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“Google employees get to take 20% of their time to do their own thing,” is a phrase that is often repeated and praised in the circles where I run. I have to agree that it’s a fantastic idea — I’m a big fan of side projects.

Chade-Meng Tan works for Google, and he took his 20% time to work on the idea of bringing ‘mindfulness’ into the workplace. (His long-term goal is the loftier one of world peace–but more about that later.)

Meng’s idea turned into a course for Google employees called “Search Inside Yourself” (pun intended). It was a kind of meditation course for geeks and engineers. His book (by the same title) walks readers through the course, going from very very simple ‘learning how to meditate’ to (my favorite) ‘mindful emailing’ and onto his idea that if we each start by developing peace and happiness within ourselves, we will develop compassion, and if everyone is happy, at peace, and compassionate, we can create the foundation for world peace.

I was skeptical about reading Search Inside Yourself because I’m not big on self-help books or reading about hot business management trends or which ‘7 Habits’ will transform my life. I’m also not super touchy-feely. I did enjoy the book, however. It was a pleasant and easy read, and I’m guessing it rolls the key points of most of those other self-help books into one. (Though I could be mistaken, since I haven’t read any of them!)

Search Inside Yourself is meditation and mindfulness merged with emotional intelligence and research on how the brain works applied to the workplace, relationships and life in general. Throughout the book are quotes and conversations with renowned Buddhists such as Matthieu Ricard, (noted for being ‘the happiest man in the world’), the Dalai LamaRichard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn (pioneers in the field of contemplative neuroscience), Norman Fischer and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

Meng starts us off with very accessible exercises to learn to meditate. (Chapter 1 is titled ‘Even an Engineer Can Thrive on Emotional Intelligence’) Starting with 2 minutes a day, he says, you can get going. (I tried, and even I was actually able to slow myself down for 2 minutes). He moves on to ‘mindful activity,’ and ‘other-directed mindfulness,’ and  ‘mindful conversation’ exercises that help develop non-judgmental listening, empathy and compassion.

Next, he walks us through moving from emotional self-awareness to accurate self-assessment to self-confidence, focusing quite a bit on the concept of ego. Following this, Meng covers ‘self mastery,’ managing pain and stress, and dealing with distress and managing emotions. One quote I particularly liked was by Thich Nhat Hanh:  ‘wilting flowers do not cause suffering; it is the unrealistic desire that flowers not wilt that causes suffering.’ There is a nice section on dealing with emotional triggers and managing negative emotions with calm.

Meng backs up his ideas with neuroscience and behavioral theories, including those of Tony Hsieh who started Zappos Shoes and Daniel Pink who emphasizes that the best way to find motivation at work is to spend most of our time and energy working towards higher purpose rather than short-term pleasure chasing. ‘If we know what we value most and what is most meaningful to us, then we know what we can work on that serves our higher purpose. When that happens, our work can become a source of sustainable happiness for us,’ writes Meng.

I found the parts of the book that talk about empathy to be quite applicable to the work that aid and development agencies (and non-profits in general) do, especially in terms of results, accountability and effectiveness and how development agencies interact with staff and partners at all levels, internally and externally. People often imagine that at non-profits, everyone is there for a good cause, therefore everyone is nice and there are no nasty internal politics or bad management issues or unpleasant interactions with ‘beneficiaries’ and participants or staff. I promise you this is not true – non-profits need to work on this every bit as much as for-profits — and maybe even more since there are usually less resources to go around or to invest in management and staff training in these areas.

One section I really liked was where Meng refers to Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of  a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. The only way to change this, says Meng, is starting off with sincerity, kindness and openness and with 3 assumptions: that everybody in the room is there to serve the greater good until proven otherwise; that no one has any hidden agenda unless proven otherwise; and that we are all reasonable, even when we disagree, until proven otherwise. Also helpful, he says, is ’empathetic listening’ and ‘political awareness,’ eg., the ability to read an organization’s emotional currents and power relationships.

Meng talks about compassionate leadership and offers advice on turning foes into friends and on dealing with difficult conversations and situations, based on David Rock’s SCARF model for the social brain which describes how status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness are major drivers of social behavior. This is where we get our tips on ‘mindful emailing.’

