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February 17 2011


Video: From Cities, Code, and Civics, "Customizing tools from city to city?"

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.

From "Cities, Code, and Civics", a Civic Media Session of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media.


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Video: Civic Media Session, "Bustling with Information: Cities, Code, and Civics"

Nick Grossman, Nigel Jacob, and Max Ogden

Moderator: Center director Chris Csikszentmihályi

Cities are vibrant, complicated organisms. A still-working 200 year old water pipe might rest underground next to a brand new fiber optic cable, and citizens blithely ignore both if they are working well. Cities are constantly rewriting themselves, redeveloping neighborhoods and replacing infrastructure, but deliberative structures like school boards and city council meetings continue to run much the way they have for generations. In what ways can information systems rewrite our understanding of civics, governance, and communication, to solve old problems and create new opportunities in our communities?

Nick Grossman is Director of Civic Works at OpenPlans. He oversees development of new products around smart transportation, open municipal IT infrastructure, participatory planning, and local civic engagement.

Nigel Jacob serves as the Co-Chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, a group within City Hall focused on delivering transformative services to Boston's residents. Nigel also serves as Mayor Menino's advisor on emerging technologies. In both of these roles Nigel works to develop new models of innovation for cities in the 21st century.

Max Ogden is a fellow at Code for America and develops mapping tools and social software aimed at improving civic participation and communication. This year Max is working with Nigel and the Office of New Urban Mechanics to create technologies that better enable education in Boston's Public Schools.

Civic Media Sessions
Hosted by the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, these open sessions highlight cutting-edge media research and tools for community and political engagement.


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January 10 2011


Q&A: CoLab, the MIT Community Innovators Lab

The MIT Community Innovators Lab is a center for planning and development within MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. CoLab works with low-income communities in putting their assets to work to help strengthen civic life and use the market as an arena for achieving social justice. Its vision is for domestic and international communities to be democratically governed, provide the means for residents to generate decent livelihoods, and be clean, healthy, and environmentally sound. CoLab Radio describes how that vision happens step-by-step, story by story, in communities.

1.) What does it mean to do this kind of work at MIT? Are there unique opportunities and challenges in this setting?

Dayna Cunningham (Executive Director): First, it means engaging a set of students with a particular set of ideas that we’ve defined around the intersection of three things: urban sustainability, civic engagement, and shared-wealth generation. Second, it means working with those students to help support the relationships we have with community organizations. All of that requires a particular set of skills and a set of values that we work hard to sustain and support. It means working with both our student colleagues and community colleagues around learning through this ongoing process.

2.) Who’s work at CoLab has surprised you the most?

Alexa Mills (Community Media Specialist): Program Manager Carlos Espinoza-Toro’s work has surprised me the most over the years because it’s been fascinating to watch his versatility unfold. Carlos and I graduated from the Masters in City Planning program together in 2008, so I have known him since 2006. In that time, I have seen him move from a ‘recovering architect’, as our co-worker Amy Stitely says, to someone who could organize a 30-student trip to Peru. At CoLab, Carlos started by leading a team of fifteen people in graphing the path of U.S. Stimulus Funds from the government to communities. Even their unfinished product was so powerful that a U.S. Congressman actually stole it off the wall of our community partner’s office in North Carolina. He moved on to manage the Mel King Community Fellows Program, and now is in a process to green America’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. His versatility is incredible.

3.) On a scale of 9.9 to 10, how awesome is Mel King? How did the Mel King Community Fellows Program come about and what has it been up to?

Cunningham: Um, 12 and ½. No! 18.25. Mel King is extremely awesome. Mel King is in his mid 80’s. He runs a technology center in the South End, where he has lived his whole life, and this center engages young people in understanding the latest technology. So here is this man in his mid-80s who understands technology at least as well, if not better, than most young people. On top of that, this guy ran for mayor. In his life, he led a whole movement in the city of Boston around neighborhood revitalization and community participation. He’s a beloved hero, and here he is in a basement in a brownstone in the South End just pulling kids off the street to teach them about technology. It’s extraordinary.

Mel was on a plane going to D.C. and he ran into the then-president of MIT and they put together the vision for the Community Fellows Program in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. He ran the program for 30 years. The whole idea of the Community Fellows Program was to bring activists to the campus to give them a chance to reflect, to refresh, to be thoughtful about the work of social change, to work with MIT faculty, and to provide MIT with a window into change processes social change in marginalized communities - out in the world.

The current Mel King Community Fellows Program builds on that but in a different way. The original program which was structured as a year spent on the campus. In the current program, we don’t want to take community activists away from their work in their communities, we just want to bring them together for short periods of time over a year.

Espinoza-Toro: Over the past year, the Fellows have been having meaningful discussion the current political environment in the United States. They’ve been reflecting on their work in the communities where they operate. In order to broaden our vision, we took a trip to Cleveland to witness a cooperative development. In our next meeting, we’re planning to co-design the upcoming fellowship year with the current fellows.

- - - - - -

This post is part of a Q&A triangle between three offices at MIT: the IDEAS Competition and MIT Global Challenge, the Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM), and the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). Each office asked three questions of the other two offices, generating six blog posts. Check out the other posts, which will be published between January 6th and 11th, if you’re interested:

• CoLab interviews C4FCM • C4FCM interviews IDEAS • IDEAS interviews CoLab
CoLab interviews IDEASIDEAS interviews C4FCMC4FCM interviews CoLab

January 07 2011


Q&A: The MIT Global Challenge

The Center for Future Civic Media has established some great relationships across groups at MIT with overlapping interests. In fact, those groups are wonderful presences at our regular Thursday meetings, teasing us with well-timed eye-rolls when our researchers' geek out five minutes too long about, say, Django libraries or KML data.

Two of these groups--the Community Innovators Lab and the MIT Global Challenge--have helped put together a "Q&A triangle", featuring Alexa Mills of CoLab and Kate Mytty of the IDEAS Competition and the MIT Global Challenge, to help our blogs' readers understand civic and community work through the perspective of our own groups.

First up is Kate. The IDEAS Competition and MIT Global Challenge are an annual invention and entrepreneurship competition that support and encourage innovation in overcoming barriers to well-being in communities around the world. They are powered by the MIT Public Service Center to spur innovation as public service. Teams work in a variety of areas -- water, sanitation, disaster relief, access to health care, education, energy and much more.

1.) What are you most surprised that works well in the Global Challenge? And what are you most surprised doesn’t work as well as you’d think?

Through the MIT Global Challenge site, what suprises me most are the connections that are possible. We’re just in the beginning and a lot of people are offering their and asking for help. That shows the potential of the community. When any platform is started to connect people around a shared purpose you hope and anticipate people will benefit from that platform. Seeing it in practice -- and I was here for very little of the development process -- is powerful.

We’re still in the learning phase and there’s a lot to be gained in the next year by watching how people use the site to push forward their ideas, connect and discover opportunites. The one space I’m hoping takes off more is a lot of community partners (NGOs, MIT alumni and much more) have spent a lot of time defining the gaps they see in their communities -- problems to be solved . I’d love to see a time come when “problems” and “solvers” will meet with more speed and urgency.

2.) What circumstances are conducive to good competitions?

Ask me again in a year and I’ll be better prepared to answer (I’ve been doing this for six months now). My gut response says, at least for our competition, a shared purpose, a sense of urgency, a community of support and development for the teams entering the competition, enough money to make it worth their while, and probably an ethos of celebration. There are a lot of incredible ideas out there -- in any competition -- and sometimes, by the nature a competition, those ideas are lost and the winners are celebrated. I see it as important to celebrate the work that goes into entering the competition and then join together as a community to support furthering the efforts of ongoing teams and projects.

3.) How would you describe the process of getting sponsorship and the ongoing role of sponsors?

Great question. We have a set of sponsors -- organizations and individuals -- that are passionate about innovation, entpreneuership, and public service. Two of the key sponsors I point out are Monster Worldwide and the Yunus Challenge supported by supported by MIT alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel (who also supports J-PAL and IDI ). With their sponsorship, they support innovation in certain areas -- for Monster this year, it’s around information technologies for empowering migrant workers and the Yunus Challenge, it’s innovation in agricultural processes. Giles Phillips, the MIT alum, we work with through Monster is involved every step of the way and is every bit as invested as we are. That’s a key strength and there’s room for other sponsors to come on board and support innovation in other broad areas -- whether mobiles, disaster relief, entrepreneurship or what have you.

- - - - - -

This post is part of a Q&A triangle between three offices at MIT: the IDEAS Competition and MIT Global Challenge, the Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM), and the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). Each office asked three questions of the other two offices, generating six blog posts. Check out the other posts, which will be published between January 6th and 11th, if you’re interested:

• CoLab interviews C4FCM • C4FCM interviews IDEAS • IDEAS interviews CoLab
CoLab interviews IDEASIDEAS interviews C4FCM • C4FCM interviews CoLab

January 05 2011


Konbit: Connecting orgs in Haiti to Haitian labor, whether online, offline, literate, illiterate...

One of the intriguing developments following the earthquake in Haiti a year ago was NGOs' coming to terms with the fact that their dependance on technology allowed them to overlook local labor. Konbit, a remarkable project developed by Media Lab students, took this to heart.

After the earthquake, many new NGOs arrived to help, yet only the established ones had reliable access to a key labor resource: speakers of Haitian Creole.

So despite being surrounded by countless Creole speakers, the NGOs flew translators in, at high cost.

The Media Lab's Greg Elliot and Aaron Zinman developed Konbit in response. Konbit allows any local with a mobile phone to call a number and record a narrative of their skills--Creole, midwifery, whatever the skills may be. That short narrative is then translated by volunteers, and NGOs can search those translations for the workers they need.

Earlier today, Public Radio International reported on Konbit:

You can dial into Konbit from anywhere in Haiti, courtesy of local cell provider Digicel. You are then greeted by what’s probably a familiar voice, at least if you’re Haitian. The team got veteran broadcaster Bob Lemoine to record the voice prompts.

“His voice is great,” says Zinman. “It was good to have a voice that Haitians would trust.”

After a brief welcome message, Konbit then leads you through a series of those all too familiar voice prompts, asking if you have certain kinds of work experience.

Engineering, leadership and nursing are Konbit categories. So, too, are babysitting and sewing. When you find an area where you have expertise, you can leave a detailed voice mail message highlighting your skills.

“We wanted to figure out how we could help people tell stories about their lives,” Eliot says.

PRI reports that Konbit has been running in beta for just two weeks but has already handled 500 calls.

Center for Future Civic Media director Chris Csikszentmihályi served as one of Konbit's collaborators

December 17 2010


This Week in Review: Taking sides on WikiLeaks, the iPad/print dilemma, and the new syndication

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

The media and WikiLeaks’ uneasy coexistence: The current iteration of the WikiLeaks story is about to move into its fourth week, and it continues to swallow up most future-of-journalism news in its path. By now, it’s branched out into several distinct facets, and we’ll briefly track down each of those, but here are the essentials this week: If you want the basics, Gawker has put together a wonderful explainer for you. If you want to dive deep into the minutiae, there’s no better way than Dave Winer’s wikiriver of relevant news feeds. Other good background info is this Swedish documentary on WikiLeaks, posted here in YouTube form.

