PopTech: You Tell Us

Posted October 17th, 2011 at 2:02 pm (UTC-4)
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Adding Your Voice to PopTech’s “World Rebalancing” Conference

Doug Bernard | Washington DC

Camden, Maine, might best be described as one of those places that’s nowhere in particular.  A long way from just about everywhere, it’s situated at the lip of Sherman Cove, at the edge of West Penobscot Bay, which hangs over Maine’s Atlantic coast.  The sort of place that just begs a rocky New Englander to caution in dialect, “yeh cahn’t get theyar from heyar” –  you can’t get there from here.

Still, this coming week, thousands will somehow find their way to Camden for the 15th annual “PopTech” conference; this year titled “The World Rebalancing.”  (I’ll be there, and I could use your help when I go.  More on that in a moment.)

An image from PopTech illustrating one presentation

Yet unlike much of the news coming from Washington D.C. or London or Rome (or you name it) lately, “rebalancing” is meant to refer to something much more positive.  Namely, the myriad ways emerging technologies are being employed to actually make the world a better place.

Now, admittedly, there are dozens – or more – of these sorts of events every year.  Many are much better funded (the Davos World Economic Forum), more highly attended (the Aspen Ideas Festival) or earn lots more public notice (the many TED events, for example).

What PopTech lacks in those things, it more than makes up in enthusiasm.  Unlike its other tech-idea-conference brethren, PopTech is less formal speechifying and more college bull session; less shiny new toys, and more making more of what you have, technologically speaking.

Consider, as an example, Palestinian students Asil Abulil, Nour Al-Arda, and Asil Shaar and their teacher Jameela Khaled.  Occupants of a refugee camp in the West Bank, these three young women wanted to help a blind friend navigate the small streets and paths of Nablus on her own, without fear.  With next to no tools or resources, Khaled’s students – using old mobile phones, used electronics and anything else they could scrounge, constructed a cane that alerts its user about oncoming hazards through a series of beeps, buzzes and vibrations.   Better yet, the cane proved particularly effective in detecting holes, stairs and other pathway problems common in the developing West Bank.  For next to nothing, they created a tool that allows the blind to find their way in any direction without fear of injury.

It’s examples of technological transformation like this that PopTech features during its four-day conference.   In fact, conference organizers prefer to call the event “a laboratory,” meaning that unlikely people coming together in new ways can yield surprising results.  Musicians, neural biology researchers, pathologists, writers, even a pirate or two are among the participants this year.  And whether one has a speaking slot or not, PopTech organizers suggest that everyone attending come ready to contribute – not just to listen, but to add to the conversation.

This year myself and a colleague from Radio Free Asia, Katherine Zhang, will be lucky enough to attend, leaving us both with the question: what would you have us contribute?  PopTech is very much a crowd sourced event, so in that spirit, we want to hear from you about what you think is important, and what kinds of technological innovation would help your community.

You can leave your ideas here as a response, or send them directly to dbjohnson@voanews.com.  Either way, we look forward to hearing from you and taking your ideas to tiny Camden, Maine.


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