2014/15 Annual Review

I’ve been doing annual reviews for the past few years, but for the first time I’m planning on posting this one online.  I have been partially inspired by Chris Guillebeau and Keith Ferrazzi, and was encouraged to post this online by reading Peter Hurford’s review, and also because publically committing makes me more likely to achieve my aims.

Why do I do this in July?  Because I’ve recently transferred out of academia, where’ July has historically represented the end of my academic year.  I’ve attempted to keep this short, as from experience when I have attempted more ambitious annual reviews I have not always completed them.

Looking back

Over the past year, I have completed my PhD (DPhil) and moved into full-time employment at the Centre for Effective Altruism, a charity that I co-founded.  In answering the questions below, I am only talking about things that I had control over.

What went well this year?

  1. Finishing my PhD (DPhil)
  2. Moving into a new role as Director of Special Projects at the CEA
  3. Making significant progress in buying a house with my partner
  4. Setting up the Global Priorities Project as a joint project between CEA and FHI.
  5. Working with William MacAskill to set up the Effective Altruism Outreach project.
  6. Having my first major successes in fundraising, and building up the Effective Altruism Outreach project to have nine months of financial reserves.  (This was something that I was worried that I would be bad at after feeling as though I wasted people’s philanthropic donations towards my Tibet expedition in 2004.)
  7. Being involved in CEA’s first engagement with policy through my contribution to our well-received unprecedented technological risk report (soon to be published).

What could have gone better this year?

  1. Feeling as though I don’t have enough long-term strategy at a couple points in the year, and as though I wanted a better idea of how my activities better fit into my long-term vision (though I could be biased as this is something that I am working on at the moment).
      • How can I improve this?  I plan to do some explicit thinking about the long-term strategy for the EA movement with William MacAskill and Pablo Stafforini in Autumn of this year.
  2. Contrasted with the point above, I think I over-planned the near-term too heavily in a couple of cases over the past year.  This resulted in my wasting others’ and my own time.
      • How can I improve this? I plan to do less planning early on in a project, and just start executing once I know the general direction that I’m heading in.  This has associated risks, which I will monitor, but in general I think it is a step in the right direction for me.
  3. Not executing fast enough, especially on Effective Altruism Outreach.  I have never felt as though I am achieving as much as I would like to, but this felt particularly salient of late.
      • How can I improve this?  I plan to act more in the vein of “move fast and break things” that was Facebook’s early motto, particularly when the downside risks are low.
  4. Not being as supportive of my partner as I would like to be.
      • How can I improve this?  I have planned steps I can take to be more supportive.
  5. Not being able to hire someone I felt would have potentially been a valuable addition to the team.
      • How can I improve this? Being more encouraging and hands-on in future recruitment rounds, and actively seeking out talent.
  6. Not being social enough with friends that my partner and I don’t have in common.
      • How can I improve this?  Plan out dinner dates further in advance with a wider group of friends.  Arrange trips down to London, and organise them a couple of months in advance.
  7. Not spending enough time on career, personal, and skills development.
      • How can I improve this?  I have blocked out four hours per week to spend on this from last month forwards, and this has given me time to do more of this.  This review is an example of how I am using this time.
  8. Spending too long making my thesis unnecessarily good.  I was emotionally scarred from having been given major corrections, and so I wanted to make it really good in order to avoid that from happening again.
      • How can I improve this?  I think I ‘over-updated’ on how much work was required to get a PhD (DPhil), and should have done less work.

Looking forwards

An idea from Chris Guillebeau is to name your year around a broad theme or idea in order to focus you.  I am naming 2014/15 the year of “settling down”.  This needs a little context: one of my big aims in the coming year is to buy my first property with my partner, and to move into it and start doing it up.  Another of my aims is to stop experimenting as much with a wide range of different projects, and to pick a few things that I intend to do well and get good at.  Another way of thinking of this, is that I will stop taking a large number of little bets, and focus on making a few larger bets a ensuring they go well.  These large bets are likely to be in areas such as my relationship with my partner, the flat we intend to buy, effective altruism outreach, the Global Priorities Project, and the Centre for Effective Altruism in general.  So, breaking things down by category, here is what I hope to achieve in the academic year 2014/2015.

