When Passion and Technology Meet


Their Invention Identifies Disinformation

Image

“I’m excited about them stepping up and applying public pressure” on the tech companies, said Raffi Krikorian, the committee’s chief technology officer. “We frankly think the administration and Congress are not doing enough, so we’re filling in this gap.”

Mr. Bhat and Mr. Phadte left school this spring to work with the committee and are seeking funding for their start-up. They’re on a deadline to develop their next product, which will be a tool that tests whether news has been altered as it gets passed around the web, warding against doctored photos and altered videos. They hope to market the tool to news media companies and political candidates this summer, in time for the run-up to the midterms.


Dealing With Crises in a Text-Savvy Generation

When Nancy Lublin started Crisis Text Line in 2013, she thought of her New York City nonprofit as a tech start-up — and not simply because they text to counsel people in distress. Ms. Lublin wanted to use analytics to be smarter at it.

“I’d consider myself a tech C.E.O.,” she said. “The first thing I ask is, ‘What does the data say?’”

Five years after the site began, 4,000 volunteer counselors across the country — the site is always recruiting more — can work on their computers wherever there is internet. The nonprofit said it handled nearly a million chats last year, mostly with people under 25 who would rather text than talk about their problems.

The platform the volunteers log into is honed with a machine learning algorithm, which has analyzed past chats for actionable information. For example, the system automatically moves distressed people who write words like “gun,” “military,” “fentanyl,” or a crying emoji to the front of the line, colored orange. Data shows those are the most likely indicators that the person will need an active rescue from 911, and counselors start chats with them first, responding within an average of 38 seconds.

The chats are also creating a trove of information on distress nationwide. The highest per capita texts come from Montana; Midwesterners report the most bullying; the coasts are the most stressed; and people in the South most often mention L.G.B.T.Q. issues. (You can track the state-level data in real time at crisistrends.org.) The organization’s tech team is currently working on software to make the counselors even faster: For example, suggesting they answer with “you’re strong” to people who say they are overwhelmed.

The data also helps people on the ground who are fighting crises. In 2016, Ohio started a state-specific keyword with the Crisis Text Line — 4HOPE — and advertised it in schools. The nonprofit’s data crunchers noticed that use of the keyword fell in the summer. Their Ohio partners were alerted and placed advertising in movie theaters. The texts surged once more.


From Soup to Brooms, Changing the World

Eileen Richardson

Chief executive of Downtown Streets Team, streetsteam.org

In 2005, Eileen Richardson started volunteering at a soup kitchen in Silicon Valley. She was chief executive of the music-file sharing platform Napster during the first tech boom, and she brought the same rigor to her volunteer position. She figured — in retrospect, with an embarrassing amount of hubris — that she could solve homelessness in six months and move on to her next project.

“That’s how tech people are,” she said. Instead, “Here I am all these years later. We’re onto something.”

Her solution is the Downtown Streets Team. Each weekday morning in nine California cities, team members sweep the streets for a four-hour shift. Led by other team members who have been promoted to managers, the daily shift teaches job skills and accountability, and boosts the team members’ self-esteem.

“You go from being a bad guy to now one of the great guys,” Ms. Richardson said of the members. “The chief of police and mayor are patting your back, and people are slipping you 20 bucks here and there.” The brigade of sweepers in yellow T-shirts acts as its own recruitment device: Other homeless people notice and ask to join.

In exchange for sweeping, team members receive stipends — gift cards for groceries, vouchers for housing, bus passes and prescription refills. They set goals with a case manager for housing and employment, and attend weekly team meetings that take on a nearly ecclesiastical fervor as everyone cheers each other’s successes. “This is not a program,” Ms. Richardson said. “It’s a team. They start seeing other people doing great and are like, ‘I want to get a car or housing, so it’s self motivating.’”

Thirteen years after Ms. Richardson’s experiment — with California in a housing crisis and a homeless epidemic — team members average four months to get housing and six months until they get a job. In a recent survey, 96 percent said they had more hope, 84 percent had health insurance and 73 percent said they were using less drugs and alcohol. Ms. Richardson is now looking to scale up with an affiliate program nationwide.


Crunching Numbers to Help People in India

In 2016, India’s federal government enlisted their help to get propane tanks to women living in villages who had been using smoke-billowing indoor fires to cook. The government wanted to install gas cylinders in 50 million homes in three years and have public oil companies open thousands more centers nearby to sell them refills.