The big news development this week was WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s release from British jail on bail Thursday. As blow-by-blow accounts of the legal situation go, you can’t beat The Guardian’s. Meanwhile, the U.S. government is trying to build a conspiracy case against Assange by connecting him more explicitly to Bradley Manning’s leak, and Congress heard testimony on the subject Thursday.

— The first WikiLeaks substory is the ongoing discussion about the actions of the legions of web-based “hacktivists,” led by Anonymous, making counterattacks on WikiLeaks’ behalf. Having gone after several sites last week (including one mistakenly), some activists began talking in terms of “cyber-war” — though GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram cautioned against that type of language from all sides — and were urged on from jail by Assange. NYU professor Gabriella Coleman gave a glimpse into the inner workings of Anonymous, and they also drew plenty of criticism, too, from thinkers like British author Andrew Keen. Media consultant Deanna Zandt offered a thoughtful take on the ethics of cyber-activism.

— The second facet here is the emergence of Openleaks, a leaking organization formally launched this week by WikiLeaks defector Daniel Domscheit-Berg as an alternative to Assange’s group. As Domscheit-Berg explained to several outlets including Forbes, Openleaks will act as a more neutral conduit to leaks than WikiLeaks, which ended up publishing its leaks, something Openleaks won’t do. Wired compared it with WikiLeaks’ rejected 2009 Knight News Challenge proposal, in which it would have functioned primarily as an anonymous submission system for leaks to local news organizations. Openleaks won’t be the last, either: As The Economist noted, if file-sharing is any guide, we’ll see scores of rivals (or comrades).

— The third story is the reaction of various branches of the traditional media, which have been decidedly mixed. WikiLeaks has gotten some support from several corners of the industry, including the faculty of the venerable Columbia School of Journalism, the press in Assange’s native Australia, and Northeastern j-prof Dan Kennedy and numerous other British and American professors and journalists, both in The Guardian. But it’s also been tweaked by others — at the Nieman Foundation Thursday, New York Times editor Bill Keller said that if Assange is a journalist, “he’s not the kind of journalist that I am.”

Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald ripped what he called the mainstream media’s “servile role” to the government in parroting its attitudes toward WikiLeaks, then later argued that the government’s prosecution of WikiLeaks would be a prosecution of investigative journalism in general. Arianna Huffington also chastised the establishment media, arguing that they’re just as much establishment as media. Likewise, Morris’ Steve Yelvington listed five reasons the media hasn’t shown outrage about the government’s backlash against WikiLeaks, including the point that the segment of the American mainstream media concerned about national issues is a shell of its former self.

— All of this provided plenty of fodder for a couple of conferences on WikiLeaks, Internet freedom, and secrecy. Last weekend, the Personal Democracy Forum held a symposium on the subject — you can watch a replay here, as well as a good summary by GRITtv and additional videos on the state of the Internet and online civil disobedience. Micah Sifry offered a thoughtful take on the event afterwards, saying that longings for a “more responsible” version of WikiLeaks might be naive: It’s “far more likely that something far more disruptive to the current order — a distributed and unstoppable system for spreading information — is what is coming next,” he wrote.

And on Thursday, the Nieman Foundation held its own one-day conference on journalism and secrecy that included keynotes by the AP’s Kathleen Carroll and Keller (who distanced himself from Assange but defended The Times’ decision to publish). If you want to go deeper into the conversation at the conference, the #niemanleaks hashtag on Twitter is a good place to start.

Will the iPad eat into print?: The iPad news this week starts with the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, which released a study that suggests, based on survey data, that iPad news apps may cut into newspaper subscriptions by next year. There’s a ton of other interesting data on how iPads are being used and how users are comparing them to print newspapers and newspaper websites, but one statistic — 58 percent of those who subscribe to a print newspaper and use their iPad for more than an hour a day planned to cancel their print subscription within six months — was what drew the headlines. Alan Mutter said publishers have to like the demographics of the iPad’s prime users, but have to wonder whether developing print-like iPad apps is worth it.

Several news organizations introduced new iPad apps this week, led by CNN. Poynter’s Damon Kiesow talked to CNN about the rationale behind its photo-oriented multitouch design, and MocoNews’ Ingrid Lunden looked at why CNN might have made their app free. Steve Safran of Lost Remote liked the app’s design and sociability. Also, the New York Daily News launched a paid (though cheaper than the New York Post) app, and Harper’s added its own iPad offering as well.

Meanwhile, Flipboard, the inaugural iPad app of the year, launched a new version this week. Forbes’ Quentin Hardy talked to Flipboard’s CEO about the vision behind the new app, and The Wall Street Journal wrote about innovative iPad news apps in general. The Washington Post’s Justin Ferrell talked to the Lab’s Justin Ellis about how to design news apps for the iPad. In advertising, Apple launched its first iPad iAd, which seems to be essentially a fully formed advertisement app. One iPad app that’s not coming out this week: Rupert Murdoch’s “tablet newspaper” The Daily, whose launch has reportedly been postponed until next year.

Looking ahead to 2011: We’re nearing the end of the December, which means we’re about to see the year-end reviews and previews start to roll in. The Lab got them kicked off this week by asking its readers for predictions of what 2011 will bring in the journalism world, then publishing the predictions of some of the smartest future-of-news folks in the room.

All of the posts are worth checking out, but there are a few I want to note in particular — The AP’s Jonathan Stray on moving beyond content tribalism (“a news product that refuses to provide me with high-quality filtering and curation of the rest of the world’s information will only ever be an endpoint”), NPR’s Matt Thompson on instant speech transcription (“the Speakularity”), tech pioneer Dave Winer on adjusting to the new news distribution system (“That’s the question news people never seem to ask. How can we create something that has a market?”), and a couple of paid-content predictions on The New York Times and by Steven Brill (who has skin in the game).

The prediction post that generated the most discussion was NYU professor Clay Shirky’s piece on the dismantling of the old-media syndication system. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram expanded on the idea, connecting it explicitly to Google News and the Associated Press, and asking, “In a world where the power to syndicate is available to all, does anyone want what AP is selling?” USC’s Pekka Pekkala explained why he sees this as a positive development for journalists and niche content producers.

As if on cue, Thomson Reuters announced the launch of its new American news service, one that seems as though it might combine traditional news syndication with some elements of modern aggregation. Media analyst Ken Doctor gave some more details about the new service and its deal with the Tribune Co., and Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan was skeptical of this potential new direction for newswires.

Reading roundup: A few good pieces before I send you on your way:

— First, one quick bit of news: The social bookmarking service Delicious was reportedly shutting down, but a Friday blog post seemed to indicate it may live on outside of Yahoo. Here’s a short ode from Mark Luckie at 10,000 Words and a list of alternatives from Search Engine Land.

— At the London Review of Books, British journalist John Lanchester has written an essay making a case for why and how the newspaper industry needs to charge for news online. Anti-paywall folks aren’t going to be crazy about it, but it’s far from the stereotypical revanchist “Make ‘em pay, just ’cause they should” pro-pay argument: “Make the process as easy as possible. Make it invisible and transparent. Make us register once and once only. Walls are not the way forward, but walls are not the same thing as payment, and without some form of payment, the press will not be here in five years’ time.”

— A couple of close looks at what news organizations are doing right: The Atlantic’s web transformation and tips on multimedia storytelling from NPR’s acclaimed Planet Money.

— A North Carolina j-prof and Duke grad student came together (!) to urge news organizations to incorporate more of the tenets of citizen journalism. They have a few specific, practical suggestions, too.

— British journalist Adam Westbrook gave his goodbye to mainstream media, making a smart case that the future lies outside its gates.

— Finally, Jonathan Stray, an AP editor and Lab contributor, has a brilliant essay challenging journalists and news organizations to develop a richer, more fully formed idea of what journalism is for. It may be a convicting piece, but it offers an encouraging vision for the future — and the opportunity for reform — too.

December 16 2010


Internship opportunity with Grassroots Jerusalem

Grassroots Jerusalem co-director Micha Kurz sends word of his team's internship opportunity in new media, with a goal of creating four interactive maps this summer--of streets and housing in Jerusalem, of schools and health statistics, of local stories (using multimedia), and of grassroots organizations and other local resources.

Interested? Check out the full description:

Grassroots Jerusalem – MIT New Media Internship Application 2011

Organizational profile:
Grassroots Jerusalem sets out to provide an “Evolving Map” of the current grassroots activities and organizations working in the Jerusalem area. We provide a picture of what is currently happening on the ground, the pending urgent issues, the local solutions and where support is needed to further the work.

Grassroots Jerusalem does not discriminate between Israeli or Palestinian initiatives, nor does it categorize according to religion or political affiliation (although they may be mentioned). We believe that everyone is entitled to their piece of the puzzle, and their own opinion. What interests us is what is being done, not what is being said.

Grassroots activists recognize that despite the many cultural differences, and contrast of political opinions, we still have much in common. Human rights, justice, nonviolent communication, social and environmental sustainability are just a few of the values we share. Grassroots organizations have a connection and knowledge of Jerusalem from the “bottom up”. These provide the fertile ground on which to build relationships. We recognize the impracticality of true peace, so long as our mainstream societies fail to address the urgent community issues that are often neglected by top-down approaches.

The goal is not to push certain political agendas, or create umbrella organizations and coalitions. Our goal is:

  • To shed light and realize the vast network of some (very special) everyday people, stepping up and finding creative solutions for age old “unsolvable” challenges.
  • To help each other grow and evolve. To be more efficient in our separate goals, and more effective in our collective outcome.

With a clear view of our resources: people, funding, professional consult, global outreach, original ideas, inspiration and spirit, we recognize ourselves for what we are, and realize the true potential we can only reach together. Together we take steps towards creating an organic, grassroots strategy geared for the reality we wish to share.

Job Description

Background: Grassroots Jerusalem has been working on a community needs assessment and organizational profiling project designed to inform the organization’s overarching objective of creating an interactive map of Jerusalem that reflects community values, rather than top-down views. The new media intern will work as part of a team on producing the online interactive maps based on the field work done in the communities. The goal is to create four interactive maps:

  • an accurate street and housing map of Jerusalem;
  • a rich data map with information such as the number schools, health statistics, etc.
  • an unconventional interactive map that uses multimedia to tell personal stories of people in the communities that reflect larger issues; and
  • a map of grassroots organizations working in Jerusalem to address community needs (with links to individual organizational profiles).

The new media intern’s role will focus on the technical aspects of creating these maps. This may include flash or HTML5 programming, graphic design, audio/video editing, etc. This is a great opportunity for someone who is tech-savvy, knowledgeable and interested in open source tools and new media possibilities with community development and social change in mind.

Upon arrival in Jerusalem interns will undergo an orientation designed to not only introduce them to the layout of the city and the technologies essential to the project, but will also provide tools to deal with and better understand the dynamics and challenges that exist for international students working in a conflict area.


