If anything sums up this year’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, it was MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito’s argument for creativity and risk, encouraging us to pursue visions that we do not yet know how to describe. The Civic Media Conference is a new breed of gathering for networked thinking and doing: action research woven with creative diversity and energized by funding model innovation.
Part SXSW, part BarCamp, the conference combined hackdays, funding announcements, panel discussions, and stand-up storytelling. As a flagship demonstration of Ethan Zuckerman’s vision for the emerging field of Civic Media, the conference was spectacular. But for Civic Media to flourish while bridging so many communities, this new ecosystem needs to foster stronger, more diverse ties.
A conference recap
The conference had a remarkable diversity of ideas and fields, emphasized conversation, and gave academics time limits. The common format was a combination of project reports with broader musings. The hack day produced work that has been extensively reported. (See Andrew Phelps’s excellent post at Nieman on 22 future of news hacks you’ve never seen before, as well as Nieman’s overall coverage of Knight News Challenge 2012.)
Overall, the conference was incredibly thought-provoking, bringing together an amazing cast to report and forecast innovation in journalism. One of the main goals of the conference has been to define the field of Civic Media beyond the confines of academia and journalism. In addition to the amazing Knight media team, I coordinated an amazing MIT team of livebloggers to summarize and post conference happenings in real time. Many of the livebloggers were doing this for the first time, and they did an amazing job.
Story and Algorithm
This year’s theme was Story and Algorithm. The full schedule is here.
What stories do data tell? In “Turning Data into Narrative,” panelists shared their strategies for finding and telling stories with data.
Designer Laura Kurgan encouraged us to find powerful stories from unexpected data: understanding migration through bank remittance alongside photo essays or exploring incarceration by mashing up prisoner addresses with budget information. Next, Zeega’s Kara Oehler encouraged us to tell stories with the archive of everyday media online. Great storytelling puts personal experience in a statistical frame, a creative vision which guides the Zeega storytelling platform. Dan O’Neil of the Smart Chicago Collaborative told us to get on with it, even if we don’t have the perfect tools. His post about the Old Noel State Bank Building at 1601 N. Milwaukee may not use the shiniest technology, but you can do a lot with a blog post. Finally, the AP’s Jonathan Stray encouraged us to recognize and embrace the editorial responsibilities of finding and telling data with stories. Vast collections like the Iraq War Logs require automated investigation; we can’t settle for the hermeneutics of screwing around. To avoid screwing around with data, we need to become capable editors of data stories. In the Q&A, panel moderator Emily Bell highlighted Matt McAlister’s extensive review of crowd-journalism.
How can our stories slow down, look more closely, and see things with new eyes? The panel on “Extreme Data and Extreme Stories“ explored this question through data, maps, storytelling.
Cesar Hidalgo, who is a Media Lab professor, encouraged us, like Galileo, to find completely new stories by increasing the resolution of our data. The Atlas of Economic Complexity, a joint project between Harvard’s Center for International Development (CID) and the MIT Media Lab, breaks industries into their component pieces to map and predict the evolution of nations’ economies. Nathaniel Kelso of Stamen Design told us to escape the false dilemma between participation and aesthetics. Stamen’s beautiful watercolor maps have fostered remarkable creativity online, including cupcake versions. Finally, Paul Salopek argued for “slow journalism” that situates the particular within grand visions, embraces ambiguity, and helps us understand the ongoing journey of our species. Late this year, Paul will begin a 7-year walk across 2,500 generations of human history and 15% of his life. He plans to report on contemporary issues while creating a storyline which spans years.
News Challenge winners
- Haroon Meer and Mohamed Nanabhay demoed Signalnoi.se, a platform which compares the social media popularity of news content across newspapers.
- Nadav Aharony, a Media Lab graduate, talked to us about Behavio, a company which helps individuals and organizations track detailed behavioral data from mobile phones while controlling privacy. It is currently being used by the One Laptop Per Child project to learn how children learn with the OLPC.
- PeepolTV, which arose from the needs of protest livestreaming in 2011, is a project by Felipe Heusser and Jeff Warren to make a social publisher of livestream content.
