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May 29 2013

10:38

Join the Zeega Makers Challenge for 'The Making Of...Live at SFMOMA'

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In 24 hours, Zeegas -- a new form of interactive media -- will be installed on four projection screens at San Francisco's renowned Museum of Modern Art. This showcase is part of "The Making Of..." -- a collaboration between award-winning NPR producers the Kitchen Sisters, KQED, AIR's Localore, the Zeega community and many others.

Join in this collaborative media experiment and make Zeegas for SFMOMA. To participate, log in to Zeega and create something for the exhibition. To make the simplest Zeega possible, just combine an animated GIF and a song. And if you want to do more, go wild.

You can contribute from anywhere in the world. The deadline is midnight EST on Wednesday.

make a zeega

If you've never made a Zeega, worry not: It's super-easy. You can quickly combine audio, images, animated GIFs, text and video from across the web. Zeegas come in all shapes and sizes, from GIFs accompanied by a maker's favorite song to a haunting photo story about a Nevada ghost town to an interactive video roulette.

The Zeega exhibition is one piece of "The Making Of...Live at SFMOMA." As SFMOMA closes for two years of renovation and expansion, over 100 makers from throughout the region will gather to share their skills and crafts and tell their stories.

For the event, there will be two live performances of Zeegas and the "Web Documentary Manifesto," and there will also be a session with Roman Mars ("99% Invisible"), The Kitchen Sisters, AIR's Sue Schardt talking about Localore, and other storytelling gatherings throughout the festivities. For the full program, click here.

Jesse Shapins is a media entrepreneur, cultural theorist and urban artist. He is Co-Founder/CEO of Zeega, a platform revolutionzing interactive storytelling for an immersive future. For the past decade, he has been a leader in innovating new models of web and mobile publishing, his work featured in Wired, The New York Times, Boingboing and other venues. His artistic practice focuses on mapping the imagination and perception of place between physical, virtual and social space. His work has been cited in books such as The Sentient City, Networked Locality and Ambient Commons, and exhibited at MoMA, Deutsches Architektur Zentrum and the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, among other venues. He was Co-Founder of metaLAB (at) Harvard, a research unit at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and served on the faculty of architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where he invented courses such as The Mixed-Reality City and Media Archaeology of Place.

May 23 2013

11:00

The Crowd and the Mob: Opportunities, Cautions for Constant Video Surveillance

Recent events in Boston highlight both the potential and hazards of ever-present cameras. In the hours following the April 15 bombing, law enforcement agencies called upon commercial businesses and the public to submit relevant footage from surveillance cameras and mobile devices. While the tsunami of crowdsourced data threatened to overwhelm servers and analysts, it provided clues that ultimately led to identifying the perpetrators. It also led to false identifications and harassment of innocent bystanders.

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Use of surveillance video to solve large-scale crimes first came to attention in the 2005 London subway bombings. In part due to its history of violent attacks by the IRA, London had invested heavily in closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology and had installed nearly 6,000 cameras in the underground system. In the days before smartphones, these publicly installed cameras were the most reliable source of video evidence, and law enforcement was able to identify the bombers using this footage.

With the advent of low-cost cameras and video recorders in smartphones, witnesses to events soon had a powerful tool to contribute to the law enforcement toolbox. Couple this technical capacity with the proliferation of social-networking platforms and the possibilities for rapid identification -- as well as the spread of misinformation -- become clear.

Vancouver police were overwhelmed with evidence from social media after the Stanley Cup riot in June 2011. This instance also highlighted the need for two things: stronger means of verification, since a number of photos were retouched or falsified, and protections against vigilantism or harassment of unofficial suspects.

authenticating digital images

Several projects currently in development address the need for a reliable system to authenticate digital images. In addition to a growing number of commercial companies specializing in audio and video forensic analysis, academic and non-profit labs are developing tools for this purpose. Informacam, a project of WITNESS and The Guardian Project, will strengthen metadata standards, and the Rashomon Project at UC Berkeley will aggregate and synchronize multiple videos of a given event. (Disclosure: The Rashomon Project is a project of the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative, which I direct.) These tactics, among others, will bolster the use of video evidence for criminal investigations and prosecutions.

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Despite the clear advantages of drawing on crowdsourced footage for solving crimes, civil liberties groups and privacy advocates have warned about the dangers of perpetual surveillance. We saw in the Boston case the liability inherent in the ease and speed of circulating false claims and images. The New York Post published a front-page photo of two young men mistakenly identified as suspects, and the family of another young man, who had been missing for several weeks, was tormented by media seeking stories about the misplaced suspicion fueled by Reddit, an online social media aggregator.

surveillance vs. crime prevention

In addition to facilitating the "wisdom of crowds," technology grows more sophisticated for automated surveillance, including face recognition and gait analysis. In the last decade, many cities have accelerated implementation of surveillance systems, capitalizing on advances in computer technology and funds available from the Department of Homeland Security and other public sources. Yet whether considering fixed cameras or citizen footage, the effectiveness of surveillance for crime prevention is mixed. A 2009 CITRIS study shows San Francisco's installation of cameras in high-risk neighborhoods led to decreases in property crime but had apparently little effect on violent crime. If anything, perpetrators learned to evade the cameras, and crimes were displaced into neighboring areas or private spaces.

In open societies, technological advances should spark new discussions about ethics and protocol for their implementation. Communities, both online and in-person, have an opportunity to debate the benefits and costs of video evidence in the context of social-networking platforms. While their enthusiasm must be tempered by regard for due process, armchair investigators should be encouraged to work in partnership with public agencies charged with ensuring public safety.

Camille Crittenden is Deputy Director of CITRIS, based at UC Berkeley, where she also directs the Data and Democracy Initiative. Prior to this appointment, she served as Executive Director of the Human Rights Center at Berkeley Law, where she was responsible for overall administration of the Center, including fundraising, communications, and outreach, and developed its program in human rights, technology, and new media. She held previous positions as Assistant Dean for Development in the division of International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley and in development and public relations at University of California Press and San Francisco Opera. She holds a Ph.D. from Duke University.

Image of surveillance camera courtesy of Flickr user jonathan mcintosh.

May 22 2013

11:00

Pop Up Archive Makes Audio Searchable, Findable, Reusable

After an insane and memorable week at SXSW Interactive in Austin in March, we came away with our work cut out for us: improving Pop Up Archive so that it's a reliable place to make all kinds of audio searchable, findable and reusable. Thanks in no small part to the brilliant development team at PRX, we've come leaps and bounds since then.

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what it can do

Pop Up Archive can:

  • Generate automatic transcripts and keywords so that audio is both searchable and easy to organize.
  • Provide access to an archive of sound from around the world.
  • Save time and money for producers, creators, radio stations, media organizations, and archives of all stripes.

We've been opening the site to select groups of pioneering users, and we'd love input from the community. Request an invite here.

The content creators and caretakers we're talking to have valuable digital material on their hands: raw interviews and oral histories, partial mixes of produced works, and entire series of finished pieces. They can't revisit, remix, or repackage that material -- it's stored in esoteric formats in multiple locations. And it gets lost every time a hard drive dies or a folder gets erased to make more space on a laptop.

We're hearing things like:

"Someday I'm gonna spend a month organizing all this, but I plug [hard drives] in until I find what I need."

"Imagine being able to find a sentence somewhere in your archive. That would be an amazing tool."

"Unfortunately...we don't have a good way of cleaning [tags] to know that 'Obama,' 'Mr. Obama,' and 'Barack Obama' should be just one entry."

No one wants to figure out how to save all that audio, not to mention search on anything more than filenames. Some stations and media companies maintain incredible archives, but they've got different methods for managing the madness, which don't always line up with workflows and real-world habits. Content creators rely on their memories or YouTube to find old audio, and that works to a degree. But in the meantime, lots of awesome, time-saving and revenue-generating opportunities are going to waste.

Want a taste from the archive? Let Nikki Silva tell you about "War and Separation," one of the first pieces The Kitchen Sisters produced for NPR in the early 1980s.

Read more in the press release.

Before arriving in California, Anne Wootton lived in France, and managed a historic newspaper digitization project at Brown University. Anne came to the UC-Berkeley School of Information with an interest in digital archives and the sociology of technology. She spent summer 2011 working with The Kitchen Sisters and grant agencies to identify preservation and access opportunities for independent radio. She holds a Master's degree in Information Management and Systems.

April 04 2013

11:00

The Role of Public Access TV in Covering Local Government, Debates

In recent years, "public service media" has emerged as the term describing all that's right with public media, community media, and non-profit journalism, and how those three sectors could be collaborating to function more perfectly in a new telecommunications-reformed promised land. Largely overlooked in these future of media discussions are two types of simple, non-edited televised event recordings -- local government meetings and local election debates coverage.

'united by function, not divided by platform'

Josh Stearns and Candace Clement, in their MediaShift post last October, "The Case for Unity Among Non-Profit, Community, and Public Media," quote from their August 2012 Free Press report, "Greater than the Sum":

"We need to begin constructing a new identity for non-profit journalism and media in America, one that illustrates the central role these institutions play in our nation. In addition, we must examine the media policies that have for too long served to divide non-profit media by platform instead of connecting them around purpose."

