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Drones for Good

Projects From Around the World on How Drones Can Help Us

While drones may be a contentious topic, some companies and non-profit organizations are already deploying them for life-saving missions. Here is a roundup of some fascinating new applications of drones that go beyond war, spying, and Amazon deliveries.

In the forests and jungles of the world, as conservationists 

Lian Pin Koh, a drone ecologist, is part of a new breed of conservationists who believes that drones can help him and his colleagues cover more land, and acquire better images of wildlife in their habitat — without having to slog through jungles and forests.  His organization,, has run projects in Indonesia to monitor orangutan populations; in Nepal, to track one-horned rhinos; and throughout the world (in Tanzania, Belize, Cambodia, the US, Scotland, Madagascar, and more).

In Iran, as a lifeguard

RTS, a Tehran-based lab, has developed a waterproof drone for search and rescue operations on the Caspian Sea. Usable during the day and at night (with thermal cameras), the drone can reach a drowning victim in a third of the time it takes a lifeguard to swim out to him/her. The company recently relocated to London and has been accepting pre-orders.

See the full list at

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Coffee Power


Bio-bean, a London-based enterprise, takes coffee grinds and turns them into fuel.

Arthur Kay trained in architecture at University College London.  While developing a blueprint for a coffee roaster he saw the potential in turning the business’ waste into energy.

Given London produces 200,000 tons of coffee grinds each year, Kay had no shortage of waste to tap into to produce an alternative fuel.  Bio-bean takes those coffee grinds to a facility in North London where they’re pressed through a machine for their oil.  That oil can then be turned into pellets for heating buildings or kept as a liquid for powering buses.

This idea earned Kay the Mayor’s Low Carbon Prize and funding to start a business based on the biofuel.  Boris Johnson commended Kay for his ingenuity with a cheeky remark:  ”This kind of innovation is brilliant to see- we are 100% behind bio-bean, which is full of beans.”

Kay partnered with fellow architect from UCL, Benjamin Harriman to launch bio-bean as a full-fledged enterprise in 2012.   The company now uses its biofuel to run its own fleet of trucks, eliminating its carbon footprint as it circles the city to collect waste.

Read the rest at

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Uber for the Common Man

Madhukar Borse has been driving an auto-rickshaw in Pune, India since 1997. He used to earn about $10 a day–until last year, when he doubled his wages. The difference? Working for Autowale, a startup that’s organizing the chaotic world of motorized rickshaws, starting with Pune, a city of 7.5 million. With a quick call or tap on an app, Autowale sends a driver to your location for pickup. At a cost that’s 25% to 50% less than a cab, it’s Uber for the common man.

And maybe a tad smarter than the San Francisco-based ride-sharing service that now operates in 14 Asia-Pacific countries. Yes, Uber overshadows Autowale–it’s in ten Indian cities to Autowale’s one; its annual revenue, at $1 billion-plus, swamps Autowale’s expected $1 million this year. But the Indian startup has shown more flexibility in dealing with customers and regulators. “We work to change the ecosystem without challenging the system,” says Janardan Prasad, a cofounder of Autowale (Hindi for “auto driver”).

Ritam Banerjee For Forbes

Auto-rickshaw travel is a $10-billion-a-year business in India–but highly disorganized and inefficient. Flagging down a driver and haggling for a good price are a bother for passengers; hanging around a street corner waiting for customers makes for an unpredictable living. So Prasad and Mukesh Jha, both 34 and engineers from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur who had worked abroad during their 20s, decided to tackle the problem with algorithms.

Check out the full story at or in the print edition of Forbes Asia December 2014 edition.

Photos Courtesy of Vodafone Foundation/ Fistula Patients receive treatment at CCBRT in  Tanzania.

Digital Payments Changing Healthcare Delivery

Photos Courtesy of Vodafone Foundation/ Fistula Patients receive treatment at CCBRT in  Tanzania.

