing project, our understanding of development changed,” said Perez. “We realized technology, and technological ‘fixes,’ are not enough. We needed to start with what sustainability meant to the tribe. And they had a lot to say about sustainability, because of the way they view their connection to the Earth—resulting in unexpected design decisions around heating, water use, solar power, and the shape and functionality of their homes.”
This insight about collaboration led the CARES group to a development methodology called “co-design.” The term, which builds on human-centered design, user-centered design, design thinking, and participatory design, goes further in empowering stakeholders in the decision making and design process to recognize that users (or locals or recipients of development assistance) are key participants in their own economic, environmental, and socio-political advancement, with significant contributions to offer. In essence, CARES, a forerunner of UC Berkeley’s development engineering graduate program, embraced co-design to address the disconnect between the creation of technological innovations by engineers and the needs, preferences, and cultural views of the people who will use them.
Explains Agogino, “The 10-year collaboration with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation shows a number of things: It shows that development projects can and should be local, not just international. And it shows that development solutions can range from how we design to how we publish academic research. The journal articles that have come out of the PPN collaboration have notably been co-authored by PPN members.”
Since 2008, CARES has collaborated with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation on a variety of engineering, architecture, and educational projects that have tested the boundaries of development. Co-designed results have included sustainable housing, renewable energy power systems, water restoration and management projects, and most recently science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) workshops for middle and high school students and a K-12 maker space.
Like past collaborations, the recent educational one was the result of shared interests and available funding. Zhao Qui, project director of the Pomo Youth College and Career Success Project, explains that in October 2016 her organization received a Department of Education grant to fund new cultural and academic enrichment activities for native students; one area of concern was low access and achievement in math and science. At around the same time, the Blum Center received funding from the National Science Foundation to support development engineering students working on InFEWS (Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems) for low-income communities facing extreme challenges. And the CARES team, energized by development engineering graduate students and Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) undergraduate students, was ready for a new collaboration.
The task for the co-design was to integrate native activities and sensibilities into STEM education. Says George Moore, a UC Berkeley mechanical and development engineering graduate student, who taught at the summer workshop, “It became clear in conversations with the PPN that it was hard to get the native students to apply themselves in the STEM disciplines. Institutionally, it just wasn’t structured for them. But after working in the workshops, I can say these students got really engaged and are really good at math and science.”
According to Moore—and other participating UC Berkeley students, including GPP students Dor Chavoinik, Grace Harrison, and Arielle Levin and Elena Duran, a PhD student in Graduate Group in Science and Mathematics Education—what works best is listening and not imposing views on what works in a STEM-based activities. Among the decisions were to teach engineering design through Pomo Pinoleville basket-making techniques and to engage students in 3D printing designs from local art and nature.
Qui says the workshops and maker space are generating excitement among the students to get into the STEM fields. “We have a college career counselor coming to the classroom,” she notes. “The students have a sense these are high paying jobs. Yet for native people, we’re not just looking at the pay. We’re looking at how we can use the STEM program to serve our own community around solar power, rain catchment, and other sustainable and environmental solutions.”
For graduate student Pierce Gordon, the co-design approach is crucial for mechanical/development engineers like himself working in poor communities. Gordon says co-design is “de-colonizing,” as it simultaneously aware of the deep history of technological interventions and adamant that everyone be heard, understood, and acknowledged. Continues Gordon, “If we don’t do that, then we’re doing the very similar kind of harm that many people have done over the history of international development and interventionist work as a whole.”
Gordon, who recently finished his PhD dissertation, which includes case studies of co-design efforts in the United States and Botswana, says the first priority of development engineering work is not to get research publications, funding, or material for teaching classes, but to benefit marginalized communities. “It is to figure out what the community wants, because this research moves at the speed of trust. Once you build up that trust, you have the opportunity to build up to collaborations and research outcomes and beneficial activities that you didn’t even know could have existed.”
For Angela James, one very specific outcome of the 10-year collaboration is her children’s interest in STEM. “My daughter has been a participant in CARES since she was four. She’s 14 now. She’s very comfortable leaving Ukiah. She’s looking at a lot of different colleges. All her career interests are science-based. My son is right behind her and just the same.”
