New Cal Students Tackle Social Entrepreneurship in Berkeley Changemaker Big Ideas Class

UGBA 96-2: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas, a social entrepreneurship course and the foundational curricular component of the Big Ideas Program, is offered in partnership with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas School of Business. It is an integral part of the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative, a key campus-wide initiative designed to activate undergraduates’ passions for social change and help them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be and how to make that happen.

A group of students pitches their social venture on the final day of the Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas class. (Jorge Calderon photo)

Anvitha Tummala sees many unhoused people on her walks to class, and it raises an uncomfortable thought for her: She and her peers are earning a world-class education at UC Berkeley with access to all sorts of amenities, while those living on the streets in her neighborhood constantly live without stable sources of food or shelter.

“Seeing that every day opened my eyes, and I wanted to do something about it,” she said.

Tummala found an outlet in UGBA 96-2: Berkeley Changemaker™: Big Ideas. The class, a social entrepreneurship course and the foundational curricular component of the Big Ideas Program, is offered in partnership with the Center for Social Sector Leadership at Berkeley Haas School of Business. It is an integral part of the Berkeley Changemaker™ initiative, a key campus-wide initiative designed to activate undergraduates’ passions for social change and help them develop a sharper sense of who they want to be and how to make that happen.

In the Big Ideas course, teams of students identify a social or environmental problem, develop an impactful solution that can be implemented through a business model, and ultimately pitch their startup concept to a panel of expert judges. Teams also draft applications to the Big Ideas Contest, a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems. The course ran the first eight weeks of the fall semester.

Read more about Berkeley Changemaker™ Big Ideas here.

Professor Dan Kammen to Serve in Biden Administration

Blum affiliated faculty member Dan Kammen has been selected to serve as senior adviser for energy, climate, and innovation for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Kammen, a leading expert in renewable energy science, technology, and policy, will primarily work with the agency’s PowerAfrica team to develop partnerships with African nations, with the goal of expanding access to sustainable power.

Photo credit: Elena Zhukova

Blum affiliated faculty member Dan Kammen has been selected to serve as senior adviser for energy, climate, and innovation for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Kammen, a leading expert in renewable energy science, technology, and policy, will primarily work with the agency’s PowerAfrica team to develop partnerships with African nations, with the goal of expanding access to sustainable power. 

Read more here.

Blackbook U wins Big Ideas Grand Prize

The UC-wide Big Ideas Contest, based at the Blum Center, awarded the 2021 Grand Prize to Blackbook University, a team of Berkeley undergraduate students led by Ibrahim Balde that designed a platform to equip Black students with communities, resources, and opportunities to help overcome institutional inequities in higher education and employment.

The UC-wide Big Ideas Contest, based at the Blum Center, awarded the 2021 Grand Prize to Blackbook University, a team of Berkeley undergraduate students led by Ibrahim Balde that designed a platform to equip Black students with communities, resources, and opportunities to help overcome institutional inequities in higher education and employment.

Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny made the announcement at the September 23 Grand Prize Pitch Session, featuring all six Grand Prize finalists, along with People’s Choice winners. Learn more about all of the 2020-2021 award-winning Big Ideas here. Watch the September 23 Grand Prize Pitch Session and Awards event recording here.

The Big Ideas Contest is an annual UC-wide innovation competition that provides funding, structure, and mentorship to interdisciplinary teams of students who have creative solutions to pressing social challenges.

Big Ideas is now accepting pre-proposal applications for the 2022 round. See the BigIdeasContest.org website for more information, or attend upcoming information sessions.

The Big Ideas Information Session on Tuesday, November 2, at 6-7 pm will feature the 2021 Grand Prize winning team, Blackbook University. The Blackbook team will discuss their winning strategies and entrepreneurial journey. Register at https://bigideascontest.org/apply to attend the hybrid event, which will be held online and in-person at Blum Hall.

Blackbook Info Session Flyer 

Berkeley X-Force Fellows Team Up with Military Sponsors to Solve Real-World Problems

In South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base has some 1,500 maintenance personnel, who are essential to maintaining the base’s aircraft and overall readiness. Every month, a small team of airmen must spend an entire week analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1,500 airmen’s training, certifications, and workflow. Much like the base’s aircraft, the team wants to ensure they have the right tools and resources to meet any challenge, but this burdensome process takes up a fourth of their time each month.

The X-Force Fellowship gives undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to tackle real-world national security issues in DoD agencies. (Photo courtesy of NSIN)

By Sam Goldman

In South Dakota, Ellsworth Air Force Base has some 1,500 maintenance personnel, who are essential to maintaining the base’s aircraft and overall readiness. Every month, a small team of airmen must spend an entire week analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of the 1,500 airmen’s training, certifications, and workflow. Much like the base’s aircraft, the team wants to ensure they have the right tools and resources to meet any challenge, but this burdensome process takes up a fourth of their time each month.

“This is among hundreds of other tasks and things we have to do to get everything ready,” said TSgt. Darin Pugh, Ellsworth’s maintenance training section superintendent, who oversees the process with MSgt. Samantha Rohrenbach, the base’s education and training manager.

The hefty time commitment “prevented us from being able to extrapolate useful things out of the data and come up with solutions because we were so focused on just getting the data into something that was presentable,” said Rohrenbach.

To solve their problem, Pugh and Rohrenbach applied to participate in the X-Force Fellowship program, which pairs the technical and entrepreneurial skills of students with Department of Defense (DoD) organizations, to address real-world military problems. For example, rather than ask a group of college kids for a shiny, all-or-nothing “Corvette-of-a-solution,” thought Pugh, “let’s have them build us a skateboard.” Because of his experiences with these types of arrangements in the past, he had seen contractor solutions sometimes fizzle out when the teams adopting the solutions couldn’t figure out how to use them.

In June, Rohrenbach and Pugh laid out their operational problem to three X-Force Fellows, including Lisa Huang, who had just graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in cognitive science and a minor in data science.

Using only basic Microsoft Excel functions, the students automated the base’s laborious process, which saved the airmen significant time. The Ellsworth training team has implemented their solution into its routine, and other Air Force bases have expressed interest in implementing the solution as well.

“We asked for a skateboard and they gave us a really awesome, deluxe scooter,” expressed Pugh.

“It’s [the fellowship] really cool and rewarding,” said Huang, “because they [the airmen] can’t stop saying, ‘Oh my God, you’ve saved us so much time. We’re already done. You’ve cut us back, like, a week.’”

Sharing UC Berkeley insights and innovation with the military

The X-Force Fellowship is an initiative of the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), which is a program office under the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. NSIN connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems. This summer’s 11-week, virtual program comprised 277 fellows from 36 universities across the U.S.

At 16 fellows, UC Berkeley had one of the largest cohorts from any individual school this year. Some of their projects included building out data-literacy products with the Naval Air Force, creating an algorithm that categorizes and tracks physical changes at commercial seaports with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and helping the Army Research Laboratory-West modernize tech and bring it to the market. “By the end [of the fellowship], some project sponsors would have hired their fellows on the spot if they could,” said Pamela Sharma, NSIN X-Force program manager.

“They didn’t just meet expectations, they blew past them,” explained Sharma. “What’s always really exciting to hear and really exciting to see is that people are coming in and coming up with solutions that are more innovative or more complex than people thought possible, and in such a short period of time.”

‘It could impact the entire Department of the Air Force’

Huang admitted to feeling a little intimidated and overwhelmed when the program let her know she had been accepted and that her project would involve data analysis and data visualization. She wondered if her limited experience from her data-science classes would be enough. Moreover, she was busy teaching at Girls Who Code.

After hearing about other, buzzier projects, Huang and her two teammates — from the University of Texas, San Antonio and George Mason University — weren’t exactly thrilled. “We were like, ‘Oh. Excel program,’” Huang said. “But we didn’t expect the results to have such a drastic effect on the Air Force.”

Huang spent the beginning of summer mastering the ins and outs of Excel, including power query and pivot tables, and her team exemplified true service and went to work on a solution. None had much experience with Excel — “which was amazing,” Pugh noted in hindsight. Huang and her team met virtually with Pugh and Rohrenbach twice a week, usually for an hour, corresponded over email, and sometimes met one-on-one. During their time together, they’d revise models of the solution, test data, and even found ways to expand the scope of the project.

Huang and her team called their solution “Tool Assisted Analytics Process,” and it automated Ellsworth’s training-data analysis by using only Excel’s pivot tables and power queries. Not only did they hand off to their project sponsors the slicers and graphs, but also a user manual and documentation that covered how they developed the process. “It’s not what we thought we wanted before the project,” said Rohrenbach, but in the end, it was “exactly what we needed it to be.”

When it came time for Huang and her team to demo their project to other X-Force teams and DoD agencies, Tool Assisted Analytics Process was 100 percent successful. “The ownership they had toward the end, it was kind of awe-inspiring to me,” said Pugh. In addition, their solution caught the eye of other DoD organizations. The team’s solution has been shared with Air Force Global Strike Command and all the Maintenance Groups in the Command, which account for all bomber and missile bases in the U.S.

Their solution wasn’t the flashy, complicated solution Pugh had seen flop before. “They kept it simple,” he said. “Any DoD computer has Excel on it.” Aside from paying their fellows, the Tool Assisted Analytics Process costs “zero money to implement, maintain, or upgrade.”

“After only working on something for 11 weeks, that it could impact the entire Department of the Air Force — that’s incredible,” Sharma said. “That’s phenomenal — something to be really proud of.”

‘Something no one has ever done before’

Huang wasn’t the only UC Berkeley student to change the way the DoD solves problems this summer. Edison Guanuna is an electrical engineering and computer science major who saw the X-Force Fellowship program in one of Berkeley Engineering’s newsletters. “I thought, ‘That’s a super-cool name, so I’ll check it out.’” He took 30 minutes to apply, not expecting to get in.

He was accepted and teamed with Jaylan Pierce from San Diego State University. They were paired with a couple of innovative professors including Rob Semmens, a systems engineering researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and Michael “Misha” Novitzky, a robotics researcher at West Point.

Together, they spent the summer exploring robot behavior, which comes in two forms: hard-coded behavior, where the robot’s actions in any situation are dictated precisely by its pre-written code, and machine-learned (or reinforcement-learned) behavior, where the robot begins to make its own predictions for how to act based on its previous experiences.

Guanuna tested these two approaches by simulating robots playing aquatic capture the flag, which is a game of defending one’s own territory and flag while remaining undetected and trying to capture their opponent’s flag. The game had been played before by Novitzky, who had led a project at MIT called Aquaticus, where two teams, both composed of humans and robots, would face off in Boston’s Charles River. But coordinating humans’ and robots’ behavior is difficult. Just telling a robot, say, to snatch a flag means it has to hear the command and translate it into a series of actions: figure out where it has to swim, then orient itself in that direction, scan for the flag, go to it, snatch it up.

Teaching a robot commands is of keen interest to the military.

“The fewer people we can put in harm’s way because the robot can do the job, the better,” said Semmens.

Guanuna’s primary focus was to develop machine-learning defensive behavior for the robots — “which no one had done before,” he noted. After studying up on Aquaticus, reading through documentation, and performing research, Guanuna hand-coded robot behaviors and created machine-learning algorithms to facilitate more robot behaviors.

The results came as a surprise. “In the defense, the hand-coded behaviors are better than the reinforcement-learning behaviors,” said Semmens. “But in the offense, it’s the opposite.”

Guanuna and Pierce had “proved very plainly that machine learning and AI are not the solution for every problem that’s out there,” he added. “So I think it was a pretty great 10 weeks with them. Even though it started off as a summer internship, I fully expect them to get publications out of this. They deserve it.”

Berkeley undergrads and graduate students interested in making their own tangible impact on practical national-security problems can get started now: Applications for the full-time, paid Summer 2022 X-Force Fellowship open October 18 and close December 17.

A New ‘Pipeline for Social Innovation’: HealthTech CoLab opens in Blum Hall

The Health Technologies Collaborative Laboratory, a brand-new collaboration space to advance the development of medical devices to facilitate better healthcare and close the data and information gaps between innovators and industry, opened its doors last month in Blum Hall’s historic Naval Architecture Building with a launch event on Sept. 23 for a masked-up group of supporters, industry representatives, and campus VIPs.

RespiraWorks, which produces ventilators and respirators for low-resource settings, demos one of their devices at the CoLab opening. (Pedal Born Pictures photo)

By Sam Goldman

The Health Technologies Collaborative Laboratory, a brand-new collaboration space to advance the development of medical devices to facilitate better healthcare and close the data and information gaps between innovators and industry, opened its doors last month in Blum Hall’s historic Naval Architecture Building with a launch event on Sept. 23 for a masked-up group of supporters, industry representatives, and campus VIPs.

Housed by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the HealthTech CoLab will be unique among the many accelerators and incubators at Berkeley and around the Bay Area. While those programs have launched Berkeley students’ and alumni’s ideas — from smart power grids to new forms of plant-based meat — into the laps of VC firms and toward adoption, less profitable innovations are often left without a pipeline to viability — including many tech innovations focused on improving lives in low-resource regions.

Prof. Dan Fletcher welcomes guests to the HealthTech CoLab’s grand opening on Sept. 23. (Pedal Born Pictures photo)

“That’s certainly the case with many global health technologies that are being developed,” said Dan Fletcher, a professor of bioengineering and the Blum Center’s associate director of research. “They’re not something that a VC is looking to fund right now. How do we support those projects that have the potential to really transform lives but aren’t the ones that are being sought after by people with money?”

Enter Fletcher’s brainchild, the HealthTech CoLab.

In addition to a virtual and in-person space for undergraduate, graduate, and faculty teams to harness their human experiences, trade stories, and start dialogues, the CoLab will provide space for student teams, host workshops and talks, and be a place for teams and industry to connect and share each other’s know-how.

“Having an impact on health requires input from a lot of directions — from clinicians, from technologists, from patients, from healthcare providers,” said Fletcher. “It’s such a complex problem that I think we need a space where we can focus attention on that collaboration and not just the technology development.”

The need for this kind of space, unconstrained by profit-first notions of success, was made all the more pressing by the pandemic, which revealed serious inadequacies in healthcare systems — from delays in receiving Covid-19 test results to difficulties even accessing quality care. “It makes this an exciting and urgent time to try and change that,” Fletcher said. “There is a dire need for expanding access to quality healthcare.” 

“The CoLab will be a hub of cross-pollination within and beyond campus,” said CoLab Manager Karenna Rehorn. “Great innovation doesn’t happen in a silo, and developing a medical device that truly addresses a pressing need in healthcare should incorporate the perspectives of those it’s intended to benefit as well as those who know how to bring the initial idea into the field.”

Once Fletcher and crew had the vision in hand, a spate of supporters also keen on changing the way healthcare is delivered stepped in to get the lab off the ground, including the Harvey and Leslie Wagner Foundation, Mitsuru and Lucinda Igarashi, former Vodafone CEO and Blum Center trustee Arun Sarin, and the CoLab’s first corporate partner, HCL Technologies.

Researchers show off the Fletcher Lab’s CellScope, which can make a high-quality microscope out of a smartphone camera. (Judah Marsden photo)

Last month, the CoLab was officially introduced in a grand-opening ceremony with balloons, HealthTech CoLab merch, and, of course, CoLab face masks. On display or being demoed during the opening were social tech innovations of the sort that will eventually develop in the CoLab: We Care Solar, KovaDx, RespiraWorks, CellScope, and Sal-Patch — most of which originated at UC Berkeley, many through the Big Ideas Contest, a UC-wide innovation ecosystem, also housed at Berkeley’s Blum Center, that provides training, networks, recognition, and funding to interdisciplinary teams of students with transformative solutions to real-world problems.

“The HealthTech CoLab will help upcoming Big Ideas health projects by offering access to everything from industry feedback to the space and resources needed to further their social ventures to the point where they know they have some traction,” said Big Ideas Director Phillip Denny.

The 3,000-square-foot lab is home to a new conference room and small meeting room with video-conferencing systems. The main space hosts electrified work tables, A/V capabilities, and lockers for teams. The set-up allows the CoLab to seamlessly transition between, say, several in-person team meetings and a virtual symposium. 

“What astonished the Dean’s Office was how quickly this came together,” recalled Karl van Bibber, professor of nuclear engineering and the college’s executive associate dean, at last month’s opening. “When I got the email that said, ‘Could you come here? We’re having the opening,’ I said, ‘Already?’”

Eight inaugural teams will be selected later this fall semester for up to a year’s stay in the CoLab.

“The real work begins now,” said Fletcher. “The set up is done, but now the work of inspiring and organizing and encouraging student teams and faculty labs begins.”

Kris Kohler Joins Dev Eng, GPP Programs

Kris Kohler, a sociologist who has taught at universities across California and beyond, joined the Blum Center this fall to teach two courses: Development Engineering 202: Critical Systems of Development, and Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes.

Courtesy of Kris Kohler

By Sam Goldman

Kris Kohler, a sociologist who has taught at universities across California and beyond, joined the Blum Center this fall to teach two courses: Development Engineering 202: Critical Systems of Development, and Global Poverty and Practice 115: Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes. Kohler holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in sociology from UC San Diego and a B.A. in Black studies and political science from UC Santa Barbara. 

Kohler’s research and teaching has centered on transnational activism and social movements, international development (or “underdevelopment,” as he notes), and global sociology. He has lived and worked in two dozen countries, most notably in Zambia, and has served in the Peace Corps, worked as a rural health volunteer, and is a United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Open Pedagogy Fellow. Kohler also has over 80 courses under his belt, including lectureships at San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara, Montgomery College, UC Merced, Stanislaus State University, and Mount St. Mary’s University. 

“UC Berkeley is probably the finest public university in America, if not the world,” he says. “I am a product of California, and the UC system, and the opportunity to teach at UC Berkeley is an honor.”

GPP 115 is a core course of the undergraduate Global Poverty and Practice Minor and focuses on 20th-century development and 21st-century poverty alleviation, and Kohler brings a wealth of first-hand, on-the-ground experience.

“I consider myself a ‘citizen of the world,’ and the challenges of social inequality, poverty, power, and oppression have been concerns of mine for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I majored in ethnic studies, I studied abroad, I participated in the Peace Corps and various social movements. I have studied transnational social movements and international development for a very long time as well. The Global Poverty and Practice course is a wonderful fit for me, providing the opportunity to highlight the role of power and movements in questions of poverty and development.”

“We are excited to have Kris join the teaching team of the GPP Minor,” says Chetan Chowdhry, the Blum Center’s director of student programs and GPP’s lead advisor. “GPP 115 isn’t an easy course to teach, but students in the course have already expressed how much they are learning from it just a few weeks into the semester.”

Kohler teaching DevEng 202: Critical Systems of Development

DevEng 202 is one of two required courses for first-semester Master of Development Engineering students, the inaugural cohort of which started classes last month. M.DevEng students learn a variety of methodological frameworks, the skills needed to participate in the sustainable-development field, and the history and ethics of global development. “I am a ‘pessimistic optimist,’ Kohler says. “I know that ‘another world is possible,’ but strategies for positive social change must be grounded in sophisticated understanding of the challenges which face us.”

“It’s been exciting to sit in the class and see how engaged the students are with the material. It is often hard to stop the conversation for the sake of moving to the next reading and topic,” says M.DevEng program coordinator Yael Perez. “The power of the class was particularly evident when one of the students asked to turn off the recording for a question that he didn’t want to have on any record due to its political sensitivity in the country he is from.”

No one or two perspectives or disciplines are enough to capture the realities of poverty and development. Kohler grounds his teaching in a “globalized, transnational, and international world of experience and scholarship” and “emphasizes cross-national and cross-cultural comparison of sociological concepts,” and pulls from a diverse array of media to accommodate students’ various learning styles and to facilitate cross-cultural communication. Importantly, his courses’ concepts and research are not merely theoretical. “I take great pains to outline the relevance of social and political theory to the lives of real, flesh-and-blood people,” Kohler says.

“We are thrilled to have Kris aboard to teach such pivotal courses in the M.DevEng and GPP programs,” said Prof. Alice Agogino, education director of the Blum Center. “He not only brings a deep and first-hand familiarity with his subjects but also years of experience and passion for teaching the next generation of effective changemakers.” 

