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January 06 2010


Eric Newton: Shame on us if we don’t take the steps needed to feed knowledge to our democracy

[In October, the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy issued its report on how our media need to evolve to serve the public interest in the digital age. The effort included some big names: Google's Marissa Mayer, former solicitor general Ted Olson, ex-L.A. Times editor John Carroll, former FCC chairman Reed Hundt, and new media researcher danah boyd among them. Here our friend Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation explains how the report fits in a tradition of media self-examination and issues a call to action. —Josh]

Way back in the age of paper, in 1986, professor James Beniger, then at Harvard, produced a useful chart on the civilian labor force of the United States. It showed how the bulk of American workers had moved during the past two centuries from working in agriculture to industry to service, and now, to information. Point being: the digital age didn’t just sneak up on us. It’s been a long, slow evolution. So shame on us for not changing our rules and laws and institutions for this new age.

We were well warned. Just after World War II, the Hutchins Commission said that traditional media could do much better: they should take on the social responsibility of providing the news “in a context that gives it meaning.” In the 1960s, the Kerner Commission said mainstream media wasn’t diverse enough to properly tell the story of this changing nation. Same decade: the Carnegie Commission said the status quo was simply not working, that public broadcasting must be created to fill the gap.

After that, a stream of reports — from the University of Pennsylvania, from Columbia University and others — agreed and repeated the same three fundamental findings:

— Hutchins: Our news systems are not good enough,

— Kerner: They don’t engage everyone,

— Carnegie: We need alternatives.

Here comes digital media, and — boom! — an explosion of alternatives. And we’re all — shocked? Apparently. So let’s try it again. This time, the big report comes from the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, prepared by the Aspen Institute with a grant from Knight Foundation, where I work.

A new examination of a familiar problem

Why a new commission? We are now deep into the second decade of the World Wide Web. It was our hope that when our leaders were finally ready to change things, they would consider a new perspective. Hutchins, Kerner and Carnegie and the others focused on what should be done to improve, diversify, add to — and nowadays the talk is to save — traditional media.

The Knight Commission started with communities, by visiting them and hearing from their residents. News and information, the commission says, are as important to communities as good schools, safe streets or clean air. Journalism, it says, does not need saving so much as it needs creating.

As a former newspaper editor, that last point seems pretty important to me. Of the nation’s 30,000 burgs, towns, suburbs and cities, how many are thoroughly covered by the current news system? Ten percent? Five? Less? We’re talking about knowing how to get, sometimes for the first time, the news and information we need to run our communities and live our lives.

Is the Knight Commission making a difference? We hope so. The Federal Communications Commission has hired Internet expert Steve Waldman to study the agency, top to bottom, thinking of reforms with Knight’s 15 recommendations in mind. Free Press, the nation’s largest grassroots media policy group, embraced the report, especially its call for universal affordable broadband. Ernie Wilson, dean of USC’s Annenberg School and chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, announced he is boosting innovation in public media. CPB backed NPR’s Project Argo in a partnership with Knight Foundation.

Community lawmakers are agreeing with commissioner and former FCC chair Michael Powell’s points about “information healthy communities,” about the role of open government and public web sites in local information flow. Commissioner Reed Hundt, also a former FCC chair, presented the Knight findings to the Federal Trade Commission.

Librarians across the country are pushing the role they can play as digital training and access centers. In addition to its dozens of media innovation grants, Knight Foundation itself took the commission’s advice: it has made more than $5 million in grants to libraries.

Taking the next steps

Now what? The policy work needs to come down to the detail level. Steve Coll and New America Foundation are among those thinking about that. How can we really spur more marketplace innovation? How can government rules and laws make it easier for newspapers to be nonprofits, treat student and nonprofit journalists equally, require the teaching of news literacy?

The hard part is ahead of us: that is, involving every aspect of our communities in this issue, governments, nonprofits, traditional media, schools, universities, libraries, churches, social groups — and, especially, citizens themselves. How do you do that? How do you make “news and information” everyone’s issue? It’s a tall order, perhaps the most difficult thing of all.

Universities could help here. Nearly two thirds of the nation’s high school graduates at least start out in a college or university of some kind. These institutions could make news literacy courses mandatory for incoming students. Understanding and being able to navigate the exploding world of news and information is as fundamental to the college students of our nation as knowing English. Stony Brook has already been paving that path. There, nearly 5,000 students have taken news literacy under the first university-wide course of its kind.

