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The MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP) formed out of recognition that youth are critical to the future of democracy and that the digital age is introducing technological changes that are impacting how youth develop into informed, engaged, and effective actors.

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How to fund a million-dollar arts project

MIT Center for Civic Media - September 16, 2013 - 4:29pm

I was sad to note today that, with 14 days to go, The New York City Opera has raised less than 10% of the ambitious $1 million target the organization set itself on Kickstarter earlier this month.

The 'People's Opera' has struggled in recent years. It closed its doors in 2008 for a refurbishment that coincided with the Financial Crisis, and has struggled to make ends meet since then. Organizers describe the crowdfunding campaign as 'urgent', but it is only a slice of a larger call for $7 million by the end of September. If the overall campaign fails, the 70-year-old Opera will suspend its program after the first opera of the season, Anna Nicole. As of 6pm on Monday, the outlook for the crowdfunding portion of that goal is not good - Kicktraq’s trend algorithm is currently projecting an endpoint of around $250,000. I'm no authority whatsoever on the Opera's history and its viability, so my comments here relate specifically to the crowdfunding campaign.

So what’s the problem? Another New York institution, Spike Lee, just raised $1 million. Last year 17 projects raised $1 million, and already this year 30 projects have surpassed that target. But the story is very different in the world of theatre and dance. Despite having very strong success rates (74% for dance and 66% for theatre compared with an average success rate of 43% across all categories), these sectors are not yet crowdfunding at scale. The Opera’s campaign target is six times the previous high for Kickstarter in the theater category, and almost twice the previous high in the broader arts category.

Even in an urgent situation, $1 million is a big ask for an arts project. But what would it take to get close to that target? I decided to compare the NYC Opera’s ongoing campaign with that of the most successful arts campaign to date, The Marina Abramovic Institute, which raised $661,452 less than a month ago.

It’s a useful comparison for a few reasons: both campaigns are by well-known arts brands located in New York City, fundraising within a few weeks of each other. Abramovic is a Serbian performance artist who has been active for three decades; The NYC Opera has been operating for 70 years. The NYC Opera backed the Abramovic campaign. Of course, Abramovic was asking for $600,000 rather than $1 million. But with the NYC Opera seeming unlikely to raise even a fraction of Abramovic’s total, we need to look beyond the target amount.

So let’s look at the pledgers. As you might expect, assuming a similar demographic for the two campaigns, the average pledge to the campaigns is similar - the mean pledge for the Abramovic campaign was $139 compared with a current mean of $125 for the NY Opera. But that’s where the similarity in pledging activity ends.

Numerous crowdfunding practitioners have stressed to me the importance of rewards. As I’ve written previously, in a consumer-focused campaign, the most popular pledge level is typically close to the purchase price of the item - and at that level, the pledger receives the item. In other words, it’s a pre-sale, either with a small premium added for the privilege of receiving the item early or a discount awarded for committing to buy before the item hits the market. For a group such as NYC Opera, the obvious anchor reward is tickets to the performances. The campaign currently has them at several levels, including premium seats at the higher levels. So far, so good.

But the problem with theater tickets is that they are in-person rewards. If a backer isn’t based in New York or willing to travel there, they’re essentially useless. To raise a record-setting amount for an arts or theatre crowdfunding project surely requires a larger pool of backers than the opera fans currently residing in easy reach of New York City. That means fantastic rewards for your remote fans.

Right now, if you’re outside New York, NYC Opera is offering you a choice of a tote bag, desktop wallpaper, an mp3 playlist curated by the Opera’s artistic director and a CD or DVD. Compare that to Abramovic’s offering:

  • For $25, “Marina will teach the Abramovic Method SLOW MOTION WALK exercise via live stream. Receive exclusive access to this event. You, Marina, and the other backers at this level will then perform your exercise SIMULTANEOUSLY, creating a large public performance that occurs at the same time in different locations all over the world.”
  • For $100, “You will receive a set of never-before-seen video materials.”
  • For $1,000 “Marina will perform the Abramovic Method eye gazing exercise with you via webcam. You may document this experience in any way you’d like and opt to include it in MAI digital archives.”

