Organic Checkoff Program Advances

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) today released a proposal intended to get more organic food onto shopping lists and dinner plates across the country by pooling money from organic farmers, handlers, and processors to promote the sector, educate consumers, and conduct research on organic production methods. Once up and running, the program could invest more than $30 million annually, according to estimates by the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

“We’re really pleased the USDA is moving forward this well vetted proposal,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the OTA. “It is an industry self-investment that makes a lot of sense now and will make a lot of sense in the new administration as well.”

The proposal appeared on the Federal Register today, and it’s a big step in a process that has already taken over two years of collaboration by multiple stakeholders. It also arrives at a critical moment for the organic industry. Though organic food is increasingly popular—sales were up 11 percent to $43.5 billion in 2015—U.S.-grown supply isn’t keeping up with demand. Despite the growing market, the complicated and costly process of becoming a certified organic grower keeps many farmers from attempting the transition. At the same time, labels like “natural” and “non-GMO” are sowing confusion with consumers about the true meaning and value of the organic designation. OTA says the proposed program is designed to address these challenges.

But not everyone in the organic industry is on board. Several branches of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the National Family Farm Coalition, the Western Organic Dairy Producers, and nearly 60 other groups oppose the idea of the program, which they call “an additional tax” on farmers.

Similar plans—called “checkoff” programs—have long existed for commodities such as milk, beef, and eggs. Producers are required to pay into a central fund, and the money goes to education, research, and promotions—think “Got Milk?” or “Pork: The Other White Meat.”

In 2014, a new Farm Bill was signed into law. The legislation allowed organic producers to opt out of conventional commodity checkoffs and called for the creation of an organic program if there was sufficient interest. For the first time, a checkoff program could be defined by how a food is produced rather than by what it is. OTA then submitted an application in May 2015 to the USDA to get the process started.

Here’s how it would work, according to the current proposal: The program, called GRO Organic (Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic), would be run by a 17-member board of directors, independent of the OTA. Any larger business with an organic certification—from the farmer who grows the organic cucumbers to the processor who turns them into organic pickles—would contribute, unless it already belongs to another checkoff program and chooses to stay with that group. Small businesses—those with less than $250,000 in revenue—are not required to join but can opt in. The board will be made up of a split between farmers and handlers.

“The entire value chain is inextricably linked,” Batcha said. “Acknowledging that, the program is built so that everybody participates.”

Supporters of the proposal include leaders of Organic Valley’s dairy cooperative, Stonyfield Farm, Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, and Late July Snacks.

The board would run educational initiatives and promotional campaigns intended to boost demand by helping consumers understand the benefits of organic foods. Growing demand, in turn, should help lure more farmers into making the leap from conventional agriculture.

According to the checkoff’s supporters, farmers and processors wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit, however. Together, greater supply and more efficient farming should make organic a more affordable option, said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

“Over time, real prices should fall,” said Cook. “That’s a positive thing for consumers.”

At the same time, the program would conduct research into areas such as farming technology and more effective pest control techniques, making production more efficient. At least 25 percent of the GRO Organic funds would go to local and regional research. These funds would also support technical assistance, helping organic farmers improve their growing practices.

Support for the proposal, however, is far from universal.

“The concern we have is checkoffs have not done what they are designed to do,” said John Bobbe, executive director of the Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing, which opposes the proposed program.

Checkoff organizations have a long history of mismanagement and abuse, he said, pointing for example to recent allegations that the American Egg Board illegally used funds to conspire against the vegan mayonnaise company Hampton Creek. Furthermore, he worries that the needs of processors and handlers could override the interests of farmers—who have traditionally received a small portion of the profit from the $40 billion-and-growing organic market.

Batcha stresses that the proposal is designed to avoid the pitfalls that have plagued some conventional commodity checkoffs. Board members are limited to two three-year terms to prevent any one person from accumulating too much influence. In addition, members of the program would have to vote on whether to continue the checkoff every seven years, to hold the organization accountable to those it represents, Batcha said.

“Stakeholders paying in have the comfort that they get to evaluate every seven years whether it’s working,” she said.

Still, many are skeptical of any program overseen by the government. Checkoffs overseen by the USDA are not allowed to disparage other products; some wonder whether it makes sense to promote organic foods without claiming that they are healthier or safer than their less-pricey conventional alternatives.

“You can be more flexible with your messaging and even more efficient with the dollars if you’re not tied to the government,” said Harriet Behar, senior organic specialist with the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).

And there are alternatives to going through the USDA, she noted. Pistachio growers, for example, have formed a voluntary, independent checkoff that is not subject to the same governmental restrictions.

