Bearded dudes pose for merman calendar to raise money for a worthy cause

Behold the “Merb’ys”—a breed of Canadian bearded mermen flapping their fur and fins for a good cause. 

The gentlemen of Newfoundland and Labrador Beard and Moustache Club are posing in nowt but their merman garb for a dudeoir-style calendar to raise money for mental health organisation Spirit Horse NL.

And, the photos certainly don’t disappoint. The calendar—which can be previewed online—features bearded mermen posing in pumpkin patches, pubs, and on various beaches. 

The Merb’ys are thus-named because “the Newfoundland mermen are a different breed,” says Hasan Hai, founder of the beard and moustache club. Hai came up with the idea of a merman calendar after a friend of his posted a photo from a mercreature themed dudeoir shoot on his Facebook wall. 

He decided to organise a calendar, and posted an “open call to the universe” on social media, which received an unexpectedly high response. 70 or 80 people got in touch with Hai, offering to model or photograph. 

Hai knew he wanted to raise money for charity, but hadn’t yet settled on a charity. When he came across Sprit Horse NL and heard the stories of the people they help, he suggested using the calendar to raise money for the organisation. 

“It basically uses horses to provide equine therapy for people with mental illness, people who want to live better lives, people with physical limitation,” Hai told CBC. 

Donning a fin was a challenge for the men during the calendar shoots. “Moving around in a fishtail is not as easy as you would think,” Hai continued, adding that there was “a lot of hopping” and squirming involved behind the scenes.  

The calendar, which has received an overwhelming number of pre-orders, can be purchased online for $25 CAD ($19.70 USD, £14.99) from the Beard and Moustache Club website. 

Major props to the Merb’ys of Newfoundland!

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This visionary organization wants to improve the lives of 50 million people by 2030

Image: pixabay

Imagine delivering a child in a place where you’re required to bring your own water to the delivery room, in a healthcare facility in which there’s no viable way for the staff to wash their hands before bringing your baby into the world.

This scenario, says Dr. Greg Allgood, the vice president of water at World Vision, is more than simply a disturbing hypothetical. In fact, he explains, it’s the reality for more than a third of healthcare facilities in the developing world. A lack of latrines and education about proper sanitation leads to rampant disease (and often death) in these rural communities, particularly among young kids.

One of the largest relief and development organizations in the world, World Vision aims to combat water shortages and health-compromising sanitation practices such as open defecation. World Toilet Day, coming up on November 19, is a prime opportunity to examine these types of initiatives — and the partnerships that make them possible.

Collaborative, community-centric approach

Bringing World Vision’s ambitious goals to fruition requires a global, collaborative effort. To effectively enact change on a mass scale — the organization aims to improve the lives of 50 million people by 2030 — World Vision employs a number of partnerships. The organization works with major corporations like the Hilton Foundation, Procter & Gamble, and Kohler. Support from these partnerships helps meet objectives like bringing improved water and sanitation systems to 3,000 healthcare facilities in the next five years.

Not only does World Vision raise funds remotely from overseas, they also have boots on the ground in developing communities. As the world’s largest child sponsorship program, World Vision staff spend up to 15 years working and living in rural communities around the globe. When it comes to initiatives like introducing modern latrines, success largely depends upon the community relationships that have been established via on-the-ground efforts.

When implementing sanitation solutions, World Vision stresses sustainability and ownership. “We empower communities to take charge of their own sanitation needs,” explains Allgood. “Community-led total sanitation methodology is something we’ve really embraced. It works really well with our system because there’s so much trust between our staff and the volunteer network of people that they set up to inspire healthy behaviors.”

We empower communities to take charge of their own sanitation needs.

In Zambia, one of the 45 countries for which World Vision has a long-term business plan, nearly a third of the country’s 15 million people lack access to clean water and modern latrines. In the next five years, World Vision hopes to reach one in every six Zambians. The comprehensive plan for meeting this goal spans every corner of the community — from individual families to schools to religious leaders. The support of authority figures like village chiefs, says Allgood, has also been huge.

Private-sector partners are another critical piece of overarching strategy. “We work with a number of private-sector companies; the thing we offer them is access to new markets based on our strong community presence,” says Allgood.

In September 2015, when World Vision announced a game plan to align with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (which include specific goals for clean water and sanitation), the response from the organization’s partners was overwhelmingly supportive. Kohler, for example, made a commitment to help World Vision scale up its water/sanitation/hygiene work.

“Kohler’s aspirational goal is ‘Gracious Living.’ They recently changed that to ‘Gracious Living for All’ in recognition of the desire to help underserved communities, and it was great to see that commitment. To have them in this space has everyone in the development sector really excited,” says Allgood.   

Next week, World Vision will host a team of Kohler researchers in Malawi and Lesotho in an effort to ideate how to bring new products to Africa. In addition, World Vision has helped introduce the Kohler Clarity filter into a number of communities.

