747 flight sparks innovation ‘hackathon’

Eleven hours, 130 geeks, 22 big ideas. That’s the math that came out of this week’s inaugural “UnGrounded” flight from San Francisco to London, which saw dozens of hand-picked technologists and policy leaders tackling the digital divide at 30,000 feet.

Among the ideas cooked up by Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, former Barack Obama adviser Van Jones and the rest: Solar-powered backpacks to bring mobile computing hot spots to rural areas and a “digital labeling system” built into clothes, consumer electronics and other products to highlight how science and math education helped inspire the innovators behind them.

Simon Talling-Smith, who heads U.S. operations for sponsor British Airways, called the experience “the most energized and unique brainstorms ever conducted.”

BA, along with officials from the United Nations, Stanford University, Google and others, devised the in-flight experiment as a sort of hackathon in the sky. Passengers on the specially outfitted 747 had the duration of one trans-Atlantic flight to think up ways to make science, technology, engineering and math education more accessible around the world.

The top ideas were presented Friday to the U.N.’s top technology adviser and to a gathering of scientists and CEOs that precedes next week’s G-8 Summit of world leaders.

Hamadoun Toure, head of the International Telecommunications Union, which advises the U.N. on tech issues, praised the digital labeling idea as “a great way to celebrate the less visible part of the product.” But he was even more impressed by a proposed online community, called AdvisHer, that would encourage women to study science, technology, engineering and math in college and support them as they sought careers in those fields.

Toure promised that his group would help develop the idea into an actual initiative and fold it into the ITU’s existing programs for girls and women. Within hours of the flight’s touchdown in London, a website for the AdvisHer project had been mounted and was garnering hundreds of Facebook likes and Twitter followers. “Can’t believe what I’m hearing, tearing up,” tweeted Kelly Hoey, the New York tech consultant who came up with the seed of the idea while on the plane.

For more information on the UnGrounded program, including a full list of participants and details on the proposals they developed, go to UngroundedThinking.com.

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