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A 41-hour digital fast to raise digital divide awareness

Could you step away from the keyboard? This weekend, Philly Tech Week (PTW) curator Tayyib Smith, in conjunction with KEYSPOTS, asked the tech community and everyone else in the city to participate in a 41 hour digital fast beginning Saturday April 21 at 3 p.m. No computer. No email. No social media. No mobile apps (those participating in Philly Startup Weekend get a fast pass). The fast ended when PTW began, with breakfast on Monday (April 23) at 8 a.m.

Brandon Shockley, a content associate at Mighty Engine, did his best to participate in the fast, but couldn't make it even a quarter of the way. "I can't say I was successful, despite my best efforts. I cracked," reports Shockley. "The internet is habit forming. I made it about 7 hours, and then had to go back to the safety of my inbox."
 
Nearly half of Philadelphia lacks basic computer skills and internet access, according to Smith, who did make it through an internet free weekend in which he says he stopped himself 15 or 20 times from reaching for his phone and computer.

In the lead-up to Philly Tech Week, Smith, founder of 215mag and Little Giant Creative, called attention "to the 41% of Philadelphians who still don’t have basic computer skills and Internet access, which essentially means a  lack of basic opportunity." Smith curates this year’s Access and Policy track for Philly Tech Week.
 
"One of the biggest dangers to the people in our city who can’t communicate digitally is the risk of being underrepresented in media, government, and culture," says Smith, who notes that a new discourse is being developed, the language of programming, and it seems to him as if a monolithic group of people are explaining that language, disproportionately affecting minorities. "That’s why the first step is closing our city’s digital divide is raising awareness of this issue."
 
Smith hopes the fast will help publicize KEYSPOTS, an initiative of the Freedom Rings Partnership, that offers over 80 public computing sites where residents can get free internet access and training. "Do nothing and support our efforts," reads a banner on the website. Well, not totally nothing. In the next few days, Smith encourages connected people to spread the word about the fast via Facebook, Twitter and email. And then shut it all down. 

Source: Tayyib Smith, Digital FAST, Brandon Shockley, Mighty Engine
Writer: Sue Spolan

Snapline merges social and shopping data, to seek funding in early 2012

Todd McNeal's company Snapline looks like a whole lot of money: slick website, professional press release. "Snapline is just me," says Bella Vista based McNeal, who presented his idea at this month's Philly Tech Meetup.

Snapline uses information readily available on the Facebook API to provide a better shopping experience. McNeal has developed a set of plug-ins based on the social data. The first one, now in use, looks at your profile and gives recommendations based on things you like, as well as what other people of similar gender, age, and interest like.

A retailer using the Snapline plug-in can segment and market specific products. "A jeweler shows engagement rings to people who are single, and anniversary presents to people who are already married," says McNeal, who is now beta testing Snapline with one of the largest online flower and gift retailers. McNeal does not want to publicly divulge the company name just yet.

"I was with IBM out of college, working as a consultant with an e-commerce platform that was used by a lot of top retailers." It was there that McNeal developed a deep understanding of what was lacking in the retail interface.

McNeal plans on releasing several more plug-ins for e-commerce data management over the next month. "My goal is to get enough information to prove that we are a viable business, and then go look for funding in the early part of next year." McNeal's current marketing strategy is personalized face to face demos, making a go as a bootstrapped one-man startup with an enterprise solution.

Source: Todd McNeal, Snapline
Writer: Sue Spolan

State of Young Philly has never looked better

If you want to know how young Philly's doing, let me sum it up for you: smart and good looking. From the highest reaches of government right down to our youngest up and comers, there's never been a more attractive bunch of people in charge.

The second annual State of Young Philly, convened by the all-volunteer Young Involved Philadelphia for a two-week run, was a series of six events designed to engage, connect and represent citizens. Targeting community engagement, education, sustainability and the creative economy, State of Young Philly drew close to 1,000 young professionals and representatives from over 50 organizations in the city, according to organizers. From the first packed event at World Cafe Live on Oct. 4 to the standing-room only crowd at the finale at The Gershman Y, the crowd was diverse in age and background and alike in its forward-thinking approach.

