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MIT Center for Civic Media
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Creating Technology for Social Change
Updated: 2 hours 1 min ago

Intro + Notes on Public Sphere(s)

September 21, 2013 - 3:42pm

Hi Everyone!

I'm an undergrad majoring in Comparative Media Studies, and I'm new to the Intro Civic Media Class. I'm especially interested in the relationship between audiences and content in institutional contexts. This past week, the focus of our class was understanding the public sphere and how it's evolving as societies become more networked. We began with Jurgen Habermas's public sphere, the 18th century model, in which Habermas believes people began gathering civically for the first time. His strongest criticisms came from Nancy Fraser and Catherine Squires, who posed arguments rooted in feminist and socialist theory:

1. Not everyone was allowed to participate in the public sphere, based on inequalities of class, race, and gender.
2. The dominant people decide what gets discussed in the "public" sphere as opposed to the "private" sphere.
3. Multiple public spheres are needed for the diversity in interests.

One cannot ignore class, race, and gender when discussing the public sphere. But we also cannot ignore the effects of an increasingly networked culture. Eszter Hargittai posits that disparities in web usage can lead to further social inequalities. And Yochai Benkler has raised an issue that web infrastructure and domainification laws can limit access. So how do we build a public sphere that is both class, race, and gender inclusive, and digitally inclusive? (See our preliminary sketch.)

Stay tuned! Next week we'll have a final model of digital inclusion.

Intro to Civic MediaBenkler's Networked Public Sphere
Categories: Blog

Annette Kim and the Sidewalk Laboratory

September 19, 2013 - 7:29pm

This talk kicks off our Civic Lunch Speaker Series for Fall 2013. Live blogging contributed by Catherine D'Ignazio, Erhardt Graeff, and others.

About Annette Kim

Annette M. Kim researches the spatial processes of major institutional change, particularly the reconstruction of property rights and planning paradigms in rapidly urbanizing regions. Her publications include studies of the first generation of private real estate developers in Vietnam, the political struggle for land and compensation on the urban periphery, and the contest for sidewalk space in the midst of migrant street vending and populist urbanism. Currently, she directs the research group SLAB which is developing methods of spatial ethnography and critical cartography in order to re-conceptualize urban space and find more inclusive and humane ways to design and govern the 21st century city.


Professor Kim received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in City and Regional Planning as well as a concurrent M.A. in Visual Studies; a Master in Public Policy from Harvard University; and a B.A. in Architecture and Studio Art from Wellesley College. Professionally, she has been an architect of affordable housing, a construction project manager, and jury member of international urban design competitions. She has also served as a consultant to the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, the World Bank, African and Asian governments, as well as community-based NGOs.




Kim shows a graphic about the explosion of visualization in the past decade. What she's doing with SLAB is taking a step back and thinking about what they are doing with those visualizations. She shows a graphic of tweets happening one hour before and after the major earthquake in Japan. But it looks like the maps we've seen since the 1970s about globalization that illustrate things that we already know. She encourages us to push for visualizations that show us new things. Much of the data for these maps is generated in urban centers.


She looks instead toward “Visual Social Sciences,” which are critical, humanistic, and integrate a kind of public service. The social sciences have been slower at adapting. This is the mission of SLAB:

1. To be critical of what we are representing and not representing,

2. To have a humanistic focus; it’s really about people, and this must not be lost with aesthetics, and

3. To engage with institutions for public service


"Who and what have we missed in our visualizations?" Kim asks.


For her, urbanization means migration. When we say urbanization we mean a shift into urban centers. The essential question is how society transforms its property rights.

We can’t live in cities that same way anymore. Density is more people with diverse spatial projects, trying to make a life in the same space. Density is changing the way we view our cities.

The essential question is: How does society transform its property rights about who can use what space, for what purposes, under what conditions, with what entitlements and responsibilities?

This is the context where SLAB is trying to visualize these phenomena. The first generation of work has focused on sidewalks. They are often the most overlooked spaces in cities. Much of the research has focused on the plaza or on monumental places as civic space.

Sidewalks are one of the spaces we have overlooked. They are humble, ubiquitous, and very narrow. They represent a different type of space and social interaction. On sidewalks, people brush against each other and make contact, and they have less people on them overall compared to other spaces.


She asks if streets and sidewalks are transportation corridors? Or also places for leisure, eating, socializing, vending?


What if we transform spaces from privileging cars (say, in Times Square) to privileging leisure, eating, socializing, vending. There have been a number of urban experiments in transforming spaces from roadways to public spaces for leisure. She shows examples from numerous cities.


Bogota’s “Ciclovia:” the mayor over the past years have been converting roadways for leisure. In San Francisco, there has been intention of taking over roadways and to convert them into different spaces for leisure.


Park(ing) Day around the world: the artist group REBAR started a movement to create temporary public parks. Participants put quarters in meters and created pop-up parks with turf and benches, where they had had picnics and other activities in those reclaimed spaces. This has set off an annual world parking day across the globe, touching a nerve indicating that we want to live in cities in different ways.


Another aspect of this is the food truck trend where you see another different use of sidewalks and public spaces. There have been varied responses rejecting and embracing this trend. Food trucks have also been met with conflict from storefronts.


Food trucks have been around before they were trendy, and their use of public spaces and sidewalks is contested. Activist groups advocate for the rights of street vendors and food carts to use sidewalks and to work out ordinances around their use of sidewalks.  An example, the Street Vendor Project, started in NYC and now has a chapter in LA.  


There have been struggles with food vendors in China. There was a big riot set off by the beating of a pregnant street vendor in China. There is a global struggle to rethink public space in the face of immigration. Where is the public space for migrants?


When we think of public space there is often a “narrative of loss,” e.g. big corporations are taking over public spaces. Kim shows a slide from HSBC plaza in Hong Kong which is empty on weekdays and totally full on weekends with service sector maids. This has created huge controversy in Hong Kong. There is a mass movement of the service sector, maids and other workers, and they use public spaces to socialize. They camp out all day in such spaces, and also in large public malls.

Some would call this an insurgent practice or “everyday urbanism.” Others would call it cultural practice or contestational. The maids are not trying to challenge their social status but it is more political than simple cultural practice.

Professional urban planning plays an important role in how to conceptualize the phenomenon. There is still this view of sidewalks playing a role as transportation corridors. She shows fascinating diagrams of professional spatial bubble diagrams that tell you how much space people need. We keep rationalizing the way we plan sidewalks as though it’s rational and scientific. Architecture takes a similar approach, drawing and designing images of cities privileging the built form absent images of people.  


She notes that architectural designs of Hong Kong show a city of 10 million people but the diagrams and plans never show any people. Architectural diagrams that do show people show them doing the appropriate activities. Design firms and local firms often develop city plans that do not show people living in the cities.

These diagrams shape what is our notion of the "appropriate" city. They shape what we see. They privilege the built form. In other words, there is a power in our visual conventions to:

1) To shape what we notice,

2) To conceptualize what we see, and

3) To construct our world.

