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May 30 2013


Activist Campaign Successfully Targets Facebook's Advertisers

Last week I wrote up the #FBrape campaign's strategy: to hold Facebook accountable for the misogynistic content of its users by pressuring advertisers. Only seven days after the open letter was published, Marne Levine, Facebook's VP of Global Publicy Policy, published a response agreeing to the campaign's demands to better train the company's moderators, improve reporting processes, and hold offending users more accountable for the content they publish.


The campaigners say they generated 5,000 emails to advertisers, and convinced Nissan to pull its advertising from the platform. This is great initial traction for a social media advocacy campaign, but it represents a miniscule percentage of Facebook's users and advertisers. For people interested in shaping what kinds of speech social media giants allow, the #FBrape campaign quickly confirmed the relative value of targeting companies' revenue sources rather than directly petition the corporations. The #FBrape campaign also had a clear moral high road over the terrible instances of speech it campaigned to censor. But the results are still illuminating, as we struggle to determine how much power companies like Facebook wield over our self expression, and the organizational processes and technical mechanisms of how that power is exterted.

Continued attention will be required to hold Facebook, Inc. to its promises to train its content moderators (and an entire planet of actual users) to flag and remove violent content. Facebook has also promised to establish more direct lines of communication with women's groups organizing against such content. This is the kind of personal relationship and human contact groups have clamored for (see WITNESS and YouTube's relationship).

'fair, thoughtful, scalable'

Technology companies have tended to avoid establishing such relationships, probably because they require relatively large amounts of time in a venture that's taking on an entire planet worth of communications. Facebook itself lists its preferences for solutions to governing speech that are "fair, thoughtful, and scalable." Given the crazy scale of content uploaded every minute, Facebook might look into algorithmic solutions to identify content before users are exposed to it. YouTube has conducted research to automatically categorize some of its own torrent of incoming user content to identify the higher quality material. According to their post, Facebook has "built industry leading technical and human systems to encourage people using Facebook to report violations of our terms and developed sophisticated tools to help our teams evaluate the reports we receive."

This is unlikely to be the last we hear about this. By publishing an official response, Facebook gave 130 media outlets and counting an excuse to cover the campaign, which few had done prior to the company's reply. And whether they relish the position or not, social media companies like Facebook have positioned themselves as arbiters of speech online, subject to the laws of the lands they operate within, but also comfortable codifying their own preferences into their policies. Kudos to Facebook for taking a minute to respond to some of the messy side effects of connecting over a billion human beings.

Matt Stempeck is a Research Assistant at the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab. He has spent his career at the intersection of technology and social change, mostly in Washington, D.C. He has advised numerous non-profits, startups, and socially responsible businesses on online strategy. Matt's interested in location, games, online tools, and other fun things. He's on Twitter @mstem.

This post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

April 16 2013


The View from MIT on the Boston Marathon Explosions

Here's what we know:

At 2:50 p.m. two explosions occurred along on Boylston Street near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Police later detonated a third device further down the street.

As of 6 p.m., two people are dead, and nearly 90 injured, according to the Boston Globe. At MIT's Civic Media Center, we have been following along through both broadcast and social media, including the Globe's liveblog and Completure's News Scanner.

The Boston Marathon is one of the country's pre-eminent sporting events. It draws athletes and spectators into the beating heart of one of the world's best cities.

Civic is located almost directly across the river from where the explosions occurred. The blasts were audible from the MIT campus. Members of the immediate Civic family have checked in. Some were at the marathon. All are safe.

Not everyone has been lucky enough to contact their loves ones as we have. On the Boston Marathon website you may search for runners and check their status. Google has launched an instance of their People Finder for the emergency. The Red Cross' Safe and Well system appears at the moment to have been overwhelmed by demand.

Geeks Without Bounds is maintaining a Google Doc of resources, including spreadsheets where people can both offer and request housing.


I write this as a native. My mother grew up in Everett. My father grew up in Melrose. Like my Civic colleague Matt Stempeck, who attended the marathon today, I was born in Reading. I love Boston. I love its people. I love its tradition. It is my home. My heart hurts. And then I think of Carlos Arredondo.


Arredondo became a peace activist in 2004 after he lost one son in Iraq and his other committed suicide in grief. A Costa Rican emigrant, he became a citizen in 2006 with the help of the late Ted Kennedy. He happened to be near the finish line today and rushed to assist first responders. A man who has suffered such loss, such grief, continuing to do all that he can to help other members of the nation he can now call his own.

Arredondo gives me hope. He reminds me that, despite all evidence to the contrary, there is good in the world. As did Patton Oswalt, the acerbic comic, who today wrote some words I will try to always remember: "So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, 'The good outnumber you, and we always will.'"

As a wise man once said:


RELATED READING: Social Media Offers Vital Updates, Support After Boston Marathon Bombings

Chris Peterson is on leave from MIT's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, where he has spent three years directing web communications, to be a full-time graduate student in MIT's Comparative Media Studies program. In addition to overseeing all web and new media activities for MITAdmissions, Chris liaised with FIRST Robotics and had a special focus on subaltern, disadvantaged, and first-generation applicants. He continues to be involved with MIT's awesome undergraduates as a freshman advisor. Before MIT, Chris worked as a research assistant at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School and as a Senior Campus Rep for Apple. He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the National Coalition Against Censorship, as an Associate at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and as the sole proprietor of BurgerMap.org. He holds a B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he completed his senior thesis on Facebook privacy under Professors Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He is interested generally in how people communicate within digitally mediated spaces and occasionally blogs at cpeterson.org.

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

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May 04 2012


Jonathan Zittrain Takes the Stage at ROFLCon

Today with MIT Civic Media Center's Matt Stempeck and Stephen Suen, I'm live-blogging ROFLCon, a conference for things and people who are famous on the Internet. The livenote index is here.

Christina Xu, the event organizer, starts off ROFLCon to cheers. It's an amazingly packed venue. "One out of eight people in this room have done something crazy on the Internet," she says.


Zittrain on memes and society

Jonathan Zittrain is an Internet phenomenon. Emerging from humble beginnings as a longtime CompuServe forum sysop, he is now professor of law at Harvard Law School where he co-founded the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

He starts by saying that fame can be tricky: "Just before the talk, someone came up to me and said, 'are you the huh guy? I thought you were the huh guy! I'm not that famous. I can aspire. In this room is the engine that makes the Internet sing ... Who's minding the store? Is this going to be a day without memes?"

"Where's Tron Guy?" asks Zittrain. Tron Guy, in full costume, raises his hand, and the room bursts into applause.

Zittrain says he isn't sure if he's one of these "Internet ROFL people" -- hence the tie. It's hard to explain what you're doing this weekend to friends and family who are not part of this tribe, he quips.

But he does have some background in the Internet. He shows us a picture of him using a Texas Instruments home computer with a 300-baud modem, with the obligatory model rockets, and the Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus -- just because you might run out of words.

Zittrain used to work for CompuServe and also got involved in politics. He threw his weight behind Mondale/Ferraro 1984. "At least I carried Minnesota," he says. "And the District of Columbia." When he wasn't doing those things, he was usually spending time stuffed inside a locker. "Whatever that does not stuff you so that you die, makes you stronger," he noted.

Zittrain thinks the image of a nerd stuffed in a locker helps us understand memes -- the dramatic moment of pathos.

"They're all crazy; I'm normal ... they're bad, and we're good. And here's to us for being good," he says. But that opens us up to the charge that this culture, the Internet, is not real life, and is rather a form of retreat. At the base of a lot of memes is some authentic, unguarded voluntary moment, Zittrain says. There's artifice around it, but there is often something authentic beneath it. That's not always the case -- consider Dramatic Hamster. Sometimes a hamster isn't a hamster. But there are other times that it's striking closer to a certain chord.

Wires can be crossed when this culture is commercialized. The nerds struck back against Hot Topic when they produced a T-shirt of Rage Guy.

unstaged authenticity

There's something about commercialization which is always at arm's length of Internet culture. Zittrain talks to us about the most recent Calgary Comic Con, where they invited the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Going to the cons involves waiting in lines to get your photo with the cast. It has an Apple Commercial 1984 feel to it -- take a photo with the cast, you cannot touch the cast. He tells us about one of the least proud moments of The Oatmeal, a contest for advice features. There appears to be a negative attitude towards those who intentionally try to "engineer" a meme. People don't like being prompted -- it feels like trying too hard, feels inorganic.

We like unstaged authenticity, like Disaster Girl, who grins deviously as a house burns to the ground behind her. She rather enjoys the attention, and we are pleased to see her embrace her inadvertent success, but there are still lines that you can cross. The point at which you're running your own network and have a store-- maybe not.

Internet Fame is like winning the lottery -- it seems good until someone gets killed. What better example of this ambivalence than Star Wars Kid? So far as he knew, this was an exercise that would be completely private. He didn't realize that when he turned the camcorder in at school that it would be posted to YouTube. Jonathan shows us the video of the the Matrix Version of Star Wars Kid. In Wikipedia, there's a debate on the talk page on whether or not it is right for Wikipedia, the knowledge repository of record for humanity, to include his name in the page. Ultimately, they decided not to name him, despite the fact that the mainstream media has done it several times. And people on Wikipedia fell into line-- upholding the process with which they disagreed.

Can we build an infrastructure of meme propagation that respects people's preferences. He shows us one of the Awkward Family photo sites, with an image that says, "Image removed at request of owner." There are enough yuks to go around, so why not take down private content when someone asks us to?

Jonathan would love to see an infrastructure built native to the web which makes it possible for people to opt out of the celebrity of being a meme. This isn't DRM, but maybe something like robots.txt (a directive that tells web crawlers like Google which subdirectories not to index). Search companies respect robots.txt. No Internet organization created this. But people and companies respect it anyway-- a way to say, "Do you mind?" This is often used with court documents. How could we build this into our technology and our culture? One guy made a T-shirt that reads, "I do not agree to the publication of this photo."

