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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.

March 14 2011

16:05

MIT Produces a String of Civic Media Success Stories

As we wind the way toward the end of our four year grant, I thought it would be nice to describe some of what we've learned at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media (C4). In the coming weeks, I will call on a few of our researchers to offer similar blog reflections on our unique blend of communities, information, and action.

First, though, I want to describe some of the exciting project highlights from the last few weeks. Because C4 is a multi-disciplinary institution, different projects end up affecting different audiences, so I wanted to put them all in one post.

GrassrootsMapping.org
Jeff Warren's project continues to spread, with new maps made in New York, China, and several other places by people with no MIT connection. We have so many continuing uploads from communities in the Gulf that we recently had to purchase new RAID storage. Good Magazine recently wrote about this growing project.

At MIT, we know that research was worth conducting when it spins off into a new enterprise. C4 researchers Jeff and Sara Anne Wylie have done just that, creating a new organization that tries to help communities by generating scientific information. Called the Public Laboratory of Science and Technology, it drives innovation that pushes grassroots mapping in new directions. Check their recent projects, like hacking cameras to view photosynthesis and make spectrograms to detect whether the photos that Gulf communities have been taking are really of BP's spilled oil.

grm.jpg

VoIP Drupal
VoIP Drupal, a project that research scientist Leo Burd has been working on for more than a year, was announced at DrupalCon last week. Several telephony developers have signed on to develop the VoIP side of the project, and they join famous Drupal group Civic Actions, which has been contributing on the Drupal scripting side. In brief: I'll be very surprised if "this isn't a big thing":http://www.pbs.org/idealab/2011/03/voip-drupal-kicks-off-at-drupalcon072.html.

Sourcemap
Another great project from C4 that is in the process of spinning off is Sourcemap, by Leo Bonanni and Matthew Hockenberry, which recently formed an independent governing foundation. Always popular with journalists and enviro-geeks, the project is now being taken on by businesses. One big development is that Office Depot is officially using Sourcemap on some of their product packaging.

Also, the University of Montana's School of Journalism collaborated with us over the past term by using Sourcemap as part of a class on online news. Our collaborators, Professor Lee Banville and American Public Media's Public Insight Network, wanted to connect journalism students in Banville's class with tools and technologies that construct perspectives and develop narrative frameworks for the web. In practice, this ranged from ideas on crowdsourced feedback and commentary to devices like web mapping that drive new presentations of stories.

BrownBagToolkit / Junkyard Jumbotron
The first part of research scientist Rick Borovoy's project on face-to-face information sharing has launched, and was immediately picked up by BoingBoing and Gizmodo. Check out this video explainer:

Junkyard Jumbotron from chris csik on Vimeo.

extrACT:
In mid-November, we launched the third stage of our extrACT project, WellWatch. A dozen communities in PA and NY have expressed interest in the system, so we are conducting a one-week training tour across the state in March.
wellwatchCollage.jpg

Between the Bars
The world's first blogging system for the incarcerated, who aren't allowed access to the Internet, attracted 400 prisoner users from 18 states before we had to suspend service (for reasons best explained later). Inventor Charles DeTar is now on a clear path to relaunch the system in the next few of weeks.

Cronicas de Heroes
Alyssa Wright created Hero Reports for NY, as an alternative to the City's "see something, say something" campaign. Making citizens suspicious of each other is not the first step toward creating a safer, more civic city. Last December we launched a Juarez version of the project called Cronicas de Heroes, which continues to bustle. Over 700 heroes have been acknowledged, and the press continues to make up for lost good news from a city that usually only gets attention when something bad is happening.

cronicasNewSmall.jpg

Alyssa and Yesica Guerra, who directed the Juarez implementation, were invited to and presented at TEDActive, the global do-gooder wing of the famous TED conference. New communities are asking to run Hero Reports, from Monterrey to South Wood County, Wisconsin. Just last week the project was cloned in Kazakhstan without any help from us!

As you can see, things can get pretty busy here at C4. Several other projects are in the works and should be launched in the next few months. Stay tuned to Idea Lab for updates.

March 13 2011

19:49

Lost in Boston: REALTIME

For the last several months, we have been testing a system called Lost in Boston: REALTIME with a variety of community partners. This video describes a bit about the project.

