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MIT Center for Civic Media
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Creating Technology for Social Change
Updated: 1 hour 52 min ago

Introduction to Forbidden Research

July 21, 2016 - 9:45am

Liveblog by Sam Klein and myself

Joi (director of the Media Lab), Opening

Research is forbidden when it won't get peer reviewed, you'll be ridiculed, your lab won't get any new students. Academic freedom is diminishing. We're not killed any more for the things we say and do (mostly). But looking at Nobel prizes, people are taking career-risking moves to discover something. Civic did an event called Freedom to Innovate. Laws for criminals used to stifle innovation. Courage needed to explore these areas on Forbidden Research.

So we're asking ourselves: how does an institution become robust? Laws etc put in place to protect the status quo. Academic institutions or society should question the status quo. All the things in history that we see as moments of social change have to do with doing taboo things. Reed Hoffman has agreed to support a Disobedience Prize ($250k). Difficult to award because "what is societally useful disobedience" ends up being complicated. We don't have a firm date but it's an experiment.

Ethan (director of Center for Civic Media)

This is public and on the record. Robotic cameras for live streaming. Hashtag is #ForbiddenML. Jeremy Rubin in late 2013 put together TidBit. Instead of an ad displaying, mined bitcoin and awarded it to the content creator. NJ district attorney didn't like this, issued a supeona. EFF came to defend him. What do we as MIT do when students/members of out community find themselves in trouble?

This is about Star Simpson and Aaron Swartz as well.

Pushing the limits and coming against legal issues when asking questions which are important to ask.

Freedom To Innovate. How do we protect the freedom to take on novel new research, deal with legal barriers? Not just the legal side of things, also need to be able to audit algorithms (bumps into how we're supposed to use websites). Research gets forbidden for all sorts of reasons. So big and consequential (who has the right to make this decision), icky/uncomfortable.

We are at a particularly dark moment in the US. A wave of violence targeted at people of color. And a wave targeted at police. Gun culture which we cannot study as a public health issue because in 1996 we cannot give money to the CDC to study gun violence. We know restrictions on what we can study and research are restrictions on an open society. Turkey is cracking down on academics as well. It's important that we find ways to be creatively and pro-socially disobedient. Being careful about their ethics.

And on the note of exploration of activism and prosocial disobedience through scifi, here's Cory!

Cory Doctorow

Academia is characterized by disagreement, by cut and thrust. Unfortunately, there is denialism, which is manufactured controversy. An example: smoking. A few high paid people cast doubt on links to cancer. The next movement was the AIDS denial movement was next, rivaling the cancer the denial of the Smoking Movement. In South Africa, one charlatan claimed that AIDS was caused by vitamin deficiency rather than HIV and required his brand of vitamins. He was friends with the president. 3,000 died and in South Africa the HIV rate went from 1% to 25%. When people call you out, you have to be able to silence them. They sued the Guardian for publishing the story that said the vitamins were bullshit. AIDS denial begat climate change denial.

Most interesting to the MIT crowd is Turing completeness denial. People want them to only run computers that don't make you sad. We haven't done that not because the nerds aren't complying with justice but because this is how computers work. Digital Rights Management is one of the key problems coming from Turing Completeness Denial. Cryptography denial has come out of this, which we thought was over in the 1990s. Privacy denial: you have nothing to hide so you have nothing to fear.

Denialism leads to Nihilism. These problems get worse when we deny them. People smoke light cigarettes. People kept having unprotected sex without taking anti-retroviral drugs. Or we insist we can build on flood planes or emit a lot of carbon and that it's going to be totally fine. It's fine. In the realms of DRM, the reason artists aren't getting paid isn't because of bad relationships with those that distribute there work, it's because people aren't listening to it in the right way. If we just force people to listen to music in the right way means more money in artists' pockets rather than better contracts with their producers.