In so doing they point to the 2010 paper by Ellen Goodman and Anne Chen, "Modeling Policy For New Public Service Media Networks":

"While public media policy has traditionally been structured around specific platforms -- specifically radio and television stations -- Goodman and Chen call for a 'functions'-based approach that emphasizes: infrastructure, creation, curation and connection." Various non-profit media and journalism institutions can and should be united by function, not divided by platform, Stearns and Clement write.

In their paper's section on the creation function (what they call the "what" of public service media content), Goodman and Chen describe valid rationales for public subsidies of various types of program content. Although they mention news and documentaries, oddly, they don't include gavel-to-gavel government meetings coverage and local elections debate coverage in their examples. These two program types, essential pillars for citizen education and civic engagement, are also not discussed in the Free Press report. These content types must not be left out of forward-looking public service media public policy discussions.

Gavel-to-Gavel Local Government Meeting Coverage

In 2010 I collected data on U.S. cities' gavel-to-gavel televised government meetings coverage, reporting on it in a post for the New America Foundation, "How many cities have access TV? More than you might think." Of the 276 U.S. cities then over 100,000 in population:

256 of them -- 93 percent -- televise the routine meetings of one or more of their governmental bodies. All but two of these cities use cable television to do so ... Of the 254 largest cities cablecasting their government meetings, 197 of them (78 percent) do so on channels that they themselves manage. Non-profit organizations manage those channels in 20 of those cities, while the cable companies manage them in 28.

There are of course many municipalities below 100,000 in population who also televise their government meetings, although assuredly many more do not. The Goodman/Chen four-layer model could productively be applied to help further such program availability.

Local Elections Televised Debates

I've been maintaining an online directory of PEG access television providers' websites since 2000. Every federal election season since 2006 I've surfed these providers' websites (initially about 800 of them), noting which ones were promoting local election coverage programs. In 2010 I emailed all PEG access providers for whom I could locate email addresses, asking them, among other things, if they produced any type of local elections coverage. The results of these combined efforts are seen in this map -- at least 327 PEG access providers produce some sort of local elections coverage.

By 2012, my directory's listings -- now a Google Doc spreadsheet, U.S. Community Access TV Providers -- had grown too numerous (over 2,000 providers) to completely search manually as I had before. Instead, using an offline website reading tool, I tried downloading the contents of these providers' websites (twice -- once in the first week of October, once in the last). While I was at it, I performed the same operation for PBS stations' websites.

(This is an imperfect data collection technique -- at least the way I employed it. This tool allows you to set the number of levels deep as well as a maximum number of files you wish to download. Though I arbitrarily chose three levels and 300 files, many sites would hang during download, so I'd have to manually skip to the next site.)

Then I searched for the string "debate" among all those downloaded files, individually inspecting each returned result. I'm still in the process of compiling this incompletely gathered data, but so far, using this method I've identified 27 PEG access providers and 66 PBS stations who produced or carried 2012 local election debate coverage. They're shown in these four maps: 1) County/Municipality Elections; 2) State Legislature Elections; 3) Congressional Elections, and 4) Statewide Elections. (An additional eight commercial broadcast stations whose debates were carried on C-SPAN in October are also included here).

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These maps are prominently labeled "data incomplete." In addition to the limitation described above, there are three necessary data sets which remain to be collected and analyzed: debate coverage by 1) commercial broadcast TV stations, 2) cable company-managed channels, and 3) statewide cable public affairs networks' channels.

Therefore, this data is still too preliminary to draw almost any conclusions. However, it does seem reasonable to assume that more complete data would bear out at least one picture here: As with gavel-to-gavel local government meeting coverage, county and municipal election debate coverage is probably more commonly being produced and carried by PEG access television providers than other television outlets.

Once a more complete picture has been developed, I propose that it would be worthwhile to apply the Goodman/Chen four-layer functional model (infrastructure, creation, curation, and connection) in an effort to further promote this essential component of a public service media network.

In January this year the Alliance for Community Media published results of a local elections coverage survey it conducted among its PEG access provider members. The responses the ACM received -- especially to its questions about the barriers to producing such programming -- would be an excellent place to start the collaborative conversation about how the existing 1) infrastructures of public media and community media could work together to 2) create and 3) curate more of this programming, in ways which would enhance viewer 4) connections -- that is, citizen engagement.

Examining and exploring these pathways to collaborations would be a fruitful step towards crafting new public policies that would create a more robust and provably useful public service media system.

Chopping Wood, Carrying Water

In examining policies and practices for televising local meetings and debates, I'm reminded of the Zen proverb, "Before enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water. After enlightenment, chopping wood and carrying water." Televising local government meetings and local election debates, like chopping wood and carrying water, are mundane but essential activities. Come the Enlightenment (a new Telecommunications Act rewrite?) these mundane activities will still need to be carried out. If anything, we are not chopping enough wood, or carrying enough water, as it it.

Anyone with information about additional TV stations that carried election debate coverage in 2012 is kindly asked to email that information to the author, rob@communitymediadatabase.org, for inclusion in this ongoing study. Thank you.

Rob McCausland has been involved in community access television since 1979, when he co-founded the Boston Cable Access Television Coalition, which advocated for access provisions in Boston's first cable franchise. He has served as Studio and Cablecast Manager for Boston Neighborhood Network, Executive Director for Beverly Community Access Media, and most recently, as Director of Information and Organizing Services for the Alliance for Community Media. Currently he is developer of Community Media Database, a reference website launched in 2011 with pilot support from The Benton Foundation and the New America Foundation.

August 21 2012

14:00

Why Did So Many News Outlets Not Link to Pussy Riot Video?

The Russian punk band Pussy Riot must have done something really bad to merit a possible seven years in prison, I figured. Finding all descriptions of their behavior to be filled with euphemism, I wanted to see their offensive behavior myself.

Who do you turn to when you want to see the world as it is, rather than the world as others tell you it is? My parents would have turned on network television. Or read the Progress-Bulletin or Daily Report. I went to YouTube and searched for "PussyRiot" and watched what struck me as the video of the actions I had heard about second- and third-hand. The video, I thought, was edited in such a way that made both the church and the band look like victims, depending on your point of view. To me, that was a good indication of its authenticity.

But I don't really know, and I trust sources like the New York Times, and especially its reporters on the ground in Moscow, to tell me whether what I'm really seeing is accurate. So I next went to nytimes.com and its story. The Times had links to videos. But a quick look around the other five top news sites in the U.S showed that it was the only popular publication that linked to the videos of the band's action that landed it in prison for three months while awaiting trial. So why was the Times the only source to have linked to the video? And what does that news organization's unusual behavior mean?

a lack of links

The other sites -- Yahoo News, Huffington Post, ABC News, NBC News and USA Today -- failed me. These are sites that are both praised and vilified as "aggregators" or "MSM." But all made the same editorial decision -- and didn't help their audience see the key fact of this case for itself.

But I wonder why the link wasn't made? The people who work there are professionals. And I have no reason to believe they are more or less immoral than I am.

Going back more than a decade, academic studies have found that few news stories actually link to source information. In 2001, one in 23 stories about the Timothy McVeigh execution linked to external sources. And a 2010 study indicates that U.S. journalists are less inclined to link to foreign sources than domestic sources, with fewer than 1 percent of foreign new stories on U.S. news sites containing links in their stories.

So, why?

Two prominent academic studies seem to indicate that the presence of inbound and outbound links increase credibility in both professional and amateur sites. Are professional journalists unaware of those studies? Are they aware, but think they're bunk?

One study indicates that journalists don't link because they are concerned about the financial implications -- that users who leave the site will not return to drive up ad impressions. Another seems to indicate that U.S. journalists are particularly skeptical of foreign sources of news because they are less confident of their own ability to judge the credibility of foreign sources.

enhancing credibility

From my experience in online newsrooms, both those findings seem plausible. But they also seem incomplete. My own additional hypothesis is that hyperlinking has been left primarily to automation and that editors and reporters who've been asked for the last decade to "do more with less" have decided that links to original source material -- which, at least according to a few studies, enhance their credibility, are not worth their time.

But other studies have shown that hyperlinks in the text of a story distract readers -- even the small percentage of readers who click on the links -- and reduce reading comprehension. That said, I suspect the journalists who didn't include links to the Pussy Riots videos are completely unaware of such studies (which are summarized nicely throughout Nicholas Carr's book "The Shallows."

If there's credit to be given in The New York Times' decision to include the links in the story, then it goes to the reporter in Moscow, David Herzenhorn, according to three sources who work at the Times. The role that Herzenhorn played is important. This was a task not left to an editor or producer in New York, but one that the Moscow correspondent took upon himself. The links add to his credibility.

"I have to say I am completely floored that other news organizations would not link to the videos, since they explain so much about the story," Kyle Crichton, the editor who worked on the story, wrote to me in response to an email query.

