Real People Silhouettes

I recently had the opportunity to talk to the Church lab about Open Humans, and in the course of preparing slides I needed to represent “people” somehow. The standard “person” icon felt irritatingly male-default (the one on men’s bathroom doors), and mixing it up with the stereotyped “dress equals woman” felt like a miserable propagation of gender binary. So I looked for some silhouettes of people (and I looked for them on OpenClipArt, where all artwork is supposed to be public domain).

I found these1 – and they’re better than icons. People, after all, vary. Humans aren’t a bunch of identical rubber stamps.2

Four silhouettes

You’ll probably think I’m too picky, but I was still dissatisfied. There was only one woman, and she still felt … extra feminized. I mean, it’s not offensive at all, she looks very normal. But the hair, the legs, the shoes… it still felt like a “performance of femininity” and not just “here is a person that happens to be female”.

Recently I saw that Inkscape has a trace tool and thought I could try my hand at making some “real people silhouettes” from real photos. So I searched Flickr and found this CC-BY photo by downstairsdev. From that I made these three figures:

Silhouettes of three people

Can you guess which of these are female? (Answer: all of them.3) Chris wasn’t sure if these were female or male when glancing at them. I think we are collectively inured to the exaggerations made by media: men and women aren’t as different as we make them out to be.

I’d like clip art with less gender-exaggeration to be available to all, so I’ve put them on Wikimedia Commons. I’ve marked these as CC0 because I think clip art really shouldn’t expect stuff like attribution.4 The photo was CC-BY (and not CC-BY-SA) so I think this licensing choice is allowed (let me know if I’m mistaken). (Sorry, I’ve requested deletion of the images per Sage’s correction below.)

I also made a nice “man with a cane” silhouette from this photo by ragesoss of his grandfather (going by the title there) but the photo is CC-BY-SA. As a result I’m not really sure what to do with it I’ve shared it with a CC-BY-SA license, but I really wish it could be CC0. Maybe Sage can change the license to CC-BY…. 😉 Thanks to Sage relicensing this, I’m able to share it as CC0.


1: All four were by rejon, links: Person Outline 1, Person Outline 2, Person Outline 3, Person Outline 4
2: Indeed, the fact humans vary — and that their risk preferences vary — is why something like Open Humans should exist. Some participants will be okay with publicly sharing data that others prefer to keep private.
3: If you crank up the curves – or the gamma on your computer – you can see the faces of the silhouetted folks in the original photo.
4: Well, to be fair, I decided to CC0 all my media shared on Wikimedia Commons.


With Open Humans we want to create a site where research participants can share research data so other researchers can re-use and build upon it. One of the first steps here is likely to be creating an enrollment process (similar to what is used in the Harvard Personal Genome Project). Even if we don’t end up using an IRB and consent process, I think the work is useful: right now I know of no turnkey solutions for the general issue of administering an online study enrollment process. Also, at Open Humans I’m sure we’ll want to facilitate online processes researchers use to work with participants.

So I’ve been working on what I hope will be a Django app researchers can use to set up and manage the “study enrollment” aspect of a Django-based research study management site. (It’s admittedly hard to find time to spare.) I also want to have a stand alone site using the app that can be an easy “upload & run study enrollment” software solution with a platform-as-a-service host. A description of the aspirations is also on the current

We’ve set up an OpenHumans organization on GitHub where we can share open tools like this. I copied my work over to OpenHumans/django_study_enrollment, even though it’s not ready yet, so I have some excuse for an Iron Blogger post. (And maybe to push myself to further improve it. Let me know if you have thoughts, of course.)

Eight years and eight percent: Always giving more

(This is a joint blog post with Chris.)

Our tradition continues: to celebrate our eighth year of marriage Chris and I are giving 8% of our joint pretax income. (Each year we give 1% more.) This giving is made to organizations which we believe have the most concrete short term “estimated value” for helping others.