“We’re seeing how people love having this well-designed filter in their homes,” says Allgood.

Empowering via education

Academic and educational partnerships also have a significant impact upon World Vision’s efforts — particularly on those that target kids and families. 

A partnership with Sesame Street, for example, in which the beloved children’s program introduced a new character named Raya to focus on sanitation, hygiene, and water, is proving promising.

“Raya and Elmo go into schools with World Vision to help teach kids about healthy sanitation, water storage and conservation habits, and hand-washing,” says Allgood, who adds that World Vision is now in 11 countries with Sesame Street. “We started in Zambia, and the program was so successful that the Ministry of Education embraced it. Our goal was to reach 10,000 kids, but we quickly reached more than 50,000 because of that support.” Now, similar efforts are expanding to countries in the Middle East like Afghanistan and Lebanon, as well as to Asia, Honduras, and numerous other African nations. 

“When you empower kids and teach them these habits in a fun, loving way, they take those habits home to their brothers and sisters — and even to their parents,” says Allgood. “It really affects the entire household.”

World Vision’s efforts are paying off. In the parts of the world in which the organization operates, an average of eight communities every day become certified as open-defecation free. On the water side of the equation, Allgood adds, World Vision provides clean water at an unprecedented rate of one new person every ten seconds.

Another one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals? Revitalizing global partnerships. Here, too, World Vision and partners like Kohler are exemplifying how collaborative efforts can help turn these lofty visions into concrete realities.

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Bill Gates announces major donation to advance the fight against Alzheimer’s

Bill Gates speaks speaks at the Goalkeepers 2017 event on Sept. 20, 2017, in New York City.
Image: Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Bill Gates just donated a piece of his fortune to advance the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

The philanthropist and Microsoft founder announced in a blog post Monday that he will give $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a public-private partnership that invests in innovative dementia research. Gates will also donate another $50 million in startups working in Alzheimer’s research.

Through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has a long track record of supporting research to eradicate diseases like malaria and polio. But Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common form of dementia that progressively affects memory and other brain functions, is the first noncommunicable disease he’s fighting.

The $100 million is his own investment, not his foundation’s. That’s, in part, because it’s personal. 

“This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s.”

“It’s a terrible disease that devastates both those who have it and their loved ones,” Gates wrote in his blog post. “This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s. I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you’re experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew.”

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. An estimated 5.5 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s, and someone new develops the disease every 66 seconds. People of all ages are affected, but 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

Gates said he spent the last year learning everything he could about Alzheimer’s disease, speaking with researchers, academics, and other industry experts. Those conversations led him to focus on five areas: understanding how the disease unfolds, figuring out how to detect it earlier, funding more innovative and lesser-known drug trials, making it easier for people to enroll in clinical trials, and using data to inform better approaches.

Gates’ investment in the Dementia Discovery Fund will help support startups as it explores “less mainstream approaches to treating dementia,” he explained.

“The first Alzheimer’s treatments might not come to fruition for another decade or more, and they will be very expensive at first. Once that day comes, our foundation might look at how we can expand access in poor countries,” Gates wrote, explaining how he might look at the issue beyond his personal investment in the future.

The announcement is timely, coinciding with National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month in November. The goal of the month is to increase awareness and drive home the fact that as many as 16 million people could live with Alzheimer’s disease by the year 2050.

“People should be able to enjoy their later years — and we need a breakthrough in Alzheimer’s to fulfill that,” Gates said. “I’m excited to join the fight and can’t wait to see what happens next.”

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Ikea designed a refugee shelter and it lasts 6x longer than traditional emergency tents

Umm Abdullah and her daughter, Sadal, introduce one of the "brain building" activities offered through the IRC-Vroom partnership.
Image: Courtesy of the International Rescue Committee

There are common themes in many refugees’ journeys: escaping conflict or devastation, migrating unbearably long distances, living in makeshift camps, seeking asylum in countries trying to keep them out, and eventually resettling in communities with completely new cultures and languages.

All of that can take an extraordinary toll on anyone, but refugee parents face an especially unique and stressful challenge. On top of these struggles, they still need to somehow find the strength and support to guide their young children through early development.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global humanitarian aid organization, is tackling this issue head-on — with technology.

The IRC has partnered with educational mobile platform Vroom to provide Syrian refugee parents with tools to turn everyday experiences into “brain building” moments with their kids. Through a pilot program launched earlier this year in Jordan and Lebanon, the IRC sends displaced Syrian families tips, techniques, and activities that can be accessed on mobile devices.

The program’s results were published in a new report this week, showing that through videos, Facebook, WhatsApp, and other digital means, such an initiative can promote learning and foster a more stable and enriching environment for both refugee caregivers and their children. 

A still image from one of the IRC’s animated videos, adapted from Vroom.

