Archive for technology

A SIPA Faculty Interview

Eric Verhoogen, an associate professor of international and public affairs and economics, followed a somewhat unorthodox path to SIPA. “After college at Harvard, I was a high-school teacher in Los Angeles, and then tried my hand at journalism in Berkeley and at the Nation. Then I was a labor organizer in Minnesota and Ohio. And then I started grad school at UMass Amherst and later transferred to Berkeley.” After earning his PhD in 2004, he came directly to SIPA, where he received tenure in 2010.

In a study of soccer ball manufacturers in Pakistan, Professors Eric Verhoogen of SIPA and Amit Khandelwal, Gary Winnick and Martin Granoff of Columbia Business School found that how workers are paid, and whether or not incentives are offered, can promote or stifle the adoption of a new technology. Below were some additional information Verhoogen shared about the study and some other things he’s working on.

You found clearly that misaligned incentives can compromise the adoption of otherwise beneficial technology. Why is this significant, and what are the challenges inherent in a study like this?

It’s an interesting, important question for economic development and growth more generally. It’s also a hard question to study because it’s hard to observe technology use by manufacturing firms and rare to have information about the actual cost and benefits of technology.

This is partly because technologies vary a lot across firms, and particularly across sectors. And unlike other types of data, it’s hard to collect via survey—sometimes firms don’t want to share information. Economists have other methods to estimate productivity, but they’re all pretty indirect.

Why soccer balls? I realize it’s just a coincidence that we’re in the middle of the World Cup tournament.

With soccer-ball producers [in Sialkot, Pakistan], you have a pretty large number of firms, 135, producing a standardized product using similar technology. So the same basic production process is used by large and small firms alike. We thought we could introduce a new technology that would be useful to these guys, to producers, and focus on the diffusion process.

As the Columbia News story explains, Verhoogen and his team developed a fabric-cutting die that would enable producers to use fabric more efficiently, creating an opportunity to cut costs and increase profits.

Is it unusual that your team of researchers gave the manufacturers a technological advancement? Does it impact the study somehow?

In development economics, there’s been a broad trend over 15 or 20 years, of having more of these experimental interventions. There’s a large literature on technology adoption in agriculture where researchers share information about improved production processes. What’s more unusual about our study is that we are focusing on larger manufacturing firms and especially that we invented the technology we gave out.

So what happened when you introduced the new technology?

We gave the dies out in May 2012, and to be honest we were expecting very fast adoption. We were planning to focus on the diffusion process, seeing how the technology spread to firms we didn’t give it to.

We had evidence to indicate that the technology was working, that it was more efficient, but after 15 months only six firms had adopted the new technology. This was a puzzlingly low adoption rate, so we decided to write a paper about that.

The number-one reason firms didn’t adopt the new technology was that the employees were unwilling to use it. What became clear was that the cutters actually cutting the material are paid a piece rate per pentagon or hexagon. They want to go as fast as possible and don’t care about waste.

Our new technology slowed them down initially, certainly for the first month or two, and given their wage contract they have no incentive to adopt new technology. So we formulated this hypothesis that the misalignment of incentives was a key constraint to adoption.

We did a second experiment to probe this—we explained the misalignment and said we would pay a lump-sum bonus of one month’s salary, about $150, to the cutter if in one month he could demonstrate competence in the new technology.

The incentive program led to a 26 percent increase in probability of adoption of the new treatment. That such a small incentive targeted at workers could have a significant effect indicated to us that the misalignment of incentives is why the technology wasn’t being adopted.

Can you elaborate on the significance of your findings, and the study?

One piece of the big picture is that you have to have employee buy-in. Workers will only cooperate in the adoption of new technologies if they expect to gain—and if they don’t cooperate, they can effectively block it.

Also, by introducing the innovation we were able to actually observe the process and statistically distinguish between different hypotheses, as opposed to in case studies. This was a particularly clean setting, and we have a strong argument that the new technology is beneficial for essentially all firms.

I think this sort of thing happens all the time in many different settings. We happened to be able to observe it in one setting, but we think there are many incremental changes that could be made in different settings, and make a big difference.

Traditional economists sometimes say there can’t be a $100 bill on the sidewalk because if there were, someone would pick it up. We think this is a $100 bill on the sidewalk, but firms aren’t picking it up.

You’re also the director of SIPA’s Center for Development Economics and Policy. How has CDEP been received since it formally launched in November 2013?

There’s a lot of enthusiasm about development economics at SIPA. There’s been a great response from students and faculty members, and also from people outside SIPA.

