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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 15 2012

14:00

Massachusetts Courts Allow Citizen Journalists to Register to Live-Blog

The information office of the highest court in Massachusetts just launched a new online registration process for citizens and news organizations wishing to use cameras and other electronic equipment to cover court hearings throughout the state.

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The process is a lead-in for amended courtroom media rules that become effective next month. Key changes to Rule 1:19, the state's cameras-in-the-courtroom statute, include:

  • A redefining of the media to include citizen journalists "who are regularly engaged in the reporting and publishing of news or information about matters of public interest," and
  • Allowance, with permission of the judge, to use laptop computers, tablets, smartphones and other devices to cover the proceedings, including live-blogging.

Once a news media organization or individual has registered, the state will return a signed acknowledgment form which must be presented alongside photo ID to courthouse officials if electronic devices would be brought into a courthouse or courtroom.

Additionally, as is the current policy, the news media must request permission beforehand from the presiding judge to use a pool camera or electronic device in the courtroom during those proceedings.

The SJC's amended Rule 1:19 is effective on September 17, 2012.

Joe Spurr is a multimedia journalist and a web developer. Before coming to WBUR, he was the staff web developer for San Diego's NPR station, which he helped completely overhaul in 2009. He pioneered the station's adoption of Twitter and Google "My Maps" which culminated during the 2007 California wildfires, built layered, interactive maps to help track the drug-related murder surge in Tijuana, and produced in a roving, three-person skeleton crew from the DNC and RNC in 2008. Joe is a Boston native, a graduate of Northeastern University, and a former freelance reporter at The Boston Globe.

This post originally appeared on the OpenCourt blog.

July 30 2012

14:00

The Fundamental Problem With Political Cookies, Microtargeting

The MIT Technology Review recently posted an article titled, "Campaigns to Track Voters with 'Political Cookies." It freaks me out for a reason I'll get to below.

From Technology Review:

The technology involves matching a person's web identity with information gathered about that person offline, including his or her party registration, voting history, charitable donations, address, age, and even hobbies.

Companies selling political targeting services say "microtargeting" of campaign advertising will make it less expensive, more up to the minute, and possibly less intrusive. But critics say there's a downside to political ads that combine offline and online data. "These are not your mom and pop TV ads. These are ads increasingly designed for you--to tell you what you may want to hear," says Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

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Like most conscientious web users, I'm skeeved by the privacy issues of cookies, even as I tolerate them for their convenience.

But the real, immediate, permanent harm of political cookies, like Chester argues, is the other kind of privacy: the privacy it affords you to avoid public discussion, the (otherwise positive) right to be left alone.

Targeted ads bypass the public. They needn't be subject to civic debate. In fact, they foreclose the very possibility. With political cookies, civic debate about those messages can only happen within the subject's own head.

When MIT Center for Civic Media's own Matt Stempeck and Dan Schultz proposed projects like a recommended daily intake for the news, a credibility API, or automatic bullshit detectors, they're doing a great service but not necessarily a public service. Their work implicitly acknowledges -- and they're right -- that a political message is now predominantly a direct communications experience, from a campaign directly to an individual subject.

toward private politics

It's a private experience. Democracy without the demos. By definition and design, there's no public counterpoint to an ad targeted with cookies.

The earliest examples of American democracy took for granted that debate was public, happening among many individuals and associations of them. And a core logic, without which the rest fails, is that people are persuadable. Campaigns would love to persuade, but it's cheaper to reinforce. And reinforcement happens by aggregating individuals' click and spending data, with targeting taking into account predispositions, self-identification, and biases.

There's no need to persuade. No need, it feels, to be persuaded. No need to live outside our own private politics.

A version of this post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

Andrew Whitacre is Communications Director for the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, 2007 Knight News Challenge winner. A native of the nation's capital, Whitacre has written on communications policy issues, starting with work on satellite radio as a student at Wake Forest University.

April 20 2012

14:00

How Ushahidi Deals With Data Hugging Disorder

At Ushahidi, we have interacted with various organizations around the world, and the key thing we remember from reaching out to some NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in Kenya is that we faced a lot of resistance when we began in 2008, with organizations not willing to share data which was often in PDFs and not in machine-readable format.

This was especially problematic as we were crowdsourcing information about the events that happened that year in Kenya. Our partners in other countries have had similar challenges in gathering relevant and useful data that is locked away in cabinets, yet was paid for by taxpayers. The progress in the Gov 2.0 and open data space around the world has greatly encouraged our team and community.

When you've had to deal with data hugging disorder of NGOs, open data is a welcome antidote and opportunity. Our role at Ushahidi is to provide software to help collect data, and visualize the near real-time information that's relevant for citizens. The following are some thoughts from our team and what I had hoped to share at OGP in Brazil.

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Government Data is important

  • It is often comprehensive - It covers the entire country. For example, a national census covers an entire country, so it has a large sample, whereas other questionnaires have a smaller sample.
  • Verified - Government data is "clean" data; it has been verified -- for example, the number of schools in a particular region. Crowdsourcing projects done by government can be quite dependable. (Read this example of how Crowdmap was used by the Ministry of Agriculture in Afghanistan to collect commodity prices.)
  • Official - government data forms the basis of government decision making and policy. If you want to influence government policy and interventions, it needs to be based on official data.
  • Expensive - Government data because it is comprehensive and verified is expensive to collect -- this expense is covered by the taxpayer.

Platforms are important

Libraries were built before people could read. Libraries drove the demand for literacy. Therefore, it makes sense that data and data platforms exist before before citizens have become literate in data. As David Eaves wrote in the Open Knowledge Foundation blog:

It is worth remembering: We didn't build libraries for an already literate citizenry. We built libraries to help citizens become literate. Today we build open data portals not because we have a data or public policy literate citizenry, we build them so that citizens may become literate in data, visualization, coding and public policy.

Some countries like Kenya now have the data, and now open-source platforms available not just for Kenya but worldwide. What are we missing?

Platforms like Ushahidi are like fertile land, and having open data is like having good seeds. (Good data equals very good seeds.) But fertile land and seeds are not much without people and actions on that very land. We often speak about technology being 10 percent of what needs to go into a deployment project -- the rest is often partnership, hard work and, most of all, community. Ordinary citizens can be farmers of the land; we need to get ordinary citizens involved at the heart of open government for it to powerful.

Ushahidi's role

Accessible data: The ownership debate has been settled as we agree government data belongs to the citizens. However, ownership is useless without access. If you own a car that you do not have access to, that car is useless to you. In the same way, if our citizens own data they have no access to, it's useless to them. Ownership is exercised through access. Ushahidi makes data accessible -- our technology "meets you where you are." No new devices are needed to interact with the data.

Digestible data: Is Africa overpopulated? If Africa is overpopulated or risks overpopulation, what intervention should we employ? Some have suggested sterilization. However, the data shows us that the more education a woman has, the less babies she has. Isn't a better intervention increasing education opportunities for women? This intervention also has numerous additional advantages for a country -- more educated people are usually more economically productive.

Drive demand for relevant data: Governments are frustrated that the data they have released is not being used. Is this because data release is driven mainly by the supply side, not the demand side -- governments release what they want to release, not what is wanted? How do we identify data that will be useful to the grassroots? We can crowdsource demand for data. For example: The National Taxpayer Alliance in Kenya has shown that when communities demand and receive relevant data, they become more engaged and empowered. There are rural communities suing MPs for misusing constituency development funds. They knew the funds were misused because of the availability of relevant data.

Closing the feedback loop: The key to behavioral change lies in feedback loops. These are very powerful, as exemplified by the incredible success of platforms like Facebook, which are dashboards of our social lives and that of our networks. What if we had a dashboard of accountability and transparency for the government? How about a way to find out if the services funded and promised for the public were indeed delivered and the service level of said services? For example: The concept of Huduma in Kenya, showed an early prototype of what such a dashboard would look like. We are working on more ways of using the Ushahidi platform to provide for this specific use case. Partnership announcements will be made in due course about this.

