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June 17 2010


May 17 2010


Wanna Come Out and Play? Community Engagement & Technology Development

When my old friend and collaborator Leo Burd returned to MIT as a research scientist for Center for Future Civic Media's (C4FCM), we started to gather some like-minded folks to discuss how media and mapping tools and youth civic engagement can intersect in the world of the Media Lab. Both of us have often been called a bridges or a translators between technology developers and underserved community members.  We see a value in equalizing the power that comes from self construction, blurring the role of creator and user.

At first, we just wanted to be part of multi-directional conversations and find creative ways to document the ideas exchanged.  Across what seemed like a very disparate set of projects, we found a common value in finding or making new technologies that are appropriate for youth use directly reflect on and affect change in their everyday worlds.   Our individual place-based approaches didn't hinder us from talking about replicability across complexities of culture, politics, and context, in places like Rio, Lima, Gaza, and Roxbury.  These conversations and ideas became a new kind of renewable fuel for further development of new or more appropriate technology tools for youth in underserved situations.

At heart, we wanted to create processes of development where innovation happens iteratively with community educators, activists and youth as collaborators not end users. Many of us come from the Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten (LLK) school of constructivism, project and personal interest-based hands-on learning.  In a world of imagination and play, invention is without limits and most importantly FUN.  New half-baked technologies, like new toys, lets us be kids again.  Through a collaborative process of software development, tinkering can equalize the role of inventor and user and harken us back to a space where imagination and creativity can win you the power of attention and solidarity.

You could make an argument that play is just play, but many child development researchers would argue that play is an essential part of children developing into social and productive human beings.  Linking play, and the innovation it can produce, with tangible utility and action in a certain place is an exciting opportunity.  So when we reviewed Kate Balug's class project proposing a new city department focused on youth mapping their own safe play spots in their own neighborhoods, the Department of Play moniker and a vision was born.

Belfast Computer Clubhouse, Ireland 200

Playing games in a public space are more fun with different kinds of players and if they keep happening over time.  Early on, we prioritized outreach and relationship building as an essential building block of our community engagement approach at the Department of Play.  This approach is essentially the next generation of LLK and Computer Clubhouse Green Table.  At each Clubhouse and later at the Media Lab at monthly meetings of coordinators and MIT students, the Green Table was both a literal and symbolic "village green," a space for open assembly and participation.   This spring, the core members of the Dept. of Play facilitated conversations and new relationships, sparked in weekly researcher meetings across fields and department and in a monthly meetups where we invited local Boston community organizers and educators into the mix.  Then we started to reach out to other theoretical thinkers or experts in the fields of children's rights, international development, and community based change.

Time and time again, we told our own personal stories of creating tools for change in a place, with the idea that mutually beneficial relationships can yield the best cycles for feedback and development.  We centered conversations about functionality and use around everyday issues, not because we wanted to just observe or validate our own ideas and tools.  We want to build a community of creators who will take to play with innovations that worked in one place and vision if they could apply in other contexts.

My City, My FutureA perfect example is a new curriculum we're developing, aimed at bringing Jeff Warren's grassroots participatory and activist mapping techniques to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro via the MIT IDEAS Competition winning My City, My Future project and behind the walls of Gaza and the West Bank via Voices Beyond Walls new Re-Imagining Project.  In all these places, we'll be taking lessons and technologies developed in action-based research and asking new groups of youth and adult mentors to add their own new ideas to developing tools for storytelling and visualization.  These three collaborators will work with youth on the ground to help us develop a neighborhood mapping tool on top of Jeff's Cartagen framework, then we'll bring this software to the youth here in Boston to try to adapt it to the context of their community centers and affordable housing developments.

Beyond finding resources to support projects and software development, the most challenging aspect of this approach is the TIME and effort it takes to build relationships and trust.  Groups like C4FCM are formed to take MIT innovations beyond ideation to sustainable civically-minded implementation.   At the Department of Play, we take it step further, trying to put that action in the hands of the youth with a spirit of purpose, curiosity and the joy of learning that adults too quickly grow out of unfortunately.