Claire Robertson-Kraft, Young Involved Philadelphia Board Chair, says, "When I first moved to Philadelphia just over a decade ago, I was initially struck by the negativity of the city. But the spirit in the discussions over the course of the past few weeks has been very different than that initial perception I got when I first moved here. Rather than focusing solely on what was in need of improvement, each of the discussions was as much about how to build on already existing innovation and assets the city has to offer."

Alain Joinville, Public Affairs Coordinator for the city's Department of Parks and Recreation and a Young Involved Philly board member, adds, "It was easier to get partnering organizations involved. The State of Young Philly series is the biggest and most audacious project our organization has undertaken in its 11-year history, and we did it pretty well last year, so we are seen as a credible organization in the eyes of the City's leaders and leading organizations."

Robertson-Kraft points to several initiatives that launched in the lead-up to this year's State of Young Philly: a local version of the online web portal Change By Us,a partnership with United Way to improve Philadelphia public education, entry into the Open Data Philly challenge, and social media hashtags #WhyILovePhilly and #PhillyArts.

But ultimately, the draw of State of Young Philly is the promise of doing good combined with a commitment to fun. Reports Robertson-Kraft, "Let’s just say that the after-party went into the late hours of the night. At all of our events, we strive to achieve that perfect balance of meaningful conversation and a good time."

It's a whole new take on a thousand points of light.

Source: Claire Robertson-Kraft, Young Involved Philly
Writer: Sue Spolan

Open Data Race lets you vote for data sets that are most fit for public consumption

Data collection and dissemination: how much fun is that? If you are participating in Philadelphia's Open Data Race, you might actually squeeze a good time out of otherwise flat statistics. Voting in the Open Data Race is open to the public until Oct. 27, and currently, you can make your opinion known on which of 24 data sets you would like to see made public.

"We hope to generate excitement around open data," says Deborah Boyer, project manager at Philadelphia-based Azavea. Nominations contributed by non-profit organizations were reviewed by OpenDataPhilly partners, namely Azavea, NPower Pennsylvania, The William Penn Foundation, and Technically Philly.

It's probably too early to judge, but right now the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia's request for stats on reported bike thefts is atop the rankings with 55 votes, followed by Demographic Info for Individuals Accessing Shelter Services submitted by Back on My Feet with 50 votes. Other organizations represented in the voting ranks include the Committee of 70, The Urban Tree Connection and The Sustainable Business Network.

Boyer says, "Public participation has been a key feature of OpenDataPhilly and is also crucial to the Open Data Race. We encourage people to submit data sets for inclusion in OpenDataPhilly or nominate data they would like to see made available."

Boyer points to difficulties municipalities might have in identifying which data is most needed. "Through Open Data Race, non-profit organizations have the opportunity to let the city and OpenDataPhilly partners know what information they need to fulfill their missions."

Winners, to be announced on Friday, Oct. 28, will receive cash prizes. First place gets $2,000, second place gets $1,000, and third receives $500. At that point, the fun really begins, when OpenDataPhilly works with the city to unlock the requested sets and then hosts hack-a-thons to create applications that use the data.

Source: Deborah Boyer, Azavea/OpenDataPhilly
Writer: Sue Spolan

All geeked up: Inaugural Philadelphia Geek Awards gets nuts

The thing that surprised Eric Smith the most about the first annual Philadelphia Geek Awards wasn't the guy who accepted his honor in a fox head costume. It wasn't the sold out crowd of over 400 who packed the Academy of Natural Sciences auditorium last Friday night. It was the negative feedback from folks who were upset by who was left out. "It shows that people were invested and care about what we're doing," Smith reflected after a good night's sleep. "It was supposed to be something mostly for fun, but it got a lot more serious." In the two weeks leading up to the Awards, Smith says press coverage blew up, and tickets disappeared.