There is a disconnect with the images of the city in terms of designing art and how they really are. She shows an image of Ho Chi Minh City where no one is sitting on the available bench, choosing to eat their lunch and socialize on the ground and sidewalk. She shows sidewalk spaces where men are playing chess games.

There is a very rich sidewalk life in Ho Chi Minh City. Sidewalks are actively used. It is a very important space economically, as it comprises 30% of local economies, and it is important for low income communities.

In Ho Chi Minh City, there is an important debate about these spaces. People want the government to clear away the sidewalk life because they see it as "backwards."

But there is a long historical practice of using sidewalks for unsanctioned economic and social activities. She shows images of colonial Ho Chi Minh City and street vendors on the sidewalk.

The narrative often told is that of sidewalk vendors and local citizens trying to make a living. However, there is a push to clear out these sidewalk spaces. Vendors experience fear and look out for police, even amidst interaction with people. In some cases, this has pushed people into the streets, literally, and off the sidewalks.

Since the early 2000s there has been a national policy of clearing the sidewalks. Usually the reasons are traffic and safety. But there is a lot of popular ambivalence to the policy. The popular use of space has made for collaboratively developed property regimes, for example painted lines that designate where street vendors can be versus where the restaurant's space is. There Is a lot of local variation in practice. In some cases, people park their bikes and motorcycles on the sidewalks, in others, vendors have completely taken over with merchandise.

The challenge is how do we see a situation of street vending. It might look messy but there is actually a system once you start to adjust your eyes, and there are clear delineations of use of space. Can this be a part of our city? Is it a legitimate use of sidewalk space? Can the use go beyond pedestrian throughway? With the struggle for public space, many people have made all sorts of claims on public space. A picture shown displays merchandise and chains and locks reclaiming public spaces.

Really we are talking about the immigrants. We have been envisioning cities of the future without a significant population that will be there. Kim discusses spatial ethnography as bringing together participant observation, field surveying, and interviewing people. She is trying to understand the social construction of space, power, and the meaning of local spatial practices. She is trying to integrate space and society more fully.

SLAB went out and mapped a number of locations of vendors but the question is then what to do with that data. To answer such questions, critical cartography comes into play. The literature in critical cartography teaches us that maps are highly politicized knowledge claims.

How do we define what is a map? One definition is: a visual representation of spatial relationships + a political knowledge claim. SLAB is experimenting much with maps in order to uncover the human spatial relationships.

She developed a primer on critical cartography for her upcoming book. For a typical urban planning map you draw edges around built things in the environment. This is helpful for seeing certain things: parcel boundaries, colonial heritage, and so on. But there's a lot that you don't see—the sidewalks for example—which is what you mostly see and experience as a pedestrian. The main spaces that one often experiences in Ho Chi Minh City are the sidewalks.



SLAB made a GIS map of sidewalks of how different people used the sidewalk space in different ways. But this did not depict time, and it privileged edges and boundaries. You could choose a different cartographic logic by putting a transparent dot for every instance of use. In this case, public space is depicted as public use. She calls this a "Ghost Map," for its overlapping and transparent circles.


She shows a map where instead of a flat map using an x-y plane, on the z-plane, they plotted time 5am–10pm and recorded every hour happening on this one corner block, mapping different kinds of uses (selling food, merchandise, sidewalk cafes, motorbikes) in different colors. You can see a lot of different activities and if you look at one space over time, within the course of a day, there are changes in how the space is being used. In the morning, there are few people; people then start selling at this space; then they leave and some people engage in leisure. Later in the day, you see people selling merchandise and again at the end of the day, engaging in leisure. People are sharing the space and handing it over to each other. Different groups are working together to share the space over a period of time.


Kim’s group also mapped the city from the perspective of the people that use the sidewalks. Another map shows how an individual female street vendor who sells coconut water navigates the city via sidewalks. Her entire trajectory is shown, from her commute to her day trying to sell coconut water. The map also shows when police arrive, and she has to relocate to continue selling coconut water. She locates a great deal of her daily vending activity on the boundary line between two jurisdictions, so that when police come after her she can hop over the border to avoid prosecution. Tourists pay a dollar per beverage, so it’s worth it for her to sell here. It maps the terrain of economic opportunity and also police enforcement. In another map, SLAB mapped where it is appropriate to vend in Ho Chi Minh City.


SLAB's most recent work is pushing the boundaries of what might constitute a map. She shows a photographic representation of the neighborhood where she lived in Ho Chi Minh City. One single mom started a sidewalk cafe. The neighbors let this happen as did the police. The borders of the cafe would keep changing. But the next time Kim visited there was a new system where different vendors got squares of sidewalk tiles. Another time she visited a space on the corner was being rented out to different vendors so that they could vend at different times of the day—two hours for one vendor, then another would come to take their place. This image is the one at the art exhibition at DUSP. A larger question is "What can such art exhibits do as a way of re-negotiating rights to public space?" As part of the exhibition they have invited a Vietnamese food truck come outside the MIT building and then they have drawn a red line leading into the gallery.

Kim asks, "What is the value of visualization for social change?" It can make apparent the overlooked. It can help us build narratives, be evocative or have effective potential, or involve different venues and pathways. Hopefully, it can contribute to larger social discourse and social construction project, paradigm shift.


When in Vietnam she shared some of the images with their planning department. To capture images for SLAB they had to squat and get close to people and things. The planner said, "I never realized that we were planning through communities." He had been thinking of it as a logistics exercise, more about engineering and architecture. He then said, “Let’s go out and experience the sidewalk!”

Perhaps this is the power of visualization: to see again. We are trained to see things in a different way.

After the show at MIT, Kim is going to take the show to Vietnam to ask the same question, where they are in the midst of that social debate. They have written op-eds, she has engaged the planning department about incorporating street vendors into tourism. But then what about the larger public?

In January, Kim wants to create and open a public exhibit and to invite middle class Vietnamese to rethink sidewalk vending. Can you create a non-participatory critical map? A lot of critical cartography projects assume that you are working in a democracy. Vietnam is a context where you can't do that. In Ho Chi Minh City, feedback from citizens comes through informal channels due to it’s particular government structure and context. You can't meet with people unless it's approved. There's a lively debate in the news but it's all state owned, so there are limits. The research she has showed are all generated by SLAB and Kim using an ethnographic process. That presents an interesting intellectual question: can you be critical without being participatory in the way that we understand? Given the governmental constraints.

The question is: "What can I do in January as part of the exhibit to help with that social reconstruction project?" There's a longstanding debate about the mapmaker, the subject, and the viewer in that exhibit.

For example, I could bring in the coconut water seller into the exhibit and give her a platform to voice her opinion. Or maybe there's some interactive way we could get engagement with viewers. People have SMS phones, but not smartphones.

The next stage of SLAB is to visualize another ubiquitous, but overlooked phenomena in Beijing. Some estimates say that 2 million people are living underground in bomb shelters and other shelters. There are formal, regular buildings above ground, but every new space has to build underground spaces.

In the 1980s, people were encouraged to used bomb shelters for commercial uses. As of 2008, no one is allowed to live underground any longer. But this poses a big problem for the many people that live underground. Recently, underground locations are being discouraged due to public safety concerns. In some buildings, landlords put up signs saying not to bring in appliances. There are concerns about humidity and egress.

