Assessing the Public-Private Partnership Drought in Lithuania

Student Reporter - Wed, 04/23/2014 - 18:13

In 2007, the Lithuanian government repeated history by failing to complete efforts to restart a stadium project that was first abandoned 20 years before. The estimated cost at the time: $120 million (U.S.). But after spending only $40 million of the budget, the government said it had run out of money. Everything suddenly went silent in and around the stadium in Vilnius; overgrown grass, trees and bushes quickly overtook the place. As expected, no one assumed responsibility for the renewed mess.

There’s a lesson in all of this. Governments may be willing to take on risk, but sometimes a project proves too difficult for them to complete on their own. A private company, by contrast, wouldn’t allow itself to do such a thing, because it would be blamed for cheating people out of money. In general, a private company is better at estimating risks: If the project is not worth doing, it isn’t done. “We already know how to manage construction risks, but it is better to give it to experts,” says Aleksandras Abišala, a former prime minister of Lithuania and now the director of a private consulting company, referring to private companies as those experts.

In other words, governments (or businesses) should do what they are best at. “Government is not very good at building roads, but private companies are,” says Tim Pearse, a senior policy adviser at the British government’s Cabinet Office, echoing Abišala. That is essentially the principle of the private-public partnership (PPP) strategy, which is for carrying out important projects that are too expensive for the state. PPP is known worldwide, but apparently not in Lithuania—at least not yet. Last month, the government approved a PPP proposal to resume construction of the stadium.

The United Kingdom was a pioneer with PPP, which is how Pearse knows it can be a trendy way to develop a country’s infrastructure without having a penny in your fiscal pocket.

“In some cases it worked very well,” he acknowledges. But the key for such a partnership remains its “risk transfer,” he adds. You have to agree who is taking on a risk if something happens to go wrong. “Who holds the risk? What happens if [there’s] an earthquake?” he asks. Or what if a company doesn’t finish a stadium in time (again and again)?

Photo courtesy of LoboStudioHamburg/Pixabay.

The estimated 25,000 to 30,000 seats at Lithuania’s National Stadium in Vilnius have been empty since 1987.

Stadiums aren’t the only thing needing a helping hand in Lithuania. Roads and bridges, still in poor condition since the early years of the Soviet Union, are among the many projects the indebted country cannot find sufficient money to repair.

At the moment, public procurement laws (and the overall practice of project handling) in Lithuania are based on the principle “the cheaper, the better.” But that also translates to “no money, no quality.” This is how projects are being carried out regionally, and the state of the country’s infrastructure decreases dramatically every year as a result. A PPP approach could certainly help.

But there’s a reason why, despite the need for PPP, Lithuania has been slow in adopting its benefits. “The political level of regional municipalities is very low, and they don’t care about PPP,” explained Jonas Dumašius Hidrostatyba, chairmain of Lithuanian construction company Hidrostatyba. “Experimental projects will probably be talked [about] a lot, though now the costs are at the low level and it is time to act.”

However, it must be remembered that “PPP is an effective tool but not a panacea,” Abišala points out.

Still, governments have every right to be excited about the benefits from developing public-private partnerships and may try to attain some experience with them. In Lithuania, the approach is new, so there’s room to experiment: estimating, then choosing, which cases call for a PPP approach. Considering that Lithuania is a less developed country than European Union countries, it may get up to 85 percent of its financing for strategically important projects from the EU anyway, which makes the pursuit of PPP a no-brainer.

As Abišala puts it, “If I [were] king of Lithuania … I would send these projects into life  immediately.” The state of Lithuania’s National Stadium, and more, depends on it.

Featured image courtesy of PublicDomainPictues/Pixabay.

Keeping the Wheels on Lithuania’s Taxi Service for the Disabled

Student Reporter - Tue, 04/22/2014 - 11:20

“My friend and work colleague lost her hands and legs [both were amputated after an infection that started when she injured her leg]. After this accident … she has reconciled with her disability very well and was able to work with computer systems, but the main problem was [now] with her living place. She equipped her flat as she desired, [but] I understood that she will never leave this lovely and safe place.”

Arūnas Survila describes the unfortunate but all too common experience that makes disabled Lithuanians’ already challenging lives more difficult. It is ultimately what spurred him to become the initiator of a project called Social Taxi.

People who have physical disabilities and live in Vilnius or Klaipėda, major cities in Lithuania, are able to call on the online-powered cab service, which helps them get around through increased assistance and accessibility.

Photo courtesy of Social Taxi’s Facebook page.

With crosstown mobility being a major problem for Lithuania’s disabled, Social Taxi is more of a social reawakening than a service.

“Her apartment was not adapted; it was [on the] fifth floor, and our office was in the center of Vilnius. I started thinking, ‘How could she come to our office every day?’ I realized that she is not the only person that faces such problems,” Survila says.

To make matters easier for Social Taxi’s riders, the service operates with unbelievably low fares that are much lower than the prices for Lithuania’s regular taxis. A one-way ride on Social Taxi typically costs only three litas, or $1.20 (U.S.). Regular taxi prices are much higher: starting at two litas, with an additional two for every kilometer driven. The affordability helps, as disabled people can have relatively low incomes. But scaling up such a project doesn’t come cheap or easy.

Despite the fact that the project required a huge investment, its founder does not see this cost as a problem. “If more initiatives emerged that solved concrete problems, then there would be enough money. There is so much improperly used money in Lithuania,” Survila says. That opinion is widely shared by Lithuania’s politicians and public. Even the country’s president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, remarked in her annual speech on the state of the nation, “As we fought the downturn and worked to save our country from bankruptcy, we saw very clearly that the shortage of funds is not Lithuania’s biggest problem. Lithuania’s biggest problem is corrupt interest groups and irresponsible overspending.”

Fortunately, local municipalities, private companies and nongovernmental organizations have helped Social Taxi survive the money shortage and put it in a position to provide inexpensive service.

But with a clear eye on long-term sustainability, Survila plans to steer away from a complete reliance on outsider funds. “In the future, we want to cover at least 50 percent of our costs by Social Taxi revenues, because we cannot be assured that we will be supported by the government.” Government officeholders  in Lithuania have one term every four years.

As it stands, many social enterprises in Lithuania go bankrupt because of a lack of investment and support from both private and governmental institutions. Many people do not launch social enterprises simply because they do not expect them to be profitable without outside support. There are simply not enough NGOs and private companies to prop up social businesses. And, even when they do receive financial support, social enterprises could be better helped with added access to advertising and investors.

To make matters worse, it is difficult to see the benefits of social enterprises, as they are usually unprofitable. But Survila disagrees. “First of all, I think that social enterprise is other kind of way to solve social and ecological problems. Only in second place we can expect it to be profitable. I think that [a] social enterprise should be measured according to how many social problems it solves.”

Politicians, while supporting social enterprises, could benefit even more than the social entrepreneurs themselves. As British Prime Minister David Cameron once said, “We need to recognize the full potential that social enterprise has. It is not just about helping to tackle social problems at the community level; it is about mainstream businesses delivering public services with a distinctive focus on quality, serving the community, and employee pride. You showed us that social enterprises are not just creating social good but creating jobs and opportunity.”

Cameron didn’t utter these words out of a desperate need for greater popularity. Support from the government for social enterprises should come not only in the form of money. Politicians should search for original ways to provide better circumstances for social enterprises such as Social Taxi. When you launch a social enterprise, there are definitely people who will offer tax breaks, advertising aid, help through training courses, free offices—you name it. There are such people, but not in Lithuania.

“We don’t have [an] ecosystem for social enterprises, we don’t have legislation, we don’t have funding, we don’t have anything,” asserts Vidas Visockis, president of the National Association for the Coordinators of Youth Affairs. And he is right.

In Lithuania, only a small fraction of the social enterprises, including Social Taxi, that need help from the government are provided with such support. Unfortunately, that minimal support is usually only in the form of money. Worse, during last month’s first Social Enterprise Summit for Lithuania, many of the entrepreneurs said that before the idea of going social became trendy, the only thing politicians in Lithuania offered was the closed doors to their office.

But after that event, the outlook looks a bit more positive. As Survila puts it, [We] “simply understood that we live once, and we should do that what we want to do.” With this belief, he has already helped hundreds of disabled people live bustling lives.

“It is a huge achievement, because in Lithuania it is common [to think] that everything is set for disabled people.” And such reasoning is what truly makes for a disabled existence.

Photo courtesy of Social Taxi’s Facebook page.

With crosstown mobility a major problem for Lithuania’s disabled, Social Taxi is more a social reawakening than a service.

Don’t Say You’re a Chinese Company: How Lenovo Grew as a Global Brand

Student Reporter - Tue, 04/15/2014 - 09:04

At the end of January, Chinese technology company Lenovo acquired cellphone maker Motorola Mobility from Google for $2.91 billion (U.S.). Two years after Google itself had bought Motorola, Lenovo’s move has made the company the world’s third biggest smartphone maker, just behind Samsung and Apple. Already the largest PC company in the world since July 2013, Lenovo is on its way to achieving its goal of becoming the No. 1 company in smart-connected devices: Today it reaches about 45 percent of the world’s population with its cellphones and sells more smartphones and tablets than PCs. With operations in more than 60 countries and sales in about 160 nations, Lenovo has become a multinational company. Now, as with many Chinese companies, its challenge is to become an international brand.

And for Lenovo this means not being Chinese, as much as possible. “We don’t go anywhere with the idea that we are a Chinese company, but more that we are a global company,” says Brion Tingler, Lenovo’s director of global media relations.

A Lenovo store in China

Wikimedia Commons

Lenovo doesn’t like to think of itself as a Chinese company, and it strives to avoid appearing like one. The name Lenovo does not sound Chinese but comes from the words legend and novo (Latin for new). And the policy goes beyond marketing. As the company has tried to become recognized as a brand on a global scale, it endeavors to make it difficult to say where it’s come from.

“When you look at the management team, out of the top 10 people at the company, including the CEO, there are six different nationalities,” Tingler says. “We call it the global-local model. In different places around the world, the people that run the markets we are in are from those markets. So Brazilians run Brazil, Europeans run Europe, Indians run India.”

Nor is Lenovo’s leadership based largely in China. Listed in Hong Kong, the company has top executives not only in that location and Beijing but also in Raleigh, N.C., while other senior executives are in Singapore, Tokyo and California’s Silicon Valley.

The result is that there’s very little to identify Lenovo as a Chinese company. And though a pioneer, Lenovo is not alone in this: The construction of its brand and its obscuring of its Chinese origins sheds light on the practices and challenges of many Chinese companies now looking for name recognition that is equal to their business success.

“By saying that they are a global company, [Lenovo] says they are as good as anybody else, not only just as good as anybody else in China,” says James Roy of the China Market Research Group in Shanghai. This is smart on Lenovo’s part, since Chinese brands still do not have a lot of prestige internationally, or even within China. “Chinese consumers want to feel they are buying the best there is to offer in the world,” says Tingler, which means they tend to prefer foreign brands to Chinese brands. In fact, in several parts of China, Lenovo markets itself as a global brand, or at least not as a Chinese brand.

