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CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — I am in the swanky Stata Center at MIT for the conference on “The Future of Civic Media,” put on by the new Center for Future Civic Media. Nearly all the Idea Lab bloggers are here in attendance as the Knight Foundation is using this gathering to help all News Challenge winners get to know each other and collaborate more. It’s also a chance for this new Center at MIT (which got $5 million in funding from Knight) to show some off some of its early work and thinking.

Mitch Resnick, another Idea Lab blogger who helps direct the Center, warmed up the group with a presentation about various “New Media, New Voices” — people who were helping spread civic ideas using the Internet and new technologies. They are squeezing in 8 presentations in 75 minutes in rapid-fire fashion.

So far, there have been a lot of jokes about the 4-minute limit on presentations.

Ingeborg Endter is now talking about Civic Engagment in Computer Clubhouses: The Clubhouse helps enrich community. They are rooted in their communities. They’re in communities like East San Jose Boys & Girls Club, there are two Native American clubs. They are all community organizations. What we’re looking for is to engage in communities with Clubhouses that act as community centers, bridging gaps in multicultural and multi-lingual communities. They serve as a way to connect generations.

Leo Burd is talking about “What’s Up?” a project at MIT, and he now works for Microsoft: My PhD thesis was about social empowerment though technology and education. I’m especially interested in helping get kids engaged. One of the most important lessons I learned at MIT is that the best way to engage kids is to involve them in community parties or other activities that are relevant to them. In a block party, the kids have to interact with government to block the streets, other community organizations and gives them a context to learn about their communities. But there are many challenges as well.

“What’s Up?” is an online system to help kids connect with friends and share interests online — or by calling a toll-free number. They can get a free voicemail account to send messages to help them become reachable. You can create voicemail groups for relatives or friends or school or skateboarders. Whenever I record a message to the group, everyone gets the message. You can also record community announcements.

Karen Brennan is talking about “Say What?” to get young people engaged in communities: The core question we’ve been thinking about is “How can programming be a path to civic engagement. We started with emotional self-awareness, move into the individual, to empathy and then to how people relate. We’ve worked with “citizen schools” in Boston and did 14-week apprenticeships for kids with diverse backgrounds. The workshop recently concluded with a celebratory event where student shared their projects related to personalities, conflict, decisions and experience. We thought the students would do citizen journalism, but they surprised us by talking more about their personal stories. But the youth engagement got adults involved because it was the first time that parents really participated at the schools.

We developed curriculum that will be used in Haiti, Africa and Birmingham, Alabama — a diverse group of places.

Noah Blumenson-Cook is talking about Webcomix: It’s a platform that allows anyone to create web comics, do journalism and social networking. When a newspaper started an editorial cartooning module, students became very involved and interested. There was an article in the school newspaper about the crappy quality of the student cafeteria and it snowballed into cartoons about it and an investigative report about the way the cafeteria worked. They ended up redoing the entire cafeteria, which made people realize that comics can help bring change.

The intent is to offer open-source based tools. What we’re trying to find out is how to get kids engaged in journalism in ways they didn’t think about before. There will be a Flash tool to help use pre-existing Creative Commons art or you can upload your own art.

Jeremy Liu is talking about Speakeasy, runs Asian Community Development in Boston: Speakeasy is an integrated phone and web service. It offers English-limited people easy access to a virtual network of interpreters — using basic phone services. We connect people to translation services in a quick and easy way.

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Ethan Zuckerman (pictured here) is talking about Rising Voices and Global Voices: (Showing video from people in Colombia saying hi). There are 10 projects in Rising Voices. While we were getting literate people, upper middle class people involved with Global Voices. So we wanted to reach different groups of people, so Knight got us a grant to do Rising Voices, getting more people involved. We are networking all the projects we fund and don’t fund. We have a massive network of 100 projects. David Sasaki is doing the work with this, I just wrote the grant.