All this, To what end? Efficiency and change

If we as citizens can point out what is broken, and if the governments can be responsive to the various problems there are, we can perhaps see a delta in corruption and service provision.

Our role at Ushahidi is making sure there's no lack of technology to address citizen's concerns. Citizens can also be empowered to assist each other if the data is provided in an open way.

Open Data leading to Open Government

It takes the following to bridge open data and open government:

  • Community building - Co-working spaces allow policy makers, developers and civic hackers to congregate, have conversations, and build together. Examples are places like the iHub in Kenya, Bongo Hive in Zambia, and Code For America meetups in San Fransisco, just to name a few.
  • Information gathering and sharing - Crowdsourcing plus traditional methods give not only static data but a near real-time view of what's going on on the ground.
  • Infrastructure sharing - Build capacity once, reuse many times -- e.g., Crowdmap.
  • Capacity building - If it works in Africa, it can work anywhere. Developing countries have a particularly timely opportunity of building an ecosystem that is responsive to citizens and can help to leapfrog by taking open data, adding real-time views, and most of all, acting upon that data to change the status quo.
  • Commitment from government - We can learn from Chicago (a city with a history of graft and fraud), where current CTO John Tolva and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel have been releasing high-value data sets, running hackathons, and putting up performance dashboards. The narrative of Chicago is changing to one of a startup haven! What if we could do that for cities with the goal of making smart cities truly smart from the ground up? At the very least, surfacing the real-time view of conditions on the ground, from traffic, energy, environment and other information that can be useful for urban planners and policy makers. Our city master plans need a dose of real-time information so we can build for our future and not for our past.
  • Always including local context and collaboration in the building, implementation and engagement with citizens.

Would love to hear from you about how Ushahidi can continue to partner with you, your organization or community to provide tools for processing data easily and, most importantly, collaboratively.

Daudi Were, programs director for Ushahidi, contributed to this post.

A longer version of this story can be found on Ushahidi's blog.

January 27 2012

21:30

The Front Line of the U.S. Censorship Battle Is Behind Bars

A longer version of this post first appeared on MIT's Center for Civic Media blog.

In our ongoing quest to trace the outline of the phrase "civic media," we began the Center for Civic Media's 2012 lunch series with Paul Wright, editor and co-founder of Prison Legal News, and executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, the non-profit umbrella which publishes PLN.

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PLN operates in a unique media environment, where the very act of distributing a magazine to their customers might first require winning a lawsuit. You see, their primary audience is made up of prisoners themselves. Prison Legal News is the longest-running publication put together with the help of people who are incarcerated, and since its first issue in 1990, it has become a critical resource for discussing issues facing these populations. It's an independent, monthly magazine that reviews and analyzes prisoner rights, court rulings, and news about prison issues. PLN focuses on state and federal U.S. prisons, as well as some international coverage. Paul himself has become a distinguished advocate on behalf of the U.S. population. Asked whether we could blog his talk, Paul responded, "Secrecy is the antithesis of publishing."

From Newsletter to National Publication

Prison Legal News started as a newsletter, in 1990, covering only Washington state's prisons. It was 10 pages and hand-typed for 75 subscribers. It launched into the publishing world with a $50 budget. The organization was completely volunteer-run until 1996. The first run of six issues ended up becoming a 22-year, 224-issue run (and still going). Some of their earliest subscribers are still with them -- a great sign for the publication's longevity, but a less great reflection of these subscribers' sentences.

PLN's perseverance has paid off: In 1990, there were 30 or 40 prisoners' rights news publications, but many have since ceased publishing. Prison Legal News has expanded its coverage as its subscriber base expanded. At one point, they realized they had more subscribers in California than in Washington, and that they had graduated to a national publication. Yet Paul considers himself one of the few people in print publishing these days who welcomes competition. He wishes there were other publications and institutions engaged in this work.

Prison Legal News is not light reading -- there's no horoscope, no advice column, just hard news and information. But that's what their customers want. An annual reader survey draws a 30-40% reader survey response, and the feedback is consistently asking for more useful information rather than lighter fare. There was a publication in the 1990s called "Prison Life," which covered prison life and the prison experience, and they were somehow surprised when they were unsuccessful, because prisoners would rather not read about this in their leisure time.

An expansion into book titles has focused on self-help and non-fiction reference books for prisoners, especially titles that aren't viable for traditional book publishers. Paul mentions books including "How to File a Lawsuit and Win," and books on hepatitis C (a dangerous health threat within the incarcerated population). There's great interest in books on health, including "Our Bodies, Ourselves," which Paul notes has been banned in some prison systems. They also provide "radical critiques of the criminal justice system", including edited volumes titled "The Celling of America," "Prison Nation" and
"Prison Profiteers." Paul notes that the books reach a different audience than the magazine, that there are people who prefer reading the long form of arguments.

Who Reads Prison News?

Prison Legal News is a niche publication. It's not trying to reach the whole incarcerated population of the U.S. It's targeting activists and lifers interested in improving prisons. Paul said they want to reach the activists, the 1% of people who make change. Men are 95% of the U.S. prison population, and make up a higher percentage of PLN's readership compared with women. Paul attributed this to the fact that women generally receive shorter sentences, and their subscribers tend to have long sentences ahead of them. Paul has found that it's the people who are in prison for a long period of time that make things happen. These are the lifers, the ones filing the lawsuits and organizing other prisoners. These are people who have accepted that prison is their life now, and who are working to do something to improve it.

There are around 7,000 subscribers to the print publication, but the reach is much broader. Reader surveys suggest that copies reach more than 10 prisoners each -- Paul estimates a readership of 80,000-90,000 readers. Additionally, the website gets around 100,000 visitors per month. The subscriber base includes judges, court officers, lawyers, journalists and academics, including Noam Chomsky, who Paul told us proudly was one of the first subscribers. All the big investment banks subscribe, Paul told us, because they follow news on the private prison industry. "I was happy when Lehman Brothers went under, but we lost a subscriber," he said. Lehman Brothers had been one of the biggest bankrollers of the private prison industry, so it was a happy day when they went down.

Publication Litigation

A big focus these days is making sure the target audience in prisons can actually receive the magazine. This requires extensive litigation. Prison Legal News has obtained consent decrees in nine states, ordering state prisons to deliver the magazine. PLN is currently litigating in New York and Florida to enable subscribers to receive their publication, both the magazine and the books they publish.

Almost every state's prison system has censored and banned the magazine at one point or another, Paul told us. The organization has won nine lawsuits, receiving consent decrees that order state prison systems to deliver the publications. The bans are generally pretextual. They're bans based on postal rates used to deliver magazines, or whether prisoners are allowed to pay for the magazine from their trust accounts. Sometimes there are arbitrary blocks on sending publications to prisoners in certain types of custody. In Washington, PLN discovered they needed to become an "approved vendor" and had a very difficult time figuring out "who's brother-in-law we had to work with" to gain "approved vendor" status, Paul said.

It's not just PLN getting banned. In one case, in South Carolina, the American Civil Liberties Union had to sue when a prison banned all books except the Bible. These pretextual excuses can get pretty absurd -- Paul is currently facing an argument that the staples used to bind the magazine might be used as dangerous weapons. While we think it's funny, these are the issues PLN is forced to litigate (marshal the resources to sue the government, and win). "Think of every magazine held together by staples, delivered by mail. TIME, Newsweek. We're the only publisher in America who routinely challenges this censorship," he said.

Many of these rules are designed to prevent prisoners from having material to read, far beyond PLN's magazine. It would help if other American publishers would join in the fight to ensure publications are able to reach prison populations. When an Indiana judge upheld a ban on gay publications "Out" and "The Advocate," Paul asked the publishers to file suit, because it would stand up better in court than a suit from a prisoner. But publishers aren't seeking the prison population. "They tell us that they're not part of our targeted advertising demographic," he said. For PLN, the core audience is prisoners, and there's no point in publishing if the core audience can't get it. In recognition of this, they realized that funding staff attorney positions was a priority.