Every class, Kohler notes, is an opportunity to debunk myths and hegemonic ideas. “Students in my courses are constantly challenged to interrogate dogmatic understandings of globalization, economics, democracy, freedom, justice, crime, race, gender, culture, and nation,” he says.

Meet the Inaugural M.DevEng Cohort

Students from around the U.S. and the world — coming from the fields of finance, electrical engineering, nursing, and beyond — make up the inaugural cohort of the three-semester professional master’s program in development engineering, a transdisciplinary field founded at UC Berkeley that creates technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings.

Students of the inaugural cohort of the M.DevEng program came from around the U.S. and the world and bring experience in everything from nursing to electrical engineering to finance. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

By Sam Goldman

Barbara Mensah had studied education, founded her own organization to empower rural girls, and worked at a university in Ghana. But wanting to take the next step in her education and career, she had applied and been accepted to UC Berkeley’s first cohort of the brand-new Master of Development Engineering (M.DevEng) program, housed at the Blum Center. It would be a 7,700-mile trip.  

The program had nominated Mensah for a Mastercard Foundation scholarship. When she accepted it, she and other UC Berkeley recipients of the scholarship received an informational email with each other’s names and emails visible. One name stood out. “Is this the Patricia Quaye I know?” she asked herself.

Mensah sent Quaye a WhatsApp message, asking if she was the Patricia Quaye she knew from university in Ghana — the one who had received the same scholarship as Mensah in undergrad. She was. Both, it turned out, chose the Sustainable Design Innovations track of the five M.DevEng tracks available, and both, like many of their peers from abroad, are part of UC Berkeley’s I-House community. Both had even been working in education in Ghana, and now, on another continent, they’re neighbors.

Barbara Mensah (left) and Patricia Quaye attended the same university together in Ghana but didn’t know the other had applied to the M.DevEng program. Both chose the Sustainable Design Innovations track. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

Mensah, Quaye, and 44 other students from around the U.S. and the world — coming from the fields of finance, electrical engineering, nursing, and beyond — make up the inaugural cohort of the three-semester professional master’s program in development engineering, a transdisciplinary field founded at UC Berkeley that creates technology interventions in accordance with and for individuals living in low-resource settings. 

As the Berkeley campus transitions to a mostly in-person fall semester, most students were able to attend a masked-up, open-windows welcome orientation on August 23. “It’s been a long journey for you to get here,” said Shankar Sastry, Blum Center faculty director, professor of computer science, and leader of the M.DevEng AI/Data Analytics track. “It’s particularly exciting to be here in person after an extraordinarily challenging year.” 

“The idea of development engineering is to combine the social sciences with the hard sciences, technology and engineering, and policy,” said Alice Agogino, Blum’s education director, professor of mechanical engineering and leader of the Sustainable Design Innovations track. “We want to tackle problems that require system-level solutions — systems solutions that require multiple disciplines.”

Mathews Tisatayane (left) and Greg Berger get to know each other on a tour of campus after the welcome orientation. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

The new cohort is diverse not only in geographic origin, but also in training and age. Shubham Salunkhe arrived straight out of undergrad at the University of Illinois, Chicago. After interning at UIC’s Energy Resources Center, he decided he needed to gain more knowledge before diving into industry. Malawi native Mathews Tisatayane spent the past decade working as a nurse in San Francisco, while masterminding community-oriented avenues for building wealth and stability on a local level in Malawi.

Tisatayane had devised solar-powered egg-incubators and brooders to support a chicken-raising operation in his hometown. If his community raised their own birds, they would eat well, which meant better health, self-reliance, and opportunity. Faulty machinery derailed the project, but motivated him to learn more. He discovered Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL), run by Professor Daniel Kammen, a Blum Center faculty member. His search led him to the new M.DevEng program, which he decided could provide the skills and networking bridge he needed to make a lasting impact in Malawi and, eventually, beyond.

Abigail Chin introduces herself during a welcome-orientation icebreaker. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

“I’m a little bit emotional, a little bit in disbelief,” Tisatayane said of starting graduate school at age 48. His younger peers, he said, were “working forward” on building their skills, “while I’m working backward” on filling them in. 

Despite the momentousness of arriving at the top university in the U.S., however, the most common surprise among students didn’t have to do with rigorous academics, eye-popping Bay Area rents, or “Berserkeley” culture.

“California is so hot,” Quaye recalled hearing as she prepared to move from the hot climes of Ghana. “But it’s cold!” she added, sitting outside Blum Hall after orientation. 

(From left) Raghav Mittal, Curtis Wong, and Barry McLaughlin catch up during orientation. (Photo by Judah Marsden)

Raghav Mittal, who arrived two days prior from the outskirts of Delhi, India — another legitimately hot area — had the same expectations: the sunny California of the media and postcards. 

Nope. 

“That’s why I’m always wearing a jacket,” he said on a campus tour following orientation. 

But it will be in this fickle climate that Mittal, Quaye, and their peers will begin building projects that will make a tangible impact on the well being of those in low-resource areas.

“Consider yourselves the leaders of this field,” M.DevEng program coordinator Yael Perez told the inaugural group at their orientation’s opening remarks — “a field in the making.”

National Science Foundation awards $10M to alliance of Native American institutions, UC Berkeley, and UArizona to increase Indigenous participation in higher ed

A wide range of academic programing around food, energy, and water systems (FEWS) designed by and for Native Americans and other underrepresented student groups will expand substantially as a result of a new $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Arizona, in collaboration with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and more than 20 additional partners.

Twenty-partner alliance to expand programing around food, energy, and water systems

UC Berkeley’s American Indian Graduate Program commencement celebration in 2019. (Irene Yi photo courtesy of AIGP)

BERKELEY, CA – August 5, 2021 – The UC Berkeley Blum Center for Developing Economies announced today that a wide range of academic programing around food, energy, and water systems (FEWS) designed by and for Native Americans and other underrepresented student groups will expand substantially as a result of a new $10 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Arizona, in collaboration with the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and more than 20 additional partners.

The NSF grant springs from past work based at the Blum Center featuring successful collaborations with Native American FEWS experts and tribal colleges, nations, and communities throughout the West. The five-year grant will expand the vision and the impact. The overarching goal is to significantly broaden the opportunities for participation and the ecosystem of research and training by and for Native Americans and other underrepresented student groups.

Native American households are 4 times more likely to report not having enough to eat compared to other U.S. households; 14 percent lack access to electricity; and 9 percent do not have access to safe, adequate water supplies and also lack access to waste disposal facilities. Historical factors that led to these conditions are exacerbated by accelerating climate change, more frequent natural disasters, and the current pandemic – all of which has had a disproportionate impact on Indigenous peoples.

At the same time, there is scarce representation of Indigenous professionals in engineering positions with both the technical know-how and the socio-cultural understanding to implement solutions on Indigenous lands. This project will focus on these two interconnected challenges: the crisis in access to food, energy, and water in Indigenous communities and the paucity of educational and career pathways available to Indigenous peoples to address these crises.

“To empower Native American communities, it’s important to consider the FEWS nexus on tribal lands from a systems perspective that is both Indigenous and place-based,” says Principal Investigator Alice Agogino, Blum Center Education Director and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley. “Many holistic concepts of food, energy, and water systems are already deeply connected to traditional practices of Native Americans across the country, yet STEM educational pathways in the U.S. are often more narrowly defined.”

University of Arizona Associate Professor of Environmental Science Karletta Chief, a member of the Diné nation, is the P.I. on the collaborative proposal from UArizona. Along with Agogino, the two project leads (who have worked together for two years on projects around environmental knowledge and educational practices in Native American communities) will partner with a number of other institutions and alliances representing native groups, including Diné, Laguna, Mohawk, Lumbee, Pomo, Samish, Hidatsa, Mandan, Dakota, Nakota, and Cherokee, among others.

The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) will be the backbone for the project. AIHEC represents 37 tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) across the U.S., providing leadership and advocating for policy and programs that expand higher education opportunities to American Indians.

On the Berkeley campus – the unceded Ohlone land of Xučyun – the project is supported by the Office of Graduate Diversity and the American Indian Graduate Program (AIGP), headed up by Patrick Naranjo, a tribal member from Santa Clara Pueblo.

This initiative is the latest of the NSF INCLUDES series grants, a program launched in 2018 to develop a national network to enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by broadening participation in those disciplines.

“NSF INCLUDES addresses populations largely missing in the current science and engineering enterprise,” said NSF Director France Córdova, announcing the program. “Their inclusion is essential in helping the U.S. maintain its position as the world’s leader in innovation.”

The Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley, founded in 2006 to address urgent global challenges globally and locally, will serve as the NSF INCLUDES project home and administrative hub. For more information, see blumcenter.berkeley.edu.

As Wildfires Worsen, Berkeley Students and Alumni Team Up with First Responders to Solve Information Challenges

At the beginning of summer, the University of California brought together scientists and faculty from across the UC system for a symposium series to tackle one of the biggest threats to the state: wildfires. With expertise in forest ecology, climate change, and drought, panelists shared how innovations in understanding and modeling fire behavior and other risk factors affect our ability to prepare for, battle, and recover from ever-more-destructive blazes.

Staff Sgt. Richard Glover, 163d Attack Wing IT Specialist, shows burn areas to Staff Sgt. Jamel Seales (sitting) and Staff Sgt. Shawn Blue (background) at the wing’s Hap Arnold Center at March Air Reserve Base, California. The center is one of several wing assets activated to support ongoing wildland firefighting efforts in Northern California. Airmen will work at the center around the clock to support CAL FIRE and other agencies. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Crystal Housman)

At the beginning of summer, the University of California brought together scientists and faculty from across the UC system for a symposium series to tackle one of the biggest threats to the state: wildfires. With expertise in forest ecology, climate change, and drought, panelists shared how innovations in understanding and modeling fire behavior and other risk factors affect our ability to prepare for, battle, and recover from ever-more-destructive blazes.

“We know fires are going to happen every year, but when and where? Why? How large?” asked Theresa Maldonado, the UC’s vice president of research and innovation. “Can we make predictions accurately, understand the complexity of these events, and develop science-informed strategies and solutions?”

Over the last few months, four teams of Cal students and alums have been developing tools for providing real-time fire perimeters, live on-the-ground conditions, and the ability for disparate agencies to submit vital information in one place. 

Before the teams — Perimeter, WICS, FireTrace, and Keep It Simple (KIS) Fire View —  enrolled in the SkyDeck HotDesk program, a UC Berkeley accelerator, they were finalists in the Beat the Blaze hackathon; Perimeter and WICS won the event. Beat the Blaze was hosted by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), a program office under the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering that connects new communities of innovators, academia, and early-stage ventures together to solve national security problems.   

Perimeter CEO Bailey Farren co-founded the company as a Berkeley undergrad after she and her family had to evacuate the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa. (Credit: Benjamin Farren)

“I feel very strongly about Berkeley students getting involved early in startups that are truly working to make the world a better place and to leverage technology for social good,” says Bailey Farren, founder and CEO of Perimeter. “And I think NSIN and Berkeley, as well as the other collaborating universities, did a phenomenal job hosting a hackathon with so many resources to really be a launching pad for so much impact in the public-safety space.”

The virtual Beat the Blaze competition, one of several hackathons NSIN operates, garnered over 450 entrants looking to tackle a truly important challenge posed by the California Air National Guard’s 163d Attack Wing and Hap Arnold Innovation Center: How might we increase the information-sharing capacity and capabilities between the National Guard and civilian emergency-response agencies during wildfire operations?

“There’s civilian data, there’s military data, there’s Army data and Air Force data — all on different networks, all with different formats, and people like to use what they like to use,” says Lt. Col. Michael Baird, director of operations for the 163d Operations Support Squadron. “How do we have that data interact together better and have it talk to each other?”

Participants coalesced into teams and spent dozens of hours talking to frontline responders, the National Guard, and other NSIN mentors and partners about these challenges. Hackathon evaluators winnowed 32 ideas into 10 finalists who pitched their ideas to expert judges from the fire and tech industries and the military. Three winners secured $15,000 contracts with the National Guard to continue developing their solutions.

“Berkeley is a school that has a culture of social impact. Disaster response and humanitarian assistance are very near and dear to the hearts of most Berkeley students and people associated with Berkeley,” says Kaitie Penry, the NSIN program director at Berkeley. 

“If you’re a Berkeley student, you are living in one of the most wildfire-prone states in the country,” adds Kedar Pavgi, NSIN’s program manager for its Hacks program. “You’re living day-by-day with the outcomes of wildfires and their impact on people’s lives.”

The challenge for firefighting agencies has never been greater. Last year, over 4 million acres burned in nearly 10,000 fires, forcing evacuation orders on hundreds of thousands of people — all in California. Seven of the most destructive fires in state history have occurred since 2015, including the 2018 Camp Fire that killed 85 people in the town of Paradise. In 2020, blazes across the West Coast caused over $16 billion in damage, and this is nothing to say of toxic air quality and firefighters who have been lost in the course of battling these infernos. Between climate change and worsening droughts, the need for information sharing on the frontlines has never been more important.

“When you send this out to people, you’re always worried about, ‘Do they understand the problem? Do they understand what we’re actually trying to look for?’” says Lt. Col. Baird. “But all the solutions that came in were all very applicable, and it was very hard to come down with the three winners.”  

Perimeter is a mobile platform where first responders can input and share information about an incident in real time, information which can be made accessible to the public as responders see fit. (Credit: Perimeter)

Perimeter: rooted in real-life experience

It’s personal for Bailey Farren. The 2019 Berkeley grad’s father is a firefighter and her mother is a paramedic. In 2017, the family had to evacuate their Santa Rosa home to escape the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed thousands of structures and killed at least 23 people. As an undergrad, she and fellow Golden Bear Noah Wu founded Perimeter, a mobile platform where first responders can input and share information about an incident in real time, information which can be made accessible to the public as responders see fit. They attracted more Berkeley alumni as they built out their platform. Entering Beat the Blaze felt like a no-brainer.

“We were able to connect with so many industry experts that we hadn’t been able to work with in the past,” Farren says. “It really clarified a lot of the context around the work we’re doing and many of the more nuanced struggles and opportunities that exist in this space.”

A key feature is Perimeter’s saving newly inputted information for users with limited or no cell service. Many of today’s incident-response tools “have been primarily designed as heavy-weight software for decision-makers working with a desktop device and constant connectivity,” Farren told judges on Beat the Blaze’s Pitch Day. With Perimeter, all levels of incidence response can access vital information. 

FireTrace: the power of machine learning

In December, Ross Luo graduated with a master’s in electrical engineering and computer science, with a research focus on artificial intelligence in humanitarian assistance and disaster response. He and his friends, most of whom grew up in California and went to Berkeley, knew the impact of the state’s wildfires. “I told them, ‘Hey, this is a great opportunity to take our technical backgrounds and try to make a difference in firefighting in California.’”

Through interviews with first responders, they developed Beat the Blaze finalist FireTrace, which takes existing terrain data and aerial imagery of fires from drones to make a constantly updating map for firefighters out in the field. Using machine learning, FireTrace continually improves its understanding of what the boundary of a fire looks like.

“We had to go to office hours every day and talk to different people to really dial in on the problem,” says Luo, who now works on deep-learning frameworks at Nvidia. “That way you get an optimal problem–solution match because you’re actually talking to people who have problems on the ground. This is a good opportunity to talk to many of them and come up with a solution that solves many of their problems at the same time.”

KIS Fire View: removing barriers to adoption

Such tech solutions are a whole lot faster for agencies than relying on static maps tacked up onto boards.

KIS Fire View, another top-10 Beat the Blaze finalist, would also track live fire perimeters, as well as provide the locations of fire vehicles and up-to-date road conditions. Sukh Singh, executive director of The Curiosity Foundation, who entered with recently graduated Berkeley grad students and his Foundation partner, thought it would be hard to update this all-important puzzle piece in real time.

“From speaking to the fire chief, he was like, ‘Real time? Right now, I wait a whole day. Fifteen minutes would be phenomenal,’” he recalls. “For the graduate students on the team who were AI specialists, they had the hugest sigh of relief. Fifteen minutes is like infinity for them.”

Singh and his teammates wanted to create a tool that was as easily adoptable as possible; they found out from dozermen and other front-line firefighters that they didn’t want to have to learn complex new systems (and lose valuable time in the field doing so). So, they designed KIS Fire View as a one-stop-shop digital map that would update every 15 minutes with the live fire perimeter using drone imagery, stream data from the Office of Emergency Services to locate all responding fire vehicles, and incorporate traffic conditions from Google.

“To me, it was a really fantastic learning experience,” he says. “Speaking to all the fire services as well as all the people from the National Guard and FEMA was hugely educational for both me and the graduate-student team I worked with.”

WICS: faster firefighting funds

Shreyas Krishnaswamy, an electrical engineering and computer science undergrad, was interested in applying CS and tech to huge problems like climate change. He had participated in hackathons with his high school friends before, and they were all interested in sustainability. After he saw a College of Engineering email mentioning Beat the Blaze, Krishnaswamy called them up. “We got the gang back together,” he says.

In talking to stakeholders during the hackathon, they learned that local and state agencies can, in some cases, file papers with the federal government once a fire has started to get most of their firefighting costs covered via the Fire Management Assistance Grant, but they coordinate this through a patchwork of communications.

“The main problem is that it costs time on the front end for people at the local level, the state level, and the federal level to synchronize and get the information to wherever it needs to go to,” Krishnaswamy says. If information gets lost in translation, it can delay the FMAG’s approval.

Their solution, Wildfire InfoComm Service (WICS), provides a single tool where every agency involved in this process can sign in and provide their information for easy submission to the feds. A quick approval, Krishnaswamy points out, reduces the burden in the back of officials’ heads about whether they will have to shoulder all the firefighting costs.

Despite only beginning to learn about FMAGs during their stakeholder interviews and expecting the hackathon to be an all-student affair, the Berkeley–UC Irvine–King’s College London team developed a solution that beat out established tech companies to join the three-team winner’s circle.

Going beyond the concept and out into the field 

Since the competition, WICS, KIS Fire View, and Perimeter have continued working with Beat the Blaze mentor and judge Thomas Azwell, a Berkeley environmental scientist building a disaster lab to focus on wildfire technology.

Additionally, Kaitie Penry, the NSIN university program director at Berkeley, introduced WICS, KIS Fire View, and FireTrace to SkyDeck, a UC Berkeley accelerator, where the teams continue to receive mentoring and guidance, including from NSIN stakeholders they met at Beat the Blaze. Perimeter was readmitted to the program after a stint there a year and a half ago.

Singh says the KIS Fire View team was about to shelve their project after the competition. “Because [Penry] was willing to push it and give us the resources to make that possible,” he says, “I think she’s totally the catalyst who ended up pushing us forward to be like, ‘Yeah, we can probably pull this off.’”

Without access to some of the data and relationships KIS Fire View had enjoyed during the competition, Singh’s team is pivoting to focus more on an army of hillside cameras across the state that monitor the environment for smoke and fire; an eventual web app could drastically reduce the number of camera feeds that agencies have to monitor. Singh says Marin County, whose disaster-response officials he had already been in contact with, is interested in the project, and he can see businesses like fire-country wineries wanting to get in on a system that can prepare them for the worst.

The WICS team, meanwhile, hopes to field test its system in August or September as it continues to compile subject-matter expertise from contacts as far-flung as Washington state, Colorado, and North Dakota. And the FireTrace squad is working with the National Guard to receive data on which to train its AI model.

With two extra years of development under its belt, Perimeter has already been developing and testing its platform with the Palo Alto Office of Emergency Services and recently closed $1.2 million of early-round investment funding. “Some of the major opportunities that are presented by having this contract is really being able to have a continued dialogue with the stakeholders that sponsored Beat the Blaze,” Farren says.

Each team acknowledged that, at the end of the day, it all came down to helping those very stakeholders.

“Even if this tool’s able to detect one fire early and prevent one disaster, that’s absolutely worth it,” Singh says. “To be able to build something that might be able to help with that side of things and potentially save just one or two people or save someone’s home, that’s really exciting.”

Ph.D. Student Paige Balcom Turns Awards into Innovation and Social Change in Uganda

Paige Balcom was in Uganda when COVID hit. The country quickly instituted a strict lockdown—all borders and airports closed, transport stopped, a strict curfew and other restrictions were enforced by the military, misinformation spread, and many people couldn’t get food. In the fall, the UC Berkeley Ph.D. student’s classes went remote, and she dealt with the 10-hour time difference.