Lenovo acquired Motorola in spite of the latter’s losses of about $380 million (U.S.) in the fourth quarter of 2013. In part, the deal was made with an eye on Motorola’s patents books. Lenovo is now able to use the company’s 8,000 U.S. patents and 15,000 foreign ones on a permanent, royalty-free basis. But beyond the cellphones and patents, the acquisition reflects Lenovo’s larger strategy of buying up foreign names to grow its international presence faster. After the acquisition of IBM’s ThinkPad in 2005, Lenovo acquired German consumer electronics company Medion in 2011 and Brazilian electronics giant CCE in 2013, among others.

It’s a common practice among Chinese firms. Acquisitions of foreign firms by Chinese companies, flush with cash from their operations in China, have multiplied in other industries as well. In the car industry, for example, British car manufacturer Rover was acquired by BMW, Tata and China’s SAIC in 2005, and Volvo was bought by Chinese automaker Geely in 2010. In 2012, Dalian Wanda took over U.S. movie theater chain AMC Entertainment, and in 2013 Chinese meat producer Shuanghui acquired U.S. pork producer Smithfield.

“A lot of [Chinese] companies are using [acquisitions] as a way of learning about how international branding goes on,” says Roy. “Acquisition gives you immediate recognition, and you can learn how it all works as you go, the way Lenovo has.”

Lenovo and ThinkPad are a case in point. “For the first several years internationally, they still had the IBM name on the ThinkPad, even though it wasn’t part of IBM anymore. And then, bit by bit, you saw them coming to it, and now it’s all Lenovo ThinkPad,” Roy says.

One of the reasons Chinese companies find it necessary to rely on established brands is their lack of experience in branding. Because of the size of the Chinese market, Chinese companies have gone after domestic consumers for many years before going international. “Many have gotten very big in China and haven’t had to rely on overseas growth, where there was more intense competition, less growth, less awareness of your brand,” says Roy.

Several of these Chinese multinationals often started as anonymous factories subcontracted as suppliers to larger companies, before launching their own brand later. Because these companies began as manufacturers, they knew much more about products than branding. Thus their lack of a strong branding strategy today.

A particularly good example of this is Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company, and its approach (or lack of approach) to marketing. Since Huawei has primarily been a telecommunications equipment company working in the business-to-business sphere, it did not need to develop a strong marketing strategy, as it did not have direct contact with consumers. “Huawei’s chairman doesn’t know if they are a high-end or a low-end brand,” says Roy. For Huawei, it’s been more about “making the product, putting it out there and seeing if people like it or not,” he explains.

By contrast, Lenovo has focused on developing a massive and sophisticated branding strategy, tailoring its marketing to different local markets. After being the leader in enterprise products since 2005 with its ThinkPad, Lenovo is now targeting the U.S. consumer market through more consumer-centric products, such as its Yoga tablet, and making use of celebrity endorsements with actor Ashton Kutcher. Outside of the U.S., Lenovo has used the image of basketball superstar Kobe Bryant to increase its smartphone sales in Asia. And the company has also used advertising and targeted online marketing to increase its sales globally, with the tagline “For those who do.”

Despite its efforts to detach itself from its Chinese origins, Lenovo still finds its international approach has its limits. Although the company markets itself as a “global brand” in China’s larger cities, in smaller cities and the countryside, Lenovo often uses its Chinese name, 联想 (Lianxiang), since many locals cannot read English. Tingler explains that for these cities, “we’re not selling directly as a Chinese brand, but we had to tone down some of the global aspects so people can relate to [the brand] better.” Deliberately rootless in its global presentation of itself, Lenovo is finding it must be careful not to lose its customers at home.

If Chinese brands do in fact get large international recognition, Roy says, they will begin to be seen as more Chinese. “As consumers in other markets get familiar with the brands and products, they take on a lot of associations applied with that country,” he notes.

But in pursuing a strategy of being from everywhere and nowhere, there’s a big question about whether Chinese brands such as Lenovo can ever hope to have the cultural impact of U.S. brands such as Coca-Cola, which have become an inseparable part of America’s image abroad. Lenovo may well become a household name soon. The question is whether people will know that it’s a Chinese one.

Call for Applications: Reporter at Global Impact Investing Conference, New York (29-30 May)

Student Reporter - Sun, 04/13/2014 - 12:32
Join a team of four reporters as we report on current trends in global impact investing at a leading international investor conference in New York, 29-30 May. You will receive a stipend of $400 and editorial support to investigate stories and capture industry leaders’ opinion. Stories will be published on our site and partner sites such as the Huffington Post.

flickr / Gert-Jan Mes under Creative Commons

Your job will be to mingle with leading investors and investment experts around the topic of “ESG” (environmental, social, and governance) or impact investing at the TBLI CONFERENCE™ USA 2014. As critical and investigative observers, you add context and content to this industry gathering [see program and attendee list].

Led by a topic-specialized offsite editor, we aim to produce trusted and independent journalistic content about this conference and participating industry leaders. See also our previous coverage in the field of impact investing at the TBLI Conference in Zurich.

Project dates
  • Mid-May: Online hangout with editor and reporter team for editorial programming and individual article pitch session.
  • 28 May, New York: Meet your fellow reporters and our NY-based staff in the evening to get to know each other and prepare for the conference days.
  • 29-30 May, New York: Attend conference and investigate for your stories. Produce one short blog post (per reporter) on the first or second day of conference.
  • 8 June: Deadline for first journalistic article.
  • 15 June: Deadline for second journalistic article.
Your benefits
  • Get out of the classroom: Unique experience of mingling with experts and investors and exploring the topic of impact investing.
  • Learn how to communicate through stories and critically investigate the topic as a journalist.
  • Receive support by experienced and topic-specialized journalist.
  • Publishing of articles on our site, as well as our syndication partners including The Huffington Post, Greenbiz.com, Triple Pundit and any others you would like to pitch to.
  • Receive stipend of $400.
Requirements
  • Collaboration with fellow reporters through pitching story ideas, building on contacts and leads, resources and expertise.
  • Participation in internal team webinar in May.
  • Finalize two journalistic stories, pitched to and supported by our editor within two weeks after the conference.
  • Produce one short blog post during the conference days.
Qualifications
  • Enrolled in a higher education program (i.e. Bachelors-level or above, preferably at the Masters or Doctoral level).
  • Excellent written and verbal English skills.
  • Experience in online journalism a plus.
Application by May 4th, please fill out the form directly here.

This coverage project receives support from TBLI GROUP.

Can Tech Entrepreneurship Be a Solution to Youth Unemployment in Egypt?

Student Reporter - Mon, 04/07/2014 - 17:42

Following the Arab Spring, observers in Egypt have noticed that more and more young people are interested in entrepreneurship and self-employment. Tech entrepreneurship especially is gaining increasing institutional support. Some even see it as a means of mitigating the country’s record-setting unemployment that has largely afflicted Egypt’s youth (80 percent of those unemployed are under 30).

Photo courtesy of Mitch Altman/Flickr

Two attendees of the Maker Faire Africa show the entrepreneurial spirit nascent in Cairo and beyond.

Egyptians have been facing drastic sociopolitical and economic changes,” says Dalia Mohamad Abd-Allah, a young entrepreneur from Cairo. “Since young people have played a role in that change, they are getting a sense of ownership of their own destiny. More and more of them are thinking of becoming entrepreneurs.”

As program coordinator of Danida Business Partnerships, an organization that supports commercially oriented partnerships between Danish companies and Egyptian partners, Abd-Allah helps oversee some of that entrepreneurship spirit. But she also makes sure to note that “the entrepreneurship landscape in Egypt is still being defined.”

That can be seen in the labor market, where traditional means of employment, whether in the public or private sector, is still prevalent in Egypt. This explains why more than half of the Egyptian youth populace sees entrepreneurship as an attractive concept but not as a secure means of labor-market entry. Job security in the tech industry, where bubbles are frequent and consumer trends are shifty, can seem precarious in a place where 36.1 percent of people still work in agriculture.

As Christopher Schroeder, author of “Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East,” told Daria Solovieva, an Egypt-based business writer for Co.Exist, “The startup scene [in Egypt] is still nascent, the ecosystem is still building. What they need most of all is a more predictable, stable environment to scale their enterprises.”

Interestingly, that predictably and stability are coming from the tech industry itself.

For example, traffic poses a huge problem in Cairo and Alexandria, so an app called Bey2ollak, an Egyptian word meaning “they say,” emerged. The application enables you to download a traffic map onto your mobile device, so before you leave home, you know exactly which streets are blocked and which are functional. “It is an economic and social problem, and the IT has managed to reduce it,” explains Abd-Allah. In addition to the convenience it provides, Bey2ollak offers peace of mind in post-revolution Egypt. Since many travelers are afraid to make cross-country treks for fear of carjacking or worse, the app created a service that allows a group of drivers to set up convoys to make the journey together.

In a time of recovery, the tech industry is responding to social needs at a speed that cumbersome institutions like local governments cannot match. But it is caught in a Catch-22, where the stability tech entrepreneurship requires might be achievable only through more tech entrepreneurship. This will inevitably delay its emergence as a viable means of employment for young Egyptians.

To help drum up some stability, American University in Cairo and Sawari Ventures, an international venture capital firm that invests in visionary Middle East and North Africa entrepreneurial projects, launched an initiative that should bring some much-needed infrastructure to the tech community. In the same vein as Silicon Valley, the university leased its Greek Campus to Sawari Ventures for 10 years so it can host the Tahrir Alley Technology Park. Sawari Ventures hopes the tech park will help attract tech giants like Microsoft. But its principal purpose is to serve as a home base for domestic startups like Kashef Labs, an organization developing drones that will help clear Egypt’s land mines faster and cheaper than previously possible.

Though entrepreneurship as a whole has steadily risen in Egypt, the tech world seems to be a central focus for the country and the Middle East at large. “At the moment, the most visible sector of entrepreneurship is the IT sector. There has been a boom there, especially in social media,” Abd-Allah says.

Photo courtesy of Mitch Altman/Flickr

Youth entrepreneurship in the tech field is strong in Egypt, as this hacker meetup in Cairo illustrates.

Bernhard Rohkemper has been in Cairo since April 2013, running GIZ’s Responsible and Inclusive Business Hub for the Middle East/North Africa (or MENA) region. He has observed the entrepreneurial bug that is overtaking the region. People there are “very entrepreneurial, and many just start small businesses to get by,” he says. “It might not be businesses with a potential to grow in the future, but people do find ways to turn themselves into micro-entrepreneurs.” Indeed, as Maia Sieverding’s study “Youth Perspectives on Entrepreneurship in Egypt: Barriers to Entrepreneurship as a Means to Combat Youth Unemployment” reveals, many young Egyptians see entrepreneurship as simply a means to supplement their existing income.