My rather slack Friday afternoon efforts to obtain comment from other news organizations that didn't link to the videos yielded no responses. I still hope to hear from them in hopes of understanding whether the lack of links was merely an oversight or a conscious omission. Herzenhorn also did not reply to my email on late Friday.

The reporter -- and at this point he, rather than his employer, deserves credit for the links -- selected the more popular Russian-language versions on YouTube rather than the English subtitled versions, which had fewer views but would be more useful to the Times' English-language audience.

"There is some profanity on the soundtrack, so I presume that is why David chose not to include [the videos with English subtitles]," Crichton said in his email to me. "That strikes me as fair, since the text isn't as important as the overall spectacle of their 'performance.'"

the political impact of linking

I also wondered what the political impact of including such links might be. I've had
newsroom conversations about whether linking to a source constitutes endorsement. The modern version of this is manifested in newsroom social media policies that discourage journalists from re-tweeting information from sources and in Twitter bios that say "RT ≠ endorsement."

I teach my students, and write in Chapter 7 of "Producing Online News," that links in a story are akin to quotes. You're responsible for the facts of the source's statement, but not the opinions. And stories without links today seem as incomplete as stories without quotes from named sources have always been.

In foreign stories, though, links to banned material could have an effect on both the news
organization's ability to distribute news and on its reporters' ability to collect it. Crichton wasn't concerned.

"I don't think our including the videos will have any impact on our future ability to report in Russia," Crichton said in his email to me. "If it were Iran, maybe, but Russia isn't like that, yet."

What discussion to you have in your newsroom about including or excluding links? If you aren't having any, consider consulting with -- and funding -- the mass communication researchers who can help you make your journalism more credible, more memorable and more useful.

Related links:

August 13 2012

14:00

Movement-Based Arts Inspire Public Lab's DIY Environmental Science

Researchers at Public Laboratory pursue environmental justice creatively, through re-imagining our relationship with the environment. Our model is to rigorously ask oddball questions, then initiate research by designing or adapting locally accessible tools and methods to collect the data we need to answer those questions.

We've found, perhaps not surprisingly, that innovation in tools and methods frequently emerges from creative practices. In the larger trend of art plus science collaboration, 2D graphics, illustration, and visualization get most of the glory. But sculpture and dance are also major drivers of environmental imagination -- and therefore scientific inquiry.

taking back the production of research supplies

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In early July, approximately 25 people gathered in the cool interior of the 600,000-square-foot Pfizer building to design and build kites and balloons. This event was led by a sculptor, Mathew Lippincott, one of the co-founders of Public Laboratory. From his workshop in Portland, Ore., he's been researching the performance of tyvek and bamboo as well as ultra-lightweight plastic coated with iron oxide powder that heats itself in the sun. Because community researchers around the world use commercially produced kites and balloons to lift payloads (such as visible and infrared cameras, air quality sensors, and grab samplers) high into the air, this is part of a mission-critical initiative to take back the production of research supplies into the hands of local communities.

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dancers and scientists collaborate

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What you may not be expecting to hear is that half of the workshop attendees were dancers or choreographers, organized by Lailye Weidman and Jessica Einhorn, two fellows of iLAND, an organization dedicated to collaboration between dancers and scientists. Inspired by embodied investigations into atmospheric pressure and dynamics, these dancers joined the sculptors to drive forward a research agenda into the little-understood urban wind condition. Other attendees included engineers, theater artists, design students, landscape architects, and urban foresters. This group spent the weekend splitting bamboo, heat seaming painter's plastic towards building a solar-heated balloon large enough to lift a person, and learning about aerodynamics through attempting to fly their creations.

This work on the replicability (ease of making) and autonomy (easily procurable materials) of DIY aerial platforms -- directed by the aesthetic and embodied sense of sculptors and dancers -- has increased the ability of non-professional scientists to ask and answer their questions about their environment.

August 08 2012

14:00

How the Knight Lab's Babl App Helped Lollapaloozans Deal with Storms

This post was written by Jordan Young of the Knight News Innovation Lab.

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This past weekend marked the annual music carnival known as Lollapalooza" held in Chicago's Grant Park. As you'd expect, close to 100,000 people attending a large event can generate a lot of hot conversations on social media outlets.

The Knight News Innovation Lab recently released a mobile application, Babl, which gives users a unique way to share and discover news. This iPhone app offers a visual alternative to reading through a scrolling list of tweets. Babl users can create their own conversation topics by entering a title and keywords. The app uses the terms entered to create and display a collage of tweeters' photographs that can then be tapped to reveal their individual tweet.

behind the scenes

Prior to Lollapalooza, we set up a featured topic for the opening day of the fest allowing any user to sample the news, conversation and entertainment as it happened. We thought it might be fun to see the app in action during a lively event -- and apparently Mother Nature agreed by bringing severe thunderstorms to the Chicago area and forcing an evacuation of the park.

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Through Babl, we were able to participate in Twitter conversations about Lollapalooza throughout the weekend, starting on Friday as people filed into Grant Park to see their favorite artists and dance like neon-clad wild animals. On the afternoon of Day 2, tweets brought us the first news of the show being suspended due to an incoming tempest. Babl users were able to view reports like official news tweets, tweets from artists, and tweets from the herd of people as they were being evacuated into the streets of downtown and parking garage shelters -- most attendees opted for bars.

A few hours later, all the weather drama subsided and Babl displayed tweets of people re-entering the gates and enjoying the rest of the evening through Sunday's closing. Babl enabled us to easily view the local and global tweeters participating in a conversation topic, and gave us a rich media experience of an event in real time.

Jordan Young has been part of the Knight News Innovation Lab since its launch in August of 2011. She is a freelance blogger, contributing writer for Illinois Meetings + Events Magazine, and aspiring publisher. You can reach her at knightlab@northwestern.edu and on Twitter: @knightnewslab.

KnightLogo.jpgEstablished in 2011 with a $4.2 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Knight News Innovation Lab is a joint initiative of Northwestern University's Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Medill School of Journalism. In partnerships built across the Chicagoland region -- from neighborhood bloggers to large media companies -- the Lab invents, improves and distributes technology that help build and sustain a better informed citizenry and a more innovative publishing environment.

February 08 2012

21:30

Video Volunteers Looks to Mainstream Media for Growth

This is Part 3 in a 4-part series in which Video Volunteers is sharing what we've done over the last year, our experiences, and what we've learned. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

In August, the Video Volunteers staff attended an amazing program called the Global Social Business Incubator at Santa Clara University, where we developed a new business plan focused on income from the mainstream media. Our idea is to have one rural reporter in each of India's 645 districts, set up like a rural stringers network, to deliver a pipeline of high-quality, low-cost human interest content to television stations. The maintenance costs of such a network, once it's set up, would be relatively low -- about $300,000 a year for 645 rural correspondents, or about the cost of 20-30 television producers in Delhi. 

Ultimately, we feel that the recruitment, training and generation of impact will need to be supported by philanthropy, but that production and distribution should be taken care of by the market.

We made significant progress in 2011. In May, NewsX, the Indian network, broadcast our 13-part series called "Speak Out India." We sold them eight stories a week, and they produced a show around it. It was the first time we know of where a mainstream news company has paid for content produced by people living at the so-called base of the pyramid, and the successful run of that show has given us a successful track record with the media. The problem was, they only paid us the stringer rate for the stories, so about 1,500 rupees ($30) when our costs of production are more like 8,000 rupees ($160).

Our next goal was to see if an Indian TV channel would sign a contract with us for a similar amount of content each week (about 30 minutes) at our fully loaded cost of production for a 3-minute story. Hence, Video Volunteers' earned income goal for the end of this year was $100,000, or about 40% of our total budget. This would still be significantly lower than the costs of a TV station doing these stories themselves.

In the last three months, we've made two trips to Delhi and Mumbai to meet the TV channels, and the response has been very enlightening. So far, we've met about half of the top 20 English or Hindi news channels. They all like the content. They find our community correspondents full of energy, and feel that our flip cams are generating adequate quality.

The fact that India is in the throes of an anti-corruption movement is a really good thing for us, because we have lots of great corruption stories that they want. So far so good, in that they clearly are saying, "We'll run this content." This is a big step from a few years ago, where everyone we spoke to said we were crazy to think TV stations would run stuff produced by poor villagers. 

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The Rural Newswire

As for the idea of a "rural newswire," they also get the concept. One senior person at CNN IBN said, "It's a well-known secret in Indian media that abysmal stringers are a huge problem." The chief executive of CNN IBN has talked in media interviews (including when he's been interviewed about Video Volunteers) about the "tyranny of distance," and how the remote areas of the country are often prohibitively expensive to cover. Someone at a government channel even told us that our idea couldn't work with the government channel "because all our stringers are political appointees!"

But despite all this, we're not sure they're ready to pay for quality. One producer at a news channel here who was really championing us internally said, "I'm pitching this as a high-quality stringers network. Everyone knows our stringers are awful, but the problem is they are OK with bad quality."

Bottom line at the end of our first 10 TV station meetings: Stations will take our stuff for free. They would probably also pay us the stringer rate -- but not necessarily the fully loaded cost. So now we're working with one station that's going to try to find a corporate sponsor, and will probably be the first mainstream media contract to materialize for us next year.