Financial

  1. Buy a flat and move into it
  2. Redo all my finances, investments, and budgets after buying the flat
  3. Continue to donate 10% of my income to the charities I believe to be most cost-effective

Relationship and family

  1. Do at least two partner appreciation days
  2. Support my partner more and stay in better contact when I am away
  3. Successfully have my parents spend more than five minutes in each other’s company when I graduate

Career capital

  1. Continue spending five hours per week on personal, career, and skill development
  2. Write at least four posts on EA strategy
  3. Find three mentors and meet with them each at least twice over the coming year
  4. Come up with a long-term plan for my role in the EA movement

Primary project 1: Effective Altruism Outreach

  1. Launch an updated EffectiveAltruism.org website
  2. Be responsible for at least five major news articles being published on EA
  3. Come up with and start implementing a plan that I feel has a >20% chance of making Will’s book a best-seller (in at least one country)

Primary project 2: Global Priorities Project

  1. Fundraise enough to reach 12 months of reserves at current staffing levels
  2. Hire a second person to work on this project
  3. Develop a strategy for growing the Global Priorities Project into a larger institute, and be making tangible progress towards this aim

Social

  1. Have at least 50 meals with people I didn’t meet with last year
  2. Host at least three events with eight people or more in our new flat
  3. Organise at least two trips to London in which the majority of time is spent on social events

Health and wellbeing

  1. Stay below 77kg in weight
  2. Attend at least 15 ultimate frisbee sessions
  3. Stretch my hamstrings twice a week

Fun

  1. Go on holiday to South East Europe
  2. Have at least two days of solid river play
  3. Have a totally epic moving out party
  4. Spend at least five days alone with my partner exploring America

 

I’ll be tracking these aims and reporting back next year.  For a useful spreadsheet to help you do this yourself, Chris Guillebeau provides one here.

 

Effective Altruism Outreach Plans

Now that I have finished my DPhil at Oxford University, I have taken up a full-time role at the Centre for Effective Altruism, which I co-founded while studying for my doctorate.  This post outlines one of the two main projects that I will be working on there.  The other project is the Global Priorities Project.  This post has also been published on the Effective Altruism blog.  

Overview

Over the coming couple of years, the primary project that William MacAskill and I, Niel Bowerman, will be working is effective altruism outreach. We’re now referring to this as a distinct project within the Centre for Effective Altruism, called, fittingly, “EA Outreach”. Our aim is to grow and strengthen the effective altruism (EA) movement.  In this post I lay out some of my current thoughts on what this might involve.  This is only my current best guess, and is likely to change as the project evolves.

Movement-building strategy

Much of the work we will be doing can be conceptualised in a four-stage movement-building strategy.  This framework builds on the model we used while I was volunteering for President Obama on his Energy and Environment Policy Team during his first presidential campaign.  It has also developed out of thinking I did with people like Casper Ter Kuile, Dan Vockins and Ben West while building the UK Youth Climate Coalition.

This framework can be thought of as the four stages that we would like people to move through while involved in the EA community.  Briefly, the four stages are:

  1. Initial contact, in which people first hear about EA, and are exposed to its ideas enough to want to find out more.
  2. Getting involved, where people are actively learning about the principles behind EA, getting involved in the community, and taking actions to increase their social impact.
  3. Training up, which is about giving people the access to information, mentoring, networks and resources that they need to scale up their impact.
  4. Sustainability, which is about making the movement sustainable by preventing burning-out and ensuring the long-term survival of the movement.