People often have electricity, internet, and they are often well kept. It seems that everyday people live in these spaces, contrary to what many may believe. Many are immigrants, and others may be students that cannot afford to live above ground. The city conducted a survey to see who these people were: 30% were immigrants, many were students. They were people who couldn't afford apartments. And there is an online market for these places.

She is now asking the question: Could we make these spaces more livable and safer as a legitimate place to live? The amazing thing is that low-income people could live where there are more job opportunities and amenities. Having worker housing on the periphery puts them where is more crime and limitations on their job opportunities.

The question of how low income and high income people are living in a shared space that is spatially segregated in terms of “aboveground” and “underground” is an important question that needs to be studied.

So SLAB is now looking at subterranean urbanism and its relation to the above-ground housing. From the small number of interviews that they have done there seems to be a clear relationship: the people below are working for the people above.  These folks are the maids and waiters for those that live above ground. This is reminiscent of a larger urban phenomenon; earlier in the west, people did the same. In Hong Kong the same was true. Recently Las Vegas was revealed to have a large subterranean population.  

With these examples in mind, Kim closed her talk and opened for questions.


Catherine D’Ignazio wonders if there is a chance for the exhibit in Vietnam to strategically use the fact that it's an "art" project. Could they in fact be participatory and get information back to the government? Catherine mentioned Vojo.co (Civic Media's feature-phone MMS/SMS-based blogging tool). They might even be able to publish submitted comments back into the exhibit space. Art can sometimes be seen as "harmless" so that channel is open to use without upsetting the government officials.


Rodrigo Davies brings us back to the question of transforming property rights.  He wonders about the skills, finance, and ideas that drive people to use public space for more than just retail (ie. non-commercial).  Another connection is related to San Francisco's parklet program.  There they are starting to open up larger areas for civic use. He wonders if it is in fact the city's job to help people transform these spaces.

Kim responds that in Vietnam it's about clearing out these insurgent practices and they have a long history. The question is what the government will allow to continue and how will it modify it. What is sustainable is the micro-local governance because of their ward structure. The wards practice a lot of discretion to accommodate the needs of the local population and are very pragmatic. Who will be enforcing and governing the space? It's these same institutions and they know their population the best. Active talking back is part of this. People can talk back to their ward officer. It should continue to be part of a local process—how else will Ho Chi Minh City continue to govern its public spaces? That's the system in place.

Kim presented a project to the city about international tourism with street vending. Social constructs reinforce property rights.

Adrienne Debigare wonders who the audience is for the Vietnam show. Kim responds that she is aiming at the middle class, because they are a key political force in the redefinition process. She's worked with the planners and vendors already. Adrienne took away the "sidewalk as living room" idea, and wondered if there was a way to set up something people attending could experience around that idea.

Adrienne brought us back to the Chinese underground housing, asking if the desire to make it a nicer type of housing might introduce gentrification of a sorts. Kim has thought about how that would happen; value would be increased. However, in the face of the mass eviction order you gotta do what you can. Most folks don't want to live underground. Much of the population is younger, so Kim sees it as part of the lifecycle of the city. Opinions of what decent housing is in China are changing rapidly; expectations are rising across the board.

Diane Williams asks if it would be more pragmatic for having above ground, low-income housing. She is from Manhattan and brings up the vendors being pushed out of Manhattan. They are part of the aesthetic of the city, part of the essence. It is generic without the vendors.

Kim says that Ho Chi Minh City wants to look like Singapore. Everything is saran-wrapped there.


Catherine suggests that Kim could create a commercial for street vending. If it’s about visualizing what’s there: show how Gucci and coconut water coexist on the sidewalks. Kim says she has worked on legitimating street vendors through the eyes of tourists, who often say their favorite thing about Ho Chi Minh City is the street food and the culture around it.


Ali Hashmi asks about the dimension of gender in public space. What are gender relationships like? How do women participate in this public space that has an element of ubiquitous male gaze?


Kim says that she did some work around this. All of the taxi and motorcycle guys are guys. The food selling is about 50/50. Merchandise is slightly more male. It depended on the city - Chinatown, for example, was different from the rest of the city. There is a whole culture of prostitution which she did not investigate.


Rahul Bhargava suggests some ideas for her art project. Kim could bring public planning projects into the gallery space and have smiley face/frowney face voting. She could re-create street culture inside but as a way of showing how it was worse than actual street culture. She could ask vendors to document their lives and then show those pictures in the gallery space. She could present photos from other places in the world and ask people what city they thought it was (as a way of showing how "world-class" cities have vibrant street cultures).

A person in the audience asks whether there's a risk of making the street vendors too visible by studying and working around this phenomenon.

Kim agrees that mapping itself can be more marginalizing for certain populations. By making an invisible population visible you could be endangering them. one of her critiques of mapping is that it's not enough to make a map. It's about what you do with it. You have to do it responsibly. She has been trying to engage different audiences around this. She does see art as a subversive tool to do this kind of engagement.


Sasha Costanza-Chock, mentions he lived in Ho Chi Minh City for two months, and thanks Kim for her presentation. Sasha tells a bit more about the Vojo.co platform and how it started with day laborers. He suggests the creation of a fruit map like one created in LA then rendered online and on paper to show where it was free to pick fruit from trees. Doing something like that might be a chance to organize information without being seen as organizing vendors (i.e. a map of where street food is that the vendors can hand out).  


Kim agrees, and is planning to present the show in a publicly accessible art space (i.e. not a fancy art house).

Categories: Blog

How to fund a million-dollar arts project

September 16, 2013 - 4:29pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cross-posted at rodrigodavies.com

civic crowdfundingcrowdfundingartsnew yorkmediasocial networks
Categories: Blog, Homepage

Introduction - Miho Kitagawa

September 16, 2013 - 3:30pm

Hello everyone - I'm Miho, an undergraduate senior majoring in Mechanical Engineering with the concentration in Biomedical Applications and International Development. My interest lies on product development, user-interface design and capacity building. I'm pretty heavily involved in D-lab (http://d-lab.mit.edu/) - where we design appropriate technologies needed in developing countries - and Little Devices Lab (http://littledevices.org/) - where we develop DIY health technologies both for developed and developing countries.
I'm from Kyoto, Japan - and about twice a year, I return there to hang out with my family and friends as well as to work on my project, SoHub (http://sohubjapan.wordpress.com/). Oops sorry, the website is only in Japanese yet. SoHub helps to connect many different people for the purpose of designing technologies for rural communities in Japan. In short, we connect and create.

I am taking this course because I think that what I'm doing via all D-lab, Little Devices Lab and SoHub has something very similar to the concept of civic media - participatory media for the collaboration. I strongly believe in the collaborative creative solutions, and think all the projects that foster them are for good. I have been doing different projects in hardware design as well as workshop design, but it would be a new challenge for me to design something through media - and I'm looking forward to tackling on this challenge! In terms of media, I am very interested in photography (some photos can be found on my website here: http://mkitagaw.wordpress.com/) - so would like to explore the area around it as well as hardware.

