Tag Archives: organizations

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They built a $20k house–now they want to fix the housing system

When architecture students at Auburn University’s Rural Studio first started working on the 20K initiative in 2005, they had a straightforward–if ambitious–goal: to design a high-quality house for people living in rural Alabama that would provide local construction jobs and cost no more than $20,000 to build.

More than a decade later, after successive classes of students have relentlessly improved the design of the physical house, finding innovative construction techniques, for example, the project has changed course. “What we’ve learned, over the almost decade and a half that we’ve been working on this little project, is that the issues around housing affordability are not brick and mortar problems,” says Rusty Smith, associate director of Rural Studio.

[Photo: Timothy Hursley/courtesy Auburn University]

Instead, making a single-family home affordable is a classic wicked problem, with tentacles that reach into all aspects of the economy. The team found issues with credit and credit education. There were issues in the mortgage market. There were problems with permitting and zoning, and the process of hiring and using a contractor. There were also all of the secondary costs that come after purchasing a house, from insurance costs and maintenance to energy use.

“There’s this huge network of parts that are not particularly integrated with each other,” says Smith. “They’re all in the domains of different areas of interest and expertise, and none of them kind of connect together. That disconnection is one of the many ways that really contributes to the complexity of what homeownership costs.”

Architecture students continue to work on perfecting a design for the house that has the highest possible performance–using materials ultra-efficiently, for example, and making the house stronger than the building code requires–at the lowest possible cost. But that cost will almost certainly exceed $20,000; the first house allotted for $12,000 for materials and $8,000 for construction, but the original materials used would now cost more than $25,000 and continue to rise because of economic factors. “As a point of reference, with a single tweet [from President Trump] about trade wars, the average cost of the material of the house in the United States went up six percent,” says Smith.

[Photo: AU Rural Studio]

But as the architectural work continues, the program has now partnered with a set of other organizations to “take a holistic approach to tackle the systemic issues that face housing affordability in the country,” he says. Fannie Mae, the government-backed mortgage lender, is now collaborating with the program as a way to help address the nationwide shortage of affordable housing. (Under its “Duty to Serve” plan, Fannie Mae needs to increase mortgage capacity in underserved areas–and it realized that it needs to increase the supply of affordable housing to do that.) The 20K Initiative is also talking with banks that offer home loans, the USDA, which provides housing assistance in rural America, nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity, a home insurance organization, the Department of Energy, and others.

[Photo: Timothy Hursley/courtesy Auburn University]

Connecting each of these players can lead to more affordable housing, Smith believes. If the house is efficient enough to save someone $25 a month on energy bills, for example, and the bank offering a home loan knew that, it could bring a house within reach of someone living in poverty. “In a conventional mortgage product, for every dollar you can increase your monthly mortgage payment, you can buy about $200 of additional construction that you otherwise couldn’t afford,” says Smith. “So suddenly that $25 that doesn’t seem like much just became $5,000 of added construction cost that you can finance at no additional cost to you . . . The problem is, is that the primary lender has no way to know that.” By connecting various organizations involved in housing, these types of savings can emerge.

The partners will spend the next three years piloting new programs that can drive the cost of housing down, and some of the partners–from Habitat for Humanity and other nonprofits to contractors who want to sell the houses–will work on bringing them to market. “That third year the goal is to be able to sort of turn it loose to whoever wants it and whoever needs it and whoever can afford it,” he says. Notably, Rural Studio said in 2016 that it hoped to provide the plans for the houses as soon as possible, for free. But it now believes that it needs to provide a fuller set of solutions beyond just a blueprint to create a truly affordable home.

[Photo: AU Rural Studio]

Rural Studio will continue to focus on housing for the rural poor in Alabama and a stretch of “persistently impoverished counties” in nearby states, where at least 20% of the population has been living in poverty for 30 years or more. But the program is also beginning to talk with others across the country who want to use the houses in other ways–for example, as accessory dwelling units, or granny flats, in urban backyards, or as tiny houses in tiny house villages. The house may change design by region or application, but Smith believes that the other services that are developed, by linking partners together, could be used nationally.

“We think about middle-class Americans having problems living in the Bay Area or in Seattle or Portland or New York or Chicago or Miami, but it is a Boise, Idaho problem,” he says. “It’s an everywhere in America problem. The fact that teachers and firefighters and police officers–all the people that work in your community and that you want to live in your community–can’t afford to. They all live an hour or more away. There’s this larger workforce housing problem, and if we can actually develop this sort of systemic approach to tackling affordability, it’s not just targeted at the poorest of the poor, in our minds, it will be this fantastic sort of trickle-up kind of project. It could change affordability for all of us.”

consumer products • Re: ARE ALL TV REMOTE CONTROLS BAD?