- Caitra O’Neill told us the story of her home town’s recovery from a tornado, which inspired her to build Recovers.org, an out-of-the-box disaster recovery coordination web service. Recovers.org supports the three common coordination needs after disasters: I need help, I want to help, and I want to donate.
- Karen Reilly of the TOR project explained that while open-source developers have been successful at making technologies to safeguard anonymity, journalists and their sources often don’t know about those technologies. They plan to use Knight funding to improve designs and develop trainings for journalists and activists.
- Adriano Farano concluded the session with a beautiful demo of WatchUp, a tablet app for creating a personal TV experience out of just the clips you want to see.
Knight Prototype Fund
Next, the Knight Foundation launched a prototype fund in an attempt to shorten the pace of grant making. Knight’s Michael Maness and Joi Ito held an amazingly revelatory conversation with Elise Hu on Knight’s vision for the fund.
What are the ethics of creating tension with stories? In the discussion of “Stories and Fables,” panelists talked about the psychology of storytelling, online crime reporting, and The Kony2012 campaign.
Novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley, author of Psychology Today’s Psychology of Fiction blog, encouraged us to create narratives which resonate with audience experience. Stories have been shown to improve reasoning in planning initiatives and to encourage empathy. Laura Amico of Homicide Watch challenged our notion of newsworthy by arguing that every homicide is worth reporting. Homicide Watch gives every victim a page where family, friends, neighbors, detectives, and more can share stories and news surrounding the crime.
Michael Poffenberger of Resolve and the Lord’s Resistance Army Crisis Tracker talked about the Kony2012 campaign, in which The Resolve was an official policy partner. Although the campaign has been criticized for oversimplifying the issues, Michael pointed out that complexity is an enemy in campaigns: It demotivates participants. How can we mitigate the risks of simplification or over-popularity? Start from comprehensive knowledge of the problem and the tools needed to solve it. Secondly, develop means to channel public attention in effective directions. Finally, Sam Gregory, program director for Witness.org, outlined a spectrum of human rights video online: from Kony2012 advocacy storytelling on one side to documentation on the other. Sam outlined three main responsibilities for human rights videos: responsibilities to the people, responsibilities to the truth, and the responsibility of action. Technologies like the Informacam and ObscuraCam offer protection to participants while documenting the time and location of the video. The WITNESS YouTube Channel aims to direct attention and action towards human-rights issues online.
- Mitch Resnick explained the patterns of innovation at the Media Lab.
- Chris Peterson talked about “User Generated Censorship” in online platforms, from peer censorship on Facebook and YouTube to the Digg Patriots.
- I talked about gender representation in the media. I pointed to manually coded studies of the news, such as the Op Ed Project and the Global Media Monitoring Project and demonstrated large-scale automated methods to measure gender representation in the New York Times over the last 20 years. I’m looking for research, content, and advocacy partners (@natematias).
- Pablo Rey talked about PageOneX, a Google Summer of Code project to monitor front-page newspaper coverage.
- Matt Stempeck and I talked about the MediaMeter Project, nutritional labels for the news.
- Rahul Barghava spoke about Data Therapy, a series of workshops and trainings to help organizations tell better stories with their data.
- Charlie DeTar talked about Intertwinkles.org, his Ph.D. work to develop technologies for consensus decision making.
- Huan Sun showcased the NGO 2.0 project, which is mapping out the use of technology by Chinese grassroots NGOs and empowering their development of new technologies.
- Paulo Rogerio talked about Midia Etnic, which develops online, cross-platform tools that increase participation of black youths in the Brazilian civic sphere.
- Becky Hurwitz spoke about voice-based technologies the Center for Civic Media is deploying with workers groups to publicize changes created by New York’s recently passed Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. They are using VOIP Drupal to share information by phones and websites alike.
- Leo Burd showed off the What’s Up initiative, a partnership with the Incourage Community Foundation to build community information systems.
- Rogelio Alexandro Lopez compared digital activism technologies to technology used in the United Farm Worker’s Movement of the 1960s. His remarkable blog documents ongoing interviews with DREAM Act activists in L.A. and the East Coast.
- Dan Schultz, who has just moved to the Boston Globe from the Center for Civic Media, outlined over a dozen innovative ideas for news technology. You’ll have to read the blog post or watch the video for details.