Image: Courtesy of the International Rescue Committee 

Vroom was first created by the Bezos Family Foundation to help low-income families in the U.S. turn shared moments into educational lessons, whether it’s during meals, bath time, or on the go. The goal was to “meet families where they are.”

The IRC worked with Vroom to adapt these tips and activities for refugees, and translated them into Arabic for Syrian families.

While folding clothes, for example, parents can teach their children different shapes, or they can use different food names at a market by asking a child what letters they start with. One video shows a woman named Umm Abdullah and her daughter, Sadal, introducing a game called “Stacking Time,” in which a child can build using differently sized dishware while her parents cook or clean.

These ideas and exercises might seem simple, but they can have an immense impact on a child’s development in a tough environment. More than 3.7 million Syrian children have been born since the civil war there began more than six years ago. They’ve only known violence, poverty, and displacement, all of which often prevents them from accessing traditional education and social services.

The IRC-adapted Vroom tips could help parents fill in some of the gaps.

The testing and prototyping methods for the program were based on human-centered design and behavioral science. The IRC took into account cultural appropriateness and relevance for Syrian families, the best mediums and channels to deliver content, and the best framing of messages to inspire more engagement. 

“WhatsApp was not just powerful because it reaches all kinds of families … but also because there is community around it.”

They field-tested a variety of methods for delivering these tools, such as SMS texts, a dedicated Facebook page, WhatsApp groups, animated videos, and more. The IRC learned that Syrian families prefer video much more than short texts. And because Facebook and WhatsApp can reach the most vulnerable and isolated communities, and are already prevalent among refugees, they were among the best ways to spread information.

“Nearly every family knows about WhatsApp, and uses it as a way to communicate with family members throughout the region,” says Sarah Smith, senior director of education at the IRC. “WhatsApp was not just powerful because it reaches all kinds of families and the most vulnerable families, but also because there is community around it.”

That kind of engagement and sharing of ideas, she says, was a perfect fit for the Vroom pilot program. Meanwhile, the Facebook page attracted more than 3,200 followers within just nine days.

They also prototyped a standalone Vroom mobile app for Syrian refugee families, but Smith says most parents weren’t accustomed to downloading a new app. It can be a significant hurdle, and they learned not to expect people to do it on their own.

Image: Courtesy of The International Rescue Committee

The new program is a continuation of the organization’s previous educational efforts with Syrian families throughout the Middle East. Traditionally, the IRC has taught parenting skills in groups, or social workers and community health workers visited homes to give parents techniques to support their children’s development.

But with more than 5 million Syrian refugees around the world, living in different regions, contexts, and situations, those kinds of efforts can be costly and logistically challenging.

“These parents and their kids have been through, in many cases, such severe circumstances — having witnessed violence, but also seeing their communities disintegrate in front of them, and all of the challenges of moving around,” Smith says. “We realized that we needed to figure out ways to scale the project and reach many more parents than a typical group-based approach can offer at low cost.” 

Mobile technology and internet connectivity allow for that kind of scale. Most Syrian refugee families have access to a mobile device, and according to a 2016 UNHCR report, refugees in Jordan spend between 10 and 20 percent of their cash distribution on connectivity.

A prototype of the standalone Vroom mobile app for Syrian refugee families.

Image: Courtesy of the International Rescue Committee

But Smith says technology isn’t a catch-all solution. While it’s influenced the IRC’s education initiatives, a lot of people believed tech would fix the fact that education systems aren’t effectively servicing children in crisis. 

“There’s still a lot of [ways] technology can help, but I think people now are realizing that technology is a tool, and it takes a lot more than just putting the tool in a classroom or in the hands of a child for it to be effective,” she says.

“It takes a lot more than just putting the tool in a classroom or in the hands of a child for it to be effective.”

For the IRC, the Vroom pilot program shows that it’s important to test different kinds of technology, but also test how you actually distribute it and make it the best tool to educate parents, children, or teachers.

In the coming months, the IRC plans to expand the program to more families within the region, adapt more games and tips, and interview more families about what they like best. It’s also looking to integrate the Vroom program into its refugee education initiatives with Sesame Workshop.

Ultimately, both the IRC and Vroom want to empower refugee parents to see their roles beyond just providing for their children, and also take care of themselves.

“We’re looking at how we can adjust some of the tips so that they are not just for parents to do different activities and games with children, but for parents to work on their own stress management and their own support for themselves,” she says.

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Salesforce launches $50 million Impact Fund to invest in social change startups

Marc Benioff, chairman and CEO of Salesforce, at the annual Salesforce Dreamforce 2013 conference in San Francisco, California.
Image: Kim Kulish / Corbis via Getty Images

Salesforce continues to build a social good movement within the technology sector.

Since it was founded in 1999, the cloud computing giant and its CEO, Marc Benioff, have been trailblazers in redefining “corporate social responsibility,” with philanthropy baked into the company’s DNA.