James, who was on the UC Berkeley campus on July 13, 2018 with a group of Native American high school students, says the days of cultural and educational isolation can end for her tribe and others in California. “My goal has been to open the minds of our youth and introduce them to college and science, and teach them how to build positive working relationships with people outside their immediate circle,” says James. “It is important that the university has the right individuals involved in a collaboration—people who are willing to advocate for the human approach, get to know the individuals, and ask about background and culture. An important part of this collaboration has been that our voice is finally being heard.”
Research about this collaboration was partially supported by the National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship in Innovations at the Nexus in Food, Energy, and Water Systems (Award No. 1633740).
"Science can cross cultural barriers."
"Big Ideas participants enter Berkeley's well-oiled machine, and their biggest advantage is the contest's network."
By Veena Narashiman
An injured soldier is rushed to a field hospital and is bleeding out. A surgeon needs to give the soldier meds to speed up her clotting. But too much or too little will kill her. The doctors rely on lab equipment to determine dosage; however, the large machine was never designed for field use. The surgeon is caught between an educated guess and blind dosing, putting the soldier’s life at risk.
This was the story that Jeffrey Lu and Johnathon Li heard from a U.S. Air Force vascular trauma surgeon. The two friends, UC Davis graduate students in biomedical engineering and animal science, realized they had possibly stumbled upon a market gap for a mobile blood clotting monitoring device.
After conversations with UC Davis doctors, their hunch was confirmed. Not only did they learn that traumatic injuries that disrupt blood clotting are the second leading cause of preventable death in developed countries, they discovered that mobile blood clotting solution could had worldwide application—from the frontlines of the war in Syria to rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Lu and Li also learned that with current technologies, an injured soldier may not receive treatment for up to 24 hours; and in civilian hospitals, patient treatment can be delayed three hours. The technicians and surgeons they interviewed said they wanted a device they could use in the operating room, circumventing the time involved in sending samples to the lab. Surgeons especially complained that when they got back lab results, the information was often obsolete because the patient’s condition had changed from further bleeding out.
“Current [blood-clot testing] devices are like using microwaves to cook,” said Lu. “It works if you don’t move it, and occasionally they come out great, but more often than not you’re just going to be disappointed.”
Lu and Li spent part of their graduate school years working on the project they dubbed Innovis Medical. The partners began to understand their competition, their business model, and the people they needed to cultivate to make the best possible medical device.
In October 2017, Lu and Li turned to the Blum Center’s Big Ideas student innovation contest, to further shape and fund their idea. Big Ideas is open to undergraduate and graduate students at all 10 UC campuses and had a contest category that fit their invention: Hardware for Good, made possible through the generous support of the Autodesk Foundation. The contest put them through a nine-month project incubation, mentoring, and application process that Lu and Li saw was crucial to their company’s development.
“In entrepreneurship, you’re not selling your idea, you’re selling your network,” said Li. “Big Ideas participants enter Berkeley’s well-oiled machine, and their biggest advantage is the contest's network.”
By meeting new people and potential advisors, the Innovis Medical founders realized they needed to pivot their strategy. Lu and Li decided to prioritize the civilian market instead of battlefield situations and use more layman language to describe their product.
At the 2018 Big Ideas Pitch Day before winning a first place prize, Lu went into the specificities of the device: “Our solution is a portable medical device that uses a solid state sensor to track an electrical property of blood known as bioimpedance as it clots. Our device produces graphs and data similar to the current state of the art device, but without the bulky sensor mechanical components. The sensor itself is a disposable cartridge with no mess to clean up, no chemicals to work with. With a solution designed specifically to mobility, blood clot tests are no longer restricted to laboratories but can be used in a battlefield, operating room and even the comfort of your own home.”
At the pitch, Lu further argued that tests during surgery, which take 30 minutes to receive back from the lab, could be performed in the operating room within four to 10 minutes. Post-surgery patients who previously needed to make a trip to the hospital every few weeks to have their blood thinner dosage checked, could run the tests themselves at home—much like diabetic patients who are able to track their own insulin levels.