The Geek Awards, the brainchild of Smith, Tim Quirino and Michelangelo Ilagan, who make up the staff of Geekadelphia ("A Guide to Everything Geek in the City of Brotherly Love"), were by all measures a total success. Sponsored by a host of local organizations including The Academy of Natural Sciences, who provided the venue free of charge, along with Drink Philly and National Mechanics who donated food and beverages, the event celebrated dozens of the city's technological finest, with just under twenty categories, from Best New Blog (a tie between DrinkPhilly and Naked Philly; the latter wore the fox head) to Outstanding Achievement in Fashion & Lifestyle, which is not the first attribute that comes to mind in the geek world, but Philly happens to have some very hip and good looking techies. Cadence Wrist Watch Company, home of the 4-bit, 4:20 and Wrist Rocket models, won that title.

"It was always something Tim and I wanted to do," says Smith of the awards. "We have all these great awards in Philly, but nothing for geeks." Let's just say that PriceWaterhouseCoopers did not oversee the process. Smith and cohorts at Geekadelphia designed the ceremony and chose categories, nominees and winners (with a little help from friends like Alex Hillman of Indy Hall). Next year the Geek Awards will be even more inclusive and probably a lot more serious, with spots for scientists, web developers and programmers.

Following his moment in the spotlight and cheering crowds, Smith returns to his day job at the Philadelphia based Quirk Books, which turns out bestsellers including Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, as well as the aptly titled Geeky Dreamboats.

Source: Eric Smith, Philadelphia Geek Awards
Writer: Sue Spolan

ReAnimator blazes local coffee roasting trail without the burn

The appreciation of coffee has risen to an art form, following the path of fine wine and craft beer. And while the city is dotted with culinary coffee establishments, most are serving products shipped in from distant locations. A new company, inspired by single origin roasters like Stumptown and CounterCulture, brings craft roasting to Philadelphia. ReAnimator Coffee was founded in April by Drexel University grads Mark Corpus and Mark Capriotti.

Corpus says that while coffee has been his stimulant of choice for years, visits to New York's Cafe Grumpy and 9th Street Espresso changed his opinion about how a cup of joe should taste. "These were coffees that were not only roasted to perfection, but were selected purposefully. At the time, there weren't many places in Philadelphia doing this type of coffee so I began looking into home roasting," says Corpus. "It was an interesting hobby that appealed to my nerdy tendencies and produced super fresh and delicious coffee with relative ease."

It was only through conversations with partner Capriotti that Corpus looked at his hobby with an eye toward a business. Using personal savings, the java-jolted duo took on the purchase of a roaster, which can run upwards of $8,000 for a starter model, and purchased  inventory. Coffee bean prices are now at an all time high, according to Corpus.

Both partners are still working day jobs, but have been pleasantly surprised by growth in sales during a hot summer. It's no surprise to anyone who tastes ReAnimator, which goes down easy, lacking the acidity and charred taste of the big name brands. "When you roast a coffee until it's burnt, all of the oils that hold all of those interesting aromas and flavors are lost. You see them on the outside of a greasy burnt bean where they do not provide any additional flavor to the brew," says Corpus. "When you take the time to figure out what roast level makes the coffee flavor best, you get the full potential of a bean."

ReAnimator has relied almost entirely on social media marketing using Facebook and Twitter, and they can almost always be found on Saturdays at Greensgrow Farmer's Market, just blocks from ReAnimator world headquarters in Fishtown. In addition to online sales, Quince Fine Foods and Green Aisle Grocery both stock the local roast, and Circles restaurant sells it by the cup.

As far as the name? "We wanted something that sounded different, not so burlap baggy wholesome. I had been reading HP Lovecraft's ReAnimator and it struck me as a great, unique term, and in my own experience reanimation and coffee go hand in hand," says Corpus, whose name, fittingly, translates as "body" from Latin.