So most aren’t looking to be completely self-sufficient income generators. Not everyone has entrepreneurial traits, and not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur—some are more comfortable having their own business, while others are more comfortable not working for themselves. As for the tech industry, not everyone has the necessary skills to embark on a career in that field. “The important thing is to identify entrepreneurs that have the capacity and skills to start a business and then help them grow. They then will provide jobs later,” Rohkemper explains.

But those would-be “job creators” are being thwarted by a variety of obstacles. Probably the biggest challenge for entrepreneurs in Egypt, like elsewhere, is attracting investment. With the surrounding social and political turmoil, one of the reasons investors are reluctant to invest in Egyptian startups is that they do not know what will happen in the future of a business.

Padmanaba01 / flickr under Creative Commons

In Egypt, entrepreneurship has a familiar face, such as food delivery by bicycle.

In Egypt particularly, says Rohkemper, “there is little planning horizon—people do not plan too much ahead, also because it is very uncertain what [can happen].” In addition, many hopeful entrepreneurs, when asked why they might not start a business, cite a lack of information on business and business regulations, a small pool of marketing channels, inadequate skill development and small and unestablished networks.

This despite the government’s efforts to play a significant role in supporting young entrepreneurs by offering programs or making resources available to them. As Sieverding notes in her study, in 2004 the Egyptian government enacted Law 241, which provides micro and small enterprises, or MSEs, with access to marketing, risk assessment and background information on regulations, and also identifies investment opportunities. All are important tools as a tech company takes its first steps.

Rohkemper says his nongovernmental organization’s main job is to make all the stakeholders across the business hub work together. “We look at what happens and try to connect different players and offer what is still missing, rather than creating something on top of what exists already.” In this sense, they can help build those networks young Egyptians feel they need to start an entrepreneurial venture.

For Rohkemper, “there is a vibrant sustainability and entrepreneurship scene [in Egypt], and the environment is very intense and very positive.” Sawari Ventures is even more enthusiastic, seeing Egypt, and the Middle East as a whole, as the home of a vast number of digital natives who are hungry for consumer tech products and services, with a higher gross domestic product per capita and more disposable income than powerhouses India and China.

The focus in Egypt, and probably elsewhere in the Middle East, is on short-term development and unemployment assuagement, which is made increasingly easier by the tech world’s rapid innovation. But as the country explores tech entrepreneurship as a panacea for youth unemployment, it is crucial that it doesn’t do so at the expense of the millions of young people who think starting a business is swell but not for them. A lack of long-term goals and holistic thinking got this country into its employment problem to begin with. Given the alarming fact that a third of Egypt’s young entrepreneurs started a business because they could not find wage work, it’s clear that youth entrepreneurship, in tech and beyond, might not be a cure as much as a symptom of the ailing job market.

Intro to Data-Driven Journalism with NZZ Data

Student Reporter - Mon, 03/31/2014 - 16:01

Data is all around us. We can access it with greater ease; hence, the recent boom in “data-driven journalism.” Data is used to structure the story inside and out, as a tool for verification and presentation, and everything in between. Many news organizations around the world are starting to publish stories and cover beats that can be better told through data.

The same goes for our #urbanmobilityCH newsroom, where we will be publishing two stories driven by data. We invited Sylke Gruhnwald, head of the data team at NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung), one of Switzerland’s oldest and most widely circulated newspapers, to a Google hangout with us and asked her how her team works with data and how we can use data in our stories. Here are some key takeaways:

Keep an open mind and follow the data

Fostering an open mind is critical to developing a data-driven story. Since it is quite possible that the data will prove the reporter’s initial thesis wrong, data journalists need to be first and foremost aware of falsification and flexible in their approach to the data. Don’t go in fixated on your opinion. Instead, listen to the data and see where it is heading. It’s a procedure not too distant from interviewing: “Not only can you interview a person, but you can also ‘interview’ a database—for example, running queries,” Gruhnwald said.

Beyond knowing when to admit falsification, a general open-mindedness in outlook encourages inspiration for new stories and provides direction for finding data sets. Gruhnwald recommends that those interested in data journalism keep updated with a network of newspapers, magazines and journals. Or scan existing data sets for possible discoveries. There is plenty of information available and many stories that are not yet told. It’s only a matter of “being out there.”

Be data literate

A data-driven story demands data literacy. A data journalist must know how to read and interpret the data, and how to locate it within the greater picture.

Basic math and statistics are useful to any journalist, no matter how far removed the topic is from the realm of quantitative knowledge. “It doesn’t matter if you cover culture, because you might cover the finances of your local theater, and then you should be able to read a checks and balance sheet, for example,” Gruhnwald said.

And data is not only figures (numbers) but also every format that can be read by a computer, whether that be images, photography or pdf’s. For example, Gruhnwald’s team helps NZZ’s reporters recheck documents and their history by going through their metadata.

Data literacy is very important for #ddj. The stereotype that most journalists were bad in math should not be valid.

— Student Reporter (@oikosReporter) March 25, 2014

 

The beauty of visualization

Sometimes it makes more sense to keep data within the context of the story, but other times data can be visualized as an effective, additional feature of the story. In the latter case, the data needs to be presented clearly, thoughtfully and accessibly. As important as the story is, the presentation of the data also needs to speak to readers. Having an eye for design helps, as does learning code, so journalists should remember to collaborate with designers and developers and take advantage of their expertise.

When data-driven stories are published on the Web, readers and reporters have a special opportunity to interact within the medium of the data. It is possible that the reader may look at the same data, reformulate it and produce a different angle that is counter to the reporter’s.

NZZ.ch

How many ways can you visualize Switzerland? As part of an award-winning series, the above graphic shows changes in the map of Switzerland based on population size.

Data is Money and Time

Although data can be freely obtained from many places (a statistics bureau, social media APIs, some universities and companies), interesting data is often locked up, either financially or behind legal walls. Sometimes, accessing data can even be a political game. NZZ’s feature on lobbyism (link in German) required data that was tied up in thousands of euros, way beyond the newspaper’s budget for the story. But by reaching out and building relationships, NZZ was given access at a lower rate. “It all started off in our haggling and establishing a good relation with a company that supports it, to open up the commercial registry data,” Gruhnwald said.

After gaining access, working with data also requires time to clean and analyze it. This can take months of poring over numbers and merging different sources to produce a database for one topic. Especially when it comes to dealing with personal, individualized data, data journalists need to be extra-cautious in making sure that they have read the data correctly.

Courtesy of Carlos Castillo, Senior Scientist at QCRI Social Computing

Data journalism, at the very least, provides writers with more material to work with, and at its best, it produces stories with concreteness, a larger context and a sense of authority.

While data analysis can be fun and addictive, it needs a good research question as well as awareness of and sensitivity to the inherent bias in interpretation. Just like people, data can also be biased. “Figures might seem as if [they are] sole facts, but it always depends on who actually released them, how did they come up with that certain figure, how do you as a recipient choose them and so forth. Data doesn’t equal facts,” Gruhnwald said.

State of Nature: In “Windfall,” Journalist McKenzie Funk Recasts the Conversation About Climate Change

Student Reporter - Thu, 03/27/2014 - 14:58

Journalist McKenzie Funk is an adventurer, as much in his intellectual pursuits as in his taste for sport. He would rather climb a 26,000-foot mountain than hang with the press corps. So it is with his new book, “Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming,” which recounts myriad efforts to cash in on climate change.

An absurd display of Canadian militarism first piqued Funk’s interest in the topic. In 2006, he found himself aboard the Canadian frigate HMCS Montréal as it surged toward the Northwest Passage. Harper’s Magazine had sent Funk up north to cover a Canadian military mission intended to demonstrate sovereignty over the disputed Arctic waters. The accelerating thaw of the long-obstructed passage promised to create a coveted shortcut between Europe and Asia. Although Canada claims ownership over the waters, the United States and European Union consider them to be international.

Photo courtesy of Mckenzie Funk

A Canadian soldier stands guard at the edge of the Northwest Passage, an emerging shipping lane as the Arctic melts.

Until he boarded the Montréal, Funk admits, he found climate change a dull topic. “The way we talk and write about it is preachy, and abstract, and far from people, except in the ‘You’re being bad’ kind of way.” For Funk, the operation transformed climate change from an abstract issue into a geopolitical pissing contest: something visible, tangible and, he suggests, revealing about human nature. “We are confronting a crisis,” he says, “but we haven’t done too much from the prophylactic side. Now you see people asking, ‘What’s in it for me?’ both at national and individual levels.” In all, Funk traveled to 23 countries, spanning five continents, to investigate diverse preparations to get rich off climate change.

Credit: Aaron Huey

McKenzie Funk

Funk is an expert traveler. He was conceived on the bed of Oregon’s McKenzie River, his namesake. In turn, the river was named for Donald MacKenzie, a 19th-century Scottish-Canadian fur trader and famed explorer of the Pacific Northwest. The name fits Funk, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies his appetite for adventure. In 2007, he hitchhiked the Trans-Siberian Highway, arguably the longest highway in the world. He speaks five languages, majored in philosophy and professes an interest in justice. His least favorite foods are dog and narwhal.

When he was a kid, Funk’s father organized winter trips through the backcountry. Funk’s mother preferred international travel. A drive through the Alps one summer ignited in Funk an enduring fascination with mountains.

In 2003, this fascination moved Funk and his friend Lars Jan to trek in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains, in what would become a turning point in his writing career.

“At that time, the insurgency was winding down,” Funk explains. “A jeep dropped us off with an old Soviet map, and we followed the line to the ridge. People warned us not to go into the valley, because that’s where people from the IMU [Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan] used to hide out.”

One day, as the two friends descended a slope, a grapefruit-sized rock tumbled 100 feet and landed on Jan’s leg. “He wasn’t bleeding too much, but we couldn’t tell if it was broken.” Without cellphones or any discernable signs of human life, Funk and Jan set up camp. “Lars, the bastard, immediately ate all of our Snickers bars.”

After they spent three days living on those Snickers bars and a plastic water bottle filled with honey, Jan regained enough strength to carry on. In search of a doctor, they entered the reputedly dangerous valley, only to find hospitable Tajiks, excited by their first glimpse of Westerners in more than a decade. There were neither doctors nor insurgents in the small village of Sangvor, leading Funk to conclude that “much of the supposed intelligence we receive is wrong.”

The experience solidified Funk’s preference for unearthing untold stories, and for writing about the experiences of others as opposed to his own. Funk’s “professional bumming around” has served him well in this regard, enabling him to navigate unfamiliar places and situations. In 2005, for instance, he accompanied ski mountaineer Mark Newcomb up the better part of Tibet’s 26,286-foot Himalayan mountain Shishapangma, which has the world’s 14th highest peak.

Photo courtesy of McKenzie Funk

Mark Newcomb on Shishapangma in the Himalayas.