  • Work closely with the Grassroots Jerusalem new media journalist to:

  • extract themes, narratives and issues from community meetings and needs assessments and organizational profiles

  • brainstorm ways to present this information using the online digital platform in an engaging, effective and accessible manner that reflect the community’s views and values
  • work from concept to creation of the digital maps (with a focus on the technical side of things – programming, editing, graphic design, etc.)
  • participate in community events and relationship-building as part of the research necessary for creating the story-telling map
  • ●●

  • Assist Grassroots Jerusalem staff in uploading multimedia content and data to the website using Ushahidi or other online tools
  • Address and troubleshoot technical issues as they arise
  • Assist Grassroots Jerusalem where needed, as directed and requested (i.e. producing photographic and video materials)
  • Person Specification: The successful candidate will have:

    • A minimum of 2 months experience living/working in a developing world environment
    • A passion for international development, community organization and human rights
    • Proven web programming skills for interactive projects using tools such as HTML5 or Flash
    • Strong knowledge of open source tools
    • A proven ability to work independently with minimal supervision
    • Excellent communication skills and ability to work in a team

    Commitment: Interns will need to be in Jerusalem and ready to begin work on June 12th and will need to be available until August 12th. Interns are welcome to stay longer, but need to be aware of the orientation week as it is a required component to this summer’s work.

    As this is an intern position there is no salary, but the Grassroots Jerusalem staff is committed to helping their interns take advantage of the variety of funding they qualify for through their educational institutions as well as providing form letters geared to help interns reach out to their friends, family and local organizations for financial support.

    How to apply: Please email the following items to intern@grassrootsjerusalem.org

    • Resume and cover letter (max 2 pages)
    • On a separate page please answer the following questions to the best of your ability:


    1. Please describe the extent of your international experience and how you believe this experience will contribute to your feeling prepared to live in Jerusalem this summer.


  • What types of experience have you had working in a team on a common objective? What do you enjoy about working in this manner? What did you find most challenging?
  • ●●

  • What do you believe makes you an excellent candidate for this internship opportunity?
  • ●●

  • What kind of support do you require of the Grassroots Jerusalem staff in order to feel you will be able to work the most effectively this summer?
  • ●●

    Due to the high volume of applications only selected applicants will be contacted.

    December 09 2010


    From Indymedia to Wikileaks: What a decade of hacking journalistic culture says about the future of news

    The first time I ever heard the words “mirror website,” I was sitting at a debris-strewn desk, hunched over a desktop computer, on the second floor of a nondescript office building on East 29th in Manhattan. I’d recently started volunteering with the New York City Independent Media Center, an organization that would turn out to be one of the first “citizen journalism” organizations in the United States — though certainly no one would have called it that at the time. The IMC was in its third day of participant-powered coverage of protest actions taken against World Economic Forum (WEF) meetings in New York. It was less than five months after September 11; the city was cold and bleak, and people were tense. Really tense. And our website, NYC Indymedia, had slowed to a crawl.

    “It’s going to crash,” I muttered.

    “Don’t worry,” I was told. “We’ve got it mirrored on a bunch of backup servers. The updates from people using the Open Newswire won’t show up right away, but they will show up, and people will still be able to read the site.”

    I wish I could say that the Indymedia site was crashing because we were — like Julian Assange — the targets of powerful governmental forces, but I suspect the website slowness had more to do with unexpected server load and a tenuous back-end infrastructure than with any sort of global conspiracy. Nevertheless, I breathed a sigh of relief. It was all going to be okay. Somewhere, a person who knew all about such complicated things like “mirrors” and “servers” was taking care of it.

    I raise this old story from the prehistoric days of online citizen journalism because, when I read tweets like “the first serious infowar is now engaged, and the field of battle is WikiLeaks,” I think it’s worth taking a step back and trying to put recent developments in perspective. The battle over Wikileaks, and the journalistic questions that it raises, are genuinely new developments — but they’re new developments grounded in a few long term trends and a history stretching back nearly two decades. The impact of WikiLeaks on journalism is more an impact of degree than of kind; what’s happening isn’t entirely new, but it is happening on a greater scale than ever before.

    I want to talk about two general trends I see shaping journalism, trends that are highlighted in developments at the leading edge of “journalistic hacktivism” over the past decade.

    The Internet-powered introduction of new “objects” into the journalistic bloodstream

    Collapsing business models aside, the primary change shaping journalism over the past ten years has been the introduction of strange new “digital news objects” into the traditional journalistic work flow. In the days of the coverage of the World Economic Forum by Indymedia, these new objects were first-hand citizen accounts, on-the-scene photos, and other forms of primitive “citizen journalism,” uploaded in real time to websites. Since 2002, we’ve seen these forms of first-hand eyewitness slowly be embraced by mainstream news organizations, from CNN’s iReport to The New York Times’ Moment in Time crowdsourced photo series.

    Now we see news organizations struggle to integrate massive amounts of semi-structured data into their traditional workflow — some (though certainly not all) of it coming from non-traditional informational actors like WikiLeaks. Drawing on the pioneering work of media theorist Lev Manovich, Columbia professor Todd Gitlin has recently argued that

    …the definitive informational metaphor of our epoch is the database. The database is not just a metaphor, in fact — it’s a certification of what knowledge looks like and how it is to be gained. A metaphor is a carrier, a condensation of meaning. A database is a heap.

    While I don’t entirely agree with Gitlin about the political meaning of WikiLeaks (disclosure: Gitlin was my dissertation advisor), I do agree that the challenge traditional journalists now face is how to “come to terms” with the presence of these strange new objects. What journalistic status should we accord databases, and how should we manage them inside conventional news routines? Much like the first citizen photos from the scene of protests and natural disasters required journalists to rethink what counted as journalistic evidence, WikiLeaks’ slow-but-steady release of 250,000 diplomatic cables is prompting journalists to ask similar questions about what they do. The difference between citizen photos and databases is a difference in scale, and extreme differences in scale eventually become differences in kind.

    So the presence of these strange new extra-journalistic news objects isn’t all that new. New “quasi-sources” have been hacking journalistic workflow for years. What’s new is the scale of the evidence that’s now bombarding journalism. The question of how to manage reader-submitted photos is a qualitatively different question than the dilemma of how to manage hundreds of thousands of leaked cables being provided by an information-transparency organization whose ultimate motives and values are unclear. Think of the State Department cables as a massive pile of crowdsourced evidence — only in this case the “crowd” is the U.S. diplomatic corps, and the first work of document collection and analysis has been done by an outside organization.

    The long rise of the news geeks

    In the case of both Indymedia and WikiLeaks, developments which have had a serious impact on the newsroom have been powered by what I like to call the “leading politicized edge” of the online geek community. It’s not surprising that, as leading hacker anthropologist Gabriella Coleman has noted:

    Politically minded geeks bred during the era of cheaper PC’s, home-schooled programming, and virtual interactions chose to use Free Software for the implementation of the early proliferation of Indymedia centers. Mailing lists and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) — both widely available in free software versions at the time — were the main communication tools that facilitated conversation between dispersed tech-activists first establishing centers in different locations like Washington DC, Boston, London, and Seattle.

    Ten years later, the story is largely the same. Today, working journalists are confronted by ideologies of “information liberation” and terms like “distributed denial of service attacks” (DDOS) and “website mirrors.” While these ideas and innovations have not been created within journalism, they impact the flow of information, and thus impact journalism itself. A few days ago I wrote that Wikileaks was “organized informational anarchism with journalistic consequences.” This new world of geek-powered information innovation requires an appropriate level of response from our centers of journalistic education and from our newsrooms

    The occasional news-oriented hacker aside, it’s important for journalists to keep in mind that, despite some surface similarities, all denizens of hacker culture are not the same. Anonymous is not Wikileaks. Indeed, both Anonymous and hacker organizations are quick to point out that Anonymous and distributed denial of service attacks are not “hacking” at all. My tech-savvy friends who first taught me about website mirrors in 2002 were rather unique in the open source world; not everyone in that world cared much about either journalism or the World Economic Forum.

    While it might be heartening to swell the ranks of journalism by drawing all advocates of digital transparency into our ranks, journalists need to ponder what aspects of these powerful online communities they want to embrace and what aspects they might want to leave behind. But they can only do that if they think historically about the path online journalism has taken over the past decade, and if they understand the way that today’s hackers and technologists are shaping our information flows.

    (Many thanks to Gabriella Coleman for her comments on an earlier draft of this post.)

    December 06 2010


    UN Global Pulse Camp 1.0

    (Photo credit: Christopher Fabian of UNICEF & Global Pulse)

    Just got back from the UN "Pulse Camp 1.0".

    Global Pulse is a new and quite ambitious UN initiative "to improve evidence-based decision-making and close the information gap between the onset of a global crisis and the availability of actionable information to protect the vulnerable" (Full overview at http://www.unglobalpulse.org/about).

    read more

    December 01 2010


    Huge video leak of 2009 Moldovan protests and state violence

    [View one of the videos.]

    In April 2009, following an election widely viewed as rigged, protests erupted in Moldova.

    But closed-circuit video footage of the protests and subsequent violence has been leaked, and the Center for Future Civic Media was approached by the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism to make available those 16 hours of footage, now available at dickgregoryforpresident.com.

    President Vladimir Voronin and the communist regime reacted violently to the protests, suspending the constitution starting with that night. The results: at least three dead youth, almost one thousand young people illegally arrested and tortured, over one thousand days of arrests issued, a president and prime-minister threatening to shoot the protesters and ordering the sequestration of students in schools.


    More than a year and a half after, nobody knows the names of people responsible for the abuses committed during those days.

    The site the Center put together allows users to code video content, such as the license plate of an unmarked secret police car...

    jeep-ul care a adunat tineri din piata, se vede numarul (MAI 0699) - min 4.38 sau Set Time 278.39898681640625

    ...or requests for help identifying a group of men:

    cine-s baietii astia, pe la min 4.30? baga 278.9989929199219 si apasa Set Time

    Already we've heard of requests to use the footage in court cases alleging that state agents killed protestors. Overcoming the technical challenges of sharing such a volume video is almost reward enough, but to help hold accountable those who would misuse state power, that, in large part, is what civic media is here for.

    November 08 2010


    Balancing Positive and Negative of New Media for Political Activism

    In my previous post for Idea Lab, I began examining how new media has and hasn't proven effective in helping push political change in countries around the world. That was in advance of the "New Media: Alternative Politics" conference at the University of Cambridge. This post follows after my participation in the conference.

    What qualifies as new media?

    After all, what's new today is old by tomorrow. And, as Firoze Manji, founder of Pambuzuka News, said at the New Media: Alternative Politics conference held recently at Cambridge, is it really new or is just old wine repackaged in new bottles?

    For me, the definition that seems most appropriate for new media -- and that seems to set it apart -- is to call them connective, interactive technologies that are bidirectional, dialectic and conversational, such as web 2.0 applications and new mobile technologies. In comparison, traditional "older" forms of media primarily use linear and one-way communication.

    The difference between new and old media has led to a lot of optimism for new media as a new, golden solution for activists. As evidenced by presentations at the conference, this requires a more sober assessment. The link between online and offline action is not always apparent and there are other challenges, including issues around authenticity and validity. On the other side of the coin, the benefits of new media for activism include virtual public platforms for alternative or on-the-ground voices and an enhanced ability to connect, organize and ideally implement collective action.

    Redefining Citizenship

    However, we need to separate the technologies from the content and information being communicated. Technologies are merely the medium for delivery. It's the people behind the new media tools who drive change -- their passion, commitment, intent and purpose. They create the message and how effectively the technologies are used to convey this information. A tool is just a tool, whether a pencil, newspaper or mobile phone. It can be used to amplify both positive and negative messages, both successfully and unsuccessfully.