Source: Mark Corpus, ReAnimator Coffee
Writer: Sue Spolan

South Philly resident grows composting collection business

Your scraps are Tim Bennett's gold mine. Bennett Compost offers urban dwellers the opportunity to recycle food waste without expensive equipment or outdoor space. Bennett began the business out of a personal need. "At the time, where I was living in South Philly, I wanted to compost, but I had no backyard." After dissatisfaction with home composting systems costing around $300, Bennett created a composting service that would benefit city homes and businesses at a fraction of the cost.

For a $15 monthly fee, residential customers receive a covered bucket, and Bennett's truck swings around once a week to empty and return the container. Commercial customers, including coffee shops, a florist and some restaurants, pay on a sliding scale depending on volume and frequency of pickup, but Bennett adds that the cost offsets commercial trash hauling fees, and in some cases commercial customers are able to save money on refuse.

Used food and some types of paper are sent to a composting facility in Delaware and then picked up for distribution to area community gardens. Customers can opt to receive up to 10 gallons of the finished product free of charge; beyond that, compost is available at a discounted price. You don't have to be a customer to buy compost. Five gallon buckets are available to the general public for $10, and will soon be sold at area retail locations including Essene Market and Green Aisle Grocery.

Current offices are based in South Philly at Bennett's home, with a North Philadelphia warehouse. Bennett was able to quit his day job at Temple University last summer to devote his career full time to compost. "We bootstrapped our way up. Now we are profitable enough that I am able to pay my own salary, and we have three part time employees." The business continues to grow, with 300 residential customers and 20 businesses distributed across the entire city.

Source: Tim Bennett, Bennett Compost
Writer: Sue Spolan

FLYING BYTES: SEPTA's TransitView, MAC founder raises $75M, and Phila. Printworks strikes chord

Flying Bytes is a recurring roundup of innovation and quick updates on the people and companies we're covering:

SEPTA launches TransitView

Back in January, we reported that SEPTA was weeks away from launching a real-time, system wide tracking program. The future is finally here. Like SEPTA's TrainView for regional rail, the new TransitView provides live updates on the whereabouts of buses and trolleys throughout the city. Also launched: SMS Transit Schedule Information, allowing customers to receive a text with the next four scheduled trips, and Schedules to Go, a mobile website function that provides information on the next ten scheduled trips.

Shah closes $72 million IPO with Universal Business Payment Solutions

Following a hot tip, we learned that Bipin Shah, creator of the MAC, was seeking $72 million for payments startup Universal Business Payment Solutions. On May 13, UPBS (NASDAQ: UBPSU) got its money. According to Shah's partner Peter Davidson, "we closed on 12 million shares at $6.00 per share. The underwriters have a 45 day option to cover any over-allotments, which they have not exercised to date." Investors include hedge fund magnate J. Kyle Bass, who purchased about 800,000 shares.

Philadelphia Printworks up, running, finding its market

The lovely ladies at the helm of Philadelphia Printworks are going full speed with their new T-shirt business. Co-founder April Pugh reports that most of PPW's customer base has come from custom work, particularly from local indie rock artists. PPW loves its rockers right back and offers a band discount. Pugh says she and partner Ruth Paloma Rivera-Perez are now seeking partnerships with retail outlets and will be selling at upcoming summer festivals.

Specticast expands with EuroArts partnership
Digital entertainment distribution company Specticast continues to widen its reach. The company, which we originally profiled back in April, announced an exclusive partnership with EuroArts, bringing live and pre-recorded events from Berlin's Philharmonie, The Sheldonian Theater at Oxford University, and Madrid's Teatro Real, according to Mark Rupp, SpectiCast president.

Source: Andrew Busch, SEPTA; Peter Davidson, UBPS; April Pugh, PPW; Mark Rupp, Specticast
Writer: Sue Spolan

The Social Knitwork: Philly's yarn bomber in talks with Mural Arts

Jessie Hemmons embraces the city, literally. You've probably walked past this new form of public art and wondered who's behind the colorful knit webs that wrap trees, bike racks, and recently, subway seats on the Market-Frankford Line.