Colleges could set an example for the rest of our institutions. We are, after all, at the dawn of a new age. Who a journalist is, what a story is, what medium works, and how to manage the new interactive relationship with the people formerly known as the audience — all of these are changing as we speak. The complete metamorphosis of how a society connects the data and events of daily life to the issues and ideas that can better its life — would seem to be something colleges should want all of its students to think about.

This is hardly a short-term project. It took more than 200 years for America to change from a country where most people work growing food to one where most people work growing information. It will take time for the wholesale rewriting of America’s media policies, not to mention getting up the guts to spend the trillion dollars or more needed to remake our access to high speed digital systems and ability to use them.

Yet all of this is needed for America to become an information-healthy nation. A nation without universal, affordable broadband is like a nation without highways and railroads. We would be stuck on the surface streets of the new economy, tracing our fall from a global force to a secondary society.

More than 70 years after Hutchins, the basic story is still the same. The country’s news and information systems still aren’t good enough, still don’t engage everyone and still invite alternatives. It’s time to start doing something about this issue. Our rules, the laws, the policies — even the high school and college classes we teach — these things matter to how the news ecosystem in any given community is shaped. They can speed innovation or stunt it. So pick a recommendation — the Knight Commission lists 15 — and have at it.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a supporter of the Lab.]

December 29 2009


Hip-Hop as Cosmpolitan Citizen Media

Seeking greater social inclusion through new communication technologies is a strategy with a long and accomplished history that has persisted through waves of new inventions including the telegraph, radio, television, satellite, and of course, the Internet. Many such projects are highlighted in Alfonso Gumucio's Making Waves: Stories of Participatory Communication for Social Change, which was published in 2001 and features more than 20 case studies of participatory communication projects that use video, radio, theater, and the Internet. Similar projects are featured every week on the websites of the Communication for Social Change Consortium, Internews, The Communication Initiative Network, Panos, and Rising Voices.

But perhaps the most successful experiment in bringing so-called marginalized communities to the attention of the mainstream came not with community radio or the Internet, but rather the cassette tape and the boombox. With roots in the traditions of griots in West Africa, work songs from the Mississippi Delta, and dancehalls from the Caribbean, the birth of Hip-Hop as we know it today is generally credited to the Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc (Clive Campbell) who organized parties at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx, New York where he joined two turntables to mix rhythmic beats with funk music. Partygoers were invited to grab the microphone and rap on top of the music as a way to creatively express themselves and show off their verbal dexterity. Those early parties on Sedgwick Avenue helped form the sound and community that would influence what are now seen as the pioneers of hip-hop: Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and The Sugarhill Gang.

In the early 1990's hip-hop's center of gravity migrated from New York City to Los Angeles, where N.W.A., Ice T, and others popularized gangsta rap as a genre of hip-hop that focused on the violence, partying, and hustling on the rough streets of Compton, California. It was only with the release of "Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)" in 1993 that New York City was once again nationally recognized among hip-hop fans.

From Hong Kong to Staten Island to Liberia

Global Voices co-founder Ethan Zuckerman recently caught an interview on Tom Ashbrook's public radio program, On Point with Wu Tang Clan leader Robert Diggs, also known as "the RZA." During the interview we discover an unlikely intersection in the 1980's between the lives of Ashbrook, a Yale graduate and career journalist, and Diggs, a poor, aspiring rapper in Staten Island who sought shelter in a seedy movie theater that specialized in pornography and kung fu flicks. Ashbrook, it turns out, was a foreign correspondent at the time based in Hong Kong where he supplemented his income as a journalist by dubbing kung fu movies into English. It is entirely likely that one of the many kung fu films that influenced the Wu Tang Clan's unique style of hip-hop featured the voice of public radio's effusive Tom Ashbrook.

New York City's outer boroughs today are barely recognizable yuppie incarnations of their former selves. Gentrification has taken over Brooklyn and is increasingly creeping into the Bronx. In fact, a long and costly protest campaign has sought to protect 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, the birthplace of hip-hop, from being converted into a new development. But Park Hill, the home community of the Wu Tang Clan, has changed far less than neighboring Brooklyn across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. While tourists often take the free Staten Island Ferry from Manhattan for its uninterrupted views of the Statue of Liberty, rarely do they spend anytime exploring Staten Island itself.

One of the most sudden changes to the island's demographics came in the late 1980's and early 1990's when civil war broke out in Liberia, a West African country that was founded by freed American slaves. Liberian refugees fled violence that was stirred up by the American-educated warlord, Charles Taylor, and arrived to Staten Island by the thousands. They now make up the largest community of Liberians living outside of Liberia and their troubles in assimilating to a New York state of mind have been featured in Mother Jones, The Village Voice, WNET, and twice in the New York Times.