These types of inventive digitally-delivered rewards are critical. 28.5% of the eventual funding to Abramovic’s was given by pledgers who received in-person rewards. In other words, 72.5% of the funds came from people who were not required to show up to receive their rewards.

NYC Opera’s campaign seems to be holding to a similar pattern: currently only 27% of its funding has come from backers who are due to receive in-person rewards. But the problem is that the Opera is betting that in-person rewards will have a much stronger pull than that. Let’s look at their expectations, based on the rewards offered.

For rewards where a cap is set, which applies to 21 of the 33 reward tiers, concentrated above the $100 mark, we can calculate the projected value of those rewards to the campaign - that is, make an assumption about how much the organizers believe they will raise at each level. To be sure, these may be stretch goals and would be expected to exceed the fundraising amount, but they are illustrative. In the case of NYC Opera, the total projected raise based on capped rewards is $750,000 - which doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

As you might expect, the vast majority of the capped rewards are in-person, since they involve physical space and people’s time. The projected raise from those capped in-person rewards is $676,875, or 68% of the total goal. That means the organizers are betting that two-thirds of their funding will come from people who are either based in New York, or are willing to travel there to benefit from a reward. The Abramovic case suggests that that’s very ambitious.

Perhaps Abramovic’s pledgers were in fact based in New York, but didn’t want to traverse the city to experience a reward? Let’s look at the pledger location information we have. It’s not a trivial datapoint to collect on any crowdfunding site without access to payment records (which can also be misleading). Of the 4,7625 people who backed the Abramovic campaign, 964 (20%) listed their location in their Kickstarter profile. Of those who listed a location, Out-of-state and international pledgers outnumber New York-based pledgers by a ratio of 3 to 1.

The large proportion of non-local backers is understandable, given Abramovic’s global reputation. But shouldn’t the NYC Opera also be looking to leverage the interest of arts supporters elsewhere in the United States and the world? The way their rewards are currently structured, there is no scope for a distant donor to give more than $500 via Kickstarter and be suitably rewarded. Arts fans love engaging with digital content, and you don’t have to be a New Yorker to want the NYC Opera to succeed. Far from it.

I don’t propose that the above analysis even begins to capture the full context of this story. Even on a great day for crowdfunding, the $1 million campaign would be a very big ask, but the Opera may have a better shot at getting there if it broadens the horizons of its campaign in the final two weeks. I’d be delighted to see that happen.

Cross-posted at rodrigodavies.com

civic crowdfundingcrowdfundingartsnew yorkmediasocial networks
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Youth Radio Receives NSF Grant

Youth Radio - September 16, 2013 - 12:48pm

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Youth Radio a $1.14 million grant to launch the Youth Radio Innovation Lab, a three-year project that partners underserved young people with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) professionals as makers of socially-relevant apps and multimedia stories that reach mass audiences.

Youth Radio secured funding from the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation in 2012 to pilot the Innovation Lab, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has supported Youth Radio’s coverage of digital innovation that fuels learning. Through the NSF grant and ongoing partnership with co-grantee MIT Media Lab’s Center for Mobile Learning, Youth Radio will test and share projects that advance informal STEM learning. A primary goal is the development of a media-rich toolkit that allows professionals and educators to promote STEM learning through app development and media production in their own communities.

“The Innovation Lab builds on Youth Radio’s top-flight journalism and our track-record as one of the first programs in the US to teach teens mobile app development,” says co-Principal Investigator Lissa Soep. “This isn’t about one-time exposure. Through the innovation Lab, young people collaborate over time on iterative projects and in the process transform from consumers to creators of scientific knowledge, from users to producers of new technology.”

