All posts by Sharon Gutowski

Creative Thinker, Cartoon Aficionado, Google Analytics Certified, Skilled Writer. Sharon's published work spans the fields of militaries and social media. She also deftly figured out long ago what coffee and genetic testing have in common (they're both wake-up calls).

U.N. Using Tech to Cut Poverty in Half by 2015 (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 1, I wrote about the role of technology in addressing the first three UN Millennium Development Goals: eradicating hunger and poverty, achieving universal primary education and empowering women. In part 2, I’ll share the role of technology is reaching MDGs four to eight.

MDG # 4: Reduce Child Mortality
NovoEd, a Stanford University start-up is a massive open online course program with an emphasis on social sharing. Rather than focusing primarily on free lectures, NovoEd encourages students to join with other students to address bigger problems. One result is this ambitious design for a mobile app to address child malnutrition. The proposal for the First 1,000 days is an excellent resource for research into the problems of malnutrition and the many factors that affect it.

Real time information has an enormous impact on preventing child deaths. Check out this video about mobile messaging in Uganda. This system allows health clinics to avoid running out of medication and connect with field workers before an outbreak becomes unmanageable.

MDG # 5: Improve Maternal Health
In many poor countries, electricity is a precious commodity, rationed and limited even in the hospital and maternity ward. These portable solar power suitcases offer a compact solution and show that technology relevant to one MDG, like the environment, can be useful in addressing another.

In Bangladesh, 2 out of 3 people use SMS messaging, but few women receive adequate prenatal care and three quarters give birth in their homes. A new program delivers pregnancy related SMS updates. It’s easy to register and it incorporates voicemails to address illiteracy. TV and radio ads, as well as field workers and partner organizations work to make sure women know about this resource. The government covers the SMS cost for the approximately 20 percent of women who can’t afford it. Read more about this initiative here.

MDG # 6: Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Other Diseases
This is another MDG that disproportionately affects women. In some parts of the world, being a married woman is one of the highest indicators of being HIV positive. Even in marriage, women in some parts of the world do not have the authority to demand use of a condom. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, another place on my hope-to-work-for list, has decided to make condoms more appealing to men. This approach makes a lot of sense. Click here to read about their research and development efforts to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and promote family planning with better condoms.

MDG # 7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability
“Green” is one of the most overused and least defined words. Does it mean organic produce? LEED certified buildings? Reduced use of electricity? LEED certification has become popular in the US, but for developing countries, it’s still a luxury. The International Finance Corporation of the World Bank is testing a similar program in India, China, Brazil and South Africa. Because climate change is expected to hit poor countries hardest, this is an especially important challenge to address.

UNICEF engaged the general public in the developed world with a mobile campaign, tap project. This project highlights major consequences of poor environmental regulation and infrastructure – disease form contaminated water and poor sanitation.

MDG # 8: Develop a Global Partnership for Development
No one example jumps out at me for the eighth MDG. Looking over the examples, it’s clear that the private sector is taking an interest in the well-being of populations around the world. As all of our systems become more interconnected, it makes sense. The stability of a sea port in Asia will directly affect an entire supply chain. And as the general public becomes more aware of issues like human trafficking, MBA programs have responded with programs that emphasize corporate social responsibility. The landscape is more nuanced than the brand-shaming atmosphere of the 1990s.

After 2015 – the Way Forward
In solutions to the MDGs, mobile technology dominates. Quick access to information lifts an enormous burden off people both in their work, health and family life. But technology alone isn’t enough. It takes an understanding of poverty and disease to truly leverage tools against them. Without understanding that women do not get to choose safe sex, making condoms more appealing to men wouldn’t stand out as a possible solution.

Production of technology also contributes to global problems. Phones and computers require rare earth minerals, not good for human rights or the environment. Intel has taken steps to address this issue. Let’s hope others follow. In the years to come, the strategic use of technology will only increase, as will the ways global leaders can lean on it for problems like the MDGs.

U.N. Using Tech to Cut Poverty in Half by 2015 (Part 1 of 2)

Imagine having to choose between leaving everything behind or facing people ordered to rape or kill you. You escape with others with only the clothes on your back. Each day you inch towards a safer place, struggling to find food and water while avoiding more violence.

In the confusion, you lose contact with your family members. You don’t know if you will ever see them again. When you finally reach safety, you can post identifying information to an anonymous database with your mobile phone, sharing information only your family will recognize. It wasn’t an NGO that offered this brilliant solution to refugees, but the European mobile firm Ericcson.