So Leo, mysef and the rest of the DoP team will keep purposely playing on the two teams of MIT and the youth community.  Come join us! http://departmentofplay.org

Sponsored post

April 08 2010


Introducing the Department of Play

[This post originally appeared on the MIT CoLab Radio blog, in Danielle Martin's Media Mindfulness column.]

The Department of Play (DoP) is a working group of researchers, developers, and community practitioners at the MIT Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM) bonded by a common value: the design of new technologies and methodologies to support youth as active participants in their local urban neighborhoods.

We might glance at the teen sitting next to us on the bus with a smart-phone and think: “Wow, the digital divide is shrinking.”  My first thought goes to all the youth who don’t have access to mobile phones, who also have things to say.  But I do see the divide diminishing when I see the wide smile of a Peruvian youth playing around with a big red balloon with a makeshift camera rig he made himself, to make his own map of his favela neighborhood.

While higher broadband speeds and affordability recommended by the FCC’s recent national broadband plan should increase access to internet tools in under-served communities, we still need to consider the increased digital literacy and local facilitation necessary to use fully tap the power of these tools. While access is important, much more is needed to make sure technology can be used to empower young people.

GrassrootsMapping in Peru

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February 21 2010


Grassroots Mapping: Neutrality and cartography in Cantagallo

Cross-posted at GrassrootsMapping.org

Another day, another new grassroots map! After working with residents of Cantagallo at the beginning of February to produce the first map of their community with Daniel Miracle of Escuelab, we met with members of another of the 3 groups of Shipibo living in the same zone in the center of Lima. Upon seeing the maps we'd made, they were excited to make one also.

Sara Gomez of CEDRO, who introduced us to Sr. Ricardo, the president of one of the multiple political groups in Cantagallo, pointed out that if we make a map, we should do the best to serve all parties who live in Cantagallo - meaning that, among other things, we should create a single map of the entire settlement, collaborating with as many groups as we can, and distribute it as widely as possible. The situation was complex - the political groups don't break down along clear geographic lines, but they are engaged in geographic dispute, and are submitting separate bids for state recognition. I'm still struggling with how to aid these groups in their bid for land title without getting pulled into a local political conflict -- if that's even possible. We cannot say, for example, that this mapmaking is a neutral act - but we can try to create tools which support equal access to geodata, and which are hard to use in exclusionary ways.

It remains to be seen how this plays out, but at the very least, we were able to work with a Señor Ricardo - president of one of the other Shipibo groups - to make a more complete map. Politics aside, once you get outside and start flying balloons, everyone becomes an excited kid, at least for a while.

My hope is that these maps will support all parties' claims to title in their negotiations with the Municipality more than they create or further aggravate disputes between the various groups in Cantagallo. I'll be staying in close contact with my friends there to see what happens.

January 15 2010


Mapping with balloons, kites, and kids - first flights with Juan Pablo II in Lima

(The following post is cross-posted at GrassrootsMapping.org)

Yesterday Seth Hunter and I had our big flight with teachers from CEDRO and Manzanita "A" and the kids from invasion Juan Pablo II, and everything went extremely well. We started by reviewing the Google Maps imagery of the area (see previous post) and discussing their new homework project of writing about the history of the community, when their family arrived and from where, etc. (see the full homework on the Grassroots Mapping wiki). This was put together with the team from CEDRO -- Ernesto, Sandy, Sara, and others, whose fantastic work and thorough understanding of the kids we're working with has made this all possible. I've been very impressed with their personal commitment to the community - they know all the kids and their families, and have a very good rapport with the residents of Juan Pablo II.

After a short discussion of the camera rig and some helium safety tips/rules, we set out to launch our first balloon - or rather 5 balloons, which is what it took to launch our camera.

However, there was quite a bit of wind, and things got a bit turbulent. The rig kept getting pushed down by gusts, and with all the DIY electrical wiring around, we told the kids to let go of the string for a bit. Ultimately, though, we had a big crowd, and the kids helped with everything from filling balloons to tying the rigging -- and most importantly, they had a ton of fun.