I noted that some critics of PLN have argued that it's as much a litigation platform as it is a publication. Paul countered that "our initial goal was always just to publish the magazine. But we got to to the point where we're just consuming ever greater amounts of organizational resources just getting the magazine into prisons." Paul estimated that he can spend as much as 40% of his time focusing on being able to distribute the publication, rather than producing and editing it. "The editor should be worried about being (an) editor, not worrying about why one prison system or another is censoring content," he said. For there to be any litigation, the government has to illegally censor the magazine, then PLN has to sue, and then they have to win. "If you don't like the consequences, don't break the law," Paul said.

Isolation from Society

Restrictions on what can be sent in and out of prison harm PLN in another way: It makes it very hard to hear from the incarcerated. In some prisons, prisoners can no longer send or receive information beyond what fits on a postcard. Other layers of draconian restriction include rules that postcard communication has to be in ink, can't use a label, etc. These mechanisms tend to be arbitrary and are designed, Paul argued, to prevent prisoners from having communication to and from the outside world. His organization has challenged a couple of these successfully, with a couple more pending. Paul told us that they are trying to nip this trend in the bud before it gets entrenched.

"Part of the goal is to get prisoners information. But conversely, we want to hear from them," he said. The bulk of the magazine's content is provided by contributing writers, who are mostly prisoners, some of whom have been working with PLN for over a decade. In the hopes of ensuring widespread distribution of the information, PLN doesn't demand exclusive publishing rights -- and people are free to copy and disseminate the information.

This is an area of close overlap with one of the Center for Civic Media's projects, "Between the Bars." BTB is a blogging platform for prisoners that gets around the lack of Internet access by scanning and publishing letters to a blog, and then mailing comments back to the authors on postcards. In addition to helping the incarcerated publish to the web, it helps the rest of the U.S. population by ensuring that we are able to hear from these voices, who comprise 1% of our entire populace.

Prison News Online

The Internet has greatly improved the visibility of Prison Legal News. Paul told us he conducts 3-4 interviews a week about the publication and the issues it raises. He's fluent in Spanish and noted that there's a great deal of interest in these issues from programs in Colombia and Venezuela. One of his associate gives interviews in Russian media, which seems to have an endless appetite for stories about the U.S. prison system. Some have observed that the U.S. prison system must be pretty bad when the Russians enjoy making fun of it.

The online presence of the magazine has allowed PLN to build a publication library online, with more than 6,000 documents available in its Brief Bank. "We've got the biggest, and I would say, the best, repository of prison documents online," Paul said. As a result, PLN generally shows up in Google's first page for prison-related queries, except sometimes when the "Prison Break" program is on TV.

At the same time, few prisoners have access to the web from their cell. Six prison systems allowed web access in 1990, but by 2000, that number was zero. Paul noted that not one of the prisoners who took part in a program to learn to use computers receded.

Prisons can be a bit of a timeless place, said Paul, where the equipment you see is 50-60 years old. PLN's print publishing business still thrives here (advertising levels for the print magazine are actually going up), and web publishing is almost nonexistent. PLN hasn't figured out how to make money online, like other publishers. Its content performs poorly with online advertising. On the site, the news content is free, legal content is paid, and these fees cover basic staff time put into the site. Advertising and subscription income and book distribution bring in about the same amount. Payroll is the biggest expense. They get some foundation funding and donations, and when all of this revenue is cobbled together, it's enough to move forward.

Staying Human

The acts of reading and writing are core to helping prisoners maintain their humanity, especially when everything else in these punitive systems is working to degrade that humanity. A publication like PLN lets prisoners connect with others, when the rest of the system is designed to isolate and alienate.

Paul is wary of the dehumanization that takes place before genocides and in prisons. We lose sight of the people in prison. We need to keep in mind that they're someone's father, someone's son, regardless of what they've done. When someone's been murdered in a prison, it's almost always that person's mother who calls PLN.

Paul closed his presentation by noting that he's now 264 issues into this project, and that since 1990, "everything to do with the criminal justice system, by objective or subjective standard, has gotten worse."

This post was written with Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT. For more information about PLN, see their Frequently Asked Questions and get in touch.

October 06 2011

12:20

How Mobile Phones Could Bring Public Services to People in Developing Countries

In Santiago, Chile, more than 60 percent of the poorest citizens don't have access to the Internet. In the rest of the country, that number increases to 80 percent, and in rural areas, an Internet connection is almost nonexistent. But there are more than 20 million mobile phones in the nation, according to the latest survey by the Undersecretary of Telecommunications. (That's actually around 1.15 cell phones per capita in a nation of 17,094,270 people.) And in rural areas, cell phones are king.

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As Knight News Challenge winners FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and NextDrop have shown, mobile communications are crucial for citizens living in rural areas, where being able to reach other people and access relevant news and public services information make a huge improvement in people's lives. Plus, cell phones are tools that most already have.

THE PITCH

What if, apart from efforts to widen connectivity in isolated areas and government programs to provide computers for schools in rural areas (which has been a very good, but slow, undertaking, and not an attractive business for telecom companies), governments of underdeveloped countries create and provide easy ways to access public information and services on mobile phones with an application or open-source web app that could be downloaded from government websites (in Chile it's Gob.cl)? Or cellular service providers could pre-install an app or direct access to a web app on every smartphone or other devices?

This could mean a great deal for people, particularly in rural and impoverished areas where the biggest news is not what's happening in Congress or the presidential palace, but what is happening to you and your community (something Facebook understood very well in its latest change that challenges the notion of what is newsworthy -- but that's a topic for a separate post).

People could do things like schedule a doctor's appointment or receive notice that a doctor won't be available; find out about grants to improve water conditions in their sector; receive direct information about training programs for growing organic food and the market prices for products they might sell; find out how their kids are doing in a school they attend in the city or if the rural bus system will go this week to the nearest town or not. These are just a few very straightforward examples of useful public services information that could be available on people's phones. Such availability of information could save time and money for those who lack both things.

I know it because I saw it as a boy growing up in a small town -- and as the son of a farmer who still hasn't gotten around to the idea of using a computer, despite having the chance to use one. But because my father owns a mobile phone, he's become an expert user of SMS and applications that allow him to check weather conditions.

WHAT'S IN IT FOR THE TELECOM COMPANIES

At the same time, telecom companies could support this initiative by providing mobile Internet connection packages and a free SMS service for rural areas by which citizens could specify their information searches or requests (a kind of help desk). Why would they do it for free? Because with each free transaction, there might be another one that has nothing to do with the government or public services information, which may produce additional income. It might also improve the companies' public image.

Another way of getting support from these companies consists of giving them a
tax reduction for providing the service and automatic updates of information. Thus, rural citizens living in small towns and cities would be able to access the data they need (pension reforms, hospital appointments, housing benefits, food grants, etc).

IN SIMPLE WORDS

To do what we're talking about, we need clean and intuitive interfaces with super-simple steps and strong government websites or apps that learn from the end users' needs, systematizing:

  • Databases containing questions and answers made by ministries and government staff.
  • Services citizens can access in order to ask for all kinds of information: subsidies, hours of service, etc.
  • Simple and complex procedures, so that answers can be delivered accurately and in the shortest amount of time.

This reduces the margin of error, maximizes human resources -- decreasing the man-hours needed for searching for requested information -- allows specific departments to detect questions which are more usual, and meets the needs of users and citizens.

However, in order to make citizens understand the information, it has to be written in a simple way, with no illegible technical or legal terms. For such a purpose, there are citizen language manuals that standardize response criteria issued by the state. (A good example of this in Spanish is the Mexican Lenguaje Ciudadano government guide.)

This is a small civic proposal to start a wider conversation and brainstorming and discover projects and ideas that may already be addressing this issue. Please feel free to post your tips and thoughts in the comments section.

Image of Santiago, Chile by Flickr user Cleanie.