Technology plays a crucial role in global affairs because it affects all of humanity. That’s why the Brookings Institution has a tech tank. Scholars focus their expertise policy and writing on tech to understand and talk about the world’s complexities while people like me dream of working there.

It’s almost 2015, so in honor of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG), here are some contributions of tech to creating a better world.

MDG # 1: Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
People without access to clean water or bank accounts have a mobile phone. In Africa, it has become a popular and efficient way to send money. Many people either don’t have enough income or physical proximity to be profitable to banks.  This method is far from perfect, but it gets around one of the most systemic obstacles: being seen as a valued customer. Read more about this trend here.

In developing countries, many people make money from farming. In agriculture, like all other fields, information has power. Access to a mobile phone means that farmers around the world can receive daily updates about the market value of their crops and livestock.

MDG # 2: Achieve Universal Primary Education
The internet seems like the most obvious solution to assisting with MDG # 2. But that implies that physical access is the most significant obstacle to getting kids in school. It also assumes that everyone has equal access to the internet. This map shows that many countries with an education gap also have low internet penetration according to data from the World Bank.

Like in banking, mobile phones have stepped into the market where existing systems were not enough. Education now comes to people across the globe on their handheld devices. Like Ericsson, Nokia has given its expertise to address the world’s problems.

MDG # 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
This topic is especially interesting given the constant talk about need for women and diversity in tech. This isn’t the only industry that fails to include women. I’ve always believed in the need for the United Nations, but word on the street is it’s one of the worst places to be a female employee. No organization is perfect, but they have outdated procedures and an embarrassing track record. If you want to know more you can read about it here, here, here and here. Where would you rather work?

This MDG is even more complicated than the others. Even people in advanced economies can’t agree on what it means to empower women or treat men and women equally. When societies systematically exclude women and girls, it affects their health, education, access to food and has negative consequences for the entire community. I’m glad this is an MDG, but its presence does not make the other MDGs gender-neutral.

Once again, mobile industry leaders are stepping up to the plate. The GMSA represents the interests of the mobile industry and has been working to shine a light on gender equality in the mobile realm. Click here to read their report about the gender gap.

Reviewing Pixel Press: A Platform for Making Your Own Platformer Game

I love video games, but haven’t made any. Until today. When I first heard about Pixel Press a few months ago, the idea caught my attention. As the name suggests, Pixel Press is like a digital printing press, giving everyone with an iPad the ability to create their own platformer game.

I met Pixel Press’ co-founder, Robin Rath, and other staff at a tech job fair in February. When Robin shared his desire to create a video game with programmers, they found a way to make it happen. By creating their proprietary technology, they’re able to use an iPad camera as a liaison between lines on paper and interactive elements that you can arrange any way you want.

PixelPressHere’s how it works. You sketch out your game, using the key provided in the sketch guide. Download the custom graph paper here. After you’ve got a general layout, take a photo of your graph paper with your iPad camera. Upload it. Pixel Press then transforms your sketch into the game elements (coins, terrain, spikes, etc.) using its proprietary technology.

If I’ve made it sound easy, shame on me. Computers can’t see. Under the hood, all letters have numeric values that programs transform into visual symbols for the benefits of us humans. After uploading your photo, you will probably need to utilize the in-app features to correct mistakes. No computer will have 100 percent accuracy in detecting symbols across ages and different hand-writing. However, Pixel Press saves each recognized character in order to get better over time.

I chose to skip the graph paper completely and create my game entirely in my iPad. At first, this was a frustrating experience. The sketch guide is two clicks away, but short-term memory alone wasn’t enough for me. Like anything in life, it takes practice. It took me a while to get warmed up, too.

For a lack of a better phrase, I had writer’s block. Eventually, I decided I wanted my first level to have a floor that was all spikes, except one super coin that would be hard to get to. I ended up with two power ups instead. The instant testing allowed me to make sure I wasn’t making it so hard it wasn’t fun. I really wanted my game to be hard. Click here to check it out. You can also opt to “play” rather than “create” choosing from dozens of games created by others.

My husband once gave me solid advice for platformer games: don’t move until you can see where you want to land. I made it a rule that I had to give that option to people playing my game. I quickly discovered that I’d spread my elements too far apart. The proportions are challenging, because in the sketchbook, you have a broad view of your level. But until you start testing, you have no idea which portion of screen is visible to the player. What made sense in the sketch screen didn’t work as well when I went to play.

In order to move my elements closer together I had to completely redraw them. The drawing tools are pretty good, so this didn’t take too long. And despite years of Photoshop and Illustrator teaching me to avoid the pencil tool, the pencil tool in Pixel Press is quick and accurate.

