Czech Association for Effective Altruism Annual Report 2020
The original document was in Google Docs, which can be found here.
Czech Association for Effective Altruism
Annual Ultimate Report
AKA Everything you always wanted to know about CZEA*
(*but were afraid to ask)
Introduction and History
This document is an attempt to provide insight into the inner workings of the Czech Association for Effective Altruism (CZEA). First, let us provide an important clarification: CZEA is a legal entity, which houses formally and informally many EA and Rationality-related activities of many people, who are Czech and/or live in the Czech Republic. The “Czech” EA/Rationality ecosystem (again, happening both in the Czech Republic as well as outside of it) is quite large and complicated and we will attempt to clarify its inner workings in this document.
For now, there are three distinctions we want you to keep in mind as you start reading:
- CZEA often refers to our informal Czech community. Aspiring EAs and Rationalists who either live in the Czech Republic, are Czech or spend a lot of time here.
- CZEA also refers to our organization, a legal entity which we consider to be an “EA organization” with its own activities, projects and impact.
- In this report we will also mention projects which are part of our ecosystem but are only loosely connected to either of those. We will make it clear which this is the case but think that they are relevant to mention for context.
To this extent, this is not a report of CZEA’s as an organization but rather of the whole Czech ecosystem. It is our goal for next year to clarify our internal structure and relationships between various entities in order to separate responsibilities and make it easier to understand for those who are not a part of it.
This document can also be considered a chronicle of our activities and a record of our models and thinking. As we have been around for a while, we think it may be useful for other organizations to see our process, what worked, what didn’t and understand why.
Early days (a long long time ago – early 2018)
The early days of our community go way back into the 2010s when many of our current leaders and members were reading LessWrong. Our community was actually born out of Less Wrong meetups once Effective Altruism came along and became more prominent in our interests. Shortly after spinning out into a separate EA focused group in early 2016, a legal entity was founded and the first official event was organized: EAGx Prague 2016.
The event attracted several new members and it was apparent that there is an interest in the local EA community. The founders were clear from the beginning that the organization should have visible outputs and started to think about how to guarantee that going forward, by creating a strategy (version from 2017 can be found here), researching local opportunities, setting up an organizational structure and getting funding.
The next important milestone was in the fall of 2017, when we organized the first CFAR workshops in Prague. Apart from further expanding our member base by public outreach and translating content to Czech, it also enabled us to run actual projects, such as an experimental charity advisor (and partly evaluator) for local businesses “Help effectively” (in Czech: “Pomáhej efektivně”). After our then-chairperson Jan Kleňha accepted a new career opportunity of a related organization “Czech priorities”, a new chairperson Jan Kulveit was elected.
You can find more about our history in this EA Forum post by Jan Kulveit.
Professionalization and growth (early 2018 – early 2020)
In 2018, we continued building our human capital, for example by helping our members get experience abroad (Jan Kulveit did an internship at CEA, David Janků visited the Bay Area etc.) We deliberately applied their knowledge in building a strong organization and community (more on that was written by Jan Kulveit here). We further continued on improving our strategy (with the most recent version available here) and although it has been regularly updated, many of the assumptions and objectives from 2016 still hold true today.
Building on a strong community and an actionable strategy, the organization began to thrive. We were able to receive substantial funding from the EA Donor Lottery which allowed us to take first steps towards professionalization and later in 2018 we managed to secure a Community Building Grant from CEA which enabled us to stabilize our core team and community. We were then able to incubate and spin off more projects led by our members and further expand our activities. These are thoroughly described in the following sections.
New hope (early 2020 – present)
As of 2020, the organization and the community are quite mature – the organization has just celebrated its fourth birthday. Our main activities and projects continue to be informed by our comparative advantages as well as stand alone opportunities. Our ability to utilize our community’s capacity and our know-how that we have built over the years in organizing events such as workshops, conferences, summer schools, research programs, retreats etc., has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, it was an opportunity for us to take a step back and reflect on our priorities and think deeply about what we want to do next. We wrote this document as part of our review process which is part of our planning for next year. We also updated our strategy and are preparing for launching new projects in 2021.
Our leadership consists of a chairperson (executive leader of the organization and the community), vice-chairperson (their deputy) and the council (up to 10 members who meet regularly and provide oversight, governance and guidance to the chairperson). All of these are publicly elected during our annual meetings where all members of the organization get to cast a vote. Their term length is one year and they can all be reelected for any number of terms.
Currently, the chairperson is Irena Kotíková, the vice-chairperson is Kristina Němcová and the Council are: Daniel Hnyk, Anna Gajdová, Jan Votava, David Janků, Jiří Nádvorník, Tomáš Gavenčiak, Přemek Paška, Irena Kotíková and Kristina Němcová.
Most long term decisions are made by the Council, occasionally with additional guests/advisors, who are invited to their meetings. The council meets once a month for regular business where short term decisions are made and 3-4 times a year for dedicated longer deep-dive planning sessions. This is where for example the strategy is reviewed, new projects are approved and bigger changes are discussed.
There are also additional roles such as of the Strategy Director (Jan Kulveit) or Mental Health Liaison (Kristýna Šťastná). All of these leadership roles are by definition volunteer roles and exist regardless of our funding.
In addition, the Community Building Grant from the Center for Effective Altruism provides funding for roles which are part of our community building efforts. We are now starting the third year of this grant with a shared capacity of 2.0 FTE among Irena Kotíková, Kristina Němcová and Jiří Nádvorník.