In January 2018, Lu and Li joined UC Davis’ Inventopia, a maker space for startups, where they were able to witness the production of their device’s sensor. The next month, they attended Meet the Experts Night at UC Berkeley, whey they were connected to Rhonda Shrader, director of the Berkeley-Haas Entrepreneurship Program, who referred them to contacts throughout the Bay Area.
Innovis Medical estimates significant reach and cost savings. Its market could include an annual 672,000 U.S. military trauma cases, 15 million U.S. civilian cardiac surgeries, and 7 million disaster-related surgeries in the developing world. As for costs savings, Innovis estimates the 15 million annual civilian patients of cardiac surgery could save up to $7,000 per operation. In developing countries, Innovis believes its device could be crucial in setting where reliable energy and technicians may not be available.
Lu and Li recently expanded their business plans through the UC Berkeley Innovation Corps course and were accepted to the national I-Corps incubator for scaling university-based innovations run by the National Science Foundation.
The founders also have launched a collaboration with UC Davis Medical, where civilian and military surgeons are using the Innovis device to directly test human blood from cardiac patients alongside status quo devices. Lu said sensors are being deployed for clinical tests with the aim to iterate the device to address as wide a range of patients and blood types as possible. He and Li hope to get FDA approval by 2021.
"Current blot-clot testing devices are like using microwaves to cook."
A Technology for Military and Civilian Trauma Care
Kigali, home to over 1.3 million, does not have a sewer system.
Loo Lab's Uber-like service reduced the cost of emptying pit latrines by nearly half.
By Lisa Bauer
By 2050, more than two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas, with 40 percent of this growth occurring in slums. One critical development challenge is the lack of adequate sewer systems—currently, one in every five city dwellers lacks access to adequate sanitation. Without proper management of human waste, cities run the risk of exacerbating public health concerns, such as communicable diseases, worm infections, cholera, and diarrhea. One UC Berkeley PhD student and 2018 Big Ideas contest winner, Rachel Sklar, is working to change that with her company Pit Vidura.
“No one knows sh** better than we do. We are the ‘Uber’ of fecal sludge and we’re creating the future of urban sanitation systems,” declared Sklar during the May 2018 Big Ideas pitch day. Sklar took home first prize for her pitch, and placed second overall in the Big Ideas Global Health category. Her aim is to solve a central urban fecal management challenge: maintaining an efficient, accessible network of exhauster trucks that have pumps and tanks for septage.
According to Pit Vidura, almost 3 billion households worldwide use pit latrines, which have a major drawback—they fill up. Urban areas are constrained by a lack of space to build new pits, combined with inefficient, inaccessible, and prohibitively expensive systems for excavating them. Due to the population shift from rural to urban areas—with a projected 2.5 billion people expected to move to cities by 2050—cities in low-income countries are struggling to meet the heightened demands on urban waste disposal systems. For many cities, like Nairobi, Kenya and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, it’s a daily nightmare.
Fecal sludge management failings also have created an illegal, unregulated, and highly hazardous market for marginalized laborers, who manually empty pit latrines from households that cannot be reached by exhauster trucks, endangering themselves and others because of the many diseases untreated waste carry. When the pits fill, as they inevitably do, manual emptying is the only option. Laborers are called upon to empty the pits under the cover of night for the equivalent of around $8 per pit. The fecal sludge is then dumped or buried elsewhere in the community where urban dwellers, primarily those residing in dense slums, are exposed to toxic fecal pathogens.
“These informal laborers have to manually excavate the human feces bucket by bucket by climbing into the pit,” explains Sklar. “They self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to withstand the unbearable stench and the infections that can follow. It’s extremely unsafe and stigmatized work.” The waste that is emptied is often dumped in the environment because transporting the waste to safe disposal sites requires infrastructure and resources that informal waste management providers do not have access to.
Kigali, a city of over 1.3 million people, does not have a sewer system, and only 7 percent of all human waste generated in Kigali is collected by exhauster truck services. The rest of the waste is buried underground or emptied and disposed of in the environment.