Here’s a whirlwind tour of some projects. Let’s start with a group in Bangladesh, a skills center for jobs. They are learning basic journalism skills with a newspaper. In Calcutta, there’s a group of children of prostitutes, kids on the margins of society, who are learning how news is getting made. In Iran, we’re just starting to work there, with the vibrant underground film scene. We are getting them to do videoblogging. In Kenya we are working with a street theater group, having them become citizen journalists about post-election violence. In Sierra Leone, we have a group thinking about how to rebuild the journalism infrastructure post-war. In Jamaica, we are going into the prison system, helping them blog from prison, to challenge the glorification of “bad boy” culture.

In Bolivia, we are bridging cultural differences. And in Colombia, we are doing videoblogging workshops in a tough neighborhood in Medillin. There’s a group meeting at a public library, and they were wondering why this homeless looking guy was in the library. This guy turned out to be the son of the people who donated the land for the library and chapel, and it became this important journalistic project about this guy and how he had hit hard times. It became a front page story on the local newspaper, and a blog was set up to help him, and now he has a home. They’re even making a documentary about his life.

If teens can do this in a bad neighborhood in Medillin, there’s no excuse for anyone to say they can’t do this. It’s not all happy. We’re proud that other funders are helping out, including the Open Society Institute. This is a wide range of experiments and they don’t all work. Not all 10 of these are going to succeed, but what’s amazing is the huge level of creativity, with people trying new models to bring in new voices.

Civic Action

After a brief coffee break, we are starting a new session on “Civic Action” run by Chris Csikszentmihalyi (another Idea Lab blogger pictured here), a co-director of the Center for Future Civic Media. He’s showing a quote from John Knight that he’s been (jokingly) using 13,000 times he likes it so much:

“Thus we seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true interests.”

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Chris Csikszentmihalyi: This quote shows that Knight wanted people to take action, how do you rouse them in their pursuit? Citizens doing their own reporting is like activists taking action doing journalism. I’ve been running a research group at the Media Lab. I started designing Afghan eXplorer to help get out information. We built an open system so people could spy on the government in response to the NSA starting its online spy database. The NSA dropped its sponsorship of the Media Lab.

Our students started txtMob as a protest tool at the 2004 RNC convention, used by 7,000 protesters. Students put out a call so that phone services couldn’t block it. (His 2008 project has been redacted with black block — joke?)

We have two maxims: All technology is politics. That’s not accepted at MIT. Our second maxim is redacted. [Audience laughs.] A lot of our work is not focused on communities but on events. The more I started thinking about communities, I figured that they are trying to do what I’m doing but can’t. Communities are trying to keep big retailers out, but are having trouble vs. Wal-Mart.

Our team has been mapping the chemicals used in natural gas field in Colorado. These are “Love Canal” situations, hundreds of times over, happening all over the United States. They are tracking the way chemicals affect people with birth defects and other health problems. (Shows video of chemical plant next to cemetary.) People live with this, they are born with it and they die with it. (Shows video interview of woman talking about plant in her neighborhood. She says she can smell chemical plant in her neighborhood, with a sulfur smell.)

When people complain, BP or other companies will do leaflets about how hyrdrogen sulfide is part of nature and part of our bodies. But dropping safes are part of nature too. (Shows drilling rigs that go in doing fracturing.) In some places, you could literally light the water. And some people can’t even take their dogs out for a walk because they wouldn’t go outside in the gas in the air.

(Shows clip from “There Will Be Blood” movie, with the famous “I drink your milkshake!” line.)

We are starting with a set of small tools that will fulfill a need that people have. Everyone wants to know what’s going on, what wells are doing what, who owns what, what are the wells producing? We built Drillwell, which helps communities monitor the oil and gas industry. It lets you produce reports about wells in your backyard. The database between all communities will be aggregated and sent to government. But there’s only 20% Net use in this area. So the content can be published in Penny Savers or newsletters through API calls to the website. Or it can go to a scanner. Plus there will be phone systems.