The proposal released today will be open for public comment for 60 days. Supporters are hoping the incoming administration won’t do anything to interfere with the program.

“This is an industry that came to Washington and said, ‘We want regulation so we can grow,’” Cook said. “That kind of entrepreneurial zeal should not be discouraged.”

Once the proposal has been finalized, organic farmers and processors will get to vote on whether to make the program a reality.

“A yes vote in this referendum would begin this grand seven-year experiment, to see whether industry coordination can make a difference,” Batcha said.

When startups collide: Greentown Labs hopes working elbow to elbow can create innovation

When clean technology incubator Greentown Labs moved from South Boston, Massachusetts, to the neighboring city of Somerville in 2013, the sprawling new facility was a little daunting, said chief executive Emily Reichert. With 18 member companies – all small startups – the organization filled less than half the 33,000 square feet in the building.

“At that time, it seemed like an incredibly big space,” she said.

Less than two years later, Greentown Labs has expanded into every corner of the former envelope factory. With 44 member companies employing 285 people, Greentown Labs has become the largest clean tech incubator in the US, Reichert said. Member startups are working on everything from data-collecting sailboats tofloating wind turbines.

“It’s become a cultural center of forward thinking entrepreneurial activity,” said Gabe Blanchet, co-founder of Grove Labs, a Greentown tenant that is developing residential-scale aquaponic systems that allow tenants to grow vegetables indoors.

The Boston area has long been known as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurial activity, from the computer technology corridor that boomed along Route 128 in the 1980s to today’s flourishing biosciences sector. Greentown Labs aims to join this tradition, giving innovative sustainability-focused startups the traction they need to turn their bold ideas into game-changing realities. But until one of its growing startups makes it big – something that has not happened yet – its model of collaboration and resource sharing remains unproven.

Greentown Labs began in late 2010, when four clean energy startups, all with ties to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, came together to split the rent on a rundown warehouse space in East Cambridge. There, they could tinker, tweak, and try out their intended products. When the warehouse was demolished in 2011, the four companies moved to a space in South Boston, expanding and bringing in more young enterprises. After just two years, the incubator had outgrown its new space and decided to move again.

When Somerville mayor Joseph Curtatone heard Greentown was looking for a new home, he decided to woo the group to his city, offering $300,000 in tax incentives.

“They bring us everything we hope for in the type of companies we need to build our locally-sustainable economy,” said Curtatone, who also ordered one of Grove Labs’ first home aquaponics system.

Framed by lime green and teal blue walls, Greentown’s Somerville office is a tightly-packed collection of desks where employees study product designs, cluster together around laptops, and share ideas and advice over cups of coffee. Workshop space runs along the back and side of the building, where 3D printers whirr, plants grow under LED lights, and prototypes are assembled and honed.

Neither traditional incubators nor shared work spaces are new ideas. Greentown Labs, however, is carving out a distinctive space for itself somewhere between the two models.

Unlike most incubators, Greentown does not take equity in member companies, nor seats on their boards. Accepted companies pay $425 per month for each desk they need and $3.20 per month for each square foot of lab space.

Greentown does, however, shape the workplace environment with a careful member selection process. Successful applicants intend to produce manufactured products rather than software or services, and generally have existing investments from outside sources, Reichert said. To nurture collaboration, Greentown Labs will not accept any companies that are direct competitors with existing members.

Perhaps most importantly, all members must have an interest in cleantech and in building businesses that solve global problems, Reichert said. The result of these policies is a group of companies that easily and eagerly trade expertise and advice, according to those involved.

“Whenever we have a question or a problem, the first thing we do is throw it out to the Greentown email list,” said Ben Glass, CEO of high altitude wind turbine producer Altaeros Energies, another Greentown founder. Someone is almost always able to help immediately, he said.

Greentown also forms partnerships with corporate sponsors, including Shell, Chevron, American Airlines and Microsoft. These sponsorships, which provide about 20% of Greentown’s revenue, according to Reichert, also connect member startups with major companies that in search of new technology. In addition, the incubator hosts networking events and job fairs to help member companies make business connections and find new employees and interns.

Greentown is also hiring a manager who will help the young businesses contact and communicate with manufacturing partners. Often, Reichert said, new entrepreneurs have big ideas, but little practical knowledge about how to make the leap from prototype to production. She hopes the new manager will help bridge that gap.

With the current facility at 100% occupancy, Greentown’s directors are considering what comes next. They are looking at ways to expand within Somerville and exploring partnerships elsewhere in Massachusetts, Reichert said. The group has already started consulting with organizations looking to build their own technology incubators.