Funk came up in the world of journalism through traditional, but now shrinking, channels. He applied to journalism schools after graduating from Swarthmore College, but didn’t get in for lack of experience. Soon after, he scored an internship with National Geographic Traveler magazine. A year later, in 2000, he moved to New York City to work as a fact checker and assistant editor at National Geographic Adventure. Fact checking was excellent training, Funk says, because retracing the reporter’s steps demystifies the writing process. By 2001, Funk was freelancing. Five years later he boarded the Montréal.

Since then, Funk has traveled everywhere, from Sudan to Greenland, to catch up with entrepreneurs who see dollar signs in melt, drought and deluge: Greenland secessionists who imagine independence in vast oil deposits lying beneath fast-melting ice; a CIA analyst turned hedge funder buying up bits and pieces of the Colorado River system; and buoyant Dutch architects with big plans for a New York City seawall.

The result is at once refreshing, fascinating and deeply unsettling. While the mainstream media continue to rehash the stale debate about the scientific validity of climate change, Funk shifts the frame to those who are already taking action in response to climate change, particularly those who stand to gain from a warmer reality. “The most important thing about the book is that people approach climate change sort of like everything else. It will magnify imbalances between North and South, rich and poor. NYC will get a seawall, but Bangladesh will drown.”

Funk is quick to point out that he’s not an activist. He does not want to cast aspersions. The book’s actors are “often behaving badly but rarely being bad people themselves. His intent is to showcase the ideological underpinnings of such behavior: expansionism, market fundamentalism and technological optimism. Never mind polar bears and solar panels.

“Windfall” is fundamentally a book about greed. Whether Funk sees greed as a function of ideology or human nature remains murky. Human nature implies immutability. Ideology introduces the possibility of awakening to the fact that addressing this complex problem will require more than shortsighted self-interest. Ultimately, Funk seems to be pointing to some well-worn paths, wondering if we can’t find a better way.

Photo courtesy of Paolo Marchesi

On an expedition in Bolivia. Funk on right.

McKenzie Funk’s work has appeared in Harper’s, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, GQ, Outside and The New York Times. A National Magazine and Livingston Award finalist and the winner of the Oakes Prize for Environmental Journalism, he was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan. He resides in Seattle with his wife and son.

Switzerland and the EU: The Heavy Cost of Isolation

Student Reporter - Wed, 03/19/2014 - 10:33

ZURICH, Switzerland – On Feb. 9, the Swiss voted to introduce a quota system to cap immigration from European Union countries. The EU has responded quickly and unequivocally: Without the free movement of persons, Switzerland risks losing access to EU markets and institutions that help fuel a large part of the Swiss economy. In the few weeks since the referendum, Switzerland has already gotten a taste of the costs that increasing isolation brings.

Flickr/Lucas Kramer under Creative Commons

The recent vote to validate the “Against Mass Immigration” referendum in Switzerland has not been one easy to digest.



The Lesser of Two Evils

When 50.3 percent of Swiss voters chose to validate the referendum initiative “Against Mass Immigration” proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (or SVP), they decided to reintroduce quotas for all immigrants coming into their country. Now, the Swiss Federal Council and Swiss Federal Assembly are charged with implementing the legislation, and they will have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

As a first option, the Federal Council and Federal Assembly could create a quota system, which would include a cap on immigration from EU countries. But they would do so in direct violation of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons, a treaty between Switzerland and the EU that went into effect in 2004.

In response to this violation, the EU might agree to renegotiate the treaty or terminate it altogether. Given the EU’s uncompromising stance on the principle of the free movement of persons, it seems likely that it will choose to terminate the treaty as soon as the Swiss adopt legislation that goes against it. Termination of the agreement would in turn entail the simultaneous expiration of seven other bilateral treaties, known collectively as the Bilateral Agreements I Framework. Without these agreements, Switzerland is bound to lose substantial access to European institutions and markets alike.

Alternatively, if the Federal Council and Federal Assembly manage to square the circle and conceive of a way to implement immigration quotas without affecting free movement between Switzerland and the EU, they would no doubt find themselves lambasted by the SVP.

Having held a tough stance for decades on immigration, the SVP proposed the legislation and championed it through the referendum. It managed to persuade Swiss voters that high immigration was responsible for a set of wide-ranging problems—from increasing property prices and overcrowded public transport systems to losses of farmland caused by urban sprawl. Restricting immigration is also necessary for the protection of Swiss identity, the SVP maintains. Since the party has recently found validation at the polls, any creative attempt to sidestep a hard-line quota system will surely be met by fierce SVP opposition.

Isolation’s First Victims

As the Federal Council and Federal Assembly try to find their way out of this quandary, the first repercussions of the vote have already materialized. Days after the Swiss went to the polls, the European Commission called an end to negotiations on an energy treaty that would have paved the way for the step-wise integration of the Swiss electricity market into the EU’s own. The EU’s deregulated power market happens to be the world’s largest. So long as the institutional foundations of the relations between the two entities are not clearly defined, the EU is not willing to grant Switzerland any further access to its markets. Swiss consumers are bound to lose out by remaining in an isolated electricity market. Not only would they pay less for their electricity in an integrated and more efficient European marketplace, but they would do so while adhering to the European CO2-reduction scheme, doing their bit for a cleaner environment.

The cost of seeking to distance the country from Europe became yet more tangible when the European Commission proceeded to exclude Switzerland from participation in the Erasmus+ program. Since its creation in 1987, the Erasmus+ program has facilitated exchanges between European students and universities by providing standardized application and funding procedures. At present, Swiss students who had planned to spend their autumn semester at a university in an EU country do not know whether they will be able to take up their places. The fate of EU students wishing to study in Switzerland is equally uncertain. This is the “EasyJet generation” of young people, having grown up in a borderless Europe but now seeing their freedoms infringed upon.

In addition to Erasmus+, the European Commission barred Swiss academia from Horizon 2020, a European research and innovation program worth 80 billion euros in funding grants. Being excluded from Horizon 2020 will not only limit the ability of Swiss researchers to attract grants; it will also make it more difficult for Swiss academics to establish ties with researchers at non-Swiss European universities. This in turn will harm the attractiveness of Swiss universities and slow down border-crossing innovation processes that are in the interests of all Europeans.

Unpromising Outlook & Unseen Costs

In the event that the Bilateral Agreements I Framework becomes void, Switzerland will have to face even deeper separation. For the time being, however, its relationship with the EU is tempered by a sense of uncertainty, which is poison to all Swiss stakeholders.

In the private sector, companies are worried over how they will recruit talent from Europe and overseas. If multinational companies decide to relocate, as some are considering, or if Swiss companies begin to find it difficult to compete in global markets, economic development and the demand for labor are bound to suffer. Already, leading Swiss bank Credit Suisse is estimating that the implications of the referendum will harm economic growth.

Analysts presume that Swiss voters accepted the immigration initiative precisely because they didn’t expect it to have negative consequences for their economy, which until now has seen steady growth in gross domestic product and comparatively low unemployment rates, below 5 percent. How the unpromising outlook for the Swiss economy will affect public opinion remains unclear.

In addition to manifold divisions existing between the urban and local, French-speaking and German-speaking, Swiss, the nation’s voters seem to have contradictory preferences. A poll conducted a week after the referendum revealed that 74 percent of the electorate wished to maintain bilateral relations with the EU at the level they were at before the vote. This suggests a large share of Swiss voters underestimated the risk of endangering bilateral relations with the EU.

Getting a Grasp of What Is at Stake

How can Switzerland find its way out of this current state of uncertainty? First and foremost, the public must lead an open and honest debate about the substantial costs that isolation from the EU entails. Secondly, these costs must be balanced against the purported gains of limiting immigration. There may be less-costly solutions to increasing property prices and urban sprawl than putting the country’s relationship with the EU at risk.

Thirdly, Swiss voters have to be willing to take into account the interests and principles of the EU itself. This would be an essential condition in a realistic and coherent strategy for rebuilding bilateral relations. If, following that process, the Swiss electorate still opts for increased isolation, it will at least do so with a true grasp of its costs.

About the authors:

Nicola Forster is the founding president of the Swiss foreign policy think tank foraus and currently works as a Mercator Visiting Fellow at the SWP German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Brussels office) as well as at the IPSS Institute for Peace and Security Studies, Addis Ababa University. He is also the curator of the Global Shapers Zurich Hub of the World Economic Forum. 

Ivo Nicholas Scherrer is a founding memeber of foraus. He is currently finishing a dual master’s degree in economics and international affairs between Sciences Po Paris and the University of St. Gallen and works as a consultant in Zurich.

*Correction: March 21, 2014
The referendum was passed with a 50.3 percent vote, rather than 50.03 as previously stated.

Ideal ist anders – Wie mobil sind Studierende mit einer Behinderung an Schweizer Hochschulen tatsächlich?

Student Reporter - Mon, 03/10/2014 - 00:46

“Die an Bodenschätzen arme Schweiz kann es sich nicht leisten, talentierten Menschen den Hochschulzugang zu verunmöglichen, nur weil sie von einer Behinderung oder chronischen Krankheit betroffen sind,” sagt Eva Aeschimann, Sprecherin der Behinderten-Selbsthilfegruppe Schweiz (AGILE).

Rund 22’000 Studierende in der Schweiz haben eine Behinderung. Seit zehn Jahren ist die Gleichstellung von Menschen mit Behinderung in der Schweiz Bundesgesetz. Auch Hochschulen sind verpflichtet, Studierenden mit Behinderung grösstmögliche Mobilität zu bieten.

Doch wie mobil sind Studierende mit einer Behinderung an Schweizer Hochschulen tatsächlich? Unsere Reporterin Teresa Delgado hat Schweizer Hochschulen auf ihre Behindertenfreundlichkeit geprüft und kam zu dem Schluss: Ideal ist anders!  Lies die ganze Story, inklusive eines Vergleichs mit Kanada, hier im NZZ Campus.

gettyimages

Man in wheelchair looking at steps

Reporting on Urban Mobility in Switzerland: Find the Experts and Break It Down

Student Reporter - Thu, 03/06/2014 - 14:52

Student Reporter

Impact Hub Zürich: Launch partner of the campaign and also the venue for the weekend session.

“How do you flesh out an editorial program about the topic of urban mobility in one of the richest and democratic countries, like Switzerland?” we asked ourselves during a February weekend session at Impact Hub Zürich, a social startup co-working space.

For our mobility coverage, we gathered students from various fields of study, such as anthropology, business, modern history, interaction design and mechanical engineering, and they pitched their opinions and views to our team of editors.

“Journalists think in very concrete ways, ask specific questions, go to experts and break it down to personal situations,” says editor Joanna Itzek, adding, “It’s all about how to break it down.”

Short features: Hunt for text and multimedia “mobility stories” on your way

Before we met, we started out with an early-morning exercise to immerse ourselves in the perspectives and practices of reporters on the road. We asked the students to look for interesting situations and people while we were making our way to the Impact Hub. The aim was to put everyday situations into a relevant context, like the one involving an Iraqi immigrant who works for the SBB, the Swiss public train enterprise.

Student Reporter

Saturday morning at the St. Gallen train station. On the left is a campaign poster for Switzerland’s anti-immigration initiative, which recently passed in a national vote.

