TEDxSydney and the University of Sydney experience
6 May 2013
The promise of the information revolution for 37 million blind people, the independence of West Papua, why food security is about more than how much food we grow, the insecurity of the digital records of our lives, and why data analysis is key to our democracy, were just some of the issues posed to more than 2200 people this Saturday at the Sydney Opera House.
TEDxSydney 2013 presents speakers whose lives embody the transformational possibilities of ideas, asking its audience to imagine and engage. Fittingly, the University of Sydney was an integral part of Saturday's event, not only as a Principal Partner but also through the presence of its academics and alumni among the compelling line-up, and with the staging of a student satellite event.
In 1987 Professor Ron McCallum, the first blind person appointed to a full professorship in Australia and former Dean of Sydney Law School, where he is now an Emeritus Professor, bought a Keynote computer especially made for blind people.
"It cost $4000, only had 84 kilobytes of memory ... but had a speech synthesiser … For the very first time, I could have read back to me what I had typed."
Despite handling only 12 pages of text the Keynote was a technological step towards Professor McCallum having the freedom to control information. That technological revolution, which is still unfolding, means Professor McCallum can now scan any book and have it electronically read back to him and, similarly, have the text on a computer screen read to him.
Professor McCallum paid tribute to the countless people whose efforts enabled his education, from the volunteers who punched the braille dots of his earliest reading to the Canadian prisoners who made recordings of legal texts. But crucially, technology allows independent access to learning. Professor McCallum, who currently sits on the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, called for accessibility standards, which require pictures and graphics on the internet to be explained in text, to be enforced worldwide.
Equality of access also preoccupies Professor Bill Pritchard, from the Faculty of Science, who has spent a decade in rural India researching how countries with improving economies can still have undernourished people. Currently an estimated 860 million people in the world are undernourished.
Professor Pritchard explained how 'unfreedoms', which can start with receiving insufficient nutrients as a baby to develop your brain, define your life chances. Remarkably, India is currently considering legislation to enforce access to at least 5kg of grains per person per month for 70 percent of its population.
Jennifer Robinson, adjunct lecturer at Sydney Law School, is best known for her role in defence of Julian Assange, but her TEDx talk addressed the legal rights of an entire population. At the age of 21 Robinson visited the region of West Papua and met jailed independence leader Benny Wenda. A formative experience, it saw Robinson became 'Wenda's witness' and led to her belief that "law is on West Papua's side" in its claim for independence from Indonesia. Benny Wenda joined her on stage to make a personal appeal.
Independence in Professor Simon Jackman's talk related to the analysis of data. Professor Jackman, a visiting Professor at the United States Studies Centre, says the data revolution allows a revolutionary new precision in the study of politics, making political science an accurate description of the discipline instead of a "presumptuous juxtaposition of words" as some people have described it.
In the 2012 United States election his pioneering use of poll averaging methods saw Professor Jackman perfectly predict the outcome in each state. Knowledge about power is what data uncovers but the challenge is to prevent government and business dominating its potential, Professor Jackman says.
Dr Lisa Murray, alumna and city historian of Sydney, is also concerned about data, specifically the threat to the preservation of born-digital records, the mass of information no longer kept on paper but electronically. Within a month funding for archiving of NSW digital records, including health and planning records, runs out, a stark example of the vulnerability of this information and the historical record.
Other University of Sydney alumni speakers speaking at TEDxSydney were designer Marc Newson, accompanied by his iconic Lockheed lounge, social trends analyst Dr Rebecca Huntley, and Healthhabitat founder Paul Pholeros whose building designs, in Australia, Nepal and America, have had a major impact on their inhabitants' health and wellbeing.
This year's TEDx also featured 'ideas worth eating' as all the food for the day was provided by local growers. In keeping with this agricultural and sustainability theme the University showcased its research on agricultural robotics, fog harvesting in Peru, the tequila ingredient that is also a biofuel and the make-or-break importance of poultry to many African families. Professor David Guest's chocolate display proved popular with people eager to taste a sample but who were also concerned about the threat to the world's supply.
Meanwhile, in McLaurin Hall, the University of Sydney Union pulled off the largest TEDxSydney satellite event of more than 50 taking place in locations as diverse as Peru, Berlin, Chiang Mai, Manly and East Brunswick.
Hundreds of people gathered to watch the event and hear a panel including the Charles Perkins Centre's Professor Tony Weiss, who leads the world in making tissue components that repair the human body, student James Cooper-Stanbury, an INCUBATE participant and founder of photo-sharing startup Muro, and Sally-Ann Williams, Engineering Community and Outreach Manager responsible for Google's relationships with startups and universities across Australia and New Zealand.
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