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March 13 2011

17:55

VoIP Drupal Kicks Off at Drupalcon

Last week I wrote about another project that's come to a boil at the Center for Future Civic Media: VoIP Drupal.

Here is a brief video of Leo Burd lecturing at DrupalCon 2011 on the release of Voip Drupal, a plugin that allow full interaction between Drupal CMS and phones.



VoIP Drupal is a project of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, with key contributions from Civic Actions.

November 19 2010

17:30

Covering a crisis more like molasses than quicksand

How do you cover a crisis that is not a crisis in the way we generally think of one — sudden, frenzied, tragic — but rather a tragedy that builds, slowly, tragically, over time? From the BP oil spill to Haiti’s pre- and post-earthquake heartbreaks to the world financial crisis to the war in Afghanistan — the latest conflict to be nicknamed, with only slight hyperbole, “the forever war” — to the even more insidious crises that are wounded social and political institutions: Some of the most important stories journalists can cover are not singular stories at all, but phenomena that stretch and wind through time. And doing them justice, in every sense, requires not only attention to context and nuance and explanation, but also patience: keeping up with them, unpacking them, and finding ways to sustain reader interest in and outrage about them, over long — sometimes years-long — stretches.

So how do you do it?

In a panel discussion at MIT yesterday evening, co-sponsored by the school’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, four experts tackled that questions, considering, from their areas of expertise, the idea of continuity as it relates to journalistic narratives. MIT technology historian Rosalind Williams discussed theoretical approaches to history as a function of human impact; investigative reporter Abrahm Lustgarten discussed his experience covering slow-moving stories for ProPublica; and our own Andrea Pitzer, editor of our sister site, Nieman Storyboard, discussed the role that narrative itself can play in unpacking stories and sustaining consumer interest in them over time.

“Journalism itself is in the midst of a slow-moving crisis,” the panel’s moderator, MIT writing instructor and science journalist Thomas Levenson, noted by way of context for the event. The web allows not only for a new immediacy in news coverage, but also for, of course, a new democratization of it. “There is this lovely possibility here,” he said. But our new tools also necessitate rethinking what “news coverage” is in the first place — and how we think about representing crises that are fluid, rather than solid.

“Slow-moving crisis’ is a contradiction,” Williams pointed out; when it comes to what we think of as crises, “our language has not caught up with the events” it tries to describe. The intricacies of the institutions we’ve developed for ourselves lead, she said, to what another MIT historian, Leo Marx, has has called a “semantic void”: a state of affairs for which we lack language — words, concepts, frameworks — that can adequately convey import and magnitude.

The word “crisis” itself, Williams pointed out, which comes from Greek word kerein (“to separate or shear”), originally had the sense of a static event: a singular, sudden rip in the continuity of human events. It’s since evolved into something much more amorphous and, thus, hard to capture — the result in part, she said, of a changing attitude toward humans’ relationship with the wider world.

It’s a problem we’ve seen throughout the history of technology, Williams noted, the result of an evolving recognition that the world is not a constant in the great equation of human experience, but rather another variable. In the past, she said, our general concept of history was rooted in the idea that history itself “consists of deeds and words that take place on the stable stage that is the world” — and the stage itself was predictable and solid, in contrast to the frailty of the human condition. Now, though, we generally recognize the universality of movement: Our context moves with us.

What that can lead to, though, when it comes to narrative, is a kind of reductive continuity. “If the sun never sets on history, then historians are really challenged,” she said — as are, of course, journalists. When there’s no arc to maintain, no ending to know, there’s no conclusion by which to calibrate context. There’s nothing to root our narratives. “If it’s a never-ending story, then you don’t understand the world — you don’t understand human life,” Williams said.

What we can understand, though, is the present moment. So it’s incumbent on us, Williams concluded, to try to match our rhetoric to the realities of the movements of history. “The point is to join up the crisis-feeling,” she said, echoing William Empson, with the realities of lived experience.