Online Distribution Helps

Thankfully, the Internet is a space where we can produce and publicize our content without depending on a broadcaster. We are currently publishing one video a day on our site, which is searchable by issue, region and community correspondent. The good news is that we've doubled our viewers over the last six months. The less good news is that the numbers are still low. We're going to start tweaking our format to show the back story and the trials and tribulations of the community producers more.

We've set aside one day a week, Wednesday, to publish impact videos -- this will have an impact on us in terms of fundraising! And we hope to start producing our own podcasts where we club together videos on a particular theme and have someone in our office as an anchor. We now have more than 450 edited 3-minute videos on every conceivable issue of human rights, poverty alleviation, and local culture. We're sitting on a gold mine of content, and now the fun starts of repackaging it and seeing what themes emerge and getting others to comment on the content.

We're confident this will work, because when our content is on other platforms that get traffic, it does very well. We're now partnered with several online companies, namely MSN, Rediff, Viewspaper and ViewChange.org. The partnership with Rediff is particularly promising; our first video with it got 100,000 views and loads of comments.

We also reach greater numbers of people through commissioned film projects. We've been hired this year by several organizations to gather stories or footage, such as: the one day on Earth project; YouTube's Day in a Life project; and the Red Cross, for whom we produced 12 videos on hunger in rural India that they're using in campaign events around the world. We've also gathered stories of climate change for our partner organization Laya; stories of development-induced displacement for Witness; stories on domestic violence for Breakthrough; and on local farming for the Gene Campaign.

Our correspondents gathered "recce" footage on caste for one of India's major production companies, and got answers from dozens of people to the question, "Are You Happy?" for a film project replicating Jean Rouch's seminal 1961 movie "Chronicle of Summer."

Are you happy? - from Jharkhand from Video Volunteers on Vimeo.

Stay tuned for our fourth and last post of the blog series, in which we'll discuss our other activities and programs and our vision for the future.

January 18 2012

15:20

OpenCourt Coaxes Out More Data with Cooperative Coverage Day

A version of this post first appeared on the OpenCourt blog.

A man charged with selling drugs inside the courthouse. A woman said to have shoplifted $5 worth of barbeque chicken wings. A man charged with multiple counts of raping a child with force. A longtime Drug Court participant booted from the program for taking a non-narcotic pill (still against the rules). Everyone brought back to court owing fees or victim restitution in previously dismissed cases. A man on psychotropic medication charged with shoplifting a Stop and Shop cart full of meat and pulling a knife when confronted in the parking lot. A naked hiker in the Blue Hills whose defense to lewd behavior is being raised as a naturist. OUIs. Restraining order hearings. A wife sectioning her husband for alcoholism.

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OpenCourt has been streaming public court hearings from the First Session courtroom in the Quincy District Court in Massachusetts since May of 2011. We've received feedback about how our viewers use and value the footage, and we realize it would be useful to show more of the court's daily business -- not just the cross-section that comes through the First Session.

While holding to our goal to carve a plausible model for other courthouses, we've often asked ourselves how we and other journalists around the country could do a better job shedding light on a bigger portion of the iceberg's tip, and not necessarily using as much expensive technology.

In other words, just how much business does all of Quincy District Court do in a single day? How can we more fully capture the breadth of cases heard, day in and day out?

Cooperative Coverage

To help answer these questions, last month we hosted a cooperative coverage event at the court, an open invitation to citizen and traditional journalists alike to help us gather notes about everything that transpires in the building's six public courtrooms.

Our combined notes, which you can read here on our blog -- gathered between myself, our producer Val Wang, two Patriot Ledger reporters, two Harvard Berkman interns, one State House News reporter, and three citizen journalists -- are inevitably incomplete. But we hope this coming together shows more fully the wide array of hearings before the court, the sheer volume of cases, and the fact that this is all happening every day, outside of normal public view.

We realized it's easier than you might think for loosely affiliated citizens to collaborate on a one-off project (read: Twitter + Google Docs).

There were unsurprisingly a wide variety of cases. Some rough tallies: Assault & Battery (15, of which 3 were labeled as domestic violence), disorderly conduct (4), trespassing (3), resisting arrest (1), uninsured and/or unlicensed motor vehicle operation (5), speeding (3), shoplifting (5), larceny over $250 (1), receiving stolen property (2), distribution of an illegal substance (3), section 35 (1), sealed record request (3), interpreter needed (1).

This day was exceptional not by any standard of caseload or substance, only that more of us were there to see it and relay stories. For me and Val, the longer we're in court streaming, the clearer it is that we're sitting on a relatively unchecked sociological goldmine.

Opening Court Data

These notes from last month's experiment are, at the least, a compelling glance at the river of data flowing through our local courts every single day.

At best they offer a new angle on approaching larger questions: How do we get to a place where public court data is more accessible? Why aren't the stats being tracked more extensively and automatically in the name of scientifically diagnosing societal ills?

The Boston Globe recently published an extensive three-part series on Massachusetts drunken driving prosecutions, which undoubtedly required massive reporting energy. While that energy will always be required for strong narrative journalism, shouldn't reporters and the public at large alike have easier access to court proceedings to begin with? Wouldn't the state be better off if tracking the operation of its courts didn't require the Herculean effort of a crack, paid investigative team?

Thanks again to everyone who helped make this possible. Our aim at this point, as always, is to provide a window into the everyday landscape of our legal system. Beyond that, we hope efforts like this lead to smarter methods to inform and awaken the public -- to be a better radar for a community's prevalent crimes.

What do you think? What do you see? What should we do differently if we host another event like this?

September 15 2011

15:14

With Music Mine, PRX Aims to Reshape Public Media on the iPad

KCRW Music Mine

Public Radio Exchange just announced the launch of KCRW Music Mine, an iPad app that gives you a unique, exciting way to discover new music.

Music Mine is the product of a close partnership between PRX and KCRW, with design by Roundarch and music intelligence powered by The Echo Nest. Nearly a year in the making, the app developed from lengthy brainstorming sessions about what a next-generation station experience on the iPad should -- and could -- be.

KCRW excels at a lot of things -- music, news, local Los Angeles culture, food, arts, film. But rather than attempt to recreate the KCRW.com website, or duplicate the station's existing iPhone app on the iPad, we went further. We chose a focused concept that spotlights KCRW's expertise in music discovery and pushes the limits of the iPad user experience.

PRX and KCRW certainly weren't the first to come up with an app that lets you listen to music or even radio programs about music. So we pushed further, drawing upon the formidable design talents of digital agency Roundarch to wield user experience and graphic design to truly set this app apart. The Echo Nest was also brought in for their "music intelligence platform" which gathers music news and multimedia content from across the web.

The result is stunning. This video gives you an idea:

The app is beautiful and appealing. But we weren't just going for beauty. We wanted to transform the music discovery experience from simply tapping a Play button and getting what you're given (though that's plenty great, too) into something much more active. With KCRW Music Mine, you want to pay attention. You want to explore, with the knowledge that KCRW DJs will make sure you only find good stuff. You can use the app simply to discover new music to like, or you can choose to go deeper to learn more about the artist and their work.

Or, you can just tap a Play button and get what KCRW's Eclectic24 gives you.

Not only do we think Music Mine reshapes the music discovery experience, we think it exemplifies the kind of mobile/tablet presence public media should aspire to. At PRX, we believe that new platforms are opening up great possibility for fresh new expressions -- not just reflections -- of stations and programs.

KCRW Music Mine is a perfect incarnation of PRX's mobile goals: to partner with innovative entities to create cutting-edge mobile experiences for public media.

A version of this story also appears on the PRX Blog.

September 02 2011

16:54

Sourcemap Crowdsources Product Supply Chains, Carbon Footprints

This post was authored by Matthew Hockenberry, who co-created Sourcemap as a visiting scientist with the MIT Center for Civic Media.

Knowing where things come from is a fundamental part of humanity. Things are very different when they come from different places. The provenance of a work tells us the importance of not only where something has come from, but when it was created and who it was that fashioned it. Ancient vessels in Pompeii bear the eternal mark of Vesuvinum, and shelves of China are still identified by their geographic namesake.

With supply chains we talk about traceability, or being able to follow the source through every link on the chain. Environmental impact, climate change, conflict minerals and human rights abuses -- these are problems underpinning global trade. Defining our relationships with things as relationships with places and with people brings a renewed sense of humanity to our purchasing practices.

Sourcemap is an initiative to make information on the source of products and their supply chains public, so that we can make informed choices about their social and environmental impact. Developed by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group, Sourcemap has grown over the past few years.

SOURCEMAP: WHERE WE'VE COME FROM

We created Sourcemap to allow anyone -- businesses, consumers, journalists and researchers -- to share the stories of global supply chains and their impacts on the world. Since our site became publicly accessible, we've been fortunate enough to have some wonderful individuals and organizations contribute to our work. We have more than 3,000 published maps and over 6,000 mapmakers, some of which you can see at the new Sourcemap.com.

