Edu-Blocks Arrive in New Hampshire

Roughly two months ago I discovered Southern New Hampshire University had become the first academic institution in North America to issue a diploma credential / education transcript on the Blockchain. It surprised me. I knew Learning Machine (MIT) was working on this in Malta, but I had no clue there was a domestic trial underway. I dove in, did a lot of research, and created the map below. To view an interactive version that is actually readable click here.

Blockchain Credentials

Then, after I was done I found myself mentally exhausted. I let it sit, but with summer winding down, it’s time to get back to it. There are many, many stories that can be told with this map, too many. I have a friend who tells me I tend to bury the lead and go in too many directions all at once. Honestly, I can’t disagree with her. I struggle with holding too much in my head and trying to put in down on paper in a way that makes sense. So, with that in mind, I’ll start with a short version and then, if you want to dive deeper into the map with me, keep reading.

The Short Version:

Blockchain, a ledger/permanent record of transactions that document our lives, is a concept we’re going to have to grapple with in the coming years.

There is now a proof of concept for a digital Blockchain wallet that will hold and allow instantaneous permissioned access to a person’s education credentials.

The test case for this technology involved an institution that is among the largest providers of online higher education in the United States.

SNHU’s test case focused on their “College for America” program, a competency-based model that eliminates seat time and face-to-face instruction. Gates and Lumina funded this model. It is one that maximizes profit for companies at the expense of the people providing the instruction.

“College for America” delivers a workforce-aligned curriculum. It favors “stackable credentials” and certificates over formal degree programs. It is closely linked to human capital development.

While Blockchain digital credentialing is starting in higher education, the Ed Reform 2.0 plan is to break down the walls between all levels of schooling. Sooner or later this credentialing will seep into K12 education. Remember micro-credentials and badges? Blockchain is perfect for them. Are you paying attention to developments like the Mastery Transcript Consortium? Blockchain is designed to hold that data, too. Badges are already being issued in K12 for after school, summer and Out of School Time programs. It won’t be long.

The people developing alternative credentialing come from the global fin-tech, social impact investment, and national security sectors.

Block-certs will pave the way for online learning lockers and digital portfolios. They will combine credentialing and digital payment platforms. They will usher in machine searchable credentials to facilitate the expansion of automated hiring (or non-hiring). They will also permit access to aggregated data to assess “impact” on pay for success outcomes-based contracts, while supposedly preserving individual “privacy.”

We have crossed a threshold, but as the new school year starts only a handful of people (other than the investors and those coding this new world) realize it.

We are not prepared, not by a long shot.

Paul Leblanc Blockchain

The Long Version:

Southern New Hampshire University is a private college in the southeastern corner of the state about an hour’s drive north of Boston, a nexus of digital technology, Third-Way public policy, and innovative finance development. The 3,000 people who attend classes on SNHU’s campus represent a fraction of the total enrollment. Under the leadership of Paul Leblanc, Senior Education Advisor to the merchant-banking firm Ridge-Lane, SNHU vastly expanded its virtual reach. Over the past fifteen years the school’s online enrollment grew to nearly 100,000 people. 2,700 faculty members spread across the country, most working part-time, deliver SNHU’s instruction.

In June 2018, SNHU became the first institution in North America to issue education transcripts on Blockchain. This was done in partnership with Learning Machine, an initiative spun out of the MIT Media Lab. An innovation hub at SNHU, the Sandbox Collaborative, has functioned as a space to facilitate discussions about the future of higher education at SNHU since 2015. Michele Weise left the Clayton Christensen’s Institute to run the space, moving on to Strada Education in 2017. She was replaced by Brian Fleming formerly of Tyton Partners, an investment banking and education strategy firm based in Boston. Below is a lecture given by Learning Machine’s CEO Chris Jagers on Blockchain delivered at the Sandbox Collaborative in February 2017.

Learning Machine worked in partnership with the MIT Media Lab to design an open standard to issue digital credentials called Block-certs.

Phillip Schmidt pushed the project forward at the MIT Media Lab. Schmidt helped launch Peer-to-Peer University, an online open education program with a deep list of funders that included Hewlett Packard, IMLS, the Knight Foundation, Dollar General, and the Siegel Family Foundation. P2P University grew out of a 2007 meeting hosted by Open Society and the Shuttleworth Foundation based in South Africa. The meeting resulted in the Cape Town Open Education Declaration that promoted the adoption of Open Education Resources and Internet based instruction across the globe.

P2P Founders

Interactive version of above map here.

David Siegel founder of the Siegel Family Foundation, one of P2Ps funders, is a co-founder of Two Sigma Investments and former Managing Director and Technology Advisor for Tudor Investments, Paul Tudor Jones’s (Robin Hood Foundation) company. John Overdeck, David’s partner at Two Sigma, has poured money into ed-tech, blended learning, SEL, and pay for success initiatives through his Overdeck Family Foundation.

Siegel : Overdeck Funding

Interactive version of above map click here.

Prior to his involvement with P2P University and the MIT Media Lab, Phillip Schmidt worked with United Nations University, Mozilla, and Accenture (involved in the ID2020 program).

It is notable that the Chicago Public Library, Creative Commons, MIT, and Mozilla were all collaborators on P2P University, since the MacArthur Foundations’s pilot LRNG badging initiative was launched in Chicago’s library system via the YouMedia and Chicago City of Learning programs. Mozilla worked closely with MacArthur to develop  digital badges. Badges laid the groundwork for the digital credentialing on Blockchain we now see emerging.

P2P Partners

Interactive version of above map here.

The first issuance of credentials on Blockchain took place at MIT in October 2015 in conjunction with the Lab’s 30th anniversary. All celebration attendees were awarded a digital certificate (badge). In 2016, certificates were issued on Blockchain for those who completed a boot camp and a workshop run by MIT. A challenge of the technology is that it requires people to use a combination of public and private keys to secure and verify certificate information. The average person doesn’t have that level of technical expertise, so Learning Machine devised a smart-phone app / e-wallet to make the process user-friendly.

Blockcert 2

Kim Hamilton Duffy, CTO at Learning Machine, was the architect for Block-certs. Duffy started out as a software engineer for Northrup Grumman, moved on to Microsoft, and then did stints in software engineering for Usermind and Visible Technologies, a company that provides real time analysis of social media content to the US intelligence community. In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA was an investor in that software. Chris Jagers, CEO, and Natalie Smoleski, business development, are Learning Machine’s other two staff members. Neither has extensive experience beyond running a company called Slideroom, which uses online portfolio software to inform education applications, proposals and hiring decisions.

Learning Machine entered into blockchain education credential pilots with the nation of Malta (fall 2017), the University of Melbourne in Australia (fall 2017), and the Bahamas (summer 2018) where funding support came from the Inter-American Development Bank.

Learning Machine Staff Funders

Interactive version of above map here.

The company has obtained financing from Learn Capital, Omidyar Network, and PTB Ventures. Learn Capital (Tom Vander Ark was a partner from 2008-2016 and now serves as an advisor) has extensive holdings in education technology, as does Omidyar. Omidyar Network also has considerable investments in social impact sectors involving digital identity and fin-tech. PTB stands for Project Trillion Billion and focuses on early stage investment at the intersection of digital identity and Internet of Things. David Fields, founder of PTB, went to school at the Booth School of Business University of Chicago (Richard Thaler), worked in venture capital and as an analyst with Citigroup, and serves on several boards of digital identity and encryption companies including Element and Callsign. Element is a biometric digital identity authentication company launched by Yann Lecun, former chief AI scientist for Facebook and founding director of the NYU Center for Data Science. Callsign is a digital authentication system that relies on analysis of biometric data, keystroke and swiping techniques, online habits and location data to provide secure acess.

Element Digital Identity

SNHU piloted its Blockchain transcript program with 1,200 students who graduated this summer from their competency-based, alternative education program “College for America.” College for America was launched in 2012 with money from the Gates Foundation channeled through an Educause Next Generation Learning Challenge Grant. The following year it became the first higher education competency-based education program approved to receive Title IV, Higher Education Act (HEA) funding. The program is one of 30 colleges and universities that are members of the Competency-Based Education Network (C-BEN), an initiative begun in 2014 and funded by Lumina to promote and scale competency-based diplomas nationwide.

Rather than obtaining a specific number of credit hours, SNHU students are expected to demonstrate competencies in 120 different areas. The program offers Associate of Arts and Bachelor of Arts degrees and certificates. The competency-based education courses are all online and aligned to the following industries: healthcare, insurance and financial services. SNHU has built partnerships for human resource development with companies including Aetna, SEIU, McDonald’s, YMCA, Scholastic, the Gap, Sodexho, ConAgra, K12, Comcast, and an array of state and municipal governments.

They’ve also partnered with Davinci Schools, a California-based charter organization funded by Gates and HP that promotes an online home-based and school based blended learning model. In 2016, Davinci and SNHU teamed up to craft a proposal for the Emerson Collective’s XQ Superschool competition. Their project, Rise High, was one of ten new school models awarded funding from Laurene Powell Jobs’s $100 million contest. The model targets foster youth in the Los Angeles area, offering “flexible access points” for wrap around services, a structure that is well suited to generating profit for the social impact investment sector and their non-profit partners.

The image below is from one of Leblanc’s 2014 slideshares introducing the self-paced CBE concept, viewable here.

College for America Slideshare

A blog post from College for America posted this week aims to inform HR professionals about the potential of Blockchain credentials. The benefits SNHU touts are portability; trust in the credential without verification (fraud prevention); and perhaps most notable, the potential for HR staff to utilize online searches of credentials to screen candidates. According to the post “Rather than reading each resume, HR will be able to find the most relevant candidates as easily as if they were typing a search into Google.”

In a previous post from April 2017 I describe a future where a person’s “resume” becomes a never-ending collection of skill codes, not unlike healthcare codes. To even qualify to apply for a job a person would have to have a minimum of ALL the required skills logged on Blockchain. If they didn’t, a program like College for America would offer them the opportunity to pay for an online class to earn the skills they lack. Of course there is no guarantee that after signing up for an online course, that person would complete it. Or that if they successfully completed it, they would end up getting the job. Meanwhile whatever debt the person took on to pay for the tuition continues to mount.

