How I f*cked up my screwed up project idea

Mis amigos de los FuckUpNights acaban de celebrar sus dos años de éxito en f*cking up. Ya están presentes haste en mi nativo Alemania: esta semana se publicó un artículo en Spiegel Online.

Los fracasos siguen siendo un tema que no se habla. Verboten. No importa si estás sacando adelante un start-up, te inventas un proyecto en el mundo del desarrollo, y hasta en la política es muy mal visto de cambiar tu opinión. Para una selección de fracasos, revisen este Libro del Fracaso. Espectacular. Y como me perdí la fiesta en la Cd de México la semana pasada, comparto aquí un fracaso personal:

verboten stencil


Solemos decir que las mejores ideas emergen de un par de tragos entre amigos, o bien, un par de chelas entre compas. Justamente fue lo que pasó cuando estuvimos un par de amigos (aquí un shout-out para Tobias sin quién no hubiera habido nuestros Stammtische) trabajando en una tarde lluviosa de otoño en Berlín. Nos reuníamos para compartir nuestras experiencias de proyectos en desarrollo que usaban las últimas tecnologías, las mapas de geolocalización, los mensajes de texto, los pagos móviles.

Después de un par de cervezas, la plática se volvió más honesta. Rápidamente llegamos de contar de nuestros planes ambiciosos, a contar lo que realmente pasaba, y, seamos sinceros, cómo fracasamos.

Fue ahí cuando se me ocurrió por que no crear un blog con todas estas ideas, y, por que no, hasta un evento para compartir las mejores. La plataforma se llamaría

Del dicho al hecho, esta misma noche registré el url y me fue a dormir contento.

Al otro día me levanté pensando en los próximos pasos. Un mensaje para invitar a amigos en compartir sus proyectos y tecnologías fracasados, coordinarme con un amigo a crear el sitio.

A la semana, todavía no había hecho nada de todo esto. Fue una semana especialmente ocupada en el trabajo. Al mes, me dije que ahora si lo iba a comenzar.

Al año, me dí cuenta que alguien había tenido una idea parecida y creado un evento llamado Failfare que invitaba a profesionales en Washington DC de contar su experiencia con fracasos. ¿Suena conocido? Ahora, tres años más tarde, los FuckUpNights, con un nombre aún más cool, están tomando el mundo.

No hay nada mejor de generar ideas que un par de chelas. Pero para hacerlas realidad, hay que estar sobrio. Si no, se quedan para contarlas durante los FuckUpNights.

Democratizing financing: Crowdfunding in Mexico

Crossposted from the FOMIN blog

The great potential of crowdfunding in Mexico attracted more than 100 people to a recent launch event for the first detailed analysis of this emerging financing model for entrepreneurs, soon-to-be entrepreneurs, small businesses, artists such as filmmakers and musicians, and even people interested in social development. The premise of this kind of collective fundraising via online platforms is anything but modest: Democratize financing so that anyone with a great idea can implement it. Can it fulfill this promise?

The event, organized by the MIF with support from the Institute of Entrepreneurship in Mexico at the Ministry of Economy, gave me every reason to believe so.

Crowdfunding in Mexico is just over two years old. I remember when we held our first workshop on crowdfunding last year in Washington D.C., the first platforms throughout Latin America were only starting to pop up.

Now, as the report on Crowdfunding in Mexico we launched at the event shows, the market is maturing and already looks more like this:

A group of five platforms,, and, have joined forces to create the Mexican Association for Crowdfunding in order to promote and defend the interests of this growing industry and establish best practices to protect their clients in running crowdfunding platforms.

Of course, developing a new financing model, born out of the increase in the use of social media by the wider population, has its challenges. A regulatory framework and clear regulations that address the activities need to be established. Tackling risks that come with the use of the Internet as a business platform is in the common interest of many stakeholders, banks as well as crowdfunding platforms.

But the success stories are convincingly beautiful. From the platforms that are part of the Mexican Crowdfunding Association alone, 140 projects and companies have been successful in financing themselves, about 44% of those published.