Each day, the site features new items contributed by entrepreneurs, brand enthusiasts, students and researchers. Some are carefully researched case studies of unique and unfamiliar products. Some are personal explorations of where someone is traveling, or an investigation into what he or she bought at the store that day. Each of them is a testament to the curiosity about the things that occupy our lives and where they came from before they got to us.

There are sourcemaps of everything from an electric car to a detonator for blasting oil wells, from supplier networks of airplanes to carbon accounting for teleconferencing, from the industrial food on your plate to the small supply chains of local cuisine.

Bringing consumers and producers into the same dialogue has become a cornerstone of the work. We not only have the "right to know" where something comes from, we want producers to have the "freedom to say." These two groups -- those who consume and those who produce -- have been separate too long. They have grown apart not only in our minds, but in their placement in the world. To bring them together is to tie together communities from opposite sides of the world, to untangle the knots that have bound our understanding of global production and global supply chains.

PROVENANCE

Housed in the MIT Media Lab, Sourcemap began its life surrounded by people in the midst of making things -- things with blinking lights and beeping sounds. We began to ask questions about these things. What is the impact of a modern product? If we wanted to make it more sustainable, what material would we use? Should it be local, renewable or recycled?

We built something to answer these questions for product designers at the Media Lab, but we soon realized that everyone makes design choices: planning a trip, stocking a shelf, or putting a meal together. All of these decisions bring together disparate components from around the globe. And if we're all designers, then we should all be informed about our choices and the impact they can have on the world.

The growth of the local food movement brought together individuals deeply concerned with the sourcing of ingredients in their own communities. Our earliest collaboration involved a local food chef and caterer, Robert Harris, who was interested in sharing his sourcing practices with his customers. Sourcemap allowed him to create a menu that showed customers exactly where their food comes came from. In the summer months, when the majority of Robert's food is sourced locally, this practice connects customers with not only the ingredients in their food, but with the local community of New England farmers who grow it.

Through early fieldwork in the remote Highlands and islands of Scotland, we met people sensitive to the beauty of the land around them and the fragile community it supports. It's a community in search of a place in the larger world -- looking to continue a specific way of life and sustain the people who practice it. We met a hotel owner who wanted to offset her guests' carbon footprint, reinvesting it in the preservation of the forests they had come to see. We met a local butcher who wanted to understand the carbon footprint of his business. He discovered that the transportation of his native cattle, sheep and pork is only a minor part of the life cycle impact compared to the practices his suppliers adopt in raising the animals.

Sam Faircliff, who runs the Cairngorn Brewery, saw that her local industry relies on a bottling plant in central England. Building a plant at her facility drops the distance a bottle of beer travels by two-thirds, and improves competitiveness, creates jobs, and strengthens the region. There is more than one kind of sustainability, and this experience in the Highlands revealed that it was just as much about people as it was about things.

USING SOURCEMAP TO TELL NEW STORIES

Sourcemap provides information about where things come from, and in doing so, it presents a particular narrative of the trip products make before they get to us. Educators and journalists can use this information to develop research, synthesize it with other perspectives, and tell new stories that situate a product's place in our world.

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Leo Bonanni, CEO of Sourcemap, held a "Futurecraft" class at MIT, which was an important developmental force for Sourcemap, and its role has continued with classes at NYU and Parsons. Parsons master's student Jennifer Sharpe mapped and filmed a video documentary revealing the supply chain behind a line of organic clothing. At the show, "Organic by John Patrick," clothing was shown alongside maps and videos detailing the larger process of manufacture and sourcing. One side of the gallery was filled with the flash of cameras as the clothing was modeled. On the other side, a film showed the sheep farm were the wool comes and the shops and craftspeople responsible for making it into finished garments. In cases like this one, food and clothing connect us to not only each other, but to the natural world that provides the possibility for their production.

Less close to home, we've seen instructors use Sourcemap with their students in numerous locations including Boston, New York, California, Montana, France, Slovakia, New Zealand and Australia. We've traveled to see the social impact of cotton farming in India and gotten a firsthand perspective on fair trade.

A collaboration with the University of Montana helped students understand food production issues that are a critical factor in Montana's future sustainability. These journalism students were able to map the fragile state of their food economy, as the raw materials necessary to produce beef and grain products must leave the state to be processed into finished foods. In each of these classrooms, Sourcemap is mobilized by communities that are displaced by the disjunctures of global supply chains and local economic, cultural and social forces.

FOOTPRINTS

This project comes from an appreciation for the role of the material world in our daily lives. It has, from the beginning, been about understanding how we can have more respect and appreciation for material culture. Things cannot speak, but if they could, what would they say? There's no easy answer for the role of objects in our lives. It's not about passing universal judgment on which things are "local," "organic," "green" or "good." As we saw in the Highlands, communities have unique needs, and they need to understand the supply chains that involve them to make choices that are sustainable over the long-term.

Things mean different things to different people, and the solution is to let the things do the talking.

Sourcemap has evolved significantly since the first few days when we scratched out a design for a "map of where things come from." The team has grown. We have begun architecting the next generation of Sourcemap. We've formed an initiative to unravel the mysteries of footprints and impacts. We've taken trips around the world on a mission to connect communities of consumers with communities of producers. Volunteers from digital media, business, design and journalism have offered their time and effort to make the project more effective and inclusive. Each map begins when someone asks -- just as we did when we began our work -- "Where does this come from?"

As part of this evolution, we recently announced a complete new release of Sourcemap, built with the efforts of our growing team and Chief Architect Reed Underwood. There are also a few changes in the way we do things. Sourcemap is now Sourcemap.com, the "crowd-sourced directory of product supply chains and carbon footprints." Under Bonanni's guidance, and through work with companies, non-profit organizations, experts, and everyday people, we hope that one day Sourcemap.com will allow us to make sustainable choices about the products and services we encounter.

At the same time, I will focus on Sourcemap Foundation, a non-profit research organization dedicated to understanding the fundamental issues at stake in global logistics.

The Brundtland commissioned defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations." Nothing is sustainable universally -- some things will be sustainable for some communities, and some will be for others. For us, sustainability gives us a connection with the past as we look to the future. It's the opportunity to learn from our mistakes while appreciating the legacy that has been handed down to us.

To understand our community and culture we must act like archaeologists, but what we practice is an archaeology of the present. It is possible to know where things come from. Instead of waiting to position the everyday objects of our lives from a future a hundred years from now, we must begin to unravel the origins of their people and places today.

July 21 2011

14:55

VIDEOS: Should the MIT-Knight Civic Media Confab Get Supersized?

One of the things we at MIT are very quietly considering -- quietly in the same sense that I first considered getting a creative writing degree, as in, seduced by the prospect while overawed by the reality -- is holding a large, public civic media conference as part of, or in addition to, our invitation-only Civic Media Conference with the Knight Foundation.

We last discussed it as videos from this year's Civic Media Conference came online, and I'd like to share those videos, not just for their own sake, but for you to ask yourself: Would you travel to Boston to be a part of these kinds of talks if we had 2,000 people rather than 250? Hearing your thoughts might just push us in the big-conference direction.

Crowdsourcing Crisis: How Civic Media Informs Breaking News

The first half of 2011 has seen dramatic events -- some tragic, others encouraging -- take place across the globe. From revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia to an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, breaking news has been reported by individual citizens as well as professional journalists. And explaining the complex nuances of unfolding events has shown the power of civic media in informing local communities and the wider world.

In this session, we talked with two individuals who've been part of efforts to share perspectives from civic media with a global audience. Mohamed Nanabhay, head of New Media at the AlJazeera Network, helped unpack the North African revolutions using video from Facebook and other online sources. And Joi Ito, the new head of MIT's Media Lab, has worked with a group of civic reporters and citizen scientists in Japan to document the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The two discuss the emerging media environment, where professional and civic media interact to produce a richer and more inclusive picture of global events.



MIT Tech TV

Download Crowdsourcing Crisis (.mp4)


Civic Media Mobilization

Successful civic media tools -- especially ones designed by this conference's attendees -- re-engineer how mass-mobilization happens. But does that mean we should turn the page on old lessons?

Originally envisioned as a way to connect like-minded people across borders, civic media is proving just as powerful at mobilizing neighbors, in their towns, where they vote. So even for national issues, is all civic media really local? From the Wisconsin protests to presidential campaigns, civic media is playing a larger role in organizing communities and defining political arenas. This conversation between an organizer and activist explores how online activism differs from face-to-face.

Chris Faulkner, a member of the Tea Party, spends much of his time organizing online. Yesenia Sanchez, from P.A.S.O.-West Suburban Action Project 52, works street-level to drive community participation. Together with moderator Damian Thorman, the two discussed ways organizers can use online and offline strategies to their advantage and debate situations in which one is more effective than the other.



MIT Tech TV

Download Civic Media Mobilization (.mp4)


Mobile Storytelling in Real Time



MIT Tech TV

  • Andy Carvin, National Public Radio
  • Liz Henry, BlogHer
  • Dan Sinker, Columbia College Chicago, @mayoremanuel

Download Mobile Storytelling in Real Time (.mp4)


The Future of Civic Media



MIT Tech TV

  • Sasha Costanza-Chock, MIT Comparative Media Studies
  • Chris Csikszentmihályi, MIT Center for Civic Media
  • Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center/MIT Center for Civic Media

Download The Future of Civic Media (.mp4)

So after checking out these videos, what do you think? Should we should take the Civic Media Conference to the next level?

