Engineering serendipity in the Digital Age


Engineering serendipity in the Digital Age


Why is it that the events that matter most are often the ones we can least predict? You take a trial yoga class that inspires you to quit your job and travel. You get a new job after a random chat with someone you meet at an airport cafe who refers you to a company you’d never heard of before. You come up with a product feature that occurs to you while you’re taking a shower which then goes on to revolutionize your product’s business model. So, what’s the deal?

We’re often taught to believe that opportunities come through very specific ways. To get a job, you either apply for jobs through websites or use your network. Or, to Why? Because, we are psychologically wired to stick to things that match our expectations and discount those that don’t.There’s nothing wrong with this per-se but it’s rather tunnel-visioned. This brings us to the importance of being aware of serendipity.

Serendipity is the ability to take a chance occurrence — a surprising idea, person or event — and make creative use of it. Yet, it’s something that can be rather complicated to pull off in the midst of our busy work lives. Here are a few digital serendipity hacks I’ve used to land my first job along with a number of hackathons around the world. Use them, abuse them, or be amused by them.

Set Google Alerts


When I was hunting for my first job, I knew two things. I knew I wanted to work for an internet start-up and that I wanted to be in Southeast Asia. But, I found it overwhelming to keep a tab on all the different startups gaining traction and funding. The conventional approach would have been to scour through all the startup websites that exist (which I also did) but I felt it would be a lot more efficient if I received a daily email digest that had exactly what I wanted to see in a condensed form. Each day, I monitored the results closely. This fixed the information seeking part of the problem.

With the time I saved using my hack, I instead spent effort on
dreaming up product ideas for companies based on the maturity, target problem and funding/expansion stage of the companies I discovered using my hack.

Now, how do you apply this?


In the search query, enter the topic you want to be informed about. I usually add certain terms in double quotations just so I get results that are specific in some form or the other. For instance, if I’m keen on knowing what’s brewing in the travel space in Southeast Asia- I would monitor “travel” funding Southeast. As soon as you type a topic, you’ll start getting results that would be similar to what you’d receive in your inbox. Keep tweaking it till you start seeing relevant results. And, once you’ve done that, you’re pretty much sorted.

Become an Idea Machine

Almost always, great ideas and happy accidents don’t emerge from a single source or entity, but at the intersection of a range of media and people.

There was this phase in my life when I was absolutely obsessed with James Altucher. As a hedge fund manager, founder of over 20 companies, and author of 18 books, he has made and lost millions of dollars over the years but he’s never been one to shy away from the ugly side of failure or hide the fact that he doesn’t have all the answers. I’d read all his books, listen to all his podcasts, and follow every piece of advice he spewed out. One of his most popular books, Become An Idea Machine: Because Ideas Are The Currency Of The 21st Century, revolves around a simple principle: Write down 10 ideas every morning. Initially, I was rather skeptical about this. Ideas are a dime a dozen- it’s the execution that ultimately matters. But, along the way, I realized that writing these ideas forced me to flex my idea muscle, think of creative solutions to problems I was perhaps facing at work, and also pushed me to initiate projects and reach out to people I’d have never reached out to normally. I carry my ideas book with me everywhere — a number of the ideas I’ve acted on have come to me in my daily bus commute to work or during meals I’ve shared with friends.

 Here is a page from my ideas book.

Here is a page from my ideas book.

Keep Calm and Scour On

Another hack that’s massively helped me is using articles/news/blogs as a breeding ground for ideas. Let’s take this article for example: (Link here:

Below are two snippets from the article:

Less than a week after acquiring Ticketfly from Pandora for $200 million, today Eventbrite has announced another deal to mark its deeper move into music events: the company will now show information about concerts and music festivals Spotify. Specifically, it will recommend Eventbrite-powered events relevant to the music people are listening to on the streaming music service and their overall music preferences.

Ideas that come out of this for me:

  • Spotify ad alerts on concerts happening around me (possibly recommended to me based on my listening history)
  • Eventbrite pages that have a Spotify playlist linked to the artist(s) so that if it’s an artist I’m not entirely familiar with, I can listen to his or her songs before I purchase tickets.
For now you will not purchase on Spotify’s site, but on Eventbrite’s “in two quick taps,” similar to how you purchase tickets there on the back of other distribution partnerships that Eventbrite has with Facebook, Bandsintown, Discotech, and Songkick.
  • Using video ads as a way for listeners to purchase tickets or find out where the artist is going to be performing in the near future.

I’d then take these ideas and craft them into a suggestions pitch/article! Once the article is ready, it’s all about marketing it to the right people.

A lot of what has happened to me in the recent past has been the result of making creative use of a surprising idea, person or event. When you speak to the same people and do the same things as all those around you, you end up travelling in a straight line along with everyone else. Parallel lines never cross- serendipity requires diversity. Try to design serendipity into your life because you’ll never know when it hits you and where it can take you.


My Data 4 Change Experience


My Data 4 Change Experience

A couple of weeks back, I was extremely fortunate to participate in a workshop called Data 4 Change which was held in Beirut, Lebanon. DATA4CHAN.GE brings talented people in the visual storytelling community together with human rights organisations that have fascinating original datasets and powerful stories to tell. It is an extraordinary platform for individuals with diverse skillsets from all over the world to get together in one place to build solutions/explore ways to tackle real-life problems faced by HROs and then go on to represent/visualize the problem in a more meaningful way that not only helps the HRO but helps them devise innovative advoacy strategies.   