Hemmons is a yarn bomber, a growing network that subverts the old fashioned craft of knitting to put a feminist stamp on underground street art. When she's not riding her bike, Hemmons goes by the handle "ishknits" and spends hours working big needles and skeins of acrylic yarn on public transit. Hemmons, who's also a therapist for families facing drug and alcohol addiction, is not the first person to engage in yarn bombing nationally. The practice originated in Austin, when a failing yarn shop's overstock became fodder for public art. Hemmons says she is the only yarn bomber in Philadelphia, with 30 installations to date, including one commissioned by Urban Outfitters for the company's Navy Yard headquarters. She's also selling knits on etsy.

Consider the masculine spray of graffiti, as opposed to the warm womanly embrace of knitwork. "I am feminizing street art," says Hemmons, who is now entering talks with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program. "My whole goal is to empower communities. The ideal yarn bomb would be to wrap an abandoned house." Public knitting is passive intervention, and a way for Hemmons to communicate that someone is paying attention to blighted neighborhoods.

Source: Jessie Hemmons, ishknits
Writer: Sue Spolan

Interactive mapping platform launched to connect Philadelphians to their local communities

It's one of life's great mysteries: you can travel to a thousand cities and eat at a hundred fancy restaurants and drink a dozen craft beers at each of the bars along the way. But a meal never tastes as good as one at your favorite neighborhood haunt. And according to Philadelphia's sustainability leaders, this phenomenon is not just good for your appetite, it can be good for your neighborhood and your city as well.

Based on a concept created by the William Penn Foundation, partners from the Sustainable Business Network, Azavea and NPower created Common Space, a new mapping platform that creates a network of neighborhood establishments within a certain walkable, bikeable or busable distance to help residents support local business.

"The really cool thing is, I can map my friend's common space as well as my own," says SBN Executive Director Leanne Krueger-Braneky. "So if I am leaving from my office in Center City and meeting my husband who is coming from our house in West Philadelphia, he could say he is going to bike for 15 minutes and I could say I was going to walk for 20 minutes and Common Space will map the area where we would be able to meet up and map local culture events and businesses in that field."

Partnering with tastemakers like UWISHUNU and Yelp, Common Space shows you the best spots in your transit area, allowing you the most sustainable way possible to hit your next favorite haunt. After their trial run, organizers hope to partner with citywide festivals and cultural events like LiveArts and Philly Beer Week.

"Sustainability was one of the values William Penn outlined, which is why they wanted to partner with us," Krueger-Braneky says. "Because the application does encourage walking, biking, and public transit, it's a way of showing what's going on in the city while encouraging alternative transit."

Source: Leanne Krueger-Braneky, SBN
Writer: John Steele





Knight Arts Challenge offers $9M over three year for next great urban artistic movement in Philly

From the LOVE statue to the Mural Arts Program to Market Street's massive Clothespin, Philadelphia has its share of big, urban art projects. But there is more to creating the next big movement in urban arts than making the largest painting or sculpture. So the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation launched the Knight Arts Challenge, a search looking for urban projects to change the artistic landscape of American cities for the better. Started in Miami, Knight Arts brings it's challenge to Philadelphia this fall.

"We are coming to Philadelphia and it would be presumptuous of us to say that we know just what you need in the arts," says Knight Arts VP Dennis Scholl. "So instead of saying that, we're saying we don't know what Philadelphia's next art idea is and we need you to tell us. It's not about large institutions only getting grants, people who have been in the arts forever only getting grants. It's open to everybody in the community."

After three successful years in Miami, the Knight Arts Challenge has spawned poetry collectives and arts education centers and jazz festivals. Philadelphia's challenge, a three-year, $9 million initiative, will provide new funding for established arts institutions, independent artists, businesses, service organizations and anyone else with a great idea and a plan to execute it. The challenge kicks off October 5 with a cocktail reception, where interested artists can find out how they can contribute to Philadelphia's artistic future.