Fast brainstorming: Immersion into the field of urban mobility

Student Reporter

Brainstorming on the topic of urban mobility.

In the first session, we asked, “Where do we stand in urban mobility trends and topics?” The team explored individual and collective experiences, positions and ambitions, applying a specific brainstorming method to get to know each other’s views and opinions.

We collected quite a large selection of sometimes very academic approaches in order to move toward an editorial program, with concrete stories to be pitched to our editors and media partner NZZ Campus. For example:

“How did ‘urban mobility’ become such a buzzy term?”

“Does the rise of the sharing economy offer more attractive opportunities for young entrepreneurs in the urban mobility field?”

“How can we move the debate beyond the locked-in dichotomy of public transport versus private use of cars?”

“How can I survive in my life without ever holding a driver’s license?”

Research tools and how to stay in the loop

For a journalist who follows a topic (or beat) from his or her desk, there are four key tools that are available for everyone:

Google alerts send out emails about specific search terms in categories such as “news” or “blogs.”

Newsletters from organizations in the field are helpful for staying updated. We have created our own newsletter that compiles our articles and events, as well as those of others we follow. Also, see the “shaping comobility” newsletter from Wocomoco (in German), for example.

Facebook pages of organizations or communities are helpful for staying updated on the news or published articles in the field. We have launched a Facebook community page where we share articles and events.

Facebook Graph Search offers a search tool that allows very advanced search options. Try it out and you will be surprised (sometimes even shocked) at what Facebook provides about specific people of interest in your area.

Twitter has become an important search tool for browsing for experts and opinions. We have created a public Twitter list that compiles experts and opinion makers in urban mobility.

Thanks for sharing! RT @Sina_JB: Rethinking cars #urbanmobilitych RT @florenciapp: Tech trends & car of tomorrow http://t.co/3j9Vc5GqeH

— florenciap (@florenciapp) February 9, 2014

 

Introduction to text formats

We went through basic journalistic-article formats to help break down ideas and interests into concrete story outlines.

Examples of article formats from the editorial program

(1) Feature: “Does the Swiss startup community provide a promising work environment? An example from the urban mobility industry?”

A feature article is a fact-based text enriched by quotes and descriptions of scenic observations. One specific case illustrates a general theme. The aim is to comprehensively describe a specific topic based on multiple facts and figures from multiple perspectives. The form aims to be objective, and the author’s view is somewhat shifted to the background but is reflected in the general dramaturgy of the text and the positioning of the main arguments.

(2) Reportage: “Zurich’s Parcours Community—Conquering Public Space by Foot”

Reportage is a subjective text form. The reporter describes his perspective, feelings and observations with respect to unfolding events that he or she is participating in. The story is a detailed description that aims to explain small and specific worlds in detail to present marginalized or unseen worlds in a new light.

See, for example, our article about backstage insights into the World Economic Forum media team.

(3) Portrait: “Fired Swiss Train Minibar Operator Kwasi Nyankson Rides eTukTuk”

A portrait is similar to reportage but delves deep into the motivations and expertise of an individual (or company). At the core is not a general theme but recognition and analysis of the achievements of an individual in everyday life or a professional setting. America’s New Yorker magazine is considered the state of the art publication for the article format.

This staff writer for The New Yorker does 60 to 100 interviews for a profile story.

(4) Report: “People in Europe are buying fewer cars than bikes since 2013. How have young people in Switzerland changed their car purchasing behavior and why?”

A report is the most objective article format. It can be done from the writer’s desk and consists primarily of facts presented in the most clearly informative way. Usually quotes are assembled from other articles, Twitter or phone calls with relevant people, to get a statement on a proposition.

See, for example, this report article from Quartz: “Bicycles are outselling cars in Europe and that might not be just a blip.”

Pitch laboratories

At the core of the pipeline development were two several hours long “pitch laboratories” that simulated a newsroom in which reporters pitched their story ideas and article formats to the editors. Everyone provided input for advancing the story pitch or making it more concrete and relevant to our young audience, while also searching for any politics involved. Here is a description of what we understand about article pitches.

Writer pitches: Based on story ideas, the reporters wrote two pitches for specific article formats. They also received one-on-one support from our editors and a guest journalist.

Pitch story ideas to team: The reporters pitched two stories to the group to sell them to the editors and got feedback from the team.

Rework pitches: Reporters reworked their pitches based on the feedback they received during the pitch session.

Student Reporter

Reporters pitch their stories to editors.

The editorial pipeline

To consider multiple views on the topic of urban mobility, our reporters and editors have come up with a 360-degree article pipeline on urban mobility. We will explore the opportunities that mobility startups offer to university graduates who are new to the job market, and also look for stories in the dimly lit compartments of night trains, a means of transport that’s on the decline in Europe. These are just two of our upcoming stories and illustrate our editorial goal: to cover the economic, political and cultural dimensions of urban mobility.

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter to receive updates about our published work and work in progress, the campaign action day event in May and our live broadcasting event on June 6.

Editor’s note: Not included in this weekend wrap-up were the following sessions: Journalism Morals—Introduction to Journalism Principles, Multimedia Production and New Forms of Storytelling, Prototyping Campaign Action Day and Final Event.

Apply: Be a Student Reporter for World Collaborative Mobility Congress

Student Reporter - Wed, 03/05/2014 - 20:53

BERN, Switzerland – It’s a new era in mobility. “Sharing instead of owning” has become a guiding principle for many. More and more people are willing to carpool, bike to work, or lend their cars when they’re not using them. Through the use of smartphones and social networks, it’s easier than ever to save money but also change your travel habits by finding more eco-friendly solutions for transportation.

Join us as we report on the World Collaborative Mobility Congress, or wocomoco, in Bern, Switzerland. We’re looking for five student reporters to cover the field of Collaborative Mobility. It includes forms of mobility which focuses on sharing modes of transport, such as car sharing or ride sharing, but also other concepts such as e.g. bike sharing or flexible parking space rental.

The forum, which is organized by Mobility Academy, will take place on the 7th and 8th May 2014.  Wocomoco-nauts, as the CEO of Mobility Academy Dr. Joerg Beckmann calls the participants, would engage in talks and workshops on shared public and urban spaces, as well as sustainability, political challenges in Switzerland and intelligent mobility as a solution. Of course, the best way to get to the conference is sharing a ride and meeting other participants even before the official start of the seminar!

Deadline for applications is 6th of April. We welcome students from all fields of study.

Program Dates and Deliverables:

  • Mid-April: Online webinar to introduce conference reporting and the individual reporting topics.
  • 6 May: Meet the onsite project manager and team of reporters one day prior to the conference to get prepared (arrival latest 3:00pm)
  • 7-8 May: On-site conference attendance on the 6th, hunt for stories, meet the speakers and conduct interviews. Produce one to two short blog posts per reporter.
  • 9 May: Wrap up with the rest of the team and departure (noon)
  • 9-18 May: Write and publish two journalistic articles per reporter (deadline: 18 May)

Compensation: Travel expenses reimbursed up to 200 CHF, accommodation on-site covered.

Qualifications:

  • Enrolled in a higher education program (i.e. Bachelors, Masters or Doctoral level; professional degree programs welcome).

  • Strong academic background or interest in business/policy/economics. Focus on mobility a plus.

  • Preferably experience in online journalism and live blogging.

  • Excellent written and verbal English skills.

Application: By March 31, please fill out the form directly here.

 

Student Reporter is a media partner of wocomoco 2014. The conference coverage project is supported by AXA Winterthur as part of our six-month coverage project in partnership with Impact Hub Zürich on the Future of Urban Mobility in Switzerland.

As Swiss Set Immigration Quotas, Foreign Worker Keeps Serving Train Riders Their Coffee

Student Reporter - Wed, 03/05/2014 - 18:04

ST. GALLEN, Switzerland – Missing the train at 6:45 in the morning does not start the day well. The anger with myself, the world and the punctuality of the Swiss train system reaches a new peak. There aren’t many people around on a Saturday morning in a small Swiss town like St. Gallen. Those who do their job at the train station appear to be the only ones awake. One of them is my bench fellow, Iraqi immigrant Bjar Morthada Ali, who starts his working day as the minibar operator on the train to Geneva.

Student Reporter / Tim Lehmann

St. Gallen train station.

Right in front of us hangs a political campaign poster for the “anti-immigration initiative,” with its main goal to reduce the number of immigrants in Switzerland.

On Feb. 9, the initiative proved to be successful: The Swiss voted in favor of the introduction of immigration quotas. Not only does the vote carry big consequences for the free movement of people in Europe, but it has also caused an immediate and considerable uproar among the Swiss themselves. My young Swiss friends are going to the barricades against what mostly rural Switzerland has voted for. Although more exposed to immigration than rural citizens, the young, liberal Swiss do not fear more competitive labor markets, nor do they feel that public transportation has become too crowded—a highly lobbied argument in favor of the initiative.

Student Reporter / Tim Lehmann

"Anti-immigration-intiative" poster at St. Gallen train station.

Ali arrived in Switzerland 10 years ago as a political refugee from Iraq. He is married and has two kids, but does not hold permanent residential rights to live in Switzerland. “They want me to learn better German, but I don’t have time. I need to work,” he says, pointing to the arriving train. For five years, he has been working as the minibar operator for the restaurant services company of the SBB, the Swiss public train enterprise, well recognized for an average delay of three minutes in 2013.

Ali rarely notices the anti-immigration initiative posters next to him when entering the supply and delivery door to his workplace, the train. In a Swiss-German dialect with an Arabic accent, he says, “It is a little bit difficult here,” noting that the Swiss are less open to foreigners. “People in Germany are more friendly to foreigners.”

He can’t remember why he chose Switzerland over other destinations when he fled the second Iraq War. But he will stay, “because of my two kids.” He disappears into the catacombs of the train, which is departing on its trip to Geneva and back again. Given the very unlikely three minutes’ delay, his job for the day will be done at 3:56 p.m. Like almost every day, tomorrow, on Sunday morning, he will wake up again to serve coffee to the Swiss at their seats, no matter whether they are young, old, villagers or live in the city.

Student Reporter / Tim Lehmann

Editor’s note: The author is a German citizen and holds a temporary-residence permit in Switzerland.

What the Roskilde Festival Sustainability Lab Learned from its Rock ’n’ Roll Hosts

Student Reporter - Wed, 02/26/2014 - 15:40

Flickr/Kristoffer Trolle under Creative Commons

Danish indie rock band VETO performs for an enthusiastic crowd in Roskilde, Denmark.

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s infamous vocalist, once noted in a flash of rock wisdom, “We believed that anything worth doing was worth overdoing.” Indeed, the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, with its enthralling appeal, embodies elements of excess and waste. To this end, the Roskilde Festival, which for a week turns into Denmark’s fourth-largest town each year, with more than 130,000 participants, leaves behind an unlikely trove, one that contains leftover supplies, beer cans, and food wrappings in the event’s wake.