One of them is Tania Ortiz, who launched a campaign via Idea.Me to seek funding for her newly formed fashion accessories business, TANgerine. Now, her latest collection can be seen on the streets of the hippest neighborhoods in Mexico City. (More success stories here).

The private sector has discovered the potential of crowdfunding as well. For example, Leo Schlesinger, CEO of the wood products company Masisa, has collaborated with the portal Fondeadora.Mx to launch #MasisaDetona, a project to engage young entrepreneurs to produce innovative and sustainable products. More than 200,000 joined the Facebook group alone.

Finally, looking at the percentage of women businesses in venture capital and crowdfunding confirms that crowdfunding can indeed democratize. While only about 4% of businesses that receive venture capital in the US are women-owned, 40% of successful crowdfunded businesses have women at the helm.

These experiences and the energy and enthusiasm of the platforms and organizations that we met here, make me believe that exciting times are to come.

What do you think? Have you participated in crowdfunding yet, either as a funder or seeker of funds? Will crowdfunding fulfill its expectations? Let me know in the comments section below!

Telling better stories: Why learn to code in 2014

2014 might well become the year of code. These notes are about why I believe we should learn how to code and to show the beautiful things that can be done with it. For those who are, as me, in the profession of communications, learning to code is to learn a language to tell better stories, stories that are intelligent, interactive, and integrated.

So last week, I gave a talk to a couple of colleagues at the Inter-American Development Bank on this issue. Here is a formatted version from my notes.

Data-driven journalism

Let me start with a powerful example of how coding and superior data management has changed an industry. Journalism (There is of course lots of discussion if journalists should learn to code). One example is Giannina Segnini – I’ve written about her work before. The Costa Rican journalist heading the investigative unit of La Nación started as a traditional journalist. However, a couple of years back, she realized that to continue to do her work effectively, a journalist had to become a hacker. With this in mind, she set up a new form of newsroom, combining web developers, designers and reporters who knew how to program.

Last year, she and her team were approached by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with a huge dataset of people, businesses and where they are registered. They did not know yet how incredibly useful this information would turn out to be.

The result of this effort was the Offshore Leaks database and visualization. It served as the foundation for the stories around the world that led to a major policy shift on the issue of offshore taxes and tax havens –  and new regulations such as in Colombia.

Giannina received a special award to journalistic excellence as part of the Garcia Marquez Awards last year. Her example shows us how journalism has changed, how data-driven journalism increasingly requires knowledge on coding, and how we can’t rely on our traditional set of communications tools anymore.

21st Century: Technology and Coding

Living in the 21st century the world has changed. Our world has been disrupted by the increase of data and the advancement of technology. We are surrounded by it. Tablets, phones, cars are packed with computers, smart meters (or why would Google buy Nest), even movies.

Behind all of this is code. Code is simply a language. A language to talk to machines.

Last year, Grace Hopper, a pioneer in computer programming, would have turned 107 years. Google created this wonderful Doodle that illustrates how coding is a language quite beautifully.

Code is a language for machines. It tells a machine what to do. With our live surrounded by machines, speaking and writing code becomes an essential tool to control our environment.

Code is a tool to solve problems.

Coding communications

As communicators, our main goal is to get the right information to the right people. So here are the three things you will be able to do, when you learn just a little bit of code.

You can

1) Tell better stories through more beautiful websites (HTML5, CSS3, Javascript) and design. My favorite example is the well documented Snow Fall feature by the New York Times that started a trend in integrated storytelling. On another level, MIT’s logo is an amazing model of how to tell the story of an institution – the logo has been programmed in Processing by the Green Isle Studio in Berlin.

2) Get better data. Programming languages will help you analyze, sort, save and retrieve information better, such as the 2010 World Cup Ranking.

3) Present information through interactive graphics or infographics, and interactive maps. D3 is a language to create exactly this. Designers are using programming to be more precise in their designs, such as this one on population density. The Hewlett Foundation did a great app to explore their grants. I did a little map for my employer using Mapbox. And there are many, many more.

These were just some examples to illustrate how code can be a language to tell better stories. Stories that are intelligent, interactive, and integrated.