July 19 2011

15:28

OpenCourt's Balancing Act: Redacting Sensitive Info vs. First Amendment

OpenCourt, our Knight Foundation-funded project devised to help make courts more transparent, is facing a legal challenge soon to be heard by a judge in the highest court in Massachusetts.

The central issue at stake is a First Amendment question of whether the court can order a news organization to redact material that has been presented to the public in an open courtroom.

court.jpg

On July 8, WBUR, a public radio station, filed a response memo as well as a supplemental affidavit of our executive producer to the state's Supreme Judicial Court.

The documents are the latest in a lengthy legal exchange between the Norfolk County District Attorney's office and Quincy District Court judges over the redaction from the public record of the name of an underage alleged victim of sexual abuse which was accidentally blurted during a suspect's dangerousness hearing two months ago.

Two-Day Delay

OpenCourt publicly live-streams daily video of the court's First Session proceedings and posts the footage after an interim of two days. This delay is to allow reasonable room for redaction requests and to edit video in extraordinary circumstances, according to WBUR's journalistic standards and as outlined in OpenCourt's initial archiving guidelines.

We have not posted the May 27 archive episode at issue, pending the upcoming appeal hearing on Aug. 4 before a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, namely Justice Margot Botsford.

As mentioned in our filings, we would have removed from footage the name of the underage alleged victim and any information in court that would identify her, regardless of a court order. Such an order, however, represents a challenge to basic First Amendment press rights, specifically relating to issues of prior restraint. We are obligated as a press entity to clarify that our actions are voluntary and not mandated by the state.

Perhaps the most famous prior restraint case was the New York Times publishing of the Pentagon Papers in 1971. The leaked secret Department of Defense study extensively documented the U.S. government's Vietnam War history. The federal government sought to suppress the information in the documents. However, the Times' argument triumphed when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the press had a First Amendment right to publish information important to citizens' understanding of its government's policies.

Preventing Harm

In another case more relevant to ours, our lawyers write that in Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart in 1979:

The U.S. Supreme Court reasoned a prior restraint was not appropriate because there were no express findings that harm would occur upon publication. Moreover, there was no demonstrative evidence that other measures would be unable to prevent those harms ... as Mr. Davidow's affidavit sets forth, OpenCourt has taken other measures to prevent exactly the harm that concerns the Commonwealth.

We have every intention of protecting the latter, and over months have constructed guidelines with our Advisory Board, the public, and an open "working group" at the court. The guidelines are a living document.

The outcome of this case will set important guidance for the future operation of this project and others like it. More importantly, it could also significantly shape the legal lens through which the First Amendment is viewed when it comes to emerging technology in general, and specifically towards live Internet video-streaming.

Photo by of gavel by bloomsberries via Flickr.

June 30 2011

15:29

At MIT Knight Confab, Public Activism Looms Large

The smell of public activism wafted across this year's Knight Civic Media conference at MIT.

Mohammed Nanabhay from Al Jazeera English (AJE) spoke about how Al Jazeera covered the Egyptian revolution. Political consultant Chris Faulkner spoke about Tea Party activism; Yesenia Sanchez, an organizer for the P.A.S.O./Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, talked about the "Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic" campaign; NPR's Andy Carvin spoke about curating and verifying tweets from Egypt, Libya, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab Spring; and Baratunde Thurston, digital director of The Onion, gave a tremendous riff about his own -- and his mother's -- activism.

zuckerman.jpg

If discussions were not actually about Tahrir Square, Tunisia or the Gay Girl in Damascus, they were infused by the same spirit.

Given this activist spirit, it was highly fitting that, at the start of the conference last week, Chris Csikszentmihalyi announced that Ethan Zuckerman would be succeeding him as director of MIT's Center for Civic Media (where the conference was held). Zuckerman has been a central figure nurturing, filtering and aggregating civic media over the last decade at Harvard's Berkman Center and particularly through Global Voices Online that he set up with Rebecca McKinnon in 2005.

Civic media is hard to define, Zuckerman told the audience. It combines at least three elements:

  • Organizing in a virtual and physical space simultaneously
  • Self-documentation using participatory media
  • Use of broadcast media as an amplifier

Digital Tools for Civic Purposes

In Tunisia, for example, people recorded themselves protesting and then published their recordings on Facebook. In Egypt, Facebook helped people organize political meetings and support groups. Zuckerman referred to other examples across the world where people were using digital tools for civic purposes. In Russia, people have been tracking wildfires using Ushahidi at Russian-Fires.ru. (Ushahidi is a Knight News Challenge winner.) In the United States, at LandmanReportcard.com, farmers and landowners have been keeping records of visits from "Landmen," negotiators for oil and gas companies, to expose disinformation and make sure they get a fair deal.

In Egypt, the public and the media learned from one another, AJE's Nanabhay told the conference attendees. People recorded themselves protesting and published it online. Al Jazeera amplified those recordings. As a consequence, people recorded themselves more. It was a self-perpetuating cycle of public media that grew and grew.

People are now all too conscious of the power of self-produced media, Nanabhay said. In the past, people committed dramatic "spectacles of dissent" in the belief that this was the only way of grabbing the attention of mainstream media. Now they stand with "a rock in one hand and a cell phone in the other," recording, publishing and promoting themselves and their causes, he said.

In the United States, the grown-up children of illegal immigrants have been taking videos of themselves "coming out" as having no documentation. The more people who take videos of themselves and publish them on the Net, the more empowered they feel, and the more others join them. See, for example, this YouTube video of an Undocumented, Unafraid and Unapologetic rally in March.

NPR's Carvin spoke about how many of his connections and sources in Syria, who had started tweeting anonymously, were now using their real names and pictures. They had crossed a line, they said, and there was no going back. If they were to die, then they wanted others to know who they were.

The conference captured the flavor of how people are now using digital tools to empower themselves and give volume to their dissent -- though this is by no means all about public anger and protest. Cronicas de Heroes Juarez, a project that came out of the Center for Future Civic Media, gathers and projects good news stories from the town of Juarez, Mexico. It was set up to balance the many bad news stories coming from the town that were creating an impression of a place in hopeless decline.

Public empowerment

A number of this year's Knight News Challenge prizes reflected this feeling of public empowerment, of people taking control of their own representation and information.

The biggest prize winner was The Public Laboratory, a project that initially appeared less digital and more paper, scissors, stone. The project uses string, balloons, kites and cameras to take aerial photographs of landscapes. These photographs are then threaded together digitally to provide detailed information about land use, pollution, and the progress of environmental initiatives. The project found its calling after the Gulf oil spill when satellite photographs simply were not detailed enough to see the spread of oil or its impact on the environment.

Zeega, another of this year's big winners, will help people video their own stories and edit them together on its open-source HTML5 platform. NextDrop gets even more practical still. It will provide a service that will tell communities on the ground in Hubli, Karnataka, India when water is available. The Tiziano project emerged from work done in Kurdistan and is intended to give communities the equipment, tools and training to illustrate their own lives.

These projects are highly pragmatic, focused on the public, not media professionals, and apply existing technologies to real-world problems. They don't start with the technology and then figure out what you might do with it.

In this world, in which the public organizes and records themselves, the role of the news media changes. Mainstream media shifts from recording media content itself to gathering existing material, verifying it, contextualizing it, and amplifying it. Other Knight News prizes recognized and were directed at this shift: iWitness and SwiftRiver, and -- for data -- Overview and Panda.

The Knight News Challenge has evolved a lot since its inauguration in 2006. But its strength lies in the consistency of its aims, and in the growing relevance of those aims: helping to inform and engage communities. Long may it continue.

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.

April 01 2011

16:59

Map Mashup Shows Broadband Speeds for Schools in U.S.

The Department of Education (DOE) recently launched Maps.ed.gov/Broadband an interactive map that shows schools and their proximity to broadband Internet access speeds across the country. This is an important story for DOE, an agency that has a stated goal that all students and teachers have access to a sufficient infrastructure for learning -- which nowadays includes a fast Internet connection. The map is based on open data released last month by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As you can see below, the result is a custom map that shows a unique story -- how schools' Internet access compares across the country.