Google recently issued a $1 million grant to SNHU to develop “soft skills” assessments for “opportunity youth,” young people ages 16-24 who are not enrolled in school and are unemployed or underemployed. According to Google’s website, “SNHU will develop the Authentic Assessment Platform (AAP), a competency-based assessment mapped to in-demand soft skills. Results from this platform will feed into a facilitated job placement process to help inform a just-in-time training model for young jobseekers. SNHU will also address the lack of credentialing by providing those who complete this assessment with an SNHU badge.” According to this post on SNHU’s website funders are looking to develop an assessment that can identify such traits as grit, teamwork, and trustworthiness. If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll remember these are exactly the traits labor economists like Jim Heckman intend to document and manipulate in order to generate profits for social impact investors like JB Pritzker.

SNHU Google Grant

The school launched a massive advertising campaign and is vying with Western Governor’s University in Utah to unseat the University of Phoenix as the country’s largest online education provider. When I was in Boston earlier this spring, the entire interior surface of Boston’s North Station was branded with SNHU advertisements. Targeted growth areas include non-traditional students and DACA recipients. Leblanc has also initiated partnerships with community colleges and high schools in New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Utah, co-signing dual enrollment classes delivered by high school teachers when parents pay an associated $100 fee.

Sadly, another growth market is global refugees. In the fall of 2017 SNHU received an anonymous $10 million grant to scale their competency-based education program for the UN High Commission on Refugees, Connected Learning in Crisis, SOLVE at MIT and the American University of Beirut. Connected Learning in Crisis is comprised largely of Catholic-affiliated institutions. The program delivers instruction using a blended online model through their partner Kepler. Former DOE Secretary Arne Duncan is an advisor to the program. They are currently working with two sites in Rwanda and with the New Hampshire YMCA to deliver education services to refugees in the state.

Rwanda SNHU

College for America Refugee


Interactive version of the above map here.

Ed Reform 2.0 is veering away from traditional two-year and four-year degrees, replacing them with stackable credentials and badges that students (aka human capital) will be forced to acquire to compete for jobs in a shrinking labor market. To sustain this model SNHU needs to have a “trusted” system capable of logging “competencies” students acquire, since retention, always an issue in higher education, is especially challenging in the online education market. The ephemeral nature of gig economy employment will require continued re-skilling, what the reform/venture capitalist crowd attempts to euphemistically frame as “lifelong learning,” so the ledger or permanent record is key.

The cyber education model is suited to this period of extreme austerity and dehumanizing financialization. SNHU developed a product line that can be delivered 24/7 “anywhere,” “anytime.” The online classes, after a modest initial investment, can be repackaged and sold over and over to a wide range of clients yielding a significant rate of return.

Arizona State University has developed a similar initiative, EdPlus. ASU president Michael Crow, also an advisor to Ridge Lane, is advancing this program leveraging partnerships similar to those pursued by Leblanc. EdPlus has teamed up with corporations that rely on precarious employment like Starbucks, and is eyeing the refugee education market as well as dual-enrollment online courses for high schools. ASU was touted as a great model at the August 2018 “Imagine: A Better World, A Better Education Global Conference” hosted by Amazon Web Services in Seattle. Online education creates data, and data is the new oil. Data creates value for companies; data profiles people; and data is used to refine the AI many see eventually replacing human instruction.

ASU Rwanda

Matthew Pittinsky, CEO of Parchment, is on the faculty of ASU. He moderated a panel on Blockchain credentialing at the May 2017 ASU+GSV conference that is viewable below.

Parchment, founded in 2003, is a digital credentialing company financed in part with venture capital from Raine Group. Jeff Sine, Partner and Co-Founder of Raine Group with Joe Ravitch (son of Diane Ravitch) serves on Parchment’s board. Sine formerly worked for UBS, a Swiss bank that has been doing considerable R&D on blockchain identity and development impact bonds (like global SIBs). Raine Group led two rounds of funding for Parchment in 2012 and 2014. Details here and here. Pittinsky and ASU have not yet jumped into a Blockchain certification pilot, but with SNHU moving forward, I’m sure they have something waiting in the wings.

So, the days of “Learning Is Earning” have now arrived, perhaps earlier than anticipated. I see the NPE Conference is coming up in October, their fifth gathering. When the event came through my social feed, at first glance the line-up looked not much different than what it had been back in 2014. I’m not going to make it to Indianapolis, but for those of you who go, maybe ask Diane when Blockchain credentialing and impact investing are going to be put on the front burner. The clock is ticking and we need to strategize what our options are in this post-Janus moment.




“Social capital” scrip? Fin-tech experiments with new forms of precarious “employment.”

I write this piece as a follow up to my post on self sovereign identity on Blockchain, the distributed ledger system designed to capture flows of data about our lives. Supporters of Blockchain tout its ability to secure “transactions” into permanent, immutable records of activities, earnings, payments, and debt. As we shift to a cashless society dominated by dynamic online payment systems, I see new forms of draconian labor compensation practices starting to emerge.

To set the stage for my examination of Union Capital Boston, I want to give you a bit of personal background. I work at a botanic garden surrounded by a mostly post-industrial landscape. It’s on the way to the airport, a stone’s throw from trash transfer plants. Residents live with terrible air quality due to the refineries across the river. For a number of years we were hopeful they’d be shut down, but then fracking revitalized the petroleum industry and they’re still going strong.

When I started my job fifteen years ago, an adjacent parking lot held hundreds of school buses. Most students in Philadelphia don’t take yellow buses to school, but the company must have serviced the field trip market and perhaps charter schools and private schools. About seven years ago, as standardized testing ramped up and education funding decreased, the era of field trips drew to a close. The bus company closed up shop, and within a year or so that lot was taken over by a scrap metal company.

Today sidewalks outside the scrap yard are littered with wrecked cars. There’s a constant flow of people in pick up trucks, with shopping carts, and grocery dollies carrying in old appliances, rebar and junk to make ends meet. We are on a trajectory of intentional scarcity and economic instability that has been picking up speed as technology and financialization take hold of our lives. It’s brutal. The image of a frail elderly gentleman attempting to navigate a top-heavy shopping cart across the treacherous trolley tracks remains indelibly printed on my mind and my heart.

Jobs with pensions, with regular hours, with benefits, with stability have been slipping away for decades. First there was temp work and consulting, later gigs and now micro-work. Some try to cobble together part time jobs, but barbarous algorithms, striving for leaner deployment of human labor, make it nearly impossible to piece together a workable schedule. Meanwhile, tech has stepped up to design platforms that meet industry’s need for “just in time” labor.


mTurk matches developers and businesses with “human intelligence” at a “lower cost than was previously possible.” Discrete tasks like identifying objects in photos or transcribing audio recordings are a poor substitute for a regular job. Now we have Uber, Insta-cart shoppers, Task Rabbits who vie to assemble Ikea bookshelves at the lowest possible wage. While this work may be less dangerous than scrap collection or being driven to exhaustion or death in an Amazon warehouse, it is still not a viable option for anyone who desires a stable life and to raise a family. The Fourth Industrial Revolution isn’t even in full swing, but we’re pushing kids into “career connected” pathways even though we have no earthly idea what the future of “labor” will be other than that all signs indicate it won’t be good for most people.

Now I’d like to introduce you to Union Capital Boston, a new economic model that, were it ever to become widely adopted, would grossly undermine authentic, citizen-driven, grassroots community engagement. The non-profit organization based in Roxbury, MA was founded in 2014 by siblings Eric and Anna Leslie. The premise is that what the poor REALLY need is a system of rewards points that allow them to acquire small cash gift cards in exchange for volunteering in their communities. They also promote helping participants build resumes of volunteerism and activism, well-suited to being badged on Blockchain.

UCB Intro


The Leslie’s system isn’t on Blockhain, but it does have ties to the impact investment community, is located in greater Boston where all of this is being incubated, is promoting interventions tied to established behavioral economic “nudging” strategies, and seems to be an experiment in activity tracking and alternate payment systems using  “virtual bank accounts.” In a sense, it is creating digital scrip where “good citizenship” is structured and rewarded by corporate-driven philanthropic interests and their complicit non-profit partners, all imposed upon the poor under the guise of benevolence. Membership fees that participating non-profit groups pay to become members of the program underwrite the cash payouts.

Prior to obtaining his Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Eric worked for nine years in education, first as a Teach for America Fellow and later as a teacher and school leader at KIPP charter schools in Philadelphia (note Jay Coen Gilbert, co-founder of B-Lab, the entity that establishes social impact metrics, serves on the KIPP Philadelphia board). Anna has a Masters in Public Health, worked as an outreach coordinator for Americorps (an initiative of the Corporation for National and Community Service along with the Pay for Success Social Innovation Fund), did a short stint at KIPP and then went on do to research at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Knight Union Capital

In 2015, the Knight Foundation granted Union Capital Boston $35,000 to “prototype a program and tools to reward citizens for getting civically involved, as part of an effort to accelerate and learn from early-stage media and information projects.” They received another $7,500 from the Boston Foundation. In 2016 they were granted $60,000 by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Inc. (Rockefeller, the force behind the Global Impact Investment Network).

The Knight Foundation is doing a lot of “civic” work in Philadelphia. I didn’t end up incorporating this plot line into my “Building Sanctuary” story, but in the back of my mind I had entertained the idea that all of these philanthropically-directed civic projects could be a means to identify possible change agents in advance and neutralize them. Maybe that’s too dark. I don’t know, but Knight is also funding Internet of Things grants for “smart” cities…

What Eric and Anna developed was an app and a system for earning “points” that could be exchanged monthly for cash gift cards in denominations from $25 to $200. Only certain activities earn points. They’ve had to scale back on compensation, so options that used to be rewarded are now just “celebrated.” See the image of the UCB Selfie guidelines below:

Union Capital Selfie Star

If you consider most activities are awarded 200 points, the per-hour rate of compensation is at most $2 (presuming the volunteer activity is only an hour) for the $25 gift card. The system is constructed so that the number of points needed to obtain a larger gift card is much, much higher. To receive a $200 gift card, a person must volunteer 750 hours, which equates to a payment of twenty-six CENTS per hour.