We have a couple of initiatives that are gaining momentum. One is a human capital initiative for human education and health issues—what leads someone to acquire education, what factors shape education and health, and what are the consequences of that for a labor market. Another is our firms and innovations initiative, which examines issues around industrial upgrading in developing countries— the question of why some countries can grow and thrive in world economy and some less so.

Another coincidence with the World Cup… you’re also pursuing research in Brazil.

In Brazil, with support from the President’s Global Innovation Fund, I have a project on the interaction between labor market regulation and innovation at the firm level.

The question is, how do firms respond to labor market regulation? Economists tend to think of the effect of labor regulation as uniformly negative, but we’re investigating whether there are less familiar but important positive effects on firm behavior.

For example, the minimum wage in Brazil has risen a lot. The minimum wage affects the relative cost of hiring different types of workers, more low-skill than high-skill. If you give firms incentive to upgrade the composition of their workforce that may in turn induce them to use higher quality inputs, to produce higher quality outputs for sale to richer people in Brazil or richer export markets.

You’ve lived and worked in many different and interesting places. After almost 10 years here, how does SIPA measure up?

I very much like being at SIPA and teaching SIPA students because it keeps me grounded in the world. Our students have experience in the world and they’re planning to go back and be involved in things on the ground—I think it’s healthy and stimulating for me to be exposed to them and to be at a place that respects policy-oriented work. I got into this job to make the world a better place and I haven’t given up hope that that’s possible.

Dean’s roundtable discusses technology and innovation for cities

Dean Merit E. Janow convened leading technology entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and experts in urban policy to discuss the application of digital technology and advanced data analytics to improve urban environments around the world.The event was co-hosted by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Lonsdale, co-founder of Palantir and founder of Addepar, among other companies, and set the stage for the launch of the Dean’s Public Policy Challenge Grant Program, which is seeking proposals from SIPA and other Columbia students for innovative projects using technology and data to address global urban challenges. The Program aims to integrate problem-solving from different fields such as public policy, computer science, and engineering.

Daniel Doctoroff, the CEO and president of Bloomberg and a former deputy mayor of New York City recounted examples of the ways in which New York City’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning — also known as the city’s “geek squad” — used data to solve problems, like how to identify restaurants that were illegally dumping grease and clogging the city’s sewers. By using information about restaurants that were not contracting with waste disposal companies to eliminate grease, the geek squad overlayed a map of those restaurants with geospatial data that identified areas with concentrated grease in the sewage system. This resulted in a 95 percent success rate in identifying and stopping the illegal dumping of grease from restaurants.

This example underlined how data is an increasingly important tool for government, not only to solve problems but also to reduce costs — a sentiment echoed by other speakers at the roundtable.

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, cited crises in employment, education, healthcare, and energy as problems that needed prioritizing in the United States, and expressed his hope that advanced technology would be used to improve efficiency in those areas. He stressed that data and technology should be used for good governance. Open governance should allow for active public participation.

Along a similar vein, Carter Cleveland, CEO of Artsy, an online platform connecting users to works of art, said he would like to see more open-source information that allowed joint ownership of data between the government and the public. Cleveland said access to information could empower civilians to participate and partner with government to monitor crime and improve urban safety, for example, whereas information asymmetry could erode cooperation between citizens and governing bodies.

Patricia Culligan, associate director of the Institute for Data Science and Engineering and co-director of the Earth Institute’s Urban Design Lab, advocated for the meshing of technology and policy around urban infrastructure. She said more investment was needed to improve infrastructure providing for the safety, lives and needs of cities, and to address manageable challenges like reducing energy consumption. A study she led at Columbia, she noted, found that transparency and sharing data about energy use with residents of a building helped reduce consumption by up to 30 percent.

Panelists seemed to agree that the role of information and communications technology (ICT) and data was increasingly important in helping cities become more responsive, more sustainable, safer, and healthier. The challenge was to catalyze innovations and encourage multi-disciplinary, multi-sector solutions.

However, cautioning that governments don’t work like businesses, Rohit Aggarwala, professor of professional practice in international and public affairs at SIPA and expert on urban sustainability, said the key was to identify areas where there is a lack of timely or useful data and fill that gap where the government already has the mandate and resources to act.

Other participants included James D. Robinson III, co-founder of RRE Ventures and former CEO of American Express and Zachary Bookman, co-founder and CEO of OpenGov. View the full discussion here.

excerpt from Doyeun Kim MIA ’14 commentary for SIPA

Alumni Notes #1: February 2011

Every so often I work with our Director of Alumni Affairs and I get highlights on what some of our alumni are doing.  I received a report from her earlier this week and started to digest it.  I decided to divide the information into two posts.  This first post covers three general sectors and the next post will cover NGOs, the United Nations, business, academia and think tanks.