    For good or bad, perhaps one of the greatest impacts of new media is the re-defining of citizenship. There is a move towards citizens having dual citizenship in the virtual and the real world. In this new media space, leaders are selected rather than elected and citizens feel empowered to create change, particularly in subversive environments.

    It's no coincidence that web use is so important in countries with repressive political regimes, such as China, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. As Manji said, "war has many terrains." The ammunition for new media users is information. Historically, power and information have always been closely aligned. As researcher and conference presenter Paolo d'Urbano explained, Victorian England controlled India through information domination.

    In today's new media battle ground, state and non-state players battle it out. Controversial websites are under cyber-attack, hackers and spies spread misinformation or fake videos, airwaves and signals are jammed, government or advertisers place pressure on service providers to control content, services are banned, and/or licenses are required as a means of state control.

    Middle East

    This is particularly notable in the Middle East. Researcher Adi Kuntsman has traced the digital warfare between the Palestinian state and Israel. It has included heavy state and individual investment in new media by both sides. These tools are used to document events as they unfold, provide a critique of the war and offer a powerful alternative to both mirror and intensify the war on the ground. Fanar Haddad, who researched how the Iraq war was documented on YouTube, argued that, despite the challenges of contextualizing and authenticating the data, the combination of mobile phone camera and YouTube has provided a podium for minorities to offer "counter-narratives" from "everyday events in conflict stricken areas."

    Alexander Dunn researched the April 6th Youth Movement Group on Facebook. He found that the online group members created momentum, coordinated responses and satellite activities after the general strike in Egypt in 2008. For the 0.5 percent who were active members, the group was a means to communicate and get involved. Even though 99.5 percent of the members formed an inactive audience, just joining the group was an act of solidarity. Some would criticize this type of activism as "slacktivism," as all that was required of the members was to click join. But change politics has never been about 100 percent participation. Despite the group being heavily skewed in terms of levels of participation, political action was successfully mobilized through new media.

    Martin Gladwell in his recent article Small Change - Why the revolution will not be tweeted, argued that "if you're taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy." But despite this group's loose ties and flat network-based structure, leadership naturally and successfully shifted when certain active members were involved with on the ground activity. Other previously non-active members stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum and the group continued "acting in concert with the intent of reforming the repressive offline political sphere in Egypt," Dunnsaid. That helps explain why the Egyptian government seems threatened by new media. Recent legislation in the country requires licenses for organizations that send bulk text messages, and there is speculation that Facebook may be shut down temporarily during the upcoming parliamentary elections scheduled for this month.


    In Africa, the power of new media is limited by access. Ten percent of Africans have access to the Internet, but when you remove countries like South Africa, Egypt and Algeria, the average Internet penetration rate is only two to three percent. The penetration rate of mobile technology is rapidly increasing, however. But penetration rates are very different to usage rates, as owning a mobile phone is very different from being able to afford to use it.

    Despite these challenges, there are definitely some new media success stories in Africa. Mxit in South Africa has managed to overcome cost barriers by providing a free instant messaging service, and the results have included more messages sent per day on Mxit than there are global tweets.

    In Nigeria, there are over two million people on Facebook, mainly via their mobile phones. Civilians report street stories to Sahara Reporters in an attempt to fight political corruption. Our project in Zimbabwe, Freedom Fone, is a mobile tool that bridges the digital divide. It has been developed to enable two-way audio information to be shared through mobile phone networks for people that do not have access to the Internet.

    New media tools are not perfect. Tools are just tools, and when it comes down to it, motivated activists will use whatever they can get their hands on. But when citizens have access to these empowering new media tools, they are using them strategically, effectively and with discipline and success for the purpose of political change.

    October 18 2010


    Survey on Innovative Use of Technologies

    Dear all,

    Nice to meet you all! I've become aware of NetSquared during my research on activism and organizations using innovative communication tools, and Claire encouraged me to link my survey here for all of you to see (thank you!), so...

    read more

    October 08 2010


    This Week in Review: A surprisingly sensible move online, two ugly falls, and questioning hyperlocal news

    [Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week's top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

    Another old-media stalwart goes online: This week’s biggest story is a lot more interesting for media geeks than for those more on the tech side, but I think it does have some value as a sort of symbolic moment. Howard Kurtz, who’s been The Washington Post’s media writer for pretty much all of its recent history, jumped this week to The Daily Beast, the aggregation and news site run by former magazine star Tina Brown and media mogul Barry Diller. Kurtz will head the site’s D.C. bureau and write about media and politics. He’s about as traditional/insider Washington media as they come (he also hosts CNN’s Reliable Sources), so seeing him move to an online-only operation that has little Beltway presence was surprising to a lot of media watchers.

    So why’d he do it? In the announcement story at The Daily Beast, Kurtz said it was “the challenge of fast-paced online journalism” that drew him in. In interviews with TBD, Yahoo News and The New York Times, Kurtz referred to himself as an “online entrepreneur” who hopes to find it easier to innovate at a two-year-old web publication than within a hulking institution like the Post. “If you want to get out there and invent something new, maybe it is better to try to do that at a young place that’s still growing,” he told TBD.

    Kurtz has his critics, and while there are some (like the American Journalism Review’s Rem Rieder) who saw this as a benchmark event for web journalism, several others didn’t see The Daily Beast as the plucky, outsider startup Kurtz made it out to be. PaidContent’s David Kaplan said that with folks like Brown and Diller involved, The Daily Beast has a lot of old media in its blood. (It may merge with Newsweek soon.) Salon’s Alex Pareene made the point more sharply, saying he was going to work for his “rich friend’s cheap-content farm” for a “fat check and a fancy title.” As Rachel Sklar told Politico (in a much kinder take), for Kurtz, this is “risk, but padded risk.”

    Maybe the fact that this move isn’t nearly as shockingly risky as it used to be is the main cultural shift we’re seeing, argued Poynter’s Steve Myers in the most thoughtful piece on this issue. Kurtz is following a trail already blazed by innovators who have helped web journalism become financially mature enough to make this decision easy, Myers said. “Kurtz’s move isn’t risky or edgy; it’s well-reasoned and practical — which says more about the state of online media than it does about his own career path,” Myers wrote. For his part, Kurtz said that his departure from the Post doesn’t symbolize the death of print, but it does say something about the energy and excitement on the web.

    Of course, people immediately started drawing up lists of who should replace Kurtz at the Post, but the most worthwhile item on that front is the advice for Howard Kurtz’s replacement by Clint Hendler of the Columbia Journalism Review. Hendler argued we’d be better off with a media critic than with another studiously balanced media writer. According to Hendler, that requires “someone who is willing to, as the case warrants, state opinions, poke fun, call sides, and make enemies.”

    A reporter and a newspaper chain’s sad scandals: Two media scandals dominated the news about the news this week. First, Rick Sanchez up and got himself fired by CNN last Friday for a radio rant in which he called Jon Stewart a bigot and suggested that Jews run the news media. Sanchez apologized a few days later, and The Huffington Post’s Chez Pazienza mined the incident for clues of what CNN/Rick Sanchez relations were like behind the scenes.

    There are a couple of minor angles to this that might interest future-of-news folks: Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice used the situation to point out that those in the news media are being targeted more severely by partisans on both sides. (We got better examples of this with the Dave Weigel, Octavia Nasr and Helen Thomas snafus this summer.) Also, Sanchez was one of the news industry’s most popular figures on Twitter, and his account, @RickSanchezCNN, may die. Lost Remote said it’s a reminder for journalists to create Twitter accounts in their own names, not just in their employers’.

    Second, The New York Times’ David Carr detailed a litany of examples of a frat-boy, shock-jock culture that’s taken over the Tribune Co. since Sam Zell bought it in 2007. (Gawker and New York gave us punchy summaries of the revelations.) The Tribune is possibly the biggest and clearest example of the newspaper industry’s disastrous decline over the past few years, and this article simply adds more fuel to the fire. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum noted that the article also contains the first report of Zell directly intervening in news coverage to advance his own business interests. Meanwhile, the Tribune is slogging through bankruptcy, as mediation has broken down.

    New media analyst Dan Conover saw the Tribune fiasco as evidence that the news business doesn’t just need to be reformed, it needs to be blown up. “We are past the point of happy endings, beyond the hope of half measures, and we know too much now to keep accepting the smugly reasonable advice of the Old Order’s deeply conflicted spokespeople,” he wrote. It’s quite the righteous-anger-fueled rant.

    The hyperlocal business model questioned: We talked a bit about hyperlocal news last week, and that conversation bled over into this week, as Alan Mutter talked to J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer about her fantastic analysis of local news startups. Mutter quoted Schaffer as saying that community news sites are not a business, then went on to make the point that like many startups, many new news organizations go under within a few years. The money just isn’t there, Mutter said. (The Wall also has 10 takeaways from Schaffer’s study.)

    For those in the local news business themselves, the Reynolds Journalism Institute’s Joy Mayer provided some helpful tips and anecdotes from West Seattle Blog’s Tracy Record, and the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles put together an online news startup checklist. Meanwhile, the hyperlocal giant du jour, AOL’s Patch, continued its expansion with a launch in Seattle, and dropped hints of a plan to get into newspapers. TBD’s Steve Buttry assured local news orgs that they can compete and collaborate with Patch and other competitors at the same time.

    The iPad’s explosive growth: It’s been a little while since we heard too much about the iPad, but we got some interesting pieces about it this week. CNBC informed us that the iPad has blown past the DVD player as the fastest-adopted non-phone product in U.S. history with 3 million units sold in its first 80 days and 4.5 million per quarter, well more than even the iPhone’s 1 million in its first quarter. It’s on pace to pass the entire industries of gaming hardware and non-smart cellphones in terms of sales by next year. The NPD Group also released a survey of iPad owners that found that early adopters are using their iPads for an average of 18 hours a week, and for a third of them, that number is increasing.

    When the iPad first came out, many people saw its users spending that time primarily consuming media, rather than creating it. But in an attempt to refute that idea, Business Insider put together an interesting list of 10 ways people are using the iPad to create content. And marketer Hutch Carpenter looked at the quality of various uses for the iPad and predicted that as Apple and app developers improve the user’s experience, it will become a truly disruptive technology.

    More defenses of social media’s social activism: Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece questioning Twitter’s capability of producing social change drew no shortage of criticism last week, and it continued to come in this week. Harvard scholar David Weinberger made several of the common critiques of the article, focusing on the idea that Gladwell is tearing down a straw man who believes that the web can topple tyrannies by itself. Other takes: Change Observer’s Maria Popova argued Gladwell is defining activism too narrowly, and that online communities broaden our scope of empathy, which bridges the gap between awareness and action; The Guardian’s Leo Mirani said that social media can quickly spread information from alternative viewpoints we might never see otherwise; and Clay Shirky, the target of much of Gladwell’s broadside, seemed kind of amused by Gladwell’s whole point.

    The sharpest rebuttal this week (along with Weinberger’s) came from Shea Bennett of Twittercism, who argued that change starts small and takes time, even with social media involved, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. “As we all continue to refine and improve our online social communities, this shift in power away from a privileged few to an increasingly organised collective that can be called at a moment’s notice [presents] a real threat to the status quo,” he wrote.

    Reading roundup: A few more nifty things to check out this weekend:

    — A few cool resources on data journalism were published this week: British j-prof Paul Bradshaw wrote an invaluable guide to data journalism at The Guardian, taking you through everything from data collection to sorting to contextualizing to visualization. ReadWriteCloud’s Alex Williams followed that post up with two posts making the case for data journalism and giving an overview of five data visualization tools. And if you needed some inspiration, PBS’ MediaShift highlighted six incredible data visualization projects.