As people look forward to making resolutions for the coming year, we hope our own example helps inspire others to give – just as others have inspired us by giving more, despite financial pressures. Those who go ahead of us have blazed a trail we happily follow.

"Path Squiggles" by Dominic Alves

]6 “Path Squiggles” by Dominic Alves

As in previous years, we are guided by the research performed by GiveWell. Efficiency in good should matter, and for this reason our money will be going to help the developing world. Money can do more immediate good for the global poor – each dollar can accomplish more – than it can do to ameliorate the lives of those in first-world poverty.

Almost all of our giving this year will go to GiveDirectly. GiveDirectly aims to distribute 90% of the money it receives directly to poor individuals in the developing world. Their methods have been developed in Kenya, where the M-Pesa mobile-phone-based money transfer system facilitates the transfer of cash. GiveDirectly had a great year, with high profile and supportive articles in the New York Times, NPR’s This American Life podcast, and even The Economist. Even better, these articles often introduce one of the central ideas behind GiveWell (which has recommended GiveDirectly as one of three top charities) – that we can try to target donations to do the most good for the most people, and that acknowledging this involves a dramatic rethinking of which charities we choose to support.

"Mobile Phone with Money in Kenya" by Erik (HASH) Hersman

]13 “Mobile Phone with Money in Kenya” by Erik (HASH) Hersman

There are many ways to make our lives meaningful. We have been fortunate to grow our family with our first child: a concrete meaning and joy, though a local one. We’ve also been especially fortunate to have had employment (past and present) where our skills are used to improve the world. A third path to meaning – one we hope others will join us in celebrating – is to give, to give more, and to give wisely.

May you find the happiness of giving in the new year!

CC0 all the media


I’ve released as CC0 all the pictures I’ve created and shared on Wikimedia Commons. I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while; Aaron’s death and — more specifically — Nina Paley’s release of Sita Sings the Blues as CC0 have pushed me into doing it. I’ve encountered the same issues she has — people ask me for permission due to legal concerns when I don’t think they need to. In particular, my chemical structure of DNA diagram has been a popular item for textbooks.

I study body-books

Theo Sanderson has made a text editor that checks if a body of text complies with using only the 1,000 most common English words. This was inspired by XKCD’s “Up-Goer Five” — a description of the Saturn V rocket created according to this rule. It reads like a Simple Wikipedia article (but even more extreme).

Anyway, I’ve seen a couple friends describe their job using this constraint, so I figured I’d try my hand at it. It’s surprisingly intelligible, and I think I like the kenning of “body-book” to describe a genome.

I study body-books

Children often have bodies like their parents. One reason this is true is because we each have parts that tell our bodies how to grow. We get these parts from our parents, and they can be read like a book. I study these body-books.

Some body-books have words that cause people to grow in the same way. But sometimes people are different — even if their body-books have the same words — and so I also study what things make bodies different even if their body-books are the same.

We are able to study our body-books more than ever, because we can now read them very easily.

Another important thing about body-books: we think it will be possible to learn a lot from someone’s body-book, even if we aren’t able to do it now. Also, with computers it’s very easy to share body-books — and it’s very hard to hide them after they’re shared. This means if people give their body-books so others can study them, they might share things they didn’t know about and didn’t mean to share.

So another part of my job is making sure people learn this might happen. We want to share body-books with everyone so that everyone can study them, but only people who know the fears should share their body-books.

What can we do in Aaron’s wake?

The brother of my friend Noah Swartz committed suicide last Friday. I didn’t know Noah’s brother Aaron, so these are the terms I relate to it in. The Swartz family is close to many of my friends: Mako and Mika live in his Aaron’s former apartment/offices, and I’ve met both of Noah’s brothers through them. Noah’s a quiet guy, but a geek in his own right — crazy good at strategy games and an occasional host for college radio.