Photos Courtesy of Vodafone Foundation/ Fistula Patients receive treatment at CCBRT in Tanzania.

According to a 2013 USAid report, public health schemes rely heavily on cash: to make payments for medical services, to pay health workers, to buy drugs at pharmacies. Yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that digital payments in rural, remote areas settings are quicker, easier, and safer. The likelihood of fraud drops as fewer hands are needed to transfer the money. And the transaction costs decline, making it cheaper for providers to reach rural populations. This translates into scale – a sought after goal in most public health projects – enabling organisations to cover larger areas with their services.

A digital trail also allows for easy data collection, auditing, and transparency, all of which is essential in health programming. Ultimately, USAid suggests programmes could create sustainable business models, becoming less dependant on donor funding and build relationships with new corporate partners. But what is the evidence?

Here are three projects that illustrate how technology, and more specifically, mobile money, can improve the reach and result of healthcare initiatives.

Obstetric fistula is a disabling condition that leaves women incontinent as a result of prolonged or obstructed labour. Despite corrective surgery being relatively cheap and easy to perform, hospital wards that could carry out the operation in Tanzania were largely empty.

“Transport is a very big barrier for these women,” says Erwin Telemans, chief executive of Comprehensive Community Based Rehabilitation hospital in Tanzania (CCBRT). With a choice between a two to three day trek or transportation costs varying between $15 and $60, many women decide instead to endure the pain and stigma.

Read the rest at The Guardian.

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Meaningful Fashion: Why Did You Wear That?

Emily Spivack has owned, and used, a pair of flip-flops for 17 years.

“These flip-flops have traveled with me from college to real life, from apartment to apartment, from Wilmington to Providence to New York to Philadelphia, and finally back to New York….through years of inadvertent preservation, these slip-ons have done some globetrotting,” she writes.

Spivack is a Brooklyn-based writer, artist, teacher, and editor (and clearly, a multi-tasker).  She’s just released her new book Worn Stories, a compilation of anecdotes based on our attachment to clothes.  From designer Cynthia Rowley to New York Timescolumnist David Carr, each share their love for a particular article of clothing.

“Our clothes are full of memory and meaning,” Spivack writes.

Spivack is not a fashion writer; rather her pieces have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.  In fact, for over two years, she’s been blogging for the Smithsonian’s Threaded section: a selection of quirky stories on the history of our clothes –  who made Mrs. Lincoln’s clothes and the politics of it, the evolution of sequins from King Tut to Michael Jackson, the separation of iconic polo brands Izod and Lacoste.

worn stories

“I was asking basic questions.  We put on this stuff everyday, but do we know the stories behind it?  How did some of this come to be?  I tie it back into contemporary elements, making it relevant today.”

Read the rest at

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Don’t Trash Your Old Phone: It’s Worth Something


This originally appeared in Forbes.

Apple just launched iPad Air 2.  Six weeks ago, it debuted its sleek, oddly-bendable iPhone 6.  According to some estimates, Apple has already sold over 20 million units of them.

So what will happen to all the other working iPhone 5s and iPad Airs?  They’ll meet a hammer, a trash bin, or hopefully, a new owner.

For an industry that prizes itself on being “clean” and streamlined, it’s a dirty cycle.  Much like in publishing, the sales are based on newer, glitzier models. They’re intentionally made not to last; after a year, the battery life will wear down, users get annoyed with its inferior performance, and it’s time to replace.

However, e-waste is no longer just a tree-hugger’s problem. Large e-waste dumpsites occupy huge swaths of land in Ghana, China, Vietnam, India.  Note, they’re almost all in the developing world.  Toxic fumes clog the lungs of the workers stuck in these hazardous jobs.

These dumpsites wouldn’t comply with our environmental standards in the US.  That’s why our “recycled” e-waste ends up overseas.  Even recyclers lack the ability to recycle in the most ethical and environmental fashion.  Because it’s expensive.  Burning it, smashing it, or selling it (and its pieces and parts) in informal markets is easier, and cheaper.