Everyone talked about how their landmen had lied to them. So we started Landman Report Card so people can rate them online. How can people whistleblow in an anonymous way, so we are building something to help them do that.

Clay Ward did a quick look at why he’s doing “Buy It Like You Mean It,” a collaborative consumer information aggregation. Unfortunately his time ran out before he could really explain what it is.

Alyssa Wright is talking about Hero Reports: We’re hoping to balance cultural systems. Heroism is about small acts of kindness and courage, and asking and doing something if someone needs help. Taken from news reports that are aligned to what we think about heroism in our cities. Here’s a report about a man who helped a woman who was about to be raped. There’s a form so that people can say what’s happened to them in their community. We allow people to browse by themes and neighborhoods.

The vision is to balance trigger reactions to things that people don’t understand — to help the MTA understand things they see and not have trigger reactions. We want to create maps that are not just crime maps. We need for people to see others who need help, which doesn’t always happen because we have our iPods on. “If you see something, say something — and say it different.”

Leonardo Bonanni is presenting a project called Sourcemap: Helps people show gdlobal supply chains, see where their food is coming from in local areas.

Annina Rust is explaining her project “About Us”: The project is a work in progress and might change somewhat. It’s about the lack of gender diversity in spaces where technology gets created. It’s not just about numbers but about perceptions and attitudes and the way people are affected by that. There was a study by the University of Cambridge, surveying people in the open source software realm. The question was, “Have you seen discriminatory behavior against women? Most men said no, and most women said yes.

This culture has so much technology in it, so I want to reinvent technology to make the culture more inclusive, so there is less disparity. We built a Web 2.0 platform so people can submit news, ideas and projects. I created a tool called the Male Mammary Display is inflateable breasts for men who work in technology.

Brenda Burrell of Kubatana will talk about Freedom Fone: We are working in Zimbabwe, with an aggressive government in the dying phase, trying to cling to power. It’s destructive and sad. (Shows poetry about dance.) There is a lot of negative information in Zimbabwe, but you don’t want to suffocate people with bad news. We’ve worked hard to use images and poetry to give people hope in dark times. Kubatana.net is a great collection of articles written largely by civil society in Zimbabwe.

We have an 80% unemployment rate and a 2 million percent inflation rate. Our largest bank note couldn’t buy you a cup of coffee. Texting is very limited, there’s only so much you can say in 160 characters, but mobile phones are used by more people in Zimbabwe than other tools. Not everyone has access to them, but significant enough groups. Radio and newspapers are monopolized by the government. With Freedom Fone, we are leveraging mobile phones. Dial-up radio lets us access communities through their mobile phones. Activist organizations or anyone in social networking can build audio content with a radio mindset. With voicemail, we build services around AIDS information, and the content would change frequently. We want to make it easy for people to build these programs.

Adrian Holovaty talking about EveryBlock: I started ChicagoCrime by showing crimes in various areas on maps. The concept for EveryBlock is to give you crazy hyper-local level – down to the address level. We are in three cities, Chicago, New York and San Francisco. (Pulls up a friend’s address in New York.) We tried to build it in a very simple way, not like a newspaper site where a lot of other things get in the way.

You can see at this address that a nearby neighborhood restaurant just got OK’ed by the health department. You can also see where nearby assaults took place. You can also see reviews from Yelp that are relevant to your area. They link through to Yelp. We also have aggregated information, Flickr photos taken in the area and geo-tagged. There’s so much happening in the neighborhood, so we catalog that. We also have news articles, like this one from ABC7.

Q&A Session

JD Lasica: I always get another invite from people to join social networks. How do you get people to participate with EveryBlock?

Holovaty: We don’t try to get people to use our service, they can use Flickr and other services and geo-tag them so they show up on EveryBlock. We have one person dedicated to gathering government data.

Amy Gahran: Why don’t these projects have links so we can show them to people online? Even if they are in progress, they could get comments and input from people if they could see them.