Sklar founded Pit Vidura to see if she could scale a clean and legal professional latrine pit emptying service for low-income populations and communities, using effective waste management practices. Pit Vidura’s efforts fall into three areas: pit emptying services, professional training, and technology development. The company trains waste workers on professional emptying tools and equips them with personal protective gear, providing formal, stable employment. Additionally, Pit Vidura safely transports the fecal sludge to factories, which transform the waste into fuel for industrial consumption. Over the past two years, Pit Vidura has served roughly 900 customers in Kigali, providing excavation services to low-income homes that previously could not afford the service.
Not long after launching Pit Vidura, Sklar said she was confronted with a technical challenge that required outside support—bringing safe exhauster truck services within the price range of low-income households meant making exhauster trucks more efficient, a logistics problem at its core. “This is a common situation for entrepreneurs—we start with a grand vision which ends up getting distilled into something quite different,” recounts Sklar. “I’m a big picture person with a public and environmental health background; but when we got Pit Vidura operating in Kigali, we quickly realized that our core challenges boiled down to fecal sludge transportation logistics.”
Given that transportation logistics fell outside of her areas of expertise, Sklar entered UC Berkeley’s Big Ideas student innovation contest looking for advice and collaborators. Her hope was to refine and secure funding for Loo Lab, an arm of the company that could develop software to optimize fecal sludge transport logistics.
“Big Ideas gave me the tools to access the resources I needed to push forward with a concept that was very new to me,” says Sklar. “It gave me confidence to build a strong organization and get people behind my vision.” Sklar advises students and aspiring entrepreneurs to take advantage of Big Ideas resources: “Whatever kind of entrepreneur you are, the resources are there for you. Don’t be afraid to use them. The Big Ideas team will help you navigate the process.”
Loo Lab’s Uber-like service has reduced the cost of emptying pit latrines by nearly half and allows low-income households to afford safe fecal waste management services, such as those Pit Vidura provides in Kigali. Currently, the technology that Loo Lab develops is tested by Pit Vidura. This rapid feedback cycle allows the business to quickly iterate and improve its services, while gathering data for scaling fecal sludge management systems throughout the developing world.
Last year, Pit Vidura joined a collaborative of sanitation service providers supported by WASTE, a Dutch NGO, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As a part of the collaboration, Pit Vidura is hosting a workshop in Kigali this fall to share its technology and learnings with sanitation services providers across East Africa.
Goal 6 of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. Rachel Sklar is among a rising generation of social entrepreneurs set on achieving this target.
Aiming to be the "Uber" of Fecal Sludge
Hackathons for Good?
Causes have ranged from building prosthetic devices to developing apps for fair trade goods.
"The idea of the hackathon is to practice the real world aspect of things."
By Veena Narashiman
Originally a portmanteau of the words hack and marathon, a hackathon typically occurs over a day or two, bringing together computer programmers and others to solve a puzzle or invent a creative solution. During these 24- to 48-hour periods, participants are encouraged to form groups and collaborate, completing the hackathon with a rough prototype or ideas that can be presented to judges for prize money. Over the years, the adrenaline rush that often drives these competitions have created some famous “hacks”: the messaging app GroupMe and the Facebook “Like” button were both conceived during hackathons.
Although hackathons may feel new, they are nearing their 20th anniversary. The concept was born in June 1999, when UC Berkeley alumni John Gage challenged attendees of a Sun Microsystems event to write a multi-user program in Java for the Palm V. Almost two decades later, hackathons have been organized to advance technologies in almost every sector. And increasingly, hackathons have been launched to solve societal challenges, such as natural disaster preparedness and government transparency.
But are “hackathons for good” really effective, given that rapid prototyping has not led to solutions for entrenched societal problems? For technologists like Luca Ibota, a former Apple employee who has been active in many hackathons for good, the most important aspect is “identifying the problem you have and the ideal outcome you want.” In fact, said Ibota, the key to a successful hackathon for good is “precisely defining a problem or challenge.”