The initial idea for the DATA4CHAN.GE workshop resulted from a detailed needs analysis of the Iranian and MENA human rights sector’s data driven advocacy output by UK based not-for-profit Small Media in 2014. It revealed that human rights organisations (HROs) in the region collect primary data and had a strong desire to visualise their research, but lacked the skills and access to professionals to do so. It also showed that data visualisation professionals in both MENA and the West were desperate to work on “projects that matter” rather than commercial projects, but that they lacked access to HROs who collected data. As a result DATA4CHAN.GE was created as a workshop where the two sectors could collaborate to create data visualisations aimed at elevating public engagement and effective advocacy, which in turn could bring about real positive change. The DATA4CHAN.GE workshops are organised by Small Media together with leading local partners in the data visualisation field and so far there have been 3 editions in London and Beirut. 

The Workshop:

All participants were divided into six groups: each group contained researchers to collect information about the issue and build a concrete narrative, developers to program and implement technical skill sets required to visualize the data, and graphic designers to beautifully represent the data to the end user in the form of a prototype. For each group there was at least one human rights organization representative who provided ongoing guidance and a sense of what was expected from each team as a final visual product. Each project went through the process of: conceptualization, story-boarding, research, sketching/wire-framing, and finally producing a prototype of the project

I had the absolute privilege of working with the human rights organization, Harass Map during this workshop. 

HarassMap is an award winning volunteer-based initiative founded in late 2010. It is based on the idea that if more people start taking action when sexual harassment happens in their presence, it is possible to end this epidemic. It works to achieve this mission by convincing bystanders and institutions to stand up against sexual harassment before or when they see it happen. By taking a collective stand against sexual harassment, we as a society can create social and legal consequences that discourage harassment in any form. HarassMap has been collecting data on sexual harassment in Egypt through crowd sourcing and often uses art and humour in its work. They also use mapping and other tools when presenting their data. 

Day 1 + Day 2:

Our team consisted of Pudo, me, Ismael, Peter, and Mirna. Alia and Enas were our wonderful HRO representatives.The data set we received from Harass Map had a decade's worth of data with various kinds of incident reports. During Day 2, we scoured through all the reports received from victims and bystanders. In this process, we noticed that bystanders don't tend to help or intervene victims and one thing we hoped to visualize was this lack of compassion. But, who was our target audience? Bystanders, women, or the general public? Our biggest conundrum at the end of this was how to visualize the data to keep women safe and empower them without falling into the whole "blame the victim culture".

Below are a few images from Day 1 and Day 2. 

Day 3 + Day 4: 

We focused our efforts on highlighting the intensity of the narratives expressed by some of the victims, while maintaining their sensitivity.  I worked on the conceptualization of our visualization, the text/copy, as well as the structure of the visualization itself. And, once we got that sorted, I worked with Mirna on the pitch slides as well as the pitch. Usually, in other hackathons I’ve attended, since there is such little time to actually get to know your teammates- lots of misunderstandings tend to develop during the first few hours. We had no such issues overall and our team was a perfect balance of skill-sets. Each person had his/her strengths and managed his/her parts without any issues. And, what I loved about our team was the fact that people were super honest and open with each other. The first day was slightly rough since we each were a little conflicted with which angle to take when tackling a sensitive issue like harassment but after we slept on it and came in fresh the third day, ideas just flowed and surprisingly we all were on the same page! 

Day 5: 

This was pitch day and below is what we presented. 

Some interesting tidbits:

  • We had a great lineup of speakers who presented throughout the days of the workshop which gave participants us bursts of inspiration!
  • Pecha Kucha: We also had during these presentations, participants were encouraged to share tools they used, projects they've worked on, or pretty much anything they thought was interesting. The conditions are that each participant has only seven minutes to present up-to 20 slide, and there is no going back.

What I loved: 

  •  How intimate the group was. In past hackathons I’ve attended, usually the entire group is at least around 90-100 people due to which we don’t really get to know our teammates. Whereas, with D4C, since it’s a much smaller cohort, we actually got to interact with (almost) every individual before we were put into teams.
  • D4C has changed the way I approach work: Every informative session gave us a number of takeaways that we wouldn’t normally learn in a professional workplace. It’s also changed the way I look at visualizations. Now, I'm always thinking of how to make it more meaningful and simpler for the end viewer.
  • It has motivated me to pick up more tools as well as start playing around with more tools (Map-based, etc). I am super grateful to the organizing team for giving me this experience as it's definitely shaped my visualization/analytical skills in a special way. 
  • What an amazing group of people!  I was amazed by each individual I met and I'm still in touch with many of them. I really hope I can meet them again soon. 
  • The fact that learning never stops and every single attendee inspired me to strive for more knowledge + constantly use the skills I pick up to give back in a meaningful way to society

Attending Data 4 Change has definitely changed me as a person. The people, the sessions, and the knowledge I gained have instilled in me a greater desire to keep giving back to society in whatever way possible. This was an experience for me like no other.

43 people, 25 women, 18 men, from 14+ countries (USA, Canada, UK, Italy, Morocco, Palestine, Malaysia, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates)

Six human rights organisations from(1 Sudan, 2 Egypt, 1 Yemen, 2 International)

Five days of creative interdisciplinary collaboration

Six data driven advocacy campaigns created

And, a life-changing 5 days for every person who took part. :)