Now it’s taking that mission even further, using its powerful position in tech and its dedication to social change to fund startups with social impact at their core.

Salesforce announced Tuesday that it’s launching the Salesforce Impact Fund, a $50 million initiative to accelerate the growth of startups that are using Salesforce technology to address some of the world’s biggest problems. Through the fund, Salesforce will invest in these companies, furthering each one’s goal of driving positive change.

“We’re really just excited to launch the Impact Fund … to make the world a better place and a more equal place.”

As part of Salesforce Ventures, the company’s corporate investment group, the Impact Fund will focus on four key areas: workforce development and education, equality, environment, and the social sector.

The first class of startups to receive funding from the Salesforce Impact Fund span these areas of interest.  

In the equality category there’s Ellevest, an investing platform started by Wall Street veteran Sallie Krawcheck that’s designed for women and aims to solve the gender investment gap. For the environment, there’s Angaza Design, a pay-as-you-go tech platform that helps manufacturers and distributors make clean energy devices more affordable for off-the-grid consumers.

In the social sector category is Hustle, which offers peer-to-peer text messaging that enables nonprofits, educational institutions, and advocacy groups to connect with donors and constituents on a scalable basis. And in workforce development there’s Viridis Learning, which uses machine learning to match skill deficiencies in the workforce with local employer needs.

“We’re very excited about all four of these investments,” said John Somorjai, Salesforce’s executive vice president of corporate development and Salesforce Ventures. “Overall, we’re really just excited to launch the Impact Fund … to make the world a better place and a more equal place.”

“Salesforce Ventures is investing in companies that are not only creating innovative solutions, but they’re also improving the state of the world.”

Somorjai explained that Salesforce Ventures, which has grown into the third-largest corporate VC in the world (behind Intel and Google) since it launched in 2009, has about 200 active investments today. Since the beginning of this year, Salesforce  announced two other $50 million funds — one to invest in cloud consulting startups and another to encourage AI startups.

But now the group is trying to bring the company’s overall goal of giving back to its portfolio.

“With the new Impact Fund, Salesforce Ventures is investing in companies that are not only creating innovative solutions, but they’re also improving the state of the world,” Somorjai said. “These are strategic investments that are aligned to our goals around building the world’s No. 1 cloud ecosystem for our customers.”

Suzanne DiBianca, executive vice president of corporate relations and chief philanthropy officer at Salesforce, said the Impact Fund’s first four startups were chosen, in part, because they’re just good businesses. 

“First and foremost, we’re looking for excellent companies — really solid companies, great entrepreneurs, proven track record, great vision, fantastic products,” DiBianca said.

She added that Salesforce has been working with lead partners over the past six months, including Omidyar Network, Kapor Capital, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Emerson Collective. Google Ventures is a co-investor. 

“We’ve been looking to a lot of these lead partners that were investors in earlier rounds to source some of their best companies,” she said.

Ellevest CEO Sallie Krawcheck speaks during the Women in the World Summit at Lincoln Center in New York  on April 6, 2017.

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Impact investing obviously isn’t a new concept in the tech world — Omidyar has been investing in social change startups for years, and Bill Gates even launched a $1 billion clean energy fund with other tech heavyweights in late 2016. 

But DiBianca said she doesn’t know of any other corporate venture arms that have taken such an intentional strategy around impact investing.

“There’s a huge opportunity for us to make a difference here, with our corporate capital, in the for-profit sector,” she said.

And it’s true. Salesforce is uniquely positioned to facilitate real growth and impact in this space, in part because as a company it already has. 

If there’s one tech giant in a good position to raise startups in its own image, it’s Salesforce. 

Benioff’s mission in 1999 was to create a new kind of company that makes philanthropy a core part of its founding tenets. Its integrated 1-1-1 model, in which Salesforce leverages a percent of its tech, people, and resources to give back, has inspired 3,000 other companies to adopt the same model. It’s also led to $170 million in grants, more than 2 million volunteer hours, and 30,000 nonprofits and educational institutions using the Salesforce platform. 

And its own company culture reflects its values. Salesforce has nine employee resource groups, regularly assesses its own equal pay gaps (and spent $6 million to adjust salaries of more than 26,000 employees), and achieved its net-zero carbon emissions goal earlier this year.

Salesforce was also one of the first companies to stand against discriminatory legislation targeting queer and trans communities in Indiana, Georgia, and North Carolina. It proved that social justice is no longer off limits in business and corporate social responsibility efforts, and pushed other corporations to do the same.

If there’s one tech giant in a good position to raise startups in its own image, it’s Salesforce. 

“It’s really designed to support a whole new generation of companies focused on driving positive social change through technology,” DiBianca said of the new Impact Fund.

The Salesforce Impact Fund will work like the current venture program. As deals happen, and as rounds of funding come together, Salesforce Ventures will be evaluating them. That means it will invest in startups on a rolling basis. The goal is to fully deploy the $50 million from the fund within the next two years.