We were unsure about the pictures we'd get, and indeed we didn't really get high enough with the balloons (see above) so later, with a smaller group of kids we tried flying kites, which worked fantastically - we got the camera up quite high and captured some really good imagery which we hope to rectify later today or tomorrow. To produce a complete map, we expect to repeat kite/balloon flights over the next week or so.

All in all, the day went terrifically well; many thanks to the aforementioned members of CEDRO as well as Carla del Carpio and Nancy, who were also there to participate.

The complete set of photos of the event are being uploaded to Flickr under the tag "grassrootsmapping".

December 16 2009


Grassroots Mapping in Palestine

Josh Levinger and I visited the West Bank for a few days following the MobileActive/UNICEF Mobile Data Innovations workshop. (Andrew posted about this last week) We were hoping to meet up with some members of the activist community who are organizing against the growth of Israeli settlements into Palestinian land. As mappers, we hoped to test some new low-cost tools and to learn about how such techniques can support communities in this fundamentally geographic dispute.

We met up with some Palestinians and volunteers who were planting trees in Umm Salamuna (view in Google Maps) on a hillside which is scheduled to be annexed by a nearby Israeli settlement, and converted into a graveyard. The planting was organized by Alice Gray of Bustan Qaraaqa, so that if the land is taken over, the trees would have to be uprooted or chopped down before the land can be used.. As I understand it, one of the means by which settlements claim land is by using an Israeli law which opens land to new settlement if it has lain fallow for more than three years -- so planting the hillside may defend it from such a claim.

The wind was so strong that our first kite, carefully made that morning from dowels and Tyvek, shattered immediately. Instead, we launched a small soft kite with an iPod nano attached to it. Here's a stitched image of the video footage we captured:

See all the pictures on Flickr.

The iPod has an SD camera which can capture many hours of video - and it's so super light that we can fly it on a pocket kite. Many of the frames are blurred and the resolution is pretty poor (we'd thought of using a Flip camera but they're more expensive and heavier) but when you go through the footage frame by frame you can find lots of good images. We then stitched these together with Calico and got the above image. It helped a lot to put a small 'sail' on the back of the iPod so it didn't spin as much.

Everyone was cold but once we started flying the kites we all got really excited. The owner of the land was there with his kids and they helped assemble the rig and fly the kite:


The mapping was a big success - everyone 'got' why we were doing it, that documenting the tree planting and how they're changing the landscape is a form of testimony. We're still working to rectify the imagery, and I'd like to ask folks if they have any ideas - the stitching software we're using assumes images were taken from a single viewpoint, but the kite and camera were moving all over the place. As you can see above, the stitching distorts things and we lose a lot of detail - how can we reconstruct a high-res image that assumes multiple perspectives? I'm looking at this tutorial to start with. We're also thinking about an algorithm to dump the clear, undistorted and unblurred frames from a movie file. Ideas?

We'll be adding this material to the Grassroots Mapping wiki, where we're putting together a comprehensive guide on low-cost participatory mapping techniques. Our hope is that we can offer a Grassroots Mapping Kit which people can use to reproduce these techniques to explore and document their own geographies no matter where they are.

Reblogged from Unterbahn.com

December 09 2009


Open Park Spring Internship

Open Park, a new project in collaborative digital media production of the Center for Future Civic Media, is now accepting applications for its Spring Semester Internship.

Are you a full-time student with a creative mind and cool concepts for re-creating collaboration? Do you have in mind an ideal model for digital news and media production? And would you like to work with your own team of collaborators on these ideas, all the while gaining great experience in an interestingly challenging and innovative environment, and a great portfolio to show off at the end? And for credit of course!..

If so, check our application requirements at:


Contact: Florence Gallez

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November 16 2009


Communications Forum: "What's New at the Center for Future Civic Media"

MIT Center for Future Civic Media Director Chris Csikszentmihalyi presents the Center's most recent projects. From community mapping to news tracking, from collective action to rural empowerment, from cultural mixing to carbon consciousness, civic media is any technology or technique that strengthens a geographic community. Civic media researchers will demonstrate their projects in a lightning-round format, with time for discussion and questions following each presentation listed below.

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