Intro to Civic Media
Categories: Blog

Civic Media for Dummies?

September 16, 2013 - 12:56pm

I am currently a research assistant at the Center for Civic Media. Being a foreigner to both MIT and the country in general, it has been a great learning experience. Prior to joining the lab, I worked at the Nation, the leading media house based in Kenya, developing tools to tell stories differently. Part of this experience was also working with activists in Liberia developing tools to help them tell their stories through multimedia. Before the chance to work with journalists came along, I was working for an international agency building tools to help countries become more resilient to disasters. My current interests lie in new ways of engaging citizens leading to specific actions for the common good.

Why my interest?

“It takes a village to raise a man”. This is a common ancient African proverb used to refer to social interactions amongst villagers and how villagers would contribute to individual growth. It further says that by contributing to the community not only does the community benefit,the same applies to the individual. Media is constantly changing and is the mirror of society. The level of influence media holds is significant. A survey done a while back in Kenya placed the media as the most trusted while the police on the other hand were on the other side of the spectrum. How is this level of trust achieved? Which institutions engage more with the population and how do they engage? This does bring about two notions of civic media. On one hand civic media can be championed as a methodology to get all stakeholders to the table and engage while on the other hand it can be viewed as a methodology through which specific community groups expand participation amongst themselves and other actors.

More power is now being placed in the the people. With a variety of tools, society(communities) can now create living documents. Living documents that are available to the entire world. How do we empower these communities to make use of available media to obtain certain communal goals whether social,political or economical in nature? At the end of this semester, I hope to attain the know how of how traditional media can incorporate civic media.

Thoughts on Civic Media

I see civic media as the means through which the populace in search of a common goal or interest use to engage different actors to obtain their set goals. Civic media involve the interests central to a specific community. Civic media is participatory. It requires some effort or initiative from several actors with a common goal. Several actors come together to communicate their goals or objectives to others or to a wider audience. An excellent example is with the Arab spring which triggered a wave of peaceful protests. For the protests to occur, several demonstrators through their actions contributed to the protests that lead to civil unrest and collapse of some administrations.

A very important element in Civic media is that it can use any form of technology. In Russia, in a small town a group of painters converged to raise the issue of potholes that were frequent in their streets. They chose a very interesting medium to convey their message. Not the traditional newspaper advertorial,or the fancy video but rather paintings. But not just any paintings, their canvas was one of the tarmaced roads riddled with potholes. They drew the faces of their elected officials on the potholes. This eventually resulted in the local government filling up the potholes.

Civic media strengthens communities. Due to its participatory nature, ties among the members become better. This is simply because of the unity of purpose they share. Moreover ,it helps the interest groups recognize and share the real differences they have making it easier to achieve true consensus.

Intro to Civic MediaIntro to Civic Medianation
Categories: Blog

City Science: The Office of New Urban Mechanics speaks at MIT

September 11, 2013 - 11:55am

The Changing Places group runs the City Science lecture series. Today they are hosting Nigel Jacob (Co-Chair), Chris Osgood (Co-Chair), and Michael Evans (Developer) from the Office of New Urban Mechanics for the City of Boston.

Ryan Chin (Managing Director, City Science) introduces the three speakers as the key people to talk to if you want to interface with the City of Boston around innovation and open data.


Nigel begins and describes how Chris, Michael and he are ¾ of the New Urban Mechanics Team. They are going to introduce their approach and then talk about specific projects. NUM is a civic innovation incubator and R&D lab. In the last election, Mayor Menino made the statement "We are all urban mechanics" which is what inspired this office. The Mayor was trying to find an approach to civic innovation that could be more deliberate and thoughtful. He posited those questions to this team.


They had been thinking of ideas around this for awhile. The mayor is famous as being a people-oriented mayor. 60% of people polled by the Globe say that they have met the mayor. That figure exemplifies his approach and the approach of the office: people-centered, relationship-driven. When they look at cities around the world they are trying to innovate. It's not just about higher performance and more efficiency.


Nigel shows a quote from Jane Jacobs that states that cities can provide things for everybody because they are created by everybody. He speaks about community-led innovations that often operate outside of government. But increasingly they are connecting with government to try to work together on solutions. They are trying to connect with civic entrepreneurs - in public safety, health, education.


He describes how the office works in contrast to the slow, expensive "waterfall" method of government action. At the beginning the office needed to operate like a start-up - quick, flexible, iterative. The diagram he shows has three stages:


  1. Source Ideas: They gather ideas from many places: businesses, community members, the public. To get to step #2 the ideas have to be really good because the office is small and their time is limited.

  2. Support & Study Projects: They try to provide support for the development of the ideas. They develop metrics for success and assess the pilot. They don't have a ton of resources and can't waste attention on things that don't work initially.

  3. Scale & Share: An innovation that can't scale isn't worth much to them. This is the hardest part of the process. They make introductions to other sources of capital, other resources, potentially make the city a customer for the innovation that was developed.


Nigel discusses the idea of "risk". They have created a framework in NUM that can help spread the risk and support a project's development and scaling. They can also manage risk from the perspective of the city. The city doesn't have to brand the project as City of Boston. The public sector sometimes just needs a little bit of cover to innovate.

He shows a slide with the Office's areas of focus: 21st Century Learner, Clicks & Bricks, and Social Enterprise.

Chris Osgood jumps in to discuss the 24-hour call center that the City of Boston runs. He shows a slide with the Mayor manning the hotlines. He says it's rare to actually get the Mayor but it's symbolic of what the Mayor wants to do: bridge the divide between city people, city services and individual people. Until they did this project, a lot of people would just blog about their neighborhood rather than actually calling City Hall. A lot of this has been about building trust in local government.


He shows a slide of the Citizens Connect app. You take a picture of something wrong with your neighborhood and send it to the city and it routes it to the right office. It hasn't reduced the number of calls to the call center but it has expanded the eyes and ears of the city. The reporting on the device actually leads to a different type of report. With Citizens Connect, you see whole streams of reports. People will do 4 or 5 reports at a time. Being on the platform actually meant a different type of interaction with residents. People say "When I call the hotline I feel like I'm complaining whereas when I use the app I feel like I'm helping."

He shows the Commonwealth Connect app which does the same thing but geolocates the request and routes it to the right city in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. He describes the research they have been working on which contrasts usage patterns in urban vs rural locations in MA.

Originally they wanted to see if the power of the smartphone could lead to further civic engagement beyond just clicks. They partnered with a researcher on an application called StreetBump which actually records potholes from your cell phone's accelerometer. It helps them discover where people have the roughest rides in the City of Boston. They discovered that instead of potholes what triggers the app more frequently are the 200,000 iron castings in city streets. The city has fixed more than 1250 of these because of the app. They are also launching a new competition for the design of better castings.

In the end, they want to give residents tools to solve really basic quality of life issues.

Ryan notes that it would be interesting to cross-correlate safety and bumps. Chris agrees.

Nigel says that what's interesting about StreetBump is that it turns your phone into a volunteering opportunity. Instead of time or money a new form of volunteerism might be volunteering your data.

Kent Larson (Principal Investigator, Changing Places) notes you could couple this with an app that is a service for businesses, for example a traffic or routing app in this case.