In short, how can we enjoy the culture of Lulz which also respecting people's wishes?

A longer version of this post can be found on the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

April 12 2012


‘Hypothesis generator’ helps mine huge datasets

A tool created through a collaboration with Harvard and MIT could soon help journalists find relationships in massive amounts of data — even if they don’t know what they’re looking for. Read More »

January 27 2012


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

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

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


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

From Newsletter to National Publication

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

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

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

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

Who Reads Prison News?

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

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

Publication Litigation

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

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

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

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

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

Isolation from Society

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

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

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

Prison News Online

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

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

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

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

Staying Human

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

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

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

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

January 05 2012


In the Digital Age, How Much Is Informal Education Worth?

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You can learn anything you want on the Internet, so the adage goes. But even if that's true, even if it's now easier than ever to learn about almost any subject online, there are still very few opportunities to gain formal recognition -- "credit," if you will -- for informal learning done online.

In September, the Mozilla Foundation launched its Open Badges Project, an effort to develop a technology framework that would make it easier to build, display and share digital learning badges. These badges are meant to showcase and recognize all kinds of skills and competencies -- subject matter expertise as college degrees are meant to indicate, for example, as well as "soft skills" that aren't so easily apparent based on traditional forms of credentialing. (We examined some of the technology infrastructure of the Open Badges Project in a story earlier this year.)

When the Mozilla Foundation announced the Open Badges Project, it was in conjunction with the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC, as "Badges for Lifelong Learning" is the theme of this year's Digital Media and Learning Competition, an annual contest that supports research of how digital technologies are changing the way we learn and work. Onstage at the formal unveiling of the Open Badges Project were representatives from not just Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation, but from the Departments of Education, Labor and Veterans Affairs, NASA, as well as other businesses.

When the Open Badges Project was first announced, some educators questioned whether "badges" were a form of gamification of education, just another way, they said, to force learners to think more about certification and credentialing than about the learning process itself. But participation in the Open Badge Project from businesses and agencies like the Department of Labor has given it credibility. And whether we like it or not, many learners are extrinsically motivated to pursue certain educational endeavors -- they need skills and often certification in order to demonstrate their mastery to employers.

But what will it mean for employers?


But even with the Department of Labor's involvement in the Open Badges Project and in the DML Competition, will employers recognize badges?

As informal learning opportunities grow, gaining employers' recognition and acceptance may well be one of the most important challenges of the coming years.

Having a formal degree -- whether it's a high school or a college diploma -- still carries the most weight with employers, and in some ways, badges may simply serve to complement these. But even with the emphasis on degrees, having some way to highlight other skills, competencies, and experiences is important in setting one potential hire apart from another. Indeed, many job descriptions do frame the necessity of a college degree this way -- "or equivalent experience" -- so the task ahead for the Mozilla Open Badges project will be, in part, to be seen as a valid "equivalent."

A number of the badges that were submitted to the DML Competition, for example, serve to highlight the accomplishments of teens. As youth unemployment remains high -- 16.8% in the U.S. and upwards of 50% in Spain -- alternate forms of credentialing might be able to help those without any higher education and often without substantial work experience find ways to showcase the skills they do possess.

Similarly, a badge proposal from the Department of Veterans Affairs -- Badges for Vets -- may help veterans translate their military experience into civilian job skills.

On the cusp

While badges might help employers better identify and recruit qualified employees, there are still some questions about whether this would actually function any differently than current hiring practices. But a shift may already be underway, evident in other new forms of credentialing that the Internet is providing. The recent announcement from MIT about its plans to offer a certificate for its new online learning initiative is just one indication that informal learning is on the cusp of more formal recognition.

This is already happening, to a certain extent, in the tech industry where the right programming skills aren't necessarily correlated to college degrees. (It's quite possible, for example, to have your bachelor's in Computer Science and not know a particular programming language.) Stack Overflow, for example, launched a job recruitment site this year, allowing job hunters to highlight not just their resume but to showcase their best answers from the larger Q&A website. And TopCoder, another tech company, offers programming competitions whereby participants have long had the ability to share their scores with potential employers, something that CTO Mike Lyons said is helpful during job searches: "Rather than saying 'look me up,' people have this transportable widget at their website."

Showcasing these sorts of accomplishments on one's own website is becoming increasingly important as job applicants find ways to leverage their online presence -- their blogs, digital portfolios, LinkedIn recommendations and the like -- knowing that employers are prone to Google them. As such, it seems clear that the resume of the future will likely contain lots of digital links, whether they're Open Badges or otherwise. What's less clear is how much of this digital profile will matter to employers, or if they'll still look for that formal piece of paper, a college degree.

Open education advocate and university professor David Wiley is optimistic. "Say I'm Google," he wrote on his blog, "and I need to hire an engineer. My job ad requirement says 'BS in Computer Science or equivalent.' I get two applicants. The first has a BS in Computer Science from XYZ State College. The second has certificates of successful completion for open courses in data structures and algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning from Stanford and MITx. Do you think I'll seriously consider candidate two? You bet I will."

But Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger is less certain that the Open Badges Project, in its current manifestation at least whereby anyone can create a badge and offer a credential, will actually mean anything to employers:

If a "badge" is the sort of thing that by common practice almost anybody can define, and then claim, then I'm not likely to take it seriously, and most others won't either. In other words, the badge is a credential and a credential has to have, well, credibility. If supposed credentials are granted as easily as diploma mill "degrees," the whole endeavor will -- obviously, I think -- not get off the ground. Some geeks might go about claiming to have all sorts of "badges," but when it comes to hiring, I will ignore such self-claimed badges.

Of course, we have a long way to go before badges are ubiquitous the same way that college degrees are. As it currently stands, the Open Badges Project is too young to elicit much attention from human resources departments. (The HR officials I talked to hadn't heard of the project.) But as alternative credentialing efforts -- whether from Stack Overflow or from MIT -- take off, it's likely to be an issue that more employers (and employees and higher education institutions) are going to have to face.

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O'Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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January 03 2012


The Pedagogy of Play and the Role of Technology in Learning

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The goal of the videogame "Civilization" is to build a civilization that stands the test of time. You start the game in 4000 B.C. as a settler and, with successful gameplay, can create a civilization that lasts until the Space Age. Throughout the game, you need to manage your civilization's military, science, technology, commerce and culture.

One doesn't read "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to develop strategy before playing the game. One starts by playing. This is true for all videogames. You start by exploring the world with curiosity and begin to develop a hypothesis of what you're supposed to do. Through trial, error, pattern recognition, logic and chance you continually reformulate your trajectory.

This model of learning is not only effective for videogames but for all digital tools, and I would argue that play -- especially in the digital sense -- is emerging as a pedagogical keystone for education in the 21st century.


Stuart Brown, M.D., explains in his book, "Play," how a range of scientific disciplines have revealed the importance of lifelong play. Playfulness amplifies our capacity to innovate and to adapt to changing circumstances. Adults who are deprived of play are often rigid, inflexible and closed to trying out new options. Play is an active process that reshapes our rigid views of the world.

The power of play

Play is also a powerful vehicle for learning, something that's been underscored for me in my work at San Francisco University High School where we began a one-to-one iPad program in the fall.

The iPad has been hyped as a device that will revolutionize education. And, while I've witnessed glimmers of this potential, it isn't microwavable. Migrating from an analog to a digital environment sounds simple enough, but the reality has been more disruptive.

Disruption can signal the onset of innovation, but this isn't comforting to the
organizations and individuals that are at the epicenter of such turbulence. Yet with a

schema of play, we can start to mitigate the resistance to change.

Creating a 'sandbox'

The virtues of Apple's intuitive interfaces have been widely extolled, and while you don't need to be computer-savvy to navigate the operating system, there still is a learning curve. As we've designed training programs to make the learning curve as frictionless as possible, I've noticed that sessions that put a premium on play were not only more effective at cultivating the targeted skills, but also encouraged a growth mindset.

The atmosphere of play created a sandbox where both students and faculty could explore the features of the device and apps with the spirit of curiosity and experimentation. Rather than solely being guided through this virtual landscape, they were learning how to orient and guide themselves. Within this learning model, the teacher or trainer shifts into more of a coaching role. The value of this approach extends beyond the classroom because students begin to develop a self-reliance that enjoys independent experimentation and exploration.

Play is vital for normal cognitive, social and emotional development. It reduces stress and increases well-being. Absence of play leads to maladaptive behavior.

As positive as play is, it requires the ability to make mistakes. It implies being able to entertain multiple scenarios and outcomes. Bubble logic, i.e., our testing culture, is diametrically opposed. Our systems of education haven't prepared us to think and act playfully, nor do our institutions of work by and large encourage this behavior. Yet it is this kind of playful disposition that is the muse of all great thinkers, artists and innovators.


Joichi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, in a recent New York Times essay emphasized the correlation between innovation and play. In Ito's view, retaining childlike qualities such as idealism, experimentation and wonder is vital for innovation. In his words, "I don't think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity."

Play is about exploring the possible. In times of rapid change, exploring the possible becomes an essential skill. We don't have maps for the territory of tomorrow. As a result, all citizens must become explorers of this emerging world. The best way to prepare for the emergence of the future is to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty. To be comfortable with uncertainty, one must remain fluid, receptive and creative -- in a word: playful.

Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. For the last five years he's taught middle school history and science. From the beginning he's been integrating technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. He recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he's the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School.

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September 02 2011


Sourcemap Crowdsources Product Supply Chains, Carbon Footprints

This post was authored by Matthew Hockenberry, who co-created Sourcemap as a visiting scientist with the MIT Center for Civic Media.

Knowing where things come from is a fundamental part of humanity. Things are very different when they come from different places. The provenance of a work tells us the importance of not only where something has come from, but when it was created and who it was that fashioned it. Ancient vessels in Pompeii bear the eternal mark of Vesuvinum, and shelves of China are still identified by their geographic namesake.

