YPP Network Description

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.

MIT Center for Civic Media
Subscribe to MIT Center for Civic Media feed
Updated: 47 min 21 sec ago

Data For Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice - Liveblog

September 26, 2017 - 3:28pm

This is a live blog account from the Data For Equity: The Power of Data to Promote Justice event.


Barbara Best, Executive Director, Center for Public Leadership, introduces the panel. The moderator is Yeshimabeit Milner, the Executive Director and Founder of Data for Black Lives which uses data science to create concrete measureable change in black lives.  The panel has been organized by Black Student Union and Black Policy Conference. People are tuning in via the livestream.

Yeshi introduces Data for Black Lives. They are building a movement for scientists, activists and organizers. We can use data and tech to make concrete change in the lives of black people and all people. Data and tech is changing the world so fast. We can look to the past to respond to the present moment. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin - separated seeds from cotton fiber. Cotton became king in US. By the 1850s, the Us produced the vast majority of cotton produced worldwide. The cotton gin was a gamechanging social invention. But it had extraordinary negative impact on transatlantic slave trade. For millions of enslaved people, cotton gin helped expand a cruel and violent system. No technology is neutral. For far too long data and tech have been weaponized against community. But we have examples of technology for positive social change. We are seeing advances now in civic analytics and data at all levels of government. Data plays a huge role in allocation of resources. These tools have a role to play in equity and to help elevate the voices that have been silenced.


This call to action is more urgent than ever before. How do we use data to expose inequity and hold governments accountable?


The four panelists here have used data in inspiring and different ways to promote justice. They include:

William Isaac, Fellow, Open Society Foundation; Research Advisor, the Human Rights Data Analysis Group
Kelly Jin, Director, Data-Driven Justice at the Arnold Foundation; former Citywide Analytics Manager, City of Boston
Carlos Rojas, Special Projects Consultant, Youth on Board; Founding Member, Boston Education Justice Alliance
Paola Villarreal, Harvard University Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; former Data Science Fellow, ACLU

Yeshi will use some of the questions submitted online prior to the event to guide the panel discussion. Each panelist will briefly introduce themselves.


William Isaac leads with an introduction of his work. He focuses on algorithms and their role in public decision making. There's an assumption amongst policy-makers that data is good and objective. Through his research he wants to show that data is not objective and that algorithms in and of themselves do not solve those problems. His research tries to illuminate that and build towards something better.


Kelly Jin has worked in many organizations. She feels everyone should tackle one issue: every year we have millions of people cycling through local jails. This costs a lot of money. When you look closer many have mental health issues, substance abuse issues. They launched the data-driven justice program at the White House last year to try to address this at the local level. People keep ending up in jail. How to bring together ER doctors, sheriffs and local communities to hold government accountable? She previously built the data team at City Hall Boston.

Paola Villareal says she comes from a corrupt country and she thought it would be different here. But it happens that it's not - it's just a different kind of corruption called oppression. There are many pipelines that show that. Every state and city has a different type of oppressive pipeline that is biased against people of color. She is here because she started to work on data, analyze it and show disparities. It is super important to learn about these shocking biases and oppressive systems.

Carlos Rojas says he comes from a perceived corrupt country - Colombia - and moved here when he was five. They moved to Dudley Square. After 6 months here, he became undocumented because they had flown in with a tourist visa. He noted how black and brown kids interacted with police. He was told to never, ever approach or talk to a police officer. If you do, be very polite or you might get arrested. As he grew up, he became aware of the ways that these problems start within the school system. What does it look like to reform school-level policies. School-to-prison pipeline in this country is a real thing. It sends young black and brown people from school directly into prison. They believe that young people organizing and in partnerships with adults can make beautiful things happen. Data that corroborates that lived experience is also very important. He has examples of amazing advocacy efforts but they are also having struggles getting the state to hold agencies accountable.


Yeshi says this represents real breadth. One of the first questions from the audience - what have been the pro and con impacts of data-driven decision making in government over the past decade?


Kelly says she wouldn't go that far back. The core of a of the work around open data has only blossomed in the last five or so years. Cities have done a lot of work to open up their data. It's hard to unlock data, but fundamentally this is public data. That's the first step - how do we unlock it. From that, the engagement of a much broader community is what matters. If you have 300 data sets it means nothing if no one is using them for policy change or research or recommendations. The policy changes that have happened as a result of people looking at the data are what matters. One question is what tech infrastructure can we build on top of open data to provide value back to citizens. For example, individual health data donated to researchers. Technology - why aren't we using more open source? It's amazing to see the turnout for this event - how can these people get involved?


Paola says that people are here because of openness - this has happened in the last 8-10 years. Open source, open government, open data. It's not just a set of tools but a mission. Openness in general is one of the best things that have happened. But on the other hand, machine learning in the criminal justice system is one of the worst things that has happened. We need to solve that. In the meantime, I would call for an embargo on that.


Walter agrees that openness is the biggest thing he has seen. We have seen the big coastal cities who have embraced data. He has seen something different in the midwest. In Michigan, they faced the Flint water crisis. They had no digital records of the water pipe existing. It turns out that they actually did have records but they were on file cards and there was one person responsible for them. Loveland Technologies is a company that then took those cards and digitized them. Data does have a lot of good use when you are allowed to share, usually with partners not inside government. The cons of this movement - there have been some weird things coming out of machine learning.  Part of it is algorithm but part of it is the institutional decision making on top of that. Some people in government don't want to use data at all. Others say data will solve all our problems and don't like when you say bad things about data. There has to be some middle ground. It's not just machine learning or algorithms. Some places have predictive policing but don't even use the software. Even when they have the tools when the institutions don't change as well then nothing changes. Particularly need to focus on accountability mechanisms.


Kelly adds that one thing they have talked about is TQ - what is the technology/data quotient within government and how do you improve that? Data and tech vendors come into government. What are you doing? What decisions making? Data ethics and algorithmic transparency - how do you ensure that? The algorithms should also possibly be public.


Carlos says that in the school systems it has been striking what data has been capable of both positively and negatively. No Child Left Behind put schools in frenzy of data collection around test scores and what amounted to a toxic culture of high stakes testing. The policy ended up doing exactly what it was not designed to do - closed schools, left many students behind. The biggest predictor of how well you do on a test is how much money your parents make. But on the other hand, youth organizers have been demanding that schools collect more data. In the case of dismantling the school to prison pipeline, the state wasn't collecting data on school discipline. We didn't see data on who was being suspended and expelled. For years, we had to rely on personal narrative and anecdotes to prove that young people of color were being suspended at egregiously disproportionate levels. We demanded that the state collect disaggregated data, school by school, so that we could see better the school to prison pipeline.


Yeshi asks the next question. Openness has made it possible for us to be here today. But one thing we are grappling with, once people get the data, what are they going to do with it? Not everyone can learn R. She got involved with data collection as a youth organizer. How do we scale data literacy and change how we teach about data to get more women and people of color to make the open data movement more lively and accessible to more people?

Paola says we need more ways to tell stories and show how data impacted communities. We need more community engagement and co-creation. Show communities the data and ask them what they think. Data scientists are not saviors. They collaborate with communities to define the problem.

Carlos states that he has seen the impact when data scientists align with community groups. And they have also seen data waste when researchers create data and then it just sits on a shelf and isn't used by groups that could benefit from it. They are lucky to work in a city that is rich in data science. Lot of people in Boston are interested to take direction from people on the ground. They come to them and say "What research do you need done to make your work effective?" Then when young people are in a legislator's office they have data to back their arguments. We have been very invested in those partnerships. On Oct 19th, they will be gathering with youth and parent groups to review at the Chapter 222 data, talk about what is happening on the ground, determine how to move forward.

Paola says the most impactful work she has done was in teams of lawyers, community members, advocates and activists.


Kelly says she wants to talk about the role of media in this. How do we continue to show that there are women and minorities working in this field? For example, the film Hidden Figures. And on "how do we engage" - not to have data for data's sake but to determine what the questions are and then figure out what are the data sets to help make those easier to answer. What data are we not collecting? There are so many cases where no one is collecting that information. There is a huge piece of catching up.


Walter thinks a lot about how you teach these concepts. For undergrads and people in college they created InnovateGov program that teaches them data science and then places them in government agencies. They found that you need to have something that you are passionate about. A lot of the stuff is boring. But the coolest part is that when you possess the knowledge you can present it to someone to make a case that they should change things. For example, a student team collected surveys about how to reach people involved in foreclosures. For high school students - smaller toy data sets where you introduce concepts and giving them passion or interest in a topic.

Yeshi asks what are some good examples of cases where agencies and orgs have used data for justice? That will help us after the Q&A.

Carlos talks about Youth on Board. They created surveys with questions that would help paint picture of students of color as well as listening projects where they would go have quick conversations. To engage them, they needed two things: big signs and bags of candy. Their questions were like, "Do you have police in your school? How do they affect the environment? Have you been suspended? Do you think it was fair? Do you think your race had anything to do with it?" We didn't find anything surprising. They passed the Chapter 222 legislation which said instead of districts just doing zero-tolerance, they had to try other methods before suspension and expulsion. But they had no way of holding schools accountable on this. They decided to develop an app that summarizes major changes and allows you to report an equity grievance and they developed the Boston Student Rights app. Incredible tool that collected 26,000 cases. Students are using it to educate themselves and their teachers. Sometimes they are using it to advocate for themselves and prevent themselves from being suspended. All the data goes to the department of equity which the community group has a good relation with.

However, but now the schools are doing things like dismissing students early, doing emergency removals, and providing an informal no-trespassing notice. These things fall under the radar but then are not held accountable from the state.

Paola discusses her work for the ACLU and its relationship with the City of Boston. Although the entities did not agree, there was an open and transparent process. Data & Society is a great research organization.

Kelly talks about Measures for Justice - they are doing the hard work to do data collection and make it open and available. How do philanthropists step up to do that work? Coding it forward class at HKS taught by Nick Sinai creates partnerships between undergrads and the city of Boston. Finally, Jen Palka runs Code for America, like Teach for America for technologists who are placed in local jurisdictions.

Walter says he has so many examples. Sam Singyawe is amazing and part of Black Lives Matter started Mapping Police Violence. Some smaller ones in Detroit - like Data-driven Detroit, Future City Detroit - projects that are building the public infrastructure for data. A lot of nonprofits are doing the heavy lifting.


Categories: Blog

Hiring a Media Cloud Contract UX Specialist

September 22, 2017 - 8:21am

Online media is in a state of flux. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, so-called fake news - these are all recent developments that have radically altered the landscape of news and information online. We call this the "networked public sphere", and the Media Cloud project was created to track and understand it. Come help us design easier-to-use data-centric web tools for academic internet researchers and human rights activists that let them investigate coverage and conversations online about topics they care about.

The Media Cloud project is seeking a contract user experience specialist to help assess our existing web-based tools, and design new ones, to support data-driven research about the role of online media in civic discourse. The specialist will begin by designing and leading a process to evaluate the usability of our current suite of web based tools (available at tools.mediacloud.org). They will collaborate with the technology team to understand the current and future features available, focused on how they could be used by media-makers like documentary film producers. They will assist in development of training guides for novice users in the non-profit space. The position will be a 6-month part-time contract position based at the Center for Civic Media (at the MIT Media Lab), but the UX specialist will work closely with members in other institutions as well. This is a grant-funded contract position that we hope to extend, or perhaps turn into a staff position.

Media Cloud is a joint project between the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. We are an open source project producing research about the networked public sphere, and helping others do their own research about online media. We make available to the public our existing archive of more than 550 million stories, adding more than 40,000 new stories daily. The project is funded by human rights foundations. We produce both the open platform and research that helps our funders make decisions about how best to influence online civic conversations about democracy, activism, and health.

We are a diverse project of researchers and technologists who love to wrestle with hard questions about online media by using a combination of social, computer, and data sciences. The ideal candidate will work well with all members of the team, from senior faculty to junior developers, and will thrive in an academic atmosphere that privileges constant questioning and validation at all levels of the platform and of our research products. Experience working on big data systems, or data-driven interfaces, as is experience working on projects investigating online media.

Minimum Qualifications

  • at least two years experience working as a UX designer on web-based products;
  • familiarity with user-centered design and research methodologies;
  • demonstrated ability to translate between technical and non-technical audiences;
  • demonstrated ability to iterate on design ideas quickly;
  • demonstrated ability to use data to validate decisions;
  • experience writing design documents and user guides;
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.


  • design and lead a usability study with non-profit partners;
  • document key findings in a report;
  • create and assess mockups for existing and new features;
  • contribute to the ongoing identification of key features to add to the platform;
  • assist in the development of user guides for tools;
  • collaborate with undergraduate interns working on same project.