Balcom and fellow Takataka Plastics employees hold tiles they produced out of PET waste

Paige Balcom was in Uganda when COVID hit. The country quickly instituted a strict lockdown—all borders and airports closed, transport stopped, a strict curfew and other restrictions were enforced by the military, misinformation spread, and many people couldn’t get food. In the fall, the UC Berkeley Ph.D. student’s classes went remote, and she dealt with the 10-hour time difference. 

Ugandan hospitals were facing a critical shortage of personal protective equipment, and Balcom, a mechanical engineer and InFEWS fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and her team decided to make PPE for them.

In January 2020, Balcom and Peter Okwoko, a Ugandan environmental and community activist and lecturer at Gulu University, founded Takataka Plastics, which recycles plastic waste into usable household goods. They began churning out face shields, over 18,000 of which have now been distributed to frontline workers across Uganda. Though “Uganda pulled through OK,” she says, “the last year has been crazy.”

UC Berkeley mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate Paige Balcom in Uganda

Balcom has just finished the fourth year of her M.E. Ph.D., where she’s majoring in heat transfer and minoring in development engineering and design. Earlier this spring, she won the $15,000 “Use It!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Takataka Plastics’ system for recycling polyethylene terephthalate (PET) waste, a common plastic used in everyday goods like water bottles. “PET waste is a significant problem across the developing world because many countries like Uganda lack the infrastructure and technology to recycle this plastic, and it is often infeasible to ship it elsewhere for recycling,” the Lemelson-MIT Program wrote. Balcom plans to turn her prize money into grants for local innovators in the East African country.

PET’s brittleness and semicrystalline nature make it difficult to recycle, but Balcom’s invention changes the chemical structure of PET enough to make it salvageable using a manually powered and locally made system. 

The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is far from her first accolade. Balcom was the 2016 University of New Hampshire Woman of the Year, and from 2016 to 2017, she spent 10 months in Uganda as a Fulbright Scholar studying aquaponics. She has received a USAID Global Development Fellowship, and, in 2018, she and her teammates finished second in the Energy and Resources Alternatives category at the Big Ideas Contest with their venture Trash to Tiles, a precursor to Takataka Plastics. The following year, Trash to Tiles won the Scaling Up Big Ideas category. Early last year, Takataka Plastics won Stanford University’s first Global Energy Heroes competition; soon after, the Clinton Global Initiative University awarded Balcom a COVID-19 Student Action Fund for the company’s face shields. From 2019 to 2020, Balcom was also an inaugural fellow with the Institute for International Education’s Centennial Fellowship. At Berkeley, she’s received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a Chancellor’s Fellowship, and a Tau Beta Pi Fellowship.

The engineering innovations are only one aspect of Takataka Plastics. “I get super excited about the impact Takataka is having in the community through the jobs we create that are transforming people’s lives and through our outreach efforts changing mindsets about plastic waste,” says Balcom, who first visited Uganda as an undergrad with Engineers Without Borders.

The company’s waste collection reduces community health hazards. It employs survivors of war, exploitation, and human trafficking, whom the company connects to care organizations that provide counseling and life skills. And Takataka is growing quickly, too. It’s up to 16 employees, nine of whom, Balcom says, are “former street-connected youth.” 

“Their creativity, passion, hard work, innovativeness, and desire to serve their community inspire me,” she says of her coworkers. “I consider it a privilege to work with them every day.”

Currently, Takataka sells wall tiles and coasters in addition to face shields. Its goal is to be able to recycle 9,000 kilograms of plastic a month in Gulu — half of the city’s PET waste.

Balcom hopes to graduate next May, move back to Uganda, and expand Takataka. “We’re always working on new products, entering new markets, exploring different sales strategies, and hiring new staff. There are always new opportunities, partnerships, and projects,” she says. “We can’t keep up with the orders, so we’re working on scaling up our production capacity.”

She also plans to lecture at Gulu University. “I really love teaching the engineering students,” she says. “They have so many bright ideas!”

“I’d like to thank my mom and dad, sisters, friends, professors, and mentors who have invested in me and encouraged me. Winning an award such as the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize would not have been possible without all of their support,” Balcom adds. “I’d also like to give a big shout out to the Big Ideas competition and Haas [School of Business] startup programs that guided me through developing the initial Takataka Plastics model. And I’d like to thank God for blessing me with so many opportunities in life.”

Sastry wins 2021 ASME Rufus Oldenburger Medal

Blum Center Faculty Director Shankar Sastry, Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Computer Science and former dean of Berkeley Engineering, has been named the recipient of the prestigious 2021 Rufus Oldenburger Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

S. Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director, Blum Center, UC Berkeley (Photo: Noah Berger)

Blum Center Faculty Director Shankar Sastry, Thomas M. Siebel Professor of Computer Science and former dean of Berkeley Engineering, has been named the recipient of the prestigious 2021 Rufus Oldenburger Medal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).

The ASME Rufus Oldenburger Medal recognizes lifetime achievements in automatic control. Inaugurated in 1968. The list of recipients is a true honor role of major contributors to the science and profession of control. Sastry’s medal citation reads, “For fundamental contributions to the foundations of nonlinear, adaptive and hybrid control, control of robots and vehicles, and for contributions to control and robotics education.”

Professor Sastry will receive the award at the ASME Dynamic Systems and Control Division Awards ceremony and dinner, which will take place during the newly instituted Modeling, Estimation and Control Conference (MECC 2021), this October in Austin, Texas.

Congratulations, Professor Sastry!

Student Teams Partner with DoD to Improve Disaster Response

Language barriers, international communiques requiring Embassy review, and disaster workers who are 6,300 miles away — not to mention a global pandemic — were just some of the challenges addressed by UC Berkeley students working with the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces Search and Rescue Unit. This incredible experience was part of a popular class supported by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), in partnership with the Blum Center for Developing Economies.

Prototype for FireFly, an augmented reality helmet that “seamlessly connects to a mesh network of drones to provide real-time navigational and situational data to firefighters actively working to suppress wildfires.”

By Sam Goldman 

Language barriers, international communiques requiring Embassy review, and disaster workers who are 6,300 miles away — not to mention a global pandemic — were just some of the challenges addressed by UC Berkeley students working with the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces Search and Rescue Unit. This incredible experience was part of a popular class supported by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), in partnership with the Blum Center for Developing Economies. 

The Royal Armed Forces are among Morocco’s top responders to major disasters, which occurred with a 22-fold increase from 2000 and 2014. Since 2003, the Royal Armed Forces have collaborated with the Utah National Guard through the Department of Defense’s State Partnership Program, which seeks to strengthen global security, foster long-term relationships, and directly assist places in need. These responders must make quick life-and-death decisions in crisis situations, often with very little context. To support better outcomes, the UC Berkeley student team developed a prototype desktop application to coordinate disaster operations and monitor real-time data on the ground. 

This team, and five others enrolled in “Innovation in Disaster Response, Recovery and Resilience” (IDR3), presented their final projects in a showcase attended by over 50 representatives from the Department of Defense (DoD), USAID, startups, the venture community, and leaders in disaster tech. 

DoD partners from the U.S. Central Command, Army Futures Command, the Utah National Guard, and more were brought in by Kaitie Penry, UC Berkeley’s university program director for the NSIN, a program sponsored by the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering; its mission is to bring new communities of innovators together to solve national security problems by partnering with academia and early-stage ventures.

The NSIN partners “have real-life, challenging, complex problems and are responsible for disaster response, which is what makes these projects such authentic learning,” says Professor Alice Agogino, the founder of the field of Development Engineering and Blum Center associate director of education. “These weren’t toy problems. Some of these projects are going to see the light of day. That’s what’s really exciting about it.” 

Agogino co-taught the course with lead instructor Vivek Rao, a lecturer at Haas and a researcher in mechanical engineering, who helped pilot an earlier version of the course.

The six team projects were each sponsored by an agency important to national security:

  • Working with the Army Futures Command, FireFly is an augmented reality helmet that “seamlessly connects to a mesh network of drones to provide real-time navigational and situational data to firefighters actively working to suppress wildfires.”
  • Working with U.S. Northern Command and the U.S. Coast Guard, iOSOS is a smartphone app that activates during a disaster and “allows the user to send a quick SOS request, helping both rescue agencies and civilians through this streamlined process.”
  • Working with the Utah National Guard and the Morocco Royal Armed Forces, the Digital Disaster Portal is a dashboard and application that agencies can use to coordinate operations and monitor real-time data on the ground.
  • Working with U.S. Central Command in Qatar, ID SCAN is an ID scanner that military personnel can use to update their status and location, which leaders can access in a user interface to make quick personnel-allocation decisions. 
  • Working with the Naval Information Warfare Systems Command – Pacific, which deals with places with varying connectivity during a disaster, the team created new tools for visual and temporal representations of information coming through the various lines of communication used by first responders.
  • Working with Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam, the team developed a hangaring planning tool so that military aircraft remain on bases during hurricanes instead of being evacuated, and are thus able to respond more quickly to disaster events.

“The inherent talent of the Berkeley students to solve national security problems that have a real impact is incredible,” says Penry, the NSIN program director at Berkeley. “The projects that the teams worked on will have a real impact in disaster response, making it more effective for the DoD to act quickly and save lives.”

“What was very clear when the students walked down this path is that we didn’t even know our own process for how to hangar aircraft. There was essentially nothing on the board at all,” says  Major Niko Votipka of Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam. “This project was really a forcing function for the maintainers and the weather shop and leadership to really figure out a good process moving forward for something that is so critical and we struggle with every hurricane season.”

These unique and interesting challenges attracted a diverse group of students. More than 60 percent of students who enrolled were women, with 10 academic disciplines represented. “For an engineering class that involves heavy project-based work, this definitely looks different than the overall demographics of the College of Engineering,” Rao says. “Focusing on this type of problem domain — applying innovation to social-impact issues — really drew a different audience, and we’re really excited to continue to build on that at the Blum Center.”

“It was really inspiring to see how evidence-based the students made their decisions,” says Deniz Dogruer, IDR3’s graduate student instructor and a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Group of Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education. “They were really taking into account what they were hearing from their stakeholder interviews to really motivate and justify any pivots or any changes they were making.”

That end-user focus, combined with hefty research into the problems they were tackling, led to a wide array of potential solutions that the teams scrutinized to narrow down to the most effective. “I think that was exciting for some people because the possibilities are really endless,” says Yakira Mirabito, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering on the Digital Disaster Portal team.

Teams had the opportunity to work on-site with their DoD clients. For example, the aircraft-hangaring team 3D-printed some of their prototypes at Joint Base Pearl Harbor–Hickam and the rest in Berkeley, before shipping their work across the ocean. Similarly, the FireFly team demoed their helmet prototype at an Emeryville fire station. 

“We had an awesome time experimenting and developing our various prototypes, and it was also very exciting garnering feedback from firefighters and other stakeholders regarding the prototypes we developed,” says Nicholas Callegari, a mechanical engineering student. “Most of our team members had not worked with an organization like [the Army Futures Command] before, and it ended up being a great learning experience that exposed us to the managerial styles and organization of a specialized government entity.”

“I thought the projects were extremely impressive and mature,” says Penry. “The level of prototype that most of the teams were able to get to by the end of the semester was extraordinary.”

Going forward, the Digital Disaster Portal team has an invitation to attend the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces’ annual natural disaster mission exercises this fall to demo their tools — tools that the Utah National Guard is also interested in implementing closer to home. “The design challenge that [the Royal Armed Forces] presented was just really what they think they needed,” Mirabito concluded, “and what we presented is taking that idea and kind of exploring multiple facets of it.” That analysis and perspective is exactly what the NSIN course is designed to do — providing DoD units with new insights into possible solutions, and UC Berkeley students with an opportunity to focus their energy and talents on challenges that matter.”

MD4SG Co-Founder Rediet Abebe Joins Blum Faculty

Rediet Abebe joined the UC Berkeley faculty this spring as an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, affiliated with the Development Engineering Group at the Blum Center. Abebe holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Cornell University and graduate degrees in mathematics from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge. Prior to Berkeley, Abebe was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Rediet Abebe joined the UC Berkeley faculty this spring as an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences, affiliated with the Development Engineering Group at the Blum Center. Abebe holds a Ph.D. in computer science from Cornell University and graduate degrees in mathematics from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge. Prior to Berkeley, Abebe was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows.

Abebe’s research in artificial intelligence and algorithms focuses on equity and distributive justice. Through her work, Abebe has tackled mathematical and computational problems related to poverty, housing, education, and health. Recognition for her research includes the 2020 ACM SIGKDD Dissertation Award for pioneering the new research area of mechanism design for social good (MD4SG). She was also named one of 35 Innovators Under 35 by the MIT Technology Review and “one to watch” on the Bloomberg 50 list. A native of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Abebe’s work has already informed policy and practice at the National Institutes of Health and the Ethiopian Ministry of Education.

The leading question of my research is, how can we use computational techniques – and in particular, algorithmic, optimization, and mechanism design techniques – in conjunction with other disciplines, to support some of the broader societal changes that we want to see?” said Abebe, introducing herself to the Blum Center Board of Trustees last fall. “And to do it in such a way that’s mindful of any social harms we might cause, and deeply informed by other disciplines, as well as by those who bear the brunt of the burden of social problems.”
Abebe is a co-founder of the Mechanism Design for Social Good (MD4SG) research initiative – a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary initiative bringing together researchers and practitioners from over 150 institutions in 50 countries. Launched in 2016, MD4SG aims to improve equity and social welfare for marginalized groups. In 2017, Abebe co-founded Black in AI, which has grown from a small Facebook group to a global movement of more than 3,000 members and allies dedicated to increasing the presence and inclusion of Black people in the field of AI.

Building on the success of events within MD4SG, Abebe has co-led the launch of the inaugural ACM Conference on Equity and Access in Algorithms, Mechanisms, and Optimization (EAAMO ’21) and serves as program co-chair. This new conference, to be held virtually October 5 – 9, 2021, will provide an international forum for researchers, policymakers, and practitioners to come together to highlight and discuss work across the research-to-practice pipeline. (The submission deadline is June 3, 2021).

“It is a great pleasure to have Rediet here. She has been incredibly active,” S. Shankar Sastry, Blum Center Faculty Director, told the board. “When she interviewed last year, as far as I could tell every major research university in the United States made her an offer. I feel like we really hit the jackpot in convincing Rediet to come to Berkeley.”  

“The very last interview conversation I had was with folks at the Blum Center, and I remember it was an amazing conversation,” recalled Abebe. “I walked down from my interview to my hotel thinking, ‘Wow, it’s done – this is where I need to be.’ I am incredibly, incredibly excited to be here.”

COVID-19 and Unprecedented Innovation at the Blum Center

At the Blum Center, 2020 was a year of unprecedented adaptation and innovation due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

S. Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director, Blum Center 

By Shankar Sastry

 At the Blum Center, 2020 was a year of unprecedented adaptation and innovation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all centers and schools, we shifted to online teaching, advising, and working — as well as to racing to come up with solutions for mitigating the spread of the virus at home and abroad. The United Nations Development Programme estimated the socioeconomic fallout from COVID-19 for poor countries could take years to recover from, with income losses expected to exceed $220 billion and nearly half of all jobs in Africa lost. The March 2020 report states: “With an estimated 55 percent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights, and, in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition. Underresourced hospitals and fragile health systems are likely to be overwhelmed. This may be further exacerbated by a spike in cases, as up to 75 percent of people in the least developed countries lack access to soap and water.” This means we must double our efforts in terms of funding, collaboration, and new life-saving technologies and programs. At the Blum Center and around the UC Berkeley campus, there has been a plethora of COVID-19 responses to meet this challenge and help developing and developed countries alike. The first target of a new AI research consortium, the C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute (of which I am co-director), addressed the application of machine learning to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Blum Center Research Director Dan Fletcher has worked around the clock to adapt the fluorescence microscopy function of his lab’s mobile phone microscope, the CellScope, to assist in rapid testing. Dan and his colleagues are collaborating with virology expert Melanie Ott of the Gladstone Institutes and CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, among others, to provide the rapid remote detection portion of the team’s CRISPR-based COVID-19 RNA detection method. Their goal is to provide test results in less than 15 minutes. Meanwhile, a coalition of UC Berkeley engineers led by Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell, a member of our Graduate Group in Development Engineering, has been working to turn sleep apnea machines into ventilators for use in under-resourced hospitals and clinics. And Development and Mechanical Engineering student Paige Balcom prolonged her stay in Uganda, where there are 55 ICU beds with oxygen for a population of nearly 43 million people, using Big Ideas funding for her social enterprise Takataka Plastics to manufacture face shields for local medics. As we ready to launch the UC Berkeley Master in Development Engineering (see details about this from Alice Agogino in the following pages), we will continue the Blum Center commitment to educate changemakers and foster innovative solutions to global problems. The year 2020 has given us unprecedented challenges. We aim to meet as many of them as possible. Fiat Lux!

Warm Visit Week Welcome for Admitted M.DevEng Students

In early April, the first cohort of accepted students in the Blum Center’s inaugural Masters of Development Engineering program (M.DevEng) heard from award-winning faculty, social entrepreneurs, and student researchers and innovators, and also toured labs, Blum Hall, and iconic Berkeley landmarks – all virtually – in anticipation of reuniting in person on campus this fall.

Visit Week on OhYay session with faculty and admitted M.DevEng students

By Jason Liu 

In early April, the first cohort of accepted students in the Blum Center’s inaugural Masters of Development Engineering program (M.DevEng) heard from award-winning faculty, social entrepreneurs, and student researchers and innovators, and also toured labs, Blum Hall, and iconic Berkeley landmarks – all virtually – in anticipation of reuniting in person on campus this fall.

Visit Week included more than 30 events pulled largely from the ongoing spring schedule of classes and events, plus program introductions, colloquia, open office hours, and informal opportunities to meet and socialize.

The kickoff event introduced faculty leads of M.DevEng concentration areas. Blum Center Education Director and Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering Alice Agogino – who founded the Development Engineering field at Berkeley in 2014 – spoke on Sustainable Design Innovations. Blum Center Faculty Director and Thomas Siebel Professor of Computer Science S. Shankar Sastry represented AI/Data Analytics for Social Impact. Blum Research Director and Purendu Chatterjee Chair in Engineering Biological Systems Dan Fletcher introduced the Healthcare concentration, and Vice Chair of the DevEng Graduate Group and S.J. Hall Chair in Forest Economics Matthew Potts addressed the Energy, Water, and Environment concentration.

“We’d like you to let your imagination run about how you can use AI to think about ways of changing the world and to pay attention to social concerns,” Sastry said to the admitted students.

On Monday, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Ashok Gadgil welcomed accepted students Zooming in from as far away as Indonesia and Nigeria to his CE209 class on Design for Sustainable Communities. Celebrated for the invention of the Berkeley-Darfur Stove, Gadgil’s lab focuses on development engineering projects to alleviate poverty and human suffering. Guest lecturer Susan Amrose, a former doctoral student at the Gadgil Lab, discussed electrocoagulation techniques to remove arsenic from groundwater in low-resource settings, from Bangladesh to California’s Central Valley. 

On Tuesday, Professor of Nuclear Engineering Dan Kammen lectured on the intersection of religion, faith, and climate justice as part of his ERG160 Climate Justice course, diving into the themes of Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato si’ and work by faith-based communities. An internationally known expert on climate policy, Kammen was lead author of the IPCC’s Climate Change report in 2007, which was recognized with a Nobel Prize that same year.

The new cohort joined Professor Agogino and Research Fellow and InFEWS Program Coordinator Yael Perez at their DevEng210 class on Wednesday, where seminar students presented case studies. Sam Miles showcased his OffGridBox, a shipping container retrofitted to provide off-grid energy and clean water, and Adrian Hinkle discussed how to use wastewater to detect COVID-19 hotspots. Visiting Professor of Development Economic Policy and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Louise Fox, also a former chief economist at USAID, sat in on the session and offered feedback to the students. 