And, for that, simple storytelling — the ancient art of weaving together characters and plots and excitement — can be crucial, Pitzer said. Narrative “is really how people understand public crisis,” she noted; “it’s how they understand public policy issues.” Study after study has suggested the power of story not just as an artistic product, but as a cognitive function. Narrative buys people’s attention, allows them to retain complex information longer, she said. It is a teaching tool as much as an aesthetic feature. Indeed, if we journalists don’t provide narratives in our work, Pitzer noted — if we don’t consciously weave disparate facts into some a recognizable arc of action — “we are in some way denying them the ability to understand.”

Lustgarten applied that idea to his own coverage of the recent BP oil spill — a series of related reports that he and his ProPublica colleagues tackled (and are still tackling) over a long stretch of time. ProPublica’s aim with its stories, he said, is to capture reader interest with “a bit of a drumbeat of communication”: “rather than have one critical climax,” the idea is to “publish again and again, in incremental bits,” to help readers “find a pathway through the clamor that’s so distracting.”

In the outlet’s BP reporting, realizing that idea “was an exercise in commitment,” he said — a challenge of setting, and then sticking to, a vision for contextual, continual coverage rather than discrete reports. There were certainly moments, Lustgarten noted, when smaller scoops threatened to distract them; “it was very difficult to stay focused on what we had decided to do,” he said. “It was very difficult to stay disciplined.”

As to the broad question of completeness — how do you define an “event” against other events? How do you know when your reporting is finished? — Lustgarten gave a nod to Williams’ dissatisfaction with our current framings. ProPublica’s unique setup allows its reporters to see stories through “until their organic conclusion,” he noted; but determining that end point is a matter of serendipity and sensibility as much as anything else. Often, the conclusion point often comes down to reporter interest, he said. There are no clear borders between story and not-story.

So it was more fitting that ironic that the panel didn’t reach a conclusion in its own discussions. How could it? It highlighted, though, an idea that any journalist can put to practice: the crucial necessity of the long-view mindset, the insistence on placing even the most seemingly isolated events into the broader context of history. Always asking, in other words, “Why does this matter?” And that may involve being selective about the this we share. As Williams put it: “Our biggest responsibility is to determine which facts are worthy of being discovered.”

August 19 2010

14:33

How Can Civic Media Help Cover 'Slow-Motion Disasters'?

I'm helping MIT's Center for Future Civic Media put together a talk on how better to cover slow-motion disasters, and I'd like your thoughts.

The bursting of the housing bubble, for example, cost the American economy $8.3 trillion. Yet for a decade, national media missed signs of the coming disaster, acting instead to simply keep pumping.

While we can cover hurricanes and terrorist attacks, we – the media, Americans, humans – seem to be terrible technologically and rhetorically at covering disasters that unfold slowly, stories like oil spill cleanups or health care policy that take months or years to fully tell, yet, as that $8.3 trillion number shows, absolutely require attention and action.

So what reporting models would help avoid or mitigate these disasters before they happen? What examples have you seen, as we at MIT have with Jeff Warren's grassroots mapping work in the Gulf or much of the work at ProPublica, of people or groups already doing a good job of using new tools and methods?

March 23 2010

14:00

“Fun with data”: Oxymoron no longer! And other lessons from Linda Fantin and Ellen Miller

Say the word “data” in the presence of the majority of Americans, and you’ll most likely be greeted with a blank stare/a glare/an eye roll/an audible sigh. For most people — though we here at the Lab respectfully disagree — data sets just aren’t that awesome.

What data sets are, though, of course, is incredibly valuable. And now that we have more access to more information than ever before, it’s incumbent on journalists and other civic educators to change people’s minds about data: to make raw information relevant for them. And engaging. And — no, seriously! — fun.