All of this activity, including geolocation data about the “volunteer,” is logged via the UCB app where it is aggregated in dashboards so communities can compete with one another for “civic engagement.” I’m sure all of this data will be associated with Rates of Return on Pay for Success contracting tied to education, healthcare, housing and financial inclusion. It is important to note that one of the activities rewarded is voter registration and participating in political activities.

Union Capital Boston Chart

Union Capital Politics

Note their funders below:

UCB Funders

I want to share an excerpt taken from Union Capital Boston’s Facebook page in March. It has since been removed. It describes the plight of a single mother who works full time in the Boston area, but cannot make ends meet due to the high cost of living and her low wages. How do to they proposes to solve her problem? With an app of course! With the help of UCB, this mother will spend whatever open hours she has outside of her work and family time “volunteering” to earn rewards so that she can buy a transit pass to get to work. Rather than addressing income inequality, which would be the radical solution, impact investors like the Leslies propose surveillance apps that proffer “assistance” with many, many strings attached. It is a solution that completely undermines the true spirit of community support and mutual aid. This “solution” is one structured around the financial motivations of impact-oriented non-profits and their investors.

Do I think Union Capital Boston is a program that is going to take off soon? No, I actually don’t. They have about a thousand members now. What I think is that this program is an incubator for bigger projects down the road. I wouldn’t be surprised if the policy folks at Harvard and the digital economy folks at MIT are getting regular updates from Eric and Anna. The end game with digital identity and payment systems is a bit farther out on the horizon. But global fin-tech needs these test cases, and they need to start normalizing new and ever more abusive alternate labor payment systems. They need to lay the groundwork for the successor to “micro-work.” It appears some are betting on “social capital scrip” being the next big thing, maybe with a side of Sesame Credit factored into dynamic pricing just to keep things interesting.

Excerpt pulled from the UCB Facebook Page March 2018:

“In every low-income community there are vast amounts of human and social capital, and wonderful organizations trying to utilize those resources to make improvements. These resources and organizations are often disorganized, disconnected, and inefficient. Union Capital Boston (UCB) aims to connect people with these resources in low-income communities and provide rewards in order to overcome the poverty trap.

“I’m stuck!” laments Nadia, who lives in the Boston neighborhood of Roxbury with her three children. Although she works full time, Nadia’s $28,000 annual salary is barely more than half of the median family income in Boston ($52,000), and more importantly, insufficient to meet the city’s high cost of living. Like many in her community, she does not want to depend on government assistance but has to use SNAP benefits and Section 8 housing to make ends meet.

By joining UCB, Nadia will earn points-tracked by swiping a QR code on her smartphone or keychain-for doing things that benefit bother her family and her community. For example, Nadia picks up her children from school on a Friday and earns 100 UCB points by volunteer at their afterschool program. On the way home, Nadia shops at the local grocery store and received 50 UCB points for her purchase. On Saturday, Nadia takes her children to the neighborhood playground and joins in a clean up earning another 100 UCB points. Nadia now has earned 250 points in her UCB Virtual Bank account. She logs into the UCB Virtual Store and uses her points to purchase a monthly MBTA pass that she needs to commute to work-all from giving back and being loyal to her community.

UCB plans to partner with schools, businesses, and civic groups that will benefit from increased participation and business. Ultimately, these institutions will pay fees to UCB in exchange for increased patronage from and improved outcomes for UCB members. UCB will use capital garnered from these fees to purchase and distribute rewards, including public transportation passes, health care coverage, home loan assistance, and college tuition payments.

The concept of customer rewards is not new, but the goal of organizing loyalty in a low-income community is a new endeavor that we believe will yield important benefits based on recent academic studies. According to research by Canada’s Knowledge Development Centre, key motivations for low-income volunteers like Nadia include desire for personal and professional development, and contribution to one’s community. Furthermore, Mark Rosenbaum in the Journal of Services Marketing (Vol. 19, Iss: 4, 2005) demonstrates that participation greatly increased when customer loyalty programs were communally-based, rather than just financially motivated, because individuals highly valued connecting with their community. Robert Putnam’s research demonstrates that this community loyalty improves social capital, which is a key component for breaking out of poverty. The benefit of a low-income community rewards program is therefore two-fold: create opportunities for individuals and families, while simultaneously improve the surrounding community.”

Below is a screen shot of their May 2018 community participation dashboard. The behavioral economists sure do love their leader boards. So much better to have people pitted against against one in competition than organizing together, eh?

UCB Dashboard



Blockchain, Self-Sovereign Identity, and Selling Off Humanity

It’s time activists began to develop a working knowledge of Blockchain and self-sovereign digital identity, because these are the mechanisms that will drive the transition to IoT monitoring for the purposes of Pay for Success deal evaluation. I created a slide share about Blockchain as part of a “Smart Cities” post I wrote last year, which can be accessed here if it helps to have visuals.


Blockchain Slideshare


The technology became public in 2008 when Santoshi Nakamoto published the whitepaper “Bitcoin: A Peer to Peer Electronic Cash System.” No one knows who Nakamoto actually is. Over the past decade Bitcoin digital currency has generated significant buzz, yet many believe Blockchain will be even more transformative, as big as or bigger than the rise of the Internet.

MIT is heavily involved in Blockchain research and development through its Digital Currency Initiative, housed within the MIT Media Lab. The program is led by Neha Nerula, formerly of Google who holds a PhD from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Nerula served on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Blockchain from 2016-2017. Its faculty advisor, Simon Johnson, co-founded the Sloan School’s Global Entrepreneurship Lab and worked as chief economist for the International Monetary fund.

In an April 2018 article, “In Blockchain We Trust,” Michael Casey, global economics professor, goes into detail regarding the use of Blockchain to create “value” in virtual worlds by securing ownership of digital assets. As we kill off the planet and begin spending more and more time in online environments, there’s cold comfort knowing the forces of global monopoly capital are rapidly colonizing digital worlds, too.

Neha Nerula

Blockchain is the structure that underpins crypto-currencies like Bitcoin, but it’s much more than that. In its simplest terms, it’s a ledger that keeps track of transactions, all kinds of transactions that may or may not have a financial component. Unlike a dusty accounting ledger or its modern equivalent, something like Quick Books, data stored on Blockchain is distributed. This means multiple exact copies of the same encrypted data live on peer-to-peer networked computers, which supposedly makes it more secure. If one node goes down the information is not lost. It is portrayed as the ultimate “permanent record.”

Data stored on Blockchain is “verified” by computers that use a consensus process, competing to solve cryptographic puzzles in exchange for Bitcoin payments. This cryptographic authentication injects “trust” into transactions, enabling security without the need of a third party to ensure everyone is on the up and up. Once data is locked into Blockchain, promoters of the technology say it is immutable, unchangeable. Although, as with everything coded, there are still vulnerabilities and hacks as discussed in this MIT Technology Review article “How secure is blockchain really?”

It may be some indication of the level of actual “trust” developers have in blockchain that the Chamber of Digital Commerce and Coin Center created the Blockchain Alliance in the fall of 2015 to “pro-actively engage” with regulatory and law enforcement agencies. In the United States, government partners include: DEA, DHS, DOJ, FBI, US Marshal Service, US Secret Service, ICE/HSI, CBP, IRS-Criminal Investigation, FDA, US Postal Inspection, Commidity and Futures Trading Commission, SEC, FTC, FDIC, as well Attorney General’s Offices in California, Texas, New York, and Ulster County. Seems they have some rather powerful partners.


Blockchain Alliance Partners



Some Blockchains are public, others are private. Data stored on private chains can be made accessible using a combination of matched public and private “keys.” A public key is used to verify and encrypt data. It is public and can be known by anyone. A private key decrypts data that has been encrypted with its paired public key. These keys consist of extremely long sets of characters, which can be shortened to a public key fingerprint or associated with biometric information via a biocryptic process.

Digital currency payments validated with biometric information like iris scans have been prototyped using refugee populations over the past few years (see the featured image). While the technology that undergirds it is complex, programmers are developing accessible interfaces that make using digital currency as easy as opening an app and verifying a transaction, financial or otherwise, with a thumbprint or facial-recognition scan.

Refugee ID App Payment Biometric

Beyond their capacity to hold tokenized digital currencies, e-wallets are being used to hold all sorts of other information. They are touted as an effective means to manage the continuous flows of activity, money, and data that surround us. In the fall of 2016, the state of Illinois; home to many Pay for Success players including: James Heckman, JB Pritzker, Rahm Emmanuel, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (trading financial and commodity derivatives), charged a Blockchain Taskforce with examining ways to use the technology to promote economic development in the state and “improve record keeping.” Their final report, issued in January, is available here. Below is a map of the players involved. Click here for the interactive version.

IL Blockchain Initiative

Included in the report is an info-graphic I have shared repeatedly. It depicts public welfare food benefits being put on Blockchain with “healthy” eating nudges built into the mechanics. Memorize this. Internalize it. This how they will deploy computer code to control the growing masses of the poor. See Carolyn Leith’s great post “Do you believe Universal Basic Income will save society? Think again.” Putting “friction” in the system is not limited to SNAP benefits. Similarly coded nudges could just as easily be inserted into “choice” options around education savings accounts, healthcare access, and housing vouchers. How about Sesame Credit? It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine citizen scoring being embedded into these systems as well.

Blockchain SNAP Nudge

In the fall of 2017, Illinois announced a partnership with Evernym, a Utah-based company that develops digital identity solutions. They plan to put birth certificates on Blockchain. Increasing attention is being paid to the field of self-sovereign identity. The premise, if you go along with it, is that you no longer need a centralized authority to recognize your identity. A person can simply build up a digital identity through recorded transactions stored on Blockchain. Un-housed people in major cities are being scooped up as test subjects.