Launching this fall, Berkeley’s Master of Development Engineering is a new program focused on integrated approaches to address high-impact problems in low-income areas around the world. Headquartered in the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the program combines depth and breadth to equip students with the tools they need to pair technical interventions with societal, cultural, and ecological dimensions. 

“These students are phenomenal,” said Agogino. “It was such a pleasure to see all the things they’ve already done not just academically but also in the field. They’ll be a cohort of change-makers.”

Gadgil’s Infant Warmer ‘Warming Indicator’ upgrade wins Patents for Humanity award

Blum faculty Ashok Gadgil and Berkeley Lab research scientist Vi Rapp (Ph.D.’11 ME) won a “Patents for Humanity” award for their Warming Indicator, a phase-change material temperature indicator that improves the Infant Warmer’s functionality and safety, received a 2020 Patents for Humanity award.

Blum faculty Ashok Gadgil and Berkeley Lab research scientist Vi Rapp (Ph.D.’11 ME) won a “Patents for Humanity” award for their Warming Indicator, a phase-change material temperature indicator that improves the Infant Warmer’s functionality and safety, received a 2020 Patents for Humanity award. The Infant Warmer is a low-cost, convenient, re-usable, and non-electric wrap-around pad that maintains a temperature of 37 degrees Celsius/98.6 degrees Fahrenheit for approximately six hours for a newborn infant.
Read more here: https://eta.lbl.gov/award/honorable-mention-2020-patents-humanity

Jennifer Doudna on the Pandemic Year: The Power of Mission-Driven Science

In this WSJ op-ed, Nobel prize-winning CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna describes UC Berkeley’s research response to the pandemic, including the creation of a new rapid, point-of-need COVID test developed with Blum Center Research Director and CellScope inventor Dan Fletcher.

In this WSJ op-ed, Nobel prize-winning CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna describes UC Berkeley’s research response to the pandemic, including the creation of a new rapid, point-of-need COVID test developed with Blum Center Research Director and CellScope inventor Dan Fletcher.

Read more here: https://www.wsj.com/articles/jennifer-doudna-on-the-pandemic-year-the-power-of-mission-driven-science-11616080902?page=1

The Pandemic Pushed This Farmer Into Deep Poverty – Then Something Amazing Happened

NPR: The Togo government partnered with Blum faculty member & I-School associate professor Joshua Blumenstock to use satellite imagery and mobile phone data to find citizens most in need. “Mobile phone data can reveal a lot about income level,” says Blumenstock.”

NPR: The Togo government partnered with Blum faculty member & I-School associate professor Joshua Blumenstock to use satellite imagery and mobile phone data to find citizens most in need. “Mobile phone data can reveal a lot about income level,” says Blumenstock.” Read more here.

Additional Press Coverage:

Wired: A Clever Strategy to Distribute COVID Aid – With Satellite Data
Fast Company: How GiveDirectly is finding the poorest people in the world – and sending them cash
BBC: Wealth and poverty mapped using mobile phone data
The Economist: In poor countries, statistics are both undersupplied and underused

On the Passing of George Shultz

The Blum Center for Developing Economies is especially saddened by the passing of Secretary Shultz. He was a very special friend of the Center. He served as a Trustee since the inception of the Center in 2007. He came to most of the bi-annual meetings of the Blum Center board and offered his sage advice in a low-key and workman-like fashion. As in other matters, he always advocated a Big Tent approach, including other university partners and collaborators. He was a huge fan and outspoken supporter of the Blum Center.

By Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director

This weekend on Saturday, February 6, we lost a true giant – and a huge friend of the Blum Center. George Shultz was considered a pillar of the Republican foreign policy establishment, but was truly someone with a bi-partisan reach and a commitment to the good of the nation. He held four different cabinet posts in the Nixon and Reagan administration, including six years as Secretary of State for President Reagan. He served in Cabinet roles of Secretary of Labor, Treasury, and the State Department, as well as the Director of the newly established Office of Management and Budget. His signature achievement as Secretary of State was his diplomacy, contributing to the end of the decades-long Cold War. He continued as a leading voice on national security, economic, and environmental issues even after leaving government service. He gave freely of his wise advice: providing his inimitable counsel to former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, our own senior Senator Dianne Feinstein, and San Francisco Mayor London Breed. His legacy will live on. As his wife Charlotte Mailliard Shultz says, “Now, he leaves it to five children, eleven grandchildren… and a world of trusted friends to keep thinking about the future.”

Shultz spent many years in academia: With a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he began as an economics professor at MIT and served as dean of the Business School (now the Booth School) at the University of Chicago. After leaving government, Schultz became a fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and worked there on many causes – including non-proliferation, the environment, and the advancement of developing nations. He also served as CEO of Bechtel Corporation. 

The Blum Center for Developing Economies is especially saddened by the passing of Secretary Shultz. He was a very special friend of the Center. He served as a Trustee since the inception of the Center in 2007. He came to most of the bi-annual meetings of the Blum Center board and offered his sage advice in a low-key and workman-like fashion. As in other matters, he always advocated a Big Tent approach, including other university partners and collaborators. He was a huge fan and outspoken supporter of the Blum Center. One of his more memorable remarks, delivered at the inauguration of Blum Hall, was the observation that the Center’s association with technology innovation and prototyping solutions in-situ carried its agenda much further than Centers focused exclusively on development economics. Coming from an economics professor, this was high praise indeed! We always sought out his guidance for critical decisions at the Center, and he gave freely of his time, inviting us to his home or to the Hoover Institution at Stanford for long discussions.

Agogino Awarded for Faculty Service

Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino, and on Berkeley Engineering’s faculty since 1984, has received the 2021 Berkeley Faculty Service Award, along with mechanical engineering colleague Oliver O’Reilly, the 2021 award co-recipient.

Blum Center Education Director Alice Agogino, and on Berkeley Engineering’s faculty since 1984, has received the 2021 Berkeley Faculty Service Award, along with mechanical engineering colleague Oliver O’Reilly, the 2021 award co-recipient.

The Berkeley Faculty Service Award is given annually to honor a member of the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate who has provided outstanding and dedicated service to the University.

“In this, of all years, to stand out for effort and dedication, is truly an accomplishment,” says S. Shankar Sastry, faculty director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies at UC Berkeley. “As a testimony to her service, even in the midst of the pandemic Alice has been able to take the lead in getting the new Masters of Development Engineering approved for a fall 2021 start.”

Agogino first established Development Engineering at the Blum Center with a Graduate Group and Ph.D. concentration in 2016. The new MDevEng professional master’s degree program represents a major expansion for the field.

A Berkeley alumna (M.S. ’80 ME), Agogino is the Roscoe and Elizabeth Hughes Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley Engineering; she is also affiliated faculty at the Haas School of Business, Energy Resources Group, and Women and Gender Studies.

COVID-Scope: Mobile Phone-Based Virus Detection

A collaboration between Blum Center Research Director and bioengineering professor Dan Fletcher, Professor Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, and Dr. Melanie Ott of UCSF’s Gladstones Institutes is developing a CRISPR-Cas13a-based diagnostic to rapidly detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA.

Courtesy Dan Fletcher

A collaboration between Blum Center Research Director and bioengineering professor Dan Fletcher, Professor Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley’s Innovative Genomics Institute, and Dr. Melanie Ott of UCSF’s Gladstones Institutes is developing a CRISPR-Cas13a-based diagnostic to rapidly detect SARS-CoV-2 RNA. This mobile phone-based diagnostic technology aims to provide results in under 15 minutes and could rapidly increase diagnostic capacity worldwide. 

Read the full Berkeley News story here.

Press coverage
Forbes, December 13, 2020
Can CRISPR-Based COVID-19 Testing Using Smartphones Slow the Pandemic?
https://www.forbes.com/sites/robertglatter/2020/12/13/can-crispr-based-covid-19-testing-using-smartphones-slow-the-pandemic/?sh=49e1919a314c

San Francisco Business Times, December 8, 2020
Covid test may be as close as your smartphone, say UC, Gladstone researchers
https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2020/12/08/covid-19-coronavirus-at-home-test-crispr-doudna.html

Business Insider, December 4, 2020
New CRISPR-Based Test for COVID-19 Uses a Smartphone Camera
https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/new-crispr-based-test-for-covid-19-uses-a-smartphone-camera-1029866479?op=1

ABC7 News, January 11, 2021
Bay Area researchers develop new rapid COVID-19 that uses smartphone camera
https://abc7news.com/cellphone-covid-testing-crispr-test-smartphone-detects-phone-camera/9568999/

National Security Innovation Network Partners with UC Berkeley

The National Security Innovation Network, a program office within the U.S. Department of Defense, and the Blum Center have expanded their partnership to connect students, researchers, and entrepreneurs at the University of California, Berkeley, with the DoD. This collaboration allows NSIN to help bring the university’s energy and talent to solve important defense and national security problems.

National Security Fellow Kaitie Penry (third from left) at a Bootcamp with the 4th Fighter Wing. Photo: Vivek Rao

The National Security Innovation Network, a program office within the U.S. Department of Defense,  and the Blum Center have expanded their partnership to connect students, researchers, and entrepreneurs at the University of California, Berkeley, with the DoD. This collaboration allows NSIN to help bring the university’s energy and talent to solve important defense and national security problems. 

The NSIN efforts on campus are led by Kaitie Penry, who serves as NSIN program director at UC Berkeley to expand its network on campus and with entrepreneurs in the Bay Area.

The appointment further builds on a collaboration already established between NSIN and the Blum Center Bootcamp program. This initiative educates and empowers participants from military units to solve pressing problems within their organization. The NSIN network adapts to the emerging needs of those in the defense and national security arenas and helps link academic and venture partners to solve DoD challenges. 

As the NSIN program director at UC Berkeley, Penry builds connections by expanding NSIN programming to new and diverse communities that may have important insights for addressing national security concerns. Penry works closely with faculty, students, and industry stakeholders to help solve problems related to AI, cybersecurity, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and more.

“Our campus is filled with problem-solvers who care deeply about innovations in national security that make our planet a safer place,” said Shankar Sastry, Faculty Director of the Blum Center at UC Berkeley. “This new partnership with NSIN and the OSD will provide opportunities for innovators working across disciplines to understand and solve the complex security challenges in areas ranging from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to cybersecurity and preventing the spread of pandemics and misinformation.”

Penry brings significant experience to this new role gained from 10 years of DoD service. In her first year at UC Berkeley she is already making an impact on innovation for national security. Penry has deployed programs such as the X-Force Fellowship, X-Force Capstone, and Hirethon to help engage students within the national security ecosystem. In Spring 2021, she will  launch the renowned Hacking for Defense program, which challenges teams of students to develop minimally viable products addressing real-world defense and national security problems, and Hacks, a program that offers students, academics, entrepreneurs, and early-stage startups a two-week period to engage in collaborative problem-solving with DoD sponsors. 

Penry has a bachelor of arts degree from UC Davis and a master of arts degree from American University. 

Penry is one of eight NSIN university program directors embedded at top research institutions. Other NSIN partner institutions are the University of Virginia, Arizona State University, Georgia Institute of Technology, South Dakota Mines, University of Washington, Washington University in St.Louis, University of Nebraska Omaha.

Amy Pickering Named Assistant Professor in Development Engineering

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that Amy Pickering has accepted the position of Assistant Professor in Development Engineering, a joint Blum Center-College of Engineering appointment made possible through a generous gift from Richard C. Blum and an anonymous donor.

The Blum Center is pleased to announce that Amy Pickering has accepted the position of Assistant Professor in Development Engineering, a joint Blum Center-College of Engineering appointment made possible through a generous gift from Richard C. Blum and an anonymous donor. Pickering, the Tiampo Family Assistant Professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University, will commence her teaching and research duties at Berkeley in January 2021.

Professor Alice Agogino, who led the search committee and is the Blum Center’s Director of Education, notes that Pickering’s background ideally matches the needs of the Development Engineering position. She had over a decade of experience in multidisciplinary research in development, high quality scholarship, and an impressive record in both teaching innovations and diversity, equity, and inclusion contributions.

Pickering received a BS from Cornell University in Biological Engineering, a MS from UC Berkeley in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and a PhD from Stanford University in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources. Her current and proposed research directions are in developing novel water and sanitation technologies, impact evaluation of scalable interventions on child health and development, and environmental surveillance for infectious diseases. She has >70 peer-reviewed publications.

Pickering has been Principal Investigator or Co-Investigator on 22 current or completed research grants from the NIH, NSF, USAID, the World Bank, and foundations including the Thrasher Research Fund, Saint Anthony Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Givewell. She has 15 years of field experience in development in Bangladesh, Benin, India, Kenya, Mali, Malaysia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Tanzania.

With her strong teaching record in Environmental Engineering and Development Engineering, Pickering said she is eager to contribute to teaching the Design, Evaluate, and Scale Development Technologies course and to design new courses, such as Public Health Impacts of Climate Change and Ethics in Development Engineering. She also expects to continue her strong record of mentoring students, especially women and underrepresented minorities. 

Professor Agogino said the search committee was particularly impressed by Pickering’s work with KQED developing an e-book to engage students in STEM topics that featured an inexpensive water purification device she co-designed for use in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an initiative that included collaboration with Blum Center students. Her research has enjoyed strong interest from the press, with articles and podcasts in BBC World Service, New York Times, Lancet Press Office, Everyday Health, The Hindu, World Bank, and the ASME Global Development Review.

Joeva Sean Rock Joins Global Poverty & Practice Program

Joeva Sean Rock, an outstanding instructor in international development who researches agricultural biotechnology, food sovereignty, and environmental governance, has joined the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice program as Lecturer.

Joeva Sean Rock, an outstanding instructor in international development who researches agricultural biotechnology, food sovereignty, and environmental governance, has joined the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice program as Lecturer. 

Rock, who has served as Professorial Lecturer in the Health Inequity and Care Program in the Department of Anthropology at American University, has taught courses on globalization, social movements, and political-economic determinants of health. She earned a BA in International Studies/Political Science from UC San Diego and a MA and PhD in Anthropology from American University. She has served as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University. 

Rock’s research has been funded by the Fulbright-Hays Program and the Wenner-Gren Foundation, and featured in African Affairs; Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment; Global Bioethics; The Nation; Popula; and Foreign Policy in Focus. She has served as a contributor to Africa Is a Country, where she writes on issues related to development, agriculture, and social change.

Her current book project is We Are Not Starving: the Struggle for Food Sovereignty in Ghana, “an ethnography of Ghanaian activists, farmers, scientists and officials embroiled in intense debates over agricultural futures, national development and political sovereignty,” according to Rock’s website.

Among Rock’s areas of expertise is online learning, a boon for UC Berkeley, as the campus enters its first full semester of virtual learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I’m thrilled to be joining a program that takes a critical lens to poverty and development practice,” said Rock. “As inequalities continue to widen in the U.S. and around the globe, we need more than ever students and practitioners who are committed to building different, more equitable worlds. GPP 115 seeks to do just that, and equips students with interdisciplinary skills in asking deep questions, analyzing structures of inequality, and imagining alternatives.”

Deep Learning and Mindset Shifts in GPP Summer Study

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Global Poverty & Practice Experiences were cancelled this summer. However, the Blum Center created the GPP Summer Study, taught by Dr. Rachel Dzombak with 22 students across 15 majors to explore ways in which they might create change for a problem they care about.

The signature element of the Blum Center’s Global Poverty & Practice undergraduate minor is a “practice experience” for students to connect the theory and practice of poverty action. Students select to work with nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, social movements, or community projects that focus on various dimensions of poverty action—from community health and food security to economic justice and grassroots political power, in the U.S. and abroad. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. Students have been forced to cancel their summer 2020 practice experiences, and seniors have questioned their ability to finish the minor. As one student wrote, “My PE in Ghana was cancelled and since I am a senior I am unable to reschedule my PE abroad to next summer.”

To address this problem, the Blum Center created an online offering for students to engage in deep learning and to allow for mindset shifts. GPP Summer Study taught by Dr. Rachel Dzombak supported 22 students across 15 majors to explore ways in which they might create change for a problem they care about. Problems pursued by the students included:

  • How might we address rising health disparities among low-income communities of color during the pandemic?
  • How might we reduce rates of disease in the northern region of Peru?
  • How might we expand educational technology access for young children?

Throughout the summer, GPP students leveraged toolkits from design and systems thinking to understand how to make change in a complex problem space. The first challenge was to determine what problem to tackle. Using a Ladder of Abstraction (Fig. 1), students thought critically about the problem space entailed and why it mattered. This helped them to see the problem space from multiple perspectives. They used “journey mapping” to understand, for example, the experience of an individual navigating the healthcare system during COVID-19. And they were challenged to map the system in which their problem exists—charting political, historic, economic, and social forces within specific communities. 

The students also engaged in introspection exercises to apply the same innovation process to themselves. “Students are grappling with really hard problems and questions in their life: Do I return to school during a pandemic? What are my job prospects amidst a pending global recession?” said Dzombak. “The same tools that can help a student discern a global development challenge can be used to help navigate ambiguity in their own life.” 

Dzombak said she structured the course so that students updated each other on their projects during each session. She also gave them time to connect about the complexity of being a student during a global pandemic. Asynchronous videos and resources allowed students to go deeper into their projects as time allowed. 

Said one student, “The Global Poverty & Practice Summer Study gave me a tool set to break down an issue and figure out ways I could begin to implement the changes I want seen.” A second shared: “It made me realize that GPP and my practice experience actually deal with real aspects of the world that need to be examined and not merely be seen as a ‘minor’ or a ‘practice.’”

Another Year of Outstanding Development Engineering and InFEWS Doctoral Graduates

Now in its sixth year, the Development Engineering PhD program enables UC Berkeley doctoral students from engineering and social science fields to pursue applied technological research in low-resource regions around the world. The InFEWS—Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Water, and Energy Systems—Fellowship, as part of this doctoral program, enables students to work with and for poor communities that face extreme challenges accessing nutritious food, clean and reliable energy, and safe water. Both programs recognize and stand to correct Paul Polak’s observation that 90 percent of the world’s design efforts are aimed at 10 percent of the population.

Among this year’s graduates are: Julia Kramer, who received a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and a Master in Public Health and whose research focuses on global health and equity; Alana Siegner, a graduate of the Energy and Resources Group whose work addresses food distribution, access, and justice questions; and Christopher Hyun, also a PhD graduate of the Energy and Resources Group, whose research addresses water, pollution, and development, largely in South Asia.

Julia Kramer: Design for Global Health Accessibility

Julia Kramer has earned multiple advanced degrees at UC Berkeley: a Master of Public Health, a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering. In addition to her scholarly work, she is co-founder of Reflex Design Collective, a consulting firm that uses design thinking to fight social inequality, and Visualize, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering and supporting midwives to screen for cervical cancer.

Kramer’s dissertation, “Designing for Health Accessibility: Case Studies of Human-Centered Design to Improve Access to Cervical Cancer Screening,” is based on her Development Engineering work in Ghana, India, and Nicaragua. She describes the impetus and framework for her research thus: “Our world faces immense challenges in global health and equity. We see huge disparities in access to health care across geographies, and while we have made massive strides in addressing health issues, we know that these disparities persist. In my dissertation, I explore the role of human-centered design to improve global health access. Human-centered design, a cross-disciplinary creative problem-solving approach, has been applied and studied in both academic research and industry practice, but its role in improving global health access remains poorly understood.

“I present research on designing for health accessibility in the context of one particular disease: cervical cancer. Cervical cancer is an illustrative example of the global disparities in access to health care, given that cervical cancer is preventable. Every year, 300,000 women around the world die of cervical cancer, and 90% are  in low- and middle-income countries. My research examines the work of two organizations that created unique solutions to improve access to cervical cancer screening in India and Nicaragua. I developed case studies of each organization grounded in ethnographic fieldwork, including over 250 hours of observation and 15 interviews over two years. Through these case studies, I show how early efforts to understand the barriers inhibiting cervical cancer screening access allow design practitioners to create novel and feasible ways to address these barriers. This demonstrates the importance of design practitioners considering multiple dimensions of accessibility, while conducting design research in order to improve the potential impact of their ideas and prototypes. Overall, this dissertation establishes the foundation of a new framework to ‘design for accessibility’ that can spark further research across sectors, including but not limited to global health.”