Of course, most of us will never become a pro in programming languages. To be fair, most of us will struggle to gain digital literacy learning how to do HTML and CSS, the ABC of the web. But getting the grasp of coding will helps us talk better to the experts, the programmers we work with.

But learning how to code in the 21st century is as important as understanding television in the 20th century.

You have to control the medium. Only then you can control the message.

Learn a new language. Take an hour, and learn how to code. I actually did a one-hour processing course, which I found really useful. There are many others.

Do you agree? How important will coding become in communications, or other professions?

What happens if the pen doesn’t work?

Corruption is a destructive force on development. Promised school material arrives late or never, or is being sold, instead of given out freely to students. When it does get to the student, it might not work properly. Medicine is far beyond its expiration date. Houses, buildings, and schools crumble when an earthquake hits, leaving thousands dead.

What happens if officials of a multilateral bank receive a gift, say a pen, for Anti-Corruption Day - and it doesn’t work?

“I have been trying all morning, and it doesn’t seem to work. I even took the one from my colleague, but the same issue.”

“This can’t be! Will it ever work?”

“Maybe someone wants to tell me something.”

This is just what occurred this morning at the Inter-American Development Bank (my employer). Suddenly groups of people (those that came to work, that is, because of the the snow, ice, rain, you know…) were standing together and talking about the effects of corruption on their projects. People were frowning: they were frustrated, as they actually wanted to use the pen that came accompanied by the message: “We ask you to use this pen today to commemorate Anti-Corruption Day.”

A message, about two hours later, resolved the questions. The key phrase here:

“Working to prevent and control corruption is the responsibility of all of us at the IDB.”

I think this anti-corruption day action by my transparency colleagues at the IDB was a great idea. Much better than the traditional panel discussions. It is as effective as it can get to not only raise awareness, but to show something, that by nature is hidden. Corruption.


For those who are actually wondering on how to use a pen that has no ink cartridge: just put one in from another of those pens that you have been chewing on for a while!


elections in Germany: visualized

Germany’s elections turned out to be much more exciting than expected. While I hope my vote made it over the Atlantic (I don’t want to be counted on this map of non-voters), I’d like to share with you a couple of visualizations on last Sunday’s Bundestagswahl. While researching, I quickly came across this great collection of visualizations by, so I won’t add any new ones to the lists, only a couple of my favorites.

The Hochburgen – or strong holds

Hochburgen translated literally from German to English means high castle. It is also a ruin close to Freiburg, my home town. This graphic by the Zeit tries to identify these party strong holds within the German’s party landscape. It took me a while to get a grasp of it, but once I did, I actually found it quite revealing. The geographic mix-up continues to confuse me though.

The black Republic

Probably the graphic that most impressively illustrates the election results – and an overall sentiment in Germany: not only by number of votes is the CDU near an absolute majority,   even more so it is so by across East and West, and North and South. A green enclave in Berlin Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain, a couple of spots covered by the Linke, some more by the SPD and the rest: black. Not much of a difference actually when looking at the votes for the candidates, or the party.


Despite the black Republic, Berlin shows a somewhat differentiated picture. The Berliner Morgenpost has analyzed local election results by the smallest possible entity (making of), and Michel Jansen follows the path of where the Berlin Wall blew its breach (illustration via @albertocairo).

(I tried to embed this tweet, but it did not work. Ideas for what I am doing wrong anyone?)

And yours?

What are your favorite visualizations? Did you do your own? Here are the official numbers (not really open, but at least in tables). Historic data visualized here.

remittances fuel solar energy

A couple of months ago, digging out my French, reading Tamar Ben Jelloun’s beautiful Partir on the way, I headed to Haiti to document a project of the MIF together with my colleague and friend Jimmy Chalk (browse through his other work here). I have posted some of my pictures, and the video is now ready.

About the life of the development community in Haiti has been written a lot (lately my colleague Nara, and Nora Schenkel). During the week in Haiti I peeled off only a few of the so many layers of life and culture of these proud people. Too few to talk, and form an opinion. But I can say that I loved the freshly painted, colorful walls of hair salons, the braids of school kids, the solar-powered street lights, the Kreol radio transmission of the Champions League semifinals – problem, problem, problem – and the people crowding around the tv’s at the market. But I couldn’t close my eyes observing that everything was being sold in the streets out of necessity, loose medicaments, cloths, pieces of fruit, the need for SUV’s to drive the streets, and no lightening up at night. So much potential, and a long way to go.