Helpful Skills

  • a strong portfolio showing user-centered design approaches applied to data-intensive products;
  • passion for solving difficult engineering and data problems;
  • experience designing data-driven interfaces;
  • experience working with design tools like Sketch, Photoshop and Illustrator;
  • knowledge and interest in social sciences;

Much of our substantive work focuses on issues of gender, race, and globalization. We strongly encourage women, people of color, people of all ages, and people of any sexual identity to apply.

The job is based in Cambridge, MA, but much of our team is distributed around the world. We are open to alternative working arrangements that include part time residence in Cambridge. We imagine this position as a 2- or 3-day a week engagement over 5 to 6 months, but are open to other approaches.

Apply by sending a cover letter, resume, and portfolio to jobs@mediacloud.org.

Categories: Blog

An Open Letter From Civic Hackers to Puerto Rico & USVI in the Wake of Hurricane Maria

September 19, 2017 - 2:49pm

I am working with a group of civic developers committed to supporting Hurricane victims for relief & recovery who have helped with the software development and data analysis of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma primarily in Texas and Florida. In the wake of Hurricane Maria, we want to help Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the same way. Devastation has already occurred in Puerto Rico and the USVI, and we’re here to help in the response and recovery pending from Maria.

But, we won’t jump in without your permission. These places have a long history of imperialism, and we refuse to add tech colonialism on top of that.

Here’s how we might be able to help: Rescue

Sometimes emergency services are overloaded fielding calls and deploying assistance. Remote grassroots groups help take in additional requests through social media and apps like Zello and then help to dispatch local people who are offering to perform rescue services (like the Cajun Navy in Houston after Hurricane Harvey).

Shelter updates

As people seek shelter while communication infrastructure remains spotty, having a way to text or call to findt the nearest shelter accepting people becomes useful. We can remotely keep track of what shelters are open and accepting people by calling them and scraping websites, along with extra information such as if they accept pets and if they check identification.

Needs matching

As people settle into shelters or return to their homes, they start needing things like first aid supplies and building materials. Shelter managers or community leaders seek ways to pair those offering material support with those in need of the support. We help with the technology and data related to taking and fulfilling these requests, although we don’t fulfill the requests directly ourselves.

If you are interested in this, please let us know by emailing me (bl00 at mit) or finding us on Twitter at @irmaresponse or @sketchcityhou.

Here are other groups lending aid already (maintained by someone else).
If you’re looking to jump in an an existing task, Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team already has a tasker active for helping to map the area for responders and coordination.

Categories: Blog

How Would You Design Crypto Backdoor Regulation? Ed Felten at CITP

September 19, 2017 - 10:43am

Law enforcement sometimes argue that they need backdoors to encryption in order to carry out their mission, while cryptographers like Bruce Schneier describe the public cybersecurity risk from backdoors and say that the "technology just doesn't work that way."

I'm here at the Princeton University Center for Information Tech Policy, liveblogging the first public lunch of the semester, where Ed Felten shares work in progress to find a way through this argument. Ed is the director of CITP and a professor of computer science and public affairs at Princeton University. He served at the White House as the Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer from June 2015 to January 2017. Ed was also the first chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission from January 2011 until September 2012.

Ed starts out by pointing out that his talk is work in progress, that he's thinking about the U.S. policy context. His goal is to explore the encryption policy issue in relation to the details, understand the tradeoffs, and imagine effective policies– something he says is rare in debates over encryption backdoors.

Five Equities For Thinking about Encryption Backdoor Policies

People who debate encryption backdoors are often thinking about five "equities," says Ed. Focus on public safety concerns the ability of law enforcement and intelligence community to protect the public from harm. Cybersecurity is the ability of law-abiding people to protect their systems. Personal privacy is the ability of users to control the data about them. Civil liberties and free expression concern the ability of people to exercise their rights and speak freely. Economic competitiveness is the ability of US companies to compete in international and domestic markets. Across all of these, we care about these things over time, not just immediately.

Ed notes that policy debates often come to loggerheads because people weight these equities differently. For example, people often contrast public safety with cybersecurity without considering other factors. They also come to loggerheads when people start with these equities without asking in detail what regulation can and cannot do. 

Understanding Policy Pipielines

When we think about policies, Ed encourages us to think about a three-part pipeline. Policymakers start by thinking about regulation, hope that the regulation creates changes in design and user behavior, and then ask the impact of those changes and behaviors on the equities that matter. In this conversation, Ed is working from an assumption of basic trust in the US rule of law, as well as realism about technology, economics, and policy.

The Nobody But Us Principle (NOBUS)
In the past, signals intelligence agencies have tended to have two goals: to undermine the security of adversaries' technologies while strengthening the security of our own technologies. Lately, there's been a problem, which is that US adversaries tend to use the same technologies: strengthening or weakening adversaries' security also affects our own security.

The usual doctrine in these situations is to assume that it's better to strengthen encryption, in hopes that one's own country benefits from that strength. But there's an exception: perhaps one could look for methods of access that the US can carry out but adversaries cannot; these methods are NOBUS (nobody but us). For example, zero-day exploits are an example of something that intelligence agencies might think of as NOBUS. Of course, as Ed points out, the NOBUS principle raises important questions about who the "us" are in any policy idea.

NOBUS Test in Crypto Policy

Based on the NOBUS principle, Ed proposes a principle that any mandated means of access to encrypted data must be NOBUS with high probability. Several rules fail this test, such as banning all encryption, or requiring that encryption be disabled by default.

Why Do People Need Crypto?

Ed offers some basics on cryptography, pointing out that cryptography is used to protect three things. It protects confidentiality, so unauthorized party can't learn message contents. Crypto protects integrity, so unauthorized parties can't forge or modify messages without detection. It also protects identity, protecting people from impersonation. Ed describes two main scenarios for uses of crypto: storage and communications.

In storage situations, device keys and passcodes are combined to create a storage key that can be used to encrypt and decrypt data from a computer or a phone. Once the key is no longer being used, the information is removed and the device is safe.

Encrypted communications are more complicated. Here is a typical situation: In a handshake phase, two people use long-term identity keys to confirm who they are and receive a session key. During the data transfer phase, the session key is used to encrypt and decrypt messages between them. They might change the session key from time to time, and when they are done with the key, they delete it. Once they have deleted a session key, an adversary will be unable to decrypt anything that was said during that session key. Systems like TLS for secure browsing and the Signal protocol fit within this framework.

Trends in the Uses of Crypto

When law enforcement make statements about how they're losing access to communications, they're making a claim about trends. We are seeing a move toward more encryption in storage and on devices, says Ed. To understand the actual impact on security, Ed argues, we should ask instead: who can recover the data? If only the user can recover the data, then law enforcement/intelligence (LE/IC) may lose access. But if the service provider can recover, then LE/IC can get access from the provider. To think through this, Ed asks us to imagine email services. Messages might be encrypted, but law enforcement can often still get companies to give the data to law enforcement.

Ed predicts that in situations where most users want data recovery as a feature, or where the nature of the service requires the provider to have access, the provider will have access, and law enforcement will be able to access it. This includes most email and file storage. Otherwise, users will have exclusive control, in areas such as private messages and ephemeral data.

Designing a Regulatory Requirement for Crypto Backdoors

Any regulatory requirement needs to work through a series of trade-offs, issues that have no relation to the technical questions, says Ed. He outlines a series of decisions that need to be made when designing a regulation on crypto backdoors.

The first question to ask is: should we regulate storage only, or storage and comunications? Communications are harder because keys change frequently and LE/IC can't assume access to the device. Storage regulations typically assume that LE/IC has access to the device, so this is an important question. Storage-only approaches are simpler, so regulation writers should consider whether they should stretch for communications or not. In today's conversation, Ed focuses on storage for simplicity.

The next decision is to ask which services are covered by the regulation. There are many kinds of products that use crypto, and regulators need to decide how much to cover. The broader the range, the more complicated the regulation is, and the greater the burden becomes across the equities. But simple regulations can put many of LE/IC requests beyond their reach. Ed urges us to stop thinking about the iphone, a vertically-integrated system run by a single company. Think instead about an android phone, which involves many different companies from many countries in one device: chip makers, device manufacturers, OS distributors, open source contributors, crypto library distributors, mobile carriers, retailers, and app developers. All of them put technology on the phone, and you have to decide which ones in this supply chain are covered by the regulation.

When deciding who to cover in the regulation, you also need to ask what they're able to do. Chip makers can't control the operating systems. Manufacturers are often foreign. App developers are small teams or individual contractors.

The next decision is to ask how robust encryption backdoors must be. If users attempt to prevent access, how strongly must the system resist? Ed outlines several options. The first option is not to resist user attempts. Another option is to make disabling the backdoor at least as hard as jailbreaking the device. A stronger option would be to require users to conduct non-trivial modifications to hardware to secure. If you require this, you will make it much less likely that adversaries and would-be targets would evade the public safety investigation, but it also probably requires hardware modifications. Legacy systems would be unable to comply, and depending on who you require to comply, they might not be able to comply; you couldn't ask Google to require hardware backdoors on android phones, whose hardware they don't control.

Next, regulators need to decide how to treat legacy products. Do you allow legacy systems? Do you ban them? If so, how can people tell if their system has a backdoor to comply with the ban, and do you want them to know?

Another decision is to work out what to do with travelers. If someone travels to the U.S. and brings a device that is compliant with their own country's rules but not US policies, what do you do? Do you allow it, so long as the visit is time-limited? Do you prohibit it, detecting and taking away the device? Do you try to reconfigure the device at the border? Manually? Automatically? How would these requirements violate trade agreements?

All of these decisions, says Ed, are decisions you need to make even before discussing the technical details. Next, he talks through the most common technical proposal, key escrow, to show how regulators could reason through these policies.

Technical Example: Key Escrow

Under the key escrow approach, storage systems are required to keep a copy of the storage key, encrypting it so that a ``recovery key'' is needed to recover it. The storage system creates and stores an escrow package. Recovering takes a three-stage process: extract the escrow package from the device, decrypt the escrow package to get the storage key, and use the storage key to decrypt the data.

If you use key escrow, you have to decide if you're going to require physical access. On option is to require that physical access is necessary, you could allow remote access to the escrow package, or you could leave it to the market. Requiring physical access limits the worst case from the leak of keys; even if the recovery key is compromised, users could protect themselves through physical control. In the US, law enforcement have said that they envision using key escrow systems only in cases of physical access and court orders. Relying on a requirement for physical access depends on a technical ability to do so, something that is theoretical so far and may be difficult to force hardware supply chains to comply with.

Next Ed shows us a matrix of four policy approaches:

  • The device must include a physical access port for law enforcement
  • The company must hold and provide the escrow package and give it to law enforcement if requested
  • The company must provide the storage key directly when requested from law enforcement
  • The company must provide the data

Lower on the list, the company does the work and has more design latitude about how to respond. But the bottom two policy approaches have a NOBUS problem, since they expose users to third party access. Requiring companies to provide the data and to store the key probably fails the NOBUS test as well. In the top two options, law enforcement needs knowledge about many devices, probably managed through industry standard.

Maybe there are more options. Ed talks about a number of other possibilities, including working on who holds the recovery keys. Giving all keys to the US government could harm competitiveness and be blocked by other governments. Giving keys to other countries fails the NOBUS test because it gives other governments a competitive advantage.

Another option is to split the keys, giving the keys to multiple parties and requiring them all to participate. Imagine for example that one key is held by the company and one by the FBI. This approach has some advantages. The approach is NOBUS if any one of the key holders is NOBUS, since any key holder can withhold participation. This approach is also more resilient against compromise of recovery keys. Disadvantages are that any key holder can block recovery, availability is harder to ensure, and every key holder learns which devices were accessed.

Another split-key model requires that some subset of all keys be used (K-of-N keys) to access the data. The advantages of the system are that the approach is NOBUS if at least N-K+1 of the key holders are NOBUS. It's more resilient against compromise than a single key. Among disadvantages, any N-K+1 key holders can block recovery, K key holders learn which devices were accessed, and the system is much less resilient against compromise than a simple split key.

Where Does This Leave Us?

Ed wraps up by arguing that we can have a policy discussion beyond the impasse people in security policy have reached. He suggests that we think about the entire regulation pipeline, from regulation to response to impact. Next, regulators need to think about the full range of products, how they are designed, how they are used, and the impact on equities. The NOBUS test does help regulators narrow down choices. Yet each of the decisions has tradeoffs with pros and cons. Overall, Ed hopes that his talk shows how regulation debates should engage with details and unpack how to think about the policy by working through specific proposals.