SocialCops went to work, asking 17,000 oil distributors to submit their GPS coordinates using the company’s app. They then incorporated data like populations, affluence and distance from existing sales centers, and made all the information easy to analyze to pinpoint the best locations for new centers and track the rollout of the connections in homes. The company said the effort hooked up about 22 million homes in its first year, seven million more than the goal.


Delivering Messages to Aid Farmers in Ghana

In 2013, he started Farmerline with his co-founder, Emmanuel Owusu Addai, which is based in Ghana and has grown into a company of 32 employees. Farmers nearly universally own basic cellphones, so Farmerline delivers them prerecorded voice messages in their local language with localized weather forecasts and market prices for crops. (“It’s like a podcast on a ‘dumb phone,’” Mr. Attah wrote in an email.)

The messages also share farming tips — like how to get certified as fair trade farmers, or increase crop yields by, say, pruning cacao trees to increase the growth of pods, or how to meet the crop specifications for export markets.

Farmerline uses machine learning to predict the local demand for farming supplies like fertilizer and equipment to then negotiate better prices for good quality goods from distributors. They also are using artificial intelligence to create a credit score, so farmers can take out loans to grow their business.

Over all, it puts farmers “in a position of power,” Mr. Attah said. “They move from a position of let me take what everybody gives me, to let me choose because I have options now. You and I have that.”


How We Picked Our Visionaries

People love lists.

We want to check out the best places to travel, catch up with the best inventions of the last 100 years, be in the know about the best-dressed people, the best books, the best schools. And on and on.

Of course, there is a risk to listmaking. Maybe your choices won’t hold up over the years. Maybe the best book of decades ago seems not so great today.

With the listmaking fervor and its risks in mind, we searched for people who would fit our criteria for visionaries. They had to be people who are forward-looking, working on exciting projects, helping others or taking a new direction. We wanted diversity in gender, race and ethnic background.

We assigned writers who are knowledgeable about the subjects we deemed most important. And we limited the list to 30.

Narrowing down the numbers was a huge challenge. And that’s a good problem to have. It means there are a lot of people out there who are following their visions.

We hope this inspires you to follow yours.

Why One Woman Testified Against Bill Cosby: ‘I Had the Strength’


Then, this month, she appeared in a Pennsylvania courtroom. Sitting on her hands because they were shaking so much, she became one of the few of Mr. Cosby’s dozens of accusers to face him again, helping secure his felony convictions on Thursday for sexually assaulting a former Temple University employee.

“I realized I had the strength to look in the face of somebody who would commit a crime like this,” Ms. Lublin, 51, said in a phone interview from her Las Vegas home. “I knew I was strong enough to say, ‘You won’t whip me, you won’t hold me down, and you won’t shut me up.’”

That the jury convicted Mr. Cosby on retrial, after a hung jury last summer, might be attributed in part to the new cultural awareness born out of the #MeToo movement. But in his remarks after the verdict, the Montgomery County district attorney, Kevin R. Steele, praised the witnesses for their courage, saying they were crucial to the case. He also called each of them separately to convey his gratitude, and, choking up, told Ms. Lublin that, because she and the other witnesses had stepped up, they were able to win the case.

Photo

Ms. Lublin with her husband, Benjamin, during a break in her testimony on April 12.

Credit
Mark Makela/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In 1989, Ms. Lublin was 23, living in Las Vegas, her hometown, and modeling to help pay for college when she was summoned by her agency to meet Mr. Cosby. Guessing he had seen her portfolio pictures, she went.

On their second meeting, she said, he invited her to his suite at the Las Vegas Hilton, because he wanted her to practice improvising, even though she wasn’t an actor. He gave her alcohol to relax, she said, and soon afterward she felt woozy and sick, like she might topple.

Mr. Cosby beckoned her over, she said, pulled her down between his legs, so that her back was against his groin, and began stroking her hair. Ms. Lublin remembers wondering why he was doing that, and that she couldn’t understand a word he was saying. She has a few fractured memories of being guided by him down a hallway of the suite, and then nothing, until she woke up at home in her bed.

Ms. Lublin was mortified, but not, at the time, because of anything Mr. Cosby might have done. “I looked at it as ‘Oh my god, Lisa, you got sick from alcohol; you don’t even remember how you got home,’” she said.

When Mr. Cosby reached out to her again, and even forged a friendship with her mother, she felt reassured: Maybe her blackout behavior hadn’t been that bad. Ms. Lublin said she and Mr. Cosby met several times after that — though never alone — and that at his urging, she began running at a track as he looked on.

When bystanders asked what Mr. Cosby was doing there, Ms. Lublin said he replied, “I’m out here with my daughter, Lisa.” (Lisa is the name she goes by.) Eventually they fell out of touch.

