“Hey, I’ll give you my t-shirt if you give me some of your radioactive chemicals…”

I will write a reflective post about my life soon. Really, I promise. Until then it’s just a glimpse into some of the tools that help me make sense of the world.

  1. The OEC: Whenever I start learning about a country, I stop by the MIT Media Lab’s Observatory of Economic Complexity. It’s a fantastic tool, and the recent redesign makes it more useful than ever- especially the country profile pages. Yesterday I found out that Malawi does most of its trade with Canada. (click for interactive):Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.01.29 AM
    Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.02.54 AM

    I can just imagine the conversation: “Hey, I’ll give you my t-shirt if you give me some of your radioactive chemicals…”

    Looking at trade gives a fascinating window into a country’s economy. Having a complex economy (lots of colours) is good because it promotes stability and growth. You don’t have all your eggs in one basket. This happens in three dimensions:

    First, you want to export complex goods, like cars and computers (Japan), not tobacco and tea (Malawi). In resource rich countries, that means exporting tables and plastics instead of timber and petroleum.
    Second, you want a complex mix of goods (China), instead of relying on a single product (Saudi).
    Finally, you want to export to complex mix of countries (Not like Mexico), so that if one stops buying, you aren’t left without a market.
    The OEC makes learning all this easy. If you want to get an idea of where a country fits in the global order. I couldn’t recommend a better tool.

  2. The True Size: Malawi is a small country, Africa is a big continent. But how big? The True Size lets you overlay countries on top of a world map. It’s fantastic just for playing around, and also for finding out that Greenland is disappointingly small.Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 9.10.07 AM



  1. Gapminder: Hans Rosling is the godfather of making statistics interesting. Wondering about the relationship between cellphones and economic growth? Education and employment? Gapminder World gives you access to an incredible amount of information that is fairly easy to play around with.Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 10.36.35 AM.png
  2. US States GDP if they were Countries. Not actually a tool, just an interesting endnote. Canada’s economy is the same as Texas’, Arkansas and Angola are also comparable.
    Conclusion: the US economy is overwhelmingly large.

I don’t like UNICEF

Does that make me a horrible person? Only as horrible as UNICEF is:


UNICEF, the largest distributor of vaccines in the world, is sending a pretty clear message: liking isn’t helping. A friend recently posted a brilliant letter that examining a similar campaign by Crisis Relief Singapore. I think the ads are clever in the way that they recognize the limits of supporting causes on social media.

Even better, I can feel superior when I see that person on Facebook who invites me to like 3 new pages a week. I can shake my head and smugly say “Liking isn’t helping” as I click refuse.

But this is development. It’s never that simple.

Every Monday morning this term I’ve had a three hour marketing class. The sessions are engaging and varied, but the class has consisted of a long, slow, painful admission on my part that social media can indeed be an effective medium for communicating development. You see, for the last three years, university education has been yelling:

“Get off Facebook, it isn’t worth your time! The best way to communicate complex ideas is through long papers.”

The ability to write a thoughtful analysis in 5 pages is valued more than the knack for fitting similar thoughts into 140 characters. I wouldn’t dare put “using Facebook” as a skill on my resume.

And yet, if I want to communicate what I am passionate about in a way that engages my network and garners significant support, I am better off sharing a youtube video than writing a policy brief.

This hit home for me two years ago when I got involved with something called “Conflict Free Campus Initiative”, a student group which aimed to pressure the University not to buy electronics which had been sources in conflict zones of central Africa. We had some success, but the interest hasn’t been sustained.
Part of this was because of me; every time I talked about the issue, I would drag people through 300 years of Congolese history and 250,000 miles of electronics supply chains. 
I delved so deeply into the issue that when I told people about it, I overwhelmed instead of engaged them.

The lesson here was summarized neatly by one of my professors this term. She said:

A map is only useful because it simplifies. A map that perfectly represented it’s object would be as big as the territory itself. It would be perfectly useless”

Rather than an unwieldy roadmap, social media is a signpost. Social media marketing prompts a step in the right direction, engaging the audience in their first interaction with a message. Marketers talk about “The Rule of Seven”, which posits that a prospect needs to see your message at least seven times before they take action. Liking an organization can facilitate those first views.

Eventually, people will want to see more of the map: to donate for vaccinations or understand the complexities of African extractive industry. Until then, I will put up signposts.