In addition to being an example of an open data mashup, this map also serves as an example of what can be built with emerging open-source mapping tools. We worked with DOE to process and merge the two data sets, and then generated the new map tiles using Mapnik, an open-source toolkit for rendering map tiles. Then we created the custom overlay of schools and universities using TileMill, our open-source map design studio. Finally, a TileMill layer was added on top of the broadband data.

The Feds' Open-Source Leadership

It is great to see both the DOE and FCC able to leverage open data to make smarter policy decisions. Karen Cator, the director of the office of educational technology at DOE has an awesome blog post about why this mashup matters:

"The Department of Education's National Education Technology Plan sets a goal that all students and teachers will have access to a comprehensive infrastructure for learning, when and where they need it," Cator writes. "Broadband access is a critical part of that infrastructure. This map shows the best data to date and efforts will continue to gather better data and continually refresh the maps."

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!

March 10 2011

14:00

Why We Won't Live-Stream Restraining Order Hearings

One of the first questions people ask when I tell them about our project, Order in the Court 2.0, to live-stream court proceedings is, "Is there a way to turn the camera off?" They must imagine a camera bolted to the wall, gobbling up images of domestic violence victims and child sex offenders with no regard to how it affects justice being served.

But I have the opposite fear too -- that the judges in those courtrooms will become so skittish that they'll keep turning the camera off and we'll lose the ideal of openness that is the purpose of our project and a cornerstone of that little thing we call democracy.

So this question of when to keep the camera on and when to turn it off is a complicated one that involves balancing transparency with privacy. It has provoked more controversy than any other question that we've posed.

Knowing that we had a range of viewpoints from "show everything" to "protect the privacy of victims," we asked the Cyberlaw Clinic out of Harvard Law School to put together a preliminary checklist of reasons that the camera could potentially be turned off and took the list to meetings with both local and high-level stakeholders to get their input.

We want to work towards a list of loose guidelines that could guide the judges and clerks, while causing the least amount of interference with the court's business.

First, a little bit about our setup. There will always be a producer present when the camera is on, but it will be the judge and the clerk who actually turn it on and off.

Down in Quincy

We met with the local group in Quincy District Court first. We first ruled out certain proceedings from live-streaming: any cases involving minors or the victims of sexual abuse or assault; and any part of the voir dire or jury empanelment hearings. We also won't be showing the faces of jurors.

Participants brought up the statues that protect the privacy of criminal records and mental health records and we debated how to deal with those cases.

Then came the cases that are up to the judge's discretion. First Justice Mark Coven reiterated that all proceedings were free to be live-streamed but that he would be willing to consider turning off the camera on a case-by-case basis. If a lawyer or advocate has good reason to object to a proceeding being filmed, he or she may file a motion. Judge Coven has said he doesn't want to scare women off from applying for a restraining order.

People at the meeting brought up cases that they could imagine objecting to. These cases tended to fall into three major categories: the protection of victims, of witnesses and of defendants. For example:

  • A woman filing for a restraining order who won't go forward with it if she has to appear before the camera.
  • A spouse or parent committing a family member for substance abuse who doesn't want the community to know about their family problem.
  • An inflammatory sexual assault allegation that the defense has reason to believe is fabricated.
  • An identification case.

The defense lawyers and the representative of DOVE, the domestic violence advocacy group, were satisfied with the result, saying that we can't fully know how people will react to the camera until the project really begins.

Meanwhile, back up in Boston

When we put the same issues before our advisory board, they came up with the opposite answer to the question about restraining order hearings.

We recruited for our advisory board the same constellation of diverse viewpoints as we did with the local group, with the idea that they could offer us a kaleidoscopic view of the court. When we debated whether or not to show the restraining orders, we saw their full range of opinions.

We presented one of the arguments for showing the restraining order proceedings that had come out of our local meetings: the idea that a domestic violence victim watching at home might see the process and understand that she (or he) could come down to the court to apply for one themselves.

The representative of the Massachusetts Bar Association disagreed with this, saying that there are better ways to educate the public and that showing the proceedings could both expose the victim to more physical danger and public humiliation as well as permanently damage the reputation of those who have restraining orders filed against them that are eventually denied.

The head of the D.A.'s Victim Witness Services department concurred, saying that this project "can't afford a body."

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Robert Cordy also agreed, saying that family issues are too sensitive and too fraught with peril to live-stream, at least at the beginning stages of our project.

The only objection came from a Boston University law professor and former ACLU counsel who said that if reporters are allowed into the courtroom, then our cameras should be too. (He also made the disclaimer that as an academic he doesn't really have a dog in the race.)

Justice Cordy said that in theory that's how we would like to operate but in reality there are perils of opening the court through technology. He said he didn't want this issue to trip up the project right at the beginning and that we should revisit the issue later.

These comments drove home to us the seriousness of our project and the impact it might have on people's lives. We want to proceed carefully.

Back in Quincy, Judge Coven disagreed with the advisory board's decision, saying that he believed live-streaming the proceedings would show what a big problem domestic violence is in Quincy, but that he would abide by the decision. He plans to move sensitive cases to other courtrooms rather than turning on and off the camera.

With all of this input, we'll be finalizing the checklist of guidelines soon.

March 04 2011

15:43

Councilpedia a Hit with New Yorkers, But Not Politicians

It's been a month since Gotham Gazette launched its Councilpedia project to monitor city elected officials and track money in local politics. (To read our earlier entry on Councilpedia, go here.)

In those weeks, we've learned a lot about what people like and don't like about the service. This information will help us improve what we think is an important tool for New Yorkers and an example other local news sites might want to follow.

Popular with People, not Politicians

councilpedia grab small.jpg

First, by and large, people like it. Even though most of the information -- but not all of it -- was already scattered about on Gotham Gazette and other sites, readers appreciate having all that data in one place. As someone who, like most editors, usually only hears from readers when they have complaints, I enjoyed getting emails with comments like "love it," "great new tool," "great addition to an already fine website," and so on.

We also received favorable coverage from a number of local news organizations. The New York Daily News ran a story about Councilpedia as did the local cable news channel and some political blogs. The New York Post even used it to call out a councilmember who seems not to have done much work during the last year.

Some of the city officials did not share that enthusiasm. In particular, they did not like the focus on campaign contributions. Our information on this is not original -- we took it from the city's Campaign Finance Board, which keeps track of such things and makes them public on its own. It's a very useful site. We did, though, sort all that information in an attempt to make it more user friendly and informative. So with Councilpedia, readers can, with two clicks, find out which unions gave money to Councilmember X and which lawyers helped Councilmember Y.

What some council members really, really do not like, apparently, is that we identify contributions from the real estate industry. Real estate -- developers, brokers, construction -- are probably the most important special interest in NYC politics. Many New York politicians rely on their support. They just hope people won't notice. Councilpedia makes it a bit harder to keep that secret.

There's a lesson in there somewhere.

What We've Learned

Some of the lessons are already clear to us. One is that, while people visit the site and explore it, they have been slow to post comments. Getting the public to share information and having a discussion about money and politics are key to Councilpedia, so we will try to ramp that up.

In the next week or so, we plan to add a tutorial explaining more fully how to foster user interactions. We also hope to offer some short information sessions on Councilpedia and how to use it. And we expect that fresh information on the site -- the list of earmarks for the next fiscal year, for example -- will spur more people to get involved.

We're eager for other suggestions and would appreciate hearing from anyone who has done crowdsourcing and had a good response.

The second lesson: People would like to see more of this. They wonder why we did not include the mayor (Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire, so he doesn't take campaign contributions). Other readers wanted to see the information on state legislators, judges, and possible mayoral candidates.

More Money, More Monitoring

So would we. The problem, alas, is resources.