With supply chains we talk about traceability, or being able to follow the source through every link on the chain. Environmental impact, climate change, conflict minerals and human rights abuses -- these are problems underpinning global trade. Defining our relationships with things as relationships with places and with people brings a renewed sense of humanity to our purchasing practices.

Sourcemap is an initiative to make information on the source of products and their supply chains public, so that we can make informed choices about their social and environmental impact. Developed by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the MIT Media Lab's Tangible Media Group, Sourcemap has grown over the past few years.


We created Sourcemap to allow anyone -- businesses, consumers, journalists and researchers -- to share the stories of global supply chains and their impacts on the world. Since our site became publicly accessible, we've been fortunate enough to have some wonderful individuals and organizations contribute to our work. We have more than 3,000 published maps and over 6,000 mapmakers, some of which you can see at the new Sourcemap.com.

Each day, the site features new items contributed by entrepreneurs, brand enthusiasts, students and researchers. Some are carefully researched case studies of unique and unfamiliar products. Some are personal explorations of where someone is traveling, or an investigation into what he or she bought at the store that day. Each of them is a testament to the curiosity about the things that occupy our lives and where they came from before they got to us.

There are sourcemaps of everything from an electric car to a detonator for blasting oil wells, from supplier networks of airplanes to carbon accounting for teleconferencing, from the industrial food on your plate to the small supply chains of local cuisine.

Bringing consumers and producers into the same dialogue has become a cornerstone of the work. We not only have the "right to know" where something comes from, we want producers to have the "freedom to say." These two groups -- those who consume and those who produce -- have been separate too long. They have grown apart not only in our minds, but in their placement in the world. To bring them together is to tie together communities from opposite sides of the world, to untangle the knots that have bound our understanding of global production and global supply chains.


Housed in the MIT Media Lab, Sourcemap began its life surrounded by people in the midst of making things -- things with blinking lights and beeping sounds. We began to ask questions about these things. What is the impact of a modern product? If we wanted to make it more sustainable, what material would we use? Should it be local, renewable or recycled?

We built something to answer these questions for product designers at the Media Lab, but we soon realized that everyone makes design choices: planning a trip, stocking a shelf, or putting a meal together. All of these decisions bring together disparate components from around the globe. And if we're all designers, then we should all be informed about our choices and the impact they can have on the world.

The growth of the local food movement brought together individuals deeply concerned with the sourcing of ingredients in their own communities. Our earliest collaboration involved a local food chef and caterer, Robert Harris, who was interested in sharing his sourcing practices with his customers. Sourcemap allowed him to create a menu that showed customers exactly where their food comes came from. In the summer months, when the majority of Robert's food is sourced locally, this practice connects customers with not only the ingredients in their food, but with the local community of New England farmers who grow it.

Through early fieldwork in the remote Highlands and islands of Scotland, we met people sensitive to the beauty of the land around them and the fragile community it supports. It's a community in search of a place in the larger world -- looking to continue a specific way of life and sustain the people who practice it. We met a hotel owner who wanted to offset her guests' carbon footprint, reinvesting it in the preservation of the forests they had come to see. We met a local butcher who wanted to understand the carbon footprint of his business. He discovered that the transportation of his native cattle, sheep and pork is only a minor part of the life cycle impact compared to the practices his suppliers adopt in raising the animals.

Sam Faircliff, who runs the Cairngorn Brewery, saw that her local industry relies on a bottling plant in central England. Building a plant at her facility drops the distance a bottle of beer travels by two-thirds, and improves competitiveness, creates jobs, and strengthens the region. There is more than one kind of sustainability, and this experience in the Highlands revealed that it was just as much about people as it was about things.


Sourcemap provides information about where things come from, and in doing so, it presents a particular narrative of the trip products make before they get to us. Educators and journalists can use this information to develop research, synthesize it with other perspectives, and tell new stories that situate a product's place in our world.


Leo Bonanni, CEO of Sourcemap, held a "Futurecraft" class at MIT, which was an important developmental force for Sourcemap, and its role has continued with classes at NYU and Parsons. Parsons master's student Jennifer Sharpe mapped and filmed a video documentary revealing the supply chain behind a line of organic clothing. At the show, "Organic by John Patrick," clothing was shown alongside maps and videos detailing the larger process of manufacture and sourcing. One side of the gallery was filled with the flash of cameras as the clothing was modeled. On the other side, a film showed the sheep farm were the wool comes and the shops and craftspeople responsible for making it into finished garments. In cases like this one, food and clothing connect us to not only each other, but to the natural world that provides the possibility for their production.

Less close to home, we've seen instructors use Sourcemap with their students in numerous locations including Boston, New York, California, Montana, France, Slovakia, New Zealand and Australia. We've traveled to see the social impact of cotton farming in India and gotten a firsthand perspective on fair trade.

A collaboration with the University of Montana helped students understand food production issues that are a critical factor in Montana's future sustainability. These journalism students were able to map the fragile state of their food economy, as the raw materials necessary to produce beef and grain products must leave the state to be processed into finished foods. In each of these classrooms, Sourcemap is mobilized by communities that are displaced by the disjunctures of global supply chains and local economic, cultural and social forces.


This project comes from an appreciation for the role of the material world in our daily lives. It has, from the beginning, been about understanding how we can have more respect and appreciation for material culture. Things cannot speak, but if they could, what would they say? There's no easy answer for the role of objects in our lives. It's not about passing universal judgment on which things are "local," "organic," "green" or "good." As we saw in the Highlands, communities have unique needs, and they need to understand the supply chains that involve them to make choices that are sustainable over the long-term.

Things mean different things to different people, and the solution is to let the things do the talking.

Sourcemap has evolved significantly since the first few days when we scratched out a design for a "map of where things come from." The team has grown. We have begun architecting the next generation of Sourcemap. We've formed an initiative to unravel the mysteries of footprints and impacts. We've taken trips around the world on a mission to connect communities of consumers with communities of producers. Volunteers from digital media, business, design and journalism have offered their time and effort to make the project more effective and inclusive. Each map begins when someone asks -- just as we did when we began our work -- "Where does this come from?"

As part of this evolution, we recently announced a complete new release of Sourcemap, built with the efforts of our growing team and Chief Architect Reed Underwood. There are also a few changes in the way we do things. Sourcemap is now Sourcemap.com, the "crowd-sourced directory of product supply chains and carbon footprints." Under Bonanni's guidance, and through work with companies, non-profit organizations, experts, and everyday people, we hope that one day Sourcemap.com will allow us to make sustainable choices about the products and services we encounter.

At the same time, I will focus on Sourcemap Foundation, a non-profit research organization dedicated to understanding the fundamental issues at stake in global logistics.

The Brundtland commissioned defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations." Nothing is sustainable universally -- some things will be sustainable for some communities, and some will be for others. For us, sustainability gives us a connection with the past as we look to the future. It's the opportunity to learn from our mistakes while appreciating the legacy that has been handed down to us.

To understand our community and culture we must act like archaeologists, but what we practice is an archaeology of the present. It is possible to know where things come from. Instead of waiting to position the everyday objects of our lives from a future a hundred years from now, we must begin to unravel the origins of their people and places today.

July 21 2011


VIDEOS: Should the MIT-Knight Civic Media Confab Get Supersized?

One of the things we at MIT are very quietly considering -- quietly in the same sense that I first considered getting a creative writing degree, as in, seduced by the prospect while overawed by the reality -- is holding a large, public civic media conference as part of, or in addition to, our invitation-only Civic Media Conference with the Knight Foundation.

We last discussed it as videos from this year's Civic Media Conference came online, and I'd like to share those videos, not just for their own sake, but for you to ask yourself: Would you travel to Boston to be a part of these kinds of talks if we had 2,000 people rather than 250? Hearing your thoughts might just push us in the big-conference direction.

Crowdsourcing Crisis: How Civic Media Informs Breaking News

The first half of 2011 has seen dramatic events -- some tragic, others encouraging -- take place across the globe. From revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia to an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, breaking news has been reported by individual citizens as well as professional journalists. And explaining the complex nuances of unfolding events has shown the power of civic media in informing local communities and the wider world.

In this session, we talked with two individuals who've been part of efforts to share perspectives from civic media with a global audience. Mohamed Nanabhay, head of New Media at the AlJazeera Network, helped unpack the North African revolutions using video from Facebook and other online sources. And Joi Ito, the new head of MIT's Media Lab, has worked with a group of civic reporters and citizen scientists in Japan to document the ongoing crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The two discuss the emerging media environment, where professional and civic media interact to produce a richer and more inclusive picture of global events.


Download Crowdsourcing Crisis (.mp4)

Civic Media Mobilization

Successful civic media tools -- especially ones designed by this conference's attendees -- re-engineer how mass-mobilization happens. But does that mean we should turn the page on old lessons?

Originally envisioned as a way to connect like-minded people across borders, civic media is proving just as powerful at mobilizing neighbors, in their towns, where they vote. So even for national issues, is all civic media really local? From the Wisconsin protests to presidential campaigns, civic media is playing a larger role in organizing communities and defining political arenas. This conversation between an organizer and activist explores how online activism differs from face-to-face.

Chris Faulkner, a member of the Tea Party, spends much of his time organizing online. Yesenia Sanchez, from P.A.S.O.-West Suburban Action Project 52, works street-level to drive community participation. Together with moderator Damian Thorman, the two discussed ways organizers can use online and offline strategies to their advantage and debate situations in which one is more effective than the other.


Download Civic Media Mobilization (.mp4)

Mobile Storytelling in Real Time


  • Andy Carvin, National Public Radio
  • Liz Henry, BlogHer
  • Dan Sinker, Columbia College Chicago, @mayoremanuel

Download Mobile Storytelling in Real Time (.mp4)

The Future of Civic Media


  • Sasha Costanza-Chock, MIT Comparative Media Studies
  • Chris Csikszentmihályi, MIT Center for Civic Media
  • Ethan Zuckerman, Berkman Center/MIT Center for Civic Media

Download The Future of Civic Media (.mp4)

So after checking out these videos, what do you think? Should we should take the Civic Media Conference to the next level?