When you look at what goes into a chip in a smartphone, it’s striking.  Each chip has about 60 chemical parts (few, if any, could be classified as “eco-friendly.”).  Add that to the astronomical number of phones being produced each year.  China made over 1 billion phones in 2012.  The US has thrown out in excess of 250 million units of e-waste since 2010.  That’s computer screens, TVs, cell phones, cameras, and more.

E-waste is a big part of the climate debate.  Estimates suggest that we could be spewing out 65 tons of e-waste by 2017.  So, as more cell phones are added globally, and more people are connected, we need to bear in mind, more people will be creating waste.  Waste that’s not easy to break down.

This all sounds horrific.  But companies are beginning to identify ways to repurpose old phones.  Consumers, of course, can donate their phones to organizations such as Hope Phones, which uses them to carry out maternal health care and development schemes in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Or you could start a business with this trash.  MindHelix, a start-up (with a campaign online), is repurposing used smartphones as home security programs.  Based in SF, the company originates from a unique incubator, located in the southern tip of India: Kerala’s Startup Village.  Deepak Ravindran, a college dropout turned successful tech entrepreneur, is pioneering this tucked away tech hub.  Innoz, Ravindran’s startup, somersaulted into a success, by allowing Java-based users to “google” questions without a smartphone.  The company amassed a following of 130 million users.

Or you could start a business with this trash.  MindHelix, a start-up (with a Kickstarter campaign online), is repurposing used smartphones as home security programs.  Based in SF, the company originates from a unique incubator, located in the southern tip of India: Kerala’s Startup Village.  Deepak Ravindran, a college dropout turned successful tech entrepreneur, is pioneering this tucked away tech hub.  Innoz, Ravindran’s startup, somersaulted into a success, by allowing Java-based users to “google” questions without a smartphone.  The company amassed a following of 130 million users.

Photos Courtesy of MindHelix.

That’s why Ravindran is staunchly supporting other young Indian engineers who are looking for an alternative to a white-collar job. Entrepreneurs like Kallidil Kalidasan of MindHelix who are producing products that Ravindran says could help India find its “first billion-dollar technology.”

MindHelix’s flagship product is a multi-colored robot-like device, Rico, that uses your old (and even damaged) iPhone or Android smartphone to protect your home.

Here’s a list of Rico’s capabilities: motion detection, temperature change, carbon monoxide monitoring, smoke detection, controlling smart sockets (that turn off power supply), and adjusting humidity levels.

All the features of a smartphone are translated as the “eyes and ears” of Rico, says Kalidasan.  For instance, the camera serves as a motion detector. Priced at $99, it’ll give old smartphones a new life.

But for those phones who are chucked away, there are a handful of factories using the necessary equipment (and environmental precautions) to properly breakdown phones.

One of these is ironically in India – a country whose environmental policies have been dismal but is home to Bangalore, one of the biggest IT hubs on the planet.  Just outside of Bangalore, Rohan Gupta runs a high-tech facility, processing e-waste.  Yet, he takes it further, by extracting metals from the waste and turning them into “eco-friendly” jewelry and watches.

Entrepreneurs who can refashion e-waste will not only be doing a service to society, but can actually build profitable businesses, derived from an endless supply of junk–the classic tale of trash to treasure.

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Why the US Still Lags in Female Political Leaders


When I walk into a room with my husband, some people just presume that he’s the mayor, jokes Janice Parvin, the mayor of Moorpark.

We both laugh as she shares the story.  Yet, Parvin’s an experienced leader, having served 6 years as a councilwoman.  She’s currently in her third term as mayor, and running for re-election.

It’s not a frivolous matter.  America still struggles to have a fair representation of women in politics.