Finally, depending on our additional flexible funding we are able to offer contractor roles to some of our members, usually for a limited time period and a specific project. For example Jan Votava and Pavla Mutinská were most recently hired as contractors.
Our work is generally divided into regular activities and projects.
Regular activities are mostly community events and admin tasks. Those have long-term owners as part of the responsibilities of their Community Building Grant-funded role. The workload on projects is more intense and requires a higher level of commitment, especially leading up to and during an event. Each project has a project lead who then coordinates their specific project team.
The main team communication tool is our Slack workplace which is used daily by the staff and the core community. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our coworking and community space Epistea served as a convenient tool to organize project meetings and coworking sessions. Since 2020, all of our work has moved online resulting in an increased use of our online tools. Currently, ~50 users use Slack at least once a week.
In particular, we started using the online task management system Asana, which greatly helped with planning, collaborating, following up and delegating. As our activities start to pick up again in early 2021, we are well set up to incorporate everything into the system and use it for all our activities and projects.
As we mentioned earlier, the core of the organization is driven by volunteers, as only a couple of people are paid for their work. Volunteers provide a large amount of value and impact for the organization for three main reasons:
- There are many of them: ~30 of our members have volunteered their time to the organization
- They can donate a significant amount of their time: Due to the specifics of Czech socio-economic situation (free public healthcare and college) many of our members are well-positioned to volunteer a lot of hours, even as they attend university or are in their first jobs, have a mortgage etc. It is therefore common for students to work on projects as volunteers, gaining more experience in the process by learning from the more senior members.
- They are skilled and experienced: the majority of our members are early/mid-career professionals who already have experience working, starting businesses and managing projects.
There are currently two main challenges which we want to improve in the future:
- Bringing in new members and volunteers. We have not yet implemented a clear onboarding process as well as a system for delegating and assigning tasks to new volunteers. We plan to set up a new onboarding system in early 2021 and use Asana to lower the barrier for getting involved on projects.
- Keeping our volunteers engaged and motivated. Personal fulfilment and sense of impact are what keeps them engaged and we need to make sure that we can deliver this for them. Overall, our turnover is very low, and many members have been with the organization since the beginning. Nevertheless we want to examine in more detail why some members become less active or leave altogether.
With our community building activities, we first target our existing community which we further develop and strengthen and second, new individuals with high potential of becoming highly engaged EAs and contributing to our projects.
The core of our activities happens in Prague, where most of the leadership of the organization lives. Brno (~2 hours away from Prague) is another center of our community, which holds its own events and activities for those who live there.
We do not think of ourselves as two local groups in two cities, rather as a national group which operates in two cities. This is mainly because of a high level of centralization – our leadership and council set priorities, provide funding and engage volunteers in both cities. Both cities are represented in the council.
Epistea Space (previously Epistea Lab)
The benefit of having our community/coworking space is significant. It is a natural converging place for the community, not just for events but for ad-hoc encounters and conversations. Especially when we run events, Epistea Space has been the place where participants hang out and meet each other before the event and where they spend their time after, if they are still in town. It seems to prolong the positive effects of the events and foster an environment for even more conversations and social interactions. In 2020, our Community Building Grant from the Centre for Effective Altruism financed furnishing the space and optimizing it for our purposes. The space now contains a designated working area, where our staff and volunteers can work and collaborate as well as a community area which is well suited for informal conversations or small events. We expect to reopen the space in early 2021 as it becomes safe to gather again.
Currently, our main communication tools are our website, newsletter, Facebook, Slack, and occasionally posting articles on the EA forum.
We have just finished an update of our website in the fall of 2020, and the site now contains mostly static information about CZEA, our team, projects, contact information, and basic information about Effective Altruism with links to English EA resources.
Our monthly Newsletter offers more recent information mostly about what has happened in the past month and what to expect in the upcoming month. It contains event invites, interesting articles, profiles of our members and sometimes information about other groups or the global community.
On Facebook we share information as it becomes relevant, such as events and useful resources. Our Facebook audience is now ~1500 followers who are almost exactly split between male and female (51 to 47 percent). However, their engagement is quite low which likely has to do with our low frequency of posting and the type of content we share (mostly events). We will be exploring options of optimizing the use of social media in the future.
Slack is a tool which we use for most “real time” communication, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we do not meet in person at all. ~50 users use the tool weekly to coordinate work projects or start conversations of EA-related topics. The workspace is not available to the public, only our members have access to it.
For the first time this year we decided to take a survey of our community members to get a better understanding of who our members are, how engaged they are and what actions – if any – they take as a result of being part of our community etc. We launched the survey in November 2020 and 64 of our community members have filled it out. This included a wide range of core members, who are highly engaged throughout the year, semi-regular participants who come and go during the year depending on their availability, as well as occasional supporters.
Here are some highlights about our community from the survey:
- We have a gender disbalance typical for many EA groups – 68.3% identify as men, 30.2% as women. However, this is less notable in leadership roles – both the chairperson and vice-chairperson identify as women and out of 4 paid staff, 3 identify as women.
- Our members are relatively old – almost half (47.6%) are 30 or older.
- This is connected to their career stage – only 20.6% are students, 58.7% work at least part-time, the rest have other forms of income, such as contracting, having their own business, family leave etc.
- Their majors or field of work is quite balanced – 39:2% social sciences, 39.2% IT, 15:7% physical sciences, 5.9% medicine.
The main take away from the survey is that our members would welcome more guidance on how to get involved and have more impact.