Michael discusses further efforts for citizen participation. Girls Make the City was a program they ran to connect 12-14 year old girls with fabrication and science efforts. They partnered with Science Club for Girls to recruit a diverse group of students. The Mayor is always concerned about inclusivity.


They also have a project called City-Hall-To-Go which is basically a food truck that provides basic city services to people in Boston. They were working with the Department of Play in Boston and thought about including maker tools on it and to start collaborating on making with people around the city. They identified a site in East Boston where they could install a bike rack and repair area since they didn't have many bike services there. They borrowed legos from the Media Lab and created a station for people to design bike signage. People's designs were printed on the spot and are now being reviewed for inclusion as the official bike signage for the City.


He describes the Pulse of the City project by George Zisiadis. Interactive sculptures detect pedestrian's heartbeats and set them to music in real-time. Unfortunately someone vandalized the sculpture the first weekend it went up. They are now working with the artist to make things more secure. This is a good illustration of the iterative, experimental process they follow to try new things in the city.


Kent: What are some of the big problems you'd like to take on if you had more resources?

Chris: Education is by far the number one issue for our residents. Figuring out how to provide the best tools in that area to help teachers, parents and kids. Another thing is how to respect people's privacy while doing educational tools. A second item is the notion of residents thinking of themselves not as consumers but as active citizens. We want to help them understand how their participation matters and can go deeper.

Audience: Your Commonwealth Connect app is fixed on a particular point in space. All of us have a trajectory over time that interacts with the government. The same with the StreetBump. If you could record more information over time then you could learn more about your processes.


Nigel: We totally agree and we are working on some related things. Each of these little technologies are currently treated as silo-ed experiences and we don't share the data between them. We are creating a technology right now called "StreetCred" that is an API layer that can connect these tools with others into a reputation system. We are also working with the Institute for Data Driven Design for the development of a civic ID system. There's a way of federating your identity so that you have control over how you share your data.


Audience member: I work on air pollution and quality. The state government runs a station by Dudley. Are you guys interested in this?


Chris Osgood: Yes, we are working with Mike Barnett at BC on an air quality project. The calibration issue is a big hurdle for further embrace of the results.


Audience: If you could make a link between childhood visits for asthma with the air quality work then there might be some interesting connections.


Nigel: There was some research out of Louisville about this tracking inhaler prescriptions and air quality.


Audience: Is your data public?


Nigel: There's a lot of stuff we could be capturing that we are not. We have to be careful.


Chris: If folks have ideas about data they want us to share you should come talk to us. We have an open data portal. But there's not a ton of use of it. Tools are more used so we tend to prioritize them. We'd be interested in hearing more about what data people want to work with.


Nigel: We are also very interested in qualitative data. We've done work with Eric Gordon about using games to have more effective civic deliberation processes. That's all qualitative data. That's just as important.


Audience: My question's about the sustainability of the office in the new administration. Mayor Menino seems to understand the importance of technology and civic engagement. Have any of the candidates made a statement about whether they will have the same commitment?


Nigel: (laughs) The answer is no, no one has made that commitment.


Chris: For Menino, government is about focusing on people. He believes that and lives that. It has a huge impact on where we spend our time. I hope that the next mayor continues that philosophy.


Nigel: There are some pragmatic issues. We focus on the value-add. Our record is pretty strong and should speak for itself but you never know.


Ryan: Do you see a push or national network to bring more support to cities to support this kind of work?


Nigel: Yes and no. There are some federal efforts that we tend to critique. It focuses on open data in a very specific way. Certain efforts are highlighted and others are not. We would like them to focus more on the tangibles - how do you deliver product? When you want the government to open data there's no purpose for it in itself. But if you focus more on what you do with the data then there is a value proposition and more of a focus on execution.

Chris: The city innovation movement is being led by mayors. When we started there were a handful of other offices. Now there are probably a dozen innovation offices around the country and we keep seeing an increase in that. There's priority to deliver services at the local level.

Kent: How do you share ideas with your counterparts in other cities?


Nigel: There are couple efforts to create networks. But we have found that visits and talking one-on-one are the most effective ways of sharing information.


Chris: In addition to idea sharing there's been a lot of product sharing.


Michael: There was a flu shot app that was built by the mayor's office in Chicago. I got the code from github and Chris entered all the data for all the flu shot locations and we deployed it on Heroku. The mayor tweeted it like 10 minutes later and that was it. We had a product. I have a big interest in cultivating engineering interest in City Hall because if we had just a couple more people there is so much more we could do. For example - a fellowship model. So much of the city leadership wouldn't have gotten into city government apart from the fellowship. I'm hoping we can do the same thing with engineering and design talent. There's a need for people embedded at City Hall so that they understand the everyday problems.

Nigel: On the topic of cities working together - there's a huge interest in this right now. I think we are reaching a tipping point where cities are starting to work together more.

Audience: It's great that Nick is there in City Hall but what about other agencies and departments in the city? Do they have to go through you guys?


Chris: Our StreetBump developer is actually embedded in the Public Works Department. There is now some growth in the Boston Public Schools IT division because of our collaboration. People in city agencies are talking about hiring developers which is new and different.


Audience: Have you looked at gamification or partnerships to incentivize citizen action and  maybe co-fund the expansion of your effort? For example, I get a parking spot for a day if I participate or a gift card to Starbucks or free Hubway for a week? Maybe a microeconomic model where people and businesses who do good are rewarded.


Nigel: The Engagement Game Lab at Emerson - so gamification, yes. We are experimenting with badges right now with them.


Chris: I don't think we want to rush to monetize civic behavior. I think we want to exhaust other approaches first. Our initial approach is to have the public good be the reward first.


Nigel: Civic behavior is not one monolithic thing. It's a range of behaviors that might have a range of solutions and incentives.


Sandra Richter: We are actually doing research on behavior change here in the Changing Places group and we've found when you incentivize with money or goods you are changing from an intrinsic to an extrinsic motivation. For example, social incentives are the ones we've found to be most valuable.


Categories: Blog

How to Apply to Be a Grad Student with the Center for Civic Media

September 9, 2013 - 10:44am

It's early September and a new crew of master's students are starting work at Center for Civic Media. If you're interested in becoming part of next year's team, this is a great time to start working on your application, and you likely have some questions about how one gets accepted to work at Center for Civic Media. This post tries to offer some answers.

Who gets accepted to work at Center for Civic Media?

We accept a small number of masters candidates for study every year, usually two to four people in total. Some apply through the MIT Media Lab, where they will be earning an S.M. degree in Media Arts and Sciences. Others apply through Comparative Media Studies/Writing, where they will earn an S.M. in Comparative Media Studies. We are not currently admitting doctoral candidates.

While the requirements for degrees through the Media Lab and through Comparative Media Studies are different, successful candidates for Center for Civic Media tend to have certain traits in common. They're interested in social change and involved with social movements, in their communities or focused on global issues. They write well and often have a background in journalism or citizen media. They have a deep understanding of information technology and often are talented programmers.