Jeff Anthony, director of the Energy Innovation Center at the Mid-West Energy Research Consortium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said Greentown’s advice has been crucial in developing plans for an innovation center. He point specifically to the idea of “maximizing collisions”: creating a space that generates encounters between occupants and their ideas.

“They’ve been a proven success and we’re hoping to learn even more from them,” Anthony said.

Meanwhile, many will continue watching Greentown to see if a physical space that increases collisions will ultimately end up sparking big wins – or not.

This story originally appeared at TheGuardian.com on April 14, 2015.

Big plans for Ocean Alliance

GLOUCESTER – Just outside the faded red buildings of the former Tarr and Wonson paint factory on Rocky Neck, new oceanographic technology is taking flight.

On a foggy summer morning, a small robotic drone designed for whale research buzzes and swoops overhead. It is a high-flying sign that the once-neglected site is springing back to life under the oversight of conservation nonprofit Ocean Alliance.

“It’s very exciting, where we’re going with the robotics,” said Iain Kerr, the group’s chief executive. “This is really a new generation in oceanography.”

PaintfactorySlightly more than a year after moving in, Ocean Alliance is realizing its plans to restore the historic waterfront property, long considered an icon of Gloucester’s maritime industry; develop advanced robotic research tools; and become an educational resource for the community.

A robotics lab, which arrived in July, provides the alliance and its partner, Needham’s Olin College of Engineering, the space and tools to develop drones for whale research.

The lab is housed in a converted shipping container once used as a pop-up retail shop by the athletic-wear company Puma. Situated in the alliance parking lot, the container is lined with wood floors and walls; a large parallelogram-shaped window breaks up the front wall.

The space will make it easier for the alliance and Olin to continue work on the drone they affectionately call the SnotBot. This small, automated copter is intended to fly close enough to whales that it can collect samples of the creatures’ blowhole spray to be analyzed for bacteria, DNA, and hormones.

The lab will be outfitted with tools such as soldering irons, 3-D printers, and drone flight simulators to help engineers and students create more reliable, durable, and effective robots. The goal is to create an affordable, easy-to-use drone that can collect data and transmit the information to a computer on land or on a ship. And it must be easy to fly.

“Our ultimate goal is to build an autonomous air vehicle that a sleep-deprived, seasick person can operate,” said Andrew Bennett, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Olin. “Having a trained roboticist on site with you shouldn’t be necessary.”

Once the technology is developed, Bennett said, it will have plenty of marine science applications beyond whale research. He has already started talking with other groups interested in using the drones to track tuna populations and survey oyster reefs, he said.

Eventually, Kerr intends to start a robotics club that would provide instruction and encouragement to adults and students interested in learning more about the field.

“The idea is to support STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] education,” Kerr said.

Even as it gets the new lab up and running, Ocean Alliance is also working on the restoration of the paint factory. The seven buildings – built in the 1870s – were once home to the Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory, which produced barnacle-resistant copper paint for use on boats.

The company closed in the 1980s and the buildings – some clad in brick, others in decaying clapboards – stood vacant for 30 years. Bricks cracked, clapboards began to chip and rot, on the side of the building the white words “Copper Paint” faded.

In 2008, Ocean Alliance bought the property for $2 million, helped by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Initial renovations had to be completed before the group was able to move in.

Over the years, the paint production process caused significant contamination to the property. Kerr, however, sees the situation as a chance for Ocean Alliance to contribute even more to its environmental mission by cleaning up the land.

“It’s exciting that this is a polluted site,” he said.

Thus far, the alliance has refurbished one of the buildings, a sturdy brick structure that now houses its administrative offices. Inside, the space is light, open and modern, with decorations of a decidedly cetacean bent: orca paintings, whale carvings, antique whaling maps.

The restoration of the factory’s 60-foot chimney has just been completed as well, and work has begun on a second building.

Another $4 million will be needed to achieve the remaining renovations at the site, Kerr said. Two of the structures were too dilapidated to be restored and have been razed. The group plans to build new structures of the same dimensions in their place.

Kerr promises to keep the buildings as true to their history as possible. “We’re going to do everything in our power to keep the outside as iconic as we can,” he said.

He hopes to have renovations complete and a dock built by next spring.

The city has embraced Ocean Alliance. With the ongoing decline of the fishing industry, city leaders have been looking for ways to keep the Gloucester waterfront active and thriving. They are encouraging traditional uses, such as seafood processing and tourism, as well as newer industries such as marine science and technology.

Ocean Alliance’s plans to both restore a historic property and encourage scientific innovation on the waterfront are a perfect match for these goals, said Gloucester community development director Tom Daniel.

“The fact that they’re taking an iconic property and putting it back into productive use and restoring it is kind of icing on the cake,” he said.