In Crypto-denial, we build out infrastructure with known holes that law enforcement can use. But these can't be remediated because they live out in the real world and can't be patched. Recent baseband radio exploit. Even things with strong crypto are unecrypted on this front. We encourage the formation of business based on harvesting our data with the promise we can some day use that data for profit. Saying they're wrong would be unacceptable, so laws are passed instead saying you can't say anything. The flaws will still be weaponized, it will just be too late for them to know. We also create giant terms of service. We agree that they can take all of our information. [shows Pokemon Go ToS]. You've agreed to them having access to all your information and etc, which means it's ok that they're going it. It's too much trouble to even bother with. Been smoking all these years, all this carbon in the air, etc. "I'm going to leak my data no matter what so I might as well join Facebook and get invited to some parties on the way to the information apocalypse."

The problem becomes undeniable. CFAA makes violating ToS a felony, which means we can't investigate who collects what and how because we'd be violating ToS. DMCA makes it illegal to publish the flaws in the very system. DRM becomes an attractive nuisance. You can sue anyone who breaks it even for lawful purposes. We have lightbulbs with DRM. A firmware update from Philips made their lightsockets reject lightbulbs from other manufacturers. Because DRM, it was briefly possible to commit a felony by choosing to plug your own lightbulb into a Phillips light fixture, until they rolled the update back after public outrage.
So who wouldn't want to wrap their product in DRM? We have it on EVERYTHING. It is potentially lethal for you not to know how these systems work.

At some point we reach a point of peak indifference. This is the moment the activist tactics change. We're no longer telling people it's unacceptable, we're telling them it's even possible to change. A year ago, the Office of Personnel Management leaked a list of all the people who had recently applied for security clearance. Office of Emergency management, you told the gov everything that could be used to blackmail you. And that was breached and likely sold to the Chinese government. Of course, now you care about privacy.

It's not just the government. Ashley Madison is another example. "Ratters" will compromise social media channels, dig up nude images and then blackmail their victims into performing live sex acts for them. Often the victims are underage and Ratters can rack up hundreds of victims. People find themselves unable to ignore these problems any more. Their cars are being hijacked. Information stitched together to replicate housing paperwork and sell your house. Farmers are up in arms about John Deere locking up their diagnostic information about tractors and soil density to know about what to plant where. But you don't have access to that information, they sell it back to you along with seeds from groups like Monsanto. Farming magazines are now running ads upset about this. The moment when everyone starts caring about this is when we can avert Nihilism. This when you encourage people to install strong encryption. If you catch it you can help people move from indifference to making a difference.

Dealing with all of this requires principles. A way to defend them from future people like yourself who might waver in their commitment. A way to make it up to date. GNU Linux licensing regime is a great example of this in our community. Computers should serve rather than enslave people. You should be able to run your code, understand your code, improve your code, and share it with other people. The tactic is the GPL. There are no backsies, if you start your business under high minded ideals with opening up computers. No matter how desperate things become about payroll or acquisition or investors you can never GPL your code. And if people know that, they won't ask you. They pressure you on different things.

"Ulysses Pact" named after the mythical hero who lashed himself to the mast saying he would go down with the ship. You're doing something like throwing out your Oreos on day 1 of your diet not because you are weak-willed then, but because you are strong-willed enough to know that a day will come when you DON'T have your strong will.

We wanted to build a beautiful thing of the internet and instead we built the biggest surveillance mechanism ever. No one is the villain of their own story. The founders of the internet each made tiny little compromises along the way that made this possible. We need rules to guard us from ourselves. We as pirates must protect future pirates from our future admiral selves.

Cory's suggested principles
  1. Computers should always obey their owners.
  2. True facts about computers should always be legal to disclose.

Build them into our Terms. If the FDA is going to certify an implant they have to require the company to never bring DRM suit. We can incorporate them into the definition of open standards.

These are rules for rulebreaking. The werewolf sin is not turning into a werewolf but failing to lock yourself up at night before the full moon comes out. Your trick is not to stay pure, it's to guard yourself against the times you're a werewolf.

EFF filed a brief against the 1201 of DMCA as contrary to the 1st amendment. Apollo 1201, our new initiative, wants to end all DMCA within a decade. This is our opening salvo.


Ethan: Our Goal is 1 lawsuit per panel, so we're on track so far.

Forbiddenliveblogtechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Monitoring the School Lunch Mafia

July 13, 2016 - 5:59am

On June 21st, middle and high school students in Brazil’s northern city of Santarém took to the streets in the city center to raise awareness about a crisis with school lunches. The event was organized by the Student Pact for Education in Pará in partnership with the state Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Workers Unions for Public Education in Pará. For years, public school students throughout the state and country have struggled with poor quality or missing school lunches. Some schools in the region report not having received lunches since 2012.

States are required by law to provide snacks and lunch to public school students in Brazil and though the official menu published by the government is varied and nutritious, it is far from the reality of what is served in schools. In some cases, quality ingredients such as chicken breast that appear on the menu are swapped out in practice with sardines. In other cases, students go weeks with only cookies and powdered chocolate milk. Investigations in São Paulo this year revealed the “School Lunch Mafia” scandal, in which school canteen budgets were being siphoned to politicians through a corrupt bidding process.

The group of students in Santarém represents 14 public schools in the region and have been organizing around this issue since late last year. Despite having attracted a significant amount of attention from local press and the Public Prosecutor’s office, they have been unable to get real results in the schools. Often when confronted by regulators with complaints around school lunch, administrators have dodged the issue by citing what was served last week or last month and the conversation devolves into a he said, she said scenario.

Over the past few months, students in Santarém teamed up with our partners at the Social Observatory of Belém to gather a more consistent set of data showcasing the daily reality of school lunches using Promise Tracker. Together they launched a campaign documenting basic information on daily lunches including whether a meal was provided, what was served, and a picture of the plate. Students have been tracking lunch now for 5 weeks and have been sharing their results with school administrators, the press, local residents and representatives of local government.

Students and the Social Observatory are considering this campaign a pilot that can be expanded to other schools in Santarém, throughout the state, and even across the country. School lunch has been an issue affecting a wide range of students and this group believes that consistent data will be a key differential in pushing for accountability from the state and schools.

During our most recent trip to Belém in July, the Promise Tracker team was invited to participate in a meeting organized by the Observatory to present the Santarém campaign as a model to representatives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Comptroller’s Office, and a professor at the Federal University of Pará. The two prosecutors present and several other support staff had been working on the issue of school lunches for years and voiced frustration at not having access to consistent or thorough enough information to hold school and distributors accountable. After reviewing the campaign data from Santarém, the representatives were eager to expand the use of Promise Tracker to schools throughout the capital of Belém to gather consistent data that could support broader cases around school lunch. The Public Prosecutor’s Office advocated to host a meeting in August to convene actors from the Municipal Committee on Education, the Committee on School Nutrition, the Fund for Development of Basic Education and 4 local schools to discuss the expansion of the data collection campaign in the capital.

We are excited to be following the activities in Pará as part of a case study for the second phase of Promise Tracker in Brazil throughout 2016. In collaboration with researchers at the University of São Paulo’s Co-Laboratory for Development and Participation and Humanitas360, we are working with community partners to document the use of Promise Tracker and explore how data collection, dissemination and strategic partnerships can influence social organizing around accountability. We’ll be focusing on participatory approaches to assessing impact and frameworks that value process-based learning and relationship-building. We look forward to sharing updates from implementing partners as well as learnings on impact assessment throughout the process. Stay tuned here and at promisetracker.org for news from the field.

Categories: Blog

The Meaning and Downsides of Academic Fellowship: What I Learned by Receiving the Harvey Fellowship

June 27, 2016 - 9:17pm

What does it mean to receive an academic fellowship? Are fellowships just polite language for recognition and money? Or do great fellowships offer something deeper by giving us meaningful networks of friendship and support?

This gif from a 2015 article uses a novel method called 'GLO-Roots' to visualize and compare
the growth of roots in water deficient (left) and control conditions (right).

Last weekend, I joined a four-day summer gathering of the Harvey Fellowship, which funds Christian gradstudents from any country or culture who are in top 5 programs for their fields. This fellowship is a new experience for me, since I've never accepted money from a religious source and I focus on non-partisan, non-religious research projects. When I do venture into matters of religion in my public identity, it's usually as a journalist, liveblogger, or facilitator rather than an advocate. So as I attended the summer institute, I was curious to see how the 25 or so other fellows understand these questions.

