Monday, 15 February 2016

My first TED conference

No, I cannot afford US $8,500 to attend the actual conference, and anyway it is sold out. But in Vancouver you can see a live stream of the conference, free, at three local libraries and Kitsilano is the closest to me. You can also pay to watch the whole thing at home or, indeed, anywhere.

When I got there this morning the large room in the basement had 60 seats, only 6 of which were occupied. I tweeted that, but we weren't overwhelmed by an instant rush. There is currently a break for lunch.  The lights were turned off at the request of those present which made notetaking tricky. Some "talks that are exclusively presented onsite and may not go online". The first session was for TED Fellows and all the talks were quite short.

It is also the case that the seats are hard plastic, no food is allowed (through I did spot some take out coffee cups in the room) and in between sessions the library intends to empty the room, to allow others to get in if things get crowded later.

Just to give you an idea of what was on offer this morning, the following is a quick summary of my notes (or what I could find online that made better sense), and now the conference is over more is appearing on the TED site.

The session opened with a performance on Philippine gongs by Susie Ibara. Then Andrew Pelling from Canada described how he uses electronic equipment - garbage rescued from dumpsters - to build machines for his research and amusement. The question occurred to him  - could biology be like hardware? Could you make human body parts out of apples? Or asparagus to repair damaged numan nerves? The answers he came up with are available as an open source online. He showed pictures of human ears made from apples - which are a lot cheaper than some of the commercial sources used for this type of material elsewhere. "Play is a key part of my scientific practice."

Bektour Iskender from Kyrgyzstan is an independent news publisher and co-founder of Kloop Media. This is both a new website and a training school for young journalists to cover politics and culture. He started off with death threats from the government, but managed the only truthful news coverage of the 2010 revolution and a number of key scoops which led to changes in government. His journalists were 15 and 16 years old!

Nicole Amarteifio now lives and works in Accra Ghana but was brought up in the USA. She is a  TV director / producer of ‘An African City,’ a hit web series that follows five successful women from Ghana navigating 21st century life in Accra. Her story was how she took "Sex and the City" and adapted it to show successful women and their relationships in Accra - but with resonance for people everywhere. She said that it is critical to change the narrative of Africa from poverty, war and famine to people living their lives. She said that there has been some debate over "who should hold the pen" (who is African) but the battle is not with each other but rather to change the conventional narrative.

Keolu Fox is a geneticist and indigenous rights activist from Hawaii. He started with the observation that Father Damian came to Hawaii to help lepers, which led Keolu to ask himself where did the leprosy come from and why did it affect natives so strongly? He believes that the human genome project needs a diverse cohort. Currently 96% of the material comes from people of European descent. But we know that people from other parts of the world metabolize drugs differently. Even so 95% of drug trials have a systemic bias to Europeans. There is also a history of distrust: some researchers took genetic material from indigenous Americans saying it would be used to study diabetes, but used it for other purposes including mental illnesses and to challenge creation stories. Some tribes now have a moratorium on genetic studies. He showed a pocket DNA sequencer which can now be used in field studies which should make it possible for future indigenomics studies to be participatory and under indigenous control.

Sandford Biggars showed some of his art works which include Buddhist symbology created from stencils of slave ship stowage to bullet damage of African sculptures of human figures shot up to symbolize the recent deaths of African American young men by police. 

Prosanta Chakrabarty is an American ichthyologist who is comparing unique species of blind cave fish. The DNA from two such species can be used to show how the continents moved apart over millennia. His studies also will help better understanding of the process of human sight and hence treatments for blindness.

Kiana Hayeri is an Iranian-Canadian "photographer exploring complex topics such as youth culture, migration and sexuality in Iran and Afghanistan, highlighting an often hidden side of life in the Middle East." She talked about Afghan millennials born after the Russian invasion who have only known a country at war and mostly under the chilling presence of the Taliban who nevertheless are developing their own culture.

Vanessa Wood is an electrical engineer and tenured professor in Switzerland. She has been using xrays to look at batteries while in a camera and the good news is that she has found a way to organize the particles in the graphite to provide a smoother path for the charged ones to move - meaning quicker charging and more useful energy. Better batteries are not just good news for cell phones and cameras, they are also key to the success of wind and solar energy systems. And electric cars.

Trevor Timm spoke about the need for and development of Securedrop a surveillance resistant method of communication for whistleblowers. 

Majala Mlagui from Kenya is a gemologist and mining entrepreneur: "founder of Thamani Gems, which works with artisanal and small-scale gemstone miners in East Africa to create sustainable livelihoods through responsible mining, ethical sourcing and access to fair trade markets." (taken from the TED web page as I was taking a much needed bathroom break while she was speaking)

Jessica Ladd (USA) is a sexual health technologist, the "founder and CEO of Sexual Health Innovations, a nonprofit dedicated to creating technology to advance sexual health in the U.S. Her most recent initiative, Callisto, provides a platform for college students to confidentially report sexual assault." She got the first standing ovation of the morning. Her statistics were remarkable: 1 in 5 women at US colleges are sexually assaulted: less than 10% will report the event. 90% of assaults are by repeat offenders, but very few are caught and even fewer punished: "there is no deterrent". Her system only provides information to authorities when there is a match between two reports: it is a form of "information escrow" which ensures that all reports are verified. This greatly increases the probability of being taken seriously and can of itself prevent 59% of assaults.

Shivani Siroya is  Indian-American,  "founder and CEO of InVenture, a mobile technology and data science company that flips the traditional credit scoring system by putting power into the hands of consumers via their mobile phone. Now, she is working to launch and test a new application which instantly scores applicants and delivers real-time credit to individuals who lack access to formal financial services."

At that point the session broke for lunch and I headed home to write the blog. 


Bektour Iskender said...

Hi, this is Bektour, a TED fellow you mentioned. Thank you for your post and for watching our session! I'm happy that TED was available outside the Vancouver Convention Centre too!


Stephen Rees said...

Thank you for adding a comment. I have updated the post now - including a link to your foundation. Long may it flourish!

Stephen Rees said...

By the way the donate page of that website isn't working