Overall, we assess the community as healthy and stable. We consistently receive good feedback on our local events and there is a positive, supportive atmosphere in the community.
One indicator of this is a relatively low level of turnover – our members, especially the more experienced ones, have been with us for many years. This creates a sense of stability and allows for long term planning. It also makes it easier for us to maintain our culture as there is only a limited number of new members at a time.
We are currently in the process of developing a Code of Conduct and policies about safely reporting incidents of threatening or otherwise inappropriate behaviour.
Rationality as part of EA
As we write in our strategy, strong epistemics and rationalist thinking are important virtues in our community which we want to intentionally develop in our members.
This happens in two ways:
- By integrating rationalist principles and thinking into EA content
- By having designated “rationalist” content which is not necessarily intended just for EAs but is broadly open to everybody but we can make it easy for our members to participate
The former is quite smoothly incorporated into our events and our culture already, since we made an intentional effort to do so from the beginning. One way in which we do the latter is our partnership with the Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR).
In 2017 CZEA reached out to CFAR to offer to organize their workshops in Prague. We proposed that we would take care of everything, they would just need to show up. CFAR agreed and we organized the first two mainline workshops in the fall of 2017 with Elizabeth Garrett as the workshop lead. CZEA took care of everything else – picking the venue, modifying it to fit CFAR’s needs, providing food and other ad hoc tasks, of which there were many (e. g. setting up an external electric power source when the power went out in the whole village for 24 hours). CFAR was very happy with our role and we continue this collaboration to this day. In total, there have been 5 workshops with 138 participants so far. Additionally, we also organized a mentorship training for 20 participants (fall 2018) and a CFAR Alumni rEUnion for 85 participants (spring 2019). We were in the process of planning the 2020 workshops when the COVID-19 pandemic started and so the 2020 workshops never happened. Once we are able to host workshops again, we intend to continue this fruitful partnership. To date, ~20 of our community members, including our leadership, participated in the workshops.
In addition to CFAR, we want to do so by having a separate organization for these activities – Epistea. Epistea is an example of an organization which is independent but very coordinated and driven by members of the CZEA community (Jan Kulveit, Daniel Hnyk, Tomáš Gavenčiak, Anna Gajdová) but also overlaps into other communities and countries: one of the core team members is Nora Ammann (EA Geneva, FHI) and some of the instructors who were planning to participate in workshops in 2020 were Andis Draguns, Ashwin Acharya, Jacob Lagerros.
Epistea leverages Czech long history in “Experiential education” to research and explore new ways in which to experiment, develop and teach rationalist thinking and mindset in the European space. In general, we want to have a self-sufficient rationality branch which would systematically raise rationality waterline as well as develop a healthy community.
Their flagship project in 2019 was the Epistea Summer Experiment. There was a workshop series planned for 2020 which unfortunately got cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
European Summer Program on Prationality is another project that CZEA is closely involved in. Since Jan Kulveit took over as Executive Director in 2019, CZEA has provided ops volunteers to run the event.
However, this is an example of a project which is completely independent – financially and organizationally, which we only support through our resources. As it is an important part of the ecosystem, and our role is substantial, we include it here for context.
Outputs and outcomes
This section contains a number of projects and events that we had some part in organizing, producing, planning and executing. We will make it clear for each of them what our role was exactly and how we think we contributed to the success of the project. Our level of involvement with these is quite broad from designing, launching and executing the entire project, to providing support or volunteers for an otherwise independent project.
For projects which we did not own, we will not attempt to estimate their impact – only our contribution to their execution. However, if you are interested in more information about such projects, you can contact the organizers for more information.
When we run projects, our community is our main resource. We rely on our community members and their expertise who do the legwork and make things happen. What will be the “thing” that they make happen, depends on many factors. Some projects we initiate centrally, as “CZEA the organization” as a result of our internal planning and strategy. Other projects are initiated by our senior members or other organizations and if they align with our strategy and objectives, we often choose to support them by offering our resources and know-how.
Many of the events received independent funding from EA funding sources. We will mention if this is the case and what was the amount.
CZEA spinned off from an already established community of LessWrong Prague in mid 2016. There was only one EA meetup before EAGxPrague in December, basically organized by 5 members. The main goal of the event was achieved – it attracted additional individuals to scale the organization up as well as raised the public profile of EA in the Czech Republic.
In 2016, our first ever project was the EAGxPrague conference. Its goal was to kickstart the Czech EA community, generate momentum and gain more members and supporters. The conference happened in December 2016, there were 140 attendees and 9 speakers, mostly from existing EA organizations. You can view the recordings here (most of them are in English). It is noteworthy that we had no funding for this event from CEA or the global EA community and we fundraised locally to make it happen. We had full ownership of this project from start to finish and it would not have happened without us.
We started 2017 with 16 registered members and ended with 47 (~3x growth). Similar growth can be seen on Facebook – at the beginning of the year, our page had 312 followers and 883 at the end.
There were 13 public events, 8 in Prague, 5 in Brno. On average, there were 25 participants per event.
One of our main activities for 2017 was publishing articles in Czech on our website (we published 16 in total). Those were translations of prominent and popular English posts from 80,000 Hours or Giving What We Can.