I have never been at a professional gathering where people were so open about their challenges, fears, and vulnerabilities as last week. Normally, gatherings of this kind open with speeches about how special we are. The Harvey organizers took the opposite approach, arguing that humility and faith were pre-requisites for long-term flourishing. The first four alumni speakers all told stories of unanticipated challenges in their lives that had completely reoriented their ideas of who they were. Rather than start with stories of success, the first speakers outlined challenges that an elite education could not help them overcome: infinite adjuncting, long-term family tragedies, post-partum depression, and pressure to compromise integrity. To live well through whatever might happen, they argued, we needed to ground our lives in our faith and build deep relationships that could weather the hardest challenges. A fellowship that couldn't offer that kind of support didn't deserve the name, they said.

Over the next three days, we reflected on the words of St Paul in Ephesians 4, which urges Christians to live out our callings with excellence, humility, and care for others. In group conversations, we listened to each other describe our hopes and challenges, and we spent many hours in prayer. We heard from high profile alums later in the week, with an emphasis on diverse identities and perspectives. One speaker was a conservative US senator. Another was Turkish scholar who offered pointed critiques of American Christianity's role in the world. As we argued through these issues in small groups, many fellows shared specific areas that the gathering had challenged our life and work. In our final session, we circled around each fellow for prayer in turn. I could tell that this group of peers could become a powerful source of inspiration and accountability in my life.

What Does the Harvey Fellowship Mean For My Work?

Throughout my PhD, I have worked to be transparent about my commitments to my audience and my research participants. So I want to be clear about what it means for me to accept funding from the Harvey Fellowship.

All applicants to the Harvey Fellowship are expected to affirm the Lausanne Covenant (wikipedia), a statement of confession and purpose affirmed by many evangelical Christians globally. It's a remarkable document that affirms a cosmpolitan vision for the role of Christians in faith, justice, and reconciliation. The covenant also argues for the central importance of indigenous Christian movements. I have long admired the Lausanne covenant and was happy to affirm it in this way.

In my six-essay Harvey Fellowship application (full contents here), I emphasized three ideas. The first idea is my focus on public interest research about online behavior. The second idea is my commitment to a form of leadership that is fundamentally about supporting inclusive networks to achieve their collective potential. My essays also explained to Christians the values behind my work by outlining the centrality of social justice in the early history of Christianity.

Intellectual independence is a basic part of the Harvey Fellowship, so I'm not expecting to change anything about the work I do. However, the fellowship does make some things more possible. The money is going to help me fund travel and research costs for my dissertation. I'm also putting some funds into research and ministry collaborations.


The Downsides of Fellowship
As an international student at Cambridge University in 2006, I remember watching the strong community within the Gates and Rhodes Scholarships from the outside. These elite scholarship recipients were marked out for special access to opportunities, and they benefitted from a powerful alumni network that fast-tracked people to the resources they needed to achieve their visions. Many of my friends in these circles have done meaningful work for good in the world, but I don't think I'll ever forget the palpable difference between being a runner up and being an insider of a strong, supportive community. Whenever I gain access to something exclusive, I always ask how I can leverage those networks to spread opportunity more widely (In this work, I continue to be inspired by my CivicMIT colleague and Rhodes scholar Joy Buolamwini). So when I applied to the Harvey Fellowship, I was already committed to continue that pattern.

I'll admit it; I came to last week's fellowship gathering expecting an elitist club. That was far from the case. I can genuinely say that the Harvey alumni are the most diverse, humble group of academics and professionals that I am connected to. They span a wide range of careers, status, and institutions, from community colleges to governments and corporations. Harvey alumni come from many different cultures, and their work ranges across the humanities, sciences, arts, and business. Distinctively, one of the ideas that brings everyone together is the Christian commitment to put others before ourselves. I hope we can stay true to that. Connecting with other Harvey Fellows has already made my social media experience dramatically more diverse along many political, cultural, and geographical dimensions.