Alana Siegner: Education at the Intersection of Food Systems and Climate Change

After graduating with a double major in Environmental Studies and International Relation from Tufts University, Alana Siegner spent three summers in Uganda working on an Engineers Without Borders clean water storage project. Siegner then served as an AmeriCorps National Teaching Fellow with Citizen Schools, working with 8th graders in Boston Public Schools. At UC Berkeley, where she completed a PhD from the Energy & Resources Group (ERG) and was an InFEWS Fellow, she researched sustainable, agroecological food systems and farm-to-school programs as mechanisms for developing student environmental and climate literacy. Her master’s project focused on the San Juan Islands as a case study of high-functioning school food programs and environmental education; and she served as a sustainable agriculture intern for two summers, working alongside small scale diversified farmers on Lopez Island. Siegner has developed, implemented, and evaluated food and climate change curriculum. She served as a graduate student researcher with the Berkeley Food Institute, working on a study of East Bay urban agroecology, with a focus on food distribution, access, and justice questions; and as an agriculture and plumbing systems engineer for the THIMBY tiny house project, a collaboration of ERG students, faculty, and graduate students from other departments.

The dissertation chapter most closely tied to Siegner’s InFEWS Fellowship is “Education: Experiential Food and Climate Change Curricula on Farms, in School Gardens, and in Humanities Classrooms.” It addresses the motivation for creating experiential, interdisciplinary, action- and solution-oriented climate change educational resources for a variety of educational settings. Using an integrated Food-Energy-Water nexus framing, she introduces concepts of systems thinking and experiential learning about natural resources as they relate to climate change education in the United States. Examples of experiential and solutions-oriented interdisciplinary curricula are provided from the San Juan Islands in Washington state, from Oakland, California, and from Washington, D.C. 

Christopher Hyun: The Challenge of Sanitation in Low-Income Communities    

Christopher Hyun has over a decade of experience in South Asia, working on water, sanitation, pollution, culture, religion, and development, particularly in the Ganges River Basin in Varanasi, India. He has worked with multiple NGOs on capacity building, education, and watershed and waste management. He earned a M.Sc. in Environmental Science from Banaras Hindu University, and in 2013 moved to Berkeley to join the master’s program in the Energy & Resources Group, then continuing on to become an InFEWS Fellow and complete his PhD at ERG with a Designated Emphasis in Development Engineering.

Hyun’s dissertation, “Shit, Now What? Overcoming the Struggles of Infrastructure, Inequity, and Capacity to Achieve Sanitation for All,” details how and why inadequate sanitation is a hallmark of low-income communities in low- and middle-income countries. He writes: “The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 6 (SDG 6) attempts to address this challenge by declaring ‘sanitation for all’ and targeting a 50 percent reduction of ‘untreated wastewater’ by 2030. However, urban areas of low- and middle-income countries have struggled to reach such treatment targets. Since the 1980s, development practitioners and researchers have interrogated the reasons for these shortcomings, primarily focused on the need for decentralized technology; however, increasingly blame has focused on the complexity of social phenomena. My scholarship is grounded in empirical research on the challenge of sanitation in low-income communities. While centered on the crisis of sanitation, I seek to advance and inform critical theoretical and policy-relevant debates on socio-technical systems, local governance, and capacity building.

“I hypothesize that sanitation shortcomings indicate gaps and miscommunications in our collective understanding of sanitation systems. Practitioners and researchers often base interventions on the ‘sanitation service chain,’ which defines the sanitation system as an engineering one as opposed to one with both social and technological dimensions. Therefore, I ask: (1) What are the definitions, functions, and actors of sanitation uncovered across major disciplines? (2) How do these disciplinary understandings compare to baseline understandings of sanitation, i.e. SDG 6 and the sanitation service chain? I led a cross-disciplinary review team from UC Berkeley, Stanford University, and Columbia University. Our discussion and results provide conceptual clarity to the complexity of sanitation systems through (1) the development of an augmented sanitation framework, as well as (2) recommendations for how cross-disciplinary research can support and advance the Sustainable Development Goals.”

LiquidGoldConcept Wins Big Ideas 2020 Scaling Up Contest

When UC Berkeley alumna Anna Sadovnikova launched her successful social enterprise devoted to helping pregnant mothers overcome the challenges of breastfeeding, she never expected that she would need to reinvent the entire program — transforming an in-person breastfeeding simulator into a virtual training program. But that’s what she and her team did this spring.

Dr. Bertram Lubin (1939-2020), An Appreciation

It is with a heavy heart and beloved appreciation that we memorialize the passing of Dr. Bertram Lubin, a groundbreaking pediatrician and children’s hospital leader. Bert, as he was widely known, was the kind of person the Blum Center dreams of having around—to mentor students, advise faculty, inspire ideas, and lend decades of knowledge about the fight for disease mitigation and healthcare equity.

It is with a heavy heart and beloved appreciation that we memorialize the passing of Dr. Bertram Lubin, a groundbreaking pediatrician and children’s hospital leader. Bert, as he was widely known, was the kind of person the Blum Center dreams of having around—to mentor students, advise faculty, inspire ideas, and lend decades of knowledge about the fight for disease mitigation and healthcare equity.

Bert joined the Blum Center Board of Trustees in 2016, and in 2019 he came to Blum Hall to serve as a senior health advisor because he could not fully retire. Although his career had been long and illustrious—he had served as the former president, CEO, and research director of Children’s Hospital Oakland for more than 40 years—there was still much he wanted to do.

And indeed, there was much he did do. He advised students from our Global Poverty & Practice program in their quest to reduce health inequities in California and beyond. He brainstormed with us to further the impact of the Blum Center’s Big Ideas Contest, Development Engineering programs, and healthcare technology innovations, specifically CellScope.

Months before his death, Bert was working the phones and sending emails at all hours to support Project PreVENT, to make backup ventilators available at hospitals treating COVID-19 patients. He helped pull together a coalition of scientists and healthcare professionals that included College of Engineering Dean Tsu-Jae King Liu and Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell. “If there’s anything I can do to help,” was Bert’s constant refrain, during a time he was weak and fatigued from battling brain cancer.

Dr. Lubin leaves many legacies. He is widely known for advancing the concept of the social determinants of health and health equity, which include such varied factors as early child development, food security, housing, social support, education, housing, and poverty. A national expert in pediatric hematology, particularly sickle cell disease, he launched the first newborn screening program for hemoglobinopathies in California, which became the national standard, saving thousands of largely African American children’s lives. He started the first sibling cord blood banking program in the world for children with hemoglobinopathies; co-authored the first clinical best practice guidelines for sickle cell anemia; and supported the application of gene therapy and bone marrow transplantation for children with hemoglobinopathies.  

At Children’s Hospital Oakland, he also mentored over 1,000 aspiring healthcare practitioners from underrepresented, minority high school, college, and post-baccalaureate institutions. The CHORI Summer Research Program was Bert’s way of saying: My parents didn’t go to college, I didn’t come from money, but now I develop groundbreaking health care programs for all children—you can, too.

In an interview for an October 2019 Blum Center article, Bert said: “I think we have to have healthcare leadership involved in public policy. If you don’t get policy and implementation together, then you’re not going to move the needle. We need to stop pursuing small economic advantages. We need to focus on big impacts for society.” 

Thank you, Dr. Bertram Lubin. We will carry your inspiration and vision with us.

—Blum Center Faculty and Staff

Blum Center for Developing Economies Statement of Solidarity for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” —Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and too many others, we remember Dr. King’s words about the rippling effect of injustice and oppression. We are horrified by the senseless racism and abuse of privilege and power that remain prevalent in parts of our society. And we stand in support of the peaceful exercise of grief, horror, and desire for systemic change for those who are injured and attacked for the color of their skin, the location of their home, or the assertion of their rights. 

The mission of the Blum Center is to promote social justice, inclusiveness, and greater economic and social opportunity for all. We believe that racial, ethnic, and religious harmony, empathy, and a shared sense of purpose are critical to solving the big problems confronting us today: the pandemic, global warming, poverty, health inequities, and racial and social injustices, to name a few. 

To create an atmosphere for working collectively on these large problems, we need to strengthen our networks of mutuality and speak a language that embodies a spirit of community, nationally and globally. We need to speak of historical sins and understanding, of the stark need for cultural, economic, and racial justice. We need to reaffirm loud and clear, Black Lives Matter. This must be part of the language with which we give power to a new culture based on solidarity, humanity, and progress.

Although we are in a moment of multiple crises: health, environmental, economic, and political, we harbor the hope that this moment can yield new understandings, futures, and destinies. Let us work together to create a more just, equitable, inclusive, healthy, and prosperous world. 

Faculty, Staff, and Students of the Blum Center


A Class for the Pandemic

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

When Rachel Dzombak and Vivek Rao began planning for the spring 2020 Development Engineering course “Innovation in Disaster Response,” part of their motivation was to get students to think about the use of technology during past disasters. But by early March, it was clear to Dzombak and Rao—who both earned PhDs in Engineering at Cal, have expertise in design and innovation, and lecture for the Blum Center and the Haas School of Business—that the COVID-19 pandemic was increasing the relevancy of their class in ways no one could have predicted.

For their 23 students—comprising even shares of graduates and undergraduates, technical and non-technical majors, and women and men—determining appropriate technological interventions to disaster-driven problems became visceral. And as the class moved online, connected by Google and Zoom instead of open studio space, the students observed how all manner of organizations were struggling to use technology to protect lives and livelihoods due to the fast-moving coronavirus.

Ethan Stobbe, a Master of Engineering student, recounted that the class started with different readings about drone technology. One reading was written for and by engineers whose view of drones was promotional and laudatory, and the other was written by and for government employees who warned about public policy problems presented by unmanned aerial vehicles.

“I realized there was this massive disconnect between the people who develop the technology and get excited about it and push it,” he said, “and the people who have to use technology to make life in a disaster zone more bearable. That’s the beauty of this class—to see both sides—and to understand how to bring technology that’s less than a decade old into a disaster response zone.”

Stobbe was assigned to the “cash disbursements” team with a fellow engineer and two lawyers. They included: Karen Olivia Jimeno, a Master of Development Practice and Fulbright student from the Philippines; Mozheng (Edward) Hu, a Master of Engineering student focused on product design from China; and Ifejesu Ogunleye, a Master of Development Practice student who trained in law at University of Manchester and the Nigerian Law School. As they conducted interviews about cash disbursement with representatives from FEMA, Give Directly, and other organizations, they were guided by Dzombak and Rao not just to focus on the mobile technology, but on “framing and reframing” their understanding of how to make cash disbursements more effective. 

Alex Diaz, Head of Crisis Response & Humanitarian Aid at Google.org, lectured to students on disaster prevention, response, and recovery, focusing on the roles of technology and governance.

The team’s first framing question was: How might we help streamline the disbursement of cash relief while maximizing its impact in disaster response? This prompted the students to question how the disbursement process works, why particular steps in the process are difficult, which organizations are the largest, and what existing standards govern the field. After conducting several interviews with practitioners, they learned that cash allocation can be enhanced through crowdsourced information and public accountability, but that targeting people is a challenge and enrollment and verification takes time. So they reframed their question to: How might we speed up the distribution of cash transfers by improving the enrollment of and verification process of disaster survivors?

The team’s final idea, which included a prototype website presented over Zoom in early May, was “biometric pre-registration” along with a policy guide to address legal concerns. The idea was to compel individuals in flood, hurricane, and other disaster zones to pre-register their biometric information on a website, in order to receive cash disbursements more easily in the event of a calamity. The point, argued the team, is to work around the problem of identification, as driver’s licenses, social security documents, and birth certificates often disintegrate in disasters. During their final presentation, the team acknowledged how seeing the rollout of the CARES Act, in which tax returns were used as a verification method, validated the need for solutions that enable quick access to cash for citizens.

Dzombak and Rao see the educational approach they offer to the cash disbursement and other teams as part of the emerging discipline of Development Engineering. “Development Engineering embraces complexity as a sub-discipline in itself,” explained Rao. “A lot of ways that design-based problem solving or technology-driven problem solving is taught—the problem isn’t engaged in a multi-dimensional way.”

Dzombak underscored that although the course teaches design methodologies, “The actual project is the focus and outcome of the class. The projects themselves demand that one builds technical and social fluencies and specifically how to move back and forth between the two to solve problems that matter.”

Dzombak feels strongly that STEM education needs more problem contextualization, more emphasis on ethics, and more rigor around collaboration and teamwork. She was drawn to Development Engineering during her PhD at UC Berkeley because she wants to see academic inventions tested and applied but also because she believes that well implemented technologies, devised in an interdisciplinary and collaborative way, can improve and even save lives.

Rao explained that there is a long orthodoxy in higher education that you must learn theory before exploring applied technologies or solutions—an orthodoxy that stems from the need for deep knowledge before tackling complex problems. “But there is also an urgency to many problems,” said Rao. “Students have a hunger for them and there are many ways to contribute to problems before you have a PhD in a specific field.”

Rao noted that the accessibility of technology is changing who gets to intervene in disasters and how. “The ability to manufacture a mechanical part would previously have required a high degree of fluency in several knowledge areas and toolkits,” he said. “Now, a rough prototype of that  product can be designed and built with a credit card and a few clicks. In many cases, the learning curve on technical tools has eased to the point where you can engage with tools and theory simultaneously and cater to students where they are.”

Dzombak noted that the augmented reality and data visualization sessions of their course would not have been possible four years ago when she and Rao were working on their doctorates. “Every student would have needed a background in programming and hardware in order to engage in that space. But given where toolkits are now, students were able to download software, do some reading, and then engage in a meaningful way.”

Since technologies will alway be advancing, Dzombak and Rao believe there is a growing space for people who are tech savvy but not tech specialized and can frame questions while leveraging the latest tools. “We’re trying to teach students how to learn how to learn in a very explicit way,” said Dzombak. “Because of the way jobs are shifting, people are going to be forced to get up to speed on new technologies and figure out how to use them to tackle problem areas.”

The student team that explored drone imagery is an example of this approach. They were excited to apply drone technology to fire mitigation in California. But after talking to fire chiefs, image processing researchers, and drone operators and designers, they surfaced several problem areas in which they did not have the expertise to make a contribution. For example, they knew that one of the challenges in using drone video footage during disasters is how best to parse the massive amount of data generated. And they also knew that drones suffer from flight mechanics and battery power issues during disasters, but those issues are best handled by drone manufacturers. Where could they make an impact?

One area where they found less activity is how to leverage public and private drone operation after the first hour of a disaster. The “Rapidash” prototype—developed by Master of Development Practice Student Aaron Scherf, Master of Engineering Student Wai Yan Nyein, Cognitive Science Student Meera Ramesh, and Data Science Student Jinsu Elhance—is an app that enables public and and private drone operators to collaborate during disasters by providing maps of high vulnerability areas and access by firefighters to this information. The idea is to get firefighters crucial information about the direction and density of a blaze as soon as possible and especially when public drones are too far away. 

Katie Wetstone, a Master of Development Practice student who was assigned to the “disinformation” team, said that this kind of idea formation has been a strength of the class. “We were given a structured way to process information after interviews and organize different insights,” she said. “This approach is different from other courses, in that we have more time to research and understand a problem space rather than jumping to a solution.”

Wetstone said it wasn’t until the last third of the class, after interviews with Alex Diaz at Google.org and Chris Worman at TechSoup, that her team homed in on the idea that disinformation is a “public sector problem in a private sector space.” They also realized that immediately after a disaster there is an “information vacuum period” when a lot of disinformation spreads, making people vulnerable to news that increases anxiety and bad decisions. 

“This whole problem is a balance between education, technology, and policy,” said Master of Development Practice Student Sadie Frank. “Until the policy mechanisms around enforcement and regulation of social media change, or until private social media companies make significant personnel investments, our best approach might be to teach people how to recognize and avoid disinformation.”

During the final projects showcase, the disinformation team presented “Compasio,” a downloadable device extension that filters potentially inaccurate information on social media through pre-verified accounts and geolocation. The software essentially warns users when information is suspect or unverified. 

Dzombak notes that “Innovation in Disaster Response” is not meant to jumpstart social enterprise ideas, such as new apps and web services, though it might. “The training is meant to prevent unintended consequences once students go into the workforce. That’s why we spent a lot of time on critical thinking, ethics and values, decision-making,  and teaming.”

Deniz Dogruer, an Engineering Education PhD Student and COO of Squishy Robotics, who served as the graduate student instructor for the course, noted that the range of disaster-related problem spaces students explored—drones, disinformation, evacuation, disaster documentation, and cash disbursement—made the course particularly complex to teach but also advantageous for development engineering training.

On Zoom: Innovation in Disaster Response Graduate Instructor Deniz Dogruer (upper left) and Course Developer-Lecturers Rachel Dzombak (upper right) and Vivek Rao (bottom).

Although the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the course online gave faculty and students a chance to consider the importance of technology during disasters, Dzombak said it’s been a “mixed bag.” 

“In some ways, it gives students an excellent way to connect with their learning. The disinformation team, for example, was inundated with so many examples of how their problem can manifest,” she said. “On the flip side, so many people think the future of education is purely online. But the intangibles that we’re trying to teach—collaboration, peer-to-peer learning, process iteration, emotional connections—are just drastically changed. I think the irony is that solving complex societal problems requires people collaboration as much if not more than advances in technology. We need to be present with each other, not just with the machine.” 

—Tamara Straus

George Moore Wins Chancellor’s Award for Public Service

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students.

George Moore, an InFEWS Fellow and Development and Mechanical Engineering PhD student, has been awarded the Birgeneau Recognition Award for Service to Underrepresented Students. The Blum Center emailed with Moore to find out more about his academic and extracurricular interests and views on the culture of STEM.  

What was it like to move to UC Berkeley for grad school after growing up in Alabama and attending University of South Alabama? 

These two places have really different cultural values. So, in addition to the excitement of being in a new physical space, there was a lot for me to learn about Bay Area culture. In general, my decision to come to Berkeley was intentional: I knew that my academic capacity and personal lifestyle would be challenged.

Why have you felt compelled to help underrepresented communities develop STEM skills or advance in their STEM careers?

All underrepresented communities are not the same. It would be foolish to think that I have something helpful to offer just because I also identify as a member of an underrepresented community. But because support for these communities is insufficient, I feel inspired to give what I have to offer. Because I have been able to navigate a piece of the STEM institutional system, it’s easier for me to feel more comfortable offering my service in these disciplines. What I think is most important is that I offer my experience and advice purely as a resource, and not a conviction, that should be imposed on someone else’s lifestyle. In other words, it’s not my place to steer underrepresented folks towards an engineering degree or, more broadly, pursuing a STEM career. Instead, one of my essential goals is to shed some light on how to navigate and leverage opportunities in STEM when the system is not designed for you to succeed. I’d hate to see someone abandon their cultural values for a career in STEM. 

Tell us about your service work—with the SMASH Academy and the Pinoleville Pomo Nation.

I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet, share, and learn from scholars at the SMASH Academy and community members of the Pinoleville Pomo Nation. With both groups, I was able to share some of the Human Centered Design strategies that I and other practitioners use to address big problems. My hope is that my work reassures and, if necessary, instills confidence in SMASH Scholars and the PPN community so that they are aware of their capacity to solve their own problems.

As vice president of the Black Graduate Engineering and Science Student Association, what kinds of programs have you implemented?

I’ve worked alongside Liya Weldegebriel (BGESS President) and several other strong black graduate students on the BGESS executive team to help provide supportive programming for BGESS members this year. A few notable programs include our Buddy Lunch mentorship program, Professional Development Workshop, Cultural Exchange Speakers Series, and attendance at AfroTech in the Fall. The Buddy Lunch program matches BGESS members based on their interests and encourages them to meet up for lunch to share experiences and advice navigating life at UC Berkeley. Recently, the program has moved to virtual lunches via Zoom in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Professional Development Workshop was inspired by conversations about figuring out how to prepare ourselves for life after graduate school. The Cultural Exchange Speaker Series have offered a platform to have culturally relevant conversations with each other. These events range from panel sessions with prominent black scholars in STEM to sharing our own cultural backgrounds—acknowledging that while we share a lot of the same values and struggles as the black graduates in STEM, our cultural backgrounds are actually quite different. AfroTech is an annual Conference held in the Bay Area that focuses on accelerating black careers in engineering, design, and entrepreneurship. Thousands of black professionals in STEM and related fields attend this conference every year. In the Fall of 2019, we had at least 15 BGESS members attend. 