But a drag-and-drop mode would be even better, so I could simply select already-constructed elements, move them to a new location and override anything I’d already drawn on that square. Even better still, would be some kind of visual overlay in the sketch mode that gave me the players field of vision. This was an issue both horizontally and vertically.

Right now, I see the control as the biggest issue. The jumps are too high and fast compared with moving across the terrain. I had to change some of my game because the control simply wasn’t there. Hopefully, it will improve with time.

The Floors app is free but adding enemies and custom power-ups cost $.99 and $1.99 respectively. I think it’s worth the three dollar investment to have more control. What’s a platformer game without enemies? I wish I received more selection or my investment, such as enemies that could fly, hang on monkey bars or shoot things. To be fair, it was half the price of the power-ups, which has a lot of variety. And when I consider the money spent against the hours of entertainment, Pixel Press is right up there with Netflix. For me, that’s saying something.

When I talked to Robin last he mentioned his desire to someday make it possible for players to incorporate their own artwork and graphics. As an artist, I look forward to being able to add my own visual touch to the already beautiful graphics. Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I look forward to making an Albert Einstein avatar to star in one of my games. With a Mad Scientist theme! Without Pixel Press, I wouldn’t even be thinking about which Nobel Prize winners belonged in my future games.

If you enjoy platformer games, I highly suggest downloading Pixel Press floors. It takes time and effort to get comfortable using it, but it’s worth it. Currently, Pixel Press is only available on iOS, but they have plans to take it to Android soon. While they haven’t publicized a price, the app store description implies that Pixel Press floors might not be free forever. Click here to learn more about Pixel Press and here to download it from iTunes.


Discovering My Inner Techie

Artists. Social Workers. Gamers. Writers. These are all people who should be interested in computer science. In college, there were so many things I wanted to major in, it was hard to manage. I even started out in pre-med. That was misguided, but that’s OK. I ended up in the art department, with a concentration in photography, on the eve of the digital revolution. One major I never  considered was computer science. Looking back, my reasons were pretty stupid.

I thought I knew exactly who should major in computer science. I had a few classmates who knew all about computers. And most, though not all, were guys. They were friendly and often helped us when computers behaved badly. Although I gave myself permission to learn everything else from scratch, (I’d never taken photography before), I thought I already had to understand computers to learn about them.

Back in 6th grade I thoroughly enjoyed a class most kids hated: graphic arts. This class moved beyond Logo Writer (a brilliant program) to an ancient version of Adobe Illustrator. I noticed that my enthusiasm for this class set me apart. It was fascinating to discover how different brushes could create different looks. I was quite proud when I recreated a Degas painting in the computer. Since I grew up to work as a graphic artist and photographer, I sometimes wish I could find these files. Sadly, they’re lost in time. I noticed it was unusual to enjoy this class that combined art and technology.

Since college, I’ve worked as a professional photographer, taken courses in communications and earned a Master’s Degree in International Relations. But I’m not done. Living in St. Louis, I had the opportunity to join a group of people interested in learning programming. I finally figured out that loving video games, always having new ideas for apps and wanting to make the world better mean I should learn computer science. It’s relevant to all the fields I listed above.

And it’s been awesome. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard. But everyone thinks it’s hard. I’ve almost stopped saying I’m bad at math, because it’s irrelevant. There is a little bit of conceptual math in programming, but it’s more like a language. It’s about problem-solving. And anyone interested in anything will find it beneficial. I think of computer programming as an extension of literacy because it connects people to ideas and tools. It’s a type of reading and writing that opens a world of possibilities for those who learn to participate.

Here are some free resources to get you started:

  • Turtle Academy: Turtle offers a great way to create amazing shapes using a simple programming syntax. Click on “Free Lessons” to get started. You can start creating shapes with no prior understanding of programming.
  • Code Academy: They offer a fully interactive learning environment. The instructions are easy to follow and you get to see your code in action as you learn. You can use your FaceBook account to create a free Code Academy account and start learning quickly. Code Academy offers full courses in HTML/CSS, Javascript, jQuery, Python, Ruby, PHP, and APIs.
  • cs50: This is not for the faint of heart – tackle this one with a group of dedicated students. If you’d like to do a little exploring and access some of the free resources first, consider clicking the “Live” or “Seminars” links in the left navigation bar.
  • An amazing combination of original and currated learning content. They even offer a section called unplugged, where students can learn computer concepts without the need for a computer or internet connection.
  • techli: Techli delivers innovation news and in-depth editorial on the technology, businesses and ideas that are changing the way we live, work, and play. They have a great selection of written and video content on everything from what’s happening in the startup community to internet culture.

Photo by Nirat Sthapit