Finally, Ed encourages us to take the final step that his talk leaves out: thinking through the impact of policy ideas on the equities in play and how to weigh them.

mobile devicesnetworkstechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Digital Democracy: Participatory Mapping & Tool-building in the Amazon

September 14, 2017 - 10:24am

This is a liveblog of a talk by Emily Jacobi (@emjacobi) at the MIT Center for Civic Media, written by Erhardt Graeff, Rahul Bhargava, and Alexis Hope. All errors are our own.

  Digital Democracy (DD) works in solidarity with groups around the world to empower marginalized communities to use technology to defend their rights. This means that they are different from other groups because they are not trying to pursue their own agenda through their work. Their mission is driven by the agenda of their partners.   DD was founded almost 10 years after being inspired by research they were doing in Burma. Emily noticed a correlation between internet access and political engagement. She had a realization that new technology was being leveraged to make new kinds of engagement possible, but that it also creates new risks and challenges. They started by doing workshops and trainings that were requested by local partners Some of DD's earliest work was with women in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Women in the camps were self-organizing to respond to violence. The organization learned a lot about what it means to be engaged in a long-term partnership, and about not coming in with preconceived notions of a solution.   They developed an SMS project that failed, but it led to a call center there that made positive impact. Emilie Reiser (from Civic Media) worked with this community on that project and the work informed a lot of what DD does now.   Their approach involves two interlinked components: (1) direct engagement with local partners and (2) building open-source tools that come from the lived experiences of their partners.   The core values underlying all their work are:
  • Self-determination & Autonomy

  • Accessibility

  • Collaboration

  • Social & Environmental Justice


These values are not just about the inherent injustices faced by the indigenous people they work with, but goes to the core of how people are included in design processes and decision making about their futures. Their accessibility work includes topics such as language, usability, support for offline work, and more.


Currently DD is working on longer-term projects in Ecuador and Guyana.


Guyana Case Study

See https://www.digital-democracy.org/ourwork/guyana/


Wapichana people were guaranteed full-autonomy before independence, but have had to fight for over 5 decades to try to win this independence.  DD has been working for the past 5 years on mapping projects there.


They've created a hyper-detailed map of their area. This includes everything from where they gather eggs, where rare birds are, churches, homesteads.


They right now only have rights to where the villages are. The map helps them document their use of other lands to then try and gain rights to them. The mountains around them have lots of illegal gold mining, which is creating environmental risks that affect them.

Part of the mapping work has involved helping people use drones to take imagery of illegal gold mining. They’ve taken the images to the government, and the government has responded by stopping the illegal mining activities.  In addition, they have been able to use this imagery internally to drive community discussions about why these issues matter to their survival.

They have also been in talks with the government to determine whether they can have their full land rights recognized.

Ecuador Case Study

See http://www.digital-democracy.org/blog/update-from-the-ecuadorian-amazon/


In Wuorani territory of eastern Ecuador they are working with native people's in a national forest. DD has been asked to accompany the Wuorani people to map their entire territory. This involves 12 current communities with the plan to bring in 10 more over the next year.


The process starts with paper maps (accessible to all). Some communities will separate men and women for different workshops to ensure that everyone has a voice during the session by minimizing the gender dynamics.



The hand-drawn maps beautifully illustrate their connection and knowledge of the land.  The process lets them take the information in their heads and share it with government officials making decisions about things like mining rights. Then they go out and collect GPS points they record in paper booklets (for now). They also do media making to capture narratives from across the territory. This project has helped bridge the gap between young people (who are often driven to move to the city for work) and elders, who have a deep knowledge of the area.



They have "Technicos" that get trained are elected by the community.  They take these walks to take GPS points to produce a formal map based on the collaborative hand-drawn one.



See http://www.digital-democracy.org/blog/mapeo-preview/


One big gap they find is that in offline environments there are very few tools that work.  The ones that do are very complex to learn (ie. ArcGIS). DD wanted a tool that would remove them from the equation, letting communities manage their own information.


A key goal of Mapeo is that all data and visualizations can be locally-owned and managed, the software is easy-to-use, works offline, and is collaborative. They've built on top of ID Editor, which is used with OpenStreetMaps (OSM). OSM has been helpful in creating maps of places that do not have them—for example, companies hadn’t mapped Haiti before the earthquake because there wasn’t commercial value in it, and OSM allowed people to build new maps.


They've changed ID Editor to be culturally appropriate for the Wuorani people. This includes more appropriate defaults, and picking iconography to represent things like nesting grounds, villages, etc. The Wuorani people have also used Mapeo to identify not just specific locations, but also larger areas. For example, designating an area where they won’t hunt again for a while. It’s been useful in helping address self-governance questions.


Once they've captured the GPS points, they print out a draft and have the community check and edit it in physical form.  Once those edits are done they print out big versions of the map.  They are designing and developing an interactive map that will also integrate stories and blogs about certain areas.


Seikopai digital participative mapping from Digital Democracy on Vimeo.

  • My family is from Guyana — I can’t believe you’re working there. Why did you choose Guyana?

    • DD got a Knight News grant to work on what has become Mapeo. DD connected to the Guyana groups after they heard about DD's previous work in Peru. Then they were invited in to collaborate.

  • I worked in an area on the coast and we were doing a tree inventory. This tool could be great for mapping the trees and how they use them.

    • The desktop version of Mapeo works well, but they are working on a mobile version that will work better for ongoing work.

  • Is there a fear that the information could be used by the wrong people?

    • DD has forked off of OSM, so everything is internal. The community can decide what is released to the world and when. Open data is important when discussing players in power. For small actors, opening data creates opportunities for exploitation. DD tries to help their partners are agency over that and navigate it.

  • How long does this take?

    • Sometimes groups really need to make a map. Other times the mapping is a way to build community awareness. With the Wuorani the first few villages took a long time, but now DD just provides tech support and bug fixing.

  • Do you have materials about how to be the sidekick and support well?

    • Right now neither side of DD's work is ready to easily share. The idea is to have guides and manuals. The idea of being a "sidekick rather than a superhero" is a great way to say it. DD tries to fight the superhero narrative.

  • How do start to talk with our funders about this type of process - maybe building partnerships for 3 years before tools are designed built.

    • Can we do this as a coalition somehow.  Mapeo was funded by the Knight News Challenge, which they've managed to stretch for a long time. DD's partners work with international groups to find funding to support roll-out. We now have a tool that is worthy of investment but a few years ago I would have been lying to make the pitch that we have a project that is ready to go.

  • Is the tool ready for implementation in other places—for instance there is a need for mapping biodiversity in Mexico?

    • If you know how to use GitHub, then yes! But we do not have a lot of the supportive resources put in place that a lot of people need to implement it. It's also important to note that the tool is oriented toward a community working on it together rather than an individual. Also, it is important to note that the Wuorani people's map icons are those people's intellectual property but they are working on generic rainforest icons that anyone can use on their own maps.

  • Is there any effort to adapt Mapeo to coastal communities?

    • We are fortunate that their is a lot of the Amazon and lot of people working on that effort. But I think it's possible to adapt to those geographies.

  • Would you be interested in bringing in additional drone mapping and machine learning processing to expand the mapping efforts?

    • One of the most valuable aspects of the current mapping process is the human element where everyone has a chance to have a voice in the process. There are some cases where a more rapid response might be warranted to address a specific need, but there is a lot of value in the slower process.

  • Some people think about mapping in terms of the switch from oral traditions to written or visual, and so how do you think about what is lost through the process?

    • The Wuorani was first contacted by Baptist missionaries a few decades ago, which led to disease and social problems. And for them mapping represented something that was imposed on them, telling them where their territory was and what they could or couldn't do with it. Maps have been used to disempower people for centuries. The Mapeo process offers them an opportunity to claim some of this power back.

Categories: Blog

Organizing Christians to Protect Migrant Rights: Robert Chao Romero

August 5, 2017 - 8:31am

As latino communities face increased pressure and risks from US immigrations and customs, how are latinos of faith organizing to protect the vulnerable while also including white Christians in migrant-led efforts for change?

Yesterday, I got to hear from professor Robert Chao Romero, a Chinese-Latinx American historian and immigration lawyer at UCLA. He's the author of The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940 , winner of the Latin American Studies Association's Latina/o Studies Section Book Award. I got to hear Robert speak in Kingston, Rhode Island, at a retreat for university faculty who are Christians.

Robert opens up by talking about latino students who conclude that Christianity is a system of oppression and colonialism without having the chance to learn their own history of faith-inspired activism. As a historian, Robert has led a series of initiatives in LA that foreground latino religious histories of social justice. As one example, Robert tells us about an annual 4th of July Freedom Ride hosted by his church. The Freedom Ride shows people historic sites of injustice in the LA area, asking a local community leader or pastor to tell the story connected to each location. At every spot, the group holds a prayer for healing. Through tours like this, Robert and others in his community are able to keep community history alive and powerful. He's now working on a book that covers 500 years of Christian latino social justice organizing.

Robert also tells us about student-hosted discussions at UCLA about immigration and faith, part of a project called Jesus for Revolutionaries (J4R). Recently, students have organized events that share the voices of undocumented students with the wider community at UCLA. Meeting in one of the Christian fraternities, their first event gathered 80 people to hear from their undocumented peers. For many of the people who pass through, Jesus for Revolutionaries offers a first step of a conversation between their faith, values, and identity, one that often leads to participation in other Christian groups for latino and black students.

J4R focuses on connecting activist students with Christian ministries that offer good bridges between students and underserved communities. In addition to giving students an opportunity to serve, J4R also gives students exposure to churches that have developed genuine collaborations with undocumented communities. Over the years, non-Christians have also led J4R initiatives, accessing resources to support their educational and financial needs. Through J4R, many of these non-Christians have connected and collaborated with Christians for the first time, or the first time in many years. J4R also participates in the annual UCLA immigrant youth empowerment conference. Last year, students held a workshop exploring what the Bible says about immigration, exploring how undocumented youth might think about faith in their own lives and question unwelcoming theological assumptions they hear from others.

In the past seven months, Robert and Erica have participated in the Matthew 25 Movement, a mostly-evangelical (but not limited to evangelical) movement that has come together to support vulnerable groups in the US. The bipartisan movement was convened in November before the election by Alexia Salvatierra, author of Faith Rooted Organizing, to imagine practical ways that the church could support communities affected by the upcoming election. After the election, they held another meeting in Union Church, a Japanese Christian church with a history rooted in the internment of Japanese people during the second world war. When 200 people showed up, the group decided to organize as the Matthew 25 Movement. In the initial gathering, people from Christian organizations including Biola University, Fuller Seminary, Asuza Pacific University, and a mix of other church groups and communities are now working together to defend the vulnerable. The movement takes its name from a passage in the book of Matthew where Jesus tells his followers that those who welcome people who are different from them are ultimately welcoming Jesus.

While the message of Matthew 25 is universal, the movement's work on migrant rights is led by latino churches. Looking at the media create by the Matthew 25 movement after Robert's talk, I was fascinated to see how they created messages and framings that implicitly include and appeal to non-latino Christians.

To participate, Christians and churches take a pledge "to stand with and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus." In Southern California, many people in the Matthew 25 Movement have focused on immigration and community policing. When one church asked their community to take the pledge via phone during a church service, immigrants in the community wept to see their neighbors reach for their phones to commit love and support.

How can people get involved in the Matthew 25 movement aside from the pledge? The group has an educational task force that does trainings and seminars in churches, in parallel with groups like the Evangelical Immigration Table who have been working on these issues for years. The advocacy task force works with legislatures. The deportation defense and protection group works with lawyers and churches to help families plan for what to do if they get deported and access the resources they need when it happens. The Matthew 25 movement also matches immigrant and non-immigrant churches to come together in support of specific families that need protection. Even among churches that aren't open to operating as sanctuary churches, they may be willing to offer other kinds of direct support to families, with the guidance of latino-led churches.

To illustrate the need for deportation defense, Robert and his wife Erica Shepler Romero tell us about the story of pastor Noe Nolberto Carias Mayorga, a south LA pastor who came to the US from Guatemala while a teenager. He's now being detained by ICE, while his family (who are US citizens) and his church pray that he won't be deported. The Matthew 25 movement is working to support pastor Noe.


A Japanese-American professor whose family was part of the internment during the second world war asks is there are statistics about the racially-targeted nature of enforcement of immigration laws, much as it was racially motivated in WWII.

Robert answers that the United States has many white Canadian and European undocumented people, and that much of the enforcement of immigration laws is racially disparate. He points to the recent conviction of ex-sheriff Arpaio, who violated a court order requiring him to stop racial profiling.