Q: I would like to see HeroReports mashed with EveryBlock.

Wright: I want to talk to Adrian about that, so thanks for saying that!

(Lunch break.)

Reports from News Challenge Winners

Ellen Hume, MIT: “Here’s the man you know because he funded you…. Gary Kebbel!” (Nice intro.)

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Gary Kebbel (pictured here), Knight Foundation: Today I was listening to everyone talk today, about new voices and new media, and when I heard Chris talking about the meaning being in the place. The idea of place is the key thing about the News Challenge. When we announced the News Challenge, we wanted to address the problems in the media industry. That causes a problem in the community, with media’s influence diminishing. But are there other tools to fill the vacuum that’s being created?

The newspaper publishers would help bring people together, help inform them and give them solutions. But really there’s more when you bring in geography. When people use digital devices to spread information to specific communities, people say, “Well that’s not what the Internet is about, it’s about virtual communities.” But we don’t vote for a virtual president or have a virtual school board or pay virtual taxes. So geography is important.

Newspapers performed this function of bringing people together and are part of what makes democracy work. So it’s not just a story about the news business, it’s a story about democracy. So we wanted to see if the function that newspapers did in the community be taken up by technological projects to spread news and information in communities. We have winners from the News Challenge for the first two years.

(2008 News Challenge Winners now explain their projects.)

(You can see a great live feed of Twitter reports from this conference, particularly from Amy Gahran.)

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Reports from 2007 winners…

Gabriel Berrios: We’ve been working for immigration rights in Philadelphia, and helping include people from the city and immigrants in the process. We’ve done it through digital visual training. We’re also training people to use tools to help share information.

Laura Deutsch: We helped new immigrants and natives come together despite language barriers. We have DVDs and will be distributing them, and are building a Drupal website so people can comment on each other’s work. There’s a lot of excitement from people who feel like they now have a voice. The training was for immigrants, but non-immigrants wanted training as well, people who work at unions wanted it to help spread a message to immigrants in the unions. Just having people in the same room helped them understand each other.

Geoff Dogherty: Our idea was to create a network of local citizen journalists. We have 50 of them so far, and have a training program, including video. We assign an editor for them, and then turn them loose to write stories. One of our citizen journalists called the newsroom saying someone saw the police beating a 14-year-old. We weren’t sure if it was the right story for a citizen journalism. What we got was astounding. It was the most detailed account I’ve seen in 16 years of journalism. There was a spreadsheet of all the people she interviewed. She talked to 12 people, and it documented how a policeman beat up a boy and people watched it.

It’s had a profound impact on how Chicago looks at news. We have about 18,000 readers per month, up 400%. There’s a tremendous demand for what we’re doing and what our volunteers are doing. About three-quarters of our readers are between 18 and 40, so we’re reaching people that the newspapers aren’t reaching.

Gary Kebbel: The goal was to have a reporter in each of Chicago’s neighborhoods. What Geoff has learned is that one citizen reporter within each neighborhood is not enough; he would like to have three or four. The fact that this is in Chicago means we can take advantage of other programs we have in Chicago – EveryBlock and the Northwestern project.

We have digital experts, journalists, and they read proposals to decide on who will win the News Challenge. So far, what it has yielded so far is exciting. I’m thrilled to be here at MIT.

Q&A Session

JD Lasica: I have a question about SignCast and want to hear if this is about embedding sign language in videos. Can you explain more about the project?

Brein McNamara: Most deaf people don’t have the right tools or money for the tools to do reporting. We want to merge the tools that deaf people already have and give them tools to do videos.

Q: How will the application process change for the next round of News Challenge winners?

Gary Kebbel: We’re proposing to create a community around the application process, and mentor people. We will connect an applicant with similar skill sets. We will continue the Young Creators Award, for people 25 years and younger.

Photos of Ethan Zuckerman and Chris Csikszentmihalyi by Dharmishta Rood. Other photos by Mark Glaser.

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