Noah’s brother was Aaron Swartz. Aaron’s in the news a lot right now, and with good reason. He was brilliant and he was unfairly treated. The Swartz family and Aaron’s partner aren’t going to have a lot of privacy these days, but I’m not sure they want it. They’re angry and they want you to know that Aaron’s death wasn’t just about depression:

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”

It is difficult to explain what Aaron was actually prosecuted for, what he was facing, and why it was horribly wrong. The best summary I’ve heard so far was aired this morning on WBUR:

It’s hard to know where to go from here. Here are some ideas.

  • Ask MIT for an apology. It’s too little and too late, but those who loved Aaron would like to see MIT acknowledge that its involvement in his prosecution was wrong.

  • Dedicate yourself to publishing Open Access. If you are in academia, you know what this is about. Aaron was convinced that knowledge is power, and our publications are purportedly our efforts to share knowledge. You may also wish to share copies of your pdfs on the web, and there is a Twitter movement advocating this (#pdftribute). I should note while this is common it is also technically illegal — an act of civil disobedience, albeit on a much smaller scale than Aaron’s alleged and unrealized liberation of JSTOR archives.

  • Give to Givewell. Aaron believed we have a moral obligation to help others in the most efficient manners possible. He personally worked for structural change — he was a genius and so he had a reasonable chance of accomplishing this — but he was also a strong believer in Givewell and doing the greatest good by contributing to the developing world. My husband Chris and I donate a significant fraction of our income each year to Givewell, and the Swartz family has asked that donations made in Aaron’s memory be made to that organization.

Finally, here are articles and links if you’d like to learn more about Aaron. I present these in chronological order.

Well, That’s Ironic

I’m lucky and grateful to have been recommended by George Church for Genome Technology’s Seventh Annual Young Investigators. The profile they wrote — “Madeleine Price Ball: Free the Data” — is really nice. Or at least it was, if I recall correctly. I talked about how important it is for scientists to share information freely (in particular, human genome and interpretation data).

How ironic is it that it’s behind a subscription block?

I had mixed feelings about the interview, as I knew this would happen. At least the GenomeWeb account doesn’t cost anything. It does, however, require a password containing at least one of each of the following: uppercase character, lowercase character, number, and punctuation. And… it does this all over “http”, not “https”. Since GenomeWeb is apparently encouraging you to send one of your favorite super-secure passwords all around the internets in plaintext, I’m reluctant to recommend making an account there.

Celebrating Seven Years with Seven Percent

(This is a joint blog post with Chris.)

Today is Giving Tuesday. It’s a great idea. Here in the US, something feels odd about following our national day of giving thanks (Thanksgiving) with the consumerism of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. As we shop to find gifts for those we love, we feel it’s also important to celebrate giving to those we don’t know, who need it most. We hope this post inspires others to give more and to celebrate giving.

For several years now we’ve celebrated our wedding anniversary by giving a percentage of our yearly pre-tax income to charity — a percentage determined by the number of years we’ve been married. This year that percentage is 7%. Our 7th anniversary was October 29th, but we’ve waited to hear from our favorite source for charity advice, GiveWell, to make their yearly recommendations. Luckily they did this yesterday, giving us the opportunity to post this today.

This year we are closely following GiveWell’s advice and giving 90% of the 7% to three charities: GiveDirectly, the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF), and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI). (The remaining 10% will be decided later, and will probably be advocacy and other nonprofits that may not be highly effective, but are close to our hearts.)

Loiturerei village, Kenya. Taken by UK DFID, CC-BY-SA.

50% to GiveDirectly (3.5% of our annual income)

GiveDirectly is GiveWell’s only new recommendation this year, and we think it’s one of the most interesting charities out there. Its method is simply this: find the poorest people in Kenya (here’s how they do that) and give them money through the M-PESA money network.

There are all kinds of reasons why simply giving money to poor people directly might not be the best we can do (they might spend it on something we’d rather they didn’t, for example) but it does avoid the money’s impact being diluted by corruption or overhead. More importantly, GiveDirectly will be quantifying how much it helps. They will follow up with the recipients over the next year — using a randomized control trial for which they’ve pre-published the survey and analysis plan.