Councilpedia has something like 31,000 pages. While some of the data was copied or downloaded, much of it required formatting and tweaking by our technical manager JaVon Rice. And every single campaign contribution to all of the 53 officials in Councilpedia had to be hand-coded by sector and location. This required a large number of interns and freelancers working under the supervision of our city government editor, Courtney Gross. Even with a generous grant from the Knight Foundation, this stretched our resources to the limit and probably beyond.

New York's state legislature, which has been termed one of the most dysfunctional in the country and is awash is questionable campaign finance shenanigans, represent a tempting target for this type of project. Now if only we had a million dollars to do it...

February 23 2011

19:55

3 Ways to Expand the News Ecosystem

Spot.Us founder David Cohn has convened a virtual carnival: he's posing monthly questions that he'd like to see journalists take a stab at answering. The latest: how do we diversify the news ecosystem? He put it differently -- "Considering your unique circumstances, what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?" -- but I'm pretty sure the end goal is a greater diversity of information and expanded news ecosystem.

What can I do, personally? I can use my technical skills to make document-based investigative reporting a little easier and a little more transparent. But "you knew I was going to say that (because of the work I do for DocumentCloud.

1. Push for More Public Data

And every journalist and citizen can push for increased access to public information. That would, for example, making it possible for more New Yorkers to cover New York City. It doesn't take much to publish public data reliably, it just takes some political will.

2. Increase Collaboration

Another thing we can do is increase story collaboration. No one newsroom can ever reveal the complete picture. The full story become clear when many reporters come at an issue, each from their own unique perspective. If some of those reporters have gone to journalism school and have been mentored by a prize winning journalist and others are just calling it like they see it without even the benefit of a copy editor, more power to us all. (And if you imagine that the former never get a story outrageously wrong or that the latter are never downright spot-on, you haven't been paying attention.)

One reporter, working alone to cover the statehouse, is never going to get as much done as 10 reporters, each actively trying to sniff out a corruption case that hasn't already been discovered.

In the process, though, some journalists have developed a nasty habit of pretending they've got a scoop when, in fact, they're re-telling a story first uncovered by a neighborhood blog. One of my favorite hyper-local bloggers, who regularly reports on her precinct community meetings and other things nearly no other news outlet has the resources to cover, also keeps an unfortunate running tally of stories of hers that were picked up by the press without so much as a nod.

3. Share the Credit

Which brings me to my final point: Share the credit. It really is okay for journalists to look for local leads in neighborhood blogs. But when a reporter finds one, she should be sure to find a way to weave a tip-o-the-hat into her narration of the story.

Don't pretend you work in a vacuum. Giving credit is common courtesy. And it leaves your friendly local bloggers free to be incensed by horrendous construction gaffes and intransigent municipal bureaucracies instead of ticked off at you.

Journalists should strive to share their reporting and pool their technical skills and give one another the courtesy of due credit. Those simple steps would go a long way toward increasing the size, scope, and vitality of the news ecosystem.

February 16 2011

17:24

7 Lessons From the Egyptian Revolution

Whilst I am no expert in Egyptian history or politics, I have found the role of digital technologies in Egypt's revolution fascinating. This blog serves as a summary of some of my observations surrounding the 18 days of protest, which successfully ended President Hosni Mubarak's nearly 30 years of rule.

1. People at the heart.

Whilst information and communication technology (ICT) provided critical channels to mobilize and magnify the revolution, it was the motivated, driven activists, such as the leaders of the April 6 Movement who effectively and deliberately used these tools to organize the protests. Millions of brave, determined demonstrators took action and met on the streets. Thus, it was the Egyptian people -- not the tools they used -- who need to be given credit for successfully demanding political change.

2. Kick-started by social media.

Wael_ghonim.jpg

Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing manager administered the We are all Khaled Said Facebook page that -- amongst others such as the January 25 Facebook page -- were the initial tools that enabled and enhanced the January 25 demonstration. Soon Twitter followed Facebook, with the #Jan25 hashtag spreading virally online.

As Ghonim told the AP: "This revolution started online. This revolution started on Facebook...This is the revolution of the youth, of the Internet and now the revolution of all Egyptians."

3. A combination of tactics.

The organizing capacity of social media was the impetus for the revolution and it continued to play a pivotal role throughout, recording events in real time for all with Internet access to see. However, other combined and coordinated tactics were used, including demonstration invitations delivered face-to-face and via email and SMS.

Hotline numbers, such as those of Front to Defend Egypt Protesters, were used to receive citizen reports. Blogs and photos were posted online, bambuser.com was used for live video streaming, Google created the Crisis Response page for Egypt and videos were posted on YouTube, Storyful, and CitizenTube.

Here's one such video highlighted on YouTube's CitizenTube page:

Arab satellite television, such as Al Jazeera, was also a particularly powerful force for intensifying participation both locally and internationally. For instance, Wael Ghonim was interviewed on television, after he was imprisoned for 12 days by the secret police. He wept for the 300 Egyptians killed and it is widely believed that this emotional moment turned up the movement's heat and led to a large swell in the number of protesters in Tahrir Square the day following his interview. It was broadcast on television, uploaded on YouTube, subtitled, and then circulated widely on Facebook and Twitter.

Even when the government disrupted and blocked Internet and mobile phone communication, activists were inspired to be even more resourceful in their use of cross-platform strategies. Researcher, Alix Dunn gives examples of these hybrid techniques and how they spread: satellite news broadcast of tweets, transmission from satellite television to radio, and leaflet distribution by people on the ground.

The impact of this coordination is proof that the Egyptian revolution was both a people's movement and a tech-centric uprising.

4. Censorship led to further innovation.

During government disruptions of Internet/mobile communications, citizens and journalists continued to use social media via third party applications like Hootsuite and TweetDeck and they transmitted videos via satellite devices.

Full Internet/mobile censorship by the government led to further communication innovation, with Speak2Tweet being developed by Twitter/Google, so that Egyptians could send news without being online. Egyptians could call in to advertised numbers to leave voice messages, which were then tweeted via the #Egypt hashtag, with a link to the audio message. Small World News subsequently organized translation of the Arabic messages into English.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo warned autocrats that censorship doesn't prevent protesters from using Twitter completely, "you're just challenging them to find another way to use it. People will always find a way to communicate."

5. The importance of external allies.

Twitter and Al Jazeera English service were key avenues for Egyptians to communicate with the rest of the world, including with international NGOs, bloggers, and media. Once the world is paying attention and in solidarity with the uprising, citizen protests become more difficult for dictators to ignore.

6. Corporations should be held more accountable.

According to Pyramid Research, the government used Vodafone Egypt, in which it has a 36 percent ownership stake, to send pro-government SMS messages to the Egyptian citizens. According to sources on the ground, Mobinil was used for this purpose as well. Later Vodafone, other mobile operators and the country's major Internet service providers, were forced to suspend their networks by the government.

Telecommunications providers and ISPs, which have physical assets, usually need a country license to operate. Thus, they are more susceptible to government pressure than corporations like Facebook and Google, which do not have to build infrastructure in a country to be accessed by its citizens. Yet despite pressure from repressive regimes, surely corporations like Vodafone have some responsibility to citizens and should be held accountable for their actions in Egypt and elswhere?

7. A question of access.

Egypt is blessed with a relatively solid ICT infrastructure. According to Pyramid Research, there are three mobile operators, providing nationwide coverage and 3G services, with cellular penetration having reaching 78 percent of the population by the end of 2010. According to 2009 data 21 percent of Egyptians are online and 5.1 million are on Facebook.

In African countries, where access to ICT is considerably less, building up this type of political momentum may be more difficult.

Conclusion and next steps

ICT and particularly social media definitely lubricated and sped up the revolt in Egypt and, as Ethan Zuckerman states, it will be interesting to see how these tools will be used to help form a new democratic government in Egypt.

When Wael Ghonim was asked what's next in revolutions in the Arab world, he told CNN: "Ask Facebook."

Similarly, global citizens from countries with repressive regimes have heard the tweets and the news from Egypt and are in some way emboldened and inspired.