July 05 2011


In an era of technology-fueled transparency: data journalism, and the newsroom stack

O'Reilly radar :: MIT's recent Civic Media Conference and the latest batch of Knight News Challenge winners made one reality crystal clear: as a new era of technology-fueled transparency, innovation and open government dawns, it won't depend on any single CIO or federal program. It will be driven by a distributed community of media, nonprofits, academics and civic advocates focused on better outcomes, more informed communities and the new news, whatever form it is delivered in.

Continue to read Alex Howard, radar.oreilly.com


The New News Paradigm: 'Pivot or Perish'

At the recent MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, I had the pleasure of speaking to 16 of the most promising thinkers in the area of digital news. Culled together from myriad of disciplines and backgrounds, some had already established themselves as pioneers in the digital space.Others had come from legacy newsrooms. A few had found their voices in the field.

But regardless of their backgrounds, they all were united by a drive to innovate, inform and empower. In short, these 16 new news entrepreneurs had come to Cambridge, Mass., with a plan: Reinvent the news business.

But if I had just one takeaway I wanted to impart in my talk to the newly knighted 2011 News Challenge winners, it was this: Those carefully crafted plans are about to change.


Being Open to Change

There's an old axiom in entrepreneurship, and it goes something like this: Pivot or perish.

"Pivoting" -- the ability (and perhaps more importantly, the willingness) to change your course of action when you realize the ground beneath you is shifting -- isn't just the essence of entrepreneurship, it's the only way you'll survive.

Trust me, we've been at it for just a little over a year now with Stroome, and in that time we've had to pivot plenty.

Now let me be clear -- having a plan for the future is just as important as a good, solid pivot. Looking two, three, even five years down the road is critical, not just because it places your idea in a larger context, but because it forces you to realize that no one really knows what the future has in store. In the end, the best we can do is play the hand that's dealt us. And this is precisely where the concept of pivoting comes in.

When we set out last June to build the next iteration of Stroome, a collaborative online video editing platform to simplify the production of news and video, we sat down and diligently drew up a list of goals. The exact number was just short of a dozen or so, but the three key ones included: increase adoption in journalism schools, forge strategic allegiances, remain open to unforeseen uses.

It didn't take long before those goals started to come to fruition. Within four months of receiving our grant, Stroome was being used by a class of aspiring digital journalists at Columbia College Chicago to comment on the importance of voter registration during the highly anticipated mayoral election. In April, we partnered with USC Stevens Institution, relaunching the site at the third annual TEDxUSC conference.

And who could have possibly foreseen that we'd have found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the Egyptian revolution? But that's exactly what happened this past January when protesters began using Stroome to get their video out of the country when the government shut down Twitter and Facebook.

More than a 'to-do' list

Remarkably, in less than a year we had accomplished nearly every goal we had set for ourselves. But our goals had became more than just a list of "to-dos'' to be ticked off one-by-one. Instead, they became "listening posts." And by listening to our users, we were able to gain valuable insight into what is truly important to them.

In most instances, their revelations were consistent with our expectations. Yet at times, what we heard was completely incongruous with what we thought we should be building. And when that happened, we had to evaluate which comments to implement, which to set aside for the time being, and which to dismiss altogether. Said another way, we had to pivot.

Because while we may have had many goals, at the end of the day we only had one objective: Create the most intuitive user experience possible. But without those pivots, that objective would never have been achieved.

And as I looked out across the room and into the faces of this year's Knight News Challenge winners, I could see an unmistakable determination, an undaunted doggedness, an unrelenting sense of resolve. There was no mistaking it: Reinvention of an industry many have written off as outdated, archaic and obsolete is a goal well within their grasp.

They're just going to have to pivot to get there.

If you're interested, Los Angeles angel investor Mark Suster has written a great post on the importance of pivoting. Read it here.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Stacy Lynn Baum.

May 19 2011


MIT Sessions Address Prison Blogging, Networked Revolt in Arab World

MIT's Center for Future Civic Media redoubled its public events efforts this past year, thanks to a push by its fellow Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman brings a unique perspective -- a civic one -- to media developments so often dominated by politics and business-model debates.

This approach couldn't be more evident than in the case of two recent Civic Media Sessions, videos of which you'll see below. Our sessions, spread throughout the semester, are conversations around civic media topics we're just now defining, including the coalescing of the field itself around information needs, geographic communities, and replicable, sustainable technical innovation.

"Design for Vulnerable Populations" was a session we held last month, and it addressed the fact that designers of new media -- web-based or otherwise -- seem to have in mind an idealized user, someone who's hungry for news, is digitally connected, and feels one technical solution shy of changing the world.

Sadly, that idealized user hardly exists outside of the New York Times' "Weekender" ad. In fact, civic media innovations, to be truly civic, have to work for the marginalized, poor, the ill -- even for the imprisoned. So "Design for Vulnerable Populations" was moderated by our center's own Charlie DeTar, creator of the prison blogging platform Between the Bars, and featured speakers critiquing how we bring environmental justice, health and sustainability into the design of cutting-edge media tools.

Design for Vulnerable Populations

And then earlier this month, Zuckerman moderated "Civic Disobedience," with Clay Shirky, Zeynep Tufekci and Sami ben Gharbia. Zuckerman addressed a key set of questions: What accounts for the rise of networked revolt in the Arab world and elsewhere, and how is it succeeding in some places while failing in others?

Civic Disobedience

We're awfully proud of the intelligence brought to bear on these often-overlooked but critical issues. So as this spring semester wraps up, be sure to sign up for our center's updates to hear what we're planning for the fall.

May 04 2011


MIT management professor Tom Malone on collective intelligence and the “genetic” structure of groups

Do groups have genetic structures? If so, can they be modified?

Those are two central questions for Thomas Malone, a professor of management and an expert in organizational structure and group intelligence at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. In a talk this week at IBM’s Center for Social Software, Malone explained the insights he’s gained through his research and as the director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence, which he launched in 2006 in part to determine how collective intelligence might be harnessed to tackle problems — climate change, poverty, crime — that are generally too complex to be solved by any one expert or group. In his talk, Malone discussed the “genetic” makeup of collective intelligence, teasing out the design differences between, as he put it, “individuals, collectively, and a collective of individuals.”

The smart group

First is the question of whether general cognitive ability — what we think of, when it comes to individuals, as “intelligence” — actually exists for groups. (Spoiler: it does.) Malone and his colleagues, fellow MIT researchers Sandy Pentland and Nada Hashmi, Carnegie Mellon’s Anita Williams Woolley, and Union College’s Christopher Chabrisassembled 192 groups — groups of two to five people each, with 699 subjects in all — and assigned to them various cognitive tasks: planning a shopping trip for a shared house, sharing typing assignments in Google Docs, tackling Raven’s Matrices as a group, brainstorming different uses for a brick. (For you social science nerds, the team chose those assignments based on Joe McGrath‘s taxonomy of group tasks.) Against the results of those assignments, the researchers compared the results of the participants’ individual intelligence tests, as well as the varying qualities of the group, from the easily quantifiable (participants’ gender) to the less so (participants’ general happiness).

And what they found is telling. “The average intelligence of the people in the group and the maximum intelligence of the people in the group doesn’t predict group intelligence,” Malone said. Which is to say: “Just getting a lot of smart people in a group does not necessarily make a smart group.” Furthermore, the researchers found, group intelligence is also only moderately correlated with qualities you’d think would be pretty crucial when it comes to group dynamics — things like group cohesion, satisfaction, “psychological safety,” and motivation. It’s not just that a happy group or a close-knit group or an enthusiastic group doesn’t necessarily equal a smart group; it’s also that those psychological elements have only some effect on groups’ ability to solve problems together.

So how do you engineer groups that can problem-solve effectively? First of all, seed them with, basically, caring people. Group intelligence is correlated, Malone and his colleagues found, with the average social sensitivity — the openness, and receptiveness, to others — of a group’s constituents. The emotional intelligence of group members, in other words, serves the cognitive intelligence of the group overall. And this means that — wait for it — groups with more women tend to be smarter than groups with more men. (As Malone put it: “More females, more intelligence.”) That’s largely mediated by the researchers’ social sensitivity findings: Women tend to be more socially sensitive than men — per Science! — which means that, overall, more women = more emotional intelligence = more group intelligence.

Which, yay. And it’s easy to see a connection between these findings and the work of journalists — who, whether through crowdsourcing or commentary, are trying to figure out the most productive ways to amplify, and generally benefit from, the wisdom of crowds. News outfits are experimenting not just with inviting group participation in their work, but also with, intriguingly, defining the groups whose participation they invite — the starred commenters, the “brain trust” of readers, etc. Those experiments are based, in turn, on a basic insight: that the “who” of groups matters as much as the “how.” Attention to the makeup of groups on a more granular, person-to-person level may extend the benefits even further.

The group genome

But where Professor Malone’s ideas get especially interesting from the Lab’s perspective is in another aspect of his work: the notion that groups have, in their structural elements, a kind of dynamic DNA. Malone and his colleagues — in this case, Robert Laubacher and Chrysanthos Dellarocas — are essentially trying to map the genome of human collectivity, the underlying structure that determines groups’ outcomes. The researchers break the “genes” of groups down to interactions among four basic (and familiar) categories: what, who, why, and how. Or, put another way: what the project is, who’s working to enact it, why they’re working to enact it, and what methods they’re using to enact it. (So the “genetic structure” of the Linux community, for example, breaks down to relationship among the what of creating new tools and shaping existing ones; the who of the crowd combined with Linus Torvalds, and his lieutenants; the why of love, glory, and, to an extent, financial gain; and the how of both collaboration and hierarchical ordering. The interplay among all those factors determines the community’s outward expression and outcomes.)