Still, some Cal students are skeptical about hackathons for good. The most cynical argue that incorporating buzz words such as “social impact” and “corporate social responsibility” at hackathons is a smart public relations move for technology companies looking to improve their public standing. Other Cal students insist that incorporating social good goals in hackathons is a testament to Silicon Valley’s aim to think more holistically and ethically about technology’s effects.
For many, UC Berkeley hackathons that take on a social impact lens are seen as a reflecting a student culture that prioritizes hands-on learning and that seeks to solve grand challenges like climate change and food insecurity. For Swetha Prabhakaran, a UC Berkeley sophomore and computer science student, the 21st century requires companies, nonprofits, and individuals to make solutions to intractable problems a priority.
Either way, the number of UC Berkeley hackathons focused on social impact is on the rise. Causes have ranged from building prosthetics for people with disabilities to developing apps that enable students to source fair trade goods. Student-run organizations have championed these hackathons as a way to ethically fill consumer gaps.
In April 2018, a partnership between the Sutardja Dai Center for Entrepreneurship and the UC Regents Chancellor’s Association hosted Cal Innovates, a hackathon aimed to bridge the engineering and business disciplines. Prabhakaran, who organized the event, said attendance was high because engineering and business students have started to “soul search” for meaningful impact. “Berkeley students have a strong entrepreneurial spirit—you can see it everyday,” said Prabhakaran. “But conversations about using business to help others are happening on small scale. The hackathon is a way to help students do this on a bigger scale.”
The Cal Innovates hackathon presented no strict problem to solve. It allowed participants—of which 40 to 50 percent were engineering majors and 30 to 40 percent were from the Haas School of Business—to build and plan deployment of prototypes. During the competition, participants listened to speakers or pursued their project with the help of guides. Professionals from SkyDeck, Cal’s startup accelerator, helped students with presentations and judged the finals, while employees of GoDaddy and students from BlockChain at Berkeley helped participants with technical aspects of their designs. Finalists included a project for civil engineers in developing countries to create sustainable bridges.
Another example of a UC Berkeley hackathon geared toward positive social impact was EnableTech’s “Make-A-Thon.” Held in April 2018, it aimed to connect those building prosthetics with those who use them, per the club’s motto: “Build with them, not for them.” Spanning 48 hours, the event allowed participants, formed into groups of six people from different majors, to rank which of EnableTech’s active projects should be improved. Kyelo Torres, a rising senior in mechanical engineering and the event project leader, spoke of the hackathon’s purpose: “As students, we are taught only theories. The second we are asked to do something, we get lost. The idea of hackathons is to practice the real world aspect of things.”
Amy Dinh, programs manager of the Jacobs Institute for Design Management, said she believes the reason for the uptick in hackathons with a social good emphasis is simple: “People seek a challenge, and there’s nothing more challenging than the wicked problems of the world.” Yet she dissuades students from expecting implementable solutions post-hackathon, highlighting instead the importance of the iterative process. “The point of a hackathon is to get creative juices to flow,” she said. “It’s not realistic for the ideas to be polished; rather the point is to kickstart a new team or idea.”
Sustainable Employment at the Bread Project
"Our clients walk away with a specific skill set and into a more specific job market."
By Tamara Straus
What does it take to help hard-to-employ people in the Bay Area find steady, decently paying jobs? According to Veronica Barron Villegas ’18, a Global Poverty & Practice graduate who works at The Bread Project, it requires receptive employers, well trained employees, and lots of follow up.
Founded in 2000 by Lucie Buchbinder, a homeless advocate, and Susan Phillips, a social worker involved in affordable housing, The Bread Project is well known within employment development circles for its model of targeted persistence, which includes a rigorous bakery training program, extensive workplace readiness coaching, on-the-job experience, employer outreach for job placement, and long-term follow-up support. Eighteen years ago, Buchbinder and Phillips acted on a hunch. They knew that the baking industry paid above minimum wage and offered a career ladder. With this in mind, they approached Michael Suas of the San Francisco Baking Institute, who agreed to train their low-income clients and provided space and equipment for classes at cost.