Austin has undertaken such a program with financial support from Bloomberg “What Works Cities” Philanthropies. This population is also one that requires significant support, making them prime candidates for Pay for Success interventions. Of course the impact of the interventions must be able to be tracked and measured, because this is an investment market after all. Self-sovereign identity makes to possible to aggregate all of that data, streamlining deal assessment. Fummi is one app in development to support such programs.

Blockchain Austin App

Many “smart” cities are establishing municipal ID programs, touted as a “solution” for people unable to obtain state-issued identification. It sounds good, but I can’t help but wonder if the plan is to convert these programs to self-sovereign identity apps on Blockchain in the not too distant future. Oakland’s program links to a debit card, so there is precedent for tying these IDs into digital payment systems.

Last fall the city of Philadelphia issued a Request for Proposals for the development of a municipal ID program, though it appears to have since been cancelled. The RFP expressed a desire to incorporate tracking other public services, including library access and health records, onto the card. They also wanted to build in the ability to share data with private and non-profit partner organizations via magnetized strips. See screenshot below or read the full RFP here.

Philadelphia Municipal ID

This link from the Worldwide Web Consortium discusses use of DIDs or Decentralized Identifiers as key element of this new form of identity management. Of course there are downsides to efficient identity systems. During a panel at the Advanced Digital Identity Summit last fall around  timestamp 26:00, Bitcoin entrepreneur Andreas Atonopolous, cautioned the audience that digital identity systems could pose risks, especially for populations living under authoritarian regimes where governments may use digital methods to control how people interact with society.

Antonopolous described conversations he’d had in places like Argentina where people expressed serious reservations about these systems, because their government had a history of throwing dissidents out of aircraft. If private keys are tied to biometric markers, it should be expected that people will at some point be compelled by authorities to open access to their data-using force to attain a face or fingerprint scan against someone’s will. Or even if brute force were not used, to withhold access to needed services, until the person has no other choice but to submit.

Other pilot programs underway in Illinois include land titling in Cook County, academic credentialing at the University of Illinois, logging green energy task credits, and state licensing for healthcare providers. That last one is interesting; a toe in the water, perhaps, to begin shifting Medicaid onto Blockchain?

The day after I wrote “Minding our Health: Digital Nudge Part Two,” I discovered a 2016 whitepaper by Institute for the Future (creator of “Learning is Earning” and edu-blocks) “A Blockchain Profile for Medicaid Applicants and Recipients.” The paper pitches the idea of creating Blockchain smart contracts to devise “smart” health profiles that would allow AI-mediated sale of healthcare insurance and IoT monitoring of prescriptions and patient compliance. Pretty overwhelming if you consider that IFTF also imagines a future where AI assistants are going to help people navigate their lifelong-learning/human capital management plans.

Illinois Blockchain Pilots

I have a nagging fear we’re looking at a future where Universal Basic Income stipends proffer subsistence, just enough to keep the masses alive and compel them to sell their data for the most modest luxuries, maybe a chocolate bar. Platforms are being developed right now that encourage the widespread sale of personal data for the purposes of AI development. Access to data is granted using pseudonymous protocols that permit it to be queried without the initiator of the query knowing the actual identity of the person whose data is involved. Proponents of big-data government really want us to believe it’s ok to allow our personal data to be poured into massive data lakes as long as it remains anonymized. Check out Ocean Protocol, Enigma, and datum. I’d love to hear what you think.

Personally, I think they’re aiming to use our digital exhaust to build HAL.

Ocean Protocol Main Page




Minding Our Health: The Nudge, Part Two

This piece expands upon my prior post about digital nudging and behavioral economics. Disruption in the healthcare industry mirrors the ed-tech takeover that is well underway in public education. If you explore the webpage for Catalyst, the innovation PR outlet for the New England Journal of Medicine (remember, social impact policy makers and many investors are based in Boston), you’ll notice the language being used to direct health care providers towards big-data, tech-centered solutions is eerily similar to the language being used on educators and school administrators.

The FCC’s “Connecting America: The National Broadband Plan” of 2010 outlined seven “national purposes” for broadband expansion. Healthcare and education were the first two topics covered in that report. Both chapters focus on “unlocking the value of data.” Who will the big winners be as we further digitize our lives? My assessment is the telecommunications industry and national security/police state will come out on top. Locally, Comcast and Verizon are key players with interests in both sectors.

Education and healthcare fall under the purview of Lamar Alexander’s Senate HELP (health, education, labor and pensions) Committee, so the similarities in tactics shouldn’t come as a surprise. In researching the $100 million federal Social Impact Partnerships Pay for Results Act (SIPPRA) launch I attended in Washington, DC last month, I noticed one of the Republican Senators who presented, Todd Young of Indiana, had attended the Booth School of Business MBA program at the University of Chicago. Recent Nobel Prize winner in behavioral economics Richard Thaler teaches there, and I was curious to see if Thaler’s thinking had influenced Young. Interactive version of Young’s map here.

Todd Young Map

I located C-SPAN coverage of a Senate hearing on healthy lifestyle choices, which Young participated in on October 19, 2017 (transcript follows). Lamar Alexander and ranking member Patty Murray, who inserted Pay for Success provisions into ESSA, chaired that hearing. Behavioral economics was discussed extensively. Young’s remarks start at timestamp 34:00.

The topic of the hearing was reducing healthcare expenditures on chronic illness, which they claimed would amount of hundreds of billions of dollars in “savings.” Given the amount of money on the table, it seems clear this sector is ripe for outsourced, outcomes-based contracts that will deploy emerging technologies like health care wearables. Six measures of good health were identified during testimony: blood pressure, cholesterol level, body mass index, blood sugar, smoking status and either the ability to meet the physical requirements of your job (or on this one the Cleveland Clinic person said unmanaged stress.)

The claim was that if an insured person met four of the six measures, saw a doctor regularly, and had their vaccinations up to date they would avoid chronic illness 80% of the time. Of course the conversation was entirely structured around individual “choice” rather than economic and racial systems that make it difficult for people to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

This neoliberal approach presumes people have free time for regular exercise, not considering they may be cobbling together several gigs to make ends meet. It presumes the availability of healthy food choices, when many black and brown communities are food deserts with limited access to fresh produce. It presumes the stress in people’s lives can be managed through medicalized interventions and does not address root causes of stress in communities steeped in trauma. It presumes ready access to a primary care physician in one’s community.

It is a gross simplification to push responsibility for chronic health conditions solely onto the individual, giving a free pass to social systems designed to harm large subsets of our communities. By adopting a data-driven approach to health outcomes, as would seem to be the case with the above six measures (check a box health), the federal government and health care systems appear to be setting health care consumers up to become vehicles for data generation in ways that are very much like what is happening to public education students forced to access instruction via digital devices. Imagine standards-based grading, but with health measures.

The people who provided testimony at the October 19 hearing included Steve Byrd, former CEO of Safeway, now at Byrd Health; Michael Roizen of the Cleveland Clinic; David Asch Director of the Wharton School’s Center for Health Care Innovation; and Jennifer Mathis of the Baselon Center for Mental Health Law and representing the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities. Mathis was the only one who testified strongly on behalf of the rights of the insured to withhold personal information and was very concerned about the discriminatory nature of incentivized medical insurance programs, particular with regards to people with disabilities.

In his testimony, David Asch, director of the Center for Healthcare Innovation based in the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School, described effective designs for health incentive programs, noting that concerns about losing money were more effective from the insurer’s point of view that interest in receiving financial rewards. For that reason Asch said taking away money from someone should be considered before offering a reward. Asch also noted that effective programs included emotional engagement, frequent rewards (tweaked to people’s psychological foibles to they didn’t have to be too large), contests and social norming, including the use of public leader boards.

Nudge Units Health Care

The date of the hearing is interesting, because right around the same time, public employees (including the teachers) of West Virginia were facing dramatic changes to their insurance plans. These changes included compulsory participation in Go365 an app-based health incentive program that imposed completion of intrusive surveys, wearing a fit bit (if you didn’t there was a $25 fee imposed each month), and meeting a certain step count per day. I include a transcription of testimony from one of these teachers, Brandon Wolford, given at this spring’s Labor Notes conference at the end of this post.

The incorporation of mHealth (mobile health) technologies is a key element of the healthcare disruption process. Increasingly, wearable technologies will transmit real-time data, surveilling the bodies of the insured. mHealth solutions are being built into healthcare protocols, so private investors will be able to track which treatments offer “high-value care.” The use of wearables and health apps also permits corporate health systems to insert digital “nudges” derived from calculated behavioral economic design, into the care provided, and monitor which patients comply, and which do not.

Mobile Health CHIBE

At the moment, the tech industry is working intently to integrate Blockchain technology and Internet of Things sensors like fit bits and health apps on smartphones. Many anticipate Blockchain will become a tool for securing IoT transmissions, enabling the creation of comprehensive and supposedly immutable health data logs, which could be key to mHealth expansion. Last summer the Medical Society of Delaware, a state that touts itself as a Blockchain innovator, announced a partnership with Symbiont, to develop healthcare records on Blockchain. Symbiont’s website claims it is the “market-leading smart contracts platform for institutional applications of Blockchain technology.” The company’s initial seed round of funding took place in 2014 with a second round raising an additional $15 million in May 2017 according to their Crunchbase profile.


The July/August 2018 issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, the alumni magazine for the University of Pennsylvania, features Blockchain as its cover story, “Blockchain Fever.” The extensive article outlines use cases being considered for Blockchain deployment, including plans by a recent Wharton graduate to develop an application that would certify interactions between healthcare agencies and Medicare/Medicaid recipients for reimbursement. The University of Pennsylvania Health System is deep into innovative technologies. David Asch, director of Penn’s Center for Health Innovation, testified at the October 2017 hearing. The Penn Medicine integrated health system was created in 2001 by former UPenn president Judith Rodin in collaboration with Comcast Executive David Cohen. Rodin went on to head the Rockefeller Foundation, and in the years that followed the foundation spearheaded the creation of the Global Impact Investment Network. GIIN fostered growth of the social impact investing sector, at the same time healthcare began to transition away from a pay-for-service reimbursement towards a value-based model predicated on outcomes met.