That all seems simple and obvious — because it is — but what makes the approach so interesting and valuable from the future-of-news perspective is, among other things, its disaggregation of project and method and intention. Groups form for all kinds of reasons, but we generally pay little attention to the discrete factors that lead them to form and flourish. Just as understanding humans’ genetic code can lead us to a molecular understanding of ourselves as individuals, mapping the genome of groups may help us understand ourselves as we behave within a broader collective.

And that knowledge, just as with the human genome, might help us gain an ability to manipulate group structures. When it comes to individuals, intelligence is measurable — and, thus, it has a predictive element: A smart kid will most likely become a smart adult, with all the attendant implications. Individual intelligence is fairly constant, and, in that, almost impossible to change. Group intelligence, though, Malone’s findings suggest, can be manipulated — and so, if you understand what makes groups smart, you can adjust their factors to make them even smarter. The age-old question in sociology is whether groups are somehow different, and greater, than the sum of their parts. And the answer, based on Malone’s and other findings, seems to be “yes.” The trick now is figuring out why that’s so, and how the mechanics of the collective may be put to productive use. Measuring group intelligence, in other words, is the first step in increasing group intelligence.

Malone and his colleagues have identified 16 “genes” so far, as expressed in groups like Wikipedia contributors, YouTube uploaders, and eBay auctioneers. “We don’t believe this is the end, by any means, but we think it’s a start,” he said — a way to rethink, and perhaps even revolutionize, the design of groups. Organizational design theory in the 20th century, he noted, generally focused on traditional, hierarchical corporations. But as digital tools give way to new kinds of collectives, “it seems to me,” the professor said, that “it’s time to update organizational design theory for these new organizations.”

Image via ynse used under a Creative Commons license.

March 14 2011


MIT Produces a String of Civic Media Success Stories

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Junkyard Jumbotron from chris csik on Vimeo.

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

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

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


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

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

March 13 2011


Lost in Boston: REALTIME

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

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

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

March 11 2011


Pablo Boczkowski: The gap between what reporters write and readers read threatens news orgs’ future

We’ve written several times about Pablo Boczkowski, the Northwestern professor who studies news production and how it is changing in a digital environment. So when I was invited to serve as respondent to a presentation of some of Pablo’s new research at the MIT Communications Forum a couple weeks ago, I was very happy to.

Here, Pablo talks about a series of studies he’s done looking at the gap between the kind of journalism that news organizations produce and the kind of journalism that consumers consume. He’s gathered data from a number of different countries and time periods to see how those interests match up (or don’t). I think we found a few interesting points of disagreement — it’s worth a listen.

I’ve posted a transcript below of both Pablo’s comments and my own (but omitting the very interesting Q&A which followed, which is also worth a listen). For anyone wanting to skip ahead, Pablo’s talk begins at 7:50 in; my response starts at 37:10; the Q&A begins at 57:45. (And if anyone wants an MP3 version for their morning commute, here’s the link.)

Thanks to Pablo for sharing the forum with me (and for saying nice things about the Lab), to David Thorburn for the introduction and the invite, and to Knight Science Fellow Jason Spingarn-Koff for moderating.

Pablo Boczkowski: Thank you for the kind introduction. Thank you. I’m going to stand. I was standing before. I don’t know how to talk and stay still. So I’m going to move around a little bit. And I need to hide this, I’ve been told.

Thank you very much to David and to Susan for the invitation to be here. It’s always great to be back at MIT. I had a fabulous five years here and I’m always pleased to return, and in particular to share work with you and get your input on it. And I’m very much looking forward to the response — I’m a big fan of the Nieman Lab and Josh’s commentary as well. So hopefully he will not rip me apart.

So without further ado, let’s move to the topic because David said — I was planning to talk for 40 minutes and David said 20 to 25. So let’s go into it.

So this book — News at Work, as Jason just said, is a story about the increasing role of imitation or copying or replication in news production — the idea that more and more and more, we have the same news across different outlets.

The problem that I faced in that research project was whether perhaps I did — most of the explanation has to do with changes in the production of news and the behavior of news workers and news organizations.

But perhaps, it occurred to me, through the research — news organizations, which are actually market-driven organizations, were responding to changes in the nature of demand. Perhaps all of us want the same news and therefore news organizations are giving us just what we want? They are optimizing their product to match the nature of demand. Was that the case or wasn’t that the case?

So, to discard or not that alternative explanation, I did a series of studies that were reported in this book that came out with Chicago in October. And I found out that it is not the case, that actually there is a huge mismatch, as I say here, between the supply of information and the demand of information.

Basically, that means that the stories that news organizations consider to be the most newsworthy ones, the most important ones at any given point in time for any day or hour — the stories that are above the fold in print newspapers, or at the top of the hour in the television newscasts, or that they are in the top screen of the website — those stories that are the most important ones for them are not necessarily the stories that consumers consider to be the most important ones.

And this ties back to a long-standing debate between journalists and scholars about the stories that journalists say we need in order to function properly in a liberal democratic tradition, as citizens of the polity — information about national news, international news, business, economics, et cetera — versus the stories that often times we want to read, that are stories usually about sports, crime, or entertainment — that are not necessarily uninteresting or unimportant stories. As for example was the case a week ago, when my former advisor, my buddy and a great guy Trevor Pinch authored — you know, a professor at Cornell University — authored what was the most popular story on CNN.com at that point in time, which was a story — a very interesting one — about the role of embodied cognition in artificial intelligence and the relationship between us and machines.

So this was a very important story that piggybacked on “Jeopardy,” I think it was the television show, where the computer — right? So you can sneak in some great science study stuff through television entertainment. But, as Robert Park described 70 years ago — a famous sociologist, former newspaper person, founder of the Chicago School of sociology — this is something that journalists and scholars have known for a while: that “The things that most of us would like to publish are not the things that most of us want to read. We may be eager to get into print what is, or seems to be, edifying, but what we actually want to read or watch or listen to are stories that are interesting.”

So this debate has been going on for more than 70 years. And it’s a crucial one, not only for the industry, but also for the role of media in democracy. Interestingly enough, given how important and how longstanding this debate has been, there has been a relative dearth of empirical studies about this subject.

And the few real research studies that have systematically parsed the evidence that have existed have suffered from at least three major limitations.

The first one is that, so far, before the web, most of the studies focused on aggregate measures — ratings or circulation measures or responses that people would give you in surveys. But not necessarily the behavior that tracks how people read or consume or watch, which is story-driven, rather than circulation in a day — weekday versus weekend, et cetera.

The second limitation is that most of the few empirical studies that are out there have either examined the supply of information — what are the stories that are important in the day — and contrasted that to secondary evidence about the stories about which people are interested in. Or examined through surveys, through focus groups, through examination of ratings information, et cetera, the stories that people consider the most popular and use secondary evidence to look at what we think are the most important stories of the day for journalists — the editorial criteria.

And finally, the third limitation is that by and large, almost all the studies have conceived these preferences or these choices as static — as not changing depending on changes in circumstances. They have taken that for granted.

So what I did, after I got my curiosity piqued doing these few studies for News at Work, is I got some grant money and designed a series of studies that have tried to first determine whether there is actually or there isn’t a gap between the supply of information, consisting of the stories that are the most important ones for journalists, versus the demand for information, consisting of the stories that are the most popular for consumers, where consumers vote with their clicks — in seven different countries, 20 different online news organizations and that have tried, by research design to get rid of all these problems. So, focus on the story as a unit of analysis — focus on the story as the unit of analysis — looking at the choices of both, or the preferences of both journalists and consumers, journalists and the public concurrently, and also looking at the role of contextual variation, contextual circumstances, where they affect or not this preference, to get a sense of whether these choices are then static, or these preferences are static or not.

So I am trained as an ethnographer. Most of what I do is ethnographic. But I’m just going to give you numbers. This is a first for me. It’s an interesting challenge to write the book based just on numbers. I’m going to present you four of the papers that came up from these studies. I have a few more. You’ll have to tell me whether you think the overall story makes sense or not. The papers are almost all published or in the pipeline. So I have little doubt about that aspect of the research. But I’m trying to get a sense of the overarching narrative that is basically a tale of four studies.

So study number one is a study where we laid the methodology for this. We did the following. One day, for a number of days we repeated the same thing. We went, together with a group of collaborators, to four online news sites in the U.S. — CNN, the online news site of the Chicago Tribune, the online news site of a paper that now doesn’t exist anymore, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and the news operation at Yahoo.

At three times of the day, at the same time, we grabbed the top 10 most prominently displayed stories, which are basically the stories that appear on the first screen, as an indication of the stories that journalists consider to be the most important ones of the day.

At that very same time, we took the top 10 most-clicked or most-viewed or most popular stories on each of these sites. Whenever possible, I also collected information about the most-clicked and the most-commented — I’m sorry, the most-emailed and the most-commented stories. I have analyzed that as well. I’m not going to report it today. But in the Q&A I’m happy to tell you. There are a couple of papers out there. I’m happy to give you a gist of what that says.

So the methodology is very simple. We take the two rankings — the ranking of what the journalists consider to be the most important news and the ranking of what the consumers consider to be the most important — the most popular, interesting news.

Then we contrast. We say, of these top ten stories in one ranking, how many are about what I call public affairs news? News about politics or national news in this country, international, foreign news, business and economics — one side. The other side — the rest, which is usually weather, crime, sports, entertainment. Okay? I measure whether the level of preference is similar or is different. It’s a very, very simple process, a very crude measure.

But they give remarkably consistent results across sites. On the left side here, in this turquoise color, for each of these sites is the prevalence of public affairs news — the news that we need to know in order to function properly as citizens in a liberal democracy, presented by journalists among the top 10 in the four sites.

On the Northwestern purple side, the color here on the right-hand side, you have the prevalence of public affairs news among the top 10 most-clicked stories in each of these sites. In all cases, despite the fact that you have two metro papers here versus two sort of global/national organizations at the two ends, that one is a pure player and the others come from traditional media — it doesn’t matter.

You can change as much as you want. In all cases there is a double-digit gap between supply and demand.

Audience member: What is the y-axis?