Participants will design and create apps that provide insight into youth-identified issues, fostering awareness, communication, and connection. Projects will likely include explorations into environmental science, biology, and neuroscience, with social science featuring prominently as participants collect and analyze data within their communities. The process and results will be shared through Youth Radio’s Science Desk and national network of media outlets, including NPR and National Geographic, to engage users nationwide.

“Mobile computing and digital media have a power that’s changing all of our lives,” said Hal Abelson, Director, MIT Center for Mobile Learning. “Our vision for the Innovation Lab is to put that power into the hands of young people—and all people—to use as a force for creating, learning, and enriching their communities.”

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Between Storytelling and Surveillance: American Muslim Youth Negotiate Culture, Politics, and Participation

Confessions of an Aca-Fan - September 16, 2013 - 12:29am

Over the past several years, my Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research group at USC has been doing case studies of innovative groups, organizations, and networks that have been effective at increasing youth engagement and participation within the political process. We’ve been sharing our preliminary research findings here as a series of white papers that have addressed the DREAMer movement to gain greater education and civic rights for undocumented youth, Students for Liberty and the movement of “Second Wave Libertarianism” more generally, and the forms of fan activism associated with the Harry Potter Alliance and the Nerdfighters. Today, I am proud to be releasing the final report in this series — a study into the political and cultural lives that American Muslim youths have been defining for themselves within the context of post-9/11 America. This report was prepared by Sangita Shresthova, who serves as the Research Director for the MAPP project.

This research has been funded by the MacArthur Foundation as part of the work of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics network. Having released all of our initial case study reports, the team is now turning to drafting a book which looks comparatively across these various examples of participatory politics, and seeks to address larger debates about the role of new media in contemporary political struggles.

The new report, which is shared below, centers on activists and community networks affiliated with the Muslim Youth Group (MYG) at the Islamic Center in Southern California and the Young Leaders Summits program at the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), but Shresthova casts a larger net, describing a range of participatory projects through which American Muslims have sought to reshape the ways they are represented through mainstream and grassroots media.

While she is attentive to the new possibilities for voice that these youth have found through new media, she also stresses the substantial risks they face as a consequence of both formal surveillance by governmental agencies (as part of the new security establishment whose scope becomes more alarmingly clear with each new revelation) and informally through the chastising responses they received from older Muslims about the ways they represent their personal and religious identities. As a consequence, the communities she describes here constitute precarious publics, ones that can be empowering or can put participants at risk, perhaps both at the same time.

As we’ve been doing this research, our research team was struck, for example, by the “chilling effect” these youths experienced in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings, as the participants felt a renewed risk of retaliation on the basis of the color of their skin, their national origins, or their faith. We hope you will share our sense that it is urgent for us to develop a deeper understanding of what it means to be an American Muslim and how these youths are battling against prejudices that have surfaced with greater intensity over the decade plus since September 11.

Shresthova between storytelling and surveillance-working paper report-sept11-2013 from amandafo Sangita Shresthova‘s work focuses on the intersection between popular culture, performance, new media, politics, and globalization. She is the Research Director of Henry Jenkins’ Media, Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project. Based at the University of Southern California, MAPP explores innovative youth-driven media-centric civic engagement and studies youth experiences through groups and communities that include Invisible Children, the Harry Potter Alliance, and American Muslim youth networks. Sangita holds a Ph.D. from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures and MSc. degrees from MIT and LSE. Bridging between dance, media and her Czech/Nepali heritage, Sangita is also the founder of Bollynatyam’s Global Bollywood Dance Project. (www.bollynatyam.com)

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The Fact-Catcher in the Rye

Howard Gardner - September 10, 2013 - 9:51am

Check out Howard Gardner’s most recent contribution to the Cognoscenti blog. In this piece, Gardner critiques author David Shields’ tendency to blur the lines between fact and fiction, with an especial focus on the author’s two books: Reality Hunger and Salinger. 