We’re hopeful that better interventions exist than GiveDirectly. But we want their project to succeed because it shares the commitment to measuring outcomes that we think is vital, and it can serve as a baseline to compare other charities to in the future (i.e. “Can you do something that creates more improvement to lives than GiveDirectly? Prove it.”).

30% to Against Malaria Foundation (2.1% of our annual income)

AMF distributes insecticide-treated nets for protecting against malaria infection. GiveWell estimates the cost per life saved is just under $2,500. Malaria is not usually fatal, so there is also a fair amount of disability due to illness is also being prevented.

10% to Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (0.7% of our annual income)

GiveWell thinks that SCI — which concentrates on the “Neglected Tropical Diseases” (usually worms/parasites) — offers an extremely effective intervention at improving DALYs (see below). This is because the infections they focus on are readily treatable using very inexpensive drugs, yet often come with debilitating symptoms that don’t quite kill the “host”.

“For You!” By Nomadic Lass, CC-BY-SA.

Donating effectively

It’s hard to list all the reasons people choose to give, or do not. One issue we’ve seen raised is the belief that “charity doesn’t work”. We believe that simply isn’t true. It may be true for some — many — perhaps most! Government-managed foreign aid especially so: it’s only around 1% of the US budget and mainly goes to political allies. But there are non-governmental charities that demonstrate real improvements, and GiveWell supports these. Giving can work, but it’s important to find effective giving opportunities.

And for that reason, we waited for GiveWell’s latest recommendations. Givewell looks for organizations that maximize the improvement to lives caused by each dollar you’re giving. This seems like it should be uncontroversial, but it’s not yet common to think about giving this way. Perhaps one reason for this is that it requires a way to measure outcomes and compare them against each other, and that’s very difficult. GiveWell is doing a fantastic job trying to do this all the same, though, using tools like the Disability-Adjusted Life Year (which is a measure of health that’s better than just measuring how long people live), randomized control trials, and the kind of statistics knowledge you have when you’re a charity review organization that was founded by a bunch of ex-quants. (A Businessweek article referred to GiveWell as Hedge Fund Analytics for Nonprofits.)

A second reason people are sometimes reluctant to think about donating effectively in this way is that for most of us, it’s going to involve donating to people far away instead of in our local communities. The price of living here in Boston, MA is very high, both for rent and food — in contrast, more than a third of the people in the world live on less than USD $2/day (most people don’t realize that this number is adjusted for the purchasing power of goods and services in the US!). When trying to decide whether to donate locally or globally, it’s clear that our money can do much more good in other countries than here in the US.

A third reason that people are reluctant to give to maximize outcomes is that we don’t have the same emotional connection to people across the world as we do to an individual call from help from someone that we can see — counter-intuitively, studies such as this one show that people have a strong bias towards giving more money to help a single identifiable victim than to help many “statistical” victims. The Internet has helped to reduce the effects of this emotional bias, with sites like Kiva giving a name and face to the global poor. Perhaps GiveDirectly could benefit from adopting a Kiva-style interface itself.

Closing thoughts

Each year we ratchet up the amount we give, and this year has brought us a new financial development: our first child. When people learn about our annual tradition they wonder how it will scale — will we be doing this on our 20th? Our 50th? Our 101st? (We hope to have that last problem!) As Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” We know the responsibilities of parenthood will demand more of our finances, and balancing that with wanting to help others will be a lifetime project. Tithing (10%) is a very common tradition, and we want to at least reach that. Maybe we can go beyond it. For now we’ll take it one step at a time, and try to give a little more each year.

Personal Genome Project talk at 2012 Open Science Summit

Finally I have a video to point people to if they’re at all curious about what I work on.

This is a talk about the Personal Genome Project that I gave at the 2012 Open Science Summit. It’s an overview of the PGP’s motivations and goals, with updates on recent progress.

Because I was the last speaker before an already-delayed lunch, it’s fairly fast-paced — the talk itself is only 12 minutes long. Hope you enjoy it!