But the Harvey fellowship is still an exclusive group. With that in mind, I'm planning to allocate some of my time and funds toward a project aimed at studying and expanding the fundraising capacities of people of color in Christian university ministry. After exploring the issue for the last six months, I'm currently negotiating the details of a research collaboration. At our gathering last week, two other fellows independently voiced the problems of POC ministry fundraising as one of the most strategically crippling problems facing our generation of Christians. I took it as confirmation that I was headed in a good direction.

Being a Fellow to Others
I have been very lucky to experience rich models of academic fellowship more than once: at the Center for Civic Media and through Harvard's Berkman Center. As I learn from the openness and care of those around me, I hope to continue to grow in my ability to foster that kind of community wherever I go. In the busy final year of my PhD, I continue to be thankful for everyone at MIT and Harvard, especially my advisor Ethan, for showing me how to care for people while also caring about my work. After several days with the Harvey Fellowship, I am excited to see those same values lived out among these new colleagues and friends.

Categories: Blog

Civic Innovation Workshop in Mérida, Mexico

June 27, 2016 - 7:09am
What does civic innovation look like in México?  There are efforts across the nation to build skills, interest, and capacity for civic technology.  Last week I contributed to these by facilitating a workshop for youth in Mérida, Mexico on the topic of Civic Innovation.  It was organized and hosted at the amazing Workshop school, just outside of town, with the help of my colleague and friend Alberto Muñoz.  Their student-led, collaborative approach to learning was inspired by the Reggio-Emilia style; reminding me of my roots in the Lifelong Kindergarten group.  It provided the perfect setting for this hackathon-style workshop to help youth learn about how to apply their technological and creative skills towards the public good.  The participants ranged from 6th grade, to graduate school; a great mix of skills and interests.  This event was offered with support from the MIT Center for Civic Media, the Workshop school, Andromie Robotics, and Canieti Sureste.     Why are these types of workshops so important to run?  For one, it helps us here at Civic Media ground our work with real people in settings outside of the ivory tower that is MIT.  This is one of the many ways we try to use collaborative design for all our projects.  Of course, we’re also an educational institution, so it is important for us to find new ways to get another generation interested in using technology for the social good.  We also argue about the narratives of using technology to solve other people’s problems, so these hands-on workshops with local participants can build capacity for using technology appropriately to address their own problems.  In many places this civic innovation usage of technology is nascent, so creating new experiences and and helping youth see it as a valuable is especially important.   In terms of learning goals, I was focused more on process than output.  The week-long event provided rich opportunities to help students learn about pitching their ideas, getting feedback, iterating, and prototyping.  They used a variety of technologies to accomplish this - including Arduino, Proto.ioAppInventor, ScratchIonic Creator, and Andromie Maker.  Participants practiced crafting their story and demonstrating their projects numerous times.  I introduced a process for telling their story that is common here at the Media Lab.  These brainstorming, collaboration, technical and communication skills are ones that I hope participants will find useful across any projects they do.     At this workshop the nine groups created a rich diversity of project prototypes.  The participants were a mix of students who attend the private Workshop school, local polytechnic universities, and public schools.  The week culminated in a public demo event, showcasing their ideas in an open house inspired by those we host twice a year at the MIT Media Lab.  Students told the story of the problem they were tying to solve, the prototype they made to demonstrate their solution, and the potential impact of their fully realized ideas.  Below is a quick run-down of each, but as with most week-long workshops, the main goals and impact are more about the capacity built among the participants than the technology specific prototypes they created.   