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe on August 3, 2014. Click here for the story and a photo gallery.

Keeping it simple

In 2009, Ory Zik was in China, helping build a massive solar concentrator, a device with the potential to generate significant amounts of green energy. But then he started asking himself some questions.

It took energy to manufacture the steel components of the concentrator. China generates much of its energy by burning coal. How, Zik wondered, could he determine the net environmental effect the project would really have?

So he resigned from his position and started figuring out the answer.

“The biggest challenge humanity is facing is to get off fossil fuel,” said Zik, a serial innovator and entrepreneur. “The fundamental problem is that we don’t understand the numbers.”

Thus was born EnergyPoints, the Boston-based company he founded with the aim of harnessing the power of computer analytics and big data to help inform and improve business decisions about resource usage. And it might just be on the way to success. In the nearly three years since the company launched, EnergyPoints’s software platform has become popular with sustainability consultants and some of their biggest clients: approximately 50 Fortune 500 firms are using the tool in some form, Zik said.

The key to the company’s approach is the eponymous EnergyPoint, a single unit of measurement that allows direct comparison between electricity usage, waste, water consumption, and heating and cooling energy expenditures.

One EnergyPoint equates to the impact of using one gallon of gasoline. Zik chose this baseline because a gallon of gasoline – unlike a British Thermal Unit or a kilowatt-hour – is a unit understood by most people.

EnergyPoints software uses 1.8b conversion factors to translate other kinds of resource usage into this shared metric. The calculations take into account many elements to capture each resource’s total impact. Geography comes into play: Electricity generated in a region that has a high solar capacity might have fewer EnergyPoints than power that comes mainly from coal-burning plants, for example. For water usage, scarcity is a significant component of the calculation. A gallon of water in arid Las Vegas is likely to have a higher EnergyPoint value than the same amount in the rainy Northwest.

The software lets users enter their business’ usage data and then parse, filter and display the information in many different ways. Users can view cost and EnergyPoint usage across the whole enterprise or by location. Facilities can be compared by usage per square foot, revenue or headcount.

“EnergyPoints is a great way to be able to pull that information into a single portal and be able to identify that performance,” said Kreg Schmidt, a partner with Accenture Smart Building Solutions, which offers the software to clients as part of its services.

Even more important, however, are the system’s project planning features, Schmidt said. Users contemplating energy-saving projects can enter their plans into the system (or choose from existing project templates) to see cost and savings projections.

“It basically spits out the answer – what should I implement?” Schimdt said.

Once a project is chosen and started, users can track its progress on the software, comparing results to goals and to the expected status quo had no action been taken.

Consulting company SustainEdge offers EnergyPoints to its clients and uses the platform itself to determine how to target prospective customers, CEO Greg Stine said.

Because EnergyPoint calculations incorporate geographically specific data, SustainEdge can use that information to determine where businesses are most likely to benefit from improved energy efficiency, he said. In the US, the water and wind-rich northwest, for example, likely contains fewer prospects that the northeast, with its aging electricity infrastructure and high energy costs, he said.

“We’ll use that to focus on the most heavily energy-intense regions, because those are the companies that are going to be facing the most pressure, whether from their customers or regulators,” Stine said.

There is widespread agreement that corporate energy-efficiency initiatives, like those supported by EnergyPoints, have at least a theoretical potential to drive significant reductions in energy consumption. However, several factors may make it harder for this movement to live up to its promise, said Christopher Knittel, professor of energy economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

For example, energy-saving projects might have a hard time getting traction inside a company if incentives are not properly aligned – or if costs exceed the savings. A factory supervisor who receives a bonus based on production numbers is likely to resist a renovation that requires him to shut down operations for a few days, Knittel pointed out. And even successfully installed projects sometimes result in lower savings than anticipated, he added.

For Zik, however, the ongoing goal is to give corporations the numbers they need to make these decisions as effectively as possible and to grow a successful business of his own doing so. “We have a combination of a big idea and a very focused business,” Zik said.

This story originally ran on TheGuardian.com on December 12, 2013.

Emerson game lab aims to fix local, global problems

The game itself is really quite simple. Its purpose, though, could have a profound effect on its players.

Every year, seasonal rains flood the giant Zambezi River in Zambia, often displacing tens of thousands of people who live along it.

So the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre is getting Zambians who live near the river to play a game: text their predictions about changes in the river’s water level, with the best guessers winning points toward a prize.

But the real objective is to get residents to be more attuned to the river’s fluctuations, so they are better prepared as water levels rise, and can escape well before flooding hits their homes.