Work through the Media Lab is highly project-focused, so successful candidates for Center for Civic Media need to be able to carry out projects either through their own programming and technical skills or by overseeing teams of undergraduate software developers. We are far more likely to accept people with a track record of creating software than people who've not programmed or managed programmers before.

Work through Comparative Media Studies can also involve implementing new tools but focuses heavily on scholarly research. Demonstrated ability to carry out this research independently and at a high level is helpful for a strong candidacy.

What projects will I work on?

Both Media Lab and CMS students work on a combination of ongoing research projects and their own research ideas. In effect, students work twenty hours a week on Center for Civic Media research in exchange for a tuition waiver and a stipend. It's helpful to identify projects you could contribute to in our portfolio of existing research. It's at least as important to identify research ideas you want to explore. While we understand your research interest may (and, perhaps, should!) shift during your time at MIT, it's really helpful to see what questions you are passionate about exploring as an applicant.

Who will I work with?

You're likely to work with a number of faculty members, affiliates, research fellows and students. Most students end up working closely either with me or Sasha Costanza-Chock, two of the Center's principal investigators. But you're likely to work in teams and with different groups of people as you work on different projects.

Can I visit Center for Civic Media? Can I talk with faculty about my application?

Yes, and no. You're very welcome to visit us, either during our formal open house, during our Google Hangout sessions, or by joining one of our public lab meetings, held alternate Thursday afternoons or public lunches. All these events are publicized on our website. Unfortunately, we cannot schedule meetings for candidates to talk about Center for Civic Media and discuss your portfolio and application. We receive close to two hundred applications a year and cannot meet with everyone who requests a meeting. And since not everyone is able to visit the Center, we have chosen not to set up meetings with people visiting out of fairness to people who cannot visit.

Is there an interview process associated with the application?

Yes. Sasha Costanza-Chock and I read each application that comes in and determine shortlists of candidates. Existing students and staff read those shortlisted applications, and we select a small set of candidates who interview with staff and students over audio or videoconference.

What are the most important parts of my application?

We want to see evidence that you are thinking about the relationship between media, civics, and social change in a sophisticated and committed way - we want to see evidence of this in your essay and in your C.V. It's important to articulate a project that you want to work on or a research direction you want to explore. Make it clear why the Center for Civic Media is the right place to explore the questions that excite you. We get a surprising number of applications in which applicants tell us how excited they are to study at MIT or to be part of MIT's Media Lab - those applications aren't as successful as ones that help us understand how your research interests fit in with ours at the Center.

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Categories: Blog

Is Spike Lee Doing The Right Thing by crowdfunding?

September 2, 2013 - 8:30pm

Spike Lee joins Zach Braff and Rob Ford’s Veronica Mars on the list of celebrities to turn to Kickstarter to fund a project. It now seems that no star is too big — or too cool — to crowdfund. But what does the arrival of big names mean for the future of crowdfunding?

With big names, come big backers: Lee raised $1.4 million, a fifth of which came from 29 backers who each pledged $10,000. One of them was director Steven Soderbergh. Lee’s success at the top end of the funding spectrum is relatively unusual, too: the Braff and Ford campaigns each managed only one backer at that level.

For celebrities to be participants in the crowdfunding market as both funders and fundraisers demonstrates its maturity as a funding model. But the entrance of bigger names hasn’t gone without criticism. James Franco said the purpose of crowdfunding should be to “give a chance to talented people that deserve it but maybe wouldn’t have the opportunity to otherwise.” Franco himself raised $500,000 on IndieGoGo to fund film adaptations of his book Palo Alto by up-and-coming directors, a campaign he said was developing new talent in the industry rather than supporting his own career. Braff defended his decision to crowdfund in a lengthy video. So is the entrance of bigger names into the market a betrayal of crowdfunding’s roots?

For some, crowdfunding was a way to fund the unfundable: To open up access to finance to things that conventional investment sources wouldn’t touch, or weren’t managing well. Crowdfunding sites attained much their early popularity by channeling the struggling artist paradigm, and for some including Franco, that’s now in question. In the early days of crowdfunding, the model supported a clear and compelling message from musicians like Marillion: help us fund our activities and liberate us from the failing A&R model of most record labels.

This ‘funder of last resort’ condition clearly doesn’t apply to celebrated actors and directors. Many funders don’t seem to mind. While some crowdfunders see themselves as patrons or donors, for others, backing a campaign is a pretty conventional consumer transaction: the majority of pledges in campaigns tend to cluster around the purchase price of the item, and the reward for pledging at that level is usually the item itself. Operating this way, a campaign is merely a large-scale pre-sale. So if millions of people want to see a new Spike Lee film, what’s wrong with those people pre-paying for tickets? Despite Lee’s high-level backers, $50 was by far the most popular pledge level for the campaign, close to the typical cost of a movie night with a friend.

If crowdfunding is becoming largely a pre-sale exercise in some cases, is a norm of pre-paying in this way a bad precedent? Possibly. An audience member at Digital Preservation 2013 last month remarked to me that crowdfunders are being asked to take a greater leap of faith than ordinary consumers because they are buying into the unknown. True, the ordinary consumer takes a risk in buying a cinema ticket — a bet on the quality of the product based on a trailer (probably not much slicker than the best crowdfunding videos) and the opinions of reviewers who are subject to very little public accountability.

But the crowdfunder consents to a much bigger transfer of risk in two ways: firstly, there can be a time lag of several months before a funder gets to see the outcome of their donation. Secondly, the consumer agrees to assume, in the aggregate, the up-front financial risk of the project. This risk transfer is intrinsically beneficial to the project (crowdfunding has lower borrowing costs than conventional finance) but it’s also a powerful expression of trust and care. How an individual audience member will feel about being asked to allow a famous artist to deleverage at his expense is difficult to anticipate. In some cases, it’s a welcome arrangement; in other cases, it’s brash at best. Either way, the bigger ongoing question is whether audiences will become fatigued by being asked to make that level of commitment to successive projects.

As well as consuming audiences’ desire to give and commit, the entrance of larger players also has an impact on the attention economy. The entrance of campaigns with bigger resources inevitably makes it harder to get your crowdfunding campaign noticed. Projects with smaller campaign goals are inevitably less eye-catching than those with $1M+ price tags, making it harder for local projects to gain national attention. The halcyon days of crowdfunding — when small campaigns could attract attention because the method itself was novel, and skepticism around fulfillment was much lower — are over. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if it focuses attention on the highest quality ideas and projects. However, if running a crowdfunding campaign requires an escalating investment of time (and therefore money), the claim that it democratizes access to capital deteriorates.

Braff, Lee, Ford and Franco are demonstrating the potential of crowdfunding to build big ambitions on many small pieces. Let’s hope their campaigns are an inspiration to the thousands of smaller, underserved ambitions we haven’t yet heard of.

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Categories: Blog

Charities in Seattle and Beyond

September 2, 2013 - 4:44pm

I'm just back from an amazing summer in Seattle at Microsoft Fuse Labs. As I unpack back at MIT, I'm enjoying great memories and stories of neighbourhoods and organisations that are doing fantastic work in Seattle. 