Below is a relationship map showing the University of Pennsylvania’s involvement in “innovative” healthcare delivery, which I believe stems from Rodin and Cohen’s connections to Comcast. It is important to note that the Center for Health Innovations claims to have the first “nudge unit” embedded within a health system. Asch is an employee of Wharton, and Wharton is leading initiatives in people analytics, behavior change via tech, and Blockchain technologies. Interactive version of the map here.

UPenn Health Innovation GIIN.jpg

New types of employer-based health insurance systems have started to emerge over the past six months. Based on this New York Times article, it seems employees of Amazon, JPMorgan and Berkshire Hathaway will have a front row seat as these technological manipulations unfold. Last fall Sidewalk Labs, the “smart cities” initiative of Alphabet (parent company of Google), announced an expansion into managed healthcare. City Block (read Blockchain) will tackle “urban health” and populations with “complex health needs.”


Reading between the lines, it appears Alphabet aims to use poor black and brown communities that have experienced generations of trauma as profit centers. Structural racism has created a massive build up of negative health outcomes over generations. Now, with innovative financial and technological infrastructures being rapidly put into place, these communities are highly vulnerable. Ever wonder why ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) has scores? I expect those numbers are about to be fed into predictive profiles guiding social investment impact metrics.

How convenient that the “smart city” solutions Sidewalk Labs is likely to promote will come with IoT sensors embedded in public spaces. How convenient that healthcare accelerators are developing emerging technologies to track patient compliance down to IoT enabled pill bottle caps; sensors that allow corporate and government interests to track a person’s actions with precision, while assessing their health metrics in excruciatingly profitable detail. Technology platforms are central to City Block’s healthcare program. Many services will take place online, including behavioral health interventions, with the aim of consolidating as much data as possible to build predictive profiles of individuals and facilitate the evaluation of impact investing deals.

Smart Pill Bottle.jpg

Interesting aside, I have two friends who had emergency room visits at Jefferson Hospital this summer and were “seen” by doctors on a screen with an in-room facilitator wielding a camera for examination purposes. This is in a major East Coast city served by numerous research hospitals. Philadelphia is not Alaska. Where is that data going? Where were those doctors anyway?

As these surveillance technologies move full steam ahead, it would be wise for progressive voices invested in the “healthcare for all” conversation to begin considering strategies to address the serious ethical concerns surrounding wearable technologies, tele-health / tele-therapy, and value-based patient healthcare contracting. If guardrails are not put in place that guarantee humane delivery of care without data profiling, the medical establishment may very well be hijacked by global fin-tech interests.

As someone who values the essence of the platform put forward by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, I worry she and her supporters do not understand several key elements of her platform have already been identified as growth sectors for Pay for Success. If public education, healthcare, housing and justice reform are channeled by global financial interests into outsourced-based contracts tied to Internet of Things tracking, we will end up in an even worse place than we are now. So, if you care about progressive causes, please, please get up to speed on these technological developments. You can be sure ALEC already has, and remember that Alibaba (Sesame Credit) joined in December. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine patient rating systems regulating healthcare access down the road if we’re not careful.

Ocasio Cortez

Senator Todd Young was the first person to respond to witness testimony during the hearing, and his line of questioning revealed he is a strong advocate of Thaler’s “nudge” strategies. The “nudge” is a key feature of “what works” “Moneyball” government that deploys austerity to push outsourcing and data-driven “solutions” that embrace digital platforms that will gather the data required prove “impact” and reap financial returns. See this related post from fellow researcher Carolyn Leith “A Close Reading of Moneyball for Government and Why You Should Be Worried.”

Young asked David Asch of Wharton’s Center for Innovative Health, what employers could learn from behavioral economists? He also posed several specific suggestions that would scale such programs within the federal government namely: embedding units charged with experimenting with behavioral economics into federal government programs; developing a clearinghouse of best practices; and bringing in behavioral scientists into the Congressional Budget Office.

Asch, a doctor employed by the Wharton Business School, runs UPenn’s Center for Health Care Innovation created in 2011 to test and implement “new strategies to reimagine health care delivery for dramatically better VALUE and patient OUTCOMES” (emphasis added). The 28,000-foot facility houses simulation learning labs and an accelerator where research on use of “smart” hospital systems, social media, and emerging technologies in healthcare is conducted. The accelerator aims to rapidly prototype and scale “high impact solutions,” read Pay for Success.

Besides the Acceleration Lab, the Center also contains the Nudge Unit, which according to their website is the world’s first behavioral design team embedded within a health system. The goal of the unit is to “steer medical decision making towards HIGHER VALUE and improved patient outcomes (emphasis added).” Sample healthcare nudges include embedded prompts in digital platforms (for screenings), changing default settings (to generic prescriptions), framing information provided to clinicians (not sure what this means), and framing financial incentives as a loss.

Healthcare nudge examples.jpg

This is longer than intended and hopefully provides some food for thought. This life datifying impact investing machine we are up against isn’t just coming for public education; it’s coming for ALL human service. We need to begin to understand the depth and breadth of this threat. I’m still mulling over a lot of this myself, and my knowledge base in healthcare is much shallower than my expertise in education. I’d love to hear what folks think in the comments or if you know of others writing on blockchain and IoT in medicine with a critical lens send me some links. Below are transcripts from West Virginia teacher Brandon Wolford about Go365 followed by the Senator Young / David Asch hearing exchange.

Go365 Transcript

Brandon Wolford, West Virginia Teacher: When I first began teaching in 2012 the insurance, in my opinion, was excellent, because I had worked for one year in Kentucky and I had known that the premiums were, although they were being paid five to seven thousand more than we were, they still had to pay much more for their insurance. So it balanced out. However, after the first year or two I was there, that was when they started coming after us with the tax on our insurance. First of all the premiums, we started to see slight increases for one, and another was they started to enforce this “Healthy Tomorrows” policy.

So, the next thing you know, we get a paper in the mail that says, you know, you have go to the doctor by such and such a date. It must be reported. Your blood glucose levels must be at a certain amount. Your waist size must be a certain amount, and if it is not, if you don’t meet all of these stipulations then you get a $500 penalty on your out-of-pocket deductible. So, luckily for me, I eat everything I want, but I was healthy. My wife on the other hand, who eats much better than I do, salads at every meal, has high cholesterol, so she gets that $500 slapped on her just like that.

Okay so, that was how they started out. In the mean time, we have been filling these out for a year or two, and they keep saying you know you have to go back each year and be checked. And then comes the event that awoke the sleeping giants. The PEIA Board, which is the Public Employee Insurance Agency that represents the state of West Virginia, they, um it’s just a board of four to five individuals that are appointed by the governor, they are not elected. They have no one they answer to; they just come up with these things on their own.

So they come to us and they say we’re raising your premiums. This was somewhere between November and December of last year. We’re raising your premiums. You’re going to need to be enrolled in a program called Go365, which means that you have to wear a fit bit, as well record all of your steps. You have to check in with them, and it included private questions like how much sexual activity do you perform, and is it vigorous? All of these things that they wanted us to report on our personal lives, and that was all included. In addition to that we had to report all of those things, and if we refused to wear that fit bit and record all of our steps, or if we didn’t make our steps, we were going to be charged an additional $25 per month.

So, when everyone sees this along with the increased premiums, then they’ve also introduced a couple more bills to go along with that, because the PEIA Board, they have the final say. Whatever they do, it’s not voted upon by the legislature. It’s basically just law, once they decide it. But in the meantime our legislature was presenting these bills. We were currently on a plan of sixty, uh excuse me, eighty/twenty we were paying out of pocket. Well, they had proposed a bill that would double that and make us pay sixty/forty.

So, they presented that along with charter school bills and a couple of other things that were just direct attacks on us. We had been going by a process of seniority for several years; and they also introduced a bill to eliminate seniority to where it was up to the superintendent whether or not you got to stay in your position. It was up to the principal and regardless if you were there thirty years or you were there for your first or your second year…they were trying to tell us you know, it’s just up to your principal to decide. The superintendent decides. They don’t want you to go, you’ve been there for thirty years and you have a masters degree plus forty-five hours, you’re gone. It’s up to them. Your seniority no longer matters. So those things combined with the insurance is actually what got things going in our state.

Excerpted Testimony Healthy Lifestyle Choices, Senate HELP Committee 10/19/17

Lamar Alexander: We’ll now have a round of five-minute questions. We’ll start with Senator Young.

Senator Todd Young: Thank you Chairman. I’m very excited about this hearing, because I know a number of our witnesses have discussed in their testimonies behavioral economics and behavioral decision-making. I think it’s really important that we as policy makers incorporate how people really behave. Not according to an economist per se, or according to other policy experts, but based on observed behaviors. Often times we behave in ways that we don’t intend to. It leads us to results that we don’t want to end up in.

So, Mr. Asch, I’ll start with you, with your expertise in this area. You’ve indicated behavioral economics is being used to help doctors and patients make better decisions and you see opportunities for employers to help Americans change their behaviors in ways they want from tobacco mitigation to losing weight to managing blood pressure and you indicate those changes are much less likely to come from typical premium-based financial incentives and much more likely to come from approaches that reflect the underlying psychology of how people make decisions, encouraged by frequent rewards, emotional engagement, contests, and social acceptance and so forth. And you said in your verbal testimony you haven’t seen much of this new knowledge applied effectively by employers, but there’s no reason why it cannot be. So, my question for you sir is what might employers learn from behavioral economists. Just in summary fashion.