After Ms. Dickinson went public with her story late in 2014, Ms. Lublin began reconsidering what really happened at the hotel that night.

“I started to kind of accept that, yeah, something has happened to you,” she said. Her mother, outraged at feeling hoodwinked herself, began calling television shows, and Ms. Lublin found herself on “Dr. Phil,” publicly recounting her story for the first time.

It took her six weeks to muster the courage to file a police report, but when she did, a detective told her there was nothing they could do; too much time had passed.

Ms. Lublin felt like she had been punched, but then rebounded. “I’m a fighter,” she said. In 2015, she successfully urged Nevada legislators to extended the statute of limitations for bringing forward rape charges to 20 years from four years, though the change does not apply retroactively.

Ms. Lublin said she never hid what was going on from her children, a daughter who is now 11 and a son, now 13, or from her sixth-grade students, who sometimes came up after class, asking if was it her they had seen on TV. “Yes,” she said she replied, “And I’m working to change laws to protect you.”

When vicious online comments about her — detractors called her a “liar” and a “whore” — inevitably surfaced, one student wrote back, “Ms. Lublin’s my teacher, and she’s a wonderful person.”

In 2017, as prosecutors were preparing to try Mr. Cosby on charges of sexually assaulting Andrea Constand, the former Temple employee, detectives contacted Ms. Lublin and told her she might be called as testify as a “prior bad acts” witness who could help prove a pattern of criminal behavior by Mr. Cosby.

“One of the reasons the district attorneys picked Lisa was when they heard her talking about him petting her hair,” her husband, Benjamin Lublin, said. “That was a marker for them.”

She wasn’t called for Mr. Cosby’s first trial. Then, in mid-March, just before the Lublins left for a spring break cruise to Mexico, the confirmation came. Ms. Lublin was going to be one of five women called to bolster Ms. Constand’s testimony. The district attorney’s office flew her and her husband to Philadelphia on a red-eye flight April 9.

A few days later, a detective picked them up from their hotel and drove them to the courthouse. They were deposited in a witness room, where they played with Turks, the russet Labrador therapy dog the prosecutors had brought in to soothe people’s nerves.

To further loosen things up, Mr. Lublin set up his Bluetooth speakers, began playing his favorite country singer, Jon Pardi, and pulled out a favorite card game, Sequence.

Early in the afternoon, a court officer came and escorted Ms. Lublin, her husband by her side, to a courtroom door near the jury box. Ms. Dickinson, who had just testified, emerged from the door. The pair embraced, and then Ms. Lublin stepped in.

“Just get safely to the podium, and don’t trip,” she told herself. The witness stand seat surprised her — it was like a bar stool with a back. She sat down, and began slowly scanning the courtroom. “Take this in,” she said to herself.

She spotted Gloria Allred, the lawyer who had handled some of Ms. Lublin’s publicity and represented many of Mr. Cosby’s accusers, including some in the courtroom, women Ms. Lublin had become close with over the years. She avoided meeting their eyes. “Locking eyes would expose my vulnerabilities, and I’d either cry or laugh,” she said.

She wanted to come across as calm and poised, and sat tall. Only after that did she see Mr. Cosby, far off to her left, in the corner, not looking her way. “He looked pitiful,” she said.

The only person she felt slightly intimidated by, she said, was Mr. Steele, the district attorney. “He’s got eyes of steel too,” she said.

She suddenly got the chills, and felt herself quaking, so she shoved her hands under her thighs. “The shaking was uncontrollable,” she said, “but my mind was clear.”

A prosecutor, Kristen Gibbons Feden, questioned her for an hour, and then turned it over to one of Mr. Cosby’s lawyers, Kathleen Bliss. Ms. Lublin had girded herself for a grilling, but compared with Ms. Bliss’s questioning of Ms. Dickinson, whom she would later call a “failed starlet,” Ms. Lublin said her own cross-examination felt almost toothless.

She said Ms. Bliss pressed for inconsistencies in Ms. Lublin’s old statements about changing Nevada’s statues and about meeting with Ms. Allred. Ms. Lublin found herself bickering with Ms. Bliss, getting snippy and worn down, but she never wavered. “The story doesn’t change when you tell the truth,” she said in the interview last week.

Ms. Lublin was back in her classroom of 25 sixth graders on Thursday when her husband called with news of the verdict. Hours later, at home, she still found herself stunned, and pacing. “At some point,” she said, “I just gotta let myself feel.”

Continue reading the main story