Pablo: The y-axis is the percentage of public affairs news among the top 10. So in all cases — and all of these figures that I’m going to present today, everything is statistically significant. So we have about 1,200 stories for each of these sites — hand-coded, not machine-coded, hand-coded by people trained beforehand, blah, blah, blah. In all cases, you have a gap.

Now it is possible, we know, that our choices, when we read a site, we are influenced — or when we read a newspaper — we are influenced by editorial decision-making. That is, if this story makes it above the fold, we are more likely to pay attention to that story than if it is buried in page 15. If it is placed at the top of the screen of a website, it’s more likely that it will attract hits or at least some visibility than if it’s buried several screens deep.

Conversely, I am not the only one who is looking at this. Journalists in news organizations are constantly tracking this information. They use now a tool called Chartbeat. For a couple of hundred bucks a month, you get very detailed information about the heartbeat of a site. “I saw the Trevor Pinch story is generating lots of clicks, so we move it up in the site.” Possibly or possibly not.

So it is possible not only that our behavior as consumers is influenced by the journalists, but also that journalists’ behavior is influenced by consumers. So we did a second analysis of this information.

Of the top 10 stories, there were some in the two columns, there were some that showed up in both. That could be evidence that journalists have placed them at the top because consumers had actually clicked a lot or that consumers had clicked a lot because journalists placed them at the top.

So we extracted, removed all those stories, to get a purer sense of the preferences of each site. Guess what? The gap increases hugely. So when you have, actually left to our own devices, the preferences of the choices of people diverge, even more. This is in the case of CNN, a gap of 50 percentage points. It’s like basically running — having a bakery, putting all your products — you decide that 70 percent of what you are going to produce and put on the market are croissants, and only 20 percent of those are sold. You wonder how much longer can an organization survive with this huge gap between supply and demand.

So, okay. We basically proved that there is huge, sizable, quite robust gap between the needs and the wants, if you wish, between the supply and demand of information in the case of the States. But the States to present one of my favorite analogies, is the home of McDonalds. So perhaps people do not eat McDonalds in other countries.

We run a second study. That basically is exactly the same methodology to look at all the new sites of national newspapers — and like the previous study we just worked with national newspaper data for comparability reasons in six foreign countries. Three in Latin America and three in western Europe.

For each country except for the case of Brazil, because we were also interested in issues, not just of regional difference but also ideological differences, we looked at two sites per country. One, conservative leaning. The other liberal/centrist-leaning. So perhaps this is a thing of the right, not or the left, or vice versa.

These six countries are Germany, U.K., and Spain, in Argentina — I’m sorry, in Western Europe, and then Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico in Latin America. The first paper is coming out in Journal of Communication is saying and one just came out in Communication Research. Same ideas, same measures, similar results.

This is each site — so we have Tagesspiegel and Welt from Germany, El Pais and El Mundo from Spain, Guardian and Times from the U.K., Clarín and La Nación from Argentina, Folha de Sao Paulo from Brazil, and Universal and La Reforma from Mexico. In all cases, there is a sizable and significant gap, in some cases up to 30 percentage points between what is provided to the public and what the public actually wants to read, based on where they click.

Perhaps, however, this is more a thing of Europe, not Latin America, or Latin America and not Europe. No — not only the editorial criteria are remarkably similar across very different regions, but also consumer behavior. Here you have journalist choices. The prevalence of public affairs news in western Europe on the left and Latin America — or the three countries in western Europe, three countries in Latin America on the right. In both cases, almost 60 percent — there’s one percentage point difference. Here, preference of consumers, which are exactly at 39 percent, on average, combining all the sites together. And by the way this is not machine-coded. This is real people, people who lived in those countries for at least a year, and two people per country. We are talking a total 18,000 stories in this study, hand-coded this way. Perhaps, however, there is an ideological difference. This only applies to sites on the right. Because those of us on the left are a little bit more enlightened! Well, not actually.

You have, again the journalists here, the consumers here, this is conservative…it doesn’t really matter, right? Conservative, liberal, conservative, liberal — one percentage point difference if you group together all the conservative sides, plus group together all the liberals sides.

So, now that we know that there is gap, the gap is sizable, the gap applies in at least three different regions of the world, they got that doesn’t seem to vary depending on ideological preferences — we can start testing whether it is static or not. So, whether perhaps things change when people should pay more attention than other normal circumstances. And what better time to study that than during the 2008 election, which was not only just a presidential election, it was a major political moment. It was possibly the election of the first African-American president in the history of the country, coupled with a momentous financial transformation that you erased I don’t know how many trillions of dollars in peoples’ assets.

So if there is any point in time in which people should pay attention to politics, economics, international affairs, it’s this time. So the same methodology. We looked at six U.S.-based news sites. Two from cable, CNN and Fox. So two very different ones in terms of ideological orientation. Two from broadcast television, ABC and CBS. And two from print, Washington Post, a serious site, and USA Today, the antithesis.

We started collecting information three weeks before the first convention and we ended three weeks after the election. On average, we collected — for the normal weeks we collected between four and five times a week and around the election period, we collected for 14 consecutive days.

And then we went back exactly a year later, around those 14 days, and we gathered information during a more routine period — those same sites, same 14 days and I will report on that as well. We also gathered information during the congressional through the same 14 days in 2010 and we’re going to do a panel — we’re going to continue collecting information at least until 2012, if not longer than that.

So, I’m going to give you two cuts of the data. The first one compares what happens in the 14 days around the election time in 2008 with the same 14 days in 2009. Not the full load for ’08 — just these 14 days, those 14 days.

And here we start seeing that these choice is that actually not static. So the gap exceeds — is huge actually in Fox. So people, consumers of Fox.com were not really very interested in politics around election time. It’s still fairly large on CNN and it’s also large in USA Today and statistically significant in all cases.

It doesn’t exist in ABC and CBS at this one statistical vantage point. And the interesting things at the Washington Post is that there is a gap that reverses. Okay, so eight of over 10 top stories that journalists published in the Washington Post around election time were on politics. But that wasn’t enough for the public of Washington Post. They wanted more than nine out of ten. So the answer is, are these preferences is static? No. They actually changed quite a bit, depending — and when I show you another measure where if that is the case — depending on the context. When there’s a major election and people are trying to pay attention, people actually do pay attention. What happens when life goes back to normal? Everything goes back to normal. Gap large, everything in the same direction, no changes from two years ago. No changes, I can predict, if you measure now in all six sites. So this is what they interannual comparison, from one year to the next, tells us.

Then we did an analysis looking at the behavior both of journalists and consumers during the election cycle. So this chart gives information about the journalist’s choices starting from week one, which is prior the first convention, going through week 18, three weeks after the election, with week 15 being the week of the election. Each site has a color coding. Basically — if you do as we did through a regression — you can predict that from one week to the next, there is basically on average a three percent chance that as the election nears journalists are going to give us more public affairs news.

Fairly predictable, and the more predictable things that the journalists’ choices basically move in a pack. They all go; it doesn’t matter where you look. It doesn’t matter whether you look at on Fox or Washington Post. They are more or less going to give us the same diet.

So have this picture in mind — look at us. This is us. This is the public from one week to the next, right? Huge disparity. So in some sites, you can actually plot a regression. Most of the states you can’t predict from one week to the next. This is incredible. This is Fox. This is absolutely incredible. Okay?

Audience member: [Off mic question]

Pablo: No, the election is week 15. This is how much the election drew the attention. The best of three out of 10 stories in that week. Among the top 10 most clicked ones. The interesting thing or the most noticeable thing is that compare this with this. This with this. This is an industry that is fairly static. That doesn’t move depending on the context.

That doesn’t change. They have a formula, they push it. One, two, three, four, five. This is us. We change our moods. Today I want croissants. Tomorrow I want bagel. But I’m actually going to same bakery — the same bakery always giving me croissants. After a while, my appetite is going to be not satiated or not satisfied.

So eventually, which is one of the implications I think of all this, eventually people are going to start leaving these sites. There is no industry that can survive, especially in a competitive environment with this huge gap — [Jason signals two more minutes] I have two? Ha. I come from Argentina so with hyperinflation we say we eight, how about that?

So, okay, the moral of the story is that we can tell, okay, these choices are actually not static. They’re dynamic. They change depending on the environment, and of course this is a major environmental transformation, a major contextual variation in the case of the States — something that people had been clued in for months.

Would the same changes happen during a major crisis that erupts like this, is totally unforeseen, and vanishes quickly after that? So we run a fourth study that came out in Press/Politics last year, too. We basically were fortunate enough that during the day of election period for the international study, in Argentina there was one such crisis, a major political crisis where the economic minister had to resign, the government almost was collapsed, et cetera. And so what we did is we looked at the evolution — because we had 24 weeks of data, we looked at the evolution of covering during those 24 weeks. We also, the summer after we collected data, we also went to these organizations and a few others and interviewed a bunch of bunch of editors and also interviewed a number of consumers.

Long story, short, since I don’t have a lot of time, the choices are static only when there are no major contextual transformations. Even in case of a crisis erupting like this one, it only lasts for five weeks. Consumers really pay attention to topics that journalists consider politically important in those weeks. And then, when the crisis is over, people go back to life as usual. So this is the evolution of coverage during the 24 weeks, weeks 18 through 23 are the weeks in which the crisis was taking place. If you look at the lines, the blue lines are the…the solid one is the journalists’ choices for Clarín, which is the largest newspaper in the country. The broken ones are the consumer’s choices for the site, and the same for La Nación, which is the second largest news site in the country. They basically don’t move a lot together during normal periods. When there is a major crisis, they converge. And as soon as the crisis is over, they diverge.

That’s another way of showing the data. So, why? Why, given that we all know — I know it and people in the industry know it and people in these sites know it — given that they are publishing stuff that, a lot of it goes unnoticed, it’s not paid enough attention, why do journalists continue publishing this information? Why is their behavior like that?