- Finally, Dan Sinker shared the amazing results of the Mozilla Open News Hackathon. Projects included SurfBored, NewsQuest, Condition of Anonymity, the Outside Mappers Guild, and NewsDiffs.
In the session on “Internet Native News Networks“ moderated by the Awesome Foundation’s Christina Xu, panelists discussed the future of news online, from international reporting to advocacy repackaging of media for impact.
Ivan Sigal talked about Global Voices, a network of bloggers and citizen journalists which drives a different set of voices and perspectives into the global media conversation, inverting the traditional news editorial structure by giving individual writers agency. Next Charlie Sennott spoke about The Global Post, an all-digital international news organization which tries to go beyond breaking news to tell the story behind the story in international reporting. David Wertime talked about Tea Leaf Natio, which interprets Chinese Social media for Western audiences. They are working to redefine the quote, reading sentiments from the public. They are also trying to carry out linguistic and cultural arbitrage in a way that lets local people set the new agenda. Finally, Hong Qu of Upworthy talked about their mission to amplify awesome, visual, and meaningful content on the web, attaching calls to action to channel viewers of viral videos towards advocacy campaigns. To achieve this, they need to be responsive to the devices and platforms people use, fast at using data to develop an unfolding content strategy, and focused on understanding how content is shared, adjusting the platform weekly in response to changes in behavior online.
Open gov: What’s gone wrong?
In the discussion of “Open Gov: What’s Gone Wrong, What’s Gone Right?,” Susan Crawford of the Harvard Law School moderated a conversation ranging from civic hackathons and crowdfunding to government innovation.
Code for America, says Mark Headd, is “a Peace Corps for geeks.” They run hackathons designed to show cities the possibilities of data projects, while also connecting them with developers who can create that vision. Mark thinks that these initiatives need more commercial traction before they can become mainstream. Mike Norman, founder of Crowd investing platform WeFunder, outlined four challenges for Gov 2.0 startups: complex sales processes; limited access to capital; a need for better business skills; and difficulties finding interested stakeholders. Mike argues that crowdfunding will open up an “ocean” of capital for Gov 2.0 software and told the story of the recent passage of the JOBS Act which he thinks will make that possible. Finally, Chris Vein, chief technology officer for government innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, argued that open innovation is about more than data: It relies on transparency, participation, and collaboration alike. He hopes that the upcoming cities.data.gov will be able to build community and offer the support needed to turn data into meaningful initiatives. Read the liveblog for a fascinating Q&A discussion of their hopes and concerns in open government and civic innovation.
Lunch featured a wonderful discussion between Benjamen Walker of WFMU’s Too Much Information and Michael Kupperman, author of “Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010.”
What is the relationship between the recent global cycle of protests and the new media ecology? Sasha Costanza Chock moderated a conversation on how civic action moves between online and offline spaces.
Jamillah King of Colorlines talked to us about the media campaigns which surrounded the Trayvon Martin story, from local campaigns and the Change.org petition to the Million Hoodie March. Next, Hal Roberts shared a beautiful presentation analyzing web data leading up to the blacking out of Wikipedia in opposition to the bills SOPA and PIPA in the United States. (Watch the video, or this talk by Yochai Benkler at the Personal Democracy Forum. It’s amazing.) Renata Teodoro spoke with us about the Student Immigrant Movement’s use of videos to tell the stories of undocumented immigrant students, taking control of the public narrative through which society understands them. Holmes Wilson talked to us about Fight for the Future and the Free Bieber campaign. The Q&A offered a fascinating discussion of what works, what doesn’t, and how to measure outcomes online and offline (liveblog here).
Next, Lorrie LeJeune moderated a completely different panel on what news can learn from the porn industry, how AI can produce journalism, how drones can be used for journalism, and how to spread satire and fight misinformation online. I’m not even going to try to summarize this. It’s awesome, and you should look at the video.
Knight’s Maness concluded the conference with a summary of top lessons from the conference in his “Moments of Profundity” session. Michael pulled a dozen lessons from the conference overall. You can read Stephen Suen’s animated gif enhanced version here.
A version of this post originally appeared on the MIT Center for Civic Media’s blog.