The fun factor was one of the many ideas raised in a recent discussion on “Government Transparency and Collaborative Journalism” at MIT. The talk, sponsored by the university’s Communications Forum and its Center for Future Civic Media, featured a conversation between two people who don’t need to be convinced of data’s value (or, for that matter, its fun factor): Linda Fantin, director of Public Insight Journalism at Minnesota Public Radio, and Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.

“When I framed the event,” said Chris Csikszentmihályi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media and the conversation’s moderator, “I had originally thought that I would frame it as something like this: Sunlight as something that essentially takes information from the top down, at the federal government level, and makes it accessible to the public…and Public Insight Journalism, on the other hand, as something that takes information from the public, puts it together through journalists, and brings it back out. But I think what both of you are doing defies that kind of reduction.”

Indeed, both organizations’ approaches rely on breaking down information’s traditional top-down/bottom-up divide, merging micro- and macro- approaches in gathering, recording, and packaging data. They simply take different paths in the search for the same solution: Sunlight focuses, in general, on information that’s already recorded, but inaccessible — “We’re starting to say that information is only public if it’s online,” Miller noted — and the Public Insight Network focuses, in general, on gathering and analyzing information that is atomized. For both, the core question is public investment in the paths they’ve adopted; and last night’s talk — as so many things journalism-related tend to these days — returned, again and again, to the problem of engagement: how to earn it, how to build it, how to keep it. And also: how to balance journalism’s core mandate — providing narratives and takeaways that people can act on — with its tantalizing new ability to work collaboratively and iteratively with its public. It’s a question Fantin and Miller tackle head-on in their work: What’s the most effective way to marry journalism as a process with journalism as a product?

Sunlight, for its part, “has always been in the engagement business,” Miller noted. She gave a brief run-through of the multitude of sites the foundation has fostered — Fedspending.org, Party Time, the just-launched Public Equals Online, and many, many more — noting that “all of these sites are driven toward communities, to get them more engaged.” The idea is in some ways to take the “data” out of “data set”: to take a jumble of raw information and convert it into a coherent narrative that will be understandable and, yes, engaging to users. “There’s really one test in our office about whether something works,” Miller said: “If Ellen doesn’t get it within ten minutes, you have to go back.” As the audience laughed, she added: “It’s actually known as the ‘Ellen test.’”

That approach — get-ability, user-friendliness and, more broadly, the fostering of emotional connection with information — is central to both Sunlight and Public Insight Journalism. “Part of the thrill of journalism is the aphrodisiac of discovery,” Fantin pointed out: opening new doors, following new paths, learning new truths, etc. And one of PIJ’s goals is to leverage that excitement — to allow non-journalists to experience it, and to write it into journalists’ work. “Sometimes, just talking to people and listening to them can teach you which questions to ask.”

As for the question of collaboration — “Do you still need journalists to do refining and storytelling,” Csikszentmihályi asked, “or is it more a collaborative process?” — Fantin, a longtime print journalist before joining MPR, noted the core value of the declarative voice. “I hear people say all the time that journalism needs to be a conversation,” she said. “Well, I don’t think journalism is a conversation. I don’t think it’s a lecture, either.” It’s both at once. And we need journalists, she said — paid, professional journalists — who have the knowledge and expertise and “journalistic curiosity” to inject conversation into lecture, and lecture into conversation, in a way that clarifies narrative rather than muddling it. “There’s always a need for sense-makers,” she said.

Besides, “people we talk to in our network don’t want to do our jobs for us,” Fantin noted. Their desires, she said, are simpler than that: “They want to be invited into the process, and they want to share what they know.” They want to put their knowledge and expertise and experience and wisdom to work. “As Clay Shirky says, we’re in the middle of a revolution,” Fantin noted — and that revolution is predicated on the we’re-in-this-together approach that both PIJ and Sunlight embody.

“We are all moving into this era step by step,” Miller noted. “It’s okay to try something that doesn’t work.” The point is to try something. And to try something, more to the point, together. “This,” she said, “is a remarkable conversation to be having.”

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