“The game can literally save lives,” said Pablo Suarez, associate director of research and innovation for the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.

The game used by the international organization is a product of the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, a group of play-oriented programmers, designers, and researchers who see video and computer games as a promising medium for promoting civic involvement and solving problems from neighborhood planning to global warming.

The Cape Cod Commission is currently using the Emerson lab’s platform to run Cape-2-O, as part of a communitywide exercise to gather input on solving the region’s waste-water problems. Players watch short videos about Cape Cod and the water issues it faces, then provide their own answers and suggestions. They can also view and comment on other responses. Some 330 players have enrolled in the Cape Cod game.

To move on in the game, players must answer multiple-choice trivia questions about Cape Cod’s water systems.

Advancing players earn virtual coins they can use to make the trivia questions easier or to make pledges to local nonprofits. The three charities with the most pledged coins will each get $1,000 at the end of the game, while the Cape Cod Commission will use the suggestions from players to help develop a countywide waste-water plan.

Similar Community PlanIt games, as the Emerson lab calls them, have been played by residents in Detroit, Salem, and Quincy. The games all have the same elements, but with features and details customized to the location.

“If we can produce games that are integrated into civic life, then we can create meaningful platforms to make people feel like they can make a difference,” game lab founder and director Eric Gordon said.

Using video games will allow organizers and officials to reach younger people who might find traditional community meetings too staid or too daunting, Gordon said.

Games give people “permission to participate in a way that doesn’t feel as high-stakes as it might otherwise,” he said, and it makes it easier for people who might be reluctant to speak before a public audience to voice their opinion remotely.

The Emerson lab has developed a game, “Civic Seed,” in collaboration with Tufts University. Tufts students interested in doing volunteer work will play characters wandering through a gray landscape, seeking botanist characters who will give them colorful “seeds” they can plant to brighten the drab world.

To earn those seed rewards, players will have to answer questions about civic engagement and their own experience and goals.

Each player is assigned her own hue, so as color spreads through the game, students can track their own progress and that of their classmates. The game will serve as an orientation experience, preparing them for volunteer work in the Somerville area.

“The very act of pursuit in a game — where you’re trying to figure something out and trying to accomplish a goal — actually helps the brain to retain learning,” said Nancy Wilson, interim dean of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts.

The Engagement Game Lab was born from a series of loosely related research projects Gordon was working on, including one with the City of Boston to incorporate virtual online worlds into urban planning.

That effort led to a game in 2010, called Participatory Chinatown, in which players wandered a virtual version of the neighborhood, searching for resources and exploring potential development sites. Residents could play on their own or at meetings set up by the game developers.

Holly St. Clair, director of data services for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency that sponsored the game, said the Chinatown exercise triggered strong responses from players.

“People were talking to each other. That’s what a planning meeting should be like,” St. Clair said. “You should be making connections, you should be learning, you should be trying to problem-solve together.”

The game’s results, along with more traditional community meetings, informed the 2010 Chinatown master plan. Furthermore, the experience convinced organizers there was potential in using games to spur community engagement.

Since its formation in 2010 the game lab has expanded rapidly, to a staff of seven and its own space on Boylston Street. The staff includes full-time professionals as well as student researchers from Emerson and other schools in the area.

The lab is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, as well as contributions from its client communities.

And the list of clients is growing.

The lab has games in the works for South Central Los Angeles and Cape Town, South Africa.

“Street Cred,” a game set to be launched in Boston this summer, will encourage people to report potholes and broken street lights through their phones.

Within a few weeks, a pilot version of the Zambezi game will get underway, and this fall Gordon will teach a class at Emerson in which his students will design games to tackle problems presented by Suarez’s team at the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre.

“We’re trying to push a little farther on what a game can do,” Gordon said.

Students seek connection with robots

HAVERHILL — At the front of Room 201 in the Moody School, a robot is holding court.

Classroom aide Bernadette Roy leads the activity, but it is the 2-foot-tall humanoid figure talking, gesticulating, and even dancing that has the rapt attention of the four preschoolers in attendance.

When the robot, named Chip by the school staff, asks students to touch its right hand, Zeeshan Etesham, a small boy in an oversize T-shirt that reads “Autism is my superpower,” reaches out to do so. He taps the correct sensor and the robot claps its three-fingered hands in encouragement.

“It’s incredibly exciting, because you can see the power of it on the student’s face,” said Sandra O’Connor, the school’s evaluation team facilitator.

Chip is one of two robots — the second is named Connor — that Aldebaran Robotics recently donated to Moody School. The preschool is one of just three schools worldwide that are part of the Paris-based company’s efforts to understand how this robot model, known as NAO, can best be used with autistic children in classrooms.