I will now discuss our activities in each stage in more detail.  four-box design v2.1 cropped

Initial contact

The first stage in a person’s involvement in a movement is finding out about it.  We have a unique and unusually good opportunity in William MacAskill’s upcoming book titled “Effective Altruism”, which we hope to use to introduce more people to the movement.

William MacAskill’s book

William MacAskill’s book will be released in the summer of 2015, and we hope to use the time between now and then in order to build a media and marketing campaign around it, and in particular around EA.

In the US, the book will be published by Gotham, an imprint of Penguin Books USA.  In the UK we have a deal with Guardian Faber, a collaboration between publisher Faber and Faber and national newspaper The Guardian.  We will be collaborating closely with The Guardian for our UK marketing and media campaign.

Our marketing campaign around the book has three main components: maximising sales in the first week, maximising sales after the opening week, and maximising the flow-through benefits for the EA movement.  I won’t go into the strategy on each of these components here to prevent this post from getting too long.

Will has pledged his profits from book sales will either be reinvested in marketing or be donated to effective charities.  Peter Singer is also currently working on a more academic book about EA, and he and William are coordinating campaigns so as to increase the impact of these publications.

Media campaign

We will begin the media run-up to the book launch by introducing the ideas behind EA to the media in the latter half of 2014.  The current strategy is to create a debate around the principles behind EA as applied to contemporary news topics.

We are contractually obliged to undertake a ‘media silence’ in the US in first half of 2015.  This is so that we can increase our chances of appearing in the major US media outlets in launch week in summer 2015 as we would not have been in them for the past six months.

In the UK, because of our partnership with the Guardian, we will probably do some media outreach in the first half of 2015, however this is still under negotiation.

Speaking tour

According to Robyn Spizman and Rick Frishman, on average one in four audience members buy a copy of the book on speaking tours.  In the summer and autumn/fall of 2015 William MacAskill will be going on a speaking tour of EA chapters.  We hope that William’s book will offer audience members a direct next step to take after the talk in order to learn more about EA.

Getting involved

William MacAskill’s book, as well as much of the media interest, will direct people online to learn more about EA, and to get involved.  Over the coming year, we are hoping to build an easy-to-use entry point that people can come to in order to learn more about EA and to get involved.

EffectiveAltruism.org

We have purchased EffectiveAltruism.com and EffectiveAltruism.org. The current Effective-Altruism.com site will probably move to EffectiveAltruism.org. We will develop this site considerably from where it is now. We hope that EffectiveAltruism.org will become the landing page for people interested in learning more about EA for the first time.  We will have content there to help people learn about the core concepts behind EA, as well as lots of links to other organisations and other EA projects that people can get involved in. We aim for it to be a hub or entry point for anyone who hears about effective altruism (such as through the book or publicity) to find out about the many EA organisations.

EffectiveAltruism.org will not itself be providing large numbers of volunteering opportunities for people to get involved in, nor will it be coordinating chapters or meet ups.  It will simply be publicising these opportunities.  We hope that groups such as .impact and the growing number of different effective altruist organisations will help provide these volunteering and meet-up opportunities.

EffectiveAltruism.com

EffectiveAltruism.com will be a landing page for the Effective Altruism book, and an alternative route into the content on EffectiveAltruism.org.

Training up

Once people are involved in the EA movement, we want to be able to give them opportunities to train up by gaining skills, growing their networks, increasing access to resources and providing mentoring and guidance.  Groups like CFAR and 80,000 Hours are already doing great work in this area, and so we will spend relatively less time in this area compared to the activities outlined above.

There are a few initiatives that we would like to take on if others in the EA community do not take them on first.  These include setting up a mentoring scheme within the community, and undertaking an initiative to make it easier for EA donors to fund new EA projects.