"Philadelphia has two important things going for it: it has incredible, world-class cultural assets," says Scholl. "But in addition to that, Philadelphia has an incredibly hot, steadily rising art scene, with collectives and up-and-coming performance arts groups. And that is really why we were drawn to Philadelphia, because it's kinda happening, frankly."

Source: Dennis Scholl, Knight Arts
Writer: John Steele

SEPTA subways go hybrid with lossless battery storage system

Philadelphians know SEPTA's Market-Frankford El as the Blue Line. But a new pilot program, which stores leftover power from the subway's regenerative braking system in a massive battery, would make the Blue Line a little greener, and provide SEPTA some much-needed capital.

Earlier this month, SEPTA and Conshohocken smart-grid firm Viridity Energy announced receipt of $900,000 from the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority to install a massive storage battery--about the size of a cement truck--at SEPTA's Kensington electrical substation. The current regenerative braking system transmits electricity, collected as trains enter stations, to other electric vehicles. But if no other vehicles are in range, the electricity is lost. The battery, capable of storing up to a megawatt of electricity, would siphon energy to be resold to the power grid. Viridity estimates that this one battery will generate $500,000 a year in clean, green profit. SEPTA has already applied for new funding to install these battery systems at all 33 substations across their service area.

"With this technology, SEPTA can be very strategic with their power; when they are using it, when they are storing it and when they are selling it back into the grid," says Viridity Director of Business Development Laurie Actman. "At peak periods, the grid is willing to pay premium prices for sources of reliable load."

Since 2008, SEPTA has struggled to execute capital improvements to its transit infrastructure. Most recently, a proposed switch to SmartCards has drawn scrutiny from city media and transit bloggers. When Governor Ed Rendell made a play to turn state thoroughfare I-80 into a federal toll road, he promised a chunk of the resulting revenue to SEPTA. Since Rendell's proposal was defeated, SEPTA has been looking for other ways to fund improvements, from fare hikes to advertising on the sides of trains. The battery system technology could be the answer they have been looking for that will finally bring the Philadelphia subway into the 21st century.

"As we all know, SEPTA has always had a constrained budget and not enough money to invest in its infrastructure," says Actman. "For so long, SEPTA's infrastructure, that was built nearly a century ago, has been a liability. We are turning that into an opportunity."

Source: Laurie Actman, Viridity Energy
Writer: John Steele

City's most involved young professionals imagine Philly's future with city-wide summit

Studies in recent years have revealed that while Philadelphia welcomes up to 50,000 freshman to its colleges and universities every year, less than half remained in the region after graduation. That statistic, in part, is what motivates Young Involved Philadelphia, a comprehensive network of young professionals and student groups producing advocacy campaigns and social events to make Philly a better place to live.

This week, the group opens the State of Young Philly: Imagining Philly's Future summit, a massive, two-week event hosting over 30 partnering organizations for speeches, roundtable discussions and brainstorming sessions to make Philadelphia a more attractive place for young people. The summit will focus on four key areas--Community Engagement and Volunteerism, Government and Leadership, Business and Entrepreneurship, and Arts and Culture--in an effort to "engage, educate and empower" young Philadelphia.

"For the first time since the '50s, the city is gaining population, and although we don't have the newest census data yet, we would venture a guess that this growth is due partly to an increasingly vibrant youth culture," says YIP board chair Claire Robertson-Kraft.

With speakers as varied as former Mayor John Street and the Mural Arts Program's Jane Golden, the summit hopes to gain a wide-reaching perspective that can be gleaned into an agenda ranking priorities and creating concrete deliverables. This agenda will inform an ongoing blog and will serve as YIP's action plan for the coming year. YIP hopes to make the summit an annual event, creating a constant barometer on youth culture in Philadelphia.

"The most important thing we hope people take away from the event is a sense of empowerment," says Robertson-Kraft. "As young Philadelphians, we should be organizing, demonstrating our ability to contribute to the debate, and doing more to ensure our voices are heard."

Source: Claire Robertson-Kraft, Young Involved Philadelphia
Writer: John Steele

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