Recognizing the potential of this setting for exploring global problems, such as those highlighted during the Rio+20 conference, ignited the idea for the Rio to Roskilde Roundtrip project, an initiative conducted by a group of researchers and supervised by the Copenhagen Business School and the Roskilde Festival’s management. In this way, the festival has turned into possibly the world’s largest laboratory for sustainability.

To the tunes of musical performers like Rihanna and Metallica, the researchers explored sustainability practices in three major areas: alternative housing, general waste and food waste. The results of their work were presented at a conference in Copenhagen’s House of Danish Industry in mid-January and foretold of big developments in how we care for our planet.

Inside, a small octagonal-house prototype with a red roof, placed in the glossy conference lobby, was soon frequented by groups of delegates. It was tested by insulation provider Rockwool International at Roskilde as a green alternative to ordinary tents. Made of innovative stone-wool material, it is waterproof, fire-resistant, and temperature-regulating.

Student Reporter / Eliza Petrova

The stone-wool tent prototype in the lobby of Copenhagen’s House of Danish Industry during the Rio to Roskilde Roundtrip conference.

Kim Haugbolle, head of the housing team and a senior researcher at Aalborg University, recognizes the potential of stone-wool tents in settings where it is essential to build thousands of homes in a short period, such as other festivals, refugee camps, slums, and catastrophe-afflicted regions.

Encouraged by the input he received at Roskilde, Steen Lindby, vice president of Rockwool International, said, “There is so much energy for free at the festival, and it is so concrete. You have to find a solution to certain problems. I think that more companies will see the festival as a laboratory in the future.”

Pondering new ideas for next year’s event, he suggested the possibility of inserting stone wool inside a ditch surrounding the festival, whose purpose would be to absorb runoff bodily fluids.

A World Bank report shows global solid waste piling up speedily, with an expected increase of 70 percent by 2025, compared with 2010. Meanwhile, at the Roskilde Festival a total of 300 tons of waste was recorded in 2013, an increase from 290 tons the year before, accounting for an estimated 17 kilograms of rubbish per festival-goer.

Taking a behavioral approach to this problem, the waste team, headed by Jesper Clement from the Copenhagen Business School, sought to understand the “live like there’s no tomorrow” festival lifestyle while promoting a train of thought reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow … yesterday’s gone” lyric. They noticed that visitors accepted waste as an integral part of the event. The green profile of the Roskilde Festival didn’t seem to matter in this respect.

Clement further noted that knowledge in terms of waste handling is contingent upon a monetary reward rather than concerns about sustainability. He observed that “Tony From Togo,” a representative of a group of independent waste collectors, can spot the difference between Danish and German beer cans from meters away. The difference is that Danish cans yield a small reward when recycled, while foreign beer or food cans have no direct value. Accordingly, the waste team recognizes the need to work with the festival’s incentives structure in regard to waste management.

“One-third of the world’s food is being squandered,” Esben Pedersen, a professor at the Copenhagen Business School and head of the food team, said in his presentation. This also entails huge waste in the use of resources such as land, water and fertilizer. Regarding food practices at the Roskilde Festival, Pedersen had a few suggestions. “We want to focus on collaborative consumption and make more changes in this aspect. For instance, can you make some food available to your neighbors at the camp?”

Another possibility brought up was portion control, or setting as a default smaller portion sizes, among which people can choose from. This idea of “nudging” was brought to light by prominent Harvard professor Cass Sunstein, an ardent proponent of setting defaults to nudge people toward more sustainable choices.

A ripple effect seems to have been initiated in the bustling fields of Roskilde. It is growing with the Rio to Roskilde conference in Copenhagen and could widen internationally. Organizations with a global presence, such as the United Nations Development Programme, are becoming acquainted with the potential of the solutions presented at the conference. “We are looking at the Roskilde Festival for inspiration for the work that we do in the field and in developing countries,” says Stine Junge, communications officer at the UNDP. She notes that in the future she can “approach Rockwool to see what can be applied in slum areas” worldwide.

Markus Kerber, director general of the Federation of German Industry, said during his presentation, “I want to see how you can make an event with 130,000 people more sustainable. We need showcases … we need credible answers to sustainability questions.” Establishing the Roskilde Festival as a showcase would be another step in bringing the research findings back to the global arena, perhaps even at the next United Nations sustainability conference.

Beyond the work of the researchers, progress within the sustainability context at the Roskilde Festival largely lies within the willingness of young festival-goers to take the necessary changes to heart. In this context, perhaps the things worth doing are indeed worth overdoing.

Social Entrepreneurs Worry Big Banks Could Ruin Benefits of Responsible Investing

Student Reporter - Mon, 02/24/2014 - 22:22

Without any need for introduction, people knew who these men were. They were well-dressed, well-connected and accomplished, and they had far more than a few billion dollars behind them, an amount representing the resources of some of the world’s largest financial institutions.

When these big banks decided to become involved in impact investing, they brought recognition, credibility and scale to an industry that had previously been niche.

“These smaller actors were pioneers, but we as bigger actors can be very complementary because we can bring a larger scale,” says Emmanuel de Lutzel, vice president of social business at BNP Paribas. “When I talk to customers, they say, ‘Oh, that’s very good that BNP Paribas is willing to enter this market because we want to work with a large financial institution.’”

However, just because the big banks hold name cachet doesn’t mean they were seen as welcome additions to the market. While some applauded them for making a commitment to impact investing and incorporating environmental, social and governance practices (or ESG), others feared that these large institutions would confuse investors and dilute the high-impact work already being done.

Many big banks have focused on low-income housing or other large projects. But as Piero Grandi, CEO of Grandi & Partners SA, points out, the most complex problem is in funding socially minded startups. “How do you get these startups off the ground?” he asks. “That’s where the role of these large institutions is not clear.”

The banks have made great headway in establishing socially responsible practices, but smaller investors worry that they’re detracting focus from their own funds, which pursue more “high-impact” investments. Although many investors in small impact funds came from careers in top financial institutions, much of this distrust stems from the role that big banks played in the 2008 global financial crisis. “The question is, Given the recent banking crisis, do you trust all banks?” says Arthur Wood of Total Impact Advisors.

Most large financial institutions entered the impact-investment markets for two primary reasons: to claim market share in this emerging field and to meet the demands of investors. And today’s investors, according to these banks, are looking for ESG investments. “Our principal job in life is to provide our clients with financial services,” says Michael Eckhart, global head of environmental finance and sustainability at Citigroup. “It’s all about ideas and projects and money, but somehow the sponsor companies never come up. The focal point is that we’re serving clients, and that’s the deal flow we see. And there’s lots of it.”

Bankers like Eckhart also believe their institutions are just following the market as the sector develops itself, not setting its direction. To some, these large institutions should be appreciated for bringing the scale and recognition attached to their large brand names. But in the eyes of smaller investors, these brand names (and the large funds behind them) have quickly stolen the limelight, and now investors look to institutions like Citigroup and BNP Paribas for answers.

This shift has caused increased interest in the field from the international banking community, but it has also increased criticism from many of the smaller players who were “there first.” While most of these banks didn’t enter the field to become thought leaders or to actively detract from smaller funds, that is what they’re now perceived as doing. Governments, investors and institutions now look to them for guidance in impact and ESG investing, regardless of their relatively short track records in the market. They also look to them because these banks are a known commodity.

It’s hard to argue that the arrival of the big banks is not shaping the sector. And now that they’re involved, the banks are playing a disproportionate role in affecting the regulatory framework. “It’s not the social sector that’s taking the lead and putting these frameworks together around outcomes. It’s the banks,” Wood says. “They are judge, jury and beneficiary.”

Fair Market Behavior? Holding Davosers Accountable for Sky-High Room and Rental Rates

Student Reporter - Fri, 02/21/2014 - 11:00

Student Reporter

For WEF attendees, renting a Swiss chalet in Davos seems to be a good option. But a chalet could be purchased for the amount of money they spend in a week.

During the World Economic Forum’s 2011 annual meeting, the tiny Swiss town of Davos, with just over 11,000 inhabitants, had 31,200 overnight stays. In general, local Davosers are supportive of this—who wouldn’t be, if you can get paid up to $33,000 a week for renting out your apartment? Based on research done by the University of St. Gallen and funded by the WEF and the Canton of Graubünden, the town is estimated to have benefited to the tune of $46 million to $47 million in 2011 alone.

This year, 2,633 official attendees at the WEF’s meeting accounted for almost a quarter of the town’s population (not counting the thousands of nonregistered participants: non-invited organizations and individuals, hospitality and media staff, party crashers and so forth). They all needed a place to stay, and companies and media organizations were looking for office space as well.

Numerous wealthy people looking for rooms sends prices skyrocketing. To please the event’s organizers, local authorities try to keep control of this surreal market. But Town Hall’s emphasis on the mega-event’s net economic impact on Davos, backed by the aforementioned study, does not convince all the locals, and only a few get a piece of the big pie.

Student Reporter

Restaurants were almost as full as the Congress Center itself, and this small one did not hesitate to call itself “the No. 1 WEF meeting point.”

“For the majority of participants, the prices will never be too high,” explained a staffer from the Panorama Hotel, who did not want to be named. Another worker, at the Morosani Posthotel, said, “There is a rule between the hotels that we charge Christmas rates. Christmas is our most expensive season—high season.” The Davos Club Hotel confirmed that the high season resumed on Jan. 21 and lasted until Jan. 26 (the week of the event).

Local authorities, meanwhile, try to keep control over the room rate bonanza. A “normal price” is indicated by a “White Card” sticker, which about 90 percent of the hotels have, said Davos Mayor Tarzisius Caviezel. The sticker allows hotels to show that they are behaving “within a reasonable price range.” Caviezel said. (Our reporters could not find the sticker, and we did not receive a comment from Morosani Posthotel.)

But then the definition of “reasonable” for WEF week differs somewhat from the norm. “During the WEF, prices get a lot higher—they can reach $670, $770 per person [per night],” the Panorama Hotel employee said. The price written on the hotel’s official leaflet is $290 during high season.

Forum-goers, media organizations and crashers try to get around the high prices of a suspected hotel cartel by renting privately owned apartments. One party-goer told us she had rented an apartment for three for $22,000. Maurus Radelow, who grew up in Davos, said, “Apartment rent rates vary from $3,300 to $33,000, if not more. At normal times, you would not pay more than $2,200 for a week’s stay.”

Another young local Davoser, who rented out an apartment for the first time to a media team of three people, pocketed $3,900 after just five days. The person, who asked not to be named, won’t declare this income. To make the apartment available for renters, the Davoser first contacted Davos Klosters, the town’s tourism office, but was redirected to PublicisLive* in Geneva, a global event management firm that provides operations and logistics for the Davos meeting.

The Davoser said, “They [PublicisLive] offered $110 per person, for one night. And you do not even know who is going to stay at your place, or for how much they rent it out.” The person also wanted to have guests who could be trusted. “There are rumors that some guests act wildly, destroying furniture,” the Davoser said, adding, “We [Davosers] should ask for whatever prices. They [WEF participants] can afford it.”