Since that time, the Berkeley nonprofit has trained 1,800 individuals for the baking sector through dozens of partnerships with Bay Area chefs like Mark Chacon, agencies like the City of Berkeley Office of Economic Development, and employers such as Whole Foods and Semifreddis. Trainings are long by comparative standards: three to four weeks. And follow-up services are beyond the standard: 15 months, which include six rounds of job search assistance and career counseling.
The results for the small nonprofit are extraordinary—averaging an employment rate of 83 percent, a graduation rate of 85 percent, and a job retention rate of 80 percent.
Trent Cooper, The Bread Project’s Program Manager, believes the high employment rates stem from the high-touch training and post-graduation services. “If you see our boot camps, you see how closely we interact with each student. Upon graduation, we provide 15 months of follow-up services, with outreach at one, three, six, nine, 12, and 15 months. This is time consuming and expensive, but we’re able to help participants longer.”
The Bread Project serves people who are the first to get turned down by employers—immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, formerly incarcerated individuals, and people with disabilities as well as those with employment barriers due to language, addiction, unstable housing, and childcare. In 2017-2018, 79 percent of participants relied on public benefits, 21 percent had zero income coming into the program, 100 percent were low income, and the participant pool was 61 percent female and 32 percent male. Most trainees come from Oakland, Berkeley, and Richmond. And many lack independent housing and are dependent on public housing, friends, family, shelters, or transitional lodging.
Foundation grants, individual and corporate donations, and city funding keep The Bread Project afloat as well as a well-honed social enterprise model. Its University Avenue kitchen produces sweet potato buns for the high-end San Francisco restaurant International Smoke and mixes up about 3,000 pounds of cookie dough per week for DOUGHP. There’s also a food business incubator program; The Bread Project focuses on renting out its kitchen to minority-run businesses. All of this pays for the cost of the long boot camps, from which about 120 people graduate annually.
To support nine low-income Berkeley residents pass through the training program, UC Berkeley’s Chancellor’s Community Partnership Fund recently awarded The Bread Project a grant. The project, in collaboration with the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice (GPP) minor, aims to strengthen the university’s ties to the City of Berkeley through employment development opportunities and engages GPP student interns in poverty alleviation work.
Jasmine Tsui, a UC Berkeley global health major and Global Poverty & Practice minor, said her summer internship at The Bread Project has given her a front seat row to the Bay Area’s widening income gap. “I’ve seen what it means to be looking for a job and have no computer to do job research and applications. Employment barriers like those are real, but The Bread Project is surmounting them through a range of supports.”
Tsui, who has been working closing with Barron Villegas, The Bread Project’s employment and graduate services manager, has been on the phone with graduates for much of her summer internship. “I’ll call graduates five, six times,” said Tsui. “I’ll leave messages, emails, and texts, and once I get them on the phone, I ask them how they are, if they need a job, and make an appointment to come in right there.”
Tsui’s summer internship colleague, Emily Lui, a UC Berkeley economics major and Global Poverty & Practice minor, also has been impressed by the personalized services. “There’s a lot of emphasis on trying to find people who graduate from the program a job—and a job they actually want. Earlier this month, there was a hiring event where different reps from different Whole Foods came in and did onsite interviews.”
Barron Villegas, who like Lui and Tsui got her start at The Bread Project as a GPP intern, said she is currently developing and strengthening employer partnerships with Noah’s Bagels and High Flying Foods.
“The reason The Bread Project has the outcomes it does is because we build relationships with both employers and job seekers,” said Barron. “Our clients walk away with a specific skill set and into a more specific job market. They learn interview skills, resume writing skills, and other job readiness skills. They also earn a ServeSafe certificate from the State of California. Employers want all of that.”
The Bread Project boasts an 83% employment rate, an 85% graduation rate, and an 80% job retention rate.
Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino has been named winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, the government’s highest honor for mentors who have worked to expand talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The award was announced June 25 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. Agogino, the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley, was one of 41 honorees to receive the award at a ceremony last week in Washington, D.C.