February 15 2011

15:48

Will the Next Revolution be Stroomed?

When you think of the recent unrest in the Middle East, social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube immediately come to mind.

Yet in an era where the revolution no longer need be televised -- now it's tweeted -- wouldn't a collaborative online video editing platform that allows producers, correspondents and reporters to create news reports in real time be a welcome addition to the insurgents' arsenal?

Well, such a tool does exist. It's called Stroome. And in a time when the journalist's traditional role -- to build and curate an informed public -- is rapidly eroding as citizens now are able to inform themselves and one another, is it possible that video will soon replace text as the central means of communication? Could it be that the next revolution will be Stroomed?

An Email Exchange

It turns out, the idea just might not be as far-fetched as you'd think:

Date: Thu, 20 Jan 2011 07:23:15 -0600 Subject: Integrating Stroome for cross-cultural dialogue

Hello Stroome team,

Would like to thank you first for a great application and social network your team has created.

I work for a non-profit organization with a mission to enable young people from the West and predominantly Muslim societies to have cross-cultural dialogues using new media technologies.

[H]ow can [we] include Stroome within our online community?

And so began the email that Stroome co-founder Nonny de la Pena and I received the morning of January 20, 2011.

The sender's name was WilYaWil, and his request was simple: Would we work with his organization to facilitate dialogue between students with diverse backgrounds from around the world?

Considering collaboration is at the center of the Stroome experience, the connection was a no-brainer. Skype addresses were exchanged; a call was set for the following Wednesday.

Revolution Intervenes

But just minutes before the call was to take place, we received a second email from WilYaWil. Our conversation, it seemed, would need to be postponed:

Date: Wed, 26 Jan 2011 03:45:01 -0600
Subject: Re: Integrating Stroome for cross-cultural dialogue

Tom, sorry for the late reply. I hope we can postpone our meeting today. I'm in Egypt and we are living in exciting times with the start of freedom protests yesterday in Cairo and other cities around Egypt. I will be taking part today. I apologize for the short notice. I will get in touch with you and Nonny again on Friday to reschedule.

Frankly, I thought little of it. There was little in the tone of WilYaWil's email to foreshadow the extraordinary events that were about to unfold.

As it turns out, I had very much misread the situation.

The following morning, I -- along with the world -- woke up to an Egypt in crisis. This was more than simply an "exciting time." This was a revolution. Or at least it certainly had the makings of one.

By day's end, a third email arrived, and we learned -- again, just as the world was learning -- that the Egyptian government had blocked Twitter and Facebook.

Egypt screenshot.jpg

Nonny quickly sprang into action. A group titled "Egypt Protests" was created on Stroome. Open access was granted so that anyone could upload and edit their first-person video accounts of the protests. And the participants on the email thread were notified immediately.

Internet Shutdown

Unfortunately, our impromptu workaround was thwarted when the Egyptian government shut down Internet access to the entire country. And while President Mubarak's decision to plunge some 80 million Egyptians into the 21st-century of equivalent of "radio silence" would last nearly five days, it would be over a week before we heard from WilYaWil.

Then on Wednesday, February 9 -- almost three weeks to the day from our first correspondence -- WilYaWil resurfaced. Again, his tone was upbeat:

Date: Wed, 9 Feb 2011 13:21:00 -0600
Subject: Re: Integrating Stroome for cross-cultural dialogue

Hi Thomas and Nonny,

We are living in an exciting time here in Egypt. I've started using Stroome already, I've uploaded the videos I shot on Friday 28th January, I hope others find it useful and can remix it.

I would like us to meet soon so that we can discuss how [we] could work together. We can meet tomorrow or Friday anytime between 8pm - 10pm CLT / 10am - 12 noon LA time.

And while we had no way of knowing at the time, history was once again about to find a way of encroaching on our plans.

Thirty minutes before we were scheduled to connect with WilYaWil on Friday morning, CNN reported that Hosni Mubarak was going to make it formal: After more than 30 years in power, the Egyptian president was stepping down. Considering the momentous nature of the announcement, naturally I assumed the call would be pushed back once again.

Suddenly, the familiar "bing, bing, bing" signaling an incoming Skype call could be heard as a cartoon avatar of a young man wearing a pair of horned-rimmed glasses and neatly cropped brown hair appeared on my screen.

"This is a remarkable tool," WilYaWil said of Stroome, his voice brimming with enthusiasm. "The ability to collaborate and work together with video. No one is doing it. It's revolutionary. It's going to change things."

He was so passionate, so imbued with a renewed sense of purpose, so in the moment and excited about those "exciting times" in which he was living that I honestly think WilYaWil failed to grasp the irony of the words he'd just uttered.

I, on the other hand, caught every drop of it.

To see some of WilYaWil's Egyptian video uploads, register at Stroome.com and type "Egypt" into the search bar.

If you would like to follow WilYaWil's Twitter feed click here

February 09 2011

21:10

'Data and Cities' Conference Pushes Open Data, Visualizations

When I entered Stamen's offices in the Mission district of San Francisco, I saw four people gathered around a computer screen. What were they doing? Nothing less than "mapping the world" -- not as it appears in flat dimension, but how it reveals itself. And they weren't joking. Stamen, a data visualization firm, has always kept "place" central to many of their projects. They achieved this most famously through their crimespotting maps of Oakland and San Francisco, which give geographical context to the world of crime. This week they are taking on a world-sized challenge as they host a conference that focuses on cities, interactive mapping, and data.

As part of a Knight News challenge grant, this conference is part of Stamen's Citytracking project, an effort to provide the public with new tools to interact with data as it relates to urban environments. The first part of this project is called dotspotting, and is startling in its simplicity. While still in early beta stage, this project aims at creating a baseline map by imposing linkable dots on locations to yield data sets. The basic idea is to strike a balance between the free, but ultimately not-yours, nature of Google Maps and the infinitely malleable, but overly nerdy, open-source stacks that are out there.

dotspotting crop.jpg

With government agencies increasingly expected to operate within expanded transparency guidelines, San Francisco passed the nation's first open data law last fall, and many other U.S. cities have started to institutionalize this type of disclosure. San Francisco's law is basic and seemingly non-binding. It states that city departments and agencies "shall make reasonable efforts" to publish any data under their control, as long as the data does not violate other laws, in particular those related to privacy. After the law passed unanimously by the Board of Supervisors (no small feat in this terminally fractious city), departments have been uploading data at a significant rate to our data clearinghouse website, datasf. While uploading data to these clearinghouses is the first step, finding ways to truly institutionalize this process has been challenging.

Why should we care about open data? And why should we want to interact with it?

While some link the true rise of open data movement with the most recent recession, the core motivation behind this movement has always been inherent to the nature of a citizenry. Behind this movement is active citizenship. Open data in this sense can mean the right to understand the social, cultural, and societal forces constantly in play around us. As simultaneously the largest consumers and producers of data, cities have the responsibility to engage their citizens with this information. Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR (San Francisco Planning and Urban Research), and I wrote more about this, in our 2010, year in review guide.

Stamen's Citytracking project wants to make that information accessible to more than just software developers but at a level of sophistication that simultaneously allows for real analysis and widespread participation. Within the scope of this task, Stamen is attempting to converge democracy, technology, and design.

Why is this conference important?

Data and Cities brings together city officials, data visualization experts, technology fiends, and many others who fill in the gaps between these increasingly related fields.
Stamen has also designed this conference to have a mixture of formats, from practical demonstrations, to political discussions, and highly technical talks.

According to Eric Rodenbeck, Stamen's founder and CEO, "This is an exciting time for cities and data, where the literacy level around visualization seems to be rising by the day and we see huge demand and opportunity for new and interesting ways for people to interact with their digital civic infrastructure. And we're also seeing challenges and real questions on the role that cities take in providing the base layer of services and truths that we can rely on. We want to talk about these things in a setting where we can make a difference."