FareStart Guest Chef Night, 2011, by Caffe Vita on Flickr

Before I left, I asked friends for suggestions of Seattle charities. Here are some of the organisations in Seattle and elsewhere that I chose to support, followed by the list of other awesome organisations I learned about this summer. Have I missed any? Add your suggestions in the comments.

FareStart  is an amazing culinary job training and placement program for homeless and disadvantaged individuals in Seattle, similar to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen. Unlike Oliver's fine dining restaurant, FareStart has served millions of meals to disadvantaged people in Seattle. I love how good FareStart is at building partnerships for success across the food services industry and throughout the city. I only regret that I didn't make it to their weekly Thursday graduation dinner.

Geeks Without Bounds, based in Seattle, is an accellerator for humanitarian projects. They offer a six month mentorship program to take good intentions into an actual deployed project. The summer 2013 teams included a low power light-based mesh network, a Baltimore project to deliver STD results privately over the phone, a Red Cross disaster content management system, and a technology for automatic voice form processing for disaster organisations.

Black Girls Code supports young women in 7-17 years old to become innovators in Science, Tech, Engineering, and Maths. They run learning workshops and summer camps, including projects with the Latino Startup Alliance. Recently, they have started bilingual workshops, which are AWESOME.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is at the forefront of protecting digital civil liberties. I donate through the Humble Bundle and get videogames at the same time.

The Ministry of Stories is a creative writing and mentoring centre in London that supports young people ages 8-18 to tell stories and express themselves. I was their first Chief Technical Advisor and am delighted to see the organisation continue to thrive.

This year is the 30th anniversary of the Free Software Foundation. GNU/Linux and Free Software were critical resources in my teenage development, and I am glad to support the FSF. I'm still deciding if I want to go to the anniversary hackathon.

Other organisations I learned about this summer:

  • Jigsaw Renaissance is a non-profit maker-space in central Seattle
  • Seattle Attic is a feminist hackerspace in Pioneer Square. I spent a fun afternoon there helping document their CRM software. 
  • Mary's Place Seattle helps homeless women and their kids in the Puget Sound region
  • Youth Digital Media is a YMCA program that funds tech literacy in Seattle. They support the Puget Sound Off, a youth media activism project
  • Food Lifeline is one of the umbrella food banks in Seattle, and friends who've volunteered there say it's very good
  • Union Gospel Mission is one of the major city-centre programs to help feed and house homeless people in Seattle
  • Bread of Life Mission is another major homelessness charity in Seattle
  • The Compass Housing Alliance helps people find short term shelter and permanent housing. They also work towards affordable housing in the city
  • The Kindling's Muse facilitates a broad community of Christian creatives in Seattle. It's affiliated with the writer's group I spent time with this summer
  • The Sacred Music Alliance promotes excellent in Christian sacred music composition

Thanks everyone for your great suggestions! And thanks Microsoft for paying interns enough that I was able to allocate funds to worthwhile charities. Have I missed any? Add your suggestions of great Seattle charities in the comments.

Categories: Blog

[Video] Peer economy takeaways from my summer research

August 29, 2013 - 6:45am

Comparative Media Studies @ MIT kicked off the 2013 academic year yesterday with orientation presentations. The second-year CMS grad students pulled together a 10-minute presentation about their thesis topic and summer research and then presented to faculty, staff and incoming graduate students.

I thought you'd be interested!

RE: points in the video -

  • César Hidalgo (Media Lab: Macroconnections) and I have been discussing whether "political economy" is the right term, or if something like "political science" would be a better fit in understanding the agenda, political influence and different sorts of power involved in systems. While political science seems to get at it better (economy would mean incentives, etc.), we're not completely satisfied with that term either.
  • On the potential behavioral demographic research, this is just a possibility of many things I may be doing this semester (lots of exciting updates to come!). The crucial factor for me is whether the resolution of this data will be high enough to map to geographic locations. I'm interested in rate of participation. I had to cut out a parallel example from the video, but I likened it to the rate of smart phone adoption. Technological and creative classes (closely correlated with class and privilege) were the first to adopt, but the rate was actually highest among low-income.
peer economycollaborative consumptionsharing economyresearchDenise's thesisgovernmentlocal communitiesmedianetworkstechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Terminology 101 - A glossary for the sharing economy

August 21, 2013 - 3:14pm

No pun intended: I want to share something with you! I've been collecting terms around the peer economy. Stripped down to its core, this work paradigm is essentially about freelancing. It's 1099s, independent contractors and sole proprietors.

Collaborative, sharing, peer, consumption, economy... Those are enough terms to make heads spin. But I put this to you: These are not interchangeable terms. Read on, because I'm going to make my argument in the form of this fledgling glossary.

Image by MarcoD

Among platforms, analysts and consultants:

  • Collaborative consumption - Popularized by Rachel Botsman in What's Mine is Yours, "collaborative consumption" is an economy where there is net-zero production. On a company level, this looks like the upfront cost of equipment that will be rented out countless times, what Botsman calls a "product service system" (think car sharing or bike sharing). On an individual level, this could be renting out a spare room or other idling asset. In both of these situations, continual production is avoided.
  • Sharing economy - By far the most popular term to capture this networked economy, "sharing economy" encompasses any platform where things are sold directly between individuals, or are shared, bartered or traded.
  • Peer economy - I prefer the term "peer economy" because of my scope of study: platforms that enable people to monetize skills and assets they already have. The peer economy is different from the sharing economy in that it enables individuals to transact [monetarily] between each other. Services like CouchSurfingZipCar and Citibike are excluded from this categorization.
  • Mesh - Investor Lisa Gansky uses "meshiness" to refer to the networked nature of people, societal values and more in this economy. Like "sharing economy," it's a term that is liberally applied.
  • Collaborative economy - Why "collaborative economy" when there's already "collaborative consumption" and two other terms that use "economy?" According to Altimeter analyst Jeremiah Owyang, the other economy terms favor startups and individuals. Incumbent corporations and brands (think Marriott or Daimler) are jumping in, and "peer/sharing economy" are not inclusive enough.

In media:

In other traditions:

  • Informal economy / Système D (sometimes called the hustling economy)- The term "informal economy" has been used widely since the 1970s. Basically, it is any income earned through work that is unregulated. Keith Hart, an anthropologist who popularized the term, had originally meant it to describe workers who add to the economy despite the lack of regulation (i.e.: providing portable clean water in plastic bags, building toilets and charging for their use since there is no public infrastructure for public toilets, etc.). However, it is liberally used to include shadow economy activities such as mobs, and organ, drug and sex trafficking.
    In Stealth of Nations, Journalist Robert Neuwirth has tried to get at Hart's original meaning by repolishing the term "Système D." Système D, an abbreviation of "l'economie de la debrouillardise," is a class of entrepreneurs who identify gaps in public infrastructure as commercial opportunities to provide access to services and technologies (examples of those services are listed above for "informal economy"). In providing these services, these entrepreneurs are accelerating development through an unregulated push and are directly responsible for driving countries forward (i.e.: electronics in Africa, which has spurred technological development in Africa).
  • Portfolio of work - Philosopher Charles Handy uses this term most consistently. He wrote The Elephant and The Flea to reflect on his own experience as a "flea" in light of the increasingly patchwork nature of work, and how that career paradigm may actually enhance quality of life.
  • Circular economy - As a simplification, this means the same thing as "collaborative consumption." As a term, it's been around much longer and is defined by a recycling, closed loop in both production and acquisition. Architect Bill McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart mirror this especially well with the cradle-to-cradle design model, detailed in Crade to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
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Categories: Blog

Science + Crowdfunding: match or no match?