Your LinkedIn page notes that you are “On a mission to thread a desire for empowering marginalized communities with a passion for sustainable design. Hence, I stay familiar, and critical, of frameworks like the Human-centered Design process and Life Cycle Analysis.” Please explain your skepticism about HCD and LCA. What issues does it fail to address for marginalized communities?

While these frameworks are constantly being modified to better serve their purpose, “service to marginalized communities” is not always included in that purpose. So it’s important that I use these frameworks with caution and understand the underlying assumptions that other researchers and practitioners have made. A good understanding of these assumptions is what enables me to refine these frameworks to better serve a marginalized community of interest.

Big Ideas Entrepreneurs Respond to COVID-19

For many entrepreneurs who come out of the University of California’s Big Ideas social innovation contest, the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are motivating them to find creative ways to shift their business strategies to stay busy and afloat.

For many entrepreneurs who come out of the University of California’s Big Ideas social innovation contest, the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic are motivating them to find creative ways to shift their business strategies to stay busy and afloat.

Cruelest Month, COVID-19, and Fiat Lux

Around the UC Berkeley campus, there has been a plethora of COVID-19 responses that will help developing and developed countries alike.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

So began T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land about madness and death, trauma and hope, and the confusing world of the early 20th century. A century later, we find ourselves in another cruel April, one witnessed and suffered by the whole world due to the coronavirus disease pandemic: COVID-19.

At the Blum Center, we like all centers and departments and schools have been shifting to online teaching, advising, and working—as well as closely following the spread of the disease to low-income countries and regions. As you know, the news is bad. The COVID-19 crisis threatens to disproportionately affect developing countries, not only as a health crisis but as a devastating social and economic crisis. 

For poor countries, the socioeconomic fallout from COVID-19 could take years to recover from, according to a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report released on March 30. The report warns that income losses are expected to exceed $220 billion in developing countries, and nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost:

“With an estimated 55 per cent of the global population having no access to social protection, these losses will reverberate across societies, impacting education, human rights and, in the most severe cases, basic food security and nutrition. Under-resourced hospitals and fragile health systems are likely to be overwhelmed. This may be further exacerbated by a spike in cases, as up to 75 per cent of people in least developed countries lack access to soap and water.”

But there is room for hope and more for action. As Berkeley Economics Professor Edward Miguel points out in a recent Cal news article, Africa has certain strengths for combatting COVID-19. Unlike much of Europe, the median age of many African countries is young: 20 years old. That could mean the proportion of people who die could be much lower in African countries. That might also be true for India, where the median age is 26.8. Miguel, who is faculty director of the Center for Effective Global Action, also notes two other strengths: Even though Africa is rapidly urbanizing, a large share of the population still lives in rural areas, where social distancing is more possible.

He continues: “Another strength is the regional experience in sub-Saharan Africa dealing with Ebola in the last five or six years. There was infrastructure put in place to screen people, to contain an epidemic. I know Ebola and COVID-19 are quite different, but that capacity building may help now. And Africa has 30 years of dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Partially due to local initiatives, partially due to global aid initiatives, African health systems are much stronger than they were 20 years ago, or 15 years ago.”

Still, there is much to fear and prepare for. Multilateral agencies, international foundations, and all manner of aid organizations focused on poor countries are moving funds and resources toward saving lives. A UNDP-led COVID-19 Rapid Response Facility has been launched with an initial $20 million; however, UNDP anticipates a minimum $500 million need to support 100 countries. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank have urged debt relief to poorer countries hit by the coronavirus pandemic, with bilateral creditors playing a major role.

“Many countries will need debt relief. This is the only way they can concentrate any new resources on fighting the pandemic and its economic and social consequences,” said World Bank President David Malpass at a March 26 meeting. Malpass reported that the bank has emergency operations under way in 60 countries and its board is considering the first 25 projects valued at nearly $2 billion under a $14 billion fast-track facility to help fund immediate healthcare needs. Meanwhile, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development have pledged $274 million in health and humanitarian assistance. And Bill Gates is spending billions to set up factories that will make the seven most promising coronavirus vaccines. 

Around the UC Berkeley campus, there has been a plethora of COVID-19 responses that will help developing and developed countries alike. The first target of a new AI research consortium, the C3.ai Digital Transformation Institute (of which I am co-director), is research that addresses the application of AI and machine learning to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Bioengineering Professor and Blum Center Chief Technologist Dan Fletcher and his lab members have come up with a way to adapt the fluorescence microscopy function of their mobile phone microscope, the CellScope, to assist in rapid testing. Fletcher and his colleagues have been working with virology expert Melanie Ott of the Gladstone Institute and CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Doudna, among others, to provide the rapid remote detection portion of the team’s CRISPR-based COVID-19 RNA detection method. Dr. Bertram Lubin, the Blum Center’s and College of Engineering’s senior advisor in health, has been working with a coalition of UC Berkeley engineers led by Mechanical Engineering Professor Grace O’Connell, emergency room doctors, and critical care pulmonologists to turn sleep apnea machines into ventilators. And Development and Mechanical Engineering Student Paige Balcom is in Uganda (where there are 55 ICU beds with oxygen for a population of nearly 43 million people), using her social enterprise Takataka Plastics to manufacture face shields for doctors and staff in the town of Gulu.

In this issue of the Blum Center’s Innovation Chronicle, we salute these and others working stop the spread of COVID-19 and educating the next generation of Berkeley changemakers. Fiat Lux!

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and Siebel Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, Bio-engineering and Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley.

 

Blum Center Welcomes New Board Members Michelle Nunn and Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss

In anticipation of the expansion of its Development Engineering programs and continued growth of the Big Ideas Contest and global problem-solving initiatives, the Blum Center welcomes two new members to its board of trustees.

Michelle Nunn is president and CEO of CARE USA, a leading humanitarian organization that fights global poverty and provides lifesaving assistance in emergencies. CARE works in 93 countries and directly reaches 63 million people annually. Nunn took the helm of CARE in 2015 and has since invested in innovative new programs and partnerships with private corporations and other nonprofits. Among her initiatives, Nunn has set a goal of increasing CARE’s micro-savings program from 7 million participants to 60 million participants by 2028.

Before joining CARE, Nunn built an illustrious career of civic and public service as a social entrepreneur, a nonprofit CEO, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. She co-founded the volunteer-mobilization organization Hands On Atlanta, and expanded it from a single entity to a national network of more than 50 affiliates. Nunn oversaw that group’s merger with Points of Light, creating the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, with affiliates across the globe engaging more than 70,000 corporations and nonprofit organizations.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, Nunn majored in history with a minor in religion and earned her Master’s Degree in Public Administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She also received a Kellogg Fellowship to study faith and social justice in more than a dozen countries, from Peru to Namibia to Jordan.

Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss is the founder and CEO of RockCreek, a leading global investment firm that applies technology and innovation to sustainable investments. Previously, she was managing director and partner at the Carlyle Group and president of Carlyle Asset Management. She was treasurer and chief investment officer of the World Bank and worked at Shell International and J.P. Morgan. Beschloss has advised central banks and regulatory agencies on global public policy and financial policy. She led the World Bank’s energy investments and policy work on sustainable investing in traditional and renewable energy and power projects to reduce carbon emissions. She founded its Natural Gas Group to invest in natural gas and power projects in emerging economies.

Beschloss serves on the boards of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the World Resources Institute, and the American Red Cross, among others. She is a member of the World Economic Forum and the Council of Foreign Relations. Beschloss is a past Trustee of the Ford Foundation, where she chaired the Investment Committee.

Beschloss is a recipient of the Institutional Investor Lifetime Achievement Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Ripple of Hope Award. She was recognized as one of American Banker’s Most Powerful Women in Banking. Beschloss holds an MPhil (Honors) in Economics from the University of Oxford, where she taught international trade and economic development. She is the co-author of The Economics of Natural Gas and author of numerous journal articles on energy, finance, impact, and sustainability. 

Said Professor Shankar Sastry, faculty director of the Blum Center, “We are delighted Michelle Nunn and Afsaneh Mashayekhi Beschloss have agreed to lend us their intellect, ear, insights, and sage advice to further the Blum Center mission to educate the next generation of global citizens and support breakthrough interdisciplinary research for the widest societal benefit. In Fall 2021, we will launch the first professional master’s degree in Development Engineering, piggybacking on what we have learned from our faculty innovations, our Big Ideas Contest, our undergraduate program in Global Poverty & Practice, and our PhD programs in Development Engineering. We are grateful these two exceptional people will be helping us with that and other efforts.”

Development Engineering Scholar Woojin Jung Finds Significant Discrepancies in Global Poverty Measures

Woojin Jung, an assistant professor in the Rutgers School of Social Work, credits her interdisciplinary education in social welfare, public policy, and development engineering for her award-winning research. In December, she was honored with the 2020 Society for Social Work and Research Outstanding Social Work Doctoral Dissertation Award for Combating Poverty Through Aid: A Critical Analysis of Alternative Models, which she wrote at UC Berkeley to fulfill her PhD in social work and development engineering. To find out more about Jung’s poverty measurement research and her contributions to development engineering, the Blum Center conducted the following interview.

Rutgers School of Social Work. Photo by John O’Boyle

Your dissertation examines the discrepancies between different global poverty measures and brings that analysis to bear on identifying the salient dimensions of poverty in developing countries. What were your most surprising or meaningful takeaways from this analysis?

One surprising finding is that the discrepancies between the two approaches to poverty were larger than I thought. For instance, in Cambodia in 2010, only 10 percent of the population was poor by a $1.90 poverty measure, but almost half of the population was living in poverty by multidimensional measure. In development agencies, when it comes to the usage of indicators, income measures dominate but this study shows that each measure requires attention. How to incorporate multiple measures is another issue. Policymakers and research communities can juxtapose various measures one by one, taking a dashboard approach, but I want to take a systemic account of discrepancies. It was interesting to me that exceptions and mismatches between measures are not always bad but may serve as interesting sources of information and have the potential to be used as a policy instrument.

The most unexpected finding was that some evidence of the match between needs and policy intervention, which I would call the diagnosis and prescription match. My study finds that the “capability poor” countries receive marginally higher social sector aid relative to economic sector aid.[1] Social sector aid aiming to address capability poverty has skyrocketed since the beginning of the 2000s, significantly outpacing the economic and production aid. The result of the analysis tells us that higher rate of social sector aid is not uniform but more in countries where poverty is more multidimensional. Further research can expand this discussion by analyzing whether the considerable policy shift favoring the social sector was in response to the growing rate of “capability poor” countries to “income poor countries” or in response to the large magnitude of capability poverty as relative to income poverty. As for the individual country, more attention can be paid to outliers lacking the diagnosis and treatment match[2]

Given what you know about discrepancies between measures of international poverty and advances in technology to better measure poverty, how can the development community better distribute aid in, say, Myanmar, where you focus some of your paper?  

I would say that development communities should be more clear and consistent about the definition and concepts of poverty and policy responses to address poverty. Rhetorically, the development community calls for tackling “poverty.” However, in terms of aid targeting, they equate the meaning of poverty with low gross national income. Strictly speaking, poverty and low gross national income inform needs from different angles. The poverty rate exclusively focuses on those falling below the poverty line and reflects the distribution of income (and dimensions of other wellbeing). However, average national income, which is a measure of central tendency, takes account of everyone’s income, and the super-rich can move the mean upward. In my previous study, I found out that aid per capita per country is explained by GNI per capita and population, but poverty rate does not have any significant explanatory power, or even if it does, it is in the negative direction (the poorer, the less aid). The ways economic growth and national income translate into poverty reduction differs by country; both income and poverty should be taken together. For instance, among countries with a similar average income per capita, should not those with a large proportion of poor be receiving more aid?

I also think that development communities should take advantage of the advancement of technology to measure poverty. We can validate and test the performance of new poverty measures through supervised learning, triangulate alternative measures, and use them to impute missing data. I found that the areas with the highest needs often have the least certain data, spatially and timely irrelevant. When serving these areas, even if the development community uses their best intentions, it is left with ad-hoc decisions to pick beneficiary communities. When the World Bank and Korea International Cooperation Agency started their community-centered development (CCD) projects in Myanmar in 2012-2013, the country didn’t have any reliable income and consumption data to identify the most impoverished townships or villages. The country’s first DHS data became available in 2015 and 2016, but proxy poverty measures such as the wealth index[3] are available in only 441 village clusters. Using geospatial interpolation techniques or poverty prediction techniques using satellite imagery, development communities can better pinpoint where the poor are and fill the development gaps using global social welfare program—development aid.

Your study concludes with a call for social work research and practice to return to the basics, and to begin by considering client needs. Why are you compelled to make this call?

Actually, I am speaking to the broad field of social science, including social welfare/social work and development engineering. I was compelled to make this call because a particular way of generating evidence may have obscured broader lessons. The knowledge continuum of a development project is composed of need assessment, implementation, evaluation, and policy uptake. Each piece of evidence can contribute to creating a holistic sense of impact. There will be a cost involved in putting too much emphasis on one of the continuums (e.g., outcome evaluation), a specific sector (e.g., health), or scope (micro approach). For instance, rigorous experimental studies can tease out socio-economic impacts of interventions but are less likely to recover quantities that are useful for policy.

Similarly, too much emphasis on outcomes can result in disproportionate aid allocation to sectors with easy-to-measure outcomes, such as health, HIV/AIDS prevention, while stifling innovations with hard-to-reach populations. With the promise of the big data revolution, questions also arise over the value added—other than confirming what’s already been known—in the international development context. Many development projects have failed because they did not simply pass the scrutiny of the very first test: Does the intervention take precedence over all competing resources for individuals and communities in extreme deprivation? Is providing a laptop for a child really a priority for children suffering from lack of water or food and in a village without electricity?

The sub-field of social welfare/social work is heavily leaning towards health science while the sub-field dedicated to anti-poverty policies has been losing its ground, particularly in the U.S. Still, I am not quite convinced why studies covering individual health outcomes such as patients experiencing depression or sleeplessness are more likely to be funded than inquiries about poverty, inequality, or structural impediments to finding decent work, which might affect billions of people and many other social problems. Part of the reason would be the substantial funding streams exclusively earmarked to the health sector with concrete indicators for success. Science that advances health is important to both the rich and the poor, but science that reduces poverty would be only an issue for the poor. I think such an imbalance in social welfare and in social science as a whole can be partly remedied by going back to basics, starting from client and user needs.

Tell us about your effort to combine fine-grained spatial techniques with satellite imagery to assess aid allocation in data-sparse communities in Myanmar. What did that involve, and what did you discover?

My efforts focused on creating poverty variables, combining spatial analysis and remote sensing methods. They involve the entire process of data science techniques—atomized data collection, the representation of non-traditional data, downstream machine learning tasks, and data visualization. Like in many other countries, Myanmar does not have poverty data at a small community level where aid projects are taking place. This would make it difficult to say whether aid-receiving communities are poorer than non-aid receiving communities or whether aid volume is explained by the degree of wealth. I used spatial interpolation techniques to overlay the gridded wealth field onto the georeferenced aid project locations, so that we can estimate the level of poverty in project villages as compared to non-project villages. The fine-grained spatial analysis also allows measurement of poverty at a small scale such as a 5 km by 5 km square grid depending on the resolution of the images, and it does not depend on administrative boundaries. What I also found interesting is that there are multiple ways of measuring poverty or needs broadly so that we can link needs and interventions. One of those is a distance to conflict areas from project villages, a measure of need relevant to fragile and conflict-prone countries. Beyond spatial interpolation, I also use nontraditional data sources such as daytime and nighttime satellite images. For instance, annual average nighttime luminosity across Myanmar was extracted from raster/image files and was trained to predict poverty using a convolutional neural network.

Through this new approach, I discovered mixed evidence in needs-based targeting. Community centered development (CCD) in Myanmar disproportionately flows to better-off communities, as indicated by a lower share of vulnerable populations per township and areas that shine brighter. However, unlike the literature that argues that aid favors the richest, my study suggests that a need-based allocation is also in place in Myanmar, at least for community-centered development, an aid instrument known for its emphasis on participation and inclusion. The previous studies used aggregated poverty measures at the state level, which is the highest administrative level, across African countries. Within villages of similar levels of population and electrification, aid goes to areas with low assets. The analytic tool I developed also helped me answer other questions. I found that the donor’s ideology shapes the design of aid projects design and project design matters in targeting. One CCD project concentrates on poorer regions, while the other project supports villages close to conflict zones.

Why did you choose to get a designated emphasis in development engineering? What did the field bring to your dissertation and how might it shape your academic career?

With a policy analyst background in development agencies, I wanted to continue work on international development and was about to start a concurrent MA in economics while earning a PhD. At that time, I also discovered the development engineering program and sought advice from Dr. Clair Brown to weigh in. I like what the program is aiming for—that is, addressing poverty by emphasizing human-centered design, adapting technology to local needs, and scaling up interventions. So I decided to take a route to development engineering.

I took core development engineering courses and was connected with innovative projects and their research teams, such as the Darfur Cook Stove project. That inspired me a lot, so for the last chapter of my dissertation, I wanted to survey “technology-informed data-intensive projects” (e.g., Development Impact Lab projects supported by the Blum Center) and interview principal investigators. However, after the discussion with the Blum Center, I realized that there is no centralized reservoir/data warehouse to collect such data. Due to this obstacle in doing a study of other studies, I thought, “Why don’t I get involved in data-savvy research?” and I ended up doing such research. The rigorous core and elective course of development engineering paved my way toward building data fluency and programming skills.

As I acknowledged in my dissertation, being part of the development engineering group has expanded my area of interest to the application of technology for social good. I really benefited from the marriage between STEM and social science education. For instance, I drew my aid occurrence and density outcome variable from spatial differences in African elephant densities. The development engineering program helped me select rigorous data science and impact evaluation courses to promote my analytic skills. It put me in touch with faculty members from various disciplines. The guidance and mentorship from my advisor, Dr. Brown, as well as Dr. Agogino and Dr. Levin, have been strong. Dr. Brown has been nourishing my scholarship in every way from the formulation of the research question to coaching for a job interview, to following up with article submission. The NSF INFEWS fellowship was also a tremendous financial support to pursue my dissertation.

The data science training and my interdisciplinary background with social welfare, public policy, and development dngineering will profoundly shape my academic career. I believe my unique contribution to the field is showing how to harness technology and data to identify the needs of the most impoverished in the world—from the eyes of social work, as well as for its direct work experience with clients.

—Tamara Straus


[1] Particularly low policy score (CPIA) countries receive more assistance to the civil service and governance subsector, which was a sub-sector that led to the increase in aid to the social sector.

[2] For instance, Zimbabwe in 2016 received a higher ratio of social sector aid (USD 151) despite its income poverty status. In contrast, Sudan in 2010 received a lower rate of social sector aid (USD 6.77) despite its capability poor status.

[3] Although the wealth index cannot be used directly to construct benchmark measures of poverty, these asset-based measures are capable of capturing a household’s long-term economic welfare in poor regions lacking consumption, expenditure and price data.

Blum Center Board Member Erica Stone’s Commitment to the Himalayas

Erica Stone, who has served as president of American Himalayan Foundation for close to 30 years, came to her job through an unusual path.

After graduating from Cal with a BA in Sociology she met Gil Roberts, an Alta Bates emergency room physician whom she describes as “part climber, part doctor, part Hells Angel.”

“Gil said, ‘Would you like to go camping?’ I was smitten so I said, ‘Sure.’ Then I asked ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Everest Base Camp,’ and I said, ‘OK.’ So, we went camping. We walked from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp. This was 1991; it took a month. We fell in love and then we went back to Nepal a lot.”

Roberts was among the first Americans to climb Hidden Peak in the Karakoram range in Pakistan and almost lost his life scaling Everest in 1963, when a 30-foot-high slab of ice tore loose and killed his climbing companion. Through the climbing community, he later met UC Regent Richard Blum, who started the American Himalayan Foundation (AHF) in 1981 to alleviate the widespread poverty he had witnessed on his trips to Nepal.