David Asch, Wharton Center for Health Care Innovation: Sure. Thank you senator. I think I’ll start by saying there is a misunderstanding often about behavioral economics and health. Many people believe that if you use financial incentives to change behavior you’re engaged in behavioral economics, and I would say no, that’s just economics. It becomes behavioral economic when you use an understanding of our little psychological foibles and pitfalls to sort of supercharge the incentives and make them more potent so that you don’t have to use incentives that are so large.

So I think that there are a variety of approaches that come from behavioral economics that can be applied in employment setting and elsewhere. I mentioned one, which is capitalizing on the notion that losses looms larger than gains, might be a new way to structure financial incentives in the employment setting in ways that might make it more potent and more palatable and easier for all employees to participate in programs to advance their health. The delivery of incentives more frequently for example. Or using contests or using certain kinds of social norming where it’s acceptable to show people on leader boards in contests and get people engaged in fun for their health. All of these are possibilities.

Senator Todd Young: Thank you very much. You really need to study these different phenomena individually. I think to have a sense of the growing body of work that is behavioral economics. Right, so we need the increased awareness, and I guess the education of many employers about some of these tics we have. That seems to be part of the answer. In fact, Richard Thaler who just won the Nobel Prize for his ground-breaking work in this area indicated that we as policy makers ought to have on a regular basis not just lawyers and economists at the tables where we’re drafting legislation, but ought to have a behavioral scientist as well.

And the UK, they have the Behavioral Insights Team. The United States, our previous administration, had a similar sort of team that did a number of experiments to figure out how policies would actually impact an individual’s health and wellness and a number of other things. Some of the ideas that I think we might incorporate into the government context, and tell me if any of these sort pop for you; if you think they make sense?

We need to continue to have a unit or units embedded within government that do a lot of these experiments. We need to have a clearinghouse of best practices that other employers included might draw on. This doesn’t have to be governmental, but it could certainly be. We on Capitol Hill might actually consider aside from having a Congressional budget office than an official budget office, we might have an entity or at least some presence within the CBO or individuals that understand how people would actually respond to given proposals. Do any or all of those make sense to you?

David Asch: Thank you for your remarks. Yes, I think they all make sense. And one of the lessons that I guess I have repeatedly learned is that seeming subtle differences in design can make a huge difference in how effective a program can be and how it is perceived and that will ultimately care about the impact of these programs. So, I am very much in favor in the use of these programs, but in addition, greater study of these programs, because I think we need an investment in the science that will help all of us in delivering these activities, not just in healthcare, but in other parts of society.

Senator Young: That makes sense. I am out of time. Thank you.




Digital Nudging: Data, Devices & Social Control

The way we live our lives generates enormous amounts of data. Keystrokes; online payments; photos with embedded meta-data; cell tower pings; fit bits; education management apps; search histories; avatars; social media posts all contribute to a cloud of digital exhaust that threatens to engulf us. Our world is being increasingly data-fied as smart phones mediate our daily activities, and Internet of Things (IoT) sensors become integrated into our homes and public spaces.

In the coming decade we’re going to have to navigate environments defined by ubiquitous computing and surveillance. Virtual and real worlds will meld in unsettling ways. The threat of state repression will intensify, especially for black and brown people, immigrants, refugees, the poor, and dissidents. As the former CIO of the City of Philadelphia Charles Brennan noted at the end of an October 22, 2017 meeting, the future of policing will encompass predictive analytics, facial recognition software, and drone surveillance.

With UPenn’s GRASP lab currently managing a $27 million contract with the US Army Research Lab to develop distributed intelligence, autonomous weapons, it’s not too soon to be thinking about what comes next. To get a feel for where we could be headed, the write up, “Singapore, City of Sensors” describes what it’s like to live in a “smart nation”  where EA3 devices track “Everyone, Everywhere, Everything, All The Time.”

Grasp Lab

Bits and bytes of data build up like passes from a 3-D printer; and as the data is aggregated, our digital doppelgangers emerge. Of course they’re merely shadows of our true, authentic selves. They magnify certain aspects of our personalities while suppressing others. The data of our online counterparts can be incorrect or incomplete, yet even with all those flaws our online profiles and reputations have begun to profoundly influence our offline lives.

As Eric Schmidt of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) says: data is the new oil, so valuable nation states will fight over it. From Cambridge Analytica to Cornell-Technion’s Small Data Lab to Wharton’s Behavior Change for Good program, social scientists are teaming up with venture capital, government agencies, and NGOs to devise new and intrusive ways to monitor people and extract profit from the management of our data-filled lives.

The relationship map below (click here for the interactive version) features individuals and organizations associated with the Small Data Lab, a program of Cornell-Technion based on Roosevelt Island in New York City. This research and development program is backed by influential impact investors and technology companies, including Google. If you know your way around social impact bonds, you’ll see quite a few familiar names: Goldman Sachs, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Atlantic Philanthropies. The aim is to come up with sophisticated ways to analyze digital exhaust and devise technological “solutions” that pressure individuals to conform to neoliberal economic conditions. The technological underpinnings of these app-ified “solutions” enable the capture of “impact metrics” that will fuel the growing social investment sector.

Cornell-Technion also aims to grow the STEM/cyber-security human capital pipeline, having recently accepted at $50 million gift from Tata Consulting, one of India’s most highly-capitalized IT companies, to build an innovation center on their campus. The program plans to do outreach into New York City schools to promote skill development in AI and human-computer interaction.

Small Data Lab Map

small data lab

PTB Ventures, Project Trillion Billion, is one example of a company positioning itself for this new market. A financial backer of Learning Machine, spun out of the MIT Media Lab and specializing in Blockchain education credentials, PTB has also invested in Callsign (digital identity authentication), Element (biometrics), and DISC Holdings (digital payments and credit on blockchain). Their website states the company anticipates a future where trillions devices will be connected to billions of humans and create trillions of dollars in economic value. These investors hope to use connected devices and sensors to mine the lives of the global poor and dispossessed for the economic benefit of the social impact and fin-tech sectors.

PTB Venture Capital Digital ID

Infant Biometrics


DISC Holdings credit

Proposals for online platforms are beginning to emerge that aim to combine decentralized identifiers (DIDs used to create self-sovereign digital identities), e-government transactions, and online payment systems (including public welfare benefits) with “digital nudges” grounded in behavioral economics. See the screenshot taken from the Illinois Blockchain Task Force’s January 2018 report. It shows a desire to digitally incentivize healthy eating purchases for people receiving SNAP benefits.

Blockchain SNAP Nudge

Behavioral economics is the study of how psychological, cognitive, emotional, social, and cultural factors influence the economic choices a person makes. It challenges the idea of homo economicus, that people maintain stable preferences and consistently make self-interested choices in relation to market forces. The field was popularized in the United States by Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kaheneman. University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler built upon this work. Thaler won a Nobel Prize in Economics for his research last year.

Thaler worked closely with Cass Sunstein, who headed Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. In 2008, they co-wrote Nudge, a book espousing “libertarian paternalism.” People make “choices,” but systems can be designed and implemented to encourage a preferred “choice,” generally one that prioritizes long-term cost-savings. “Choice architects” create these systems and weave them into public policy. Through strategic application of “nudges,” citizens,  otherwise “irrational actors” in the market, can be guided to conform to economists’ expectations. Through nudges, human behaviors are redirected to fit mathematical equations and forecasts. David Johnson’s 2016 New Republic article Twilight of the Nudges, provides useful background on this technique and the ethical implications of applying nudges to public policy.

Sunstein Obama

The first “nudge unit” was established in the United Kingdom in 2010 as the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). It operated as a cabinet office for several years before reinventing itself as a global consultancy in 2014. BIT is now owned in equal parts by staff, the UK government and NESTA, a social policy innovation / impact investing foundation funded with proceeds from the UK lottery system. Thaler is on their Academic Advisory Team. From 2015 to 2018 BIT had a $42 million contract with Bloomberg Philanthropies to support development of their “What Works Cities” initiative in the United States. Results for America, the organization that co-hosted the $100 Million “Pay for Success” celebration in Washington, DC last month, currently manages the What Works Cities program on behalf of Bloomberg Philanthropies.

Ideas42 has also been very active at the intersection of social science, behavioral economics and impact investing strategies. It was founded in 2008 as a program of Harvard University with support from scholars and experts at MIT, Princeton, the International Finance Commission (IFC), and the Brookings Institution. Focus areas include education, healthcare and financial inclusion. Numerous mega-philanthropies that are actively implementing the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda have partnered with the organization: Gates, MacArthur, Arnold, Lumina, HP, and Dell. Other partners are involved in deployment of global aid: USAID, the World Bank, the International Rescue Committee (see my previous post re BIT and IRC involvement with Syrian refugee children), and the UN Environment Programme. There are representatives of global finance including Citi Foundation and American Express; insurance companies, MetLife and the Association of British Insurers; and impact investors focused health and wellness, the Robert Woods Johnson and Kellogg Foundations.

Over one hundred experts are allied with this program, including Angela Duckworth and Katherine Milkman of the University of Pennsylvania. They created the ninety-second video “Making Behavior Change Stick” as part of their application to the MacArthur Foundation’s $100 Million and Change challenge. While the proposal was not a finalist, Duckworth and Milkman’s research continues to move forward with private support, housed within the Wharton Business School. Their first $1 million came from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (founded with Facebook stock), that interestingly enough is also currently working with the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office (Larry Krasner) on criminal justice “reform.” More opportunities for our technological overlords to encourage “good” decision making while completely disregarding “broken on purpose” social programs, I suppose.

Take note of the partners identified in Duckworth and Milkman’s MacArthur proposal:

Duckworth Behavior Change for Good

Duckworth and Milkman’s premise is that technology can be used to encourage people to make “good choices,” which the begs the question, “Good for whom?” I suspect what will make a certain choice “good” is the likelihood it will enrich social impact investors while furthering the austerity that drives reduction in public services, increases outsourcing, and fosters the creation of public-private partnerships. The desires of those needing to access services will not be factored into the computer code that sets up friction points and establishes preferred outcomes. Citizens are simply inert, raw material to be molded, for profit, by inhumane digital systems. In the nudge model, economic systems that create mass poverty are not addressed. Instead, the impetus is placed upon the individual to better navigate existing systems steeped in structural racism.