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Youth of Color Support Comprehensive Immigration Reform at Higher Rates than White Youth

Black Youth Project / Research - September 5, 2013 - 7:27am

According to the Black Youth Project’s latest memo, Youth of color support a comprehensive approach to immigration reform at higher rates than white youth, who are more supportive of punitive measures and increased enforcement of existing law.

Because major congressional proposals on immigration reform, including the DREAM Act and the Kids Act, focus on young people, our analysis examined public opinion on immigration among youth between the ages of 18 and 29.

In contrast to their white peers, Black youth expressed greater support for immigration proposals focused on a creating a path to citizenship and extending citizenship to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children who earn a four-year college degree or serve in the U.S. military.

Black youth also support extending government services, including welfare, Medicaid, and food stamps, to undocumented immigrants before becoming citizens at much higher rates than white youth.

However, the report also indicates that attitudes toward immigrants may be a barrier to Black-Brown coalitions. Nearly sixty percent of both Black and white youth believe that immigrants take away jobs, health care, and housing from people born in the U.S. In addition, more than sixty percent of Black youth report that immigrants are treated better than most Black people born in this country, which represents an increase from 2009.

This latest report is the 12th in a series of memos entitled “Black and Latino Youth: The Future of American Politics” released by the Black Youth Project.

CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL REPORT

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Citizen science versus NIMBY?

…My Heart’s in Accra - August 29, 2013 - 11:36am

There are ten graduate students associated with the Center for Civic Media, half a dozen staff and a terrific set of MIT professors who mentor, coach, advise and lead research. But much of the work that’s most exciting at our lab comes from affiliates, who include visiting scholars from other universities, participants in the Media Lab Director’s fellows program and fellow travelers who work closely with our team.

Two of those Civic affiliates are Sean Bonner and Pieter Franken of Safecast. Safecast is a remarkable project born out of a desire to understand the health and safety implications of the release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Unsatisfied with limited and questionable information about radiation released by the Japanese government, Joi Ito, Peter, Sean and others worked to design, build and deploy GPS-enabled geiger counters which could be used by concerned citizens throughout Japan to monitor alpha, beta and gamma radiation and understand what parts of Japan have been most effected by the Fukushima disaster.

The Safecast project has produced an elegant map that shows how complicated the Fukushima disaster will be for the Japanese government to recover from. While there are predictably elevated levels of radiation immediately around the Fukushima plant and in the 18 mile exclusion zones, there is a “plume” of increased radiation south and west of the reactors. The map is produced from millions of radiation readings collected by volunteers, who generally take readings while driving – Safecast’s bGeigie meter automatically takes readings every few seconds and stores them along with associated GPS coordinates for later upload to the server.

It’s hard to know what an appropriate response to the Safecast data is – Safecast is careful to note that there’s no consensus about what’s “safe” in terms of radiation exposure… and that there’s questions to be asked both about bioaccumulation of beta radiation as well as exposure to gamma radiation. Their work provides an alternative set of information to official government statistics, a check on official measurements, which allows citizen scientists and activists to check on progress made on cleanup and remediation. This long and thoughtful blog post about the progress of government decontamination efforts, the cost-benefit of those efforts, and the government’s transparency or opacity around cleanup gives a sense for what Safecast is trying to do: provide ways for citizens to check and verify government efforts and understand the complexity of decisions about radiation exposure. This is especially important in Japan, as there’s been widespread frustration over the failures of TEPCO to make progress on cleaning up the reactor site, leading to anger and suspicion about the larger cleanup process.

For me, Safecast raises two interesting questions:
- If you’re not getting trustworthy or sufficient information from your government, can you use crowdsourcing, citizen science or other techniques to generate that data?
- How does collecting data relate to civic engagement? Is it a path towards increased participation as an engaged and effective citizen?

To have some time to reflect on these questions, I decided I wanted to try some of my own radiation monitoring. I borrowed Joi Ito’s bGeigie and set off for my local Spent Nuclear Fuel and Greater-Than-Class C Low Level Radioactive Waste dry cask storage facility.