“There is good news coming out of the venture community these days, and [it’s] happening through action, not through words,” DiBianca said.

“But more importantly, there’s just a lot of great entrepreneurs out there, and we’re really excited to get to know them, to meet them, and to help power their business ideas on the Salesforce platform and within our ecosystem.”

UPDATE: Oct. 4, 2017, 5:22 p.m. ET Salesforce has clarified that Google Ventures is a co-investor for the Salesforce Impact Fund, not a partner. 

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Connie Britton reveals how \

YouTube is bringing its community of creators to an important campaign advocating for girls' education.
Image: The one campaign 

There’s something staggering about the fact that 130 million girls around the world don’t receive an education. 

It’s enough to make some people feel skeptical or cynical about efforts to solve the problem. But The ONE Campaign, an international advocacy campaign dedicated to ending poverty around the world, sees a glimmer of hope in social media and digital technology. 

That’s why ONE launched #GirlsCount earlier this year. The initiative invites anyone to choose an unclaimed number between 1 and 130,000,000 and record themselves in support of girls’ education in what’s effectively a user-generated public service announcement. 

The idea is for 130 million people to submit clips to the campaign, raising raising awareness about the problem and inspiring people to act along the way. If 130 million people do indeed participate, the final video will be the longest in the world and take five years to watch, according to ONE. 

Now, on International Day of the Girl, the campaign is putting more muscle behind #GirlsCount with a new YouTube partnership that draws on the voices — and audiences — of more than 50 YouTube creators who reach more than 32 million viewers. 

“I think we’ve got to be affirmative and hopeful but with a little edge of fierce,” said Gayle Smith, president and CEO of ONE. “I think the video messages make a huge difference.”

ONE has already received nearly 17,000 #GirlsCount submissions, which adds up to more than 30 hours of video. 

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki shared her own video Wednesday, choosing the number 117,000 to represent the fact that it costs $1.17 to educate a girl for a day in some countries. 

“The next world-changing breakthrough might be built in a garage in Silicon Valley, but it could also stem from the imagination of a girl in Senegal, South Sudan or Nigeria,” said Danielle Tiedt, YouTube’s vice president of marketing, in a blog post

Top YouTube creators participating in #GirlsCount include like TheSorryGirls, Whitney White of Naptural85, and Maddu Magalhães. Some of the messages are deeply personal. Education vlogger Aboubakar Idriss joined the campaign because his sister couldn’t attend school. 

The YouTube creators join numerous celebrities and activists who have already backed the initiative, including Malala Yousafzai, Charlize Theron, Connie Britton, Elizabeth Banks, and Gisele and Tom Brady. 

Smith said that people inspired to do something more than create a clip can consider lobbying their elected officials on supporting a federal budget that maintains or increases funding for global development aid. The Trump administration’s proposed budget dramatically slashes such spending, which Smith said would negatively affect efforts to ensure that girls around the world get an education. 

“It’s a smart investment,” Smith said, pointing to research showing that education for girls can reduce local poverty and lead to national economic gains. “It’s short-sighted not to educate girls.” 

Smith is counting on YouTube creators and their audiences to spread that message in ways that policymakers and traditional media can’t. 

“We can do it,” she said. “[We’ll] reward political courage, but we won’t let up the pressure.”  

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Is ‘female health’ inclusive enough? Apps try to figure out the most accessible language

Period apps are starting to figure out what language to use.
Image: bob al-greene/mashable

Last month, the startup Clue tried an experiment.

“Help us evolve language around gender and menstrual health,” the period-tracking app’s account tweeted. “We’re testing ‘fem@le health’ instead of ‘female health’ to be more inclusive of our whole audience: women and people with cycles. Thoughts?”

Responses were swift.

“Only women have cycles, right?”

“Do not ask me to be ashamed of having a period so that I can make other people feel comfortable.”

“My thoughts are I HATE IT.”

Clue is a period, fertility, and cycle app that lets its users track their menstrual cycles and reproductive health.

Apart from the technology involved, figuring out what to call all of that has been one of the hardest parts of growing the 4-year-old app.

Of the options out there, it’s one of the most progressive and mindful of gender-inclusivity: no pink, flowers, or gendered design.

The Clue app.

Image: screenshot/clue

It also tries to use language that applies to all its users: women, trans men who have periods, users experiencing menopause who don’t have cycles, gender-nonconforming users, and anyone else who doesn’t identify with any of those categories. Traditional language surrounding “women’s health” often excludes many of the people who have downloaded Clue.

Last year, the company settled on the phrase “female health” and wrote an explanation for why. Since “female” technically refers to sex, not gender identity, the company argues that, unlike “women’s health,” it doesn’t explicitly exclude users who don’t identify that way. “Reproductive health” can exclude people who aren’t using the app to track their fertility or users who are experiencing menopause. Phrases like “people with cycles” and “people with uteruses” similarly left some users feeling excluded.