Another person asks if conservatives and republican Christians are joining the Matthew 25 movement. Robert responds that Pastor Noe's case is starting to get wide attention. High ranking conservatives have started to stand up for him. People with personal relationships to high ranking Republicans and to president Trump have sent letters.

Categories: Blog

Lessons from Galileo on Science and Religion: Eric Salobir and Maria Zuber at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 1:13pm

Today at the MIT Media Lab's Defiance conference, Jonathan Zittrain facilitated a conversation about the story of Galileo and what it means for our understanding of research and activism that violates deeply-held boundaries. Joining the conversation were Father Eric Salobir and Professor Maria Zuber.

A lawyer, a priest and a planetary scientist walk into a room... #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/k1l5ZLtmUc

— Saul Tannenbaum (@stannenb) July 21, 2017

Father Eric Salobir is a Roman Catholic priest and a member of the Order of Preachers (known as Dominicans). As part of the General curia (government) of this religious order, he is in charge of media and technology. He is also the founder of the OPTIC network aimed to promote researches and innovation in the field of digital humanities.

Maria T. Zuber is Vice President for Research and E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics at MIT, where she has responsibility for research administration and policy, overseeing MIT Lincoln Laboratory and over 60 research laboratories and centers at the Institute.

Jonathan opens up by asking Father Eric how he started on a career as a person of faith, especially after a career as a banker. Eric responds, "while I was a banker, I found myself loving my work to bring people joy and hope and engage around ideas. Over time, I realized I wanted to do this all the time. I discovered the dominicans." Joining an order is like entering a bath time and time again. I met with many people inside and outside the church. I learned that one of the big problems in our time is a lack of hope. When you have two dominicans, you have three opinions: you don't have to enter a box or deny anything of who you are, he says. Jonathan asks: is there a moment when you have to take an oath? Father Eric responds that the Dominicans have an oath: a vow of obedience to God. After you make that decision, Dominicans have to follow the decision they made on their own.

Jonathan asks Maria Zuber: "you're a planetary scientist studying plate tectonics. Was there a moment when you felt: that's my calling?" No, says Maria; it was genetically-encoded in me to become a scientist. There are stories in my family about me in my playpen, rockets taking off, and me pointing at the rockets. Maria started reading science textbooks in elementary school. She always wanted to do astronomical research and has never deviated from the plan.

Jonathan asks about the story of Galileo. When most people hear about him and his work, what's the canonical story and the real one? Maria responds that Galileo was convicted of heresy for his support of the Copernican system, our understanding of the solar system where the sun is at the center. This system replaced the Ptolemaic system, which put the earth at the center. It is true that Galileo was accused of heresy by the Catholics. But Galileo didn't help himself, she says. The church was open to the idea of Galileo exploring the Copernican idea. He took observations that showed things like the moons of Jupiter, showing that things went around other things than the Earth. The church was open to him publishing material that treated the idea as a theory, but he wanted it viewed as fact, and there were still things that were unexplained. Was the church more scientific about this than Galileo, asks Jonathan? Maria notes that Galileo went after passages in the Bible that were consistent with the Earth being fixed and claimed that it was incorrect, despite their being multiple possible interpretations. It wasn't what Galileo said, says Maria, but rather how he said it.

In the latter part of his life, Galileo moved away from collecting data and dedicated himself to seeing that it be adopted. Perhaps if he had continued to collect data, things might have gone in another way, says Maria. Jonathan next asks Father Eric what the story of Galileo is within the Dominican order. Father Eric thinks there was an epistemological over-reach on both sides. Galileo wanted to think about the consequences of his theory for theology, but the theologians did the same. They were not able to be challenged and should have faced the evidence, says Father Eric. In the time of Galileo, people saw science as unifying–so changes in one area were seen as threats to others. In-between the scripture and the science is the interpretation of the scripture. In John Paul II's statement on Galileo, he argued that the theologians were unable to reconsider their understandings, and they preferred to shut out Galileo.

In 1979 John Paul II wrote of Galileo that, he "had to suffer a great deal... I hope that theologians, scholars and historians, animated by a spirit of sincere collaboration, will study the Galileo case more deeply and, in frank recognition of wrongs from whatever side they come, dispel the mistrust that still opposes, in many minds, a fruitful concord between science and faith." Why 1979, asks Jonathan. Maria points out that as early as the mid-1700s, pope Benedict allowed the publication of Galileo's book. It had been on the banned list, and then it was given approval; people in the church thought the matter was settled then. But that wasn't universally understood within the church or outside it.

What lessons might we draw from this history? asks Jonathan. Maria says that religion can help provide order to people who would otherwise fear their world. Science wasn't seen as a full understanding of nature; it was viewed as a way of explaining the observations we saw. People were afraid of eclipses, but the Ptolemaic system could still predict eclipses, which people feared. We should always be open to data, and if it causes us to change our idea, we should change it. But we also have to think about the pace of change. Even within science, change can occur in a way that's so quick that other scientists don't accept it.

Father Eric points out that at Galileo's time, the organization of all society was linked with religion. Galileo's work shook the whole societal system in ways that people weren't ready to face.

Jonathan notes that there had been a blurring between science and society at the time. Is it actually possible for people to de-conflict by keeping different conversations between science and religion. Father Eric says it's important for people from the humanities including theology and philosophy to ask questions that scientists might not always be able to ask.

Jonathan asks, if you're being spiritual, it's a set of values that you're reflecting upon and making the case for them. Do you think science has values as well, or is it a view from nowhere? We recently had a March for Science, where Joi spoke. Jonathan recalls some nervousness from scientists that it makes it just another player among many rather than an over-arching framework? Father Eric thinks that technology has taken the leadership; people expect a certain kind of help from technology. It brings a new set of questions. Science is about discovering what already exists, he says. It puts you in a situation of seeing reality as bigger than you. If you are a creator of technology, you don't have the same mindset of humility. You can have the same superpower feeling. Jonathan asks: if there were a march for science next week, would you happily march and what would your sign say?

Science provides the knowledge that provides the framework for technology, says Maria. It tells us what we can do and it doesn't tell us if we should do it, and it doesn't tell us what the implications are. Jonathan asks Maria about her institutional role as VP of research for MIT, would you ever find yourself looking at a massive research project and saying to someone: you need to have a values analysis or person involved. Maria explains that at MIT, we like to think that we create and use technology to help the world. Our fundraising campaign is "the campaign for a better world." Yet we hear about the negative outcomes as well, from things like automation.

Jonathan asks: is there knowledge better left undiscovered? Maria would say that more knowledge is better than less; the challenge is to choose a prudent pathway in order to progress. Father Eric agrees; what matters is how something is implemented. Is the technology mature enough, and is society ready for it? Jonathan asks: could you see a scientist making the judgment: humanity isn't ready for this. "Why only the scientist?" asks Father Eric. Society needs to answer those questions together.

When the floor opened up for questions, I asked a question. I mentioned that it seemed odd for a conference celebrating defiance would include a panel advocating for sticking within one's lane, especially with a prize that celebrates scientists who went into politics, citizens who do science, and people who create great art and ideas despite substantial resistance. I asked if maybe the story of Galileo locks us into an individual versus collective understandings of defiance, and where we might find inspiration for being defiant in productive ways.

Maria talked about evangelical groups that support Christians to better understand climate change, groups like the Evangelical Environment Network and climate scientists like Katharine Hayhoe.

Father Eric describes a Dominican in Brazil who works for farmers around land rights. he says, "There is only one thing you cannot disobey: it's your conscience. If there's something you see as fair and right, even if it's dangerous: no worries, do it. Conscience doesn't mean that you will never move. It's not like a compass: if you're in a boat, when the boat moves, the compass moves. Instead, it's like GPS, many sources combine to tell you where you are."

Jonathan responds, perhaps we have the Galilean model of the individual encircled by opposing forces, and the Pope's recent encyclical on climate change, which is an institution using their power to challenge and overturn assumptions as well.

Categories: Blog

Escaping The Conspiracy Trap: Masha Gessen at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 10:48am

Conspiracy thinking can take over our understanding of the world and immobilize our ability to create a better future. How does that work, and what can we do about it?

Conspiracies are perfect for simple thinking, because a conspiracy by definition explains everything — @mashagessen #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/Io3rnf86OO

— MIT Media Lab (@medialab) July 21, 2017

Here at the Defiance Conference, we're joined by journalist and author Masha Gessen. As a journalist living in Moscow, Gessen experienced the rise of Vladimir Putin firsthand. In her 2012 bestselling book The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, she gave the chilling account of how a low-level KGB operative ascended to the Russian presidency. Her upcoming book looks at how totalitarianism reclaimed Russia.

Conspiracy thinking contaminates life under certain kinds of regime, says Gessen. She starts with "an unfunny joke" from a 1940s diary of an academic who kept a journal of the Hitler years: "Hitler has run into Moses. Hitler says to Moses, tell me the truth: you set the bush on fire yourself, didn't you?" The joke illuminates, says Gessen, partly because it refers to the Reichstag fire, which many people believed was started by the Nazi party to justify their following actions. Conspiracy thinking is also infectious. In this story, Hitler believes in conspiracies, people believe conspiracies about Hitler, and Hitler thinks that Moses is behind a conspiracy too.

Conspiracies form around the promise of simplicity. Authoritarians get elected by couching their promises in an imaginary past, drawing from traditional values. Conspiracies also work this way, presenting something that already happened as something that is going to happen. She describes 9/11 truthers, pizzagate, and birthers. Russiagate is also a conspiracy: it explains how we got here and how we're going to solve the problem: Russia got Trump elected, it is claimed, and when we prove it, we'll be able to get rid of him.

But the possible existence of conspiracy is not an excuse for conspiracy-thinking, says Gessen. When we cling to this idea that there's one thing that explains everything, we do grave damage to our own ability to think, our politics, and our ability to act.

Why is conspiracy thinking so terrible? It prevents us from looking at the complexity of a given situation. Sometimes things are just a mess. If you read yesterday's New York Times interview with the president, says Gessen: here's a man who can't grasp the meaning of health insurance, federal employment, parades, handshakes, dinners. But somehow, people still believe that he can grasp the meaning and import of a conspiracy: for example that he can keep a secret for many months. What's wrong with thinking that the president can do this? It's not reality, says Gessen.

Becoming divorced from reality is a very dangerous thing in life, action, and politics, says Gessen. A focus on the Russian conspiracy theory interferes with our grasp on reality. The Russian part of the story is a different kind of mess. In the popular imagination, the Russian government is governed with an iron fist of one man who controls armies of trolls, spies, etc.. Yet we know that the DNC was hacked by two independent groups that weren't aware of each other. That's not an accident; it's the kind of mess that the Russian state is in. The inroad to the Trump campaign was made by a low-level lawyer who was trying to advance the interests of her clients, says Gessen. She was probably in no position to dangle her offers. She was partly a con artist trying to con Don Jr. into taking that meeting, and she was successful. She may likely have been in competition with other Russians who also stood to benefit greatly by establishing relations with the Trump campaign.

Even if we accept the theory that the Russian government played a substantial role in the election, says Gessen, American voters are still the people who elected Trump. Some have argued that we need to take a closer look at the fabric of American society after the election, many people have focused instead on the Russia story, says Gessen. Newspapers don't have infinite resources, and their focus on Russia draws attention away from other things. For example, journalists haven't been asking many questions about US foreign policy toward Russia. Instead, they're asking about Russiagate. Similarly, argues Gessen, focus on Russiagate has reduced journalists' focus on the impact of the election on the state of US democratic institutions.

Conspiracies obscure the future. When we focus on conspiracies, we think about what happened. Conspiracy-thinking anchors our hopes about how discovery of the conspiracy will magically lead to change, rather than the things that create real change. The only way to counter a message of the imaginary past is to imagine a glorious future. People who resist authoritarian power often say that things were great before the authoritarian rose to power, and that we need to go back to how things were. Of course the resistance needs to focus on what to salvage, but someone needs to think about the future says Gessen. One of the reasons a complex world becomes so frightening is that people can no longer imagine the future. Citing Erich Fromm's Escape From Freedom, Gessen talks about how rootless people become when they can no longer imagine their future.

To defy conspiracy thinking, we need to engage with reality, says Gessen. Accept new information as something that exists in context, and just what you're learning today. Conspiracies pull us into our online universe of ever-spiraling conspiracy theorizing.

Categories: Blog

Biohacking and the FBI: Ed You at the Defiance Conference

July 21, 2017 - 9:00am

How is the FBI thinking about its relationship with bio hacking communities as they attempt to support innovation while also limit the risks from DIY biotech?