Working in Haiti was challenging, but also very gratifying thanks to the wonderful people that supported the little project, and with whom I could work with, Claud, our translator from Kreol to English, to the staff at SogeXpress, who were incredibly helpful in every little detail, of course our project partners at ArcFinance, especially Yara, and last but not least the stars of the film.

some readings this week

Some of the articles I have been reading this weekend:

For one, while following what has been happening on Taksim square in Istanbul this weekend, this post by Zeynep Tufekci provides some background and perspective for the many that claim a new Egyptian spring revolution is taking place. Freedom of expression and how power deals with growing dissent when faced public opposition is at the core. Especially as self-censorship by Turkish media is prevalent, and probably most strikingly expressed through the discrepancy between the programming of CNN international and locally.

Chris Blattman provides some food for thought on the impact of investing in women. At the MIF, we are supporting projects that aim to empower women businesses and women entrepreneurs (such as this project in Guatemala approved this week or a series of mentoring initiatives).

And this Wednesday, I will be looking forward to discuss venture capital at the Technology Salon. How to support financing of start-ups and entrepreneurs is something I am quite curious about. Here’s a useful piece on impact investing by Liza Moiseeva. I have been writing about crowdfunding here earlier. Can these financing models really be a sustainable bottom-up entrepreneurship-driven alternative for development?

Still early days, but the Post-2015 Development Agenda report by the UN High Commission included some interesting issues and perspectives. Some issues that I am happy that made their way into the document are more focus on access to government data, right to information, reducing corruption, sustainable energy, and creating jobs. For good or for worse, this report will likely shape many of our jobs and discussions in development (so I should better read it in more detail).

To round it off, this beautiful post and visualization of the digital shapes of cities, such as restaurant, hotels, clubs, rather than streets or buildings.

(And the picture shows a wall, some time a couple of years ago, in Beyoglu).

the newsroom, data journalism and impact

Last weeks Comcast Watchathon brought me the doubtful experience of catching up on a couple of shows I’ve been curious about. Not much good came out of it. Of the one I had some hopes for was The Newsroom. Not only because I have been discovering The West Wing lately, but also because the topic is related to my profession as a communications specialist (though I have never worked in a TV newsroom, only in print).

For the sake of this article, let’s put the drama aside (and there’s a lot of drama and shouting and so on in the first three episodes, all that I watched). The promising idea was respectful: Create an evening news show that focuses on the facts, balanced reporting, and not squinting on the latest audience data. Alas, it only exists in monologues of high-flying aspirations for the show. What is shown of the show is what is being criticized: opinionated journalism, not fact-based journalism. The impact is measured by: the happiness of lead anchor Will McAvoy and his boss Charlie Skinner. How many candidates have been cross-examined. And overall ratings are 7% lower. Then I switched off.

Measuring impact of journalism

Which brings me to the white paper by non-profit journalism organization ProPublica Issues Around Impact I read this weekend: A very useful introduction by Richard Tofel into the complex task of measuring reach and impact of journalism – something that Jonathan Stray called last year a maddeningly difficult task!

There weren’t many ways of measuring the impact that did really surprise me, but I found a couple of findings very useful:

1) While true impact is rare, the “return-on-investment” is actually not at all that low. Take that ProPublica has employed about 20 reporters in recent years, and its annual reports cite around 9 instances of significant impact in each of 2010, 2011 and 2012.

2) And while not all investigation yields monetary returns, some actually do. Such as ProPublica’s reporting that won the organization its second Pulitzer and that has already resulted in more than a half billion dollars in fines and settlements paid to the federal government by financial institutions.
What to expect from journalism?
3) So what impact do we actually expect from journalism? Media as the control and accountability organ (the fourth power) is a key role for sure. In the case of ProPublica, the focus is very strongly on accountability and prevention of abuse of public power, as its mission states: “To expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business, and other institutions, using the moral force of investigative journalism to spur reform through the sustained spotlighting ofwrongdoing.”