Help Effectively (in Czech “Pomáhej efektivně”)
This is a project which we rolled out in the fall of 2017. It was developed and driven by our former chairperson, Jan Kleňha. The goal of the project was to provide donor-funded impact analyses for Czech non-profit organizations. Jan Kulveit already wrote about it in an EA Forum post. Here is a slightly modified an excerpt:
The project won support from the Social Impact Awards incubator, successfully passed the incubation, and started working on several impact evaluations. Even with the successful incubation and support from consultations from one of the “Big 4” consultancies, the results were small on the object level and mixed on a meta level. After much market research, it turned out that it is difficult to find „customers“ for impact measurement among NGOs, as they usually lack funding for such activity. So the second try was to find customers among the donors, who may be interested in improving the impact of their donations, or impact of the NGOs they support. This also didn’t really catch up, or the organizations wanted services we didn’t want to provide (like some „turnkey impact assessment solution“).
On the meta level, the big problem was what people in NGOs would really love is confirmation that what they are doing is good and effective, and just needs some fine tuning. Often this would not be the case, from EA perspectives. This put the people working on the project in a conflict of interest: reasoning from EA principles, it would be usually effective for the „customer“ to switch to something quite different, but this would not be an outcome of the audit they would like, or an outcome which would attract more customers. At the end, it seemed the project had dangerous potential to corrupt the reasoning of the people working on it.
The project also had some benefits on an instrumental level. We established links with a number of big foundations and donors who are interested in the subject of impact assessment. It has also been confirmed that it is a good „introductory theme“ that brings new people to EA. On the other hand, the trajectory where the new member joins effective altruism, they are most attracted to impact measurement work and start working on it, seems particularly dangerous for a deeper understanding and alignment of such members. The project work also helped build local community skills and organizational competence.
Moreover, Jan Kleňha went on to lead a new project (Czech Priorities) and there was no-one on the team with the capacity and commitment to push past these obstacles.
CFAR mainline workshops
In an effort to make rationalist thinking and principles more accessible and present in our community and in Europe, we reached out to CFAR with an offer to organize their mainline workshops in Prague. They agreed and after only planning to do one, the demand was so high, that we ended up doing two, back-to-back. The workshops were staffed by ~8 volunteers from CZEA. 7 CFAR instructors flew in for the workshops which had combined 60 participants.
This is notable for two reasons:
- It was our first attempt at running an event with high stakes (many participants pay the full price and have high expectations).
- Our core team was able to participate in the workshops, which would be unlikely if they needed to travel to the US or it would have happened much later.
After this successful pilot our partnership with CFAR is still ongoing and has actually grown into more projects (more details in 2018 ans 2019).
CFAR owns and manages their workshops and has their own processes for estimating their impact. Our contribution lies in making workshops more accessible to participants from Europe, especially from EA organizations and local groups.
Effective Thesis is a project that aims to assist students in their final thesis topic choice and direct their attention to areas that have the potential to greatly improve the world. It does so by providing profiles of several high impact research directions for each discipline, offering to connect them with researchers working in these directions who can help with the specific topic choice, provide feedback on their existing ideas and research career tips, and invite them to the online community of other students focusing on similar directions.
Initially a CZEA project led by David Janků (with significant volunteering help from other community members and funding for the first 9 months), it spun-off in 2018 and became an independent project with independent funding (EA Grants and EA Meta Fund).
Thoughts on the early days of the project are described on the EA Forum. There are also additional detailed updates for the second and third year.
The origins of the project are detailed in this EA Forum post. Here is a slightly modified excerpt:
About a year ago, Copenhagen Consensus Center was considering, among many other projects around the world, carrying out a national prioritization project in the Czech Republic. […] The CCC has done full-scale national prioritization projects in developing countries so far (e.g. Haiti, Bangladesh, India) and now has a methodology, infrastructure, will and the momentum to try it in a developed country as well.
Our chairperson at the time, Jan Kleňha continued to be involved with helping set up this project and eventually left to lead it full-time. The project is now called Czech Priorities, which is a non-profit organization focused on promoting and implementing rigorous and innovative Evidence-Based Policymaking (EBPM) tools and practices in the Czech Republic, such as methodologies for Cost-benefit analysis, Forecasting tournaments, or the Identification of Megatrends. Its mission is to help the country to systematically look for the most effective solutions to the important social, economic, and environmental problems. Many of our members have worked or volunteered with them over the years and we consider them to be our sister organization which is very aligned with us and general EA principles.
As opposed to 2017, we have focused less on massive public outreach and more on a personal approach. Our growth has been organic, mostly through personal relationships and recommendations. The most successful pathways for becoming a new active member were through the social network of existing members, and from related communities like the rationalist community, or STEM competitions.
We organized the following public meetups:
- Animal Welfare Reading Group, with ~8 meetings, in avg ~12 participants
- AI Safety Reading Group, with ~7 meetings, in avg ~13 participants
- EA Brno has organized ~20 meetups about a wide range of EA topics to introduce potential members to the ideas – AI Safety, Animal welfare, Biosecurity, Prioritization, Nuclear security, Mental health etc. Attendance was between 6-12 people per meetup.
- Additional one off events: talk and discussion on nuclear security and global development, lightning talks, book discussions, a New Year’s Eve celebration and multiple hikes.
We experimented with seeding new local groups in Olomouc and helped revive activities in Bratislava but these were not successful. It was not enough of a priority for us and there was not enough momentum and stability in the groups.
We also had two weekend retreats (one in the spring and one in the fall) for ~30 participants, a mix of “the core” and newer, less engaged members. You can read more about the spring retreat on the EA Forum.