As you may remember from my previous post, Duckworth has been working closely with human capital and labor economist James (7-13% ROI on Early Childhood Education Investments) Heckman. She is one of five leaders of the “Identity and Personality” division of his Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Working Group, based out of the University of Chicago and funded by the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET). In May 2017, Duckworth brought an interdisciplinary group of experts in behavior change to the University of Pennsylvania for two-day conference sponsored by the Center for Economics of Human Development. Fourteen presentations, including  a “Fireside Chat With Daniel Kahneman” were recorded and are viewable here.

The prior year, Philadelphia became the first city in the US with its own municipal level “nudge unit.” Though Duckworth does not appear to be directly involved, Evan Nesterak, a researcher in Duckworth’s Characterlab, co-founded The Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative (PBSI) with Swarthmore Professor Syon Bhanot. Bhanot is involved with the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics in Kenya, as well. According to a 2018 report on PBSI published by Results for America, the initiative’s other academic partners include: the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Temple, St. Joseph’s, Yale, Columbia and Princeton. The report, viewable here, was funded by the John and Laura Arnold Foundation. John Arnold, a hedge-fund billionaire who made his fortune at Enron, has since moved on to education reform, gutting public pensions, and promoting pay for success “evidence-based” finance.

Results for America Fellow

“Innovative” programs are being incubated within the planning and policy departments of many US cities now via fellowships and loaner “experts” who plan to advance an “evidence-based,” “big-data,” “platform-government” agenda. Anjali Chainani, Mayor Kenney’s Policy Director and Manager of the city’s GovLab, has gone through the Results for America Local Government Fellow program.  The Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative is an outgrowth of the City Accelerator and GovLabPHL, which she manages. While the initial program areas are strategically uncontroversial (it would be difficult to speak against seniors taking advantage of discounted water bills or public bike sharing), it seems likely an “evidence-based” campaign of nudges, once normalized, will be extended into more lucrative and ethically-dubious areas like policing, health care delivery, family services, and behavioral health.

Below is an extensive relationship map that shows interconnections between data-driven public policy / privatization programs originating out of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the global financial interests represented by the members of Citi Group’s “Living Cities” program, and how those interface with government operations in the city of Philadelphia. Many of these programs were put into place by our former mayor, Michael Nutter, who went on to become a senior fellow for Bloomberg’s “What Works Cities” program. His wife Lisa is now a principal with Sidecar Social Finance, an impact investing firm.

Click here for the interactive version.

Phialdelphia Behavioral Science Lab

Feeding this machine is our gradual yet irresistible slide into a financial world of digital economic transactions. My next post will focus on that. Please take some time to explore the maps above. They are complex but convey a great deal about the forces at work. Sometimes a nudge is actually a shove. I think our city is being positioned for some serious shoving.

The footage above is from the violent July 5, 2018 police intervention against peaceful OccupyICEPHL protestors at 8th and Cherry Streets outside Philadelphia’s ICE detention center.




Is your DNA alright? How much value will YOUR data unlock? Your child’s? Your students’?

I’ve been doing a lot of research on social impact investing and digital identity recently and found the above image this morning. To say I’m still reeling from its implications would be an understatement. This venture capital firm, PTB Ventures (Project Trillion Billion) is one of the funders of the MIT spin-off, Learning Machine, which has begun issuing education credentials on the Blockchain (see the Learning is Earning video) through a partnership with Southern New Hampshire University.

Paul LeBlanc, President of SNHU, is an advisor to the education division of the public-private partnership merchant banking firm Ridge Lane, LLP. My friend Linda, who teaches music in Spokane, shared the insight below, which very much cuts to the chase. I’m grateful she’s allowing me to post it here to share with you. I will be writing more later, so consider this a teaser.

“I hope your DNA, RNA, and basic building blocks of protein, show you have grit and are conscientious. I hope you are measured and ranked and sorted and catalogued by tech companies, and big business, planning to turn individual humans and entire human social networks (called social capital) into a trillion dollar profit market –using the tools of data mining and the big 5 personality identification markers (used by Cambridge Analytica, to sway the election to Trump, but oh well) such that your shelf life is not SHELVED.

I hope the fusion of tech, with the surveillance state doesn’t ever ruin your day. I hope that as technology takes over jobs, and we face the very real possibility of an un-job world, that your value to the corporation, having been reduced to what your online data portals are worth in the new *impact markets*, that REQUIRE ***extensive measurement of humans***, (see Campbell’s law for the corruption that is inevitable) measuring things that can’t even properly be measured, are such that you are considered valuable by the algorithms that define you.

And I hope we can stop these new markets, that prey on anyone and everyone, –especially our children–while preaching their social justice venture funds– that are so far removed from REAL social justice– as to be exposed for the 1984 doublespeak it is.    Think this an outrageous post? Can’t imagine it? Follow the money. There is no conspiracy when money is involved. And follow Wrench In The Gears that has investigated and dared to stand up against their so called *trillion dollars of economic value,* because THIS is our battle.”
Thank you Linda.

Incentivizing Pre-K Online Gaming With Digital Sticker Books and Pornography (For The Adults Says Heckman, Half Joking)

This is another post with clips culled from talks given at the Center for the Economics of Human Development’s working group, Measuring and Assessing Skills: Real Time Measurement of Cognition, Personality and Behavior. It was held at the University of Chicago in February 2018. I previously shared a segment called from “Math to Marksmanship” with Nobel Prize economist James Heckman, Gregory Chung of UCLA-CRESST and Jeremy Roberts consultant to PBS Kids.

Below are ten additional excerpts from that talk. I watched all two hours and pulled highlights, so you don’t have to.  Topics covered include: game-based learning for pre-schoolers; how to get pre-readers to create online accounts; how digital games can be used to identify “Big Five” behavior traits; and a real doozy, Dr. Heckman’s half-joking suggestion that gamification and incentives of pornography for adults could encourage parents to have their children use online games more often. No, really.

Below is a relationship map of the organizations mentioned in the presentation. You can access an interactive version here.

PBS Kids Gamification

PBS Kids is a media content provider for children ages 2 to 8 years old. Nearly 65% of all children in that age range interact with PBS Kids’ content at some point during any given month. Their apps have been downloaded 45.5 million times, and they deliver 276 million streams per month across multiple digital platforms. Their key strategy is to try to be wherever the kids already are: desktop, television, mobile, and classroom (whiteboards/chromebooks). They don’t develop their own content, but instead curate properties created by others such as: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (social emotional learning, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood); Curious George (engineering/math); Pinkalicious (art); and Cat in the Hat (engineering/science).

PBS Kids Measure Up Screenshot

The US Department of Education recently awarded PBS Kids their fifth consecutive, $100 million, five-year Ready-to-Learn Grant. Each cycle has a different focus. The focus of their current grant is science, informational text, and personalized/adaptive learning. A quarter of the budget is allocated for research carried out in partnership with UCLA CRESST, SRI International, Rockman, and CAST.

PBS Kids is also collaborating on learning analytics with Kidaptive, an AI online learning platform developed in association with Stanford, and with EnLearn, which was created with Gates Foundation funding at the University of Washington Game Science Lab. Games discussed in the presentation included the Measure Up and Super Vision platform, Fish Force, and Kart Kingdom, a starter online multi-player game.

Even though it takes place later in the talk, I want to begin with this excerpt, because it provides a true glimpse into how these people see parents. During another part of the talk Roberts notes that the audience PBS KIDs is focusing on for their grant’s ethnographic study is comprised of Title One parents and those they perceive of as “underserved.” Heckman’s comments are laden with derogatory race/class inferences.

1. Getting Parents to Prioritize the App…Using Pornography Incentives?

Timestamp: 1hour 14 minutes 20 seconds

Clip here

Roberts: The idea here is for us to tease apart any effects that we find that are pursuant to the use of the parent application (Measure Up and Super Vision). Um, yes there’s a lot of debate right now about what you have to do to get parents to want to engage with the tool. Is this just a no-brainer? Are they going to use it? No, it’s a key challenge.

Parents will tell you that they really care, and they will tell you that they want to be a good parent, but it’s aspirational. They will repeatedly give you false information about their expectations for how they will use the product. It isn’t until you pin them down with crafty, crafty strategies before you can start to get the truth.

One example would be the third time…I had them tell me what we wanted to hear through two different trials and finding out what they think about it. Finally, on the third trial the innovation in the design was to have them plot their day BEFORE we show them any products or ask them anything about this, plot their day. Then we had them circle the parts of their day where they think they’re actively involved in parenting. So they did that. Then we showed them all the products, and then we said, hey would you use it? And they told us the same story, yes we would. And then we said now please point on the diagram of your day when you would actually use this, and then they FINALLY they all said, oh yeah, oh, I don’t know, I’m not sure…because they’re so busy.

Other Person: But don’t you think being able to tie it to something that would directly show their school readiness might be able to get parents more involved?

Roberts: I want that to be true. Yeah. Are you asking what I want? (laughter from the table)

Other Person: Is that something, a strategy, that you’ve explored further?

Roberts: Uh, it’s something that we’re looking at now. We’re definitely not giving up on this. This is key. We already know that when the parent IS involved, that the outcomes are way better.

Heckman: (interjects) But what about a “build-a-child” game for the parent? You know? No, in other words you gamify it for the parent. You’re making the parent into some kind of wise educational administrator. They’re not. So you could even have pornography, I guess. Something that would entice them. I’m just, you know. Nah, sorry about pornography, but I’m just thinking how to motivate the parents.

Roberts: We need to innovate here. We need to use some psychology on parents. We need to meet them where they are. We need to use what they have, and we need to let them do…um so, yeah.

2. Gathering Home Life Background Information

Timestamp: 16:05

Clip here

Roberts: We have telemetry on parent use of recommendations associated with the near time kid use of the app.

Heckman: What about the parents’ environment? Some measure of the home in addition to what you see parents are doing with your product.