    — The offline reading app Instapaper has become pretty popular with web/media geeks, and its founder, Marco Arment, just rolled out a paid subscription service. The Lab’s Joshua Benton examined what this plan might mean for future web paywalls.

    — Several mobile journalism tidbits: TBD’s Steve Buttry made a case for the urgency of developing a mobile journalism plan in newsrooms, The Guardian reported on a survey looking at mobile device use and newspaper/magazine readership, and the Ryerson Review of Journalism gave an overview of Canadian news orgs’ forays into mobile news.

    — Northwestern j-prof Pablo Boczkowski gave a fascinating interview to the Lab’s C.W. Anderson on conformity in online news. Must-reading for news nerds.

    — The real hot topic of the past week in the news/tech world was not any particular social network, but The Social Network, the movie about Facebook’s founding released last weekend. I couldn’t bring myself to dedicate a section of this week’s review to a movie, but the Lab’s Megan Garber did find a way to relate it to the future of news. Enjoy.

    September 13 2010


    Personalised video has you as hero ending global poverty!

    The Global Poverty Project have just released a personalised video using flash layers to put you in the middle of the story of ending global poverty. You can see it's native site at http://wnnn.tv .

    The two minute video makes you the hero who is praised by world leaders and celebrities for ending extreme poverty. After entering your name, you witness a news report of how the world is reacting to your amazing achievements. World leaders, celebrities and the public applaud your efforts in a series of funny, challenging and enlightening scenarios – including the revelation that aid agencies are closing for lack of work.

    read more

    August 06 2010


    Re-imagining Gaza: Youth Video Evaluation and Community Screenings

    With the end of our youth media program in Jabaliya refugee camp last week, we conducted evaluations and screenings of the films with the families and local community, along with a photography exhibition and large public screening hosted at the Mat’haf (Gaza Museum) from August 1 - 13, 2010.

    The workshop evaluations were conducted in focus groups through follow-up questionnaires and group discussions, as well as video-based interviews conducted by youth among themselves. See a brief excerpt of evaluation interviews edited by youth in the 4-min video below.

    Both the community and public exhibition and screenings were a huge success with nearly 250-300 people in the audience, Q&A with the young filmmakers, a diploma ceremony that the youth and their families looked forward to, and interviews with youth conducted by Al Jazeera’s Arabic language TV correspondent. The images on the Voices Beyond Walls blog give a sense of excitement about these events.

    The youth continue to work on independent media projects and short films, with the support of their trainers through an on-going follow-up program. It’s been an exhilarating summer for everyone involved and we’re proud to have an extraordinary team of young filmmakers pushing the boundaries of participatory media in Gaza.

    July 30 2010


    Re-imagining Gaza: Youth Photo Exhibit & Films Premiere :: Aug 1st

    The “Re-imagining Project” is a program of digital video, photography and storytelling workshops that supports Palestinian children and youth in expressing their cultural identity, personal narratives, and creative visions through participatory digital media.

    The photo exhibit and screening events showcase work emerging from two 3-week digital media and storytelling workshops conducted from July 4 – 25, 2010 with 10-15 year old children, in collaboration with the Women’s Program Center in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza and the Al Aroub Play and Animation Center in Al Aroub refugee camp, West Bank.

    West Bank Event: Al Aroub Camp, Hebron, July 29, 2010

    Gaza Event: Al Mat’haf, Sodaniya, Beach Road, Gaza
    Photo Exhibit: August 1st – 13th, 2010

    Exhibit Opening Reception and Film Screenings:
    Sunday 5:30pm – 8:30pm, August 1, 2010

    The program has been conducted by Voices Beyond Walls with community centers in refugee camps in the West Bank since 2006. In June-July 2010, the project was launched in Gaza in collaboration with Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE) and participating community centers.

    The program is led by an international and local team of filmmakers, artists, photographers, educators, and youth community animators. The project is supported in part by Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE), Sharek Youth Forum, Tamer Institute, Canaan Institute for New Pedagogy, the French Cultural Center in Gaza, UNRWA, the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, and the Genevieve McMillan-Reba Stewart Foundation.

    The photo exhibition is hosted at Al Mat’haf (the Museum), a one-of-a-kind recreation and cultural center that showcases Gaza’s rich historical past and seamlessly blends it into the context of contemporary life in Gaza. At a time when many in Gaza have forgotten its rich cultural heritage, Al-Mathaf aims to preserve the region’s historical treasures, provide a venue for modern cultural dialogue, and support the new generation in creating a brighter future.

    More on our blog: http://voicesbeyondwalls.blogspot.com

    July 27 2010


    Another wartime disconnect

    We're in the midst of another wartime disconnect, though it's different this time around.

    During the Vietnam War, the disconnect was between the government and its citizens. With the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, the press solidified a long-suspected belief that the government, through its spokespersons and the military, was misleading the public about the prosecution of the war.

    Because they were published in 1973, the Pentagon Papers were late to the game, so to speak, to affect public opinion about the war. Yet they helped turn Americans away from their government: Americans knew their government had failed them, and since then, but for times of extreme crisis, Americans haven't trusted their government to make best-interest decisions.

    Today there is another disconnect, highlighted by Wikileaks' publication of tens of thousands of documents purporting to show that the war in Afghanistan is going much worse and with much more innocent bloodshed than the government has admitted. Wikileaks frames this documentation similar to that of the Pentagon Papers, claiming that there's dissonance in what the government is saying and what the public now knows.

    But there's not.

    The disconnect, instead, is entirely within the public. The unsavory work of special forces, the unnecessary death of civilians, the unpalatable role of Pakistan in propping up the Taliban: all of these were already well documented. The public, however, simply didn't know or didn't care. The disconnect is between hearing facts and then feeling compelled to act on them.

    Thus opens a space for Wikileaks and those like 2010 Knight News Challenge winner Teru Kuwayama, a photojournalist trying to break through the shield of indifference by embedding himself with Marines in Afghanistan to tell stories that Americans will--must--pay attention to. As he told journalism.co.uk yesterday:

    We've been in Afghanistan for a decade now, and yet the vast majority of Americans have a very limited sense of what we're doing there. That means we [the media] haven't been doing a very good job. We're now in a situation where our press is in serious decline, at a moment when our nation is escalating a war with tremendous costs. That means the public gets even more disconnected from its military, at a time when it should be the most concerned. I can't tell people what to think about this war, but I believe very strongly that they should be thinking about it.

    What the Wikileaks episode illustrates isn't that the American government is lying. Rather, it's that we're bad at hearing and processing the truth. We need more compelling methods of journalistic storytelling--whether Wikileaks' data-and-p.r.-intense version or Kuwayama's intimate photojournalism--in order to engage the public, even or especially when engagement is actually enlistment of the public to do more work for itself.

    [Edited to include a correction from David Chandler on the extent to which (even less than I'd originally argued) American opinion on the Vietnam War was affected by the Pentagon Papers.]

    July 23 2010


    Filming and Editing with youth in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza – Week 3

    The final week of our workshop in Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza focused on getting youth narratives filmed on-location along with editing the video shorts. In the upcoming days we plan to finalize all films and screen them in the local community, along with post-workshop evaluations.

    More photos and updates on our blog: http://voicesbeyondwalls.blogspot.com

    The following summarizes our experiences in the final week:

    Day 11: A day of ups and downs shooting video in the camp…

    A day with many ups and downs - we had left video cameras with all groups and trainers to continue filming over the weekend. All but one group reported in their morning check-in that they were nearly done with their primary shooting. Many had worked hard on the weekend in new locations and reworked narratives.

    However, during our video footage review it became clear nearly all had critical challenges, which nearly left their films either unusable or fairly flat. These included very poor audio and lighting for many crucial scenes; interestingly at least 2 groups shot scenes in the center (when they were unable to get permission to shoot elsewhere) but somehow failed to notice the roaring diesel generator running in the background, muting all but the loudest characters in the scenes. Others shot indoors in very poor lightning or composition and outdoor shots at a distance had little or no expression seen in the characters. Natural and dramatic acting was also turning out to be a challenge for many groups in difficult locations with little preparation, coaching or rehearsal.

    There seems to be a dilemma to get the right balance between indoor/outdoor shooting to handle light and the inevitable noise in the camp. So we suggested good "location scouting" was most crucial for all groups, along with getting compelling characters in desirable roles. In some cases, simply casting other individuals in critical roles that are more authentic, was the only solution to make the films seem compelling. Finally, we urged some trainers to work closer with the other teams to provide more guidance and support.

    One could feel the exasperation of the teams as they watched their footage and we noticed that many scenes re-shot had only gotten worse. This was certainly not an outcome we all wished at this stage of the workshop with all the training and critical reviews we had done. So we simply went around and got everyone to give constructive suggestions to each group as they presented their work; clearly seeing it on large format screen really helps each time. At least two groups decided to completely re-write their stories or choose a new concept, as they saw their current work fall flat. We decided to work intensively with the two groups most in need to get them back on track.

    The only group that finished shooting all footage was the one doing the silent abstract film which they shot in a new location around destroyed buildings by the sea - the effect was quite moving and everyone clapped at the end. I suggested they combine their footage from the previous location to retain the urgency and dramatic character they originally achieved. Overall, this group appears to have some powerful footage to go into editing.

    With the inspiration from the last group's footage, we got all other groups to meet separately with us to consider how to improve their work. Roger and Maha worked closely with a group where the children quickly developed refreshing new story, which they are excited to shoot tomorrow.

    I had one group, which was a bit demoralized due to internal dynamics and trainer issues, to revert back to a piece they originally developed in the first week, focusing on human rights issues and persons injured in Jabaliya camp during the war. They were psyched to get back on-location and begin shooting. So we developed a new angle where we would have one team interview and shoot the emerging story, while another "camera crew" would film them doing so, thus creating a film inside a film. We had the "camera crew" of a 11-year old boy (Mohammed) and girl from another group use Roger's professional Panasonic video camera for the secondary shoot; they both took to it readily panning gracefully between the interview and the team filming it.

    The pairing worked really well as we re-interviewed the Hammad family who suffered during the war; they welcomed us back in their home as both teams filmed them in a somewhat odd fashion (one saying "action" after the other). They understood the concept and that it was for training purposes as well. The camera team also filmed the group making decisions about their shots and preparing for interviews while walking along, so the film may turn out to be fairly compelling once it’s completed. The team plans to meet Mezan, the human rights center in the camp and film two other cases as part of their documentary narrative.

    This was a great high-point for the frustrating day as the group felt a sense of satisfaction at seeing a concept come together quickly and having a workable plan of action to produce something effective in a short time. Let’s see how the rest goes with all other groups as they wrap up shooting tomorrow, and get into editing...

    Day 12: Wrapping up shooting and brief editing tutorial

    The day started with all the groups eagerly waiting in the courtyard of the center holding tripods and cameras ready to go for their final shoot. I came in with a large tray of Bakhalava to celebrate the arrival of my little sister's baby boy this morning. Just enough sugar to get everyone recharged for their filming on-location all morning.