AI Safety Camp
After Jan Kulveit participated in the first AI Safety Camp in April of 2018, he and a couple of alumni decided to do another run in the fall of 2018 in Prague. The goal of the AI Safety Camp was to connect researchers with interest in AI Safety with collaborators worldwide to discuss and decide on a concrete research proposal which the team then works on. It addresses the problem that many starting researchers have which is that there are not many collaborators or mentors to work with and learn from. You can read the research summaries here.
The project was a combination of effort by Jan Kulveit, Johannes Heidecke, who was the project lead and CZEA who provided ops and other support during the event. CEA supported the event by a grant of $16k.
Human-Aligned AI Summer School
HAAISS is an academic summer-school for students and researchers in the area of human-aligned AI. The school is focused on teaching approaches and frameworks, less on presentation of the latest research results. The content of the school is mostly technical – it is assumed the attendees understand current ML approaches such as deep learning. The intended audience of the school are researchers interested in learning more about the AI alignment topics, PhD students, researchers working in ML/AI outside academia, and talented students.
In 2018, there were 43 participants and 6 speakers from organizations like DeepMind, CHAI, MIRI and FHI. The theme was “learning from humans,” including subtopics such as inverse reinforcement learning, modeling bounded rational agents and latest trends in AI alignment research. The summer school happened over 4 days in Sněmovní 7 and consisted of talks, panels, fireside chats, lightning talks and discussions. One of the participants published their notes and thoughts on the event.
The event was conceived by our chairperson at the time, Jan Kulviet who was the brains behind the event and who was in charge of the program. CZEA ran the operations and logistics for the whole events, including booking venues, communicating with participants, helping them with visa issues, taking care of the speakers, arranging accommodation and catering, recording the talks etc. The team was led by Hana Kalivodová, who had additional 9 volunteers on hand for prep work as well as help during the actual event. It was funded from participant fees and sponsors.
CFAR mainline workshop and mentorship training
We worked again with CFAR to bring their workshops to Europe. There was one mainline workshop with 30 participants and a mentorship training with 21 participants.
We continued with most of our community building activities from 2018 – such as reading groups and meetups as well as our more personal approach to outreach. We had one community weekend retreat for 35 participants. We followed a similar model as for our previous ones in 2018. We also added some less formal events such as community dinners, coworking retreats, a solstice celebration and a new informal women’s group has formed. The main outcome of all of our community events was a strong sense of liveness and activity in the community. There was a lot of momentum which made it easier to engage new members and get people excited about the community.
In January 2019, we launched Epistea Space – EA coworking space which is funded from the Community Building Grant from CEA. We have been unofficially using it for the prior year but it was not in a very good condition. We refurbished it and set it up almost from scratch. Having our own dedicated space was crucial to our activities. It was much easier to organize events and attract new members since the space looked pleasant and more professional than before and was available for us all the time. It also allowed us to have dedicated coworking days (Tuesdays and Wednesdays) for collaboration. Projects became significantly easier when we were able to spend more time working together in person.
Human-Aligned AI Summer School
After a successful pilot in 2018, we organized the second annual HAAISS in 2019. There were approximately 50 participants and 8 speakers from organizations like FHI, CSER, MIRI, DeepMind, OpenAI and CHAI. The theme was “optimization and decision making,” including subtopics such as understanding agent incentives, open-source game theory, and boundaries between game theory and machine learning. The latest trends in AI alignment research and broader framings of AI alignment research were also covered. The format remained very similar to 2018.
The second year received funding for 2019 from the Long Term Future Fund.
AI Safety Camp
In early 2019, our members were part of the organizing team for another iteration of the AI Safety Camp: AISC 3. Again, the goal of the event was to connect researchers with interest in AI Safety with collaborators worldwide to discuss and decide on a concrete research proposal which the team then works on. You can read more about the project here.
AI Safety Research Program
The AI Safety Research Program is a spin off project of the AI Safety Camp. It was a six-month-long project bringing together junior and experienced researchers with a deep interest in long-term AI safety research, aiming to create a creative and inspiring research environment together, help prospective alignment researchers work on AI safety research problems, gain a better understanding of the AI alignment field, improve their research skills, and bring them closer to the existing research community and experts in the area.
The project consisted of:
- an online discussion / project refinement phase,
- an intense 5-day in-person project selection and team formation workshop near Oxford, UK, with visiting senior FHI and MIRI researchers and FHI research scholars,
- a 2-month online work phase with mentoring and research structure,
- a 10-day in-person research & teamwork retreat near Prague, with additional content and discussions,
- and a 2-month goal-oriented online working phase with mentoring.
This is an example of a project which was driven by our community members: Tomáš Gavenčiak and Vojtěch Kovařík, with Kristina Němcová leading the ops team. They developed the project and got independent funding from the Long Term Future Fund while CZEA provided support and resources and a group of volunteers with deep interest and knowledge in AI safety and rationality.The contribution of CZEA towards the existence of the program is significant but hard to quantify – CZEA acted as an incubating environment for the project and the grantmaking process. Tomáš estimates the counterfactual probability of the program existing without CZEA involvement (direct or via volunteer community) at 20-30%.
Since the project selection workshop happened in the UK, this was another useful experience for our ability to organize events there in the future.