Monroe Bridge, MA is 20 miles away from my house, as the crow flies, but it takes over an hour to drive there. Monroe and Rowe are two of the smallest towns in Massachusetts (populations of 121 and 393, respectively) and are both devoid of any state highways – two of 16 towns in Massachusetts with that distinctively rural feature. Monroe, historically, is famous for housing workers who built the Hoosac Tunnel, and for a (long-defunct) factory that manufactured glassine paper. Rowe historically housed soapstone and iron pyrite mines. And both now are case studies for the challenge of revitalizing rural New England mill towns.


Yankee Rowe, prior to decommissioning

But from 1960 to 1992, Rowe and Monroe were best known for hosting Yankee Rowe, the third commercial nuclear power plant built in the United States. A 185 megawatt boiling water reactor, Yankee Rowe was a major employer and taxpayer in an economically depressed area… and also a major source of controversy. I was in school at Williams College, 13 miles from Yankee Rowe, when the NRC ordered the plant shut down in 1991, nine years before its scheduled license renewal, over fears that the reactor vessel might have grown brittle. The plant was a source of fascination for me as a student – the idea that a potentially dangerous nuclear power plant was so nearby led to a number of excursions, usually late at night, to stare at a glowing geodesic dome (the reactor containment building) from across the Sherman Reservoir.

Since 1995, Yankee Rowe has been going through the long process of decommissioning, with the goal of returning the site to wilderness or to other public uses – the plant’s website features an animated GIF of the disassembly process. But there’s a catch – the fuel rods. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, spent fuel was supposed to start moving from civilian power plants like Yankee Rowe to underground government storage facilities in 1989. That hasn’t happened. Fierce opposition from Nevada lawmakers and citizens to storing the waste at Yucca Mountain and from people who don’t want nuclear waste traveling through their communities enroute to storage facilities have meant that there’s no permanent place for the waste.

During the decades nuclear waste storage has been debated in Congress, more waste has backed up, and Yucca Mountain would no longer accomodate the 70,000 metric tons of waste that needs storage. The Department of Energy is now planning on an “interim” disposal site, ready by 2021, in the hopes of having a permanent disposal site online by 2048. The DOE needs the site, because companies like Yankee are suing the US government – successfully – to recover the costs of storing and defending the spent fuel in giant above-ground casks. (Yankee’s site has a great video of the process of moving these fuel rods from storage pools into concrete casks, a process that involves robotic cranes, robot welders and giant air bladders that help slide 110 ton concrete casks into position.)

So… at the end of a twisty rural road in a tiny Massachusetts town, there’s a set of 16 casks that contain the spent fuel of 30 years of nuclear plant operation, and those casks probably aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future. So I took Joi’s geiger counter to visit them.

I’d been to Yankee Rowe before, and remembered being amused by the idea of a bucolic nuclear waste facility. The folks involved with Yankee Rowe have worked very hard to make the site as unobtrusive as possible – it’s marked by a discrete wooden sign, and the only building on site looks like an overgrown colonial house. Not visible from the road is the concrete pad where the 16 casks reside, but it’s 200 meters from the road and 400 meters from “downtown” Monroe Bridge.

I was curious whether I’d be able to detect any radiation using the Safecast tool. Sean and Pieter pride themselves on the fact that the bGeigie is a professional grade tool and routinely detects minor radiation emissions, like a neighbor who had a medical test that involved radioisotopes. I drove to Yankee Rowe late yesterday afternoon, took the bGeigie off my truck (it had been collecting data since I turned it on in Greenfield, the closest big town) and tried to get as close as I could to the casks.

That turned out to be not very close. Before I had time to read the NRC/Private Property sign, I was met at the gate – the sort of gate you expect to see at a public garden, not a barbed-wire, stay out of here gate – by two polite but firm gentlemen, armed with assault rifles and speaking by radio to the control center that had seen my truck over the surveillance cameras, make clear that I was not welcome beyond the parking lot.

