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Breakfast with last year’s TED prize winners

Thursday morning at TED began with a review of last year’s TED prize. The TED prize is an annual prize given to innovators to help them address major global problems in their areas of interest. The real value of the prize is not the dollar investment, but the ability to mobilize the team that puts TED together and the network of other TED participants. This year’s winners will be announced tonight.

Dr. Larry Brilliant won one of the three prizes last year and asked for support in building a network that allowed distributed detection of health emergencies around the world. Brilliant won the prize days before taking the helm of the Google Foundation, so there’s been strong cooperation between Google’s charitable efforts and the TED community.

The challenge of building this sort of network is communication between organizations. Brilliant found that “environmental organizations don’t like working with UN organizations, and no one likes working with Human rights organizations.”

Leaning on the resources of Google, Brilliant and his team has built a system that processes huge amounts of data on the web and produces enough content to issue many thousands of alerts, probably many more alerts than are actionable. To test the usability of the system, Brilliant’s team is working with UNICEF (a huge, international bureacracy), the Menlo Park Fire and Rescue (a small, local organization which Google can work closely with), and a group of six southeast Asian nations (China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand), which are sharing information about human cases of bird flu.

We see a quick demo of how Google Maps data can create visualizations of data – we see data of a theoretical bird flu outbreak overlaid on a map of southeast Asia. (Brilliant makes the journalists in the room pledge that we understand this is not a real outbreak of bird flu.) By using shared spreadsheets, organizations working in the region can post resources they have, which will also appear on the shared maps.

The second winner last year was Cameron Sinclair and his NGO, Architecture for Humanity. Cameron and his partner, Kate Stohr, are concerned about raising the living standards of give billion people, one billion of whom live in abject poverty and four billion who live in “fragile” economies. One out of seven people currently live in slums – that number will rise to one in three by 2020.

Sinclair quotes Le Corbusier – “Architecture or revolution. Revolution can be avoided.” Le Corbusier got it wrong, he tells us – what we need is a revolution in architecture, where ideas can be shared between architects and we’re not constantly recreating solutions, but learning from the grassroots.

With TED’s help, Sinclair’s team has build the Open Architecture Network, a site which launched this morning, which allows users to upload, tag and search through architectural designs. It’s based around a voting system which allows people to evaluate questions like “what is sustainable?” for different countries and contexts.

The project has been a technical and legal challenge, with a need to create a legally viable open license for building design – Sinclair got support not just from Sun and Hot Studio, but from Creative Commons and some very creative lawyers. We see a health clinic built in a weekend by volunteers from Israel and Palestine – that information is now available online, as is a project management tool that allows people to try to recreate that project in their own communities.

The third winner from 2006 was Jehane Noujaim, the filmmaker who produced “Control Room“. She has a vision of bringing the world together to watch a film, hoping to inspire conversation and dialog. After winning the prize, she had to ask herself the question, “What film do you show the world?” A friend made the argument that you entertain them – what about “American Pie”? That was funny!

Needless to say, that’s not Noujaim’s approach. Travelling around the middle east this summer, she got a sense for the citizen media revolution, watching bloggers in Egypt make and distribute videos of protests. In Lebanon, she saw communication between citizens across international lines during a war. The inspiration was that the film you show to the world has to be “a film for the world, by the world.”

Pangea will soon be soliciting films made by people around the world, five minute shorts that invite filmmakers to say what they have to say to a global audience. Via online submission, Noujaim and her team will choose 30 finalists, and 10 of the winners will be given $25,000 prizes.

The films show on May 10, 2008, in an event that leverages multiple says of showcasing content – projecting films on walls, via broadcast television, putting it on mobile devices and on the internet. The event – which if I understand correctly may take place in Dubai – will feature live music and speakers as well as film – large broadcast networks are already committing to broadcasting this for three hours. It sounds like much of the work on the project happens over the next year, as these partnerships are finalized and the submissions start coming in.

We hear this year’s prize winners tonight, so we get to find out what Bill Clinton will do with $100,000. Raise more money, I suspect… :-)

3 thoughts on “Breakfast with last year’s TED prize winners”

  1. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » TED Prize - James Nachtwey

  2. Dustin, I think it’s terrific to encourage volunteering and giving in local communities, and your idea of matching donors with local projects seems like an excellent one. Best of luck with your work.

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