Epistea Summer Experiment
Epistea Summer Experiment (ESE, /ˈiːzi/) was an experimental summer workshop in Prague combining elements of applied rationality and experiential education. The main goals were to:
- Try new ideas about rationality education, such as multi-agent models of minds, and ideas about group epistemics and coordination
- Try to import insights and formats from experiential education
- Connect people interested in rationality education
ESE organizers gathered about 17 people for 10 intensive days in Czech countryside. The participants were presented with theoretical concepts in short lectures as well as actually experiencing them in various activities. Those ranged from physically demanding outdoor games, role-playing, to games with complex coordination requirements. You can read more about the event in this detailed EA Forum post.
The core of the organizational team were CZEA members but it was officially run by Epistea, not CZEA. CZEA and Epistea have a large staff overlap but remain independent with distinct goals and activities.
We continued to further develop the partnership with CFAR in 2019. First, five of our community members (Irena Kotíková, Aleš Flidr, Tomáš Gavenčiak, Jan Kulveit and Daniel Hnyk) participated in the CFAR instructor training. It took place mostly in the Bay Area but there was one workshop which we hosted in Prague (Tereza Veselá provided ops support).
Additionally, there were two mainline workshops in the fall, slightly extended to account for preparation of the instructor candidates. It meant that we were at our venue almost continuously for three weeks which required a lot of volunteer power to keep the place running. Tereza Veselá and Kristina Němcová were ops leads for each of the workshops and Irena Kotíková coordinated everything with CFAR. At least 12 people were involved with operations, setting the venue up and maintaining it, 9 of our members were participants in the workshops. Overall, 80 people took part in the workshops as instructors, volunteers or participants.
CFAR Alumni rEUnion
Having the CFAR workshops in Europe has significantly expanded the number of CFAR alumni who reside in Europe and thus created an opportunity to bring this community together. Inspired by the annual CFAR Alumni Reunion which takes place every year in California, we decided to organize a European version in the spring of 2019.
The event took place over the weekend in the Jizera mountains in two separate but very nearby venues (we had to expand because of high demand). There ended up being 85 participants, 5 CFAR staff/instructors and 3 volunteers who helped with operations. The event was pet and kid friendly and we were happy to welcome some of our alumni with their families. Overall, the event was very successful and we were scheduled for another one in 2020 which was unfortunately cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are looking forward to hosting another one when it is safe to have large gatherings again.
We started the year with our usual community activities:
- Community dinners, monthly meetups that give people a chance to catch up with others.
- Deep Dives Meetups – from January until March, there were 6 meetups that were considered more advanced and covered a specific EA topic (e. g. ethical theory, longtermism), averaged 10 participants per event.
- Group in Brno had regular meetings every week until March (~10). Meetings were focused on discussing specific EA topics. There were 7 participants per meeting on average.
- AI Safety research group of 7 people was meeting regularly every week until March. It was focused on concrete preparation for future career in AI safety research. The core of the group were 5 members who have a serious interest in pursuing this career, of which 3 have current or former academia appointments.
- Mental Health Reading Group – was started in January and had nine meetings so far.
- EA walks, informal hikes/walks in nature, happen irregularly depending on the time of year and weather
- EA coworking retreat, a week long get together of about 10 community members who used it to work on projects and get to know each other better.
- Reflective dinners, informal bottom up initiative of a couple of members to regularly meet in small groups and reflect on their week.
- An informal women’s group continued with irregular meetups that were more of a social nature but contributed to a sense of community and sisterhood among the women. There are currently about 15 women among active members.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, we wanted to first and foremost give our community members space and support to prepare and process the situation. In early March we halted all community events, Epistea Space (our coworking/community space) closed and almost everyone quarantined with minimal exposure. We set up a weekly check-in call where people could drop in, share how they were doing and connect with others. There were also a couple of remote meetups with talks on EA topics. At the same time, many of our members were actively involved in COVID-19 related projects on Czech and global level. Various members got involved in local projects as well, e. g. mental health group wrote an article about mental health for a national website with information about COVID-19.
In June 2020 the COVID situation in the Czech Republic significantly improved and we went back to our regular programming, with some restrictions. First, we resumed small community events such as community dinners and hikes. We have had a community dinner every two weeks since June, outside in a park with a maximum capacity of 20 people. These dinners were very successful in reactivating the community after quarantine and attracted a couple of newcomers as well. Group hikes happened about once a month and have no restriction on attendance. Meetings in Brno also resumed their regular schedule with no restrictions since the number of participants is small.
We are currently in the middle of our second COVID-19 wave which required another national lockdown and have therefore moved all of our events online again.
Most prominently, Jan Kulveit bootstrapped a new organization, Epidemic Forecasting to help with pandemic modelling. The project successfully developed high-quality predictive models about the pandemic, used in consultations with multiple governments around the world such as Pakistan or with other organizations such as Africa CDC. The web presentation has been visited by hundreds of thousands of users. Researchers united under Epidemic Forecasting also published a research paper on the effectiveness of various interventions.
While this project is independent from CZEA, its success would have been much harder without having a solid base of volunteers sourced from CZEA. The software development originally started „overnight“ under the supervision of Daniel Hnyk (co-founder and board member of CZEA) as the main developer lead, while Tomáš Gavenčiak developed the first iterations of the model used for estimating interventions impacts. The volunteers sourced originally from CZEA helped not just with the implementation and modelling, but also with data collection and data labelling. Daniel claims that the reaction time (days) would have been very hard to achieve without CZEA members who have shared EA values and goals and already knew each other from working on other projects. In addition to Jan, there were at least 8 members of the core CZEA community involved in the project (Daniel Hnyk, Tomáš Gavenčiak, Peter Hroššo, Anna Gajdová, Hana Kalivodová, Matěj Vrzala, Vojtěch Veselý, Tereza Veselá). Most of their contributions were in getting the project off the ground in its first weeks. EpiFor was then able to get funding and partially professionalize the team at which point, the volunteers mostly left or significantly decreased their contribution. Therefore, if we look at EpiFor’s results, it is not the case that CZEA members were the ones who worked on them directly – at that point, most of the team was different. However, they were instrumental in getting the project off the ground and growing fast.