Rick Borovoy loves Boston, but he hates how hard it is to figure out where one is. Boston is tough to navigate, and while our various government entities do their best to keep up, governments are better at long-term infrastructure than quickly updating signage in a fast-moving, dynamic city. So Rick started looking at how businesses could help. He proposed hosting real-time transit signs in local businesses and non-profits. By hosting the signs on private space, the signs can cost 100 times less, and also help their host's mission. We have signs running in the famous J.P. Licks ice cream emporium, Anna's Taqueria, and Hope House, a local halfway house.

As mentioned in the video, we use information that MASSDoT has made available. Sure, we could have done an iPhone app, but many bus riders don't have smart phones, and text-based systems tend to be pretty inconvenient. More importantly, at the Center we talk about the "bottled water effect." Contemporary technology is almost always designed for the individual -- it is almost a reflex -- when in fact it might be better to design for the public. After all, we love Boston's public transportation system; it is extensive, convenient, and still pretty inexpensive. Why should navigating that system be any less public?
More information at http://www.lostinboston.org/

March 12 2011

21:34

Junkyard Jumbotron

Rick Borovoy just released the Junkyard Jumbotron project, which allows laptops or phones in close proximity to be ganged together to form a large display.

The Junkyard Jumbotron requires no special software; it is simply a web page that receives real-time updates from our server, allowing scrolling, zooming, and soon video. Like all software at the Center, it is free and open.

Rick developed the project as part of a larger suite of tools that he calls the Brown Bag Toolkit, all oriented around making technology work better with face-to-face interactions, like meetings, canvasing, or chance encounters.



Huge thanks to Paula Aguilera for making the video.

February 18 2011

17:50

MIT's Civic Media Session Explores Data in Cities

With a redoubled focus on the community in the civic media community, the Center for Future Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched a new series last week. These relaxed, informal conversations about civic media featured ground-level practitioners, activists, hackers, and local leaders.

The first session, "Bustling with Information: Cities, Code, and Civics," brought good friends Nick Grossman, Nigel Jacob, and Max Ogden to our Cambridge campus. As you can see from the video clips below, these sessions are unique opportunities to talk about the amazing work that goes on in this sphere, intriguingly out of earshot of the debates on the future of journalism.

We think this is a great niche for us: Highlighting the do-it-yourself ethic that's always existed in civic media (not to mention at MIT), separate from concerns about paper vs. iPad, sustainable business models, etc. Sessions planned for this spring include discussions of intellectual property collaboration, the implications of check-in/location-sharing technology, how local stories spread worldwide, civic media for vulnerable populations, and civic disobedience.

So stay tuned to Idea Lab and civic.mit.edu for updates and scheduling information.

Meanwhile, check out these clips from last week's civic media session, moderated by Center director Chris Csikszentmihályi, for a taste. And, in the comment section below, let us know what other civic media topics warrant more exploration.

MIT Tech TV

Nick Grossman of OpenPlans, Nigel Jacob of the City of Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, and Max Ogden of Code for America respond to questions about how civic tools do (or need to) vary from city to city.

MIT Tech TV

Max Ogden of Code for America discusses taking "treasure troves" of government data sets to bring citizens and friends together, describing it as "enhanced serendipity."

January 04 2011

17:02

Winning a Golden Ticket to the MIT Media Lab

I'm a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab. I guess I'm old now. I started writing this post three months ago and in the blink of an eye an entire semester whizzed past my head. Or perhaps into my head would be more accurate; it's just that kind of place.

I want to share a little bit about how the Lab works from a student's perspective, along with some first impressions from my first semester. It should be worthwhile for anyone interested in media labs. For everyone else I'll be sure to touch on where civic and community media fit into the operation.

The Lab: A Newcomer's Guide

If you don't know much about the Lab, here is my go-to description: imagine Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Replace some of the Oompa Loompas with grad students (the rest are robots), and most of the candy wonders with technological ones. This isn't as far off as you might think; we even have a glass elevator.

Now that you have the big picture, I'll explain some of the inner workings.

Research Groups

The lab is organized into entities called research groups, which accept students. Each group has its own focus, and is led by a faculty member. Group sizes vary, but as of this writing there are about 24 groups and 139 students in the Lab, so you can do the math.