Robot

Both robots are roughly human-shaped and, with 25 joints, they move fluidly and expressively. When they speak, their gestures emphasize the words and when at rest, their torsos sway ever so slightly, as if they were breathing. They even say “ouch” when they stumble into obstacles.

The robots have so much personality that staffers refer to each of them as “him” or “our friend,” and never as “it.”

One of the goals is to teach autistic children social skills — such as eye contact, listening, and responding to others – that they can transfer to interactions with people, Roy said.

The science on that point is not yet clear, however, said Brian Scassellati, a Yale University professor of computer science who researches the use of robots with autistic children.

“Everything we’re looking at right now in this field is very preliminary,” he said. “Is it ready for large-scale adoption? Not at all.”

In one activity at the Moody School, Chip asks students to pick a picture of a certain animal from cards Roy has laid in front of them. In another, the robot performs tai chi movements and the children are encouraged to follow along.

“They are learning visually from him; they’ll mimic his movements,” O’Connor said.

The robots can record data from sessions with individual students, allowing teachers and parents to track progress online.

Autism, a brain development disorder that generally involves difficulty with social interactions and communication, has become an increasingly common diagnosis. An estimated 1 in 88 children in the United States has some type of autism, such as autistic disorder, childhood disintegrative disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome. That’s more than 10 times higher than the rate 40 years ago, according to research and advocacy organization Autism Speaks.

Understanding of how to best treat and educate children with some form of autism is still limited, but the use of robots is an emerging — and promising — approach.

“Every time we put a robot with a child with autism, we see the kids get very excited, very motivated, and very engaged,” said Scassellati. “If it really does work, this is a great step forward for us.”

A few years ago, Aldebaran decided to start investigating ways that NAO robots, now used mostly in robotics research and computer science education at the high school and university levels, could be programmed to work with children with various forms of autism, said Olivier Joubert, head of Aldebaran’s autism program.

Chip and Connor came to Moody School after O’Connor watched a November segment on NBC’s “Today Show” about the company’s robots being used with autistic students at a school in England. She wrote to Aldebaran, and to her surprise, Joubert wrote back. The two communicated further, and in December, Joubert visited the school. The next month, O’Connor got an e-mail telling her two robots were on their way, free of charge, from Paris to Haverhill.

The robots are currently priced at about $16,000, though Aldebaran has not yet decided what it will charge for models programmed to work with autistic children, Joubert said.

He said he chose Moody School to be part of the testing phase partially because of its proximity to Aldebaran’s Boston office and the opportunity to help a lower-income community. But mostly, he said, he picked Haverhill because the school and its staff just felt right.

Moody integrates students with disabilities and autistic disorders into classes with typically- developing students. The two robots have been used with, and enjoyed by, all the students for about three weeks, O’Connor said. But the impact on autistic students stands out, she said.

“We have seen changes in the children, in their ability to pay attention” she said. “There isn’t another tool they have reacted to like that.”

Jackie Gallagher’s son, Caydan, was diagnosed as autistic when he was 20 months old. He responds well to visual cues, she said, and was immediately taken with the robot, which is more predictable and less impulsive than other children, or even adults.

“That’s why he really embraces it — he knows what to expect,” Gallagher said.

Staff at the Moody School are in frequent contact with Aldebaran and offer suggestions about how the robots could be improved. They would like them programmed to demonstrate yoga moves, for example, and wonder if some of the sensors can be made more touch-sensitive.

O’Connor said it’s exciting for the school to be involved in such a pioneering project. And she’s still amazed it came about because of one impulsive e-mail.

“It has just snowballed into something fantastic,” she said.

This story originally appeared in The Boston Globe on April 19, 2013. Click here to read the story, see photos, and learn more about NAO.

Igniting Chattanooga’s Superfast Network

Jack Studer wants to fax you a sandwich. And he’s hoping that, eventually, the pack of tech geniuses, visionaries, and entrepreneurs that make up Chattanooga’s inaugural Gig Tank will help him do so.

The Gig Tank, organized by Studer and other Chattanooga businesspeople,  is a summer-long workshop and competition that brings together fledging tech businesses and talented college students and asks them to unleash their creativity on Chattanooga’s gigabit-per-second fiber optic network—the first of its kind in the country.

“We will be pushing them to form teams, target and attack problems, pitch ideas, build concepts and prototypes,” says Brian Trautschold, co-founder of Chattanooga media streaming company retickr and one of the Gig Tank organizers.