“I want us to find language that works and I want us to be as accessible as possible.”

“We feel it best captures the area of health that Clue is currently designed to support, while being the least exclusive of all the ways to describe that biology,” the startup wrote in the Medium post about its choice.

The best-available term seemed outwardly settled, although internally the staff has continued to evaluate these choices, until Clue tried out “fem@le health” in July. Since the startup had first explained the rationale behind its choice of language a year earlier, its audience had grown. Subreddits that sent anti-trans trolls to communities on the internet discussing issues of gender and accessibility had found Clue’s accounts, Director of Marketing Lisa Kennelly said.

The way Clue chose to describe its app set off more bigoted bat signals than it had a year before. Basically, the tweet got a lot of hate.

People objected to “fem@le health” from the progressive side, too. Some people who responded to Clue’s experiment said that the term incorrectly used the @ symbol, which serves a specific linguistic purpose when used in words like “Latin@.” Others agreed with Clue’s initial assessment that “female health” referred to biology, not identity, and it was just fine to leave as is.

The entire episode served as a reminder that these conversations are still very much ongoingas it pertains to period apps and in broader culture. As conversations around gender and inclusivity have gone more mainstream with results both good and very bad in politics, media, and tech, a tweet like Clue’s represents a lot more than just one simple choice of phrase.

More than one app

Clue’s public-facing experiment revealed conversations that a lot of progressive startups are having: how do we reach as wide an audience as possible without excluding any of our customers?

Thinx, in its better days, had its famous “people with periods” subway ads. The breastfeeding community has started to use the term “chestfeeding” to include trans men who nurse their babies, although most breastfeeding tech startups haven’t caught on yet.

Despite these ongoing conversations, the overwhelming experience of choosing a menstrual tracker is still a gendered one.

“If you go to your app store and type in ‘period tracker,’ youre still going to be inundated with flowers and the colors pink and purple,” said Cass Clemmer, a trans artist whose work helps counteract period stigma for trans and gender-nonconforming people. “Not that there is anything wrong with any of this, it just serves as another reminder that my period is something the world sees as inherently feminine.”

And there are plenty of other period apps out there facing these choices in language that affect users like Clemmer. The app Dot in its materials refers to “anyone with a menstrual cycle,” but also “women.” Glow, “the world’s largest health community by women, for women” mainly talks about women’s health. Android’s Period Tracker is one of the culprits Clue hints at when it criticizes pink and floral design.

They might not be as public as Clue, but they’re thinking about this too.

“This is something that is really evolving for us,” said Leslie Heyer, president of Cycle Technologies, which runs the Dot app.”We want to be inclusive and understand that many people with periods dont necessarily identify as female.”

“When we say, ‘Its designed for women with cycles between 20-40 days long,’ it helps clarify that were talking about menstrual cycles and fertility by giving potential users more context,” Heyer added. “Still, we think we can improve on this, and are continuing to evaluate how to be both inclusive and clear.”

Reaching customers

These are important conversations, and they’re tricky for companies whose goal is ultimately to reach as many customers as possible.

Clue was prompted to start thinking about all of this in part by trans men who worked on its staff. The Berlin-based startup is dealing with these questions across multiple languages, too; it generally uses “people,” not “women,” in all languages but encounters some challenges in languages that use gendered adjectives and nouns. And the startup values education; it often tweets out facts about female health and menstrual health and aims to give its audience new, useful information.

Beyond small language choices, apps can make a concerted effort to value inclusivity in all aspects of their design. Including options for customization of gender, including representations of different anatomy, asking for users’ pronouns if the app includes a conversation bot, and including a diverse selection of avatars of different genders users can choose are all other ways these apps can improve the user experience, Clemmer said.

The important part for Clueand its peers working on menstrual healthis making sure everyone reading that information understands what it’s about without sacrificing inclusivity.

“What we need to remember is that language is incredibly tricky and there are no perfect terms,” Clemmer said. “When it comes to finding descriptors for this area of health, the best that we can do is try our hardest to continue to adapt and evolve our language to ensure we are being as inclusive and humanizing as possible.”

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How a computer might be able to detect depression in your Instagram posts

Image: Shutterstock / KatePh

Whether you realize it or not, you leave a trail of clues about your mental health on social media. Emerging research suggests that words, characters, and even emoji can reveal information about people’s moods and mental well-being.

That might seem obvious when it comes to explicitly emotional posts, but information about mental health can be embedded in even the most standard of social media messages and a new field of data science is trying to understand how to detect and interpret those signals.

In a new study published in EPJ Data Science, two researchers accessed the Instagram accounts of 166 volunteers and then applied machine learning to their collective 43,950 images in order to identify and predict depression. By comparing those predictions to each individual’s clinical diagnosis, the researchers discovered that their model outperformed the average rate of physicians accurately diagnosing depression in patients.