That said, I got within 300 meters of the casks. And, as you can see from the readings – the white and green circles on the map – I didn’t detect any radiation beyond what I’ve detected anywhere else in Massachusetts. That’s consistent with the official reports on Yankee Rowe – dozens of wells are monitored for possible groundwater contamination, and despite a recent scare about Cesium 137, there’s been no evidence of leakage from the casks.

It would have been a far more exciting visit had I somehow snuck past the armed guards and captured readings from the casks suggesting significant radiation emissions, I guess… though what it would demonstrate is that you probably shouldn’t sneak in and stand too close to those casks. Better might have been to use Safecast’s new hexacopter-mounted drone to fly a bGeigie over the casks, though I can only imagine what sort of response that might have prompted from the guards.

While I’m reassured that there’s no measurable elevated levels of radiation at Yankee Rowe, it still seems like a weird state of affairs that Yankee’s waste is going to remain on a hillside by a reservoir for the foreseeable future, protected by armed guards. (The real estate listings for property owned by Yankee Atomic Energy Corporation are pretty wonderful – “Special Considerations: An independent spent fuel storage installation (ISFSI) associated with the previous operation of the Yankee Rowe Plant is located in the former plant area and remains under a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission license. Future ownership of the 300 meter buffer surrounding the ISFSI will be negotiated as part of the property disposition.”)

And there’s lots of sites like Yankee Rowe that already exist, and more on the way. The map above, from Jeff McMahon at Forbes, shows sites in the US where nuclear fuel is stored in pools or dry casks. And more plants are shutting down – Yankee Rowe’s sister plant, Vermont Yankee, announced closure this week to speculation that nuclear plants aren’t affordable given the low cost of natural gas. Of course, given the realization that cleaning up Yankee Rowe has cost 16 times what the plant to build and will continue until the waste is in a permanent repository might give natural gas advocates pause – will we have similar discussions of the problems of remediating fracking sites in a few years or a few decades?

Projects like Safecast – and the projects I’m exploring this coming year under the heading of citizen infrastructure monitoring – have a challenge. Most participants aren’t going to uncover Ed Snowden-calibre information by driving around with a geiger counter or mapping wells in their communities. Lots of data collected is going to reveal that governments and corporations are doing their jobs, as my data suggests. It’s easy to track a path between collecting groundbreaking data and getting involved with deeper civic and political issues – will collecting data that the local nuclear plant is apparently safe get me more involved with issues of nuclear waste disposal?

It just might. One of the great potentials of citizen science and citizen infrastructure monitoring is the possibility of reducing the exotic to the routine. I suspect my vague unease about the safety of nuclear waste on a hillside is similar to the distaste people feel for casks of spent fuel passing through their towns on the way to a storage site. I feel a lot more comfortable with Yankee Rowe having read up on the measures taken to encase the waste in casks, and with the ability to verify radiation levels near the site. (Actually, being confronted by heavily armed men also reassures me.) I’m more persuaded that regional storage facilities are a good idea than I was before my experiment and reading yesterday – my opinion previously would have been based more on a kneejerk fear of radioactivity than consideration of other options. (The compact argument: if we’ve got fuel in hundreds of sites around the US, each protected by surveillance cameras and security teams, it seems a lot more efficient to concentrate that problem into a small number of very-well secured sites.)

If the straightforward motivation for citizen science and citizen monitoring is the hope of making a great discovery, maybe we need to think about how to make these activities routine, an ongoing civic ritual that’s as much a public duty as voting. Monitoring a geiger counter that never jumps over 40 counts per minute isn’t the most exciting experiment you can conduct, but it might be one that turns a plan like Yucca Mountain into one we can discuss reasonably, not one that triggers an understandable, if unhelpful, emotional reaction of “not in my backyard.”

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