"After 9/11 we had to defy our inheritance." -- Ed You, special agent at FBI. #DefianceML pic.twitter.com/RilUhErvaY

— Pinar Yanardag (@PINguAR) July 21, 2017

Here at the Defiance Conference, we're joined by Ed You, a supervisory special agent in the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, Biological Countermeasures Unit. You is responsible for creating programs and activities to coordinate and improve FBI and interagency efforts to identify, assess, and respond to biological threats or incidents.

Investigations are inherently reactive, says Ed. After September 11th, the FBI decided to rethink their mission to focus on prevention. Ed is a molecular biologist by training, and now that the FBI has focused on prevention, they're hiring more people like him. Next, he talks about "WMD Coordinators," people like special agent Josh Cantor who work in the FBI's field offices on biological weapons. They work to establish partnerships with hospitals, researchers, and others who understand the risks before something happens.

The 21st century will be the century of the life sciences, says Ed. As we look for the promise of bio in our lives, we also need to think about the security implications. Ed talks about recent research about genetically modifying animal viruses to spread to humans. After this result came out, scientists put a temporary 60 day moratorium on this kind of research. Ed shows us conspiracy websites that raise fears about government funded work on biological weapons. He argues that

As synthetic biology becomes more widespread, it's possible to send information on DNA to synthetic bio companies and get a vial of smallpox or some other flu in the mail; a Guardian reporter actually did this in 2006. Since the report came out, the US has introduced regulations to carefully screen who makes these requests and what they ask for.

Yet it's also important to keep biological research open to the public if we're to gain the benefits of bio research in the 21st century, Ed tells us. Recent projects have made it possible to do CRISPR gene editing in the home. These are going to be genuine engines of innovation, just like the homebrew computer clubs that started in garages. At the same time, says Ed, governments are worried about genetically-engineered bio weapons and have cracked down on communities of innovation.

"How do you spur innovation while addressing innovation?" Ed asks. If you crack down on innovation, you could drive people underground and constrain important public benefits. Ed says that the FBI is trying to find ways to protect innovation. "Putting up walls is not the answer," says Ed, who encourages the FBI and biohacking communities to join up. "Be guardians of science," Ed encourages biohackers, inviting them to think about how best to protect public safety and mentor others to be responsible. Toward that end, the FBI became a sponsor of iGem, an international competition for bio hackers. Ed asks us to look at pictures of young people from China and other countries who participated in iGem. In the future, says Ed, these are people who will become leading citizens of science, and perhaps across the table in negotiations with the US. The FBI has also held meetups with DIY biohacking communities.

DIY bio is a good thing, says Ed. We need more of it, and we need to protect it, something that was emphasized in the 2009- 2017 US report on the study of bioethical issues. He argues that the FBI model can be an example for how other governments engage with creative communities. It pushes people's comfort levels, and it can lead to public benefits says Ed: some biologists have now been applying to join the FBI: "What better act of defiance than that?"

Categories: Blog

Hiring a Media Cloud Contract Software Engineer

June 22, 2017 - 7:08am

Online media is in a state of flux. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, so-called fake news - these are all recent developments that have radically altered the landscape of news and information online.  We call this the "networked public sphere", and the Media Cloud project was created to track and understand it.  Come help us build data-centric tools for academic internet researchers and human rights activists that let them investigate coverage and conversations online about topics they care about.

The Media Cloud project is seeking a contract software engineer to help us build tools that facilitate research about the role of online media in civic discourse.  We are an open source project producing research about the networked public sphere, and helping others do their own research about online media.  We make available to the public our existing archive of more than 550 million stories, adding more than 40,000 new stories daily.


The contract software engineer will work on our server architecture, which collects, processes, and makes these stories available via an API.  They will work under senior engineers to plan, design, build, maintain, and run all levels of the project's platform. This includes back-end tools that collect and archive the data, researcher tools that enable analysis of that data, and occasional contributions to front end tools that expose the data and analysis to the public. Buzzwords - big data, quantitative text analysis, machine learning, etc.


Media Cloud is a joint project between the Center for Civic Media at MIT and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. The position will be a 6-month contract position based at the Center for Civic Media (at the MIT Media Lab), but the engineer will work closely with members of the team from both centers.  The project is funded by human rights foundations. We produce both the open platform and research that helps our funders make decisions about how best to influence online civic conversations about democracy, activism, and health. This is a grant-funded contract position that we hope to extend, or turn into a staff position.


We are a diverse project of researchers and technologists who love to wrestle with hard questions about online media by using a combination of social, computer, and data sciences.  The ideal candidate will work well with all members of the team, from senior faculty to junior developers, and will thrive in an academic atmosphere that privileges constant questioning and validation at all levels of the platform and of our research products.  Experience building text-based big data systems, or working as a data scientist, is helpful, as is experience working on projects investigating online media.


Minimum Qualifications:
  • B.A. degree, preferably in computer science or data science related field;
  • at least two years experience working as a software engineer;
  • programming fluency – Python required, Perl and Javascript are helpful;
  • demonstrated ability to design, build, test, and deploy robust code;
  • demonstrated ability to iterate quickly through prototypes;
  • demonstrated ability to use data to validate architectural decisions using data.
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.
Helpful Skills:
  • passion for solving difficult engineering and data problems;
  • experience writing, maintaining, and optimizing SQL queries against large databases;
  • experience implementing and maintaining a production ETL pipeline;
  • experience scaling platforms to handle large data sets;
  • experience writing web crawlers;
  • experience working with PostgreSQL and Solr / Lucene in Ubuntu environments;
  • knowledge and interest in social sciences;
  • work with senior engineers to establish technical vision for project;
  • contribute to, and follow, a technical roadmap to meet research needs and complete grant deliverables;
  • collaborate with other developers, designers, and system administrators in implementing technical roadmap;
  • communicate project status internally and externally to our community of users;
  • maintain, upgrade, and build systems within large, existing codebase to collect, archive, and analyze content from online media;
  • writing code to scale systems to handle ever expanding data requirements.

Much of our substantive work focuses on issues of gender, race, and globalization.  We strongly encourage women, people of color, and people of any sexual identity to apply.


The job is based in Cambridge, MA, but much of our team is distributed around the world.  We are open to alternative working arrangements that include part time residence in Cambridge.


Apply by sending a cover letter, resume, and link to your GitHub profile to jobs@mediacloud.org




Categories: Blog

Civic Media Co-Design Studio 2017: By Any Media Necessary

June 19, 2017 - 8:52am

This semester, the Civic Media Collaborative Design Studio was focused on youth media and gentrification. For this version of the course, we wanted to develop media projects that respond to the current political, cultural, economic, and environmental crisis with youth-led visions of a more just and creative future. We partnered with ZUMIX and The Urbano Project, two youth arts and media organizations in the Boston area, and NuVu Studio, an innovation school for middle and high school students in Cambridge. 

Co-Design Studio students, ages 11 to 26, gathered weekly at the Center for Civic Media to work on media projects to challenge narratives from a youth perspective, while discussing topics central to design justice, gentrification and transformative media organizing. The Studio made visits to NuVu, The Urbano Project, ZUMIX and other sites, and had visits from Evan Henshaw-Plath, Lawrence Barriner II from MIT CoLab, Marisa Jahn from StudioREV, Jose Gomez-Marquez from the MIT Little Devices Lab, Jorge Caraballo Cordovez from East Boston Nuestra Casa, and Mike Leyba and Homefries from Fair Economy and City Life/Vida Urbana. You can see the class syllabus here.

These are the resulting projects:

Open Book/Libro Abierto - atelier/co


Open Book/Libro Abierto is designed to be a versatile platform for community members to share their stories. The print medium allows users to interact with the book in a tactile way, physically making their mark on the story of their community. The book presents handwritten and printed words along with photos of community members, and offers viewers access to audio interviews via QR links. Our goal is to create a hackable book that invites viewers to share their stories and start conversations, responding in whatever medium they choose. The book will be exhibited in Urbano’s Nomadic Sculpture, where visitors will be able to read the stories and respond by writing directly in the book. We hope to foster productive and honest conversations about what displacement and community mean to the people of Egleston Square, both physically written in the book as well as verbally during and after the exhibition.

Here are the links to Open Book/Libro Abierto's projectfinal presentation slides, and to the case study.


East Boston Voices - Peas in a Podcast

"East Boston Voices" is a podcast special centered around events of gentrification and displacement in East Boston. The mission of Peas in a Podcast is to unveil the hidden stories of the neighborhood to the greater Boston community, hopefully instigating change among East Boston’s residents. Each member of the group interviewed someone in the community who’s dealing with the effects of gentrification and displacement directly, compiling their stories and presenting their contents to the audience with added data and thought-provoking questions.

Here are the links to Peas in a Podcast's episodesfinal presentation slides, and to the case study.


Displacement of residents is a growing problem in many communities in the Boston area. However, this crisis in the making remains mostly unknown, partially owing to the fact that those impacted are often low-income immigrants whose primary language is one other than English. To counter both the lack of attention as well as the anti-immigrant sentiment that buoys displacement, Homesticker proposes an interactive mobile installation that allows residents of neighborhoods to label locations that they consider to be their homes, giving a face to the victims of displacement and also demonstrating the problem’s magnitude.

Here are the links to to Homesticker's final presentation slides, and to the case study.



Rainbow is a public installation that tells the stories of about Cambridge residents and their history with the area. The goal of the project to highlight important issues mainly gentrification in and around Central Square. Using audio recordings and photography, this installation will help the voices of people who live in the area to be heard and shed light on how universities and businesses are changing Central Square and making the low-income life increasingly difficult.

Here are the links to Rainbow's final presentation slides, and to the case study.

Categories: Blog

Kathy Cramer on The Politics of Resentment: What I Learned from Listening

May 31, 2017 - 9:12am

On May 30, 2017, Kathy J. Cramer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and author of The Politics of Resentment,  spoke at the MIT Media Lab. This is a summary of that talk; any errors are mine. Research Question Cramer notes that the question on many scholars and citizens minds right now is "Why do people vote against their interests?" Most are implicitly asking, "Why are people getting it wrong?” But she believes that the better question to ask is "How are people understanding their world?"   The motivating question in the research Cramer has done that culminated in her 2016 book is "How does social class identity matter for the way people understand their world?” She tries to listen to people talk in the places where they live and spend their time. This gives her a chance to understand their social identity. So she invites herself into conversations with people who vary across socio-demographic characteristics.  Methods When she started in 2007, she chose to study a couple dozen communities in Wisconsin that would represent a diverse sample. Before she set out to visit a place, she would contact the local newspaper and the University of Wisconsin extension office nearby to learn where to find groups people who meet up regularly that she might chat with. She found herself in diners, churches, gas stations, and other local haunts.    Cramer had a semi-structured interview protocol to follow but tried to let the conversations go where they would. In the first year of research, she would return to the groups up to three times over the following year, and then at least once a year going forward until the study ended in 2012. When her book came out in 2016 and after the election, she followed up with the groups, sharing her book and findings and asking them about their current opinions. 