Professor Agogino has had a long and illustrious history of mentoring university students and junior faculty as well as engaging with local schools, museums and organizations to engage K-12 students in STEM topics. To support engineering students at UC Berkeley, she created a tiered mentoring network, in which senior doctoral students advise masters and undergraduate students. Over the years, she has been in high demand as a mentor by those who want to use their STEM educations for positive social impact. She also has built a reputation for designing courses that attract a high percentage of women and under-represented minorities.
At the Blum Center, Professor Agogino has been pivotal in creating the new field of Development Engineering, whose mission is to reframe development and the alleviation of poverty by educating engineering and social science students to create, test, apply, and scale technologies for societal benefit. Development Engineering students, she has written, must learn “21st century skills”—interdisciplinary, team-based methods that are oriented to seeing problems from multiple viewpoints (quantitative, qualitative, ethnographic) and applying them through entrepreneurial pathways.
Professor Agogino is not new to awards. She is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and is the previous recipient of an ASME Ruth and Joel Spira Outstanding Design Educator Award “for tireless efforts in furthering engineering design education.” At UC Berkeley, she has received Chancellor Awards for Public Service, a Chancellor’s Award for Advancing Institutional Excellence and a Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Student Mentoring. She was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, has won many best paper awards and has been honored with a National Science Foundation Distinguished Teaching Award and a AAAS Lifetime Mentor Award, the latter for increasing the number of women and African- and Hispanic-American doctorates in mechanical engineering.
Her work in decision-analytic approaches to engineering design led to a whole new field of research, and her research in mass customization became a patent-buster for licenses in database-driven Internet commerce. If that were not enough, Squishy Robotics, Inc., Professor Agogino’s startup company, recently was awarded a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grant to conduct research and development work on “Shape-Shifting Robots for Disaster Rescue, Monitoring and Education.”
Professor Agogino has explained that she was inspired to become a mentor due to her own experience at the University of New Mexico, where she was the only female mechanical engineering undergraduate student, and at UC Berkeley, where she became the first woman to receive tenure in her field. Professor Agogino uses a mentoring approach that she calls “designing for diversity.” By emphasizing the social impact of solving research problems, this strategy helps students feel connected to their work and motivated to persist in engineering.
Alice Agogino Wins Highest US Award for Mentoring
150 Years and 150 Big, World-Changing Ideas
Impact Hub San Francisco has partnered with the Cartier Women's Initiative Awards to cultivate women entrepreneurs for impact-driven businesses. To be considered, the project must be a for-profit, early-stage business led by a woman. Learn more and apply here. The deadline to apply is August 31.
UC Berkeley Crowdfunding helps students, faculty, staff members, and researchers raise money for their projects and ideas. If you are interested in crowdfunding, learn more and apply here. The next round of crowdfunding will take place October 15 to November 15, 2018. Deadline to apply is August 23, 2018.
The Westly Foundation is seeking entrepreneurial changemakers to apply for the Westly Prize for Young Innovators of California, which provides $40,000 in cash prizes to innovators under age 28 with novel solutions to community challenges at home or around the world. The innovators must live, work, have residence, or attend school in California. Learn more at http://www.westly.org/westly-prize. Applications are due October 15, 2018.
The Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation is accepting applications for the Jacobs Institute Innovation Catalysts Fall 2018 cohort. For more information and application instructions, visit the grant program page on the Jacobs website or contact Amy Dinh (firstname.lastname@example.org), student services & programs manager. Applications for fall 2018 are due on August 27 at 12pm.
The World Food Programme Innovation Accelerator Programme is accepting applications for its Innovation Accelerator Programme, which supports innovators and startup companies working to end global hunger. Winners receive up to $100,000 in funding and gain access to a network of experts and a global field reach. Proposals are due by September 24, 2018.
Leslie Lang Tsai of the Cassia Foundation will deliver the talk "Creating Enduring Prosperity for Developing Economies." September 5, 12:00 - 1:00PM, B100, Blum Hall. Lunch will be provided; RSVP here.
How do we create enduring prosperity rather than simply address the symptoms of poverty? Leslie Lang Tsai, assistant vice president and general counsel of the Cassia Foundation, will share lessons learned and discuss philanthropic approaches used to address this question, as well as explore the role of social entrepreneurs, businesses, and governments in creating lasting prosperity for developing economies.