I led the participants through an agenda that started with brainstorming what "Civic Innovation” means.  Based on our collective definition, and a number of examples I shared, we starting proposing problems they could work on during the week. With these proposals they started assembling into groups, sketching up their ideas to get feedback from other participants and from the mentors.  Then the prototyping began!  The main technologies were. The resources at the Workshop included 3d printers, paint, electronics, and various other hardware and tools they could use.   The Projects   Make it Automatic Automating your life from door to door. The handicapped around México struggle with the built environment.  This group tried to solve that problem by prototyping a mechanical door that could be cheaply built to open and close automatically.  The mechanics included 3d printer parts controlled by an Andromie Arduino board. They hope to improve life for the physically handicapped.     LED Crossing For safer streets Many people in México cross the street wherever they want, leading to many injuries and deaths.  This group decided to prototype a more effective, and more fun, street crossing.  Their solution controls LEDs via an Andromie Arduino board, which that blink in patterns to alert the driver and pedestrian to who’s turn it is.  Their goal is to reduce these incidents.     Drone Life Saving lives without risking others. Drowning is a major problem around the world. This group decided to address the problem of getting to a drowning victim quickly enough to provide assistance.  They designed and 3d printed a rig for under a quad-copter that could carry and release a life vest to someone drowning at sea.  The latching mechanism used an Andromie Arduino board. They hope to reduce drowning deaths by using this new technology.     Helping Stories Inspiring people to help There is a lack of kindness and charity in the stories we share.  This group decided to make a tree that showcased good deeds (inspired by Crónicas de Heroes).  As you write a story and slide it into a box, a new light illuminates on the tree.  Their prototype was based on an Andromie Arduino board, programmed with visual block software.  They hope to create a giant version for a public space, and encourage people to do more kind acts and help each other.     PestsOff Making solutions for your garden to blossom. It is hard for busy people to maintain their plants and gardens.  This group decided to prototype a remote control robot that could water you plants while you aren’t at home.  They used an Andromie Arduino board and a variety of sensors and motors. Their goal was to encourage more people to grow plants within their home.     Trash Metal Recycling for a better world Trash disposal is a big problem, and even when people throw things away they might not be recycling as much as they should.  This group decided to make a trash can into a carnival game, where you could win prizes by throwing recycling bottles.  They used an Andromie Arduino board, sensors, and Scratch to create an interactive prototype. They hope to encourage a more playful form of urban planning to increase recycling rates.     Whatsquitos Sharing experiences to care for the health of Mérida’s residents Mosquito-borne illnesses, and spraying to prevent them are common around Mérida. This group wanted to build a better system for identifying where to spray, and helping those who get a disease.  Their Proto.io prototype app lets citizens report when they are sick, offers to connect them to someone that can help, and shows a map of recent reports of illness. They hope to optimize disease mitigation strategies, and help those who do catch an illness.     Runastik Running day is every day Obesity is a growing problem in México.  This group decided to encourage people to exercise by helping them connect with a running buddy.  They prototyped an app with Ionic Creator that would let you and a buddy take a run to a virtual destination together.  Their goal was to encourage exercise and encouragement between the buddies.     Don’t Bug Me Identifying animals for your tranquility and safety. People that live in houses, and their household help, often run into bugs and animals here while cleaning.  This group decided to create a way to automatically identify insects and animals so you could find out which were dangerous and which were not.  Their AppInventor-based prototype is a mockup of their solution.  They hope to change how we relate to household insects.   Civic mediaeducationliteracylocal communitiesmediamobile devicestechnology solutionsyouth
Categories: Blog