While Google has recently made waves with its plans to wire up Kansas City with a 1 Gbps fiber optic system, Chattanooga is already experimenting with what that kind of infrastructure can do. And the results have been encouraging: The super-fast service has sparked technological innovation and helped lure hundreds of jobs to the city…

Read the rest of this story at Good.is, where it was posted on June 19, 2012.

Farmers markets adopt new technologies

This story was originally published in The Boston Globe on June 27, 2012. Read the story on Boston.com.

At the Dewey Square farmers market in Boston, leafy greens spill out of boxes next to stacks of ruby red cherries. Bundles of deep orange carrots spread across tables. Customers inspect produce, load vegetables into shopping baskets — and whip out smartphones to track the origin of the food they are about to buy.

Technology has come to farmers markets, and it is transforming a cash-only business model that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries. Across the state, these modern-day bazaars are adopting wireless technologies, smartphone apps, and other advances to process electronic payments, promote their wares, and establish virtual markets where customers can buy from dozens of Massachusetts farms over the Internet.

As a result, farmers and other vendors are increasing sales as technology allows customers across the income scale to buy more local foods. In particular, the ability to accept credit, debit, and other electronic payments has opened the markets to low-income families who receive food stamps, known today as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Since the early 1990s, when the state stopped issuing paper vouchers, food stamp recipients have used electronic benefit transfer cards, similar to prepaid credit cards. But without card-scanning equipment, most farmers markets were unable to accept them.

Yet as new technologies emerge and costs decline, farmers markets are purchasing card readers and systems to process food stamp benefits. Today, more than a third of the state’s 247 seasonal farmers markets accept the benefits, and sales to food stamp recipients soared to more than $220,000 last year from less than $5,000 in 2007, according to state figures.

Advocates, meanwhile, say lower-income families — many who live in so-called food deserts, or areas without supermarkets — have easier access to fruit, vegetables, and better nutrition.

“It really improves accessibility for people at all income levels to fresh, local produce,” said Mimi Hall, operations manager for the Boston Public Market Association, which runs markets at Dewey Square and City Hall Plaza.

These Boston markets have accepted electronic food stamp payments since 2010. Cards are swiped at a central location, where shoppers charge a certain amount and receive tokens or laminated “market bucks” they can spend with vendors. Sellers are later reimbursed from the market’s central account.

It costs an average of $1,255 to buy equipment and run the system for a six-month season, although many markets have won state and federal grants to cover some costs, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In many locations, card readers that process food stamp benefits are also used to accept debit and credit cards, employing the same token system.

This system can be awkward, admitted Jeff Cole, executive director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Market in Waltham. But efforts are underway to simplify it. His group is developing software that would allow vendors to use smartphones, iPod Touches, or other wireless devices to conduct transactions.

Customers would still swipe cards at a central location, but, instead of getting tokens, they would create an account. Vendors would then use wireless devices to charge those accounts. “It’s a banking system that’s within the market itself,” Cole said.

Some vendors have turned to smartphone accessories such as the Square, developed by San Francisco tech company Square Inc., and the GoPayment system, by Intuit of Mountain View, Calif. In both cases, a small device plugs into a smartphone or laptop to allow vendors to swipe cards. An associated app processes payments and keeps transaction records.

Brian Petrie Jr. of Q’s Nuts, which sells roasted, sweetened nuts at 10 markets in the Boston area, estimates that each market day Square allows him to make 10 sales he would have lost if he accepted only cash.

Vendors are not limiting their use of technology to payment processing. Red’s Best, a Boston seafood company, uses software and mobile apps so customers can learn the source of the fish they buy. The company, which sells at the Dewey Square and City Hall Plaza markets, initially developed the system to ensure an efficient distribution system, tracking the fish from boat to pier to market.

Now it gives customers access to this information through QR codes – those scrambled-looking bar codes that can be scanned by smartphones – linked to each type of fish. Currently, the QR codes are displayed on signs at the market booth, but soon each individual package of fish will be labeled with its own code.

Shoppers with smartphones need only capture the code with their devices’ cameras and they are linked to a page describing the origins of the fish. Scan the code for cod and learn that the day’s catch was made by Tim Barrett on the vessel Odessa, using a hand line and fishing out of Woods Hole.

One shopper, Bronwyn Cooke of Somerville, said the system is appealing because it makes it easier for potential buyers to sort out questions about where food comes from.

“It’s confusing for any consumer to figure out what’s a responsible choice,” she said. “The codes are super helpful.”


For Red’s Best, said Jason Tucker, the company’s farmers market manager, the tracking system has proved an effective marketing tool. “It creates a lot of consumer confidence for us,” he said, “and we do get a lot of repeat business.”