Effective Altruism Research

In order to allow people to learn about the more in-depth side of effective altruism (for example the details of giving now vs later, or the haste consideration) we plan to set up a well-categorised and easily searchable curated collection of posts on more advanced EA topics.  As the community grows, we think it will be useful to centralise and categorise this work so that people can learn about advanced EA topics more easily.  We are currently looking for a volunteer curator for this project, so if you are interested please contact me at first.last@centreforeffectivealtruism.org

Movement sustainability

Once a movement has attracted people, and they have trained up and are having significant social impact, the challenge is to keep people involved in the movement if that is where they can be having the most impact.  This means preventing burn-out on an individual level, but also ensuring that the movement as a whole does not collapse.  Leverage Research have been doing some work in this area, but there is much more that can be done, and so this is the final area in which we will focus our efforts.

For example, the specific concept and message of EA is likely to be determined early on. But currently no-one is doing brand management for this. There is a risk that the concept becomes too weird (e.g. sole focus on existential risks from artificial intelligence), too mainstream (giving 1% to Oxfam is ‘effective altruism’), becomes too dominated by one specific cause-area, or otherwise starts to develop the wrong attributes (too aggressive, not welcoming, not having high enough epistemic standards).  We will be carefully monitoring each of these risks throughout our media campaign and defending against them.

Target audience

We will be developing our marketing strategy in more detail as the project develops, however at this stage it is clear that we will have at least two distinct target markets.  The first is people quite similar to those who have already been drawn to effective altruism.  This is a broad audience and is likely to be further segmented.

The second audience we hope to reach out to is certain types of VIPs.  We have noticed that our successes to date across most areas, whether in moving money to effective charities, fundraising, raising the profile of effective altruism, or our policy advocacy, have usually been reliant on a surprisingly small number of particularly influential people that we have reached out to.  We would like to focus more of our efforts on these VIPs in order to increase the overall impact of our work.

Going forward

William MacAskill will complete the first draft of the US version of “Effective Altruism” in summer 2014.  This will then go out to a number of review panels and editors to refine it and polish it further.  Simultaneously William will be working on the UK version of “Effective Altruism” (he will be using some different examples, different phraseology, probably a slightly different tone, and of course different spelling).  Once the writing stage is complete we plan to move onto the first stage of the media campaign.  Alongside this William will be starting as a Junior Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge from October 2014.

In my role as Director of Special Projects at the Centre for Effective Altruism I split my time between this project and the Global Priorities Project.  Part of my time over the coming weeks will be spent coordinating the media launch of the Global Priorities Projects report on Unprecedented Technological Risk with the Future of Humanity Institute and the Oxford Martin School.  However in the future I aim to spend approximately 80% of my time on the EA Outreach project.  I am currently developing a more in-depth strategy for the project, which we will then take to The Guardian to get buy-in before moving going ahead with it.

If funding allows we would like to hire someone with PR and marketing experience to do the day-to-day coordination of the marketing and media campaigns for this project.  We have identified a couple of candidates for this role in our recent recruitment round.  We have also identified web developers who have offered to develop the sites discussed above for significantly reduced rates.  We will start on these projects once the overall strategy is finalised.

I am always keen to hear people’s feedback and suggestions, so please do comment below if you have thoughts about the strategy outlined above.

Effective Altruism

Most forms of do-gooding start out with a What (“I want to promote microfinance!”), move to a How (“maybe I should do a sponsored marathon?”) and simply take the Why for granted (“because of course microfinance is good!”).

Effective altruism, in contrast, starts with a Why and a How, and lets them determine the What. Let me explain:

The Why is to make the world as good a place as it can possibly be. Rather than merely aiming to make the world better than when we found it — “to make a difference” — we want to make the most difference. So, for example, rather than simply trying to find a development charity that “does good work”, Giving What We Can seeks to find those charities that do the very most to help people in developing countries with every pound or dollar they receive. In general, we seek out those activities that will do the most good with our time or money.