Though the Davoser first asked for $9,000, the guests, who were from a media organization and came recommended by a friend, did not accept the offer and eventually settled on the $3,900.

Still, locals can easily find those willing to pay the highest prices. As the mayor said, “If you have a 4½-room apartment and someone is offering to pay you $22,000 for 14, let’s say 10, days, I would like to see the person who would say, ‘I don’t want this.’ ”

“But who cares? Locals still claim this is market price,” another Davoser said.

The dizzyingly high prices have led some companies to take matters into their own hands. MegaFon, a Russian telecom operator, set up a temporary tent instead of renting office space from a hotel. Quite a few hotels started to complain about these substitutes, as they are no longer able to rent all the facilities built to serve the needs of the WEF attendees,” Radelow said.

With high prices that make even multinational companies balk, hospitality becomes key. Global competition to host the WEF is huge, said WEF founder Klaus Schwab in an interview for a Swiss weekly newspaper. The WEF’s loyalty to Davos depends on whether participants feel comfortable in the town, he added.

Still, there is a sense of discomfort among Davosers. According to a local shop owner who has been living in the town for more than 30 years, the WEF’s economic benefits for Davos are increasingly concentrated on the five main hotels. A young local teacher complained about the meeting’s “surreal character,” while others say it has turned from a get-together into a PR event. For one young Davoser, though, “it is only one week, and everything turns normal afterwards.”

The Swiss could change things with a referendum on the WEF, but Davos’ mayor insists those critical of the event “will never succeed. Completely illusionary. We have surveyed the population, and they said, ‘Yes, we want the WEF!’ Until the end of 2018, the WEF is secured [to be hosted in Davos], and we are currently working to guarantee this beyond 2018.”

Editor’s note: As a media organization, we sent a seven-person team to Davos, three of whom were officially registered as press. We rented one apartment for five people for seven nights for 3,000 Swiss francs. Two stayed for free with local Davos friends. A public school allowed us to use one of its rooms as office space.

Every Davoser treated us with the best hospitality we could ask for, as we rushed into their homes and into town while pursuing our work: reporting stories like this. Meanwhile, we also had to make sure we will have housing in Davos in the future.

*Correction: February 21, 2014
PublicisLive is wholly owned by MSL Group, not partly owned by the WEF as previously stated.

Leaning In, in Houses of Prayer

Student Reporter - Wed, 02/19/2014 - 11:48

Women are structurally underrepresented and often discriminated against in most of the world’s powerful arenas. The 15 percent female participation rate at the World Economic Forum is just a glimpse of the problem, and the importance of increasing women’s presence in our governments and boardrooms has been on the global agenda for some time now. Yet these are not the only institutions that control, or at least heavily influence, the lives of billions of people. What about houses of prayer?

At a WEF Open Forum session on the subject of gender and faith, Chris Seiple, president of the U.S.-based Institute for Global Engagement, said the responsibility for making sure that growing conservatism does not further infringe on women’s rights lies with religious leaders.

Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Ireland, was also present at the forum. The archbishop is a relatively liberal religious leader, and he was quoted in the Christian weekly The Tablet as saying, “You don’t write off a candidate for the priesthood simply because he is a gay man.” The problem, though, is that Martin is a contrasting minority in religious circles, and he noted that “our younger priests are much more conservative than those of the older generation.”

However, the presence of religion does not necessarily mean the existence of inequality or discrimination. One example is Sweden’s Lutheran Church, which appointed a lesbian bishop, Eva Brunne, in 2009. “Homosexuals also belong in the church, and I am a symbol of that,” she said in an interview in the Scandinavian LGBT magazine QX.

Another, and perhaps less liberal, example is Ireland. The Catholic country is one of Europe’s religious strongholds, as well as one of the last European states that still forbid women from having an abortion. (Significantly, Ireland recently passed a law allowing abortion if a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life.) Still, Ireland has a higher female labor participation rate than the European average.

Wikimedia

Protestors on the streets of Dublin in response to the death of an Indian woman who was refused an abortion.

Whether religions are created by man is an age-old debate, but religious institutions definitely are. Orzala Ashraf Nemat, executive director of the U.K.’s Youth and Women Leadership Centre, was also on the forum panel. She pointed out that female exclusion and discrimination on religious grounds might stem from other social factors and structures. Violence toward women in Afghanistan, her home country, is not a grassroots or bottom-up phenomenon, and “did not come out of Afghanistan’s people or their way of living.” Rather, “extremism is a product of conflicts that are related to geopolitics and global political issues,” she said.

Ashraf Nemat made a further interesting parallel when she discussed the popular view of the burqa as a symbol of oppression. “I wear the burqa sometimes. When I feel comfortable wearing it, I choose to wear it,” she said. “But when the Taliban were forcing Afghan women to wear the characteristic blue burqas with a net covering the eyes, I was protesting it.”

Ashraf Nemat concluded that the burqa can be a symbol of both oppression and choice, and that the garment is problematic only when women are forced by religious leaders to wear it.

The discussion at the WEF forum reminded us that the relationship between gender and religion is a highly complex one, and it also pointed to the importance of allowing women to make decisions for themselves and to gain more influence within conservative religious institutions. Asked a question about government intervention in religious matters, Archbishop Martin easily responded that religious leaders might need to allow increased female authority. But, he noted, “no one wants to be told what to do.”

Wikimedia

Group of women wearing burkas.

Higher Education Gets Another Online Challenger, as WEF Launches Its Own Web Courses

Student Reporter - Fri, 02/07/2014 - 13:37

On Jan. 22, the World Economic Forum announced the launch of its Forum Academy at its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The initiative, started in partnership with edX as the platform provider, will begin in May with the opening course, Global Technology Leadership. According to WEF Chief Information Officer Jeremy Jurgens, who’s leading the initiative, the idea is to put the WEF’s huge network of industry leaders and opinion-makers at the disposal of a global audience.

Other courses, with titles such as Changing Landscape in the Arab World and New Vision for Agriculture, will be launched in the spring and fall, at a cost of approximately 200 euros per course. Courses on various other issues and industries are set to follow. While some platforms such as Udacity and Codecademy focus on coding and computer science tutorials, the Forum Academy will have a broader selection of courses, similar to Coursera, edX or the Khan Academy, directed toward professionals and lifelong learners.

The WEF’s launch of its academy is the latest in a number of increasingly popular online platforms that are moving to compete with traditional higher education institutions at a time when the cost of higher education in the United States is rapidly rising. Yearly tuition costs often reach $40,000 at American universities, and in the past few years the country’s student loan bubble has increased to about $1 trillion.

This bubble was one of the topics discussed at this year’s Open Forum session titled “Higher Education: Investment or Waste?,” which took place parallel to the WEF in Davos. With the cost of a college degree now cripplingly expensive for many, students and parents are reassessing the value of higher education and looking for possible alternatives.

“Our education has not changed in hundreds of years,” said Anant Agarwal, president of edX, about the current Western model. “Great papers have been written [about it], but we really have not implemented any of the learning or ideas.”

Most panel participants agreed that the higher education industry has suffered from a lack of competitive alternatives, especially in the United States. While countries such as Switzerland and Germany have a strong apprenticeship culture, the U.S. largely lacks this alternative to a college education.

“Apprenticeship is still a very bad word in the Anglo-Saxon culture,” Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, told the audience. But David Callaway, editor-in-chief of USA Today and the panel’s moderator, said that is already changing. “The apprenticeship … is going to continue to grow as the demand for specific skills in these areas grows,” he said.

While apprenticeships are one alternative to traditional schooling, online courses are potentially transformative for the higher education industry. In fact, the arrival of free online courses has already forced universities to re-evaluate their own models, said Zach Sims, co-founder and CEO of the online coding-education platform Codecademy. “Now that [universities] are facing competition from the free market and from companies like ours, [they will] become better and will provide more credible alternatives to people,” Sims said at the panel talk.

Built as a platform “for anyone to learn the skills they need in order to find a job online,” according to Sims, Codecademy has gained millions of users since its founding in 2011, with more than 70 percent of them outside of the U.S. Thus, the WEF is attempting to push into a market already beginning to boom.

The rate at which universities have picked up online education has surprised Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor and the co-founder of the online education platform Coursera. “There is a sense … of urgency and realization that we are at the cusp of a huge transformation,” she said. With a network of more than 100 universities around the world, Coursera now offers about 600 courses ranging from physics and computer science to the humanities and arts.

Meanwhile, edX not only offers courses online but provides its open courses platform, OpenedX, for any organization to license a course, after receiving edX’s and its course partner’s approval. Agarwal, who is also a professor at MIT, said there are about 23 “blended” classes at MIT right now, noting, “In my own course, the students use the Khan-style videos that I created and watch them before they go to class.” This gives Agarwal more time to interact directly with the students and answer their questions.

In spite of online courses’ huge potential for education, their openness, which could be so transformative, can be a setback. “We’ve looked at the current learning models, and we’ve seen very low completion rates,” Jurgens said. “Success [for Forum Academy] would be that the majority of the students who sign up for the course take it to the end. The average rates [of completion for online courses] vary between 3 to 7 percent.” The WEF’s experiment includes a registration fee that serves as not only income but also as a commitment nudge. The fees varies for each course but will likely be around $200, Jurgens said.

The session’s panelists agreed that this model will need to blend with traditional education in the future. While Koller noted that 10 years ago people thought that the online model was by definition inferior to face-to-face instruction, she believes there is now a more nuanced view. She added that we need to combine the strengths and weaknesses of online education and face-to-face education “in a way that leverages the strengths of each and hopefully gives way to improved quality and cost.”

Sims agreed, adding that Codecademy is willing to work with universities. “We want to be an alternative,” he said. “We work with institutions, and we work on our own.”

With hundreds of classes offered to millions of students for free over the past few years, online education platforms have already started to disrupt the higher education world. This could increase competition in the industry, thus forcing universities to improve the quality of their education, and the platforms could also blend with traditional education to improve students’ learning experiences and potentially reduce costs. Koller sees one way to improve teaching: by getting rid of the old teaching model, with the professor standing and giving a lecture to hundreds. The new model, already in use on both edX and Coursera, favors interaction.*

Agarwal is already working on a third platform for online courses. Mooc.org (which stands for “massive online open courses”) is “a YouTube for courses,” he said. “We want anyone to be able to create a course, and anyone to take a course.”

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum

Forum Academy -- Davos in your bedroom? Note: Mr. Schwab is not, as far as we know, a course instructor for Forum Academy.

*Correction: February 21, 2014
The previous version sentence only pointed out edX as an example of the new model. Coursera was also added for clarification.

Apply: Be a Researcher for “Organic Solutions in Global Food Affairs” Research Team

Student Reporter - Wed, 02/05/2014 - 12:32

“We are teetering on the edge of a full-fledged food crisis,” reports Roberto Ferdman in Quartz.