The groups' focuses fall across a wide spectrum. For example, New Media Medicine aims to improve the way healthcare is practiced around the world, while Opera of the Future is redefining music for the modern age. My group, Information Ecology, hopes to incorporate interactions with digital information more naturally into our day-to-day lives.

Sponsors

All of this research is funded by a consortium of sponsors. These companies help foot the bill and in return they get VIP treatment and licenses to any IP generated during the time of their sponsorship. Hey Washington Post, where are you? Or other major news organizations, for that matter.

Every year there are two huge celebrations called sponsor weeks in which all of the students and most of the faculty hustle bustle without sleep to prepare all of their demos and show off everything that the Lab has been working on since the last get-together. There is no cramming involved at all, I swear...

Classes

In addition to being researchers, everyone is still a student. Masters students take five classes over two years. The courses can be from anywhere in MIT, although many first year students start with ones from Media Lab. The same faculty members that lead the research groups lead Media Lab courses.

The best courses are often lottery-based. For instance, How to Make Almost Anything is in incredibly high demand because after taking it you know how to make almost anything.

The Center for Future Civic Media

About five years ago, the Knight Foundation gave a sizable grant to the Media Lab. The grant funded a "center" -- namely, the Center for Future Civic Media, a safe haven for anyone interested in pursuing projects related to information and physical community.

Centers are different from research groups because they don't accept new students; instead they sneakily lure current students into their clutches. There are a few centers besides C4FCM, such as the Center for Future Storytelling and the now defunct Center for Future Banking. They all provide direct support for research that fits into their theme.

The C4FCM leverages the Media Lab in a way that research groups can't because it has potential access to everyone. It can attack a problem from dozens of angles at once. There is also a new research group that starts fresh next year called Civic Media, so really they have it all going for them.

For obvious reasons I have a second home in the Center.

So, is it any good?

Earlier this semester I found myself in trouble. I was working on my composites project for How to Make Almost Anything -- I was making a fabricated pet rock. A silly project, maybe, but I had to make something out of composite and I wasn't prepared to make an airplane. That isn't the point. The point is that I needed googley eyes, and it was 3:00 in the morning.

I sent an email to msgs, the Lab-wide mailing list, with few expectations. Within five minutes I had half a dozen replies from people who were still awake, still working, and had access to a stash of eyes that I could use. What a place!

The plethora of available eyes at 3:00 a.m. reflects one of the most important characteristics of the Media Lab: An almost universal appreciation for fun. This spirit makes the Lab one of a kind, and without it people would have a much harder time breaking away and trying new things. They definitely wouldn't work as hard to attempt the impossible -- you need to have fun if you're going to do something as stupid as that.

Before I started my time here I was warned by several students not to fall into the all-too-common trap of putting too much energy into projects that are just silly, goofy, and don't have real impact on the world. So far I have been too busy learning to sink much time into projects at all, but I understand the temptation.

There are many merits to this place -- it has more thought diversity, skill sets, and resources than you can shake a stick at -- but what sets it apart is the need for that warning. It is the fine line that everyone here walks. To do the best work you have to think like a kid living in a crazy person's body, but you can't forget your calling.

Oh, and the other thing that separates it from other institutions is Food Cam.

December 02 2010

17:00

The crowd reconstructs Moldova’s “Twitter Revolution”

Here’s another cool experiment in crowdsourcing, courtesy of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism and our friends down at the MIT Center for the Future of Civic Media.

Uncut: Revolution Televised is an attempt to make sense of, and further report, the events of the protests that took place in Moldova in the spring of 2009. Co-founder of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism (and 2011 Nieman Fellow) Stefan Candea tipped us off to the experiment. Following the election of the Communist party to Moldova’s parliament, people took to the streets of the capital in Chisinau in a demonstration that briefly turned violent when protestors took the parliament building and were confronted by police.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the events were dubbed Moldova’s “Twitter Revolution”, as part of the organizing around the protests took place through social media. (Though the degree to which Twitter was a catalyst in the protest is a matter of dispute.)

What the Centre for Investigative Journalism is trying to do is dig deeper into the early hours of the protests by shifting through 16 hours of video footage from CCTV cameras on the streets of Chisinau. The footage, which the Centre was able to obtain through its sources, was decoded and is now hosted by the Center for the Future of Civic Media.