Roberts: Currently very limited. I would say, right. No we’re not…

Heckman: So you wouldn’t know kind of what effect you might be having?

Roberts: No, but that kind of background information would be amazing. Like that’s the kind of thing…

Heckman: Right, and do you have plans to do that?

Roberts: Not currently, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t consider it. We have some discretion in terms of what the out years of the grant do in terms of study.

Heckman: Because we see in some of these analyses tremendous changes in family structure, in family approach to the child…

Roberts: Oh sure, poverty, how many words…uh

Heckman: No, exactly, but literally the change in the parental strategies…

Roberts: Change. Yep, no, that’s great. I’d love to talk more. One of the things I would like to get out of this meeting, selfish aspect from my perspective, is I would love to crowd-source ideas about the highest-value study we might permit on datasets like this. Because from my perspective there is more than we could possibly every do based on the data sets we’re collecting. So, where’s the…what’s is the high value? Like, I would love to hear opinions about that.

Heckman: Well right now you’re not, I mean parents are part… you’re using them to leverage what you’re doing. I mean…well, I don’t want to focus…

Roberts: No, it’s ok. So, the short version is we are doing ethnographic studies of parents and their environment, but it’s not connected with this data and telemetry studies, so I won’t be able to line it up. We do have distributions and an idea of our audience, especially Title One and low income. We try to focus on the underserved, so we know a lot about what’s going on, but this particular data telemetry study isn’t lining up.

3. Designing Games that Encourage Pre-Readers To Create Online Accounts

Timestamp: 31:20

Clip here

Other Person: You might want to suggest…do students have free accounts where you can tell how they did on their first ever play of the game and then…Of course, you might probably have a selection of kids who continue to play based on them being good enough.

Roberts: Distinguished ability and identity is key to all of this work. But, you can’t ask a kid that can’t read yet or understand virtual identity to create a full account. At the same time, even kids who can, if you WANT them to create an account, it doesn’t mean that THEY want to create an account. So, they have to WANT to create an account. There has to be a motivational structure or incentive. And so there are a number of different strategies in play that all when taken together constitute our strategy, which is: what they’re able to do; what can we make them want to do; and now we have that level of distinguishability or identity.

So, we do have account systems. You can create full credentialed account systems-safe, private. Uh, but not that many kids do unless we go out of our way to make pieces of media that they can create themselves and then save. When they self-express their own identity through interactives and can save their own user-generated content then care enough to go do that kind of thing. But until we make something they understand and care about, it’s pretty much a non-starter.

4. Game Play Patterns and Social Emotional Behavior Tracking

Timestamp 44:40

Click here

Heckman: But what do you make of that? But just to relate to some of the other measures, if we go across the games these people are playing…is there some way of developing an inventory of social and emotional skills? Or…

Roberts: We are at the very beginning of this, the learner profile. I see it in two huge buckets. One is get all of the things you think might be relevant and co-locate them so that you can organize them by individual. The second is a free-for-all interpretation. I’m not sure what the strategy is there, but we will be able to compare, in theory, this game and that game, did they watch this video, did they NOT watch that video. What are all the slices and dices of what we think might be important and see what’s true about that subset?

Heckman: Is there any way to kind of project these people to get some baseline measure of some…We talk a lot about the Big Five or some other inventories, a suitable gauge. Is there some way to look at your measures and relate them for at least a subset?

Roberts: I think so. I think that if you have a player who consistently, across operations, different games, consistently exhibits powering through you might make an argument that that is something like conscientiousness. And then there’s all the grit, persistence, determination. Stuff like inhibitory control and self-regulation that are so important that I think plays into some of that. I mean the Big Five, each term, each label of the Big Five, subsumes so many constituent concepts. So, I think it would be about modeling the connection and being careful that you actually are only getting one time. But the end game here is that if you have enough tiny little pieces it makes for great evidence.

5. Tracking Behaviors in Games-The Tea Party

Timestamp 48:50

Clip here

Heckman: So far you’ve done it game by game. But I’m saying you link performance across multiple games for the same child.

Roberts. We’re working towards that. It’s specific to the game mechanics in each case; the interactions are situated.

Heckman: Couldn’t you design games that were sort of more intensive in conscientiousness? More intensive in curiosity, you know? I’m just using the Big Five.

Roberts: There’s a game we have that has nothing to do with math at all. You sit down at a big table, and all of your character friends are there for a tea party. You get to hand out cookies, and you get some feedback from time to time. You didn’t give any cookies to this person, and you know observe that… And we (the game platform) would know if you shared equally in the first place and if, when prompted, did you correct any inequity? And things like that.

Heckman: So does the tea party really capture interaction though among groups? I mean it’s a virtual tea party.

Roberts. Yes, these are NPCs, but do have a virtual world.

Heckman: And you still have a virtual player where you are interacting with a virtual bot.

Roberts: So we can model.

Heckman: Yeah

6. Branding to Get Kids to “Groove Out” on the Games

Timestamp: 1 hour 7 minutes 30 seconds

Clip here

Heckman: How do you entice the child to get into it? So…I’m just getting back to how easy it is to enroll…suppose you have a group of preschoolers that you want to target say in a Los Angeles community…how do I get all of them…

Roberts: It is intended primarily for the home use case, but if you were running a preschool and you wanted them to use it you would go to the app store…

Heckman: You can download them (the games), but just ignore them. So how do you get them to groove out on this?

Roberts: They have to WANT to. So, it’s a strategy involved in the design to make it appealing. Use characters that they love.

Heckman: And you’ve experimented with that. You know how to apply this stuff?

Roberts: The people who make the media, I think they do, yeah. They have a track record of great success in getting kids to care. We sink or swim based on the kids’ choices. If we don’t make something the kid wants to choose over Toco Loco (sp?) or other things we’re sunk. A lot of our effort goes into engagement strategies. In fact, our learning model has a giant engagement factor that multiplies everything. It doesn’t matter how good your instructional strategies is, if your engagement goes to zero, you’ve lost the entire game. Everything depends on getting the kid to care. We try to do it in trustworthy ways (laughter).

7. Digital Sticker Books, Behaviorist Incentives

Timestamp: 1:11:05

Clip here

Roberts: Am I able to take game play up to an assessment and predict the performance on the assessment? And can I revise that over time as they reengage? Because the kids will engage and re-engage and re-engage until they get bored or age out…So, the media strategy here is working in tandem with the instructional strategy.

Heckman: Did they have a set of goals within the, over multiple trials? Yes, ah. So they keep an inventory? So the incentive structure is cumulative…I’m now climbing Magma Peak, I guess a volcano, so I go up at 10,000 feet. You’re about to go to 11,000 or something…

Roberts: As you go, you’re unlocking pieces of a statue for a Statue Island that rises up out of the water. The statues are of your favorite characters and you’re unlocking sticker books and you’re unlocking additional interactives. And so as you go you’re getting immediate rewards and you can then build like a puzzle into your favorite character in addition you’re getting other things kids really love like sticker books. Sticker books are a BIG DEAL to a three year old.

Heckman: But do you give punishments, too. Suppose they fail? Does their island start to collapse? No, I’m just curious about your experimental incentive structure.

Roberts: I don’t think we punish them in the honest sense of that word, but we do give feedback intended to help them to go meta-cog about certain things that maybe they’re doing related to the game. So we can say, oh, I don’t think that’s going to work at all or that kind of thing.

8. Making Predictions From Tidbits

Timestamp 2:02:57

Clip here

Roberts: With the whole set up ultimately, what I’d like to do is have enough representations of force and motion; and enough representations of this math skill; and enough representations of the social emotional; all feeding into a vector of the learner that itself has a layer of interpretive layer on top of it that we could argue for years about all the hypotheses of how to take all the inputs turn them and do all the analysis for all of those high value inputs and determine what they are predictive of. So, I am not necessarily trying to maximize any individual outcomes at this time. I AM trying to make a system by which we have reasonable extraction of high-value tidbits about individuals, and we co-locate those things so that we can take that profile and try to do productive things with it.

9. Surveillance Via Facial Recognition and Age Detection Software

Timestamp: 2:03:50

Click here

Michelle LaMar: So that gets to something that I’ve been wanting to ask. How can you be certain what you are seeing is the child, a particular individual interacting with the app, rather than a parent helping them, a sibling, a friend…or is there some sort of co-op mode?

Roberts: There is definitely going to be some noise. We’ve done some prototypes on facial recognition and age detection. It’s early in that space. I don’t have a lot of confidence in it right now, but the idea was to determine whether there’s more than one peer or an adult and child scenario going on at the same time and passed back and forth. There are some self-selection strategies we tried that worked pretty well when it’s kids. They effectively go down the safe slots. The idea that you can create your own little avatar and you create your own slot and there are multiple slots available to you. Because when you give kids things they can create and save and care about, they want to keep them in their own toy box, that kind of thing. We’ve done some things to try and get the kids to tell us, but we may never solve that problem.

10. PBS Kids, A Huge Intervention

Timestamp 2:06:19

Click here

Brent Roberts: So let me just say I’ve loved you guys since I was a kid. You’re just awesome. You are, to be honest, a huge confound in every developmental study ever done. You’re like lead, right? Unmeasured, pervasive and having a huge effect on everybody; and we don’t measure.

So…if I am running a study, any study… at least half my kids are doing your product. You’re a huge intervention, right? Instead of thinking in terms of like how do you bridge from what you’re doing to doing clean experiments and or measuring things, because it seems really hard. You’ve got dozens if not hundreds of longitudinal teams in the field right now working with kids. If you can create a system where you simply give them in a research capacity the ability to tap into your system and track the kid, you get the IRB approval from the parent, the PBS folks will work in coordination.

So you don’t do anything; you don’t design studies. You just give your information to those researchers who can design studies, who are measuring these things. That’s the easier way to do this than to toil through all the different necessities. You got tons of people out there, and you are so pervasive. I mean I don’t see how a developmental researcher wouldn’t want to know.

Kart Kingdon