Jan Kulveit was also featured in prominent Czech media such as DVTV (online interview show with viewership of hundreds of thousands), the most visited Czech website Seznam.cz or an upcoming interview in one of the most popular Czech podcasts Deeptalks.
Many projects were scheduled for this year (CFAR Alumni rEUnion, Human Aligned AI Summer School, three Epistea Rationality Workshops, ESPR, ESPR alumni reunion) but were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since we were no longer able to host our planned big events we used our extra capacity for “Housekeeping”.
We revisited our communication tools (website, Facebook, newsletter) in order to have clear audiences and messages in mind when we communicate externally and to be consistent across different channels of communication. One outcome has been our website which has been updated and now includes a full English version. We are also planning on sharing more of our successes and failures with the broader EA community – this report is part of this effort.
The lockdown was also the perfect opportunity to finish our Epistea Space remodeling project which is led by Pavla Mutinská. Pavla designed a new layout, desks, chairs, lights, storage space design and assembly as well as decorating. The space is now better suited to our needs for both coworking (more and better quality workstations) and community events (designated meet-up area and decorations). New storage space will help keep the place clean and organized.
We updated and reorganized our internal Wiki which has all of our internal documents and processes and implemented Asana as our project management tool. We also updated our bookkeeping and budget planning tools to allow for easier projections and financial health of the organization. Overall we have implemented a significantly better internal system for managing projects with the potential for scaling next year.
We wrapped up a long-term project of finding storage space for all the furniture and equipment that we use at our events such as carpets, bean bags, coffee tables, pillows and blankets, lamps, flipcharts and decorations. In the past we had to resort to storing our extra stuff at one of our venues. Unfortunately it was not well suited for it and we lost many items due to humidity, mold and other damage from bad conditions. We therefore decided to invest in a space that can store all of our extra items safely to get more longevity and thus save on event expenses in the future. We finally found a suitable space in June and moved everything there and organized it into labeled bins in July. Pavla Mutinská was the lead on this project.
In the meantime we were working on improving our processes for organizing events to make it more efficient for us in the future by creating guidelines, checklists, standardizing and documenting procedures, etc. Our goal is to make logistics overhead cheaper both in terms of money and the amount of work. These processes can be helpful for other groups who also run events so we expect to share our general best practices with the broad EA community and to potentially scale up our event organizing capacity in the future.
Strategy Review and Planning
In addition to Housekeeping we also used our additional capacity to review our strategy which was led by Jiří Nádvorník. We had two half day strategy sessions with our board to discuss our biggest bottlenecks as well as opportunities related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are currently in the process of prioritizing and planning our activities for 2021.
EA Fellowships Summer Program
This summer we piloted our new program: EA Fellowships Summer Program. The program (led by Jiří Nádvorník) was designed as a summer program for community members who have shown promise but have not had many opportunities to become more engaged. After being selected in June, they have committed to 0.33 FTE over July, August and September to work on small research projects which are relevant to our future activities. For their time, they received a modest stipend which would cover student expenses for the summer (~$900). The goals of the program were to:
- Engage promising community members
- Gain more insights into important areas of interest for CZEA
In June, three members were invited to participate in the program, one from Prague, two from Brno. They were all assigned an advisor who was the lead on the project, who worked with them closely and provided guidance. The projects and advisors were:
- Longtermism in public policy, Irena Kotíková
- Alternative ways of implementing EA principles, Jiří Nádvorník
- Analysis of comparative advantages of living in CZ as an EA, David Janků
These projects were identified as key questions that we needed to answer to decide our next steps and it was a good opportunity to offer a summer project to promising community members.
How we think about impact
Building a highly engaged and skilled community
One, perhaps most common, way EA communities have impact is by creating highly engaged and skilled EAs. Members are influenced by their interactions in the community and then have impact through their actions such as donating money or changing careers.
However, our impact happens also in other ways, besides this metric. First, in our view, some of the most impactful actions our members have taken was to volunteer for our organization. By participating in projects, they have directly caused them to happen and be successful, thus affecting the participants and others in indirect ways. Furthermore, even other ways of volunteering (helping to run the organization, grow the community, doing fundraising etc.) are important. Because we are not just a community but also an EA organization with its own activities and impact, our members volunteering for us and helping us achieve that impact can be considered, in itself, a high-impact action.
Second, in our experience, the “learning” aspect and the “action” aspect of our activities complement each other very well. As our members learn more about the principles of EA, they tend to seek out more opportunities for project work. And as they do more projects, they tend to increase their interest in learning and thinking about the issues. These are in powerful synergy and together increase the level of engagement for members, who participate in both (which is most of them).
Finally, there seems to be another element to our community which is more the individual impact of its members. A community is more than the sum of its parts. A healthy and engaged community creates energy and momentum which is attractive to new members and helps them grow. It is an inspiring environment which encourages high-impact actions and increases one’s understanding of the principles of EA. We think that our community has these qualities and that they are at the core of our success but they are also more difficult to capture in evaluation.