Ruthie Ackerman is a freelance journalist who is currently writing a book about the social impact of the Liberian Civil War and the integration of Liberian refugees in the same Park Hill community that gave rise to the Wu Tang Clan so many years ago. But rather than merely speaking on behalf of Liberians Ackerman decided to launch Ceasefire Liberia, a citizen media project which teaches Liberians living in Monrovia and Park Hill how to use digital media to tell their own stories.

As the above video shows, Liberian refugees have had a difficult time assimilating to Park Hill's established community and culture. But music - especially hip-hop - has been an effective channel to help narrow the cultural divide. Genocide Records is a collective of Liberia-born rappers and MC's whose music is clearly influenced by New York's hip-hop legacy, but with lyrics that emphasize the struggle of West Africans living in the United States. They performed this past July at Park Hill Day:

From New York to Mongolia, Madagascar, Colombia, Bolivia, and the World

As noted above, those early hip-hop parties hosted by DJ Kool Herc at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue were most definitely influenced by his early years in Jamaica were DJs at dancehall parties would talk over the records they were playing. Hip-hop then evolved further in New York during the 1980's and it hasn't stopped evolving in its spread from New York to California to Mongolia and Madagascar. Zuckerman notes in his post that shortly after the release of Wu Tang Clan's "Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)" he began seeing graffiti all over the world - including Mongolia - celebrating the hip-hop group.


Wu Tang graffiti in Ulaanbaatar.

Hip-hop's universal appeal has made itself apparent in countless blog posts across many of the Rising Voices citizen media projects. In Bolivia both Cristina Quisbert and La Mala Palabra of Voces Bolivianas honored the life of Aymara rapper and El Alto resident Abraham Bojorquez (the post has also been translated into Aymara).

In Madagascar Tahina, Joan, and Stéphane of Foko Madagascar have each highlighted some of the impressive Malagasy hip-hop acts, including Raboussa:

You can learn more about Malagasy hip-hop at the excellent blog HH Dago. Tahina also recommends "Zazavavin-drap" by Malagasy female rappers Nah and Bug:

The award-winning Colombian citizen media project HiperBarrio even has a rapper among its members. Last year Jorge Jurado used his rhyming skills to compose a song about citizen media and its link to his community's graffiti culture. Henry Barros from HiperBarrio also produced two short documentary videos about rappers in San Javier La Loma.

Finally, from the REPACTED project in Nakuru, Kenya blogger Eric Owanyama says that hip-hop is the "single biggest movement that allows youths to explore their creative minds independent of class rooms and allow them to learn from the society and speak philosophies that have proven to teach more than most educational systems and syllabus teach."

As awkward as it may be, even Vladimir Putin has recognized the importance of hip-hop as a medium of communication with young people around the world. Whether "hip-hop is dead" as some have argued of late remains to be seen, but its global domination over the past twenty years reveals just what can be accomplished when a culture of remix, creative expression, and technology collide.

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December 05 2009


Democratizing the Geography of Information

As little as a year ago Google Maps had no geographic information about San Javier La Loma, a small working class neighborhood on the outskirts of Medellín where the ConVerGentes group of the HiperBarrio citizen journalism project is based. Some progress has been made, but as you can see from the satellite imagery, most of the streets are still not mapped, much less the parks, buildings and footpaths.

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.21.PM 1.jpg

Now, compare that to the map of San Javier La Loma created by HiperBarrio and freely available with nearly unrestricted use on Open Street Maps:

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.24.PM.jpg

There is clearly an aspect of amateurism to the cartography, but anyone who has been to La Loma will tell you that the second map is a much more useful representation of the community. All of the roads are represented, as are the church, school, and the labyrinthine network of steep footpaths which carry constant pedestrian traffic.

la loma

A resident of La Loma carrying a washing machine down the road.

In fact, much of the world is still a blank void on Google Maps, especially slums and lower income communities. The majority of Rio de Janeiro is remarkably well-mapped, and even includes public transit information. But if you live in a favela like Santa Marta (where Michael Jackson shot the video to "They Don't Care About Us") there is no street information at all:

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 5.40.PM.jpg

Access to geographic information is crucial to the development of any community. As Mikel Maron, an evangelist of Open Street Maps, puts it: "Without basic knowledge of the geography and resources of [a community] it is impossible to have an informed discussion on how to improve the lives of residents."

Last Saturday Fredy Rivera, a leading mapper of Open Street Maps based in Bogotá, organized a workshop at the small public library in La Loma to teach its young residents how to make a map of their own community.