    Each team went out to their final locations; I took our group to the Mezan Center for Human Rights to see if we could get them to take us out for an interview with a family. No one was around, so we instead went to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), also nearby... they too were hesitant (and asked for formal letters of request), but the young team persisted and the staff finally asked a field officer to take us out to a site in Beit Lahiya where several families and schools had been hard hit. The group worked in two teams conducting the interviews and filming the film; I was impressed at their clockwork dynamic. Even the 11-year old Mohammed closely held his professional Panasonic DVX camera (which was way bigger than his sholders) and shot footage indoors and in the streets, walking rapidly backwards to frame the shots.

    The group filmed 3 families two of which were in Jabaliya camp, each with devastating stories of loss and inspiring resilience. Abeer, the 15-year old girl directing the group, conducted most interviews along with Nour, while others assisted with photography and basic production work - a natural team with each one taking turns to manage the shoot. We did many interviews indoors, with several shots in the open to capture the destroyed homes and conversing while walking with our characters in the narrow alleys of the camp. Both cameras captured multiple angles of the shots; with nearly 3 hours of video it will be quite a bit of work for the group to begin sorting out and trimming their final scenes during editing.

    In the afternoon, I conducted a brief hour-long tutorial of the VideoStudio editing software using an example of the "Rabbit City" film this group had shot last week. They have subsequently abandoned the story in favor of the human rights piece. So it made for a good example that was fun to edit. They learned the key elements of editing, trimming, sound tracks, audio recording, titling and transitions with only a few special effects in the context of this narrative. They suggested slow motion and repeat takes in some scenes, which all added nicely to the final film rendered.

    Tomorrow all groups will begin organizing and capturing their footage to begin editing in groups, so we hope to get them off on a good track, though some may still insist on re-shooting a few scenes with audio/lighting issues. Let’s hope we can keep the full group engaged in the editing process somehow or find other constructive video/photo activities as the Al Aroub team has been trying.

    Day 13: Power cuts and video editing...

    A frustrating day for many groups as we struggled to begin video editing with just 3 laptops available for 5 groups. One finally finished shooting its last 2 scenes, while the others tried to review their footage, logging scenes, writing up key descriptions, and sequencing them on paper.

    The center had no power for most of the day - later we heard it was a scheduled power outage throughout the camp, and the center's only diesel generator simply broke-down. So we tried to use laptops with whatever battery charge was remaining, while some groups reviewed their footage on the tiny video camera screens. At some point 2-3 groups tried to move to other buildings (a nearby UN office and a special needs center) for an hour or so to continue working, however most simply fizzled out by early afternoon with all the logistical challenges and resource constraints.

    Only one group managed to finish most of their initial editing (for the abstract silent film) while 2 others made it part way through their footage. My group had shot nearly 3 hours of interviews (using two cameras), so it took a great deal of time to sort through and select some key scenes from just one camera - turns out to be a more ambitious effort than expected. We have a great deal more to do tomorrow. The remaining two groups are still essentially beginning their editing work tomorrow.

    So the next 2 days will remain intensive if we can keep groups focused and manage with the power outages; our plan B is simply to move to another center temporarily. We'll review rough cuts tomorrow late afternoon, and hope to get all shorts completed by the end of the week for final screenings.

    I expect we'll do our post-workshop evaluations on Sunday morning, so all groups have enough time to wrap-up prior to it. I'm working on a new questionnaire for the evaluation.

    We plan to do a community screening in Jabaliya camp early next week with families (Monday), and hopefully a public screening in Gaza the following weekend. That should give us more time to refine and finalize all films with subtitles, print a selection of photos (from both workshops) and arrange some publicity to attract local audiences in Gaza.

    Day 14: Power back on and video editing progressing

    Today was much better as we miraculously had power nearly all day at the woman's center in Jabaliya camp. After a quick warm-up we asked everyone to discuss their editing and shooting experience thus far, to get some feedback on things we can improve - of course power and access to working laptops on-time were their biggest concerns.

    We then broke up into our editing teams and tried to get everyone back on track; two groups waited around for new laptops to arrive which we had to setup with the editing software , both of them had to switch mid-stream twice, as their laptops crashed... and lost their initial edits. This was quite disruptive and frustrating, but the groups pressed ahead.

    My group spent a great deal of time reviewing and capturing a selection of key scenes from over 6 hours of video they shot using the two cameras. We finally got through most of it by the end of the day and made an initial rough-cut which fairly coherent. It’s the story about 3 families in Gaza devastated during the war, as captured through interviews by a team of young girls and their camera crew.

    We made a brief review of 4 out of 5 films that completed rough-cuts today in a small group of children and trainers remaining late this afternoon. The feedback was very helpful to the groups. One group with the silent abstract film decided to lay a music track over it which nearly destroyed the overall effect of the power footage they shot. Many of us suggested they try creating another version with just natural sounds of the locations and spaces they used, and see what resonates better with everyone in the final reviews tomorrow.

    After the long day, I spent another few hours in Gaza city meeting folks at the French Cultural Center, YMCA and Palestinian Red Crescent Society trying to get a venue for our exhibit and screening. I’m also checking with the Museum in Gaza (the "Mathaf") - a newly renovated private space by the sea near Beit Lahiya. Lets see what works out in the next few days. The event will likely be on August 1st for the opening, with the exhibit on for 2 weeks hopefully.

    Day 15: youth video shorts making progress....

    I think we got a lot done today as all groups were more focused on completing their editing. In the morning, we reviewed a check-list of things each one had to consider for their final pieces, including:

    1. Writing up a title, summary, brief synopsis, and group names for each film
    2. Ensuring their video sequences are coherent and concise to represent the intended storyline
    3. Completing all voice recordings, soundtrack and adjusting audio levels for all scenes
    4. Simplifying any transitions and effects to maintain a seamless flow in the visual narrative (and not distract the viewer)
    5. Add the title and credits including acknowledging the community center and voices beyond walls
    6. Writing up an Arabic dialog script with timestamps for the entire film, and translating it to English for subtitles
    7. Ensuring any images or music in the film are copyright free or get permission or credit them. This year we need to ensure that copyrighted material is well handled if we plan to post the youth shorts on YouTube and submit them to film festivals.

    The groups got through most items on the checklist, though many still need to adjust audio levels, and complete the Arabic/English scripting and subtitles. We plan to extend the workshop into Saturday to finalize their films (given the power cuts and laptop issues all week). All groups and trainers are eager to wrap up their films and are willing to work through the weekend.

    On Sunday we plan to do our evaluations in focus groups for both the video workshop and the Dabke workshop kids (our comparison group). I'm working on the questionnaire this weekend.

    Finally, we plan to do our community screenings with the families and distribute diplomas to all children at an event in the center on Monday evening, followed by a more public screening in Gaza at the “Mat’haf” (Museum) next Sunday. A satisfying close for a long and productive week; we are on our last stretch to complete the youth films by early next week.

    July 17 2010


    Creative Writing & Filming with youth in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza – Week 2

    In our second week of the workshop the children and trainers in all groups began developing their story concepts and storyboards, along with acting and shooting video on-location for their films. Below is a day-by-day summary of our experiences with the workshop in Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza.

    More photos and updates on our blog: http://voicesbeyondwalls.blogspot.com

    Day 6: Creative story-writing

    We began the workshop with a focus on creative story-writing; the session was lead by Asmaa Elghoul, an award winning writer and journalist in Gaza, who's been volunteering some time with our workshops.

    After a quick warm-up yoga stance and physical ice-breaker, Asmaa began the session with having everyone introduce themselves to her and describe their dream the previous night; this elicited some hilarious and touching thoughts. She then discussed what children felt were key story elements like place, climax, plot, ending, turning point, dialog, writing style, characters, context etc. We noted these points on a large sheet and referred to them often during the day as they spoke about their own narratives.

    We then broke-up in 5 groups and Asmaa handed each one an illustrated storybook to read and decompose the key story elements we had discussed. Each group leader spoke a summary of the story (often acted out in funny ways) followed by one of the children presenting key elements. We then had each group participate in a rapid story-writing game we developed as follows:

    1. Children in each group wrote a character, object and place on separate pieces of paper and threw then into 3 baskets.
    2. We shuffled each one and handed them back to children in all groups (3 for each person).
    3. Then children worked in their groups to quickly write a story comprising of these elements in 15 minutes.
    4. Trainers reviewed the stories written among the groups asking about key story elements and the narratives were refined.
    5. We collected the pieces of paper and re-shuffled them in the baskets, handing them back once again to children in all groups.
    6. Children repeated the exercise and wrote new narratives from the elements they received.
    7. After a quick review among the groups, we then collected everyone for a class wide activity called "story chains". Here we asked one person to read their story and then using elements in their narrative, someone else with similar elements (each a character, place or object) had to read their story... this continued till nearly everyone read theirs, while we often chose children who were shy or had not spoken earlier.

    The entire activity was devised by us on the fly and it went really well; it got all the groups really engaged and internalizing some of the story elements we discussed earlier.

    After lunch we watched two short films made by youth in previous workshops, Lamees Daydream and Street Lesson, to discuss story elements in the films, using the later to develop a storyboard of key scenes. This went quite well as the children understood the reasons for storyboarding, to better communicate ideas and break narratives down to the visual elements for filming.

    The final exercise was to discuss stories they wrote over the weekend in their groups; there was less time for this and given the long day I think children were less creative and energetic at this stage. The narratives they read were typical of a day in their life with few if any imaginative elements (though one was about dreaming a trip to the moon). One that struck me was about a magic stick and a couple seeking counseling from a psychiatrist... though the story was under-developed, I suggested making the psychiatrist the one needing help - visiting families in the families in his neighborhood to figure out his dilemma :-)

    Trainers felt this was the hardest activity for the children and many thought it would take a long time to get children into a more creative space. They were less optimistic but I mentioned that we've always experienced these challenges at this stage of the workshop.

    Overall, I think our creative exercises in the morning were valuable but we need to spurn the children into more imaginative thinking; we'll try a few other exercises the next day, like developing narratives from photographs, story circles where children start a story and others in the circle have to complete it, improvisational stories by acting out character roles assigned to them, and perhaps going back to their neighborhoods or a brief field-trip to activate their imagination.

    Day 7: Improvisational play - The psychiatrist and the donkey...

    Our day began with the usual warm-up; this time children lined up along a cross-bar and playing a game of swapping themselves like musical chairs quite rapidly. I could barely make sense of it all. I'm just amazing with the creative new exercises they keep devising each day.

    Asmaa and I then led our next stage of creative narrative sessions; this time we played the "story-chain" in the full circle of the group of 20 children and their trainers. Asmaa started with one example phrase "One day as I was on my way home ..." and then asked me to continue as I said "I met an elephant" .. and so on. The children at first were a bit slow to keep up the pace but eventually got the hang of it and created quite an imaginative storyline towards the end of the circle.