“Doctors don’t have visibility into our lives the way our mobile phone does.”

In other words, an Instagram account may have the potential to reveal whether you’re experiencing depression. The right algorithm might just be better at making that prediction than a trained physician.

“Doctors dont have visibility into our lives the way our mobile phone does,” said Chris Danforth, co-author of the study and Flint Professor of Mathematical, Natural, and Technical Sciences at the University of Vermont. “It knows a lot more about us than we know about ourselves.”

There are, however, a few caveats to the study’s fascinating discovery.

The researchers recruited the volunteers through Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online marketplace that matches workers with businesses and developers. Once the volunteers learned that the study required letting the researchers access their Instagram accounts, more than half of them dropped out. The small sample size and lack of demographic information mean it’s impossible to generalize the findings to the larger population.

The study analyzed color, filters, face detection, and user comments and engagement to make its predictions.

Instagram photos posted by depressed individuals had HSV values shifted towards those in the right photograph, compared with photos posted by healthy individuals.

Image: EPJ Data Science

Photos posted by depressed users were more often bluer, darker, and grayer, hues that previous research has associated with negative mood. They also were less likely to use Instagram filters, but disproportionately chose the black-and-white “Inkwell” filter when they did take advantage of the tool. In contrast, “healthy” participants favored the tint-lightening “Valencia” filter. Meanwhile, the more comments a post received, the more likely someone with depression had posted it.

The researchers also enlisted a second group of volunteers to rate the photos for “happiness, sadness, likability, [and] interestingness.” The human assessments for sadness and happiness predicted which participants experienced depression, but they didn’t correlate with the mental health signals picked up by machine learning.

That’s a promising finding because it means algorithms may excel at detecting conditions where humans fail.

“There has been anecdotal and preliminary evidence that these sorts of signals are present and relevant to mental health, but this study provides compelling evidence of their utility,” said Glen Coppersmith, founder and CEO of the startup mental health analytics company Qntfy. (Coppersmith wasn’t involved in the study.)

“Its important that computers can do this.”

Danforth said he can imagine a future in which people opt to download an app that analyzes their social media for signs of emotional or psychological distress and sends a message to an individual’s doctor when they need to be seen by a mental health professional.

That future, of course, requires a lot more research and the trust of social media users. Allowing an app to collect and analyze social media data in the context of mental health raises serious questions about about security. In particular, that information could never get into the hands of insurers and potential employers, who might use it to make decisions about a person’s health care premiums or employment.

But Danforth believes such technology serves an important public good.

“Its important that computers can do this,” he said. “It’s better if we can get somebody who [might] die by suicide in 2018 in front of a psychologist sooner because theres something about their social media that made it clear to the machine that they needed help and it wasnt obvious to the people around them.”

That might not be a possibility you imagined when you first started uploading pictures to Instagram, but, if successful, an algorithm like that could change the way we detect and treat mental health conditions in the 21st century.

If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, text the Crisis Text Lineat 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a listof international resources

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This new hotline in rural Kenya helps protect girls from violence

Drought in a developing country can mean many things: a lack of water, a lack of food and nutrition, and a lack of economic growth that puts even more pressure on impoverished communities relying on farming for their livelihoods.

For women and girls, it also means a lack of protection. In Africa, women do 90% of the work of gathering water and wood. During a drought, they have to walk even longer distances to find potable water for themselves and their families. That makes them more susceptible to violence and attacks from men in remote areas which often go unreported.

But a new initiative in rural northern Kenya turns to technology and members of the community to make the region safer, and put an end to gender-based violence.

The Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) program has launched a new hotline and “gender-support desk” in Wajir, northeastern Kenya. According to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, community members, police officers, health workers, and more have all joined forces to offer a toll-free number for girls who have been attacked, with the goal of bringing the predators to justice.

“We will continue working on this until Wajir County will be free of gender-based violence.”

“In my community, if a girl is raped, we will give you an animal and that’s the end of the story,” Sophie, the “oldest activist in Wajir,” says in the video above.

The hotline initiative, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and led by humanitarian organization Mercy Corps, aims to change that.

When a girl calls the number, facilitators alert police officers and health workers who not only investigate the situation, but also provides the survivor with “moral and medical support.” Once allegations are confirmed, the gender desk will help her bring the case to court.

Meanwhile, men who want to make a difference in the community dubbed “gender champions” are encouraged to speak out on local radio shows to denounce violence against women and promote gender equality.

While effective in its approach (and its specificity), this isn’t exactly the first hotline of its kind in rural Kenya to help girls. In 2014, for example, the Kenyan government launched a hotline to curb female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage.

