Visions of civic media, from Chris Csikszentmihalyi and Sasha Constanza Chock

This notes are an inaccurate as any of my liveblogging, and they’re late to boot. :-) Here are notes from our session Thursday morning at the Knight-Civic Media Conference.

Chris Csikszentmihalyi introduces our panel as one that begins with him describing the past of the civic media center, and two speakers (Sasha Constansa Chock and myself) representing the future. He reminds us that we define civic media at MIT as “any sociotechnical system that can strengthen a geographic community.” When you say “community” at MIT, people are thinking of online communities. We had to work hard to reeducate ourselves around that transition. It turns out that within geographic communities, there are just as many communities of interest as on the internet.

Chris’s talk focuses on three themes: Production and distribution, Principles of Civic Media and Spinoffs from the Center. He reminds us that MIT works by discovering fundamental technologies and engineering principles, and they often work themselves out in startups that spin out of lab research.

Reacting to Baratunde’s talk from last night, Chris mentioned that when the Center began, he and the cofounder intentionally decided not to use the term “citizen journalism”. It’s a term that implies a transition that hasn’t been fully thought out, like “wireless remote” or “horseless carriage”. He points out that Baratunde is thinking from the perspective of the Onion, which models a news operation. When we view situations through that frame, we think in terms of crowd sourcing, asking “How do you get the crowd to help your media outlet?”

As we think about innovation around media, it’s useful to look at Eric Von Hippel’s work on single user versus collaborative innovation. Single user innovation is common when communication costs are high and design costs are low. Producer innovators like corporations reduce communication costs, usually by putting people together in a building (like the New York Times, Chris suggests…). Once communication costs drop far enough, we see models of open collaborative innovation, which makes possible stuff like Linux. There are at least three models for building innovation: a private investment model, a government model, and a collective action model, each of which could leverage different models of innovation.

In thinking through the work the Center has done thus far, Chris lists five principles that have governed design:

#1 – All technology is politics. Even an automatic door closer is political – it forces compliance through a combination of labor and capital.

#2 – Technology is personal and geopolitical at the same time.

#3 – Politics of most technologies are socially regressive, because they’re made by the most powerful entities in the world. As a result, technologies tend to reinforce north/south divides and other power divides.

In thinking through these three principles, Chris suggests that “the quickest way to not make social change is to develop technology the way it’s always been developed.”

#4 – The free software model has principles that offer significant new modes of production and distribution, making it possible for innovation to spread in unexpected ways.

#5 – Most technologies configure their user as a consumer, not as a citizen

Chris then outlines some of the projects that have spun off from the Center and the principles we’ve learned from that process. Some of the Center’s influence has been most powerful as a leader in shaping the thinking around Civic Media. The 2003 Total Information Awareness project inverted a model in which the US government spied on citizens through all possible channels and suggested ways to invert the model and all spy on the government. This work inspired Little Sis, which used code from the TIA project, and suggests that Wikileaks was also inspired by this effort. Tad Hirsh’s TXTMob project is acknowledged as a major influence on Twitter by three of that company’s founders, who looked closely at the code to design their system.

In considering the projects that have spun off, Chris identifies these themes:

– Social media is known for supporting weak ties – can we strengthen those ties?
Rick Borovoy’s work with the people who sold Spare Change, a newspaper designed to help the homeless, tried to build links by places stickers with links to a homepage for the vendor on each paper. When a vendor got sick, his page received a flood of comments. Charlie de Tar’s Between the Bars project allowed someone who was incarcerated to rebuild ties with someone he’d served in the military with.

– Public dialog and accountability
Projects like Sourcemap make it possible to consider the inputs into the products we buy, and have a dialog about the materials we consume and what they mean.

– Globalism inverted
How do we take the tools of the most powerful people and invert them? Projects like Wellwatch and extrACT leverage these technologies and that work will continue under the auspices of an NGO that tracks the extractive industry.

– Community Collective Action
Platforms to allow communities to work in conjunction. This includes platforms that leverage phones. Chris reminds us that “phones are a bear, and Asterisk is a bear” – Leo Burd’s VoIP Drupal makes it more possible for communities to use phones for change, and we can see the success of the tool through the interest of Twilio, Tropo and Plivo in the product.

– Generating evidence for change.
Projects like Cronicas de Heroes shows that there’s a narrative for Ciudad de Juarez that’s different from the narrative of violence that characterizes local news.


Sasha Costanza Chock appears remotely via Skype, and encourages us to think about the role of co-design in creating Civic Media. He’s helping organize the Allied Media Conference in Detroit, so isn’t able to join in person.

He suggests that we think about the distribution of technological innovation not just from the model of innovators to early adopters. Lead-user innovation as proposed by Eric Von Hippel shows that users can become creators, and Francois Bar’s vision of “technology appropriation” suggests that companies produce technology, users redesign and hack those technologies, and firms reclaim and develop new technologies around them. Mobile banking is a good example of this – firms produced prepaid phone cards for African markets, African innovators figured out how to cards to transfer money over long distances, and companies incorporated this technology into the building of mobile banking systems.

We want to get beyond user appropriation, which leads to firms telling users they’re doing it wrong, and towards co-design, where we work together on human centered design, appropriate technology design, and participatory design.

Participatory design helped lead toward the VozMob – Voices Mobiles – project. Collaborating with VoIP Drupal, the platform is designed to project immigrant voices using mobile communications. The participants in the design are from working class communities in LA. Groups of gardeners and house cleaners participated in design sessions at USC. Their motivation: to challenge the representation of day laborers in the digital world.

Sasha shows us that if you Google the phrase “Day Laborers”, the top result is a virulently anti-immigrant hate site whose description reads, “Some of the most violent murderers, rapists, and child molesters, are illegal aliens who work as day laborers.” It’s not hard to see why “laborers want to retake control over representation of their communities.” Most of the people who work as day laborers don’t have conventional access to the web – Sasha shows a map of a composite tech index that shows that access to computers and broadband is very weak in low-income and first-generation immigrant communities. But through research with these communities, Sasha and they were able to discover that the majority of day laborers have mobile phones. They use them mostly for work, to call friends and family. 30% send texts, 50% receive them, 47% take photos and 36% send photos from their phones. This suggested great potential to use the phones for storytelling.

Designing a project like VozMob creates some interesting challenges. “How do you do web development with people who don’t have web literacy?” You work with paper models, and you design for participation via SMS. The project has culminated in a system built around open source software, primarily Drupal, and content that’s licensed via Creative Commons.

Sasha offers a set of key takeaways in a format designed to make the Unix geeks in the audience smile – they end up spelling out “sudo apt-get”, which is a command designed to let you install new software through a package manager on many Unix systems. Inside the acronyms are:

Enabling conditions:
– strong connections to communities of practice – build with the communities you expect to be the users
– focus on the tools people have access to, people who don’t have universal (that’s where he gets the U) access to ICT
– diverse project teams
– open everything – access, standards, source, data, tools

Universal design goals: Accessible Para Todos (accessible for everyone)
could have done something clever around smartphones, but that’s not what this community has

A rigorous codesign philosophy:
Generate ideas, user stories and prototypes
Evaluate everything on an ongoing, iterative basis
conduct this work Together.

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