Technology is also allowing farmers markets to migrate from city and town squares to the Web. The Massachusetts Local Food Cooperative, which operates in central Massachusetts, has launched a website on which 40 participating farmers list available produce, plants, and meat.

Members place orders online, and, the first Friday of every month, farmers deliver to a central location, where the coop’s volunteers sort products into orders and deliver them to seven pickup sites.

“Farming is a hard way to make a living,” said Cole. “More shoppers with more access, spending more money, means the farmers’ business will be enhanced.”

Five ways OpenCape will make a difference

OpenCape is coming.

In the past five years, the new Capewide broadband system has gone from a conceptual proposal to a $40-million project in the early stages of construction.

But when the 350 miles of fiber optic cable are laid and communications are flying between wireless relay stations, what will that mean for Cape Cod? What will we have after OpenCape that wasn’t possible before?

To answer these questions, we’ve rounded up five projects that plan to take advantage of the new system to improve the environment, the economy and public safety in the region.

1. 700 Mhz Public Safety Communications System: The 700 Mhz broadcast spectrum used to be occupied by televisions channels that have since switched to digital transmissions. The band is now designated for use by public safety departments.

On Cape Cod, the creation of a 700 Mhz system will occur in concert with the construction of OpenCape, explained Sean O’Brien, emergency preparedness coordinator for Barnstable County. Once the system is installed, public safety responders on the Cape will be able to transmit more information at quicker speeds, he said.

That could allow ambulances to send more patient data to hospitals, better preparing the emergency room to receive the patient, O’Brien said. Firefighters could have streaming video of an incident available in their vehicles, so they would be able to spend less time assessing the situation upon arrival.

“It really expands the different types of services that they may have available to them,” O’Brien said.

2. Sandwich Economic Initiative Corp.: The goal of the SEIC is to encourage sustainable development in Sandwich, board member John Kennan said. And OpenCape can help, he said.

“Enhanced broadband, is going to allow us to attract businesses that would not otherwise come to Sandwich — or the Cape, for that matter,” he said.

The Sandwich Industrial Park and the South Sandwich village center (formerly referred to as the Golden Triangle) are particular targets for growth, he said.

Sandwich could also be a likely location for “co-offices,” which allow current commuters to work remotely from a well-equipped office space, said Dan Gallagher, chief executive of OpenCape Corp., the nonprofit organization managing the construction of the new network.

“Over 15,000 people cross the bridges every day to commute to work off-Cape,” he said. “It makes no sense for a company to pay $200 per square foot to lease office space in Boston for an employee to commute 30, 40, 50 or even 60 miles on congested roads to go to a cubicle and work on a computer.”

3. Electronic permitting: Efforts are underway at the town and county levels to use OpenCape’s increased bandwidth in order to move the process of permitting building projects online.

“We’re trying to get the region together on that,” Cape Cod Commission executive director Paul Niedzwiecki said. “There’s a whole host of things where that electronic permitting would be extraordinarily helpful.”

Though the details are still to be worked out, an online permitting system could allow contractors to enter the details of their proposed projects and print out all the forms they would need.

“Ultimately, you could permit certain things and not even have to go to town hall,” Niedzwiecki said.

An online system could also allow developers to see more precisely what reviews and approvals a project would require, he said. And better understanding of regulations could make for better projects, he said.

“It would give a more realistic estimate of what that regulation would be,” he said. “Sometimes people artificially constrain projects to avoid review, and sometimes they end up not building as much square footage as they need to be successful.”

4. Center for Innovative Water Technologies: Announced in May, the CIWT is to be a Woods Hole research center focused on developing solutions to water quality issues and bringing these new technologies to market. Plans include a “living laboratory,” a collection of occupied cottages where researchers can collect and transmit data about how technologies work in real-life scenarios.

“All of that is going to require wireless transmissions and broadband access,” Executive Director Robert Curtis said.

Without improved bandwidth that OpenCape will offer, “it would be more difficult, it wouldn’t be as efficient,” he said. “Or that we wouldn’t be able to do all of things we want to do.”

5. Lower Cape Community Access Television: LCCAT manages and operates public access television on the Lower Cape.

The organization works with individuals and businesses who produce their own programming and must get it to the broadcast studio, board member Dave Schropfer explained.

Right now, these producers must send or deliver programming on disks, “which was the state of the art compared to where we were, but not to where we’re going to be,” Schropfer said.

OpenCape will enable the studio, along with area residents and businesses, to hook up to a faster, fiber optic system, he said.

“They will be able to get these programs to us much more easily and in a better quality,” he said. “To me, that’s the whole core of the thing.”

This story was published in the Cape Cod Times on August 9, 2011. Read the story at CapeCodOnline.com.