Using Data for More than Operations

June 23, 2016 - 7:21pm

While at Stanford to talk about "ethical data" I had a chance to read through the latest issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review within the walls where it is published.  One particular article, Using Data for Action and Impact by Jim Fruchterman, caught my eye.  Jim lays out an argument for using data to streamline operational efficiencies and monitoring and evaluation within non-profit organizations.  This hit one of my pet peeves, so I'm motivated to write a short response arguing for a more expansive approach to thinking about non-profit's use of data.

This idea that data is confined to operational efficiency creates a missed opportunity for organizations working in the social good sector. When giving talks and running workshops  with non-profits I often argue for three potential uses of data - improving operations, spreading the message, and bringing people together. Jim, who's work at Benetech I respect greatly, misses an opportunity here to broaden the business case to include the latter two.

Data presents non-profits with an opportunity to engage the people they serve in an empowering and capacity-buiding way, reinforcing their efforts towards improving conditions on whatever issue they work on. Jim's "data supply chain" presents the data as a product of the organization's work, to be passed up the funding ladder for consumption at each level. This extractive model needs to be rethought (as Catherine D'Ignazio and I have argued).  The data collected by non-profits can be used to bring the audiences they serve together to collaboratively improve their programs and outcomes.  Think, for example, about the potential impacts for the Riders for Health organization he discusses if they brought drivers together to analyze the data about their routes and distances.  I wonder about the potential impacts of empowering the drivers to analyze the data themselves and take ownership of the conclusions.

Skeptical that you could bring people with low data literacy together to analyze data and find a story in it?  That is precisely a problem I've been working on with my Data Mural work. We have a process, scaffolded by many hands-on activities, that leads a collaborative groups through analyzing some data to find a story they want to tell, designing a visual to tell that data-driven story, and paint it as a mural.  We've worked with people around the world to do this.  Picking it apart leaves us with a growing toolkit of activities being used by people around the world.

Still skeptical that you can bring people together around data in rural, uneducated settings? My colleague Anushka Shah recently shared with me the amazing work of Praxis India. They've brought people together in various settings to analyze data in sophisticated ways that make sense because they rely on physical mappings to represent the data.

Charting crop production and rainfall trends over time.

Yes, that looks like a radar chart to me too.

These examples illustrate that the social good non-profits can deliver with data is not constrained to operational efficiencies.  We need to highlight these types of examples to move away from a story about data and monitoring, to one about data and empowerment.  In particular, thought leaders like SSIR and Jim Fruchterman should push for a broader set of examples of how data can be used in line with the social good mission of non-profits around the world.

Cross-posted to my datatherapy.org blog.

Categories: Blog

Fighting Racial Bias with Big Science: Calvin Lai on Mass Cooperation and Open Knowledge in the Social Sciences

June 17, 2016 - 8:25am

How are mass collaboration and open data changing the ways we do social science? While we're used to thinking about data science as a major impact of computation on the study of human behavior, changes in scientific collaboration are driving even more fundamental change in the study of human behavior. In recent years for example, the Reproducibility Project: Psychology coordinated over 270 authors to attempt replications of published findings in psycholog. The working method they developed could dramatically improve the quality and rate of experimental knowledge, even as it revealed serious weaknesses in the slower single-study approach that has been more common.

One leader in this transformation of the social sciences is Calvin Lai (@CalvinKLai), a social psychologist and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard's Safra Center, where he takes "big science" approaches to answering important about psychology. Calvin joined The Berkman Center's Cooperation Working Group this April to talk about his big science approach. I was excited to learn from Calvin, since my own PhD focuses on creating open, replicated knowledge on social behavior online, with an emphasis on replicating studies on the effects of communit moderation. Here are my notes from our conversation:

Calvin opens up by pointing out that as science has progressed over time, our questions have become more complex. People are specializing into specific questions that require high levels of expertise, or they're realizing that there are big problems that a single lab at a single university can't do, and not even a few labs working together. How can we tackle these problems, asks Calvin? One solution is to bring scientists together to pool resources and creativity to do things they can't do themselves.

When people talk about big science, we often think about the large Hadron Collider at CERN, where there are literally over 10,000 scientists from hundreds of universities all working to find something out about what matters. But that kind of collaboration is uncommon outside the so-called hard sciences, Calvin tells us.

Big Science Versus Big Data: The Value of Carefully Designed Studies
How might the big science approach help us answer questions about how people think and act, and what they do? Within the social sciences, we often talk about big data, where a small group of researchers looks at a lot of data, and a lot of that research happens within companies and on social media sites. But one limitation is that it's very noisy, and you have very indirect variables. An alternative approach is needed to ask questions about more precisely-collected variables.

Finding the Best Ways to Reduce Racial Bias with Big Science
Calvin shares two examples of big science. The first is a research contest to change people's response to race, a study of implicit bias. What is implicit bias? These are thoughts swirling around our minds beyond our explicit control that influence how we behave. We might think of something as a gut feeling, or something where we catch ourselves before saying something. Over the past 30 years, psychologists have tried to figure out how to capture those processes in a bottle. We can't just ask people what they think -- we need to assess it indirectly through other measures. The