Approximately 45 percent of women in Kenya between the ages of 15 and 49 have experienced physical or sexual violence, according to USAID. In Wajir, there have already been 10 reported cases of rape this year. The severe drought, currently affecting 17 African countries for more than two years, has worsened the problem in northern Kenya, where there’s more rainfall than the rest of the country. People often engage in conflict over land and water, some of whom use violence against women as a way to send a message.

With the prevalence of mobile throughout the country, using a hotline to tackle the issue is a smart and impactful move.

“We will continue working on this until Wajir County will be free of gender-based violence, free from violation of human rights,” Sophie says.

You can read more about the initiative and its impact here.

[H/T Thomson Reuters Foundation]

WATCH: Ethiopian villagers talk about what water means to them

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These young refugees in sub-Saharan Africa are using tablets to get an education

Fugia, 15, sits in a classroom holding a tablet provided by Vodafone Foundation's 'Instant Schools for Africa' program.
Image: Sala Lewis / Vodafone Foundation

Fugia is only a teenager, but her sense of ambition is tangible. Just 15 years old, she has plans to be a doctor, and she understands education is the surest path to achieving her dream.

But getting an education isn’t easy. Fugia, whose parents are Somalian, is a refugee growing up in Kakuma, the largest refugee camp in existence, located in Kenya. Both logistical and cultural obstacles have prevented her from learning.

“This community of ours was not supporting the girls’ education,” she says of the camp, explaining that girls who went to school were often called “prostitutes” who don’t actually learn anything.

But there’s one thing helping her change the narrative: tablets.

“It’s only education that can bring us out of the dark.”

Fugia convinced her mother of the benefits of education by showing her a photo of a tablet, explaining how the devices could help them find advice on a wide range of challenges. She can and even Google tips to help pass exams.

Now, a new initiative is using tablet technology to help Fugia and millions of refugee children like her gain a free education.

The Vodafone Foundation announced its Instant Schools for Africa program on Wednesdayan initiative providing free, unlimited access to online educational materials for young people and teachers. Developed with Learning Equality, a leading nonprofit provider of open-source educational technology, the program launched in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Tanzania.

To allow for widespread access, the primary and secondary school materials (both global and local in scope) are available without any mobile data charges. Videos and web pages are all optimized to work over low-bandwidth connections, and will also be available offline when internet access isn’t possible.

“From refugee camps to remote parts of Africa with few schools, connectivity gives children the opportunity for a better future.”

The Vodafone Foundation already works to deliver tablets and teaching resources to refugee camps with its Instant Network Schools program, in partnership with the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR). That program helps 43,000 young refugees each month, and the goal is to reach 3 million refugees by the year 2025.

Now, Instant Schools for Africa will support children in refugee camps, too, as well as children across Africa especially those in rural regions who don’t go to school. The Vodafone Foundation hopes to reach 5 million children with these materials by 2025.

There are currently more than 6 million school-age refugees in the world, but 3.7 million still don’t have access to education. The average period of time spent in a refugee camp is about 20 years. Meanwhile, sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest rate of primary school enrollment globally. A staggering 34 million of the 57 million out-of-school, primary age children in the world live in this region, caused in part by cultural norms and remote locations.

“From refugee camps to remote parts of Africa with few schools, connectivity gives children the opportunity for a better future,” Andrew Dunnett, director of the Vodafone Foundation, said in a statement.

“Instant Schools for Africa has the potential to transform the lives of millions of children excluded from education, giving them free access to the same materials used by children in developed markets to help them achieve their ambitions,” he said.

A similar initiative, Vodacom e-School, has proven successful for 215,000 children in South Africa.

Sasha, 17, escaped an arranged marriage and fled to Kenya, where she now takes part in the Instant Schools for Africa program in the Kakuma camp.

Image: Sala Lewis / Vodafone Foundation

Vodafone released a series of videos to show the impact of the overall Instant Network Schools program on young people’s lives, including Fugia. The series also features 16-year-old Jediva, who was abducted by a man in South Sudan and escaped, and Sasha, 17, who escaped an arranged marriage in Burundi so she could attend school. There’s also David, 21, from South Sudan, who’s earning his university degree completely online.

All four of them live in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

“This opportunity is very rare for many people, especially for us here in the camp,” Fugia says in the video detailing her story. “It’s a right. It’s like oxygen for us. A person can never live without oxygen.”

Fugia’s passion for learning about medicine and science goes deeper than education. She lives with a heart condition, and showed her mother something on her tablet about the circulatory system.

“Continue learning,” her mother told her. “Maybe one day you’ll be able to cure yourself and other people.”

Instant Schools for Africa has the potential to transform young people’s lives, offering them opportunities many refugees and children in remote regions (especially girls) don’t usually have. Such resources can offer them a better future.

Most of the girls Fugia knows at Kakuma all believe the same thing now: “It’s only education that can bring us out of the dark.”

UPDATE: June 14, 2017, 6:22 p.m. ET This post has been updated to clarify the difference between the Instant Schools for Africa program and the Instant Network Schools program.

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