“Gil was on the board of AHF,” explains Stone. “I went to a meeting or two. At one point, Richard was looking around for someone to grow it because it was tiny, with revenues of $60,000 per year. By then I had an MBA from the Haas School of Business and was working as a consultant. At first, I was reluctant but then I thought, Why not?  So, I traded my crampons and duffle for a laptop and garment bag.”

Erica Stone on horseback in the Mustang District of Nepal on the way to visit an American Himalayan Foundation grantee.

Stone’s adventurous spirit and sharp business skills have been a driving force behind the American Himalayan Foundation’s steady expansion, which now gives away around $4 million a year. The nonprofit has a diverse portfolio of programs—from supporting girls’ education and restoring ancient temples to building health clinics and protecting tigers. Its staff is intensely loyal; in addition to Stone’s 29 years at the helm, Vice President Norbu Tenzing has been with AHF for 27 years, Nepal Country Director Bruce Moore for 20 years, and Deputy Director Charu Pradhan for 17 years.  

Stone says much has changed—particularly travel to and communications with one of the world’s more inaccessible regions—and much remains the same. “We had a startup feel about us in the early days and that has not changed,” she notes. “If you want to operate in Nepal, you need to be willing to pivot at any point and in any direction, because it’s not a country that you can predict.”

The foundation’s reaction to the earthquake in 2015 illustrates this flexibility. The Gorkha earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people and injured almost 22,000, which meant that AHF had to continue programs and add new ones in a country that was literally convulsed. Thanks to its educational programs, AHF could mobilize its local partner networks on the ground to help distressed students and their families. AHF and it partners deputized teachers to distribute “blue bags” with food, water, clothes, toothbrushes, and other essentials. The foundation also built 54 temporary schools and later rebuilt or repaired a hospital, elder homes, and schools.

Stone’s approach to philanthropy is marked by this kind of practicality: do what makes sense, meet people where they are. Although its headquarters are in San Francisco and AHF employs a staff of six in Kathmandu, the foundation is largely leveraged—meaning it always works in partnership with local people and organizations to identify, implement, and improve its programs.

“In the early years especially,” relates Stone. “I would go and look for local rockstars—people who are driven, passionate, savvy, and can actualize. We would sign onto their vision and help them build capacity.”

STOP Girl Trafficking is one the initiatives that has grown from a local rockstar’s vision. In 1993, the AHF board—which now includes dignitaries like former Ambassador Peter W. Bodde and celebrities like Sharon Stone—began to hear rumblings about rural Nepali girls being sex trafficked, largely to India. Stone convened a meeting of local people working against trafficking at Malla Hotel in Kathmandu. Eighteen people showed up, including Nepali doctor Aruna Uprety.

“Aruna was clearly the star,” remembers Stone. “She had seen Nepali girls trapped in brothels in Mumbai. They said to her, ‘It’s too late for us. What you need to do is go back and stop other girls from coming here.’ Aruna had this vision for preventing girl from being trafficked—it’s cheaper, easier, and prevents so much suffering. She led us to keep girls in school, and to educate them so they are more valued in their families.”

The American Himalayan Foundation started with 54 girls in 1997 and now supports 12,000 females in 500 schools annually, with 25,000 still in school or having graduated. Funding is always challenging, but STOP Girl Trafficking resonates with people and has been easier to fundraise for than some other AHF initiatives, says Stone. Richard Blum has been very supportive.

Another local star identified by Stone and her colleagues is Dr. Ashok Banskota, an American-trained pediatric orthopedic surgeon who Dr. Gil and Stone met in Nepal in 1988. He asked AHF for a $4,000 donation to buy an autoclave sterilizer for his small clinic. In the 1990s, health clinics in Nepal were ill equipped and poverty was rampant—with an estimated 80 percent of the population living on less than $2 per day. A child’s serious injury or disability could debilitate an entire family and destroy their life chances. Dr. Banskota was among the few doctors with the skill to fix club feet, twisted spines, and fractured arms and the passion to do it for low or no cost.

“I started to go back and see Banskota,” remembers Stone. “He moved from that clinic to another one in a rented house in Kathmandu. [Blum’s wife] Senator Dianne Feinstein came and saw the clinic and said, ‘Richard this is great stuff. He’s astonishing. His dedication to his kids is amazing.’”

Over the past three decades, AHF has supported Dr. Banskota’s Hospital and Rehabilitation Center for Disabled Children, including helping to build a new 100-bed hospital in Banepa, just outside Kathmandu. Banskota’s son, Bibek, has followed in his father’s footsteps as a pediatric orthopedic surgeon and has joined him at the hospital that now employs 230 staff and provides 25,000 consultations and 2,300 surgeries annually. Over 95,000 children have been healed since AHF’s first visit.

Stone may still see herself as an accidental nonprofit president, but she says she never changed jobs because of the draw of Nepal, its people, and especially its vulnerable girls. Although she grew up far from the Himalayas (in Montreal), she has been a longtime student of female empowerment through her practice of Taekwondo, a martial art she took up as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley after being stalked on its streets. She has 5th degree black belt and for 35 years has run an all-women studio in Berkeley as a community service.

“Empowering women is really important,” says Stone of her JLAG/Wild Crane Rising martial arts studio. “I have heard it said that men are afraid women will laugh at them and women are afraid that men will kill them. How do we teach women to defend themselves, not just physically but psychologically? If you neutralize the balance of physical confidence between men and women, it makes a lot of other stuff more possible.”

Stone is psychologically astute about cultural differences as well. She was quick to realize that American approaches to work don’t translate well in the Himalayas. “In South Asia, if people don’t see you, they don’t believe in you,” she says. “You have to show up and sit down and talk to them. That’s the only way I know how you can have a trusting, lasting relationship. So Norbu and I meet with every single partner once or twice a year.”

The doctor-climber who introduced Stone to Nepal died in 2000 to cancer. Yet she says the country Gil Roberts brought her to remains reverential. “When I first went,” remembers Stone, “we were coming into the Kathmandu Valley by plane. It was dusk and I looked down and there was not much electricity in the city, but you could see all these little lights. People were cooking over fires. It was completely magical. I just fell in love. I’ve been about 50 times since, and I’m still in love.”

—Tamara Straus

Dan Fletcher and Ashok Gadgil Projects Among Top 100 Proposals of MacArthur $100 Million Grant

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today unveiled that the LoaScope Project for Removing the Greatest Obstacle to the Elimination of River Blindness was one of the highest-scoring proposals, designated as the Top 100, in its 100&Change competition for a single $100 million grant to help solve one of the world’s most critical social challenges.

Berkeley, CA, February 19, 2020 — The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation today unveiled that Dan Fletcher’s project for Removing the Greatest Obstacle to the Elimination of River Blindness and Ashok Gadgil’s project for Ending Arsenic Poisoning for Marginalized People via Safe Drinking Water are among the highest-scoring proposals, designated as the Top 100, in its 100&Change competition for a single $100 million grant to help solve one of the world’s most critical social challenges.

The river blindness project is led by Daniel A. Fletcher, UC Berkeley’s Purnendu Chatterjee Chair in Biological Systems and Chief Technologist of the Blum Center for Developing Economies, with partners The Task Force for Global Health and The END Fund. Its goal is to eliminate onchocerciasis, also known as river blindness, using the LoaScope, a mobile phone-based diagnostic technology developed by the Fletcher Lab. Two hundred million people in 10 Central African countries are at risk of blindness from the parasitic infection. Half have gone untreated by the “wonder drug” ivermectin—recognized by the 2015 Nobel Prize—because of another parasite that can cause serious or fatal side effects following treatment. Fletcher’s proposal aims to expand access to the LoaScope device; resolve uncertainty about the extent of disease overlap through mapping; and initiate data-driven disease elimination programs across all populations currently excluded from treatment. This work will clear a path towards the World Health Organization’s goal of river blindness elimination.

The arsenic removal project is led by Ashok Gadgil, the Andrew and Virginia Rudd Family Foundation Chair Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation and a Blum Center Affiliated Faculty Member. Its goal is to scale up the Gadgil Lab‘s ElectroChemical Arsenic Remediation (“ECAR”) technology for drinking water. Currently, 200 million historically marginalized people worldwide have no choice but to drink water containing toxic levels of arsenic. Consequences include painful disabilities, internal cancers, and death. ECAR is inexpensive and designed to work even under harsh conditions. It allows water to be purified locally in marginalized communities and sold at affordable prices, while creating local employment and generating sufficient revenue for sustainable operation and further expansion. With additional funding, Gadgil’s ECAR team aims to build 1,004 plants in India, USA, and Nigeria to provide safe drinking water to 4-5 million people and end what the World Health Organization has called “the largest mass poisoning in recorded history.”

The Top 100 represent the top 21 percent of competition submissions. The proposals were rigorously vetted, undergoing MacArthur’s initial administrative review, a Peer-to-Peer review, an evaluation by an external panel of judges, and a technical review by specialists whose expertise was matched to the project.

Each proposal was evaluated using four criteria: impactful, evidence-based, feasible, and durable. MacArthur’s Board of Directors will select up to 10 finalists from these high-scoring proposalsthis spring.

MacArthur seeks to generate increased recognition, exposure, and support for the high-impact ideas designated as the Top 100,” said Cecilia Conrad, CEO of Lever for Change and MacArthur Managing Director, 100&Change. “Based on our experience in the first round of 100&Change, we know the competition will produce multiple compelling and fundable ideas. We are committed to matching philanthropists with powerful solutions and problem solvers to accelerate social change.”

Since the inaugural competition, other funders and philanthropists have committed an additional $419 million to date to support bold solutions by 100&Change applicants. Building on the success of 100&Change, MacArthur created Lever for Change to unlock significant philanthropic capital by helping donors find and fund vetted, high-impact opportunities through the design and management of customized competitions. In addition to 100&Change, Lever for Change is managing the Chicago Prize, the Economic Opportunity Challenge, and the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award.

Bold Solutions Network Launches

The Bold Solutions Network launched today, featuring UC Berkeley-Task Force for Global Health-END Fund as one of the Top 100 from 100&Change. The searchable online online collection of submissions contains a project overview, 90-second video, and two-page factsheet for each proposal. Visitors can sort by subject, location, Sustainable Development Goal, or beneficiary population to view proposals based on area of interest.

The Bold Solutions Network will showcase the highest-rated proposals that emerge from the competitions Lever for Change manages. Proposals in the Bold Solutions Network undergo extensive evaluation and due diligence to ensure each solution promises real and measurable progress to accelerate social change.  

The Bold Solutions Network was designed to provide an innovative approach to identifying the most effective, enduring solutions aligned with donors’ philanthropic goals and to help top applicants gain visibility and funding from a wide array of funders. Organizations that are part of the network will have continued access to a variety of technical support and learning opportunities focused on strengthening their proposals and increasing the impact of their work. 

More About 100&Change

100&Change is a distinctive competition that is open to organizations and collaborations working in any field, anywhere in the world. Proposals must identify a problem and offer a solution that promises significant and durable change.

The second round of the competition had a promising start: 3,690 competition registrants submitted 755 proposals. Of those, 475 passed an initial administrative review. 100&Change was designed to be fair, open, and transparent. The identity of the judges and the methodology used to assess initial proposals are public. Applicants received comments and feedback from the peers, judges, and technical reviewers. Key issues in the competition are discussed in a blog on MacArthur’s website.

In the inaugural round of 100&Change, Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee were awarded $100 million to educate young children displaced by conflict and persecution in the Syrian response region and to challenge the global system of humanitarian aid to focus more on building a foundation for future success for millions of young children.  &

Global Gains in Reducing Extreme Poverty

By Shankar Sastry

In a recent poll from Oxford University’s Our World in Data, a majority of Americans said that the share of the world population living in poverty is increasing—yet one of the trends of the last 50 years has been a huge reduction in global poverty. In fact, per World Bank data, the proportion of the Earth’s population subsisting on about $2 a day or less has dropped by more than 75 percent over the last four decades—from 42 percent in 1981 to 10 percent in 2015.

Just as remarkable, annual worldwide deaths of children under 5 have plummeted since 1990. Thanks to health interventions in respiratory infections, diarrhea, and preterm birth as well as massive success in vaccinations for measles, tuberculosis, and malaria—global child death rates have dropped by more than a half. We also are approaching 90 percent adult literacy and seeing large gains in girls’ education.

So why are so many Americans unaware of these tremendous global gains?

One reason is that whereas poverty, health, and educational outcomes are improving in developing nations, in the U.S. poverty shot up to 1960s levels in 2009 and the cost of health, housing, and higher education is thwarting socioeconomic mobility for too many Americans.  The regional, racial, and class details of this phenomenon are constantly in the news. In fact, in America— thanks to our always-on, click bait media—we are drowning ourselves in bad news.

Yet here on the UC Berkeley campus and at the Blum Center, we find students are not just well informed—many are brimming with hope and commitment to continue to fight extreme poverty in developing nations and to reduce inequality and work for social and economic justice in the United States. We also finding that in addition to students lending their energy and intelligence to established organizations, some are seeking to form news ones through startups and through incubators and accelerators like Big Ideas, CITRIS Foundry, and Skydeck.

There is also growing understanding among Blum Center faculty, staff, and students that higher education must adapt to the future of work. As my good friend Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian pointed out in a recent World Economic Forum article, “There is an undeniable need to train the next generation in emerging digital competencies and to be fluent in designing, developing, or employing technology responsibly. At the same time, 21st-century students must learn how to approach problems from many perspectives, cultivate and exploit creativity, engage in complex communication, and leverage critical thinking.”

In this issue of the Blum Center’s Innovation Chronicle, we invite you to read about students combining these skills sets for a fairer planet. Please read about Kaloum Bankhi, a sustainable housing organization in Guinea led by Big Ideas winner and recent UC architecture graduate Aboubacar Komara. We also have an article about the forest economics research group led by Professor Matthew Potts, who is Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering. And we invite you to listen to our Global Poverty & Practice students about their poverty action fieldwork in the Philippines, San Francisco, India, and Colombia.

All their efforts, combined with the larger story of global poverty reduction, make me think that 2020 is a year for great hope and hard work for global progress. 

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

Arts Entrepreneurship Comes to Big Ideas Contest

With all of the excitement and funding directed at artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and gene editing, it is hard to remember that one of the most consistently innovative and financially robust sectors in the United States is the “creative industry.”

With all of the excitement and funding directed at artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain, and gene editing, it is hard to remember that one of the most consistently innovative and financially robust sectors in the United States is the “creative industry.”

Building Homes with Low-income Communities in Guinea

For Aboubacar Komara, a combination of cultural values inspired the mission behind Kaloum Bankhi–a registered NGO in Guinea that maximizes existing and limited housing space for people in the slums of Kaloum.

Aboubacar Komara, founder and president of Kaloum Bankhi, says his upbringing in Guinea and the United States has shaped how he understands architecture. Born in Guinea, Komara moved to the U.S. in 2013 and graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in architecture in 2018. He explains that the combination of cultural values from both countries inspired the mission behind Kaloum Bankhi–a registered NGO in Guinea that maximizes existing and limited housing space for people in the slums of Kaloum, located within the capital city of Conakry.

Matthew D. Potts and the Scholarship of Resource Economics

How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship.

How can we meet increasing human demands from the land while protecting natural systems? This is the question that Matthew Potts, UC Berkeley’s S. J. Hall Chair in Forestry Economics and the Vice Chair of the Graduate Group in Development Engineering, asks in his scholarship. Potts specializes in resource economics, an interdisciplinary field in which he conducts quantitative analyses of forest management, biofuels, plantation agriculture, land use planning, land use policy, biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and tropical ecology.

“In my research group, we ask how interactions among human labor, history, technology, and nature are  shaping tropical lands and the well-being of resource dependent communities,” said Potts at a winter Blum Center Faculty Salon. 

Much of Potts’ research in tropical forests provides insights into how to sustainably manage these landscapes, which he says provide public and market goods. Public goods include carbon storage and animal habitats. Market goods include raw materials such as timber, land for agricultural production, and gold. 

At the salon, Potts highlighted stories of three commodities: the story of oil palm in Pasoh, Malaysia; the story of cacao in Sulawesi, Indonesia; and the story presented by Jimena Diaz, a PhD candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management, of gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru.

Potts presented findings from fieldwork he conducted in cross-boundary subsidies in a Malaysian plantation landscape, using oil palm as the primary crop in his analysis. (Cross-boundary subsidies are caused by organisms or materials that cross or traverse habitat patch boundaries, subsidizing the resident populations.) Using two decades of ecological data, Potts and his research colleagues illustrated how subsidies from neighboring oil palm plantations triggered powerful secondary “cascading” effects on natural habitats located >1.3 km away. Specifically, they found that 1) oil palm fruit drove 100-fold increases in crop-raiding native wild boar, 2) wild boar used thousands of understory plants to construct birthing nests in the pristine forest interior, and 3) nest building caused a 62 percent decline in forest tree sapling density over the 24-year study period. As described in their 2017 Nature Communications study, “The long-term, landscape-scale indirect effects from agriculture suggest its full ecological footprint may be larger in extent than is currently recognized. Cross-boundary subsidy cascades may be widespread in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems and present significant conservation challenges.”

Next, Potts presented an analysis of sustainable cacao intensification initiatives in Southwest Sulawesi, conducted by his former student Lisa Kelley, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa whose initial research was supported by the Blum Center’s Development Impact Lab. Kelley explored how a rapid smallholder cacao boom in the 1980s-2000s produced mixed benefits for farmers and negatively impacted forests. Over the last 20 years, Sulawesi cacao farmers experienced significant yield losses due to the reduced profitability and sustainability of the crop. In one of Kelley’s interviewers, a farmer reported: “When chocolate is young, it produces well and doesn’t require too much work. After it’s mature, it produces little and requires too much work. Meanwhile the price of chocolate goes up and down. As soon as my peppercorn trees yield, I will leave it.” 

To improve sustainable cacao production, the Indonesian government, companies like Mars and Nestle, and international organizations like USAID and the World Agroforestry Centre have invested since 2000 half a billion dollars into farmer education and land improvements. Using GoogleEarth to understand land effects, Kelley is working on a study to determine the degree to which the investments have borne results. 

Concluding the salon, Potts’ graduate student, Jimena Diaz, presented her ongoing research on the social and ecological effects of small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios, Peru. Diaz emphasized that her research explores the intersection between the social relations of gold production, including labor practices and technologies used in mining, and the ecological consequences of these diverse mining production practices. Through her fieldwork, Diaz has found  that small scale gold mining in Madre de Dios has grown rapidly in the past 15 years, causing ecological change and rapid deforestation. Mercury is present in almost all gold mining areas, because it is used to bind fine gold particles into an amalgam that is later burned to release the mercury. 

Informal gold miners in Madre de Dios, Peru. © Jimena Diaz

“Misconceptions of mercury and mining practices are common in Madre de Dios,” said Diaz. An important finding from her field research is that not all mining areas are contaminated by mercury and that the type of machinery used in mining may help to explain differences in mercury contamination. Different gold production practices also have different impacts on patterns of deforestation. Areas where miners use heavy machinery tend to show more uniform patterns in deforestation and forest regeneration in comparison to those areas worked with suction pump based technologies. Diaz recommends greater involvement of miners in the design of mining regulations and an explicit recognition of the importance of small-scale mining as a livelihood for a large portion of the region’s population.

“Nature is quite resilient and there are ways to mine that are less impactful,” said Diaz. “Miners themselves don’t want to destroy rainforests, but they also don’t have a lot of economic choices.” 

–Dalia Elkhalifa

Inspired to Become an Innovation Ambassador

When Amy Liu was a master’s degree student in biology at UC San Diego, she met a recently immigrated Haitian refugee who desperately needed a doula. After four hours of waiting for a professional, Liu—who had volunteered as a doula for a year—assisted the delivery of the woman’s baby over a 35-hour period. Inspired to provide pregnant women with the support they need, she founded Junior Hearts and Hands in August 2017, to connect mothers with doulas in a time-sensitive manner. After receiving mentorship from the Big Ideas Contest, she became an Innovation Ambassador for both the 2018-2019 academic year and now the 2019-2020 one. Liu, founder and CEO of Partners in Life, chatted with Big Ideas about how the program has inspired her (and why you should apply).