Gabriel Vanegas, the librarian in La Loma whose dedication is responsible for much of HiperBarrio's success, explained the background that led to the workshop:

In March of this year, thanks to the free software community, I had the opportunity to meet Fredy Rivera, a master of Linux and cartography, who will be with us to help us better understand the collective creation of maps. It will be an excellent opportunity to continue recognizing the community from the public library and through exercises of citizen journalism, free culture, participative history, and citizenship.

The workshop was later covered and summarized on the website of Medellin's Network of Libraries, a recipient of the Gates Foundation's 2009 Access to Learning award. Fredy Rivera posted a very useful summary of the contents of the workshops (in Spanish) on his blog.


Mark Graham has mapped the total number of of geotagged Wikipedia articles per language, location, and population. He found a "highly uneven geography of information." An article in The Guardian notes:

Almost the entire continent of Africa is geographically poorly represented in Wikipedia. Remarkably, there are more Wikipedia articles written about Antarctica than all but one of the 53 countries in Africa (or perhaps more amazingly, there are more Wikipedia articles written about the fictional places of Middle Earth and Discworld than about many countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas).

all countries.jpg

The article goes on to optimistically wonder if this imbalance of information presents a new opportunity for Wikipedia's declining number of active editors: to democratize not just access to information, but what kind of information is made freely available. At one point iCommons was involved in organizing Wikipedia Academies to encourage local experts to fill in Wikipedia's sizable information gaps. (Unfortunately iCommons now seems more interested in publishing research reviews.)

Like Wikipedia, Open Street Maps, has seen an almost unbelievable explosion of activity in the past few years. But unlike Wikipedia, contributions don't seem to be declining. There is a strong commitment from within the community to produce valuable information not just about North America and Western Europe, but all communities regardless of class or location. In fact, last month a group of Open Street Map activists headed to Kibera, Kenya, one of the world's largest slums, to produce a better map of the area. Already their information has been integrated into Ushahidi to provide a real-time interface to local news events:

Screen shot 2009-12-05 at 6.48.PM.jpg

A similar project in Rio de Janeiro led by Viva Favela is also trying to integrate local citizen media with community-produced maps of favelas (including Santa Marta).

It is too early to know whether this flurry of cartographic activism will lead to any sort of sustained social change, but Robert Neuwirth's Shadow Cities offers a clear example of how access to information can serve as a catalyst for improved livelihoods:

A few years ago, the Water and Sanitation Program, a nonprofit affiliated with the United Nations and the World Bank, became interested in the water supply question in Kibera. The group issued a report on Kibera's water kiosks. By reading the fine print, you can determine how much Kibera people -- and by extension, residents of all the mud hut communities of Nairobi -- are being ripped off by the kiosk system. At 3 shillings per jerry can, Kibera residents pay 10 times more for water than the average person in a wealthy neighborhood with municipally supplied, metered water service. And that's when water is plentiful. When there's a shortage, metered rates don't go up, but the prices in Kibera do. So at those times people in Kibera pay 30 or 40 times the official price of water.

The group published a brochure about the study. They presented it to local and national politicians. There was only one bunch of people who never saw the study: the residents of Kibera.

Japeth Mbuvi, Operations Analyst for the program, explained why. "Our audience for this was not the people of Kibera, but the political structure," he told me. Then he added, "Anyway, maybe it's better not to publicize this: there could be riots."

I applaud Mbuvi for his frankness. He is one of the few people I have met at any of the large nonprofit agencies who was willing to be candid about his agency's shortcomings as well as its achievements.

Still, there's something sad about his concern.

Perhaps it's true that people in Kibera could riot over water. After all, Kibera has been the scenes of riots in the past -- most of them involving landlord tenant issue -- and scores of people have been murdered in the melees. Still, Kibera's people deserve to know the facts about their lives. What's the point of studying the water kiosks of Kibera if, when the study is done, the information is not shared with the people who are most at stake?

November 23 2009


Online Q&A on careers and diversity in broadcasting

The Guardian Careers site is running a Q&A session this afternoon from 1pm (GMT) focusing on diversity in the broadcasting industry and what this means for employees and recruitment.

Taking part are: Nick Hart, head of corporate social responsibility, Turner Broadcasting; Alison Walsh, editorial manager – disability, Channel 4; Jo Taylor, head of learning and 4Talent, Channel 4; Bruce Robertson, HR director, ITV; and Yasir Mirza, equality and diversity consultant, Guardian News & Media (GNM).

Questions can be posted on the forum site and will be answered from now until 4pm.

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