Through the raw video, the Centre hopes to find leads for new stories on the protests — anything from potential misdeeds by the government or police forces to victims hurt in the demonstrations or video that may contradict official statements on what transpired.

Hence the need for eyeballs. The 16 hours of footage total 300 clips, from 13 different cameras — all recording the events from different angles, at times zooming and panning with the protesters and action. A cursory look over the videos and you’ll find a mix of coverage, some of demonstrators standing around waving flags and talking, and others showing fires, apparent looting, and some arrests.

During a time when news organizations are trying to figure out which types of crowdsourcing grain traction with readers — we’ve seen the Guardian offer up an app to let readers help analyze government spending data, a New York Times writer asking for help to source the paper’s best recipes, and the Washington Post partnering with Intersect to cover the Daily Show/Colbert Report rally, among others — the Moldova experiment should shed some light on what works.

What’s interesting about the Centre’s footage (aside from giving viewers a surreal, “Rear Window” type of experience) is that it represents a new way of reconstructing and telling a story. Granted, it’s a story in a raw form, (providing for little context, which is where the Centre comes in), but it’s one that provides the basics in a compelling (and yes, sometimes TV show-like) way.

November 26 2010

15:41

MIT Unveils Civic Tools for Communities Affected by Natural Gas

Last Friday, MIT Center for Future Civic Media's director Chris Csikszentmihalyi formally released extrAct, a suite of Internet-based databasing, mapping and communications technologies for use by communities impacted by natural gas development.

extrAct is targeted not only at communities and landowners but also at the journalists who cover local development and environment issues. It is a novel platform for community education and civic action.

While outlets such as 60 Minutes have picked up on both the unprecedented opportunities and health risks of American natural gas extraction, which is touted as the country's path to energy independence, Csikszentmihályi and his team built extrAct specifically to help citizens take advantage of those opportunities while mitigating or pushing back strongly against their risks.

"Land owners around the country are facing significant challenges when coping with leaking wells, industrial traffic, and air and water pollution," Csikszentmihályi told me in the lead-up to extrAct's release. "They have serious concerns about their health and property value. The extrAct tools give them ways to document, share, and communicate their experiences. For the first time, a rural landowner in Pennsylvania who is contemplating signing a lease can read about the experiences of a rancher in Colorado who has been dealing with these issues for twenty years. And an epidemiologist, journalist, or regulator using extrAct can survey a wide range of citizen's experiences."

extrAct Technologies

extrAct, like other Center projects such as Sourcemap and Between the Bars, is a News Challenge-style technology: It meets a crucial information using new technology whose end-users, conversely, aren't necessarily tech-savvy. extrAct consists of three such technologies thus far, each easy to use at the community level:

Landman Report Card (www.landmanreportcard.com) -- LRC is a review system for landowners to rate their interactions with gas industry salespeople. These salespeople known as landmen are often independent contractors who work in a loosely regulated, high-pressure environment. LRC helps identify the landmen in your area who make reasonable offers in your interest, while outing the dishonest ones. The LRC website also offers a crash course for what to do if a landman comes knocking.

News Positioning System (www.newspositioning.com) -- NPS allows anyone to map a news article in context. Landowners and community groups often have folders bursting with years' worth of newspaper clippings on gas leaks, lawsuits against industry, and more...but with no easy way to share them. NPS solves this problem. If the story is online, you can map it, along with all other local stories on the same topic.

WellWatch (http://scrapper.media.mit.edu/wiki/WellWatch) -- State agencies track and publish information on well leaks and industry non-compliance with safety and environmental regulations. But that information is often hidden in badly managed websites and poorly designed databased. WellWatch converts those hard-to-navigate state databases containing information about the oil and gas industry to the same platform used by Wikipedia. Impacted communities and individuals can more easily access data about wells and operators in their communities. And more importantly, they can then add to this repository their own considerable knowledge.

If your community is affected by the natural gas industry, try these tools or contact us for more information: extract@media.mit.edu.