Rural Consciousness In the smaller communities, Cramer hears an unexpectedly intense resentment toward the big cities. There is a clear sense of Madison and Milwaukee (the state’s biggest cities and capital) versus the “outstate." The mental map for rural folks is that power emanates from Madison, and not the reverse. They feel they aren’t getting their fair share of power and resources and respect. Small town Wisconsinites feel deeply disrespected by urban dwellers.    Rural consciousness is identifying as a rural person, regardless of where you are from or end up, and a strong perception of distributive injustice that disfavors you and your identity. Cramer notes that this is a complex identity ripe for mobilization. It comprises resentment toward:
  • cities and city people, 
  • elites (government, financial, cultural), 
  • people of color, and
  • partisan polarization.
When you tap into one part of the resentment, it can activate the other parts, which makes rural consciousness a fertile ground for populism. Cramer defines populism here as essentially, "people are good and government is bad."   Rural folks explain, "Our hard-earned taxpayer dollars are going to people who don not deserve them." They thoroughly believe that others don’t work as hard as they do. And by hard work they mean, "when you have to shower after work, not before it.” And when Cramer followed up with the groups after the book came out, they agreed that they were resentful. There is also a sense of loss. That these people's communities and their standard of living have been taken away—that their status is threatened.    Despite high levels of government employment throughout the state by local, state, and federal authorities, there is a belief that government is urban and distant. Even if workers are local, the decisions they follow are from the city to the rural area. They believe the government is not really working for them.    In 2010, Scott Walker ran for governor of Wisconsin. He tapped into rural resentment by saying those folks were right. He proposed Act 10, which undermined state worker unions, arguing that private workers deserve to benefit more. There was a schism among voters: 50% of the state was for it and 50% against. The other big issue he campaigned on was a proposal for high-speed rail between the main cities of Milwaukee and Madison, which was badly needed. However, Walker argued this didn’t benefit real Wisconsinites, saying it wouldn’t help any of those with poor roads in the north of the state.    Cramer is still reflecting on how Donald Trump’s campaign activated rural consciousness. In contrast to Scott Walker’s assault on public employees, Donald Trump pointed to immigrants, Muslims, and women as undeserving groups. And he made strong claims about policies that would alleviate resentful voters’ problems.    Importantly, when she ask these rural folks what they hope will change with the new administration, they say they don’t expect anything to change. They set a very low bar. And it’s clear to her, that their criteria for Trump’s success is not anything like liberals criteria. They don’t believe he is going to solve their problems, which complicates attempts at bipartisan discourse.   Public Opinion Often during elections, we are interested in how people are going to vote. Generally speaking, this refers to people’s preferences. However, Cramer argues that their perspectives are also important. The lenses they put on the world matter so much, and public opinion polls don’t capture them well. Perspectives can help you understand why people make the preferences they make. When you hear people’s conversations, see where they live, and notice how they think about their options and choices, it makes it more understandable.   Cramer asks, "Where does public opinion occur?" Is what someone says to a pollster the same as what they would say in private? What expression is more real: pollster response or what they say to their group of pals in the morning. These are different expressions of public opinion. It’s worth our while to consider where else public opinion is expressed and the venues that aren’t reliant on polls.   So what does understanding public opinion look like? Cramer's book is not about causality, it’s descriptive of how the people she talked to think about their political lives. That said, she admits that it has been helpful to put the 2016 election in context. Generally, you want to understand what X set of attitudes predicts Y vote. But she notes that maybe it’s about how Z lens makes X relevant to Y vote.   Building Bridges Cramer isn’t sure exactly what will work to address this problem of resentment in rural consciousness. She believes that it’s important to have authentic conversations like she did during her research. And any solutions will require that rural folks enjoy a sense of agency and respect in the process. The case of the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin is illustrative. Those state employees live in the community and work alongside locals trying to make a positive connection, and yet they are widely despised—their work seen as regulating how average people carry out their jobs or even spend their leisure times. Rural folks feel like the department is in their face all the time.   Since the book came out, Cramer has received emails from people across the country trying to build bridges, with some creative approaches emerging. One person wrote that she is driving classic cars across the country, since they tend to invite interesting conversations with more conservative residents. 
Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Inconsistent Information Access Across Alabama Public Schools and Libraries

May 25, 2017 - 1:45pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

Today, most of the panels are smaller, discussion-oriented breakouts, so I'm not liveblogging them like I did yesterday. But I do want to take a moment to provide some notes the research I presented today, which extends work I performed while a graduate student at Civic.

In brief: I'm presenting results from some of the work on Mapping Information Access that I've done with my collaborators Emily Knox at UIUC and Shannon Oltmann at UK. In 2014, our friend Shawn Musgrave helped us use MuckRock to issue FOI requests to every public school system and library district in Alabama seeking records of book challenges and Internet filtering configurations. This project has already yielded one peer-reviewed publication on using open records laws for research purposes and we are currently preparing more articles for publication.

My presentation at PPDD17 has to do with a subset of this project that compares Internet filtering configurations across schools and libraries to illustrate commonalities and discontinuities across implementations. Our unique, rich dataset of documents help us see, with startling specificity, the anticipation and articulation work (to borrow terms from the tradition of Leigh Star's infrastructural studies) performed by filtering systems and the people who use them. We demonstrate that, despite nominal compliance with a standard regulation (CIPA), filtering implementations varied widely and wildly between institutions, and introduced significant inconsistencies into the stream of information access through public institutions (with potentially troubling political consequences).

If you're interested in the documents and arguments from this talk, the slides for it can be downloaded in PDF form here. If you have more questions, just drop me a line or hit me on Twitter @peteyreplies. And if/when our findings are published as a paper, I'll make sure to update this blog entry (or create a new one) to share it.

Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Exploring Life in the Digital Age and Pervasive Technology.

May 24, 2017 - 5:33pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

I'm attending the breakout panel entitled Exploring Life in the Digital Age and Pervasive Technology.

Andrew begins by introducing his fellow panelists and then his own topic of embodied technologies. He opens with a quote from Marc Weiser, Chief Scientist at Xerox PARC, who observed that "the most profound technologies are those that disappear." At his postdoc, Andrew has been working to construct a database of wearables called FABRIC, a database containing media about emerging embodied technology platforms and their applications that uses a customized metadata scheme to catalog the discourse regarding technologies in popular media, intellectual property, etc, so that it's possible to track their development over time. He reviews some of the specific elements of the system, technologies they have tracked, and partners they've worked with to help gather this information.

Will follows with a talk, on behalf of several collaborators, about an exploratory study of reddit users and their health seeking behavior. The goal of this project was to better understand the intersection of social media and personal health, and how users of the former use it to learn about the latter. They developed 4 hypotheses about information seeking behavior and credibility that they tested with SDSU students and users of r/SampleSize. They found their hypotheses were supported and that there was a feedback loop between how often people sought information, the perceived quality of the information they found, and how much more information they sought after. In future work, they hope to perform a content analysis of what reddit users are searching for, and what they are applying to their daily lives.

Liana follows with a talk about tech, mobility, and ubiquity. She argues that ubiquitous computing has historically focused upon technologies, but it really needs to focus on people, or more specifically the people-technology network, and quotes Bruno Latour to make the point (bless my poor dork heart). She shares survey data from Brazil about which media people use and for what reasons; "ubiquitous computing," in Brazil, doesn't mean omnipresent/omnipotent home sentries like Alexa, but mobile phones armed with assistant apps like Waze, which provides the corpus for her study. Liana argues that, at least in contexts like Brazil, small amounts of data linked over large numbers of devices provide a more realistic hope for ubiquitous computing than more centralized models.

Heloisa, who is also from Brazil, is presenting not the results of a study but a position paper proposing a future study. She identifies prior media forms like the book as having been shaped by patrimonialist political cultures and institutions built around and by the state. Heloisa argues that the main question for Brazilian digital inclusion is not so much about access or literacy but the complex relationship between the longstanding 'book culture' and 'Internet culture,' the former built around the state and its institutions, the latter around globalist and democratic aspirations. She proposes, on behalf of her and her coauthor, two studies of these separate cultures in order to compare their present and futures, independently and interwtwined, in and for the Brazilian context.

Civic media
Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Information and Communication Technologies and Social Justice, Media Justice, and Ethics

May 24, 2017 - 4:10pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

I'm attending the breakout panel entitled Information and Communication Technologies and Social Justice, Media Justice, and Ethics.

  • Chair: Lousia Ha, Bowling Green State University
  • Darrian Carroll, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
  • Izabela Korbiel, Institut fuer Publizistik- und Kommunikationswisssenschaft, Uni Wien
  • Neha Kumar, Georgia Institute of Technology

Darrian begins by introducing himself as a master's candidate at UNLV who will be talking about #Palestine2Ferguson. He argues that this hashtag uses a "rhetoric of embodiment" that expresses empowerment "across the digital divide." He defines, for this presentation, the digital divide as a term that describes the (lack of) interconnectedness between people.

The #Palestine2Ferguson hashtag was created to produce solidarity in/by communication between individuals in Ferguson and in Palestine who saw certain parallels in their experience of oppression. This conversation sometimes saw people describing themselves as part of "one fight, or "one love." Darrian describes the "rhetoric of embodiment" as being constituitive of this "one", in (as I understand) a sort of e pluribus unum produced by Twitter conversation. He connects this to the rhetorical concept of enthymematic reasoning, whereby the audience is persuaded to arrive at conclusions produced by the negative space of what is not said, and reviews example tweets that perform this kind of rhetoric.

Darrian takes the concept of the public screen from DeLuca and Peeples and translates it into the "public touchscreen." He argues that certain activist conversations are both inventional/intentional in how they simultaneously imagine and speak to new audiences.

Izabela follows with a talk about human rights as an ethical framework for technology developers. She begins by describing two positions in thre academic debate about human rights and ICTs: whether particular (and which) social values should be followed when designing protocols, and whether protocols should seek to enforce certain values. While many governments have made statements about the liberating potential of ICTs, in practice many governments try to restrict, restrain, or control ICTs. Meanwhile, human rights advocates face challenges in technical feasibility, the legitimacy of non-state actors (e.g. the IETF), and the contested character of human rights.

Izabela identifies the UDHR as the most relevant ethical and legal framework for human rights on/around the Internet, but translating those values to the Internet remains a political and technological challenge. Even when engineers and developers in Izabela's research are sensitive to e.g. privacy concerns, they tend to see it as a problem of trust in a given network, as opposed to a universal human rights concern. However, Izabela argues that a framework like the UDHR is the most powerful example we have of a general framework for responsibility that should guide how we build and regulate the Internet.

Neha, who was on the plenary panel at lunch about global ICT development, is now here to give a presentation called "Imagining Feminist Futures and the Case of the Panic Button." It's drawing on her work at TaNDem on panic buttons in New Dehli. Neha references urban planning critiques of the city as places that were primary designed for men and their work and not for the mobility of a new generation of women. The purpose of this project is to investigate how smart cities can also be made safe cities for women, and what literacies // initiatives // technologies are required to achieve that.

In 2016, after a brutal gang-rape of a middle class woman in an area widely considered safe, the Indian government mandated that smartphones include a "panic button" that summons emergency services. Neha and her students conducted interviews and fieldwork with women in New Delhi to better understand how early deployments of this product are being used and where the problems existed. In doing this research, they followed feminist HCI principles to guide their fieldwork. Neha then reviewed core findings and themes that emerged from their qualitative fieldwork with women riding public transit systems and other public spaces in New Delhi. She also shared alternative practices that have emerged in New Delhi, e.g. taking a picture of the taxi and driver and sending that to a family member to help deter harassment.

Through this fieldwork Neha and her team concluded that the panic button // phone solution was not well-aligned to the problem as focused through design and local values. It's not well-integrated with the technical infrastructure, preexisting problems with police, tensions with parents about mobility, and so on. Instead of a single button with single function, Neha advocates for a solution that provides for multiple uses that are well-aligned with local customs and expectations, as well as increased accountability for state organs and investments in necessary infrastructure. Only with an integrated (and feminist) approach will a successor system to the panic button actually succeed.

Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #PPDD17: Global Perspectives on Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research

May 24, 2017 - 2:27pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

Our next panel is titled Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research: Global Perspectives. Our panelists are:

  • Chair: Karen Mossberger, Arizona State University
  • Neha Kumar, Assistant Professor, School of International Affairs and School of Interactive Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Andrea Kavanaugh, Senior Research Scientist and Associate Director,
    Center for Human Computer Interaction and Courtesy Appointment: Computer Science Department, Virginia Tech
  • Hernan Galperin, Research Associate Professor, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California
  • Blanca Gordo, International Computer Science Institute

Neha Kumar shares her backstory as a software developer to someone with a PhD in ICT and a focus on development, particularly among marginal peoples in India. She places a particular focus on dispelling myths and uses ethnographic approaches to help do this and to craft new narratives that center users as opposed to imposing narratives of how people should use technologies.

Today, Neha reviews her ethnographic work among Indian youth as they use Facebook. She shares stories and interviews from her participants about the uses and gratifications Facebook brought them, and if/how participants learned "from their environment," meaning both the technical and social milieu in which they found themselves immersed.

At Georgia Tech, and with other collaborators, Neha is running a project called TanDEm, a feminist HCI project that studies "how empowerment translates across geographic, disciplinary, and socioeconomic boundaries, [as well as] designing so that individuals from underserved and under-represented communities are able to act, engage, and participate." She leaves us with the 'big idea' of 'respect,' which she sees as a necessary condition for working (unoppressively) with and across subjects, countries, fields, and other boundaries.

Andrea Kavanaugh begins by saying she has worked for decades in ICT for development, not only in the 'developing world' of the global south but the 'developing world' of Appalachia and in community computing in rural Virginia. She traces the history of an 'electronic village' project from the early 1990s, in which Virginia Tech collaborated with federal offices and public libraries to help connect towns, to today, where some of her participants are illiterate but still have cell phones. "My fundamental argument is that people who cannot read or write are still learning basic computing skills on their cell phones, and that these skills can translate off their phones into other contexts." Andrea canvasses a series of projects that she's been a part of to help create common community spaces (both at libraries and outside of libraries) that can help facilitate this kind of capabilities-building.

Hernan Galperin says that, instead of talking about his own research, he wants to ask whether we can connect everyone, and if we want to. 20 years ago, the answer was unequivocally yes: this is a great technology, and everyone will use it if we can just get them access, and it will be a social equalizer. In retrospect, he says, this was simplistic. Part of these misunderstandings arose from the fact that the Internet was built on the telephone network, and so people assumed that, like the telephone network, connectivity was sufficient (and empowering). However, the general-purpose technology of the web was fundamentally different.

