Some takeaways from the Future of Civic Media conference, showcasing Knight News Challenge winners, that ended yesterday at the MIT Media Lab in Boston:

• All in all, it was a fascinating gathering of some of the real
thought leaders who will be driving new media forward in the coming
years. The program grew stronger as it went along.

• The Media Lab setting was inspirational. This was my first visit
here, and the mix of astonishingly bright students and faculty meshed
well with us ruffians from the outside world. One suggestion for future
gatherings: Invite student and members of the university community to
take part in the underattended breakout sessions. Certainly a wide
range of students would have found our session on citizen media
thought-provoking.  

• Loved the “Diving Deeper” format, where speakers gave presentations on stage, then made themselves available at small tables outside the hall after the session for follow-up inquiries. Will be making use of this.

• I was highly impressed by some of the student demos I saw, including Say
What?
(which uses interactive storytelling as a path to youth civic
engagement) and Buy It Like You Mean It, and some of the more mature projects, like Speakeasy, Selectricity, iCue and IBM’s ManyEyes.

• The project “Cameras of the Future” made me want to fast-forward
five years, when this technology will be incorporated into many
commercial cameras. The subject you shot is slightly out of focus? No
worries! If it was shot with one of these gizmos, you can reorient the
focal point — weeks after you took the shot. (It doesn’t work with the
fuzzy shots from the current generation of cameras, and no algorithm
will likely ever be able to change that.)

• About 16 of us had the best time tooling around Central Square while part of a Street Media posse guided by Rekha Murthy. Excellent tour. I’ll never look at signage and graffiti quite the same way again.

• One of the secrets I’ll be taking back to Silicon Valley is Backchan.nl,
a clever Web-based program that enables conference-goers to participate
in a “backchannel conversation” with the most timely and relevant
questions voted up to the top.

Citizen media on international stage

• Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices
described the progress of the Knight-funded Rising Voices project, run
by David Sasaki and Georgia Popplewell. I’ve been impressed with the
citizen media project from the start but hadn’t known about its scope
and depth.

Ethan briefly outlined these 10 Rising Voices
projects: Nari Jibon, a new media skills training center in Dhaka,
Bangladesh. A Calcutta group called Neighborhood Diaries that provides
creative writing and citizen media tools for marginalized children.
Iran Inside Out, a group in Teheran that uses videoblogging to open
doors to Iranian perspectives. FOKO Club, which pursues, environmental
issues and poverty in Madagascar through citizen journalism. A street
theater group called Repacted in Nakuru, Kenya, that documents
post-election violence and refugee issues. A journalism project in
Freetown, Sierra Leone, called Think Build Change Salone. Young people
exploring the prison system in Kingston Jamaica in  Students Expressing
Truth/Prison Diaries. A project in Uruguay called Blogging Desde
Infancia. An effort to bridge cultural differences in La Paz, Bolivia,
called Voces Bolivianas. And, perhaps most remarkably, HiperBarrio,
where teenagers in the public libraries in the poorest neighborhoods of
Medellin, Colombia, practice video journalism chronicling the lives of
local townspeople.

In all, the project has created 300 new bloggers in 21 communities
in 10 countries. “If you think this stuff can’t be done, you’re wrong,”
Zuckerman said. “Anyone can author media.”

• Brian Sholin’s ReportingOn helps journalists collaborate with each other by exchanging information about stories they’re working on.

• During our session on citizen journalism, Amy Gahran had some good
advice for journalists (amateur and pro) trying to pry public
information out of government agencies like the EPA and Department of
Energy: don’t identify yourself as a journalist (at least unless you
have to).  You’re a citizen, too, and citizens who ask for government
reports aren’t usually shuffled off to a press office whose chief goal
is to stiff-arm the media.

• Two fun quotes during our session: “You don’t want to crowdsource
your brain surgery.” So crowdsourcing has its limits. And: “I play
guitar. You don’t call me a citizen guitarist.”

• From G. Patton Hughes, publisher of Paulding.com: “Now — what people are talking about right now — trumps the me” on discussion forums.

• Cool educational site designed to engage and empower youths: Scratch News Network, where 145,000 projects have been uploaded and a new one comes in every two minutes.

• I knew that SixApart’s blogging service LiveJournal skewed young, but didn’t know it skewed that
young. The most predominant age group among LiveJournal bloggers: 18,
followed by 19 and 17, with a heavy dropoff after age 24.

• Factoid shared by Knight Foundation’s Gary Kebbel: 1.5 billion internet connections worldwide and 2.5 billion cell phones.

• More Kebbel: During its first two years of the Knight News Challenge,
Knight received few applications from newspapers because they “were not
comfortable” with developing open source tools that would help them but
also made available to their competitors. One more reason newspapers
are on the way to irrelevance, in my view. 

• Students at the UCLA Daily Bruin are creating a digital newsroom
to allow staffers to report on the fly without having to be in the
office.