Why We Are Expanding the Field of Development Engineering

By Shankar Sastry

This winter, the Blum Center was among the many groups in academia and development to celebrate the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economics. Professors Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo of MIT and Michael Kremer of Harvard were lauded for their innovative use of randomized control trials and behavioral economics to evaluate the effectiveness of global poverty interventions—and for a body of scholarship that has transformed the field of development economics.

Stated the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences: “This year’s Laureates have introduced a new approach to obtaining reliable answers about the best ways to fight global poverty. In brief, it involves dividing this issue into smaller, more manageable, questions—for example, the most effective interventions for improving educational outcomes or child health. They have shown that these smaller, more precise, questions are often best answered via carefully designed experiments among the people who are most affected.”

One of Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer’s innovations—strengthened by other leading development economists like UC Berkeley’s Edward Miguel—is to emphasize the importance of field work and the contribution of teams. Previously, development economists worked largely in isolation; today, their studies often include dozens or even hundreds of people representing government, nonprofits, civic organizations, and private firms. This approach leads to greater transparency of both the data collected and the methodology used, as well as a richer inquiry into which poverty reduction programs and policies should be studied and whether or how they should grow.

At the Blum Center, we are studying how advances in development economics are part of a new and emerging field, which we call “global problem solving” and “development engineering.” This field is responsive  to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and to the fact that, in many cases, we have the scientific and technological tools to meet the United Nations’ 17 goals but not the financial will or transformative tools for changing people’s behavior to achieve them. Development engineering builds on what development economics has revealed—which poverty interventions are succeeding—and then modifies or scales or re-invents them for implementation elsewhere.

In this way, development engineering is both deeply indebted to development economics as well as a transdisciplinary field for our time. Its rigor is in understanding complex societal challenges—such as the need to build earthquake and typhoon-resistant homes around the globe—and then devising the technological, cultural, financial, policy tools, and work force development to implement these problem solutions.

Elizabeth Hausler, who received her PhD in civil and environmental engineering from Cal, and went on to found Build Change to empower people to live and learn in safer homes and schools, is an exemplary development engineer. When she visited the Blum Center recently, she said her organization’s greatest challenge is not in seismic technologies but in all that surrounds resilient construction in developing nations: community buy-in, policy frameworks, government advocacy, financial product availability and affordability, and ensuring local construction workers are well trained.

Hausler called her efforts “Money, Technology, People” or “The Financial, The Technical, and the Social,” describing a kind of holy trinity of development engineering demands. Another way to describe development engineering is that it enables iterative problem identification and solution formulation propelled by interdisciplinary teams. In essence, we are advocating a transdisciplinary approach that combines the insights-oriented rigor of development economics with the solutions-oriented rigor of engineering. We also aim to integrate business, natural resources, public health, and social sciences into development engineering in order to appropriately and ethically create, implement, and scale new technologies to benefit people living in resource-deprived regions.

Over the next year, the Blum Center will take steps toward realizing the promises of development engineering by partnering with the College of Engineering and the Haas School of Business to hire two tenure track professors. One will be an assistant professor whose focus area may include: engineering better health, the nexus of food, energy and water systems, accessible low-cost energy technologies, the digital transformation of societal systems, climate change mitigation, or sustainable design and communities. Applicants will be hired 50 percent into the Blum Center and 50 percent into a home department in Bioengineering, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, Industrial Engineering & Operations Research, Materials Science & Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, or Nuclear Engineering.

The second hire will be an assistant, associate, or full professor in Entrepreneurship in Developing Economies who will split his or her time between the Blum Center and the Haas School and whose research topics may include productivity, innovation, small and medium-sized enterprises, financing for entrepreneurial activities, start-ups, venture capital funding, incubators, and policies to promote new businesses.

These professors will help us realize the promises of development engineering and be leaders, with their future students, in the achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Shankar Sastry is Faculty Director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and NEC Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley.

Joe Leitmann on the New Era of Disaster Risk Management

By Tamara Straus

Though he admits it is macabre, Joe Leitmann is walking encyclopedia of natural disaster statistics. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami resulted in 280,000 deaths and $15 billion in damages. The Sichuan Earthquake in 2008 led to 68,000 deaths and $20 billion in damages. Hurricane Sandy’s 2012 tear across the U.S. and Caribbean left behind $75 billion in destruction, and the same year Cyclone Evan in the Western Pacific produced a record $180 billion bill.

Leitmann can reel off these statistics in rapid fire, because he has been in attendance at several of these earth-human calamities. Since 2004, when Indonesia was trampled by ocean waters, he has emerged as one of the World Bank’s experts in how to mobilize money, resources, and other forms of assistance to disaster sites as quickly as possible.

Josef Lloyd Leitmann, Team Leader for Resilient Recovery and Urban Resilience, World Bank

Leitmann, who is the Bank’s Team Leader for Resilient Recovery and Urban Resilience, came to the Blum Center on October 17 not to underscore the increasing cost and frequency of natural disasters, but to inform faculty and students about several rapidly evolving innovations, particularly in digital forecasting and catastrophe financing, that are allowing big institutions and small communities to save lives and protect livelihoods.

“Disasters are costing us an average of half a trillion dollars per year, with up to 26 million people annually being pushed into poverty,” he said. “These costs undermine the World Bank’s twin goals: to eliminate extreme poverty by 2030 and promote shared prosperity. Yet since 2004, there’s been a shift—we have been focusing on resilience strategies and results are happening.”

Leitmann has spent most of his career at the World Bank. Trained in development studies and political science at Cal, he went on to earn a public policy master from the Harvard Kennedy School and completed a PhD in city and regional planning at UC Berkeley. His first job after graduate school was as a Peace Corps volunteer in the South Pacific working on appropriate technology and agricultural planning. For the World Bank, he has worked in over 40 countries, where he has picked up six languages, including Cook Islands Maori and Turkish.

Leitmann said that if the World Bank had not stationed him in Indonesia as its environmental coordinator Indonesia in the summer of 2004, his career trajectory would have been different. However on December 26, months into his new position, an undersea megathrust earthquake led to a killer tsunami and his job changed overnight. Asked to fundraise for the recovery effort, he wrote a memo that became a proposal, detailing how to fill the reconstruction gaps in Banda Aceh and Nias. Within six months, due to the circulation and approval of his ideas, he had raised $650 million and was managing a portfolio of 20 projects.

Leitmann, who has gone on to serve as a program manager for the Haiti Reconstruction Fund and as the lead specialist at the Bank’s Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery in Washington, DC, says that over the past 15 years the World Bank’s portfolio has shifted from a 100 percent reconstruction to 75 percent disaster risk reduction.

“This is an amazing change for a slow-moving organization like the World Bank,” he said.

The international community also is moving in a more preventative direction. In 2005, the Hyogo Framework was introduced, serving as the global blueprint for disaster risk reduction for the next decade. In 2007, the Caribbean Catastrophe Risk Insurance Facility was established as the first regional risk-pooling mechanism for vulnerable countries. And in 2008, the Joint Declaration on Post-Crisis Assessments and Recovery Planning was signed by the United Nations, World Bank, and European Union, followed by another handful of major international agreements and frameworks, most notably the 2015-2030 Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, which includes seven global targets.

As part of this move from disaster response to disaster risk reduction, Leitmann emphasized the increasing role of computer modeling of disaster-prone areas. Digital forecasts of hurricanes and earthquakes now result in damage estimates within days or even hours.  As a result, countries have detailed information about who is vulnerable and where they are, enabling sophisticated risk planning.

In Haiti, for example, Leitmann said the government, with assistance from the World Bank, readied for the next storm by improving detection through weather forecasting, mapping at-risk communities using predictive modeling, building shelters in safe areas, and developing the capacity to move people into the shelters before dangerous weather as well as a means to finance these moves.  Because of these measures, the impact of Hurricane Sandy was relatively small, said Leitmann. He also cited the recent $1 billion retrofit of major public facilities in and around Istanbul funded by the Bank and other donors—as a “great example of getting ahead of the curve.”

“In the 1970s and 1980s, monsoons killed 200,000-250,000 annually in Bangladesh. That number is now down to 50 per year, because people are being moved out of their homes to safe shelters before they flood.”

Leitmann also sees disaster risk insurance funds, catastrophe bonds, and other financial products as a positive development. In Chile, copper revenues were funneled into $35,000 grants to households affected by the 2011 earthquake; and in Ecuador, increased taxes after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in 2016 helped to finance the recovery. The Sendai Framework, he said, is specifically oriented to “building back stronger, quicker, and more inclusively.”

Meanwhile, rapid and remote assessment methods—such as social media analytics and satellite data—are changing the way disaster relief experts analyze and plan for recovery. In six cities in Syria, for example, Leitmann’s colleagues are using official reports, social media posts, and data from NGOs on the ground to determine the functionality of public facilities and infrastructure. ISIS may report that the hospitals are closed to undercut the government’s reputation for providing medical services, but the World Bank can tell from tweets, satellite data and reports from the field that the maternity ward is open or people are booking appointments for regular services in the non-damaged parts of the building.

“We can then use these assessment methods to extrapolate how much it would take to entirely rebuild the facility,” said Leitmann. “We are doing that with roads in Yemen and buildings in the Boko Haram-affected parts of Nigeria.”

Big technology companies are also turning to the work of disaster risk management, helping governments and humanitarian institutions with a range of digital communications. During the fall 2019 wildfires in California, for example, Google provided maps not just of fire-affected areas but of the availability of public services, such as shelters and gas stations and supermarkets. Devex reported last December that Facebook’s Data for Good team tripled in one year the number of disaster maps partners, to include the UN Children’s Fund, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the World Food Programme.

Daily there are reports of the human-earth consequences of climate change, such as new research published in Nature that reports sea level rise and flooding will affect hundreds of millions more people in the coming decades than previously forecast. Yet Leitmann remains a cautious optimist. He believes if the above efforts are implemented by cross-sector collaborations, we can cut the current half trillion dollar per year expenditure on disasters by a third and save lives. 

“By reducing risks, strengthening recovery systems, and enhancing preparedness,” he said, “we can protect gains in poverty alleviation and economic development—that’s true resilience.”

Supporting Low-Income Entrepreneurs in Nairobi

Over the past five years, SOMO has grown from a proposal submitted to the Big Ideas Contest to a viable nonprofit, which receives close to 2,000 applications annually from Kenyan entrepreneurs looking to launch their business ideas. So far SOMO has helped launch 58 businesses, partnering with them for two years through its acceleration program.

Suleiman Halasah: Environment as a Cross-boundary Peacebuilding Tool

Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.

By Jason Liu

In 2002, Suleiman Halasah graduated from the University of Jordan with a degree in electrical engineering and went on to work first as a teaching assistant for the University of Jordan’s Department of Computer Engineering and then as a control engineer for the Jordan Valley Authority on irrigation projects. Yet within a few years, Halasah came to realize the work wasn’t for him. “I would sit in an office all day being totally disconnected from life,” he said. 

Halasah was also disillusioned with the impact he was having at the Jordan Valley Authority. “Working with the government is really hard because of one main point: it’s a huge institution,” he said. “Making any change is almost impossible, especially if you’re assigned to a project far from the center of power. ”

Halasah’s frustration came with a silver lining, however. Because of the slow pace of work, he had free time to pursue other passions and became involved in several Jordan-based NGOs focused on peacebuilding, community development, and volunteering.

“One of the main projects I did was establishing a village computer lab that was the only one for 100 kilometers,” he said. “I saw how the lab brought opportunities to change people’s lives, and ever since then I’ve been focused on what I can do to directly help other people.”

In 2006, Halasah joined the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel where he co-founded a photovoltaic solar field company called the Arava Power. He went on to found the environmental service consulting agency i.GREENs; served as the acting associate director of the Arava Institute’s Center for Transboundary Water Management; and now co-directs the Jordan-Israel Center for Community, Environment, and Research (JICCER), which supports the well-being of natural and human systems of the Arava valley through cross-border community initiatives and research. He is also pursuing a Ph.D. in off-grid water and wastewater systems in the West Bank from Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Israel.

Energy & Resources Group Professor Isha Ray (right) and Suleiman Halasah discuss sustainability challenges in the Middle East at the nexus of food, energy, and water systems. © Laura Turbow

Halasah came to speak at UC Berkeley on October 29 in an event co-hosted by the Blum Center for Developing Economies, the Master of Development Practice, and the Berkeley Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies. Titled “Innovations and Collaboration at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems: Toward Sustainability in the Middle East,” Halasah’s talk covered his role as founder and co-director of JICCER, his solar water pumping project with Palestinian and Jordanian farmers, and the lessons he has learned about community development and environmental peacebuilding.

Discussant Isha Ray, associate professor at the Energy & Resources Group and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center, joined Halasah afterward and highlighted some of the key takeaways: how those working on development often focus on financial and technological solutions, while ignoring cultural, political, and social realities; how patience goes beyond being a virtue in development but is the very key to success; how governments at times track and control nomadic tribes under the guise of development; and how the current push for “scaling up” needs redress as communities are location-specific.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Halasah before the event at Berkeley’s beloved Yali’s Cafe to ask him about his work. While waiting for our coffee, I asked how he would describe his day job. Halasah said:

“My main focus is to bring people together, so that they can get to know each other and discuss hard questions. But if the audience focuses on water, then I focus on how water can do this. If the audience focuses on environmental issues, then that’s how I present work. Ultimately, I use different opportunities for bringing people together to catalyze peace building in the Middle East.”

During his career, Halasah said he was shaped by two factors. The first was his father. When connecting the dots on how an electrical engineer in Jordan ended up at the Arava Institute in Israel, the first thing Halasah said was: The flexibility my Dad gave helped a lot. My Dad very much believed that I should lead my own direction in life and as long as I felt like it was the right thing to do, he would support me.”

The second shaping factor for Halasah was traveling. Halasah has been to conferences all over the world to share his work in community development, peace building, and how he’s able to transcend the complicated politics of the Middle East. He has also traveled as a tourist to the US, Indonesia, China, Malaysia, Uganda, and many other countries.

“When you meet people from other nationalities, it opens your eyes,” said Halasah. “You don’t see yourself as superior to others. You see that everybody is very proud of their culture and the divisive things that separate people from different cultures and nations don’t exist anymore. It’s humbling.”

As I listened to Halasah’s talk at the Blum Center later in the day, it was clear how these experiences were reflected in both his professional choices and his outlook on development. 

“The approach today is mainly one-directional. The implementer comes to the community saying, ‘This is your problem, this is its effect on you, and this is how I’m going to solve it.’ The community itself is totally disconnected. As a result, communities don’t take ownership of the solution, they don’t see it as their system. Then comes complications with the system when some part fails and people say, ‘This is their technology. Why should I fix it? How should I fix it? The NGO needs to come to see what is wrong with it.’” 

Instead, Halasah argues, we need to “work directly with the community on defining the problem, brainstorming solutions, and figuring out what assets they have. It should all ultimately come from them.” For Halasah this means conducting interviews, holding roundtables with all stakeholders, and making sure the community has a voice at every step. “It’s their problem; they should know more about it than we do,” said Halasah. 

Another topic that Halasah is passionate about is environmental peacekeeping. In explaining how natural resources, pollution, and social spaces can play a role in peace building, Halasah said, “For any conflict, there is a core problem, but there are also so many other things that can be opportunities for peacebuilding and community development. The environmental approach works because it affects everyone. And that’s something that can be used to bring people together.”

Halasah continued: “Once you bring people together people don’t talk about each other as ‘the other,’ as an imaginary person in their head—they realize it’s a human in front of them that shares a lot of the same interests.  People ultimately care about their level of living, about securing their food and water. They care about their kids, how their kids are being treated, and the resources they have. I see the environment as not only a tool for peacebuilding but also for community stability as it gets everybody to talk about their shared interests.”

Halasah had a clear answer when I asked what the key factor in making these talks successful is: trust. He said: “There’s high potential for things to be done, but the main obstacle is that people don’t trust each other. With my work, we always have a balanced team that represents different communities. I have an Israeli partner. She brings me to all her community meetings in Israel, and I bring her to all my meetings on the Jordanian side. When people see that there’s somebody from the other side that they learn to trust, there’s more open communication.”

As our coffee cups emptied and Halasah prepared to go to his next meeting, I asked him what advice he would give students pursuing a career in development engineering. Among seeing each moment as a learning opportunity, persevering, and staying positive, Halasah ended with this: 

“I would say interdisciplinary projects are the best way to learn and get a full picture about something. If you are an engineer that looks at a technical solution, it doesn’t make sense to be isolated from the community. You need to go out there in the field to meet with people, listen to them, and see what they think. Too often, we think we have the right answer for something, but it might be for the wrong problem. We need to understand what people need in order to understand what the solution is.”


Providing Accessible Medical Care through Low-Cost Fracture Detection

Treating bone fractures in the developing world is increasingly difficult due to the lack of x-ray accessibility. Emily Huynh, a senior at UC Berkeley studying Bioengineering, thought: if bone fractures were diagnosed and treated properly in an affordable way, large populations of people could avoid the chronic pain, disability, and socioeconomic disadvantage that mistreated fractures cause. This past spring, Huynh and her team won third place in Big Ideas’ Hardware for Good category for a medical device that provides orthopedic care in underdeveloped countries and remote settings called Fractal.

Malaysian Minister of Finance Lim Guan Eng Visits the Blum Center

By invitation of the AMENA Center for Entrepreneurship and Development, Lim Guan Eng, Minister of Finance for Malaysia, addressed UC Berkeley students and faculty on the topic of “Industry 4.0 and the Extension of Malaysia’s Economic Success” at Blum Hall on October 18.

“It is always energizing to come to the San Francisco Bay Area and its universities,” said Eng. “There is much to learn here.”

Although Malaysia had considerable success industrializing in the 1970s and was among the so-called Asian Tiger Cub Economies in the 1990s, Eng said that since the early 2000s his country’s economy, particularly its electronics sector, has “hollowed out” due to its inability to compete with China. 

“We are seeing a premature de-industrialization in the electronics sector,” stated Eng, who noted that manufacturing in Malaysia declined to 22 percent in 2018 from 30 percent in the 2000s. 

Eng said other economic challenges include the US-China trade war and the financial impact of Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, the latter of which involved a state-owned investment fund that was supposed to attract foreign investment and instead led to $25 billion of irregular financial transactions. 

“How do we overcome the great challenge of turning around Malaysia from a global kleptocracy to a normal, boring democracy?” asked Eng, who has a long history in government. He was elected to Malaysia’s Parliament in 1986 and has served as Secretary-General of the multiracial, center-left Democratic Action Party since 2004. 

Eng said that the US-China trade war is upending the economy of Malaysia and other developing nations in Southeast Asia, “permanently reorienting the global supply chain. ”

However, Eng sees this reorientation as an opportunity to spur investment in Malaysia and catalyze its re-industrialization, particularly in the digital sector. 

“Various firms today are attempting to circumvent rising tariffs imposed by China and the United States and shifting their manufacturing bases elsewhere,” he said. “Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, have begun to enjoy increased foreign investment resulting from trade and investment diversion caused by the trade war.” 

Eng reported that foreign investment across all sectors in Malaysia has roughly doubled from $6 billion in the first half of 2018 to $11.8 billion during the first half of this year. A majority of the investment was in the manufacturing sector. Among the results is an increasing GDP growth, up to 4.9 percent in the second quarter of 2019 from 4.5 percent in the previous quarter. 

Yet digitalization, not manufacturing, is at the core of the 2020 Malaysian Budget and central to what Eng calls “Industry 4.0.” 

“Unlike 10 to 40 years ago, when industrialization required an ample supply of skilled workers, good physical infrastructure, as well as a set of reliable consistent rule of law, there is a new dimension that needs to be considered today,” he declared. “It is about data and its uses.”

Malaysia has identified five sectors–electronics, machinery, chemical products, medical devices, and aerospace–in which to make its digital investments. Part of the Industry 4.0 plan is a $5.2 billion investment in digital connectivity, with the goal of achieving 5G high-speed Internet throughout the nation by 2023.

Growth incentives for Malaysia’s aspiration to become a digital and entrepreneurial state include: $5 billion in investment over five years to small and medium enterprises, large local companies, and multinationals; a regulatory framework for virtual banking by 2020; and $1.6 billion over five years to develop 350,000 jobs for Malysian youth, unemployed people, and women. 

“The digital economy must be inclusive–for the many, not the few,” said Eng.