The Big Ideas Contest is back! Remember, it’s not just a contest, it’s a two-round extracurricular program with resources to help University of California students engage in local and global problems and invent solutions. The contest opens September 5. If you are a student, sign up for an advising session to discuss how you can take your big idea to the next level. For everyone else, click here, to figure out how you be involved with Big Ideas this year.
Non-Engineering Careers at Bay Area Tech Companies. Tuesday, August 21 | 6:00pm | ImpactHub Oakland. Join 100 Black Men for a panel discussion featuring top recruiters, diversity professionals, and directors from Bay Area technology companies, such as AppDynamics, Couchbase, CSAA, Uber, Twilio, and Always Hired. The panel will focus on non-engineering positions, who makes an ideal candidate, and interview strategies, followed by a Q&A.
Acari (2018 Big Ideas winner) was featured on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. Acari takes the invasive armored catfish or “devil fish,” as it is colloquially known in Mexico, and transforms it into a nutritious food product to increase employment in rural fishing communities and provide a healthy, sustainable alternative to beef jerky.
Giving Fund (2018 Big Ideas winner) CEO Samantha Penabad was featured in the Financial Times as part of a phenomenon of students setting up enterprises while still in university. Penabad further reports her reasons for starting Giving Fund in a LinkedIn article.
The InFEWS (Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems) program welcomes 19 new fellows (for total of 37), hailing from nine UC Berkeley departments and schools; 10 are women and six are underrepresented minorities.
Development Engineering and InFEWS student Pierce Gordon has received his PhD from the Energy and Resources Group with the dissertation "Investigating Innovation Practice: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in International Development."
Roots Studios, founded by Rebecca Hui (2013 Big Ideas winner) was featured in the Stanford Social Innovation Review for creating new markets for tribal art. Roots Studio offers limited edition prints and surface patterns for licensing in partnership with artists in rural India, Indonesia, Syria, and Jordan. Roots Studio uses digital technology to enable rural artists to sell their art and participate in the global economy.
Mama-Ope (2016 Big Ideas winner) has secured $25,000 in seed funding from the startup incubator Villgro Kenya for its pneumonia detection jacket, which provides diagnostic support for doctors, nurses, and community health workers in low-resource settings.
100 Strong (2013 Big Ideas winner) team lead Vindra Agarwal joined the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) as a 2018-2019 Commitment Mentor. She will facilitate conversation, share resources, promote networking, and help CGI U participants refine their Commitments to Action.
In the News
To celebrate UC Berkeley’s 150th anniversary, the Blum Center created an interactive graphic showcasing 150 Big Ideas winners. Big Ideas is the Blum Center’s annual student innovation contest, which since 2006 has provided funding, support, and mentoring to over 6,000 students seeking to have real-world impact in the areas of clean energy, global health, and food security, among other global challenges.
Big Ideas is part of Cal’s burgeoning innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem. It has funded 478 ventures involving more than 1,500 student entrepreneurs. To date, the contest has disbursed $2.4 million in prizes to teams that have gone on to secure more than $480 million in investment. Every dollar invested by Big Ideas has leveraged 200 more to further these ideas.
We invite you to click on the squares in this interactive — designed by Joseph Kim, class of ’20 — to learn more about Cal students’ big, idealist and change-making ideas.
“The Blum Center for Developing Economies may well be the finest program of its kind in the world. It turns out legions of young graduates who are well prepared with the expertise, humility, purpose, and a pragmatic optimism for combating poverty in the US and globally.”
President Jimmy Carter
The University of California, Berkeley has a vital role to play in finding solutions to complex problems that require the collective expertise of many disciplines and the energy of committed individuals. The Blum Center for Developing Economies leverages the talent, enthusiasm, and energy of the University community to address global poverty. Our interdisciplinary problem-solving approach draws on students and faculty dedicated to tackling inequities through innovative technologies, services, and education.
Blum Center for Developing Economies
The University of California, Berkeley
Blum Hall, #5570
Berkeley, CA 94720-5570
(510) 643-5316 • email@example.com