    I then suggested we repeat the "story-circle" and I started with a more specific context to spur a richer storyline. I said "There was once a psychiatrist in Jabaliya camp, who thought he was going crazy and wanted help ..." and then the next person said "and he ran down the street and met a donkey" ... "who told him about his problems" ... and so on... by the end we had a hilarious and touching storyline that had a rich array of characters including "donkeys who protested their working conditions (i.e. DR - or donkey rights)", "mice who stole their petitions", and "a magician on a broom stick" who tried to solve their dilemma. In the end the psychiatrist wakes up from his "dream" but as he washes his face sees a "donkey" in the mirror... and runs back into the street seeing donkeys everywhere... I think they wanted to imply that the psychiatrists' problem was inside him and only he could solve it by introspection - yet instead of a direct message, the children suggested an "open ending" - leaving that up to the audience. It felt more like a version of the "Twilight Zone" :-)

    We than asked the children to script-out and storyboard the tale they devised for practice... this worked well as we went through key details for each potential scene devising better characters and transitions within the story. We got the children to make a play with the storyline. We selected Abeer (one of our best participants) as the director and got the children to "audition" for each of the roles, rehearsing key scenes several times, with a virtual film crew. Finally, Roger decided to film the full play and it went surprisingly smoothly (after many chaotic rehearsal takes). The acting was amazing with Abeer finally playing the psychiatrist (after directing many actors to do it) and little Hammad acting as the cool donkey wearing shades. I was impressed that everyone played their roles so well; feels like many children opened up in the exercise and there's pretty good working dynamics within the group.

    We then screened the video and children got to see a complete concept to video example in less than 2 hours. It was a huge morale boost and hilariously fun to perform. They also talked about the difficult job of the director and importance of a really detailed script. We then watched another example youth video short "Mother of Palestine" (Jenin 2007) which also had a good storyline and discussed various aspects of the narrative and video shooting thereafter.

    In the last hour we broke up into newly selected groups (we thought mixing them up again would bring fresh ideas) and had them each try developing new stories for their films the next day. The groups struggled a bit at first but then after we asked some of the children to close their eyes and imagine a few key characters and situations, got them to develop narrative scripts and storyboards together.

    We plan to review the storyboards in the morning and have them act out the key scenes, before doing a sample video shoot in the afternoon. I expect many of their stories tomorrow will still be rather preliminary so they may get better refined/expanded as they shoot or they can simply develop a new one after this initial video trial. I think its best not to push the groups too hard to have coherent narratives in the first go, but let them get comfortable with the full process of concept to video and later develop better narratives as they mature their ideas.

    Day 8: Refining story ideas, animation and video tutorial

    Today the groups presented their storyboards and scripts for potential films they plan to work on. Here's a quick summary of the key ideas emerging thus far:

    1. A folk tale about a lion that harasses a colony of rabbits ("Rabbit City"), asking for one delivered and sacrificed to him each day for his meal; finally the rabbits protest and devise a way to trick the lion into thinking another lion is vying for his share. The lion sees his own reflection in a pool of water and jumps in; it’s a simple tale but the group narrated it with a lot of symbolism and metaphors about Palestinian children under occupation.

    2. A film about the "noise" in the camp from generators to street vendors selling watermelons... it was an unfinished story until I suggested bridging it with one they worked on about the deaf girl Amna. Here they story would transition from an annoying noise filled day in the life of a child in the camp to meeting Amna and transforming her world through Amna's impairment, and thus learning to appreciate the richness of the soundscape around her.

    3. A child experiences nightmares and is unable to sleep, while his parents complain about his performance in school. The story drifted a bit with an accident experienced by the boy, after which the parents are sympathetic to the boy. We suggested the issue of problems with sleep in the camp may actually be useful to emphasize in the film (as we heard it from many of the mothers in our focus groups). The children are refining their narrative (including perhaps an animated dream sequence) and may try to make the script more dramatic.

    4. A story about Ahmad and Anna on their last day in school. Ahmad is a poor child living in the camp and Anna in a more affluent neighborhood in the city. A series of events happen in their lives until Ahmad finds a jewel on the beach - a turning point in the story, after which their roles may switch after which they may both appreciate each other lives better.

    5. A story about separation among Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza. It shows children walking lonely and confused in both places looking for each other, with Palestine being their mother. The film is a rather abstract performative piece with much symbolism.

    After some long and constructive critique the narratives appear to be shaping up a bit - lets see what the groups try to make of them.

    In the afternoon we watched an animated film presented by a guest speaker, Tilda, a photographer from Belgium, who worked with children in Nablus on the short. The kids got excited to try such animations for some scenes in their own films though they were well aware of the efforts needed.

    Finally, Roger conducted the video session as planned quite thoroughly with some camera demonstrations on-screen, watching scenes from shorts like the Pole, Lamees Daydream, Theater of Stones and Take it or Leave it, to reinforce camera angles and composition. The session was long and needed to be a bit more interactive and hands-on.

    By the end the children were losing steam and we ended the day with a quick review of their scripts in groups to start video shooting the following morning.

    Day 9: First day of video shooting on-location

    Today we began preparing groups for their first video shoot on-location. After revising their scripts and reviewing them with us, they had to develop detailed production plans with key characters and locations of scenes and also assign roles for the director, photo/video camera persons and actors. In some cases groups had to find extras for their films in the locations itself.

    Before leaving we also asked all trainers to conduct brief hands-on video camera trainings with all children in their groups, reinforcing lessons learned on shot framing, angles and composition in the video tutorial by Roger the previous day. Finally, we asked all groups to register themselves in a sign-up sheet with the center so we knew who was on-location and what equipment they took along. We insisted on all group members wearing their badges on-location as well. All the preparations were meant to get them to take their shooting seriously and think through their efforts more professionally as they go forward.

    The five groups managed to spend 2-3 hours on their first shoot; each seemed quite satisfied with their experience. A de-briefing discussion among all later that afternoon indicated a few points. Groups took care to shoot several scenes in multiple takes to get it right; some had a hard time getting extras on-location or other characters for their films but managed partly - though will need to go back and shoot more with other characters the next day. One group had a hard time getting the hearing impaired girl to be in the film as she was not around and they felt the sign translation would take more effort, so they may have an actor in her place.

    My group recruited half a dozen kids on-location to wear masks as rabbits and over 20 spectators (unintentionally) in the station park (apparently the only open green play-space in Gaza) where they shot their lion and rabbit tale. Most people there turned out to be quite helpful. The group managed to use many sections of the park as key locations for different scenes (but had some trouble maintaining scene continuity shooting a forest in an urban space); they generally enjoyed the shoot, despite the blaring sun.

    Getting permission to shoot in other locations was not easy e.g. a UN school and a special needs center, so these needed to be negotiated in advance; some eventually worked out through personal connections. One group wanted to shoot in an open desert area, but when they got there, many new homes were being built to their surprise and they felt uncomfortable shooting due to the police there. They finally got assistance from a popular old man in the neighborhood to get access from the community. Most did not give up easily and tried to get many of their scenes done. "Location Scouting" in advance is an important lesson they recognized.

    The groups mentioned that everyone took to their roles easily and many got to use the video camera as well, though often only 1-2 were assigned the video camera. Most said they used lessons learned in the video tutorial the previous day, though I expect many mistakes in their shots. I noted some using zoom and rapid movement too often, so I think stable shots maybe something they learn over time. We'll see how their first day of footage turned out during video reviews the following day, and whether they can turn these into their final films. I expect quite a bit may need to be re-shot or scripts re-worked, but its still a good learning exercise.

    Day 10: Reviewing Video Footage and Group Critique

    In the morning, we had Jehan, a drama trainer from Tamer, come back to conduct a drama session with the group. This was really refreshing for all after a long day of video shooting the day before. Jehan led them through a series of movements, gestures and role playing exercises. Her goal was to make them less shy, more expressive and improve their body language on-screen while acting out their stories "in character".

    We than lead a long session of video footage reviews among all groups. Roger and I had watched and compiled key scenes from the group's footage the night before and we examined these "shot selections" carefully to highlight good and poor examples of camera techniques used, along with overall composition and how the scenes actually convey the narrative intended. We were actually quite impressed with the content and composition of many of their shots (thanks to their photo training), though all noticed critical issues with camera stability and movement. One of the more powerful set of scenes was completely silent, with shots composed of the actors running and searching through a barren and destroyed landscape - almost felt like a surreal David Lynch scene or an apocalyptic Mad Max film.

    We downloaded all footage into the VideoStudio software for each group as a separate project to show an overall summary of visual footage shot, and also culled 3-4 shot selections from each for illustrative purposes into its own project folder for review. We had labeled all scenes, shots and takes for all projects and the footage selections over 2-3 hours the night before; this was very helpful during the review as we screened different takes and shots of the same scenes to demonstrate techniques used.

    This overall session went really well with much of the critique coming from the children themselves as they saw their footage projected on a large screen, with all of the challenges they encountered on-location including camera movement, shot stability, excessive zooming, sound quality, and acting. Jehan, Roger and I helped summarize key lessons learned on a poster including improving shot stability using a tripod and no zoom, breaking up scenes into multiple shots (instead of zooming midway), using cameras closer to the subjects to get more expressive features and better audio, improving overall shot composition with attention to lightning and framing of subjects, acting tips for being "in character" rather than reading out lines, not looking directly at the camera but not turning ones body to it either etc. We asked them to consider consider when and how the camera itself becomes a unintentional "character" in the film if its used with excessive movement and zooming, while POV shots need to be done intentionally to match story outcomes.

    The discussions were very lively and I think the groups loved talking about their shots and recognizing things they had simply not noticed during the shoot. We asked each to refine their storyboards for a visual summary of shots and the dialog in their scripts, before continuing shooting. We've now given cameras to all their trainers over the weekend to continue shooing as they have time to meet, and extended their shooting schedule through Sunday, after which we hope to begin video editing tutorials with them next week.

    We are generally going on-track this week and it’s been good to do a critical review of their footage before the weekend to get them to re-think their visual aesthetics and techniques. I have a feeling they'll do a great job on their next days of shooting with trainers, now that there's a higher-bar for what we expect to see. They're really motivated and psyched to work on their films...

    July 11 2010


    Youth Media Workshop in Jabaliya refugee camp, Gaza – Week 1

    Voices Beyond Walls and Les Enfants, Le Jeu et l’Education (EJE) began its first participatory digital media and storytelling workshop in the UNRWA Woman’s center in Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza from July 4 – 25, 2010.

    The three-week workshop is being conducted with five local staff members from the woman’s center and 5-6 volunteers (from youth organizations like Tamer and Sharek), all of whom participated in the Training of Trainers (ToT) course previously conducted by Voices Beyond Walls at the Canaan Institute of New Pedagogy from June 28-30, 2010. The workshop participants include 25 children (boy and girls aged 10-15) from Jabaliya camp.

    Another “comparison group” of 25 children are participating in a Dabke (traditional Palestinian dance) workshop conducted in parallel at the center, as part of the pilot research study led by Dr. Nitin Sawhney, examining the role of interventions supporting participatory media, creative expression, and civic engagement among marginalized children undergoing conditions of protracted conflict.

    Pre-workshop Planning and Preliminary Focus Group Evaluations

    On July 3rd, one day before the workshops began, we met with the center staff in Jabaliya camp to review all workshop logistics, working guidelines and preparations. We then conducted two preliminary focus group sessions with a small group of six mothers and eight children who planned to participate in the workshop.

    We discussed the key issues of critical concern among mothers about the lives of their children in the camp including psychosocial trauma from the war, ongoing political conflict, blockade and everyday concerns regarding the frequent power outages, health, safety and attitudes/behaviors of children at home and in the community. We discussed their hopes and expectations, evidence of creative engagement, and media exposure among their children. The mothers were more than willing to discuss a wide range of issues and appreciated our interest in better understanding these aspects of their lives.