The fundamental question Hernan poses is: what does it meant to be digitally connected? The historic binary of the digital divide was inaccurate but also urgent because it is so clear. Meanwhile, various forms of nuance (ranges and kinds of access, or literacies) are more accurate and subtle but also are confusing from a policy perspective. In some cases, trends may point in opposite directions: simple connectivity may be increasing while inclusion/equity decreases. In order to make advances, Hernan argues, we need to "build a better knowledge condition" and refine concepts, metrics, and outcomes so that our research can be more accurate and more usable.

Blanca Gordo opens by stating her excitement at being surrounded by people who care about (in)equality in, with, and through technology. At the same time, she says that she's surprised we still have to debate such (in)equality, given the empirical record. She raises and reviews a set of questions about what conditions - politically, governmentally, economically, pedagogically, and technologically - are necessary and sufficient for achieving more equality. She advocates for the term "new entrants" as opposed to "late adopters" when referring to subaltern communities; "you can't be late to something that was never offered to you." Blanca argues that too many researchers and policymakers continue to ascribe the results of inequality to personal choices when they are in fact the product of what she calls "digital destitution." She concludes with a rousing call for a renewed focus on the structural factors that exclude and disempower disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Civic media
Categories: Blog

Liveblogging PPDD17: Introduction to the Current Status of the Digital Divide Around the World

May 24, 2017 - 12:14pm

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

PPDD 2017 kicks off with a welcome and introductory summary of digital divide issues around the world. Our panelists are:

  • Chair: Karen Mossberger, Arizona State University
  • Europe: Grant Blank, University of Oxford and Oxford Internet Institute
  • Africa: Bill Tucker, University of the Western Cape and Bridging Application and Network Gaps
  • Asia the Pacific, and the Middle East: Ellie Rennie, RMIT University
  • Canada: Anabel Quan-Haase, University of Western Ontario
  • United States: Rafi M. Goldberg, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Office of Policy Analysis and Development
  • Latin America and the Caribbean:Laura Robinson, Santa Clara University

Karen Mossberger welcomes attendees and thanks organizers. She frames PPDD as a gathering of people who care about digital inclusion and seek to empower individuals from all walks of life with the infrastructure of the digital age, and an opportunity for academics, practicioners, and policymakers to work together towards these ends. After recognizing our local sponsors, she turns it over to our panelists to talk about inititives in their regions of the world.

Grant Blank offers to canvass 30 countries in five minutes ("must like most American tours through Europe"). He outlines 'gradients' of Internet connectivity and access across Europe. The big divide he delineates is between urban and rural areas: the former being well-connected both with fiber and and wireless access, and the latter less connected, less wealthy, and less educated. One challenge in this area is that certain countries (e.g. the Scandinavian countries) have very good public data on connectivity, but other nations, particularly to Europe's south and east, do not have good public data on Internet connectivity, which makes it hard to study. However, the best available data suggest that in south/east Europe Internet adoption rates lag significantly, in some cases with only half of the population connected to the web. Grant links these lower rates to the economic challenges of these countries as both cause and consequence. Grant concludes by arguing that that the Internet has served to perpetuate and strengthen, rather than amelioerate, existing socioeconomic divides across Europe.

Bill Tucker, who was unable to attend, has submitted a video of his introduction, but it's hard to hear in the conference room. I'll see if I can get a copy of the video to embed in this post.

Ellie Rennie begins by discussing Australia's relatively high inclusion index, which (strangely, to me and I infer to her) does not include indigenous peoples, who are her primary research subjects. She describes a government-funded initiative to test whether free Internet, loaned devices, and culturally-appropriate advising could help more indigenous peoples participate in online education. The results of this initiative were very strong (i.e., many of the students completed certificates and/or further education), but complicated. For example, cultural norms around sharing meant that students would sometimes have their devices/data dominated by family members for entertainment purposes before they could complete educational requirements. Ellie describes online educational equity as a "monumental task" that will require not only more funding but more careful attention to the social webs in which students are embedded. She then summarizes cases of access in Malaysia and new initiatives by Dubai to become a blockchain-based city.

Anabel Quan-Haase begins by discussing some of the opportunities and challenges for Canada, which is the world's second largest country in terms of area but relatively small in terms of population, with a population disproprotionately distributed across the southern border with America. Canadian cities also have large migrant populations (half of Toronto's population was born outside of Canada). So Canada's challenges regarding the digital divide range across almost all possible aspects of the problem. She shares data from Canada that, like data in other regions, shows that age, gender, region, and income all predict Internet access and usage. One interesting phenomenon, however, is that immigration status doesn't: in fact, migrants use the Internet, particularly social media, as much or more than native-born Canadians. She concludes with a call for more grounded research in the actual needs and capabilities of (under)connected Canadians.

Rafi Goldberg begins by introducing the "mouthful" of the agency he works on and some of the data they capture. In 2015, 75% of Americans report having an Internet connection, and most have at least 2 devices. However, a "huge" digital divide remains, delineated, as in so many other cases, by education, income, and geography. The age gap is reducing, but this seems to be due to prior adopters becoming older, not older people becoming adopters. He concludes his short summary by identifying similarities and differences between what he's said about the USA and what others have said about the regions and what can be learned from there.

Laura Robinson begins by noting that, at PPDD17, many of the people in the room helped produce a volume of research on digital divide in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the time, they saw incredible variation across the regions of Central and South America, from 10% connectivity in Haiti to 61% in Chile. Latin America now represents 10% of the world's Internet connectivity, and slightly leads the global internet average for regional connectivity. She concludes by summarizing what we know and what we still need to learn.

Karen returns to the microphone to conclude our rapid tour around the world and tell us to go to lunch before the 1PM Plenary on Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research.

Civic media
Categories: Blog

Initial findings from Para | Citizen monitoring of school lunches

May 23, 2017 - 1:37pm

This month we’re excited to be sharing initial findings from the Phase II Promise Tracker case studies, developed over the past year with partners at the University of São Paulo’s Colaboratory for Development and Participation (Colab-USP).

With support from Humanitas360 Institute, Phase II of the the project was launched in spring 2016 with the goal of better understanding the ongoing use of Promise Tracker in the field. Over the course of 12 months, we worked with Colab-USP, the Social Observatory of Belém, Project SOL, the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) and the Ministry of Transparency, Supervision and the Comptroller General (CGU) to document citizen monitoring initiatives in three cities across the state of Pará, Brazil, where the tool was most actively being used.

In all three cities, monitoring campaigns focused on the quality of lunches served in public schools. Despite being one of the largest and most comprehensive in the world, Brazil’s National School Nutrition Program has been a source of challenges at all levels of implementation, and students in schools across the country have grappled with inadequate or missing lunches for years.

Across the three initiatives, school lunch was monitored in a total of 28 schools with over 26,000 enrolled students. Each case involved a unique set of actors and approach to advocating for improvements in the consistency and quality of what was served.

Included below are some of our initial observations gathered from three visits to Pará, focus groups, and 27 interviews with members of partner organizations, student participants, teachers, school directors, lunch preparation staff, and representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, CGU, the State Secretary of Education, and the School Council.

To read more about these cases and our findings, see the overview of our Phase II findings in English here and the full report in Portuguese here.

School Lunch Outcomes
Participants in several schools reported an improvement in the quality of food preparation and storage of ingredients as a result of monitoring campaigns. Interviewees shared that school leadership in some cases had become more attentive to deliveries and taken initiative to improve the hygiene and organization of stock rooms.

Greater Awareness of School Lunch as a RightStudents in all scenarios reported a better understanding of the PNAE legislation and the rights they had related to school nutrition. Many felt this awareness of lunch as a right contributed to less complacency and more willingness to mobilize around the issue.

Increased Curiosity and Engagement on Behalf of StudentsSome teachers and administrators noted that students involved in the campaigns demonstrated a desire to expand monitoring to explore additional challenges related to school lunches or other issues within the school community.

Citizen Monitoring as a Learning Tool
Experiences at UFPA in particular offered new perspectives on the value of Promise Tracker as a pedagogical tool to engage critically and creatively with new models for government oversight. For many students, the monitoring projects were the first time they had engaged in applied coursework outside of the classroom and they expressed excitement at being able to connect theoretical learning with real-world interactions with citizens. For the Ministry, the tool offered an accessible way to test at scale a concept that had been of interest previously but never implemented.

Power of Multi-stakeholder Partnerships for Monitoring
In Santarém and Belém, campaign organizers developed approaches to monitoring that involved active collaboration between civil society, government oversight agencies, and in the case of Belém, the academic community. Participants felt these partnerships were a powerful way to leverage skills, knowledge and networks in order to tackle complex shared challenges.

Value of Collaboration with Government Oversight Agencies
In all three cases, the Public Prosecutor’s Office or the Comptroller General played a key role as a recipient of information and advocate. Though government oversight agencies were not imagined as an implementation partner in the initial phase of the project, it has proved a mutually beneficial relationship for those involved.

Development and Consolidation of Partnerships
The development and implementation of campaigns appeared to provide an opportunity in all cases to build new partnerships or strengthen existing relationships. On the school level, interviewees reported feeling closer to other students, school lunch staff, teachers, principals, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the local executive branch as a result of campaigns. On the organizational level, initiatives provided an opportunity for actors who were previously acquainted to develop concrete projects together for the first time.

Technology as a Means to Facilitate Speed, Scale, and Visibility
Both campaign organizers and participants felt that as a technology platform, Promise Tracker allowed them to achieve greater scale, save time, and attract new participants and more media coverage. Students who had previously used Facebook to document the school lunch situation felt that Promise Tracker provided greater legitimacy and credibility to the information gathered. Actors in all roles noted the power of images in mobilizing the public around this issue and achieving a response.

We’ll be sharing these initial learnings alongside Phase II partners in a series of events in Brazil over the next 2 months that will convene actors from academia, civil society, government and tech sector in a broader dialogue around the role of technology in citizen monitoring and government oversight. Join the conversation in São Paulo on May 31st!

Downloads:  Promise Tracker Phase II Summary
Categories: Blog

Cyber Harassment in the Global South: Nighat Dad at the Berkman Klein Center

May 16, 2017 - 2:35pm

What kinds of online harassment do women in Pakistan face, and what can we learn from Pakistan for our efforts to protect people around the world?

(this liveblog was written with Mariel García M)

Last week at the Berkman Klein Center, we were privileged to hear from Nighat Dad, a lawyer and global leader on human rights and the internet. Nighat is the founder of Pakistan's Digital Rights Foundation, a research based advocacy NGO that focuses on the role of ICTs to support human rights, democratic processes, and digital governance. Last year, Nighat started Pakistan's first hotline for people experiencing online harassment.

Online harassment is a global issue, says Nighat. The Digital Rights Foundation has been working to advance digital rights in Pakistan, where religion plays an important role in everyone's lives, and where the culture has deep patriarchal norms. While these are global issues, some nuances in Pakistan make it more complex in that country.

In Pakistan, it's hard for women in conservative parts of the country to get online in the first place. In the conservative parts of Pakistan, women are hardly allowed to access social media or online spaces. According to society, conservative families and wider cultural norms do not consider internet access to be for women. So when women face online harassment, they can't talk about it, because they're often accessing the internet without the knowledge of male members of their families. They can't turn to their families when they get stalked, blackmailed, or face threats.

Despite the challenges that women face, many Pakistani women have found the courage to speak up. In 2016, Pakistan passed a Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in the name of protecting women against online blackmailing and harassment. This often happens in the global south, where the protection of citizens, especially women and daughters becomes the reason for developing massive powers to surveil, ban, and censor content. Sections of these laws in Pakistan do offer some legal remedies to people who face harassment online, even if the laws also introduce these massive powers.

Nighat tells us the story of a Qandeel Baloch, one of the first Pakistani women to reclaim their sexuality openly online. Using a pseudonym, she attracted a massive following of people, many of whom harassed her. Then a blogger found her legal identity and published articles about that identity. When television channels created shows about her and shamed her publicly, it was seen as a shame upon her small village. Her brother responded by killing her in the name of defending the family honor. The case is still being processed.

When many people in Pakistan agreed that this murder was justified, Pakistani feminist activists resisted this narrative. In the resulting conversation, many of those advocates were harassed and threatened as well, including Nighat. Last year, women who had been facing these issues pooled their knowledge and used a $5,000 grant from the Urgent Action Fund to start Pakistan's first anonymous helpline for online harassment. They now have a year of resources. When they started the helpline, the organizers thought they might get a dozen calls a week. Instead, they received 15-20 calls per day and now plan to run the helpline 7 days a week.