The core problem is cost vs perceived value. Having run up that hill many times. I worked on 4 remotes I’ve been proud of and many many more that have been brand slapped “credit card remotes”.

When I’ve been successful at convincing organizations to do something with integrity has been when I’ve made a clear case around these 3 points:

1) improved UX leading to higher amazon reviews, critical reviews, and other peer reviews (increased NPS)
2) improved industrial design leading to remote being left out (not hidden) and not replaced (not integrated into a third party universal remote)
3) increased cost being negligible if tooling can be amortized across portfolio (IE use the same remote for everything, takes a lot of feature planning)

The design principles I’ve used to evaluate the designs themselves are:

1) feature prioritization (making most frequently used features most dominant)
2) tactile navigation for high priority features (feel your way to key features without looking)
3) recognizing remote is the only physical touchpoint for the product so adding both visual and physical mass in a sculptural way

From there you can start concepting, evaluating, user testing, and refining and minimize the whiny complaining and personal bias


San Fran ballot initiative would tax big business to fight homelessness

To give a sense of how expensive San Francisco is, the official “low income” level is $117,400 per year for a four-person household in the combined city-and-county (as well as in adjacent Marin and San Mateo counties).

That’s OK for some residents: The average income for Bay Area tech workers (many of whom are single) is $142,000. But the inequality is extreme. San Francisco had 7,499 homeless people as of a biennial census taken last year, and most of them had homes in the city previously. Now a new ballot initiative would move a small fraction of income from the wealthiest to fund services designed to alleviate and, ideally, eliminate homelessness.

The initiative, Our City, Our Home, qualified this week for the November ballot with a whopping 28,000 signatures–well above the required 9,485. If it passes, it will impose a 0.5 percent tax on all companies (or individuals) earning more than $50 million per year.

That translates to about $300 million to fund a variety of services, including low-income housing, rent subsidies for tenants facing eviction, and mental health services. It would fund public bathrooms and sanitation centers in a city that often reeks of human waste.

“We need to undo a lot of the damage that’s been done with tech not being taxed for the right amount,” says Kevin Ortiz of the San Francisco Latino Democratic Club, one of the organizations supporting the ballot measure. The city has seen an influx of superrich tech companies. Salesforce (site of a recent protest where I met Ortiz), for instance, reported revenue of $8.4 billion for the past year.

The money isn’t just in tech, though. Salesforce ranks just 285 on the 2018 Fortune 500 list. Pharmaceutical distributor McKesson, the top San Francisco company (at number 6), pulled in more than $198 billion last year.

How Slack’s search finally got good

For years, organizations have been pouring essential knowledge into Slack. Getting it back out again wasn’t all that easy—until now.

Five years ago, Slack was an unknown business collaboration upstart available only in a private beta test. Already, though, cofounder/CEO Stewart Butterfield was pitching the messaging service as a powerful collective memory for the businesses that would adopt it. He waxed eloquent about “the entire corpus of organizational knowledge” contained in conversations among coworkers and declared Slack to be “built around search.”

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Codesign with Youth in Argentina – Faro Digital

How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety. Quick facts Who: Ezequiel Passeron from Faro Digital What: Workshops, talks and campaigns Mission/vision: To promote, through co-design, the responsible use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for a more just society […]

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Youth and privacy research in Chile: Derechos Digitales

How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety. Quick facts Who: Patricio Velasco from Derechos Digitales What: Litigation, campaigning, research Mission/vision: To defend, promote and develop human rights online, through advocacy in public policy and private practices, for a more […]

Youth-friendly data protection in Mexico: Articulo 12, A.C.

How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety. Quick facts Who: Cédric Laurant from Artículo 12, A.C. What: Litigation, advocacy, materials for youth Mission/vision: To defend Mexican users’ privacy on and offline through litigation Where: Mexico Since: 2013 (but the […]

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Youth and Gender Lens in Countersurveillance Work in Paraguay: TEDIC

How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety. Quick facts Who: Eduardo Carrillo from TEDIC What: Web development, campaigns, workshops, research Mission/vision: To promote the respect of digital rights and free/open culture Where: Paraguay Since: 2012 Years of operation (as […]

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A tabletop game on privacy in Costa Rica: Sula Batsu

How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety. Quick facts Who: Vivian Zúñiga from Sulá Batsú What: Litigation, campaigning, research Mission/vision: To promote local development through solidary social economic practices in different fields, including information and communication technologies Where: Costa […]

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Empowerment for youth-friendly privacy law enforcement: Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Canada

Youth and privacy in the Americas: Office of the Privacy Commissioner, Canada ————————- How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety. ————————- Quick facts Who: Kasia Krzymien and Anne-Marie Cenaiko, Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada What: Investigation of data privacy […]