June 29 2010

14:00

Collaboration instead of the crowd: Gabriella Coleman & Karim Lakhani on how people work together online

News organizations, faced with the dual incentives of declining resources and the possibilities of the Internet, have tried any number of angles at gathering the labor of its audience in ways useful to the enterprise. (Crowdsourcing is the term, for which you can credit/blame outgoing Nieman Fellow Jeff Howe.) But outside a few oft-repeated anecdotes, it’s sometimes unclear what lasting value those have efforts have produced. Or at the very least, the value isn’t as obvious as it is in the open-source software movement, where enormously popular and powerful programs have been built on the backs of coordinated volunteer labor.

Above you’ll see two people who know a lot about that software world talking about what they’ve learned about how those collaborative communities work. This is a video of a plenary session at the recent Future of News and Civic Media Conference at MIT. The lineup: Gabriella Coleman, an NYU professor who studies online collaboration, particularly in the Debian Linux community; Karim Lakhani, the Harvard Business School professor, who studies distributed innovation systems and who has also spent a lot of time looking at the software world; and moderator Chris Csikszentmihályi, director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media.

Neither Coleman nor Lakhani specifically research the journalism world, but that’s part of what I find appealing about them: They don’t bring along either the assumptions of professional identities that many journalists do or the blind webby optimism of some sloganeers. They know the “crowd” can do amazing things, but they also know it’s really, really hard to optimize systems to ensure amazement happens. Give them a listen.

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.”

March 18 2010

15:32

How to Break Through the Difficult 'Phase 2' of Any Project

If you want to know what it's like pitching a new media project, just go to the experts:

This South Park clip, a classic in its own right, is a favorite around the MIT Center for Future Civic Media because every single new media project -- ours and those from our Knight News Challenge colleagues -- inevitably hits a wall at "Phase 2."

For South Park's Underpants Gnomes, "Phase 1: Collect underpants" is like every great idea we've all had: It doesn't quite make sense to everyone else yet, but we know it's gold. We also know it totally will lead to reinventing the news industry for the better. It will use technology in a new way, it will draw upon existing competencies in communities, and it will be financially sustainable. Totally. It therefore leads to "Phase 3: Profit."

But the sound of crickets at Phase 2 is the challenge. You have that revolutionary idea, but how can you be sure you're meeting an information need of a particular community before you spend your time and money?

Pony Diving

Rick Borovoy, one of our researchers and a veteran of a few media startups himself, calls Phase 2 "pony diving." What's striking about his explanation of pony diving -- of diving into the muck that you think is evidence of something awesome -- is that the idea plays only a small part. To come out of the muck with a full, finished project, you have to have other things in place. You need a sponsor on board. You need a staff ready to move. You yourself need to be able to communicate a vision of the finished product. (Adam Klawonn discusses these points in his post Top 5 Lessons from the Failure of The Zonie Report.) Phase 2 is all about ripping your own project apart, having disinterested people critique every aspect, and then seeing if you're still excited about it. That's how you prepare for Phase 3.

Be Open to Change

Being well prepared also means being open to, and even expecting, change. Just as no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, no project survives first contact with the real world.

Traditional project management would dictate that Phase 2 has to include contingency planning. You need a stack of notebooks or (here at MIT) a roomful of whiteboards to list the thousands of things that could go wrong, and what you're planning to do to mitigate those risks. (In fact, the News Challenge application process has put increased emphasis on contingency planning.)

But when you're developing new technology, at the top of your contingency plan should simply be a directive to be open to change. You discover new things. You want to incorporate those new things. And if you have a sponsor willing to support experimentation, you can take comfort in the remarkable history of accidental inventions:

  • Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, presumably during a dramatic slow-motion dive, after he dropped nitroglycerin in a pile of sawdust.
  • George Crum invented potato chips, literally out of spite, after a customer kept complaining that his fried potatoes were too thick and soggy.
  • Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber during a failing sales pitch when his floppy rubber fell onto a stove top.
  • Ice cream cones, Play-Doh, Post-Its, penicillin, the pacemaker, and even Viagra were all discovered while trying to invent something else.

And therein lies the lesson for developers of civic media technology facing Phase 2. "Chance favors only the prepared mind," Louis Pasteur said. Or, as Jeff Israely recently put it, the only straight line from point A to point B is where B is failure. Keep at it, but no mater how much you love your idea, be ready to seize -- or propose -- unexpected applications.

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