Data and Cities will take place February 9 - 11 and is invitation-only. In case you haven't scored an invitation, I'll be blogging about it all week.

Selected Speakers:

Jen Pahlka from Code for America - inserting developers into city IT departments across the country to help them mine and share their data.

Adam Greenfield from http://urbanscale.org/ and author of Everyware. Committed to applying the toolkit and mindset of interaction design to the specific problems of cities.

Jay Nath, City of San Francisco
http://www.jaynath.com/2010/12/why-sf-should-adopt-creative-commons, http://datasf.org

February 07 2011

18:04

Councilpedia Follows the Money in New York City Politics

More than two years since the idea first began buzzing in our collective brains, Gotham Gazette yesterday finally launched its Councilpedia site.

Councilpedia, funded in part with a News Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation, is a unique new tool that will let people track the influence of money in New York City politics and help New Yorkers monitor their public officials. To accomplish this it does three main things.

First, it brings together an array of information about two citywide elected officials and the members of the New York City Council: legislative records, campaign finance information, and places to go to find out more. Most -- not all -- of this exists elsewhere, but it is scattered about -- on Gotham Gazette, on the city Campaign Finance Board website and elsewhere. We've put it all in one place. This will help people easily go back and forth between the money -- who helped fund the official's campaign -- and the politics. And in the process find out how the official vote on matters might affect those contributors.

Second it expands upon the campaign finance information previously available. New York City has a tough campaign finance law with public financing of campaigns (unless you're a billionaire and so choose to opt out). As part of that, the Campaign Finance Board pulls together a formidable array of information and makes it readily available to all who come to its site. But the amount of information is overwhelming -- long lists of names of people who gave to a candidate -- and hard to digest. We've taken those lists of contributors and broken them down by categories: labor, for example, people in the real estate industry and so on.

Reader Input

And finally, we've asked our readers to connect the dots for us. Readers are encouraged, urged (even begged) to tell us what they know about contributors and their interests or about council members. If Contributor Z gave money to Candidate X who then proposed a zoning change that boosted the value of Z's property, we want to know. Gotham Gazette reporters will try to check the allegations out; we'll mark those that we can verify and take down ones we determine to be false or abusive.

We hope to have a lively online conversation that will inform New Yorkers and help them become more involved in the politics of their city. This is an experiment in crowdsourcing on local issues. We'll keep you posted on how it develops -- in case some of you want to try something similar in your communities. (And our City Hall editor Courtney Gross and technical manager JaVon Rice, who together did the lion's share of the work on this, can warn you of some of the problems and issue you might face along the way.)

So far, we have received a lot of praise and coverage for Councilpedia. (For a sample go here, here and here for a video). People already are urging us to expand it -- to judges, to state officials, to candidates as well a incumbents. One person even wanted us to delve into records of a past governor. Given how long it took us to get this far -- and given the months of data coding, checking and re-entry, we're gong to pause for now and watch what happens, fine tune what we have, see what kind of discussion develops and, we hope, follow up on some hot tips from readers.

So if you know about New York, tell us what you know. And even if you don't know New York, tell us what you think about the project.

January 07 2011

16:45

What Would the Ideal Democracy-Enabling Tool Look Like?

Some say that the last place where true democracy existed were the city-states of Ancient Greece. They had it all: Direct communication between citizens and public officials, complete transparency, minimal corruption.

Time passed and the population increased dramatically, which in part meant that public officials fell out of touch with the people who put them in office. To alleviate this, over time and in other societies, trade unions, non-governmental organizations and various movements were started -- and democracy got more complicated.

Turns out, this is all backwards. In my view, modern people no longer identify themselves by any one characteristic. No longer do they self-identify primarily by a social class, or a particular way of thinking. Linear progression has been completely replaced by a parallel, simultaneous, multi-directional approach to life and all its aspects. Trade unions and NGOs are obsolete, or fast becoming so. Modern people detest inaccessibility and institutionalization; they crave trust and connection.

It is the second decade of 21st century! Technology pushes the boundaries of connection and communication. Old rules are re-written, social norms shift constantly, and the world is primed for a new playing field. We need the tools and structures of democracy to catch up. I think technology has a bigger role to play.

Digital Democracy

Imagine a tool that puts people back into the decision-making equation. Made by people for people. This would be a platform that clearly shows which ideas and initiatives aimed at improving the lives of citizens generate the most interest from society. A platform that allows you to enlist the support of your friends for the causes you deem most important. A place that shows how close projects and initiatives are to being implemented. A public forum where you have access to important government information without having to look for it elsewhere.

We are all interested in our friends' opinions. This platform shows them to you. Also, people with similar opinions on a given subject will be connected, thus making further communication easier. Democracy of the Ancient Greeks is long gone, but maximum transparency and public officials that listen to the people are just a step away.

The latest public elections in my country, Latvia, helped convince me that we need a platform like the one outlined above. My business partner and I have begun work on one, but I'd like to hear what you think the ideal democracy-enabling platform would look like. What's your vision? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

December 02 2010

16:50

Dotspotting Launches to Make City Data Mappable

1288311519955

Dotspotting is the first project Stamen is releasing as part of Citytracking, a project funded by the Knight News Challenge. We're making tools to help people gather data about cities and make that data more legible. Our hope is to do this in a way that's simple enough for regular people to get involved, but robust enough for real research to happen along the way.

There's currently a whole chain of elements involved in building digital civic infrastructure for the public, and these are represented by various Stamen projects and those of others. At the moment, the current hodgepodge of bits -- including APIs and official sources, scraped websites, sometimes-reusable data formats and datasets, visualizations, embeddable widgets etc. -- is fractured, overly technical and obscure, and requires considerable expertise to harness. That is, unless you're willing to use generic tools like Google Maps. We want to change this. Visualizing city data shouldn't be this hard, or this generic.

So the first part of this project is to start from scratch, in a "clean room" environment. We've started from a baseline that's really straightforward, tackling the simplest part: Getting dots on maps, without legacy code or any baggage. Just that, to start. Dots on maps.

More Than Dots

But dots on maps implies a few other things: Getting the locations, putting them on there, working with them, and -- crucially -- getting them out in a format that people can work with.

We've had several interactions with different city agencies so far, and while the situation has changed alot in the last few years, we've realized that, for the foreseeable future, people aren't going to stop using Word and Excel and Pages and Numbers to work with their data, or even stop using paper. It's made us think that if this stuff is really going to work out in the long run, we need to focus our thinking on projects that can consume as well as export things that cities and people actually use and use now. This is instead of going with projects that have to rely on fancy APIs or the latest database flavor.

It's great that San Francisco and New York are releasing structured XML data, but Oakland is still uploading Excel spreadsheets (it's actually awesome that they do), and the Tenderloin police lieutenants are printing out paper maps and hand-placing colored stickers on them. At some point, if this really is the way things are going, we're going to need to meet the needs of actual functioning city agencies; and while APIs are great and necessary, for now that means Excel spreadsheets and Word docs. It also means being able to easily read in data that people have uploaded to Google maps, interface with SMS systems like those that Ushahidi are pioneering. And it means being able to export to things like PowerPoint and Keynote, scary as that may seem.

What we've launched with is the baseline work that's being done to make this stuff internet-native. There's a login and permissions system that pretty much works. Uploading .csv files full of dots works. Each dot has an HTML page of its own, for example, like they do on Crimespotting. Collections of dots (we're calling them sheets) work, and you can export them. And there are dots on maps.

Easter Egg

What's up with the funny map, above, you ask? That's an undocumented Easter egg that allows you to change the default base map for Dotspotting on the fly using a templated URL. If that last sentence sounds like gibberish, just think: Fun! And a bit dorky. But fun!

Speaking of which, the code for Dotspotting is available for download on Github, and licensed for use under the GNU General Public License. We're planning on releasing the code as we work on the project, in the hope that working in this kind of transparent manner from the beginning will both benefit the project and serve as an example of the way we'd like to work with foundations on this kind of work.

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