One of our editors told us, “We cannot ignore what people are interested in, but we cannot make the news as a function of those interests either…I believe that journalism has a role that is different from following those [consumer demand] trends.” Another one, different organization, Clarín, said, “We are guided by parameters that have to do with taking care of the brand. We cannot publish anything that is out there.”

So basically this is saying that there is an occupational logic that, so far, trumps the market logic. We know what the demand is, but our occupational logic is such that will trump the nature of demand.

What happens on the consumer side? Why do consumers first click on public affairs or pay attention to public affairs news during crisis periods, but not during ordinary periods? One of them said, “You know, we have the agricultural producer strike,” which is this political crisis, “so now I follow the headlines from this story and if there is something I can read about it, I read it.”

“But during normal periods,” another said, “I don’t like politics very much, but I have to pay a bit of attention to this. Whereas, normally, I read bizarre news to take a break from current events.”

So basically, just to summarize a lot of interviews, people consider political news or public affairs news anxiety-provoking, demanding a lot of cognitive effort. And they feel somewhat unprepared to interpret it. All of that moves them away from this information. So we have two very different cultures and two very different logics here.

Jason: I think we should, if it’s all right with you, save the rest for the discussion.

Pablo: Give me two minutes.

Jason: Two minutes? Okay.

Pablo: Two slides. I only have two more slides.

Jason: We’re definitely getting into hyperinflation mode here.

Pablo: I know. So what does this mean for the industry? One, the media industry is an industry that grew and developed within the natural monopoly or oligopoly position. You had to come to them — you’re an advertiser, you had to come to them. They gave us what they considered was important, and basically when you are one or two, at the most three players in the market, you can actually ignore the nature of demand.

Now the industry has moved to a much more competitive environment. So this gap that has existed, according to Robert Park, for at least 70 years, now becomes terribly pressing in terms of the economic viability of the industry.

Second, this highlights the growing tension that you see in each and every newsroom that I’ve been to between the logics of the occupation and the logics of the market that I said before.

Third, the Washington Post finding is, in part, an interesting one for me, the reverse nature of the gap, because it tells us that the niche sites, the sites that have a specialty, are siphoning interest from the generalist sites. People who are in St. Louis or people who are in Seattle who are interested in politics go to Politico or the Washington Post — they don’t go to their local news organization.

So the bundled product strategy, the generalist strategy that dominated the industry for a long while, actually might no longer be so feasible. And since Jason is looking at me, “Come on. Come on. You have to finish.” I leave you with that last slide so that you can read and I can talk about it. Thank you. [applause]

Jason: It’s fascinating. So that’s brand-new research.

Pablo: It’s brand new.

Jason: Are we the first to see it?

Pablo: No. [laughter]

Jason: Great. That’s exciting. That’s going to be part of a new book?

Pablo: Yes. Hopefully.

Jason: Okay. Josh.

Joshua Benton: Terrific. Well, thanks very much. Thank you, Pablo, for that presentation. It’s a great honor to share the table with you. It’s a great pleasure to be here at MIT.

While I’ve been at Harvard for almost four years now, I really do come at a lot of these questions fundamentally from a journalistic perspective as opposed to an academic one. So while I can’t match Pablo in academic credentials, I do think journalists — traditionally their task is to ask questions. So I’m just going to raise a few questions about some of the research that we just heard presented that I hope can spark a fruitful discussion.

I appreciate all the work that Pablo has done to illustrate the gap that exists between the production of journalism and the consumption of journalism. That said, I’d be surprised if anyone here was really shocked by the idea that, in fact, the things that we consume are not the same things that we would like to see produced or that professional journalists would like to see produced.

I suspect we’d find a similar gap if we looked at the amount of broccoli you’re supposed to eat versus the amount that people actually do eat. Or the number of hours that Americans spend listening to Justin Bieber versus the number of hours they admit to listening to Justin Beiber.

I think we can all, even from our own experience, acknowledge that our own consumption of media is not always optimized for seriousness or for civic worthiness.

I’d actually be interested, if you’re looking for something else for the last chapter of your book, to do similar research looking specifically at the consumption habits of the same journalists who are producing the stories — because I’m sure at the end of a long day of muckraking a lot of them will go back to go read a trashy novel about vampires or zombies.

I, last night, used another tool to try and gauge the interest of the Internet-using public — this is Google Trends which is matching what people are searching for at any given moment. The top five there include a woman named Melissa Molinaro who, from what I could tell is only of interest because she’s in an Old Navy commercial and looks something like Kim Kardashian.

The word “forehead” — I was completely unable to figure why people were searching for forehead last night, but perhaps someone in the crowd can crowdsource that for me.

Two searches related to the death of the star of a reality television show, “The Deadliest Catch.” And “Scott Walker prank call,” which — that last one, that fifth one could be described as public affairs journalism if you’re willing to have a broad definition. But I’m willing to invoke the prank-call exception to anything actually being public affairs journalism. I think that sort of moves it into the entertainment category for most people who are consuming it.

The Internet certainly makes it very easy for us to quantify the public’s wandering attentions. But I would note that it’s not exactly a new phenomenon for there to be concern about the civic information levels of the American public.

I remember, as a kid in the ’80s, hearing about all the Americans who couldn’t find the Soviet Union on a map — which is really hard because the Soviet Union was pretty big, pretty hard to miss. There have always been people who, while they may have bought a very serious newspaper, skip straight to the comics or the sports section or the crossword puzzle or who, quite frankly, just wanted the ads. Anyone who’s worked at a newspaper will be able to tell you that Sunday paper sales are largely driven by people who take the newspaper, set it aside, and then just go through the circulars.

Joel Kramer who was the publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and now runs a nonprofit news site called MinnPost, he told me that their readership research at the Star Tribune consistently found, over the years, that about 10 to 15 percent of their audience were people he would consider serious news consumers. People who sought out news as part of their civic identity, people who viewed it as sort of a life priority to get different perspectives and to stay informed with the latest happenings with government.

It’s easy in hindsight to imagine some idealized past where everyone was a dedicated public affairs reader — and maybe that was true in Cambridge, I confess. But I just want to raise a few questions.

One, before I go into it — one that just came to mind listening to Pablo’s presentation. It’s certainly true that some of the listing of the most popular stories and the most promoted stories on news sites may have some taint between them as news organizations realize, “Hey, this story is popular. We should move it up.”

But I think it’s difficult to argue that the presentation of the stories on a front page or the first few stories in a newscast have ever been a pure reflection of journalist’s judgments on what are the most important stories.

Page 1 meeting of the newspapers, the environment I’m most familiar with, usually had a mix. “We have to get the right mix — a few hard stories and a nice feature story about some teen that’s done something spectacular.” The presence on the front page was never a full statement of “this is the most important story of the day.”

But that aside, I want to just raise three questions that hopefully can be of use in our conversation. The first one is: Are we evaluating the right news universe? To the extent that I have a quibble with some of Pablo’s work and with News At Work, his last book, it’s that to my mind it doesn’t quite reflect the reality that the news universe is no longer limited, either from a consumer’s point of view or a producer’s point of view, to the large news institutions — either CNN or The New York Times or even the newcomers like Yahoo.

That’s the one question that I would push back a bit on from Pablo’s presentation is I’m not 100 percent sure that supply and demand is exactly the right metaphor here, because it’s really hard for me to look at the Internet and say there is a shortage of supply of anything.

It’s hard, whether you’re just limiting it to one news organization or going beyond — if you want to find out about what’s going on in Libya, you can easily spend the next 24 hours pouring through lots of information. It seems it’s less a matter of supply and demand and more one of distribution and promotion.

Also, along those lines, looking simply at the top 10 stories at any given moment, it’s not a really strong, to my mind, statement of supply. It’s only even a rough statement of consumption. If you’re looking at a site the size of, say, The New York Times or The Washington Post, even the top 10 stories that are consumed at any given moment are still only a tiny fraction, or at least a small fraction, nowhere near a majority of the amount of news reading that is going on at any given time.

If you just looked at just purely the public affairs production of something like The New York Times or even CNN, it’s certainly a list of stories much longer than 10 every single day.

When we’re comparing print to online, I think it’s very important for us to not just carve off the serious part of the print world and make that the point of comparison to the enormous, glorious confusion of the online world — or vice versa. Even in print, before the days of the Internet, more people read People than read Time, more people read Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping than either of those. And more people, today read Game Informer magazine and Better Homes and Gardens than any of the other ones that I’ve just mentioned.

The web, particularly thanks to social media but not exclusively, does a really terrific job of connecting quality news and information and the people who might want to consume it. If you ever just look at the things that your friends are sharing on Twitter or on Facebook, they tend to be a pretty good reflection of your interests — assuming that you pick your friends correctly, which is always a different question.

As a result, there are lots of outlets that existed before the Internet — in some cases thrived before the Internet — who are now reaching all new audience that they would not have been able to achieve without the connecting power of online media. There are many, many more people reading the journalism produced by The New York Times newsroom today than has ever been the case. The Atlantic is doing great gangbusters on the web, generating lots of revenue and lots of readers by having a very smart digital strategy that is aiming at high-quality content. The New York Review of Books, of all people, is doing quite a good job online and reaching all sorts of new audiences who would never have gone to the one newsstand in their Midwestern hometown that would have carried a copy of The New York Review of Books.

There’s lots of terrific, serious criticism of the arts and books on book blogs, on little, nerdy startup sites. Because the web is such a good distribution and connection platform, that sort of quality content is able to reach new audiences. I would love to be able to see a way that that broadened effect, both on the high-end and on the low-end in terms of high and lowbrow — to see that reflected.

If we’re going to take the next step and evaluate the impact of these changes in the news universe and how we consume and produce news, it’s important to acknowledge these sorts of changes. As Ethan Zuckerman at Harvard has said often, for subjects like foreign affairs, it really is not so much a supply question as it is a demand question. It’s not how can we get more information about Libya. It’s how can we get more people to be interested in information about Libya.

The second question I wanted to raise is: Are news organizations public institutions or businesses? Now, of course, I can easily answer that for you. The answer is both. But which lens we view them through should inform, I think, the way that we view this gap between the public’s interest and journalistic production.