To supplement our student newsroom’s journalistic coverage of the economics and politics of organic solutions in global food affairs, we are building a research team to produce a report in order to inform a public webcast at the end of our coverage and to share with our audience.

How is this different from any other research position? For one, you (and your two other fellow researchers) will take the lead in conceptualizing, researching for, and producing a 10-page report that carves out a unique and important niche as product parallel to our journalistic coverage.

Also, the report won’t stay within academic circles. It will be publicized to our readers as one of our media products and shared directly with our project’s stakeholders and industry experts.

You’ll be supported by an expert consultant from endeva, an independent research consultancy for development issues.

Fascinated by the topic but want to approach it as a journalist? Click here to apply to be a reporter instead.

Requirements (Deliverables):
  • You will work closely with your fellow researchers and expert consultant .
  • You will conduct necessary factual and interview-based research to co-author a (10-page report to be published in August.
  • We expect the overall commitment to average out to be 5 hrs/week from March – August (workload shifted more heavily to the later months).
Qualifications:
  • Enrolled in a higher education program (i.e. Bachelors-level or above, preferably at the Masters or Doctoral level).
  • Strong academic background in a discipline or phenomenon to bring sharpness to topic (no generalists!).
  • Research and report-writing experience, preferably in the topic of global food affairs.
  • Excellent written and verbal English skills.
Your Benefits:
  • Work with an international expert who will guide you through the topic and train you in report writing for a professional audience.
  • Get published as co-author of an impactful report for international stakeholders of our coverage project.
  • Discuss findings and implications of report during a public webinar.
  • Receive production support in design and copy editing.
Instructions for Application

Apply until 15 March, 2014 by filling out the application form here. Questions? Suggestions? Please post them in the comment section below.

While this position is unpaid, we can help you get University credits if that’s an option. For any questions, please contact t.lehmann[at]studentreporter.org.

The featured series on Organic Solutions in Global Food Affairs is supported by Mercator Foundation Switzerland

“When Elephants Fight, It’s the Grass That Suffers”: Refugee Simulation Tries to Speak to Davos Attendees

Student Reporter - Wed, 02/05/2014 - 11:04

“The bodies of our friends have been hung up outside. The football field is drenched in red color, the blood of our friends. They will come, they will come!” the man repeats again and again, his voice shaking with fear, his hands gesturing insistently.

And then they come. With loud voices and guns in their hands, they run into the small room. “Get out! Get out of here!” The message is unmistakable; nevertheless, our group hardly moves at first. We are all totally overpowered by the sudden, ruthless appearance of these armed men.

Then I feel the cold steel of the gun barrel on my forehead, and I finally move. We are pushed outside the room. A woman tells me to get down, and I hear heavy shooting. Then, in a moment when the gunfire seems to have stopped for a second, she sends me off along a narrow floodway. I don’t know how much I can take anymore: I hear the shooting, I see an injured woman lying in a corner—but nothing else. Then I reach the others.

Photo courtesy of the World Economic Forum

Actors in the refugee camp simulation threatens participants.

We’re a group of 15 to 20 people participating in Refugee Run, a simulation of life in refugee camps being put on for some of the world’s richest people at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There are many reporters among the group. One of them is a middle-aged reporter for ZDF, a German TV broadcaster. She went to the poverty camp at last year’s WEF and was deeply touched by the experience.

“Although I see a lot of poverty during my work, I found it was a very enriching experience that made me understand better why those people sometimes can’t act as we think it would be best to,” she says. “We sometimes tend to believe that we know what is best to do in their situation, neglecting the fact that we have no idea what issues they are really facing.”

This year the attention is strongly focused on Syria. For the world’s elite gathered in Davos, this peculiar project aims to create more empathy toward the refugees. It’s an uncomfortable concept: billionaires playing at refugees. Can the WEF participants really empathize with the suffering while also enjoying all the conveniences Davos has to offer?

Miserable “poverty porn” or voice for the voiceless?

While the self-described aim of the Crossroads Foundation is to advocate “education, empathy and empowerment,” there has been skeptical reaction to the Refugee Run. Forath Al-Hattab, a young woman representing Voices of Syria, says the simulation was “miserable” and insists that you cannot put someone into a refugee’s situation. Well-known economist William Easterly calls the Refugee Run an example of “poverty porn.”

Confronted with such negative statements, Malcolm Begbie, the Australian director of the Crossroads Foundation, replies, “Of course there will always be negative opinions about it. But these only come from people that are really cynical.”

Cynical or not, the question remains: Is this simulation really a disrespectful attempt to allow the rich and important to “feel” what 43.3 million refugees experience every day, to express their deep compassion and understanding, and then, as usual remain, inactive?

Smuggling, drugs, arms, chaos and despotism

It’s a question I don’t have time to immediately answer. Hiding behind my head scarf, I am holding on to my ID, given to me just before the beginning of the simulation. It feels as if the identity card is the only thing that can get me through all this safely. It wasn’t enough, though: The soldier looks at my ID, then looks suspiciously at me. He won’t let me into the camp. “What can you give me? Watch? Bracelet? Anything?” he asks.

This is how it usually works in the camps, as it is explained to me afterward. Theoretically, the camps are run by agencies, like the U.N.’s refugee agency, but in fact they are organized by soldiers or other armed men. Soldiers working in the camps earn very little money, hardly enough to survive on and support their families. That’s why the soldiers rape the refugees, taking the last of what they still own.

“No one would get anything, no food, no blankets, no medicine, without paying the soldier whatever we had on us, till we would have nothing left than the cloth on our bodies,” Raphael, a former refugee who acts in the simulation, tells us.

According to those manning the project, most of whom are former refugees, this simulation represents only about 15 percent run drug - and arms-smuggling networks through the camps a.

“I’ve even seen some camps where they give coffee to some young man—coffee which they previously put ecstasy in it to make these men addicted. Then they easily get them to join their circles of drug and arms smuggling,” David Begbie says.

He is the one who guides us through the simulation. He’s experienced himself the problems and hardships in refugee camps. For him, the gulf between life there and at the WEF in Davos is an essential part of the refugee condition. “Fact is that most of these refugees that are now living under the lowest bearable circumstances used to live a comfortable life before,” he says. “It gives us a hard time to imagine this. There are many high-qualified people among them, maybe doctors or professors or veterinarians.”

Lost potential

There is also a school at the simulated refugee camp. I am told to go there, and so I do. But the young woman trying to teach us is speaking in a foreign language, and none of us has the slightest clue what she is trying to tell us. Soon the class is over, disturbed, once again, by the shouting voices of the soldiers. Nobody knows what they want from us and why they are hassling us nonstop.

Alexandra Chen, the woman who plays the camp’s teacher, works for the aid agency Mercy Corps in Jordan. “I met young adults that have been going to school before, and they had plans on what they want to do with their lives. They had bright futures and lots of possibilities,” she says.

During the Refugee Run, it was always in the back of my mind that this was only a simulation. Although I heard that some people were moved to tears, I wasn’t. Nevertheless, I appreciated the experience, and I can’t deny that I didn’t feel uncomfortable, constantly trying to avoid any eye contact with the soldiers by staring at the ground and hiding behind my head scarf.

In the end, it wasn’t the simulation that struck me the most but the discussion afterward. It wasn’t just the facts; we all knew already that millions of people are suffering at this very moment. It was, instead, the words of sincere affection and the true stories of human beings and friends.

I was hardly able to ask David, one of the former refugees and a child soldier in Uganda, what it meant to him when playing in these scenarios. It must be like a needle that ceaselessly stabs you in your heart again and again. While others still have to bear those circumstances, he can justify his being here only by believing that the Run can have an impact on those attending, which in turn can have a positive impact on those he left behind.

He also believes it is his duty to give his people the voice they don’t have now, to remind those at Davos that “when elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.”

It can feel presumptuous to try to put ourselves into the situation of a refugee, a displaced and homeless person, when we have a comfortable home to go back to at the end of the Refugee Run. On the other hand, if this simulation actually has a lasting impact on some of the participants, as the Run’s team argues, it might be a justifiable and effective undertaking. I prefer to hope that the experience somehow reaches and touches the right people, those who can launch efforts that may improve the situations of those who really need it. And I hope that the Refugee Run can give a voice back to those who don’t have one at the moment.

Wikimedia

An aerial view of the Za'atri Refugee Camp in Jordan.

Nora Amman was a media trainee for Student Reporter as part of a partnership with Schweizerische Alpine Mittelschule.

Apply: Be a Student Reporter for Coverage on “Organic Solutions in Global Food Affairs”

Student Reporter - Tue, 02/04/2014 - 09:54

“We are teetering on the edge of a full-fledged food crisis,” reports Roberto Ferdman in Quartz.

Today, complex problems like the food crisis is not just an environmental issue, but concerns business, politics and economics as well. Through journalistic content and a multidisciplinary angle, we want to report on the economics and politics of global food production and consumption, with a focus on organic solutions.

You’ll be joining a global team of 10 student reporters to be led by two editors: Jori Lewis, an award-winning journalist currently based in Senegal and specializing in environment, agriculture and global development, and Athena Tacet, a Montreal-based data journalist and reporter specializing in foreign affairs, social, political, economic, and human rights issues.

They’ll push you outside your “academic comfort zone” through teaching basics of journalism and helping you research and produce in-depth stories, portraits of interesting characters in the space, and report on events and trends.

You’ll also be supported by the editorial and production team of Student Reporter, as well as a community of 100+ alum reporters and contributors.

Parallel to the newsroom team for this topic project, we will be working with endeva, a research consultancy to produce a report. Click here if you’re interested in being a research assistant for this.

Requirements (Deliverables):
  • Collaboration with fellow reporters during length of the program (March – August) through pitching story ideas, building on contacts and leads, resources and expertise.
  • Participation in internal team webinars and public webcast in August.
  • Produce three journalistic stories, assigned and supported by the editors. Deadlines for stories, each about 750 words long, will be spaced out during our publishing period of the project, April – August.
Qualifications:
  • Enrolled in a higher education program (i.e. Bachelors-level or above, preferably at the Masters or Doctoral level).
  • Strong academic background in a discipline or phenomenon to bring sharpness to topic (no generalists!).
  • Proven track record and interest in the topic of global food affairs.
  • Excellent written and verbal English skills.
  • Experience in online journalism a plus.
Your Benefits:
  • Get out of the classroom: Unique experience of exploring the topic of global food affairs guided by two experienced journalists.
  • Learn how to communicate through stories and critically investigate the topic as a journalist.
  • Publishing of articles on our site, as well as our syndication partners including The Huffington Post, Greenbiz.com, Triple Pundit and any others you would like to pitch to.
  • In case you want to participate in a local conference or event on the topic during the project period we can help you get press credentials.
  • Chance to organize and participate in a public webinar with international experts and journalists.
Instructions for Application

Apply until 15 March 2014 by filling out the application form here.

For any questions, please contact t.lehmann[at]studentreporter.org.

The featured series on Organic Solutions in Global Food Affairs is supported by Mercator Foundation Switzerland


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