August 15, 2013 - 8:11am

Atray is a medical researcher. I’m a journalist by training with a bent for community. We each have roots in different strands of critical analysis. As roommates, we spent hours discussing science, cultural context and how to measure impact. One topic we often returned to is whether science can fit into a crowdfunding model.

by Scott Beale

Here’s a glimpse into our conversations, remotely stitched together this summer between Houston, Texas and Brooklyn, New York.

Denise Cheng

Atray Dixit -
A Scientist’s Perspective: The Poor Scientists Cap or New Media’s Funding Magnet?

Operations v. Capital

Atray and I have both struggled with the idea of deliverables. Crowdfunding platforms generally offer prize tiers. Donate $5 and receive a digital pdf. Another $25 and the creators will throw in a hard copy of the product. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing funding model; the clock ticks down and unless the project meets or exceeds its funding goal, the creators don’t receive a cent. Indiegogo also lets creators set prize tiers, but In contrast, Indiegogo lets creators keep however much money they raise.
Based on these templates, Atray and I mused whether science could be retrofitted to this model. In reality, few science experiments pass the rigor of peer validation. If the business of science means that there are few home runs, then how can scientists promise deliverables as donor incentives?
Bearing this in mind, I scanned one of the newest science crowdfunding sites, Microryza (many of its predecessors are extinct). Creators want to attend a valuable science conference, but their department doesn’t have enough funds (not an unusual story, at least in the humanities. Also not unusual in light of federal funding cuts to science). Others just need to fund a piece of equipment to be used time and again.
In my nonprofit days, we called these operational expenses. These were structural funds that impacted the level of efficacy. If we applied for grants to launch new programs—much of which would be one-time costs to get established, we referred to these as capital asks. Capital projects are sexy. Possibilities! Innovation! But following close behind are projected deliverables. In the traditional granting system, unless the project makes good on those deliverables, it won’t even be considered for additional funding.
Of all the science funding platforms, it seems that Microryza and its users got it right. The only incentive is a pdf report, which whittles down the sort of donor. The asks are for supplies or to fund a leg of a bigger research project.

Public outreach

I didn’t grow up in the ‘60s, but I know it was an exciting time for science. For good or bad, the Cold War ensured our focus on chemistry and physics, and that translated into things like the moon landing. People remember where they were when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin touched down, and conspiracy theories have survived the test of time.
What does a community builder read from this? Amazing public outreach, that’s what! Since the mid-20th century, ideologies have changed. Regardless of our thoughts on Putin’s selfies and persecution of gays, we’re no longer at war with the USSR. But the politics of that time shouldn’t obscure the power of ideology to fuel science.
The potential of science crowdfunding is public outreach. In the absence of national science promotion or media that resonate with the general public (I once surveyed several science-related magazines, and the majority cater to a $70k+ per annum, male audience), science crowdfunding has an opportunity.
Atray questions multi-million dollar science experiments that ask the public for a few extra thousand dollars to close out. I say that as long as the intent isn’t to round out funding but to engage the public in the experiment, then that’s okay.
The real snag will be in fulfillment.
Atray is just about to start his second year. He spends hours at the lab—at multiple labs. Imagine conducting research, visualizing data and fulfilling public donor incentives—whether that’s a pdf summary or mailing prizes—when you barely have time to prepare a cup-of-noodle.
With an intermediary to manage fulfillment (take a look at Breadpig, which has been handling Ryan North’s Kickstarter), science crowdfunding could be truly effective. There’s plenty of hullabaloo about math and science education crisis, and how to promote STEM research; that energy could be better spent. If there isn’t enough government funding to push for a mass scale science campaign, imagine if each lab had its own outreach coordinator, and how this simple (and relatively inexpensive) role could transform people’s relationship with science.

Three Challenges to Crowdfunding Science:

  1. You can’t raise enough $$ to do REAL science
    The short response to this one is simple: you can. Well, at least in one case. On June 27, ARKYD, a Kickstarter-based crowdfunded space telescope reached the astronomical goal of $1 million. Space startup Planetary Resources pushed the venture forward, along with thousands of backers motivated by once-in-a-lifetime rewards like a “selfy” picture from space.
    Wait a sec…what is real science and how much money do I need to do it?
    It’s hard to imagine a university laboratory with million-dollar research grants in need of an extra couple thousand dollars to complete their cutting-edge experiments. It’s also hard to see scientists publicizing their next big idea before they have secured some amount of credit for it.
    If you stretch your definition of “real” science beyond a lab coat in a university lab, I would say that it is possible but perhaps not yet practical for most to crowdfund your science.
  2. Crowd security - Safety in numbers?
    Some relish and others fear the thought of becoming a salesperson of “sexy” science. The concept of the objective scientist exists; that persona would be destroyed by having to exaggerate results and promise rewards.
    None of the crowdfunding sites I visited (Petridish, Microryza or even Kickstarter) had any system to ensure the proposed research project was feasible, the anticipated results would be delivered, or would even be valuable if delivered. This puts the burden on individual donors to either reach a level of expertise in a technical field that may be becoming increasingly specialized, or implicitly trust the researcher’s statements prima facie. While in its current form, it seems to be a great way to get people excited and invested in your research or to test the waters with a moderately scaled new idea.
    Without some guidance on feasibility and usefulness, I fear it could lead to misguided funding (see recent Science Magazine article on how crowd mentality can bias online preferences).
  3. It will only catch on in certain disciplines
    Opting for a “scientific” approach to this one, I mined the microrzya website at 1800 EST on Aug. 7, 2013. I looked at the distribution of projects and how much funding each one had received by category.

    Click for bigger version

    Medicine-related projects accrued the largest amounts while there were fewer computer science projects, but each was fairly well funded. Psychology and economics did not have a funded project in existence, but of psychology’s seven projects, four were just launched.
    I took a quick peek at petridish.org as well. Interestingly, 28 of their 31 projects were related to animal behavior or conservation (the other three were astronomy, archeology, and climate change-related).
    So from the brief overview, it seems to be catching on in multiple disciplines, but the dominant fields, at least for these two sites, were medicine and biology. What I have presented here is a snapshot of a single moment in time, I think it would be interesting to track how the distribution of disciplines seeking and receiving funding through crowdsourcing changes over time. Considering that most disciplines on microzyra that had posted projects received funding, I anticipate the scientific market to grow and diversify.


Atray Dixit (@AtrayDixit) is a PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology Program in the Bioastronautics specialty training program. He graduated from Princeton University in spring 2012 with a degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and earned his private pilot’s certificate the following summer. He is currently exploring the field of medicine, with a focus on genomics and healthcare analytics. He holds current appointments at the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.



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