    We then probed the group of children (two boys and six girls aged 12-15) about these issues through an exploratory exercise of having them draw their hands on a sheet of paper and noting their background information (name, age, siblings etc) and drawing out a sample daily diary of their everyday lives; this provided some background information on their routines, media consumption patterns, socialization, family life, and sleep, much of it apparently shaped by the nature of power cuts experienced on any given day.

    Inevitably, socializing with friends and family through face-to-face and online means constituted an important part of their lives, at least during the summer. When asked about a significant moment in their life over the past year, most discussed effects of the war, personal loss or challenging events at school. As for problems they faced nearly all mentioned power cuts and political situation (particularly factional fighting) as primary issues. Interestingly, children with greater media usage patterns and socialization seemed more open and optimistic – yet this remains anecdotal evidence at this early stage.

    The focus groups helped us develop a more detailed questionnaire and approach which we hoped to administer among all children participating in the workshop the following day.

    Day 1: Focus Group Evaluations and Introduction to Photography

    We began the day with ice-breakers conducted by local trainers, which energized the group of 25 children who came to attend the first day of the workshop. They later watched 2-3 short films including Nablus Tragedy, Memories of Nakba and the Pole (the funny short made in our ToT). The children especially loved the Pole, given its simple message of civic action to keep streets clean.

    Maha and Asmaa worked hard to translate the evaluation questionnaire (to Arabic) in time for our focus group sessions. We had at least two facilitators each pair up with a group of 5 children to interview and capture their responses to the questionnaire. The hand drawing exercise worked really well and the daily diary revealed a great deal, though we had to probe some children harder to be more expressive about their opinions. Some questions could be framed better and it would have been helpful to conduct trainings with our evaluators to pose the questions better. All focus groups went well, with reams of hand-written responses and drawings produced by children.

    After some home-made pizza at the center we had Jehad from Tamer lead the photo session, which went quite well. He previously had some children take a few shots with his camera over lunch and discussed them, along with youth photos from previous workshops in Jerusalem for review. The children engaged in amazingly critical discussions of photo aesthetics and narratives in the shots. I was quite impressed with their aptitude and they were no longer shy to be expressive.

    Our digital cameras arrived just in time (donated by Tamer and Sharek) to begin hands-on photo sessions in groups; with 30 minutes of outdoor shooting, they managed to incorporate many of their ideas from the photo review session. We had an informal discussion in the courtyard about their experience, which seemed both fun and productive. The best part about our first day into the workshop was the genuine enthusiasm and attitude of all the children and trainers involved.

    Day 2: Sensing and Mapping Everyday Spaces

    We started with a warm-up among the children as usual and quickly moved into focus groups to complete our hopes and expectations evaluation. Shortly thereafter we conducted a photo review of a selection of the children’s work from the previous day, which went very well.

    Afterwards Nasser (from EJE) lead a great session on smells, tastes and perceptions by having two children and one trainer blind-folded and passing around various spices and materials; this turned out to be a really fun activity and quite hilarious for all. This lead into each group conducting a mapping exercise within different rooms in the center and presenting their maps after lunch. It was too hot to send children out for fieldwork, so we decided to do some other exercises indoors (despite ongoing power cuts).

    We then conducted a session on the rights and responsibilities of children as young journalists in training. Here the children came up with a set of rules and regulations that they would place on their own "press pass". Finally, we watched 2 video shorts "Al Hakawati" (the storyteller) and “Intensive Care Unit” (which they liked most) to prepare them visually for their neighborhood mapping fieldwork the following day.

    The first 2 days have been long and tiring for all participants and trainers, but the following days will be more hands-on and fun.

    Day 3: Neighborhood Mapping in Groups

    Today's workshop was probably the most enjoyable as the teams had a chance to do some fieldwork to develop neighborhood reportage.

    We started with a warm-up as usual; I'm amazed to see how many unusual ice-breakers our Jabaliya trainers continue to come up with. Today was the "ship and the lighthouse" - where we gathered in a circle in pairs with one sitting and the other behind, as the "lighthouse" winked to call out someone else in the circle. Hard to describe but quite fun once you get the hang of it.

    We then broke out into our teams, this time rearranging the trainers into stable pairs and balancing out the boys/girls and dominant children a bit more, to plan our mapping fieldwork. The center managed to create "press badges" for our young journalists in training as they preferred to call themselves. The badges had the rules and responsibilities that they crafted the day before, on the back.

    The 5 groups went out for their neighborhood mapping trips. I "shadowed" one group that decided to examine the human rights situation in their camp through mapping. They met with the PCHR and Mazen offices and interviewed their staff. I was quite impressed with their interview skills and team coordination while some wrote summaries and others photographed. Fortunately, one of the staff at Mazen took them out to meet a family whose home had been bombed during the siege in Jan 2008.

    We met the father who lost his right hand and one of his children, while another suffered shrapnel wounds. I only learned about all this as the interview progressed and still taken aback by the warmth and hospitality of the whole family, who insisted on serving tea. The young group conducted their interview tactfully and professionally to the point where I joked with the Mazen staff member that they may make for good recruits in this organization.

    While we got back to the center, other groups were already preparing their maps on large sheets; one involved a narrative about a water pollution and a filtration facility near the camp, while another took a field-trip to a Bedouin village nearby. They presented their maps to the groups by the end of the day, which went quite well.

    Groups began trying the VideoStudio software in their groups to sequence their photography; some did a quick rough-cut but others got distracted by the software and its playful special effects (mostly due to their trainers). I tried to focus the groups back on the narrative of their neighborhood trips and challenged them to create something they might feature as reportage on Al-Jazeera. Hopefully, their ideas will get more imaginative once we've done more drama and story-writing exercises next week.

    Day 4: The Silent Beauty of Amna’s Visual Senses

    This was a challenging day for all; we started out fine with the groups going out to their sites to complete their neighborhood narratives.

    Roger Hill, a filmmaker from San Francisco who just arrived in Gaza, joined my previous group (doing the human rights story), while I shadowed another one examining special needs children in the camp. We visited a center that introduced us to a young girl Amna who is hearing-impaired. The group managed to conduct an interview with her through a sign translator, which went really well and then proceeded to give her a digital camera to shoot some photos with them to share a part of her world through the language of photography; Amna was really wonderful and the children took a liking to her right away. I asked the children to image a silent world as we walked along with Amna in the busy noisy streets of the camp.

    Roger later commented that Amna’s photos were far more engaging; the children in this group plan to work her photos into their narrative (with a silent sound track on her world). They even shot some photos of shadows of their hands doing sign language to add to their montage.

    This experience left me to think that we could organize a small workshop with our young Jabaliya team working with some special needs children on joint photo narratives where one does the photo and the other the soundscape, perceiving each differently through their own senses.

    That afternoon the children continued to work on their first photomontage using the editing software, despite many frustrating challenges due to power-outages, viruses on laptops, and a steep learning curve to master the technical aspects of the tool without much training. The day took a toll on most of us as we strove to find better ways to tackle such issues going forward.

    Day 5: Psychodrama and Screenings of Photomontage

    Our final day of the first week in the workshop ended better than expected, after all the chaos and frustration of the previous day.

    We managed to address most of the challenges plaguing us over the week regarding computers and pacing of the sessions, though power cuts and trainers out sick are hard to deal with easily.

    We started the day with an excellent two hour psychodrama session led by Jehan, a drama trainer from Tamer, who had attended our ToT in Gaza last week. She was amazing with the group, walking them through a series of exercises that helped them moving and physically expressing themselves in ways we had not seen. She eventually got children to meditate and relax to soothing music and some massage, while having them imagine and draw a scenario describing "home". The children later acted out some short improvisational plays.

    Meanwhile a group of 25 children showed up in the morning to take Dabke lessons with a team of staff trainers; they were the "comparison" group we requested. The boys were already quite good at Dabke, while the girls were making a great effort; it was rather touching to watch as one of the young trainers who lost his arm (presumably in the war) taught them vigorous dance moves.

    After their two hour session, Amani and Mustafa, lead the evaluation sessions with the children. These were conducted as one large group in the center library as we didn't have enough staff for in-depth focus groups. But remarkably the children took to the evaluation quite well and ended up drawing their hand exercise and daily dairy quite well, subsequently writing brief responses to Amani's questions. While it was not structured as key informant interviews in small focus groups, the children provided some good background info. on 2-3 sheets each.

    After lunch our groups were eager to complete their photo-montages, even before we had a chance to fully prepare all the laptops. In the morning we worked with the center staff to have all our laptops scanned for viruses, checked software and data, and labeled each one with group IDs so they had stable machines for photo editing.

    We got each group to work in a different room at the center so they could do audio recordings easily. All worked out much more smoothly this time around; the children were much more so in control of the photo editing and managed to record voice narratives for all their shorts. One group had to restart all over after the power went out and their laptop had no battery; their patience was impressive despite it all.

    Finally, we got nearly all montages ready to screen and I decided to conduct our evaluation de-briefing with them for 30 mins before the final presentations. I would have preferred a more creative focus group-style evaluation but we just ran out of time...

    The children were generally quite happy with the workshop - many remarking that this was their best day as they got to complete their photo narratives. Others felt the workshop got them out in their community getting to understand local issues in ways they never did and they really appreciated being asked to take on a responsible journalistic role. Others really enjoyed the photo reviews and editing techniques, not to mention the calming drama session earlier.

    We insisted on hearing some difficulties they encountered; the children were frank to indicate some points including their surprise at some local community folks not wanting to be interviewed or photographed (though some children found that they were able to go back the following day and break the ice with many such folks). They complained about not having enough cameras in their groups and not enough time for editing. Others indicated the days were often long and tiring.

    They also felt that the changes among children and trainers in groups (particularly in the first few days) was disruptive and with some trainers having to leave early or miss a day (due to exams or illness) lead to swapping trainers affecting group dynamics, and left the children hanging in their assignments at times. I mentioned that we really appreciated their feedback and would take that into account to improve the coming days, while encouraging us to meet us individually to offer more feedback anytime.

    We finally watched the photo montages and this was deeply satisfying for all; below are the five main narratives they produced:

    1. A photo montage on keeping the streets clean - the children visited a juice factory to ask about their practices to make better products and produced a piece that highlighted the community's responsibility.

    2. A piece about the special needs center in the camp and how the group met a young hearing-impaired girl, Amna, whom they interviewed and trained to use a camera. It was a touching story that the children themselves felt transformed their experience spending time with Amna.

    3. A detailed journalistic report on the Abu Rashed Pool, a rain-water collection facility in the camp that was often flooded or polluted. They did a great job producing a fact-filled photo essay with some imaginative writing.

    4. A piece on the human rights centers in the camp with intensive interviews of the Hamad family that was devastated during the war. The piece was really well done, especially the interviews and photos with the father who lost his arm. The words and haunting music were powerful and I think it left a mark on the children who produced the piece as well.

    5. A visit to a Bedouin village outside the camp and the traditional lives they lived, including mud homes they still continue to build. This group probably enjoyed their field-trip the most and produced the most dazzling photo transitions and music thanks in part to their artistic trainer, though we remarked that the special effects were probably unnecessary.

    Overall it was a great screening to close the first full week of the workshop in Jabaliya camp. The children here really seem to be looking forward to the week ahead on creative writing and acting out their fictional narratives.

    A selection of photos from the workshop are posted online here:

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