I think viewing news organizations as being primarily civic-minded institutions, is really only tenable if you ignore the vast majority of news that has been produced in the history of the world. Even before the Internet, an average American newspaper would only spend about 20 percent of its revenue, of its budget on the newsroom.

In that newsroom were lots of people — sports reporters, movie critics, other people who were writing perfectly valuable stuff, but stuff that it’s hard to say was critical to democracy in a lot of ways, or critical to being an informed voter. Even The New York Times spends an awful lot of resources covering the Yankees and fashion and pop music and whatever hipsters are up to in Brooklyn.

So what percentage of an average newsroom would pass the “Is it critical to democracy” test? It’s a lot less than 100 percent, that’s for sure. And even given that newspapers do an awful lot of important public affairs journalism, which they certainly do, why do they do it? Did they do it purely out of a civic responsibility? Or did they do it because they felt it was good business?

Again, the answer is both. But historically speaking, the story of newspapers in the 20th century was one of consolidation. Going from cities with dozens of newspapers to cities that would have, in most cases only one, and occasionally two. And if you live in New York, you get a few more.

That consolidation, in a variety of ways, led to spread of distribution in coverage area. You went from, if you were at my old newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, you were no longer covering the area immediately around Dallas. You were suddenly covering this sprawling metropolis of six million people.

Within those six million people, there are enormous disparities in wealth, in race and ethnicity, in interests, in socioeconomic status. So the economic incentive, if you want to be a monopoly player under this model and to reach as many people as you possibly can, is to focus your coverage on the broadest possible common interests. That’s why The Dallas Morning News wrote an awful lot of stories about the Dallas Cowboys and why the Globe writes a lot about the Celtics and the Red Sox.

It’s also one reason why the Globe writes a lot about Deval Patrick and the Statehouse — because when you have a large metropolitan newspaper that is trying to appeal to a large, very diverse audience, it’s efficient, from an economic point of view, to focus on the things that appeal most broadly.

It’s also the reason, on the other hand, why newspapers have traditionally been pretty darn bad, I would argue, at covering niches and subcultures and the small — the little things going on that a broad metro newspaper, you can almost always count to not do a particularly good job on.

From my own experience, I remember the day when I was looking through the newspaper’s archives in Dallas for information about the bar where the Velvet Underground recorded a live album in 1969. I realized that, after spending lots of time looking for references, that The Dallas Morning News essentially chose not to cover the 1960s, chose to ignore the counterculture, and treated as something they were not particularly interested in.

We had the example a few years ago, where the Lexington Herald-Leader published a front-page apology saying, as a correction, “We’re sorry that we forgot to cover the civil rights movement.” There are lots of ways in which newspapers, by trying to appeal in the broadest possible ways, focus their coverage in ways that leave open lots of niches to be exploited by new, more agile players.

Also remember that newspapers are not just selling news. They are also selling an image of their readers. They are selling that image to advertisers of course — “you should want to put your goods in front of these wonderful people.” But they’re also selling it to readers themselves. People’s identities are influenced by the kinds of media they consume.

I remember the great saying — I’ve been trying to figure out who said this, if anyone knows, please talk to me afterwards — that there are three kinds of people in the world: those who don’t read the New York Review of Books, those who do read the New York Review of Books and those who no longer have to read The New York Review of Books.

These sorts of identity issues are important to the ways that people consume their media. While there are lots of journalists who of course feel a civic duty to do serious reporting, and there are publishers who feel similarly, there are also economic motives, trying to get a more upmarket audience. It’s something which a lot of metro newspapers are very much focused on, and other news outlets as well.

Also, that sense of responsibility, that civic gravitas that the classic publisher had — well, not to demean that in any way, but it’s also a pretty easy sense of responsibility to feel when you have a local monopoly that will produce 30 percent profit margins without trying all that hard. When the question is, do you have a 30 percent profit margin or a 20 percent profit margin, and how much journalism you are willing to invest in to make that difference, the questions are a little bit different. So these business factors and economic motivations are also important, I think.

My third and final question is a little bit more — I hope there are good political scientists in the room: Is it okay for people to not be informed about the news? How much does it really matter?

I’m not surprised at all that the closest connection that Pablo found between news produced and news consumed was around the 2008 election, when, logically speaking, interest in public affairs should have been at their highest point, by most theories of what an informed public is supposed to be.

When I saw the numbers for Fox, I was reminded actually of Nick Lemann’s great profile a couple of years ago in The New Yorker of Bill O’Reilly, where he noted that while people who don’t actually watch Bill O’Reilly may think of it as being primarily a political show, but if you sit down and watch it, there are a lot of crime stories, a lot of “child abducted” kinds of stories that the political focus almost seemed secondary on a lot of days.

Jay Hamilton, who is an economist at Duke — his book All The News That’s Fit to Sell, a terrific book I would recommend — he outlines what he calls the four kinds of information demands, the four reasons that people would seek out and consume information.

The first is producer information. That means information that would improve or increase your production. So if you’re a stock trader and you find out that a company in which you’re interested just got a big new contract or is facing a lawsuit, that’s information that you can use to make you do your job better. So The Wall Street Journal would be producer information for you. The same is true if you are an agent in Hollywood and you are reading Variety. And also, to get to Pablo’s data, I think it’s also completely true if you are a reader of The Washington Post, and therefore probably affiliated with the federal government in some way, and it’s a few days before your megaboss is about to change, it’s very much tied to your production in your job.

The second type of consumer information is information that lets you make better consumer decisions. So, should I buy the new MacBook Pro that was unveiled this morning? If I want to risk injury to go see Spiderman on Broadway, will it be worth it? Reviewers of all kinds are the obvious suppliers of this kind of consumer information.

Entertainment information is what Lindsay Lohan is up to today, plus also a Philip Roth novel. It is information that is primarily aimed at entertaining the consumer in some way or another. An awful lot of what news organizations produce, I would argue, falls directly into this category. Journalists may not like to admit it. But I think it’s true.

Then finally, the fourth category is voter information. That’s information that lets the reader make better decisions about his or her government. Should I vote for Obama? Is he handling Libya correctly? Was the stimulus worth it?

And what Hamilton argues is that, for the first three kinds of information, there is an immediate return to the consumer. You make more money. You avoid Spiderman. You have a good laugh or a good cry.

With voter information though, knowing doesn’t give you an immediate return. Knowing about the stimulus doesn’t mean that the stimulus will have a different impact on you. It simply means that you’ll know more about it. Because the chance of your individual vote being the difference maker in any given election is so small, you don’t derive the same direct benefit from that knowledge that you do from the other classes.

Hamilton argues that, for this reason, it can be a perfectly rational economic decision for someone to choose not to follow the more broccoli side of the news. And frankly, these choices are something that we all — even if you are the biggest news omnivore in the room, there are still lots and lots of things that you choose not to read about every day. You may be completely up on the latest impact of the stimulus, but perhaps the Botswanan economy is not your major focus. We all make these choices.

Hamilton says that he views the elements that lead people to pursue a lot of voter information as what he calls the three Ds — duty, diversion, or drama. I think a lot of cable news would fall under diversion or drama, and not many other people would fall under having the sense of duty or following it.

So the question I really raise is, particularly in the kind of political system that we have, where the political science literature tells us that the best predictor of whether or not someone is going to be reelected as president is the level of unemployment right before the election, is it not potentially a rational choice for people to be choosing to focus less on public affairs news?

Is it okay for us instead to have a class of people, whether that’s politicians, but also journalists, lobby groups, academics, as well as those people driven by duty — to have this class of people who do the heavy lifting and pay attention to these things?

Speaking from my own experience, when I was writing about education policy in Texas, some of my stories I knew would reach a very broad audience and would be of interest to a broad audience. But a lot of them I knew were kind of targeted to a few dozen bureaucrats and administrators and legislators, for the hard-core policy questions that weren’t going to reach far beyond that.

How important is that element of mass in the mass media?

Jason: Josh, I just want to give you a warning.

Josh: Yes. All right. I am duly warned. When we talk about agenda setting, which I think is a slide that you may not have gotten to, I think one of your last slides, we live in a world where Gawker can take down a congressman, and Talking Points Memo can get an attorney general to resign, and Wikileaks can set the whole world talking. The ability to set the agenda is much more broadly spread than ever before.

And I think the impact we’ve seen in the economic structure of news organizations is moving away from the world of duplication to a world that is much more about niche. When you look at Washington coverage, there are fewer people than there were 20 years ago doing broad Washington coverage, of the sort that the Washington Bureau of the Des Moines Register would have done at some point in the past. But there are many more people doing niche coverage, about the elements of federal policy that are important to them.

For the people who are really interested, the people who are reading Politico and The Washington Post, there is no shortage of blanket coverage. It’s just that they’re reaching different audiences instead of trying to appeal to the broad element.

It’s really hard for me to look at the 700 feeds in my RSS reader and see more conformity or a new bottleneck for diverse subjects or diverse points of view.

But finally, to conclude, I think that the example of Wikileaks is instructive, because Julian Assange realized after working for several years to do what he wanted to do, at a certain point he needed to work with news organizations like the Times and the Guardian to have his work make the maximum impact. Those news organizations still have the enormous reach of their audience — an enormous weapon in the battle of what kind of media is going to be produced and consumed. So I think in the end there is going to be lots of room for lots of different kinds of players. The ability to judge the actions of the audience, as one unit, will get a lot harder.

We going to have to start looking at more narrow slices of the news production and consumption question. And I think in the end there will be room for all kinds. Thanks.

February 18 2011


MIT's Civic Media Session Explores Data in Cities

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

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

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

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

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


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.


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

January 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 04 2011


Winning a Golden Ticket to the MIT Media Lab

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

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

The Lab: A Newcomer's Guide

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

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

Research Groups

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

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


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

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


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

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

The Center for Future Civic Media

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

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

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

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

So, is it any good?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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