The book closes out with an explanation of how Meng would like to see meditation and mindfulness enter the public sphere in the same way that exercise has. Eg., one day everyone will know that meditation is good for them, anyone will be able to learn how to do it, companies will understand that it is good for business, and meditation will be taken granted: eg, ‘Of course you should mediate…. duh.’

Search Inside Yourself is great example of what can be created when employees have time to think and work on those side projects that add meaning to their lives and value to the greater good. I enjoyed seeing where I’m already being mindful, empathetic and compassionate, analyzing where I could improve, and having some clear and concise instructions on how to get started working on areas that need more effort. Meng has taken an excellent step towards his dream of making these concepts accessible to everyone.

*****

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending over the complimentary copy of Search Inside Yourself for review!

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This is the ‘after-lunch’ part of my last blog about the cool geo-visualization tools I had the chance to learn about at the Google Partnership Exploration Workshop.  (See the Before Lunch portion here for some background).

The first things we saw after lunch were Google 3-D and Google Sketch-Up.  With Google Sketch-Up can make whole 3-D cities and lay them on top of Google Maps.  Sketch up comes in 14 languages and works off-line.  Aidan from Google has used it with autistic kids and made this cool video about it to get you started.  My first thought with this was how cool would it be to use something like this when we’re working with kids or communities to design infrastructure projects.

Next after Sketch-up we went through a whole gamut of Google Map applications:  My Maps, KML, Maps API, Map Maker and Google Earth.  It was so hard to keep all of them straight with their different features that we needed a chart (see below) to keep them straight.  I am a huge fan of maps, but I mostly work with communities using hand-drawn, participatory risk/resource maps.  I’d love to see all these community maps from around the world somehow uploaded and shared.

Anyway, there are at least a million (I am not even exaggerating) things that you can do with these maps alone, together, in conjunction with data and spreadsheets, mashing them up with photos, videos and all kinds of things.  For some of this you need to be a developer/coder, but for a lot of it you could figure it out yourself and just get on with it.

Map Maker for instance is a way to crowd source map making in places that are not mapped out yet.  (I’m really interested in this one).  174 countries so far are making their own maps here. There is a system for trusted users and verification to ensure the maps are correct.  The entire data set for Africa is fully available for download by non-profits, government agencies and individuals to create and enhance their own non-commercial map-related projects.

After the amazing mapping presentations, Ed from Google led a discussion on what they could do to support the needs and work of the agencies that were present.  He started by saying that the impact of today’s GIS stuff could be as big as the printing press in mapping terms. “What we do today used to be very very difficult…. The creation of enthusiastic communities that want to work together to achieve a goal they share has only recently been possible”

So Google asked us:  How can we help you make the most of this new world that we live in? How can our infrastructure be accessible to you so it works for what you want to do?

The responses included requests for:

  • Integrating mobiles and off-line use for those who don’t have electricity or internet
  • Getting layers of information onto maps that can be used by partners who don’t really have impetus to share information; keeping semi-private information so you won’t embarrass governments with it but it can still be shared with some to be useful.
  • Use the Flu Trends model to predict/track disaster trends
  • Improved Google Earth editing tools
  • Feature to add icons in bulk to maps
  • Bring up the concept and need for crowd sourcing and social media usage at the next higher ups emergency management meeting — many at the top levels don’t understand this, we need to lobby
  • List of developers who can help us to do some of this
  • Importance of crowd feeding as well as crowd sourcing — that information needs to get back out to people for local ownership, verification and management

Following that brainstorm, I did my own short presentation on how Plan is using mapping with community youth and media, and how some program offices have been using GPS and GIS to create local maps on which to base their program decisions.

We learned about Google Latitude, where you can track people (who allow you to) by the GPS on their phones.  And then we saw a short presentation on the GeoCam Disaster Response Toolkit which is being developed by Google and NASA. GeoCam is a mobile phone application that lets you take a photo, annotate the image, select an icon to go with the photo and save.  Upon saving, the data goes into a cue and uploads. It goes to a central server which has a maps like interface which shows where the photo was taken and from which direction.  This looked like another cool mobile data gathering option that could be used in disasters — it’s been tested during some of the recent California wildfires.