As an EA organization, we organize and participate in many projects with direct impact every year. Our common model is that a senior community member has a vision for a project which they develop and get funding for. Our community then provides resources for them to make the project successful. These are mainly in the areas of logistics, operations and other ad hoc tasks. The project leaders deserve credit for developing their idea for the project, getting funding and for providing leadership to the team. The community volunteers deserve credit for the legwork and for realizing that vision.
The projects that we decide to take on are another way through which we have impact, although it is largely not on our community members. The projects themselves have outputs which are of value – for instance research papers published as a result of AISRP or content presented at HAAISS. Additionally, they have an impact on the participants in similar ways our community activities do – they increase engagement and potentially influence their decision about their career or future engagement. They create opportunities for people from Europe, who would otherwise have to travel overseas or would not have participated at all, if we didn’t make these events happen in Europe.
Finally, when we organize an event, we think about our impact by considering counterfactual situations, where larger EA organizations shoulder the burden of organizing events themselves, rather than CZEA handling the logistics. In our estimate that would cost core EA organizations something between 0.5-1 FTE in operations, depending on the event. As such organizations are often quite operations-constrained, offloading the work from them seems quite valuable.
Our projects are also a very successful way to engage our volunteers – give them hands-on tasks and build the spirit of the community. When volunteering at a project, the volunteers tend to bond over the shared experience and build a strong sense of comradery within the team.
The Outputs and outcomes section represents our strong track record so far. In many cases, past track record and impact are a good indicator of future value produced. However, we think that it makes sense to not only consider our past impact but also our expected value produced in the future.
When thinking about the impact of EA organizations and communities we like to think about this in terms of venture capital. When investors are considering their decisions, they are asking very “EA-like” questions: what is the potential of the company and can they realize that potential? For example, companies such as digital startups can be losing money in their first year and still have much bigger estimated value because their value is the sum of discounted expected profits in the future.
We think that the expected value of stable city-level and national-level groups is more similar to a value of a startup, because it can work on accumulating resources that will enable exponential growth in the future. For example, network of contacts, know-how, organisational and management structure or long-term strategy which are all crucial for compounding interest of current work. Stable groups have therefore a longer planning horizon and that allows them to do work with larger leverage. Furthermore, it allows them to have lower time-discounting on their own work. If a group is only 50% sure it will exist two years from now all its future impact is highly time-discounted. This is why setting up a robust community and organization which can not only last but grow is necessary.
We think of these qualities as “culture capital” or “quality of ecosystem”, or “ability to do impressive things”. We see our community environment as a primordial soup – with conditions that will likely generate new and important outcomes in the future by the nature of the environment which is stimulating, rich and energetic. These are all hard to measure and so we largely rely on feedback from senior members of the global community familiar with our work. Using informed opinions of relevant experts as one data point to estimate expected value of an ecosystem-building organisation seems to be the best approximation we have for capturing this value. This is where it also becomes relevant again that in addition to being a community and a national group, we are also an EA organization which has capacity and potential of its own in the future.
Funding and financial health
Similar to academia, our funding has always been a combination of institutional (unrestricted discretionary funds mainly from individual donors) and project funding (grants for a specific project or purpose).
Community Building Grant (Centre for Effective Altruism)
This is our main source of funding every year. It covers salaries of our staff, our community space and events. As we keep growing, we were able to increase this funding every year to add more staff and expand our activities. The grant currently covers 3 staff members for a total of 2.0 FTE.
|Grant period||Amount $|
|September 2018 – August 2019||$45,000|
|September 2019 – August 2020||$74,754|
|September 2020 – October 2021||$86,983|
Here we include funding for projects which was awarded to us directly or which was awarded to someone else but we played a substantial role in the project. You can read more about our projects in the Outputs and outcomes section.
|Professionalization||EA Donor Lottery||$23,710|
|AI Safety Camp 2||CEA||$16,000|
|AI Safety Camp 3||LTFF||$25,000|
|AI Safety Research Program||LTFF||$41,000|
Many of our members have also received individual support for their activities from EA Grants or the EA Meta Fund.
Individual contributions are the main source of flexible funding which we can use at our discretion. Early on, we relied on smaller donations to cover the basic operations of the organization. Our first significant external source of funding has been the donation from Timothy Telleen-Lawton who won the EA Donor Lottery in 2017 and decided to donate a portion ($23,710) to us to start the process of professionalization. Because of the size of the contribution and because it was intended for a specific purpose, we include this contribution among our project funding as opposed to the summary of individual contributions which are typically much smaller.
|Year||Total of individual contributions|
|2020 (as of November)||$9,030|
Individual contributions are used almost entirely towards paying staff as contractors to incubate new projects. Many of projects, such as the Effective Thesis, HAAISS or EAGxPrague, benefited greatly from us providing small early-stage funding to make them happen. Having flexible funding seems necessary to getting projects off the ground until we are able to secure more longer term funding from grants or bigger donors.
Second, we want to be able to support our members’ development as EAs, by supporting them in exchange visits with other organizations, going to conferences, doing internships etc.
We do not intend to run any for-profit activities, and we also do not want to seek funding from Czech foundations. The amount of money we would potentially be able to secure is rather low (range of 500-5000 USD) at a high cost to our resources. It would likely require a lot of staff time to research and prepare grant applications with an uncertain and low impact outcome.
Going forward, we are certainly still funding constrained – we have many members who are capable and skilled and who could take on projects if we had the funding. We are therefore currently focusing on diversifying our funding. If you would like to support us financially, you can make a donation here.