May 26 2011

13:44

Stroome Reels Filmmakers Into Online Collaborative Video Editing

While speaking in Tribeca a couple of months ago in front of a packed theater of New York independent fiction and documentary filmmakers, I introduced Stroome, a collaborative online video editing community, and was astonished to receive a standing ovation. One filmmaker explained to me that she had been sending clips back and forth with a collaborator in London, and having to take the time to re-edit a sequence to make slight changes or slowly upload finished segments was encumbering her entire filmmaking process. She, like many others in the room, envisioned how Stroome could vastly improve collaboration, and she greeted my demonstration with excitement.

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In fact, filmmakers are already working with Stroome to design useful implementations. Jason DaPonte (a longtime friend of Stroome) from The Swarm is currently in pre-production as the cross-platform producer for a new documentary about an Aboriginal storyteller named Francis Firebrace who has been living in the U.K. for the last 10 years and is soon returning to Australia to bring his stories back to his people. DaPonte plans to use Stroome as a core part of his cross-platform campaign to help engage users digitally with the ancient Aboriginal stories and the filmmaking.

I talked to him last weekend about why he's doing this and his thoughts on Stroome.

What made you think to use Stroome?

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DaPonte: One of the challenges we have with the film is to engage users with both the story of Francis' journey and the ancient Aboriginal stories he tells. The number and variety of Aboriginal stories Francis tells means that letting users explore them online is ideal, because they don't have to be wedged into the film's time limits.

When users engage with stories online, they do it at a variety of levels that begin with passively watching and absorbing. However, at the top of the ladder of engagement is creatively participating and collaborating with a story. I think that Stroome could be a great way of encouraging users to engage at a deep creative level and to let them work collaboratively with Francis (who's very engaged with the Internet for a 75-year-old!).

The stories have deep, transcultural meanings and significance, and I hope that we'll see some surprising output from people around the world as they interact with these traditional stories!

Francis Firebrace -- Teaser from Kevin Lee Brown on Vimeo.

How are you thinking of doing it?

DaPonte: We haven't got the entire campaign designed yet, but the hope is that we'll host a competition, judged by Francis, to find the best short videos of his tellings of a variety of Aboriginal stories that he has permission from his people to retell to the public. We want to put soundtracks of him telling the stories onto the platform, with additional material shot by the crew, and to let users mix and remix videos for the stories with this material and material they've generated themselves.

I'm hoping we can get users collaborating with each other and with Francis this way. It will mirror what happens in the real world when Francis brings his stories to the schools and prisons where he tells his stories and what will be happening at various events when he goes back to Oz.

What's the best-case scenario for the project?

DaPonte: I'd love it if there were an ongoing community of people from around the world engaging with the stories and building and working with them before, during and after showings of the film. One of the benefits of working with people online is that it isn't time-dependent like linear TV and film are, and we want people to be engaged with Francis beyond just when they watch the film.

It would also be great if work on Stroome helps Francis' versions of the stories spread across the web. Seeing users move their stories onto YouTube, Vimeo and social media like Facebook would be great -- it would build the reach and impact of the stories. We're going to do some of this ourselves too. I'm keen to try to put the stories onto Neighbourhub.org, a platform that helps you geo-locate stories on Google Earth.

The film is being directed by Kevin Lee Brown and co-produced by London Fields Pictures and Australian Documentaries.

May 25 2011

14:50

Can Seattle Save the World? Project Argo Event Takes on Global Health

Last month, about 700 people packed an auditorium in Seattle, not for a Microsoft developer's conference, but to discuss whether the city's burgeoning global health movement can eradicate disease and poverty across the globe. It was a live forum sponsored by public radio station KPLU and its Project Argo blog, Humanosphere. The event was provocatively named, "Can Seattle Save the World? (Poverty, Health and Chocolate)."

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It's exactly the kind of event we had in mind when we began working with NPR member stations last year on Argo. We'd been hoping that the offline and online worlds could collide in a way that would lead to serious discussion around weighty topics.

"The idea of community engagement is always something we'd hoped for in a variety of ways," said Jennifer Strachan, assistant general manager and director of public media at KPLU. "Our struggle was, what kind of a topic could draw a crowd around global health?"

For those of us who are evangelists of digital storytelling or espouse certain philosophies at conferences that usually start with, "The future of" in it, this is another way to measure that elusive "engagement" metric we all talk about. Certainly, we can't ignore critical web analytics -- uniques, pageviews, comments. But when you fill a large venue at $10 a head, you've tapped into something important.

Humanosphere blog

KPLU's Humanosphere is one of 12 NPR Project Argo blogs, whose mission is to develop deep content in a niche vertical that's critical to a local community but resonates nationally.

The Seattle-based site draws modest traffic numbers, punctuated with spikes when writing of global health/poverty issues more broadly in the news (see Greg Mortenson's "Three Cups of Tea" scandal).

But on this night, those who turned out to listen and ask questions acted as if they were going to see rock stars, Strachan said.

Tom Paulson, Humanosphere blogger and the evening's host, is most definitely an unlikely rock star. But he's been covering the growing movement in Seattle -- that goes far beyond the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- for years as a newspaper reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Paulson brought in experts from the Gates Foundation, the University of Washington, PATH and Theo Chocolates (hence the "and chocolate" in the title).

The event was live-blogged on Humanosphere, videotaped for Seattle's municipal cable TV channel, and tweeted via its own hashtag, #SEAsaves.

Engaging Young People

While Paulson said he's aware that influentials in the global health space like Humanosphere, he noted, "One thing that was confirmed for me is how big a deal this is for young people. A huge number of people in the crowd were college age or in their 20s. I was surprised at the sophistication of the questions, diversity of opinion, and the excitement for the subject matter."

So the question for Humanosphere is what practical effect the event will have on the blog itself going forward. The answer so far is that it has done little to increase traffic on the blog. Paulson admits the evening was long on policy and short on pitching the blog to this crowd, perhaps something he might do a bit more of next time. And yes, Paulson does expect there to be another live event in the fall.

But for KPLU, and its potential funders, the message on this night was there is an engaged community in Seattle willing to engage in a serious discussion about disease and poverty, and that public radio can be the impetus for that conversation.

As to whether Seattle can actually save the world, Paulson provided the answer to the gathering in the first five minutes. "We were kind of kidding around with the title. Obviously Seattle can't save the world. Bill Gates can't even probably save Zune."

May 19 2011

16:21

MIT Sessions Address Prison Blogging, Networked Revolt in Arab World

MIT's Center for Future Civic Media redoubled its public events efforts this past year, thanks to a push by its fellow Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman brings a unique perspective -- a civic one -- to media developments so often dominated by politics and business-model debates.

This approach couldn't be more evident than in the case of two recent Civic Media Sessions, videos of which you'll see below. Our sessions, spread throughout the semester, are conversations around civic media topics we're just now defining, including the coalescing of the field itself around information needs, geographic communities, and replicable, sustainable technical innovation.

"Design for Vulnerable Populations" was a session we held last month, and it addressed the fact that designers of new media -- web-based or otherwise -- seem to have in mind an idealized user, someone who's hungry for news, is digitally connected, and feels one technical solution shy of changing the world.

Sadly, that idealized user hardly exists outside of the New York Times' "Weekender" ad. In fact, civic media innovations, to be truly civic, have to work for the marginalized, poor, the ill -- even for the imprisoned. So "Design for Vulnerable Populations" was moderated by our center's own Charlie DeTar, creator of the prison blogging platform Between the Bars, and featured speakers critiquing how we bring environmental justice, health and sustainability into the design of cutting-edge media tools.

Design for Vulnerable Populations
MIT Tech TV

And then earlier this month, Zuckerman moderated "Civic Disobedience," with Clay Shirky, Zeynep Tufekci and Sami ben Gharbia. Zuckerman addressed a key set of questions: What accounts for the rise of networked revolt in the Arab world and elsewhere, and how is it succeeding in some places while failing in others?

Civic Disobedience
MIT Tech TV

We're awfully proud of the intelligence brought to bear on these often-overlooked but critical issues. So as this spring semester wraps up, be sure to sign up for our center's updates to hear what we're planning for the fall.

May 02 2011

15:55

Win a Newsroom Fellowship by Rethinking Video Storytelling

Recently, we've seen a huge change in video online. The advent of web native video makes it possible to mash up moving images with social media, tie clips to data from across the web or, more simply, create simple transcript-based interfaces for navigating long pieces of video. Yet, despite these capabilities, we've seen almost nothing in the way of new kinds of storytelling. Telling stories with video online today looks pretty much the same as it did when I used to shoot local TV news 20 years ago.

This is something we hope to change with the first Knight Mozilla news innovation challenge topic. We're inviting hacks and hackers from around the world to answer the question: How can new web video tools transform news storytelling? People with the best ideas will get to bring them to life with a full-year paid fellowship in a world-leading newsroom.