Jacqui Irwin of Thousand Oaks is running for State Assembly where less than a quarter of the legislators are women.  Last weekend, she assembled a group of female political leaders from Ventura County, in the run up to the election.  It was not a feminist statement.  Even a male supporter, sitting by my side, said that putting more women in leadership positions makes sense – they handle “nonsense” better, he joked.

While we can’t make categorical statements that women would make better leaders than men, there has been much written about the caring, empathetic, and multi-tasking nature of women that could translate well in public office.  Women have a fair bit of experience when it comes to family, childcare, education, and health, which is at the crux of governing and policy.

Democratically, women ought have more significant representation, given that they constitute 50.8 percent of the population.

So, I decided to look up some statistics on just how many women does America have in political office?  It’s shocking low.

There are only five states with female governors:  Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and New Hampshire.  24 states have not had a female governor ever in their history.  State legislative bodies have less than 25 percent women, nationally.  Only 12 of America’s largest 100 cities have female mayors.

As a whole, America now ranks 98th in a global listing for the percentage of women in national legislatures. That’s down from 1998, when we were placed 59th.  We’re behind Kenya, Indonesia, and just slightly ahead of the UAE. (The number one spot belongs to Rwanda, a country that lost most of its men in the 1994 genocide and has been rebuilt by large number of women in the last two decades).

Which countries did well?  Once again, it’s the Scandinavian nations that came out on top.  Sweden has 45 percent female political leaders; Finland, 43 percent; Denmark and Netherlands with 39 percent.  Germany is not far behind at 36.5 percent.

Some experts correlate the high number of female political leaders in Scandinavia with their child care practices.  Because families, and especially new mothers, are given flexibility in their work schedules, it makes it easier to manage a political career.

At Irwin’s gathering, several female leaders pointed to family life as one of the biggest hurdles for getting more women into politics.  How can you spend the entire week in Sacramento, if you have young kids and a family to tend to in your hometown?  Irwin is not new to the game.  She’s mastered the art as a former councilwoman and mayor of Thousand Oaks.

Juggling family life and a career is not exclusive to politicians.  Of course not.  Corporate careers are highly demanding as are jobs that require you to work night shifts or long hours (think medicine). Parvin notes that this is not a new battle.  As a child, she recalls her my mother rallying for equal pay.  She worked as a nurse and she was constantly trying to get better wages for women, she says.

Yet, it seems to be a catch-22.  We need more women in legislative roles to help pass more balanced policies on child care, family life, wages.  But, if men are dictating the game, that’s hard to do.

So, what is the solution?  Irwin and Parvin had similar answers.  While institutional changes are harder (and take longer, especially in bureaucracies), the simplest solution right now is focusing on younger women who are interested in politics, but perhaps hesitant.  Encouraging them to participate, showing them the ropes, sharing your experiences – that’s the only way to create a change, even if it means seeing the benefits a generation later.

While it may seem obvious, our media doesn’t always do a good job of expressing the need for female participation in politics.  In fact, just this week, Fox News presenter Kimberly Guilfoyle made the most ghastly comment about young women.  She said, they should not vote or sit on juries because they lack life experience.  Instead, they should go back to or Tinder, online and mobile dating sites.

To be precise, she said, “They’re like healthy and hot and running around without a care in the world.”  And they should stay like that — till they get older and wiser.  Oh dear.

In contrast, programs such as Ready to Run are making serious attempts to bridge the gender gap in politics.  The non-partisan program is designed to introduce women to the nuts and bolts of political life: how to fundraise, how to assemble a team, how to manage a career with a political campaign.  And they’re relying on existing female political leaders to provide mentoring.

This year, a study by Political Parity, a non-partisan organization trying to rally more women into politics, said that in addition to family life, one of the biggest challenges for women is fundraising and plugging into the power networks to get access to lists of donors.  This is where mentoring needs to go into play.  If we can get existing female political leaders to support up-and-coming women, such hurdles can be overcome.

This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star.

Photo Courtesy of Jacqui Irwin.