But how about improving the lives of the people by identifying shortcomings of society more generally. (Keeping in mind the difference between journalims and advocacy that Tofel distinguishes well)

Snow’s cholera map

The data journalist

In my view, there is a new role of the journalist evolving: As a connector of journalism for improving society through data, stories (such as citizen journalism), and exposing not the abuse, but the simple not-knowing-it-better or not caring about enough. And researching and exposing data that may not be that clear at all.

A good example might be data journalism, a branch of journalism that traces its origines from the classic example of John Snow who uncovered through mapping of data the reasons for a cholera outbreak in the London of the 19th century.

This connection of journalism with data could provide for increased potential for impact. It might also put the journalist much more strongly in the middle of the policy forming process, and puts a focus on the integrity of data.

Research is of course nothing new for a journalist, it is quasi in its DNA, but I believe that with the technification – or hackerization – there will be some returns to come in the future.

By the way, it would be interesting to know how the New York Times was planning its impact when publishing their story into the hidden riches of Wen Jiabao’s family. Will our website be blocked?

adding value to crowdfunding projects in Latin America

A couple of weeks ago, at the Multilateral Investment Fund, where I work, we organized a workshop on crowdfunding together with massolution (a great look-back at the workshop and the third-level survivorship model of crowdfunding here). I still wanted to share a couple of thoughts on the principal elements to keep in mind when considering to bring crowdfunding to Latin America, especially when thinking of the potential social impact of this crescent funding mechanism.

I have already discussed some ideas on social impact and opportunities in a post leading up to the workshop. I was happy to see some of the elements, especially the focus on education, which is also to be considered as an elementary driver of development, strongly confirmed. It was great to learn Kiva has been expanding into funding education loans and other related projects.

In this post I would like to look at these key issues: the challenge of adoption and access; and creating added value of crowdfunding models.

1) Adoption and access challenge

As massolutions writes, crowds are essential for crowdfunding. Luckily, the crowd in Latin America is growing. Spanish is the second most written language on Twitter. Statistics show that Latinos are using social networks more than the overall average.

Now, to make the crowd engage in crowdfunding your very own business idea is the more challenging part. Especially to go beyond friends and family, and friends of friends, to what Kevin Berg Grell calls third-level survivorship and describes better than I could:

The key to success, however, is being able to pass third-party survivorship. The earliest of backers will often contribute to a campaign because of the emotional attachment to the owner or a person involved with the project. Their friends may also be more inclined to support a campaign if they have a loose connection to it. As the backers become three or more levels removed from the owner, however, the decision to fund becomes a rational one. If that owner can convince a large group of strangers that the campaign is worth backing, it is a good bet that the crowdfund will succeed.

The overall potential of backers for your business can be described through the following s-curve:

This image also makes evident an additional element that needs to be considered when thinking of crowdfunding in Latin America. And this is related to access to the internet, and how it affects the total potential of adaptors. Both for the potential backers, but also, for people with ideas, potential entrepreneurs. In Latin America, there is still a notable group of people who do not have the same level of access to the internet, and to the services. Here, an opportunity arises to create for example local organizations that can serve as innovation hubs bridging the online-offline gap. Or thinking of ways to bring these ideas to rural areas through a dedicated portal that uses mobile technology. Here, I think development organizations can provide value-added in supporting this infrastructure.

Which brings me to my next point.

2) Value-added crowdfunding models

As an ecosystem around entrepreneurship is just developing, including services such as how-to-create-a-business seminars, or start-up financing, platforms will want to work with entrepreneurs and small business to provide this value-added and ensure sustainability of their projects: training, mentoring, and guide their projects through the process.

This might also provide an opportunity to justify fees that can be inverted in running the platforms. Or it might provide an opportunity for businesses interested in impact investing to partner up and create challenges that provide co-financing for successful ideas, or, why not, a bank as a partner., the largest platform in the region, has been doing this already to a certain extent.

