Agenda

I’ve just arrived at MIT in Boston, where the Future of Civic Media conference is being held over the next three days. Attendees are gathering to compare notes, soak up new ideas (including some smart technologies devised by students here) and tease out ways to maximize the impact of civic media in our lives.

Here’s a proposal that I’ll be bouncing off the assorted thought leaders: Civic Media Innovation Camps. The camps would be one part road show — trainers and local new media experts sharing learnings around social media technologies, case studies, interesting experiments and success stories — and one part curated bottom-up knowledge base that would capture, organize and archive relevant materials and make them accessible and easily discoverable.

The key feature of such Innovation Camps, however, would be this: cross-pollination across fields. Participants would include hand-on managers and developers from online news organizations, pioneers and coders from the tech sector, and clued-in educators from academia.

Silo busting

Looked at another way, Innovation Camps would be an exercise in breaking down information silos and reaping the whirlwind of knowledge sharing. Academics have confessed to me they face challenges in taking innovation in the classroom and transferring it to real-world venues, such as online news operations. Online news managers tip their hands that they have trouble keeping up with the latest developments driving the social media revolution. And too many tech startup CEOs think of journalism as yesterday’s news.

But there are voices seeking out collaboration and common cause.

At a recent Aspen Institute roundtable on mobile technology and civic engagement, Katrina Verclas, founder and editor of MobileActive.org, pointed out that the mobile space was rife with innovative experiments. “Some really interesting things are happening, but no one is aggregating the knowledge. The lessons learned sit in innovation silos. You need to start silo busting — that’s how innovation spreads, by sharing and picking through these little pockets of good stuff.”

In Silicon Valley, the San Francisco Bay Area and among technology geeks, the “good stuff” is partly spread through camps. Starting with BarCamp (which David wrote about here) and extending to newer gatherings like DevCamp, the “unconference” phenomenon has spread, with makeshift gatherings springing up from Seattle to Bangalore.

I’ve attended, and helped organize, a few of these over the past couple of years, and the payout in engagement is worth the lack of formal structure. At Mashup Camp two summers ago (which I blogged here) I first met Adrian Holovaty in person and first learned of a startup called Ning, a social networking platform now boasts more than 140,000 social sites. (At a BarCampBlock organized by Socialtext, I snapped the photo at top of the sessions that took place.)

Beyond NewsTools

The idea of “action camps” was briefly kicked around at NewsTools2008 in April during a breakout session with Geneva Overholser, the incoming dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism, that tackled journalism, technology and the public interest. About 20 of us (high-level new media representatives, technologists, academics) discussed the need to connect local communities with innovations taking place (or ready to take place) in the emerging media world. The conversation began with the observation that gatherings like NewsTools were valuable for high-level conversations, but that this “think tank” approach was ultimately less valuable than a framework that emphasized action and continuity. In other words, results.

We also agreed that:

- results from such an effort should be open sourced;

- the goal should be to advance journalism and the public interest without regard for whether such efforts support existing media business models;

- experiments, prototypes and case studies in different fields should be reviewed, aggregated and shared openly.

An ongoing series of Civic Media Innovation Camps could serve that function, setting up shop for a day or two in cities across the nation, bringing in guest speakers, inviting participants (geeks and managers) from the media, technology and academic arenas, and providing a couple of trainers-in-residence to lend structure to the proceedings. The output from the participants could then be organized, extended and carried over to the next Camp.

The weakness of current efforts, in my view, is that they tend to be one-offs: singular gatherings that share the DNA of a smart mob. The camps whip up interest in a subject, but there’s little focus on tangible output, calls to action and long-term sustainability. A Civic Media Innovation Camp, conversely, would add an element of predictability, a dash of reliability and a framework for capturing knowledge, acting on it and sharing it in an open, distributed network.

Buy-in from Future of Public Media Project

I shared the idea two days ago with Pat Aufderheide, Professor and Director of the Center for Social Media at American University,
Jessica Clark, director of the Future of Public Media Project, and associate director Ann Williams. They all supported the concept, even as they were busy putting the final touches on next week’s Beyond Broadcast conference, which focuses on innovation in public broadcasting.

“There should be some central storytelling place,” Pat said. An umbrella organization that pulls together disparate experiments in civic media innovation and then disseminates it to all the stakeholders.

I think MIT’s Future of Civic Media, working with AU’s Future of Public Media Project, the J-Lab, and similar efforts at Harvard’s Berkman Center, Arizona State and elsewhere, would be the perfect home for this.