The How — how to find those activities that do the most good — is by using good evidence and good reasoning. Where a question concerns a matter of fact, we try to find the best empirical evidence that is relevant to that question. (An anecdote is bad, a double-blind randomized controlled trial is better, a well-performed meta-analysis is best.) Where a question concerns values, we use clear arguments, rational reflection, and the latest insights from ethics, economics, and psychology to help us come to the right view. So, for example, rather than going with feel-good slogans like “follow your passion”, or passing on anecdotes about specific people, at 80,000 Hours we’re busy digging into all the available academic research related to doing good through your career, and getting clear, conceptually, on what making a difference involves.

From these two ideas, the What follows. Effective altruists currently tend to think that the most important causes to focus on are global poverty, factory farming, and the long-term future of life on Earth. I’ll talk more about the reasons why these are generally thought to be the highest-impact cause areas in later posts, but in each case, the reasoning is that the stakes are very high, and there is the potential to make a lot of progress. Right now, within the Centre for Effective Altruism, the What consists of the organisations listed to the right: organisations that, for example, promote donating a good chunk of one’s income to the causes that most effectively fight global poverty (Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save); or that advise individuals on which careers enable them to have the greatest positive impact (80,000 Hours); or that try to figure out how best to improve animal welfare (Effective Animal Activism). But these activities are just our current best guesses. If we had good evidence or arguments that showed that we could do more good by doing something else, then we’d do that instead.

For more information please visit EffectiveAltruism.org

Thanks to Will MacAskill for writing this post originally at www.effective-altruism.com

Arbitrage on US election prediction markets to raise money for charity

Because politics is a mindkiller, there is a pretty big arbitrage opportunity in the US election prediction markets that I found recently.  It makes a ~11% return on your investment in two days, regardless of who wins the election.

Why don’t we put some money on this and donate the proceeds to the most cost-effective charities?  I’ve already done this and I’ll be donating $100s regardless of who wins.

How does it work?  Intrade has Romney at ~32.6% at the moment.  Betfair has Romney at ~21.3%.  This difference allows us to perform arbitrage.  See here for how it works:  <a href=”http://en try this web-site.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbitrage_betting”>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbitrage_betting I’ve been monitoring the prediction markets and this opportunity has existed for several days now, and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Basically, sell/short Romney here:
https://www.intrade.com/v4/misc/scoreboard/

And buy/back Romney here:
http://sports.betfair.com/politics/market?id=1.21311313

Just match the amount you put on Romney at Betfair to cover any potential losses that you could make at Intrade, taking into account the 5% commission that Betfair takes on your winnings.  Intrade don’t charge commission, but do charge a £5 per month at the start of each month so just close your account by the end of this month.

It’s currently a ~11% ROI in 2 days, and I’ve already put a decent amount of money on this so if you have any questions just let me know.
As with anything involving large sums of money, don’t do this unless you know what you’re doing.  The last thing you want to do is to lose all your money by getting a couple sums wrong!  In particular, read about the potential problems.

This opportunity will only be available until the US election, so if you want in, you’ll need to get in quick.  Let me know if you have any questions, and if you do take up the opportunity as I’d love to monitor how much of an impact one can have through opportunities like this.

My New Project: 80,000 Hours

I haven’t been posting here for a while as I’ve been very wrapped up in a new and exciting project, which I can finally reveal is a campaign called 80,000 Hours.  I’ve been coordinating a media preview in which we launched our research on the ethics of career choice today.

We made the top spot on BBC online’s education section, and also had the final spot on the BBC’s today programme with Ian Hislop.  Our combined reach was between 5% and 10% of the UK population within the first day of our research launch!

We ran a provocative media campaign to get people to start discussing the issues and prompt a conversation in the media.  On my Facebook wall alone there are almost 100 comments on the ideas, with some very vigorous debate, and we hope that this discussion will continue into the future.  We’ll be launching the organisation properly later this year, but until then check out our <a href=”http://www Going Here.80000hours.org”>brand new website.

Our aim is to get people to pursue the career in which they can help the most people in the world.  We hope that this campaign will get people to at least start thinking about this question.