The Next 'Montage Moment'

What do I mean by transform storytelling? Just that: taking today's online video tools beyond the mechanical and obvious, bringing people, ideas and events to life in ways we haven't seen before. To get your imagination going, think back to how visual storytelling emerged in the world of cinema.

The Lumiere brothers made some of the world's first films: "Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory," "Arrival of a Train at the Station," etc. The Lumieres' fixed frame wasn't much to write home about in terms of story. But seeing moving photographs was hugely impressive to most people at the time. It was a technical wonder.


It took 25 years for Sergei Eisenstein to grab hold of this technical wonder and then say: Wow, I bet we could tell a more powerful story if we varied the shots a bit and then edited them together. With "The Battleship Potemkin," he invented the visual language we still use to tell stories today: montage.


The fundamental technology didn't change in those 25 years. The Lumieres knew how to splice film and move the camera around. Eisenstein's breakthrough was to use basic film technology to tell a story in a new and creative way -- which is very much like where we are at with web native video today: huge technological potential just waiting to be seized for creative storytelling. What we need now is a "montage moment" for the web era.

Open Video: A Huge Palette of Awesomeness

The potential of web native video truly is awesome: We can now link any frame within any video to any other part of the web. This was hard to do in the world of Flash video. The introduction of the HTML5 <video> tag over the last two years has made it easy.

Early experiments and demos hint at the potential of this new open video palette. With the recent State of the Union address, PBS used Mozilla's popcorn.js tools to synchronize its live blogging with the timecode of the president's speech:


The same tools have been used to show how transcripts can be used to search and then navigate immediately to anywhere within a long clip. This demo from Danish public radio shows how this can work with web native audio. The same thing could easily be done with video.


Of course, the big potential is in connecting video to the massive amount of media and data that already exist all across the web. Imagine if you could weave the sum of all human knowledge seamlessly into your news story or documentary. That's now possible. This book report demo shows the basics concept, with a student connecting her narration to Wikipedia articles and news reports.


Google and Arcade Fire took this idea a step further, pulling moving images from street view and Google Earth into a rock video. If you enter your ZIP code, your neighborhood becomes a character in the narrative in real time.


The Japanese-based Sour "Mirror" went even further, pulling you into the video. Enter your Facebook ID and turn on your camera, and then you become a character in the band's video -- again, in real time.


These demos make an important point: The line between what's in the frame and what's on the web is dissolving. Or, put nerdily, timecode and hypertext are fusing together. They are becoming one.

Are You the Next Eisenstein?

Despite all the niftyness, there is a problem: These demos do not yet tap the open video palette to tell stories in meaningfully new ways. Open video tools like Mozilla's Popcorn and Butter provide a starting point. But they need people with a creative flare for both web technology and storytelling to bring them to life. Which is exactly why Knight and Mozilla threw out "how can new web video tools transform news storytelling?" as our first MoJo challenge question.

We're hoping that you -- or someone you know -- is up to this challenge. If you think you are, you should enter the MoJo innovation challenge. All you need to do is draw up a napkin sketch showing how you might tell a story in a new way with open video, write a brief paragraph about it, and then submit it online. If your idea is solid, you've got a good chance at a fellowship where you could actually bring it to life at the Al Jazeera, BBC, the Guardian, Die Zeit or the Boston Globe. Who knows? Maybe you could be the Eisenstein of open video.

Find out more about Knight Mozilla News Innovation Partnership on the MoJo website. Or enter the MoJo news innovation challenge today.

April 25 2011

15:12

R.I.P. Flip Cam: The Smartphone Did It (Not Cisco)

Over the last three years, I've attended all three TEDx conferences on the idyllic campus of my old alma mater, the University of Southern California. And it's been my experience that TEDxUSC is where you go to be inspired, not have your dreams relegated to the heap bin of "what if..."

But for a brief, fleeting moment last Tuesday, I was certain that all the hard work done by myself and fellow Stroome co-founder, Nonny de la Pena, was about to go the way of...well, the Flip.

ripflip.jpgThere I was sitting in the audience along with my fellow 1,200 TEDxers patiently waiting for Krisztina Holly (affectionately known around the USC campus as 'Z') to announce the rules for a TEDxUSC-themed video scavenger hunt that would re-launch our newly designed site when all of a sudden a hundred cell phones (all muted of course -- TEDxers are "disruptors," but they're not disrespectful) suddenly came to life. The news was spreading like wildfire across the web: Cisco had discontinued the Flip!!!

Now, the fact that the popular, pocket-size camera had been shuttered probably wouldn't have prompted such a profound sense of panic except for the fact that I knew precisely what 'Z' was going to say next: "And now it's time to make something together. So pull out your smartphones, your digital cameras, your Flips..."

And there it was. I'm told 'Z' kept talking. I didn't hear another word she said.

Causing Trouble for Stroome

As the co-founder of Stroome, an online video editing platform built on collaborative content creation, creativity may be the fuel that fires the engine; but without a device that can get that content into a centralized place where people actually can do something with it, you're in trouble. For the last few years, the Flip had been that device. We were in trouble.

When the Flip was introduced in 2007, it had been hailed as "the easiest way to make and share videos." What once had required thousands of dollars to procure, and an instruction manual the size of a phone book to operate, had been reduced to a single, red "record" button on a small black box the size of a pack of cigarettes that fit perfectly in your front pocket.

Flips.jpg

And while the Flip wasn't the only game in town when Cisco acquired it in 2009, by all accounts it was a game changer. Overnight, it seemed the way we documented our lives changed forever. Birthday parties, dance recitals, high school graduations -- all could be captured on a moment's notice.

But the Flip didn't just give us an easy and accessible way to preserve the defining moments in our lives; it let us do it in dazzling HD! And the best part? All this could be ours for the low, low price of $129!

And now it was over. Like some didactic Middle Eastern dictator able to cut the people off at the knees at his capricious whim, Cisco had pulled the plug on the whole damn thing.

But as I sat there in the darkness, the last 18 months of my life playing themselves out in front of me, an incredible thing happened -- a hundred incredible things, actually.

Killed by the Smartphone

As I looked around Bovard Hall -- a hundred iPhones, Androids and Evos twinkling on and off like stars against a dark night -- I suddenly realized it wasn't Cisco that had killed the Flip. The smartphone had.

iPhone4.jpgNot 15 minutes earlier I, along with my fellow TEDxers, had watched slack-jawed as former USC film grad student, Michael Koerbel, showed us a film he had shot, edited and distributed entirely on the iPhone 4. And it was in that instant that I again began to feel inspired.

But my inspiration didn't come from the fact that a 4.5" × 2.31" piece of perfectly buffed black chrome and circuitry had effectively replaced an entire film crew. My inspiration came from the fact that in the end, shooting, editing and uploading a film on a phone -- as incredible a feat as it is -- isn't enough. You still need a place to watch your 4-minute masterpiece. And if you want to watch it with others, then work together to collaboratively create the next iteration of your idea, you need a place to do that. Right now, the only place on the web you can do that is Stroome.

March 31 2011

19:01

March 29 2011

18:00

How Project Argo Members Communicate Across Time Zones

Project Argo is an ambitious undertaking. It involves networking NPR with 12 member stations spanning three time zones with a different mix of bloggers and editors at each station. The stations cover a variety of regionally focused, nationally resonant topics that range from climate change to local music.

Communicating effectively within these parameters has required creativity and experimentation. And we're still learning.

I'll break down our various approaches -- what we've tried, what's working, and what we're still working on -- using the three tiers of communication: One-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.

One-to-one communication

These exchanges with the stations have offered some of the most intensive and valuable interactions of the project. When we started, much of our communication happened through the typical channels -- lengthy, one-on-one phone calls and emails to brainstorm, strategize, give feedback, and train.

Email has a tendency to be high friction. Messages can take a long time to compose and a long time to digest, and much is often lost on both ends of the process.

But of course email still has its advantages. It's asynchronous -- in other words, you can carry on a thread without needing to be on the same schedule. It's great for laying information out in precise detail, whether you're talking about metrics or line-editing posts. And it's invaluable for documenting your communication and finding it later.

For working remotely, there's nothing like a phone call or Skype session to have a good back-and-forth conversation. There are drawbacks here too, of course: Calls longer than 10 minutes need to be scheduled, and lots of good information can escape without being documented.

Lately, I've taken to augmenting phone conversations with a PiratePad to help with that last problem. Like Google Docs, PiratePad allows two or more people to see what one another are writing in real-time. The difference is that PiratePad shows your document-mate's typing character by character, rather than refreshing at regular intervals, so it's a little more immediate. This combo has been excellent.

As the project has evolved, most of our one-on-one contact has become pretty quick and spontaneous. Twitter has proven to be one of the best tools for communicating one-on-one. Since all the bloggers are on Twitter, a quick DM conversation often suffices to get across what we need to convey or inquire about.

Heather Goldstone, who blogs for WGBH at Climatide, said Twitter was her favorite tool for staying in touch. "Just in general, I've gotten really hooked on Twitter," she said. "It's more like texting instead of email. If the other person's around, it's got a faster turnaround time and more of a conversational feel than email."