Although the helpline was developed initially to support women, over a third of the calls come from men. In a patriarchal society, it can also be shameful for men to admit the threats that they face, and the anonymous helpline is able to support them as well. In some cases, men will call on behalf of women they know.

What help does the helpline provide? The Digital Rights Foundation offers people information about legal remedies, helps them understand how the law enforcement process works, offers psychological counseling, and gives advice on digital security systems. The helpline also refers people to social media platforms when relevant or points them to other helplines that support people facing domestic violence, emotional trauma, and cybercrime.

Among people who have called in, people have faced problems including fake profiles, stalking, threats, and other kinds of bullying. Facebook is the most common platform that people report. The Digital Rights Foundation has now published a report of the first four months of this helpline.

Nighat shares some of the challenges that the helpline has faced. First, law enforcement in Pakistant is under-resourced when dealing with cases of online harassment. Next, Pakistan's law enforcement, who only have cybercrime wings in major cities, have no policies about data protection. Because these cyber crime wing offices are in major cities it is hard for victims to reach out to them if they are in villages or towns (70% of Pakistans population lives in rural areas). Without those privacy protections, women are often reluctant to report to regional police outside of cities. Since they have to report cybercrime in person, others would see them, which could put them under greater risk. According to Nighat, law enforcement engages in substantial amounts of victim blaming and lacks awareness of the cybercrime law, and judges are usually not aware of the laws–despite passing laws that purport to support women, no women have yet been supported under those laws, she says.

On the bright side, the online harassment helpline has been able to support hundreds of people, work with law enforcement to improve their handling of cases, and advocate more widely on behalf of people who face online harassment. Nighat is also encouraged to hear from so many men, who she didn't expect to come forward as supporters and advocates on these issues.


Susan Benesch asks: why is the helpline a phone number?

Nighat: In Pakistan, toll free helplines have been a very effective way to support people on a wide range of issues. In Pakistan, people are used to calling each other, so it works well.

Susan: What kind of data do you collect from people who call, and what don't you ask?

Nighat: We don't ask their name, their location, or other personal information. People sometimes volunteer that information, which they record. But they're not sure that it's true. Maintaining trust is important– so it's important for us to avoid asking personal details.

Question: how do you reach out to different parts of the country?

Nighat: We reached out across the country through local journalists, and we've appeared on television shows and radio shows that have a broad reach. We also advertise on Facebook.

In one case, the helpline heard from a man who called on behalf of his sister. "I don't want my family to kill my sister, and she's being blackmailed by a person who has her nudes." I was moved to hear from a brother who was supporting his sister in this way.

Question: What do you do in that kind of situation?

Nighat: In these urgent cases, we are sometime able to reach out to platforms who can intervene. In other cases where there is a risk of an honor killing or someone who might be killed by her family, regional law enforcement treat that issue sensitively.

Question: What risks do you face from this work?

Answer; In one case, we received a report from someone who said they had a blasphemy to report. In Pakistan, the punishment for blasphemy is death. The helpline said they don't do this work, but they encouraged him to report it to the Pakistani telecommunications authority. This person became upset in the call. Other people are upset that the helpline offers support to women. Yet critics are rare. Even law enforcement who aren't always happy about Nighat's critiques, appreciate the support that the helpline offers to them.

Grace Mutung'u: In Kenya, when the government made a law about online harassment that wasn't specific to women, it was used to bully bloggers. How do we create balanced laws that protect people without restricting people's rights? Do think that these issues might be resolved through more traditional means?

Nighat: I don't support the current law in Pakistan. Legal provisions that have been developed to support women are often used to limit political speech. In Pakistan, the judiciary has been saying that Facebook is evil because anyone can post anything against Islam, and they banned YouTube for years. In that context, my hopes are not high. The law is very problematic. We suggested to the government that small amendments to existing legislation might work– there are already laws in the penal code that protect women that could be edited. Instead, the government brought forward bad laws that expanded their control over the internet in the name of protecting citizens, women, and national security. We'll wait to see how the courts develop the jurisprudence.

In Pakistan, many cases of online harassment are already handled outside of the court. The justice system is so broken that it takes years to handle a single case. Many families settle their cases outside the court because of fear of shame and protecting family honor.

Yaso: In Brazil, similar helplines were trolled by the people who engage in harassment. The service had to be dismantled. Did you suffer any kinds of attacks on your service?

Nighat: We haven't received even one prank call. Other help lines in Pakistan told us to expect fake calls. This is surprising, and a good sign.

Mariel: In Mexico, the collective working on responses to harassment was very inspired by the Digital Rights Foundation in our work. But we struggled with the inconsistency of dealing with online platforms. The consistency of service tends to depend on who someone's contact is and whether they slept well the night before. What have you learned about working well with them?

Nighat: One of the hardest parts of this work involves helping these companies understand how their processes and guidelines are poorly set up to support people. When we developed our report, the company responded by saying that they wanted to improve the issues. But every time people complain, companies respond that they're looking into the problem and plan to change things soon. I feel like it will take a long time, and I'm not sure we'll succeed. Yet small changes can make a difference, like the translation of community guidelines into Pakistani languages. When we showed them the kinds of violence that were occurring in Pakistani languages, they realized that they needed to translate their policies into languages that people would understand.

Susan Benesch: it sounds like translation needs to happen in two directions? The problems need to be translated so the company can understand the issues, and guidelines need to be translated into the languages and cultures involved. Nighat: Yes.

Susan: You mentioned blasphemy. Can you explain further?

Nighat: One month ago, a university student was killed in the name of online blasphemy by his fellow students. He was lynched until death. It's still hard for me to talk about this issue. He had a Facebook page called "Voice of the voiceless," where he talked about human rights, women's rights, and animal rights. He also identified himself as a humanist. Then someone created a false profile on Facebook to spread misinformation about his views and lead others to believe that he was committing blasphemy.

Because people don't understand how fake profiles work, and because there's limited digital forensic capacity in the country, people can become riled up based on false information and lynch someone. Those fellow students even filmed themselves taking the action, videos which are still online. Nighat tells us about one of the videos: one of the filmmakers would kick the student, step back, film for a while, then kick his body again, until someone shot the student in the head. Using those videos, law enforcement were able to identify and arrest some of the people involved.

Nighat believes that this story may start a debate about online safety, security, protections against false profiles, and the risks that people face, especially in a society with strict norms and laws against blasphemy.

Susan: Do law enforcement understand the dangers that people face when someone creates a false profile that appears to be committing blasphemy?

Nighat: I do think they understand. These are trends that happen in Muslim countries. Social media companies are aware, even if they may not always act like it. So I continue to urge them to be vigilant and be informed.

Question: What other ideas do you have for Pakistani privacy laws?

Nighat: Our country has the world's largest biometric database, and we have a huge project around smart cities. Just in Lahore, they are installing 8,000 CCTV cameras. Yet no one knows how the data will be used or who has access to it. If the government passes new privacy laws, I am hoping that the federal government, provincial government, and cities will have their own privacy policies. So I'm pushing at the federal level and with the Punjab government. If Punjab passes new privacy legislation, it might influence the federal government to pass similar legislation. We are also working with the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard to draft a policy draft around data protection and what kind of data protection mechanism suits to Pakistan.

Crystal Nwaneri: You mentioned that you have received 500 calls in four months. What amount of harassment are you able to handle?

Nighat: We don't have the data to answer that question. Sometimes people ask us for information without telling us their story. And many people don't call us back to tell us that the issue was resolved.

Nathan Freitas: Is there any talk about biometric systems might help stop attacks, or should we avoid that idea?

Nighat: I don't think we should go there. I'm worried about the biometrics that are happening in Pakistan. I was recently on TV and someone said that we could solve the problems of impersonation by linking biometrics with profiles. In many cases, people are able to find a voice online through anonymity and pseudonymity–when Qandeel Baloch's name became widely known, that's when she was killed.

Ellery: what should we tell Facebook to do about the issue of impersonation? The company already asks for people's ID. How might the university student have handled this?

Nighat: I'm not sure. And that's why we're all here. The helpline is a very local solution. Dealing with companies is so complicated. We need to understand why those companies are there. Their main job is business and making money out of our data.

harassmentanonymityglobal southactivismgovernmentlocal communitiessocial networkstechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Podcasting for movement building

May 8, 2017 - 9:32am

This post was originally published over at MIT CoLab.


One of the most fulfilling experiences I have had this year was that of planning, recording and editing my first podcast episode ever (along with my collaborators… more about them coming soon). 

Now: as a technological capacity builder and media researcher, few things bring me as much joy as the powerful processes where tech, media-making and collaboration are all part of one learning experience. However, I am usually the facilitator; I rarely get to do the direct learning myself. I had forgotten what it feels like to learn like that.

It feels like the excitement of technological discovery in unpacking the audio recorder, caressing the windjammer and learning about waves and decibels. The awe when listening, more actively than ever, to others’ work and discovering the features I had always taken for granted. The creative flow of ideating interview arcs with my brilliant collaborators – Jordan Frias, journalist, and Lesly Monroy, ZUMIX youth musician.


Along the journey of technological discovery, I picked up a few tips that come in hand when recording and editing audio:

  • Well, yes: use a proper recorder with mics properly dressed in fur.
  • Hold the mic at a hand’s distance from people’s mouths and slightly off axis to avoid hearing their ”P”s pop in the recording.
  • Check and adjust the sound levels before you actually record.
  • If you’re the one speaking, use the full range of your voice, without forgetting the middle.
  • Don’t forget to record room tone at the end!
  • When it’s time to edit, put on your over-ear headphones (never trust your speakers).
  • Also, don’t edit your raw audio; edit the copy.  

And then there are the learnings that come from active listening. We were listening, yes, for instances that show proper executions of the recipe above; but also for the things that can make podcasts a part of movement-building since not every podcast is aligned with broader advocacy goals. It comes down to how we tell stories, how power gets assigned in these stories, whose voices are portrayed, and what these stories reflect about our relationships with their characters. Podcasting for movement building ultimately comes down to how we tell stories not on behalf of, but with, their characters. My takeaways:

  • I found one of the Center for Story-based Strategy’s handouts very good for analyzing power dynamics in a narrative.
  • Of all possible analogies to make sense of interviews, the one that poses them as a journey resonated with me the most: you don’t jump into a journey with anyone, so don’t expect someone else to do it with you. Build the relationship first. 
  • Honor your interviewee’s input: don’t forget to leave time for their reflections so they can talk about what you did not ask them.
  • Whose voices? I loved reading this text on disabled voices in radio by Alice Wong, and this one on vocal color by Chenjerai Kumanyika. (I also loved discovering Transom, really.)

There are also the media-specific stylistic choices that are relevant not to all stories, but to those in podcast format in particular. The writing needs to be tight and clear, using simple tenses. People need to be reminded of the story constantly. Music and ambient sound are not luxuries: they are elements that carry the message forward. But don’t be too ambitious: podcast as a format could be, in fact, conducive to bite-sized explainerism.  

All of this, of course, is much easier said than done. Like most of my production experiences at MIT, I feel that this course was as much an exercise in empathy as a workshop. After hours spent in East Boston to better understand the issues at stake, planning, interviewing, trying to gather ambient sound, building a conservative narrative that wouldn’t require too much editing, truth is we still spent an absurd and unsustainable amount of time putting it together.

Did we succeed in the end? In telling Luis Bravo’s story, which is decidedly worth telling, we learned about a miracle of Spanish-speaking community newspapers in Boston and we gave potential listeners ideas on what they can do going forward. But, like in all media-making, we have no evidence that anybody will ever listen to what we recorded.

This moment of painful humility, in a world of overworked and underpaid advocacy, could pose this work as a distraction from strategic action. However, having also felt the glory of listening to the final version after hours of obsessing over details and fiddling with editing software, of seeing Lesly’s smile after she heard her Spanish voice on the recording, my own vision of media for movement building has been strengthened.

The power of podcasting for movement building does not stem just from its products, but from its process. For a devout, I had forgotten what the learnings and disappointments and glories felt like. I am happy to have seen my faith and empathy for collaborative media-making processes be renewed, and already looking forward to many more of these processes, both facilitating and making-feeling


This post is a reflection on MIT CoLab’s Media for Movement Building IAP Course, which was held in collaboration with ZUMIX, to teach about audio collection as a method for place-based inquiry. 

Mariel García-Montes is an activist on hold, and current graduate student in Comparative Media Studies at MIT. She is a research assistant at the Center for Civic Media, and an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. 

All photographs were taken by Lawrence Barriner II for MIT CoLab.



Categories: Blog