And on that note – Day 1 was over.  Day 2 was equally as educational. As my co-worker and I got schooled on coding for dummies, some of our more advanced colleagues were uploading data sets that would help them make real-world decisions when the returned to their offices on Monday.

Yes, I saw the future of geo-visualization!


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Last week some 40 people from more than 20 different organizations with national and global humanitarian and relief missions attended a Google Partnership Exploration Workshop in Washington, DC, to share information in an interactive setting and explore how the organizations and Google geo & data visualization technologies can further each others’ missions.

Lucky me – I got to go on behalf of Plan.  Much of the meeting centered on how Google’s tools could help in disasters and emergencies, and what non-profits would like to be able to do with those tools, and how Google could help.

The meeting opened up with a representative of FEMA talking about the generally slow and government centered response of FEMA, and how that needed to turn into a quick, user generated information network that could provide real information in real time so that FEMA could offer a real, people centered response.  I loved hearing someone from government saying things like “we need to look at the public as a resource, not a liability.” The conclusion was that in a disaster/emergency you just need enough information to help you make a better decision.  The public is one of the best sources for that information, but government has tended to ignore it  because it’s not “official.”  Consider: a 911 caller is not a certified caller with a background check and training on how to report, but that’s the background of our 911 emergency system. Why can’t it be the same in a disaster?

We also heard about the World Bank’s ECAPRA project for disaster preparedness in Central America.  This project looks at probabilistic risk assessment, using geo-information to predict and assess where damage is likely.  The main points from the WB colleagues were that for SDI (Spatial Data Infrastructure) we need policies, requirements, and mandates, yes, but this is not sufficient – top down is not enough.  We also need software that enables a bottom up approach, aligned incentives that can drive us to open source agenda.  But not just open source code software, we’re talking mass collaboration – and that would change everything.  So then the challenge is how we help civil societies and govts to share and deliver data that enables decision making?  How do we support data collection from the top down and from the bottom up?  The WB is working with developers on some collaborative data collection mobile applications that allow people to easily collect information. In this system, different institutes still own the data but others can update and add to it. WB hopes to embed this within Central American national disaster planning systems, and to train and support the national systems to use these tools.  They will be free to use the elements that most link with the local situations in each country.  Each country is developing these open source applications themselves, and can choose the tools that work best for them.

Google stepped in then to share some Google Visualizations — Google Fusion TablesVisualization API, Chart API and Motion Charts (Gapminder).  With these applications, different sources can share data, or share some data and keep other data private.  You can compare data from different sources.  For example, there is a chart currently residing in Google Fusion Tables that pulls GDP data from the CIA Fact Book, the World Bank and the IMF, and allows you to compare data across countries from different sources.  You can then use that data to create your own data visualizations, including maps, tables, charts, and the fabulous Gap Minder/motion visualization charts (first made popular at TED by Hans Rosling). These can all be easily transferred to your own webpage.  If you have public data that deserves to be treated separately you can become a Google trusted source. (Click on the “information for publishers” link to see how to get your data made public) For a quick tutorial on how to make your own cool Gap Minder chart check out this link.  *Note Gapminder is not owned by Google. Gapminder is a foundation of its own, totally independent from Google. Google bought the software [Trendalyzer] to improve the technology further.

Next up was the American Red Cross who shared some of the challenges that they face and how they use geo-spatial and information mapping to overcome them.  Red Cross has a whole mobile data gathering system set up and works via volunteers during disasters to collect information.  They also have over 30 years of disaster data that they can use to analyze trends.  The ARC wants to do more with mapping and visualizations so that they can see what is happening right away, using maps, charts and analyzing trends.  What does the ARC want to see from Google?  A disaster dashboard – eg using Google Wave?  Inventory tracking and mapping capability.  Data mining and research capabilities such as with Fusion tables.  They want people to be able to go to the ARC and see not what the Red Cross is, but what the Red Cross does.  To use the site for up to date information that will help people manage during disasters and emergencies.

Wow, and this was all before lunch!

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Related posts:
I saw the future of geovisualization… after lunch
Is this map better than that map?
Ushahidi in Haiti:  what’s needed now

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