Another topic will require some exploration as well. While the kickstarter-type of crowdfunding has certainly set its foot in the region, equity-based  models are still only nascent. Cumplo in Chile, and Crowdfunder in Mexico is getting ready for launch. For small businesses, the “missing middle” between microfinance and bank loans affects about 65%. Equity-based crowdfunding has definitely a role in the market of providing finance to growing businesses, amidst the venture capital industry, and still the most common form of start-up funding that originates with friends and family members.

What other elements do you think are crucial to be tackled to make crowdfunding work in the region? How can the infrastructure gap be addressed?

Open data, journalism and hacking

Today is Open Data Day. Here in DC, the hacking crowd meets at the World Bank to open up data and prepare some really interesting, mostly DC focused projects as can be seen on this Tumblr. (I could only follow the action through twitter, as I was late in registering. But I am glad to see these kinds of events being popular, even on a grey Saturday).

One thing though surprised me. When looking at the hacking crowd the Open Data Day invited, developers, designers, librarians, statisticians, and interested citizens were mentioned. But I think one group is missing in the equation: journalists.

And yet, this group of professionals has the most to gain from open data and APIs that allow to access data previously closed or difficult to evaluate.

At the 15th International Anti-Corruption Conference last year in Brasilia, Giannina Segnini, who leads the investigative unit of the Costa Rican newspaper La Nación, proposed the necessary evolution of a modern journalist.

She used the analogy of the investigative journalist as a topo (mole translated literally, even though a tracking dog might be a better fit).

Starting off as a library mole, the journalist went into the archives and digged tunnels among folders, and piles of papers, birth registries, account information, etc. This, of course, was not enough to get the complete picture. The journalist then had to leave the archives to put the information into context, talk to people, and thus become a topo callejero, a street mole. For the last century, this is how investigative journalism has worked.

However, in the 21st century, and a world becoming increasingly interconnected across countries, archives becoming digital and growing infinitely, just sifting through files and folders and talking to people on the streets is not enough anymore.

Now, you have to dive into the sea of digital data, if you want to uncover new stories, you have to become a hacker, a topo hacker. Or, to express it differently, a data journalist.

The investigative unit Giannina set up is impressive. It includes developers, journalists, and designers working together to investigate issues. Data is scraped from websites  24/7 to create databases of public information stored on La Nación’s servers that can then be used for further investigations. More detail on the process here and in this graphic The data machine:

In Giannina’s words:

“The good thing about this is that if you combine those two worlds [journalism and hacking], the outcome is very powerful. Not only can you actually prove facts, but also … you are not relying on a source.”

This research already has led to some impressive investigations, uncovering corruption and embezzlement.

There are similar initiatives in the region, such as Argentina’s La Nación. Here’s a great post on how to build such a data journalism team.

Other examples are innovative reporting initiatives like InfoAmazonia, a platform run by Knight Fellow Gustavo Faleiros that gathers news and maps from the Amazon Rainforest. At the IACC Hackathon, he added a new layer to discover the relationship between cattle ranching and deforestation.

Data journalism initiatives have grown increasingly popular over the last year or two. The Guardian Data Blog definitely led the pack when it comes to visualising the data and raising the awareness for potential stories hidden amongst masses of data. In Germany, I like the work of the data team of Die Zeit. And there is even a Data Journalism Award.

This kind of journalism is the future in a world dominated by data. And while a lot seems to be happening, there is still a lot more to be done to make sure more journalists can bring light into the dark corners of corrupt businesses, political intrigue and crime with the help of data.

The tools: Scraping, Visualizing, Security

So, there is still an initial barrier to overcome before feeling comfortable in finding, accessing and interpreting data, but more and more initiatives are geared to to exactly this. Tactical Tech is preparing a School of Data, the Kickstarter initiative For Journalism aims to develop online courses for programming and visualizing of data. Paul Bradshaw is writing a book on how to use scraping in journalism. And the wiki Scraperwiki is quite accessible, I believe.

Now, it would be great if citizen activists, developers and journalists create a new agora to hold those in power accountable and make sure that the data that matters is put to use to make politics more transparent, and develop better policies.

Next year, the Open Data Day needs to happen with journalists.

Illustration by Tactical Tech