Below are sector titles, names, program, graduation year, organizations, and titles.  Feel free to follow the links for related pages on those referenced.

Media and Technology

Na Eng – MIA 1999:  News and Documentary Producer, CNBC.

Omoyele  Sowore – MPA 2003:  Founder of

Claire Shipman – MIA 1994:  Senior National Correspondent, ABC News

Richard Smith – MIA 1969:  Chairman, Newsweek

Lan Yang – MIA 1996:  Sun Media Investment Holdings

Politics and Government

Bill de Blasio – MIA 1987:  New York City Public Advocate

Eric Garcetti – MIA 1995:  President, Los Angeles City Council

Patricia Haslach – MIA 1981:  Deputy Coordinator for Diplomacy of the Department of State’s Office of the Coordinator for the Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, US Department of State

Shannon Lightner-Gometz – MPA 2001:  Deputy Director, Illinois Dept of Public health, Office of Women’s Health

Robert Scher – MIA 1991:  Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia, U.S. Department of Defense

Chun Yung Woo – MIA 1994:  Korean Senior Presidential Secretary for Foreign Affairs and National Security, Korean Government.


Scott Campbell – MIA 1995:  Executive Director, Elton John AIDS Foundation

Richard Greenberg – MPA 2004:  President, The Fund for New Jersey.

Anisa Kamadoli Costa – MIA 1998:  President, The Tiffany & Co. Foundation

Ferry Pausch – MIA 2001:  Managing Director, Deutschlandstiftung Integration

Rita Soni – MIA 2001:  CEO, NASSCOM Foundation

Crowd Sourcing of Crisis Information

A group of SIPA students was recently featured on Al Jazeera’s Web site.  The story (text and video) shows how technology developed in Kenya is making it possible to have an impact during crisis situations, even if those interested in assisting are thousands of miles away.  The text below is taken from the Al Jazeera Web site.

University students have always been known for their activism, but I just met a group at Columbia University’s School of Public Affairs (SIPA) who are using technology to take it to a new level.

They are volunteers who have been holed up in the basement of the school’s library, despite their exams, ever since an earthquake struck Chile.

They work in shifts from a tiny room without windows, amid half-eaten snacks and potato-chip wrappers, but they are able to have a direct impact on how aid is delivered to the people in Chile – thanks to an amazing new tool available right on their laptops.

They are using an open source – meaning anyone can use it – computer program called Ushahidi. Ushahidi allows them to take information provided by text messages, email, and twitter and create a “crisis map” of where help is needed.

Al Jazeera’s Kristen Saloomey reports from Columbia University in New York city where the technology is being applied.

Policy Making in the Digital Age Conference

The following was composed by SIPA student Shivani Desai, a first year MPA student concentrating in Economic and Political Development.


This Saturday, February 27, 2010, The Morningside Post will host a conference titled “Policy Making in the Digital Age.”  If you are not yet familiar with The Morningside Post (TMP), we are SIPA’s student-run blog.  TMP aims to foster the debate you didn’t have in class and to feature the most passionate and inquisitive voices in the SIPA community and beyond.

The conference will consider how the Internet and digital technology are changing policy making and international affairs. It comes at a time when the intersections between digital technology and international affairs are increasingly evident, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on internet freedom and the China-Google censorship controversy, to the initiative and the use of Twitter during the Haiti earthquake and the Iranian elections.

Keynote presentations will be given by Richard Boly, director of the Office of eDiplomacy for the U.S. State Department, Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Brian Storm, president of MediaStorm.

We will feature panels and speakers on a variety of topics, including information communication technology (ICT) and development (including a special forum on Haiti and a discussion of telemedicine strategies), new media and authoritarianism, open governance, and a roundtable discussion of how policy schools can get involved in the debate. Our high profile speakers come from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of eDiplomacy, New York City Council, FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, and Columbia, Harvard and Stanford Universities.

The policy makers and practitioners who succeed in this landscape will be those who can adapt thoughtfully and quickly to meet the challenges – and opportunities – presented by these digital tools.

The conference is open to the public and free.  We invite prospective students to attend to get a taste of some of the great events that take place at SIPA everyday. To learn more about the conference and to register, please visit the conference website.

The conference is sponsored by SIPA’s International Media, Advocacy and Communications Specialization; the Economic and Political Development Concentration; SIPA News; Journal of International Affairs; Communiqué; SIPA Student Association (SIPASA); Humanitarian Affairs Working Group (HAWG); Latin American Student Association (LASA); and the Office of Career Services.

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

Boiler Image