Despite the surfeit of tools to choose from, however, the most valuable one-on-one interactions we can have are in person. For as much as we can do by email, over the phone, through Twitter and other means, nothing replaces being able to sit down face-to-face with our station colleagues, or being able to peer over their shoulders as they're working on their Argo sites. Of course, this is the most time- and resource-intensive way to communicate. But there's still nothing like it.

One-to-Many Communication

We occasionally need to broadcast messages to all the stations involved in the project. For that, we mainly use Basecamp, which gives us a good common archive of files and messages, and integrates pretty well with everyone's email. The biggest problem with Basecamp is that all replies to a message are sent to everyone who received the original message. This can create quite a cascade of emails when a lot of folks weigh in on a thread.

We regularly lead webinars for the Argo bloggers, and we've tried a variety of approaches to doing this. We started out setting these up through a common, organization-wide GoToMeeting account, but this required quite a bit of advance set-up and coordination, and one of the participants invariably had technical troubles. Plus, we've had difficulty recording the webinars. (GoToMeeting's recording technology only works on PCs; my teammates and I use Macs. Plus, the GoToMeeting software tends to conflict with screencasting tools we might use to record the desktop and audio.)

We've since moved to a lower-fidelity approach, using free tools. Join.Me to share desktops, and FreeConference.com for voice communication.

The voice controls in FreeConference.com's system are reasonably robust. Call organizers can mute everyone but the presenter, allowing call attendees to un-mute themselves selectively. For a small fee, FreeConference.com allows us to record the audio when we need to. Pair that audio up with video of the related slides, and you've got a webinar recording.

When our goal is capturing best practices all the stations can replicate, or documenting instructions on using various aspects of the Argo platform, we turn to our two public-facing communication channels: the Argo blog and the Argo documentation site.

Like everything else, these communication platforms pose their own disadvantages. It can be time-consuming to write up or record material for these sites. Also, the more material that's there, the harder it can be for the stations to find what they need when they have questions.

We created an FAQ on the documentation site to help the stations find answers to the most common questions. And the time invested in producing the documentation and material up-front often saves us time down the road when we can send a link to a post we've made in response to a question from one of the Argo-bloggers.

Many-to-Many Communication

We've consistently found that some of the most valuable communication around the project happens when folks at each station can talk with one another. Yet because of the geographical and topical dispersion of the stations, these can be the hardest interactions to foster. So we continue to seek ways to encourage this, using all of the tools mentioned in this piece.

Webinars offer a regular opportunity for folks at the stations to share lessons about a focused aspect of developing a niche site. Increasingly, we've sought to foster more open-ended conversations among the stations as well -- including regular story calls where a subset of the bloggers share what they're working on, spontaneous brainstorming calls, and check-in conference calls where we discuss how the project is going.

Right now, requests for technical help from bloggers at the stations tend to fall into one of three categories: bug reports (this should work, but doesn't), feature requests (I'd like to be able to do this on the site), and requests for advice (how can I accomplish this in a post?). It's impossible for the bloggers, who don't know the details of how the software works, to determine which is which.

So it would be helpful for us to route all these reports to a common channel, accessible by all, where users can chime in if they're having similar problems or have advice to share on how to accomplish something. To that end, we're working on creating a Stack-Overflow-esque board that would allow the bloggers to discuss issues and solicit advice as a group without the reply-all problems Basecamp poses.

On a few occasions, we've been able to bring the stations together for some of that invaluable person-to-person contact. As Tom Paulson, who blogs for KPLU at Humanosphere, pointed out, in-person communication builds on all the other methods of sharing ideas.

Generally Speaking

For a project as variegated as Argo, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to keeping in touch. The project has unfolded in phases -- hiring reporters, training reporters, building audience, and sustaining growth -- at various rates for each station, and each of those phases has required a different approach to communication.

What's served us best are flexibility and adaptation. Setting up a phone call over Twitter while we trade notes in a PiratePad. Using Basecamp to agree on a time for a webinar that mashes up FreeConference.com with Join.Me.

Although I've mentioned specific tools in this post, I don't think the hodgepodge of software and services we use is the most important takeaway. Instead, my strongest recommendation is this: Be attentive to your communication needs and how well your approaches are serving them, then adjust continuously.

Matt Thompson is an editorial product manager at Project Argo.

March 15 2011

16:46

How Dotspotting Began with Colored Dots on Drains in San Francisco

sewer-250.jpgIn some ways you could say that the Dotspotting project started with San Francisco's sewage and drain system. A few years ago I started noticing some strange dot markings on the curbs of city sidewalks, directly above the storm drains like the one you see on the left

But on closer inspection, it turned out they weren't just single dots. They seemed to be dots that had been applied, rubbed off a bit, and reapplied. Like Roman palimpsests, the curbs above drains looked like reusable canvasses -- but for dots, instead of edicts. The image below is one close-up example.

sewerclose-500.jpg

This is the kind of thing that infrastructure dorks like me obsess over for a while... and then inevitably move on to something else. (My fascination with the dots waned as I became intrigued by another piece of urban infrastructure, the cable car, which I've been using on my daily commute for about six months -- and mapping on Dotspotting).

Spotting the Dotter

A few years went by and one day I happened to see a man riding his bicycle down Hyde Street in the Tenderloin. His route and mine coincided in just the right way for me to see him stop at a storm drain, reach down and do something with a pole, make a note on a hand-held device, and slowly bike down to the next drain. Traffic being what it was on Hyde, I was able to catch up with him just in time to see him spraying different colored dots on the curb, over dots the ones that were already there! I was pretty excited.

After a quick conversation later, I discovered that he worked at San Francisco's Mosquito Abatement Team. This is the part of the Public Utilities Commission that checks likely standing water locations in the city and, if they find mosquitoes, deals with them. Of course, they track all of their work on GPS and so forth (stay tuned for some hopeful mappings of that data).

But in order to keep things simple -- and to make it possible to see how long its been since a drain was inspected -- the Abatement Team coordinates their efforts so that they always know whether this inspection period is green, white, pink, and so forth. If a drain's most recent dot is the right color, it's been inspected. If not, it hasn't. It's a simple and elegant solution to a potentially onerous problem.

I love that the simple process of making the same mark over and over again, but making it slightly differently, results in this rich data set that can be understood and read if you've got the information and tools to interpret it. (As a side note, I also love having conversations with people who spray markings on the sidewalk. You think you're bothering them with your questions but I've found they're actually pretty pleased to talk to you.)

Visualizing Water Systems

Like a lot of other things, the water system is a gnarly beast that gets more interesting the more you poke at it. There's a ton of information available on the San Francisco utility website, including the awesome map of its wastewater system below -- it even includes the city's version of the Continental Divide:

Wastewater_System_Overview - 500.jpg

Back to Dotspotting

All of this is a long lead-in to the fact that Herb Dang, who runs the Operations department at SFWater, was a surprise visitor to the CityTracking Conference we've just finished cleaning up from at Stamen HQ. His presence sparked just the kind of conversation I had hoped would happen at the conference: developers interested in digital civic infrastructure talking directly with the people who hold the data and use it every day.

We learned a couple interesting things from Herb.

First, that there's a giant concrete wall around the city on the Bay side that channels all of the wastewater runoff down to the Southeast Treatment Plant (not to be confused with the Oceanside Treatment Plant that was almost renamed the George W. Bush Sewage Plant. ("Besides," locals joked, "if we name the local sewage plant after Bush, then what's left to name after Jesse Helms?")

Second, that any request for data about the location, diameter, and any other information about a public drain pipe in the city has to go through a technical review as well as a legal review. So, in addition to needing to verify that the information is correct, the water department also needs to verify that it's a legit request. You don't want people hoovering up information about drains that they could potentially slip bombs into, for example.

Every single building in San Francisco has their own set of records for water and drainage and sewer connections, and getting information on each one of these generates its own review processes. What that means is that if a team like Stamen wants to make a map of the water infrastructure near our office, we'll need to write a separate subpoena, for each connection. For. Each. Connection.

Herb estimated that, within a stone's throw from the studio where the conference was held, there were about 40,000 sewer connections. "40,000 subpoenas" became a catch-phrase for the rest of the day.

How We're Implementing This Info

In any event, I'm still catching up with all of the interesting discussions that were had during the conference, but that's a pretty good representative sample. It's also a nice way to segue into the design work we've been doing on Dotspotting, which I'll be demoing briefly at South by Southwest this week.

There are a number of pretty substantial improvements, but what I'm most excited about at the moment are some big changes to the interface and overall visual look of the thing. Mapping 311 requests for Sewer Issues in District 10 used to look like the cropped image below.

dotspotting_old - 500.jpg

Now, with some swanktastic custom cartography that Geraldine and Aaron have been working on, and visual and interactive improvements that Sean and Shawn (I know, weird, right?) have been polishing and making right, it looks more like the shot below. We'll be pushing this work live some time before my SXSW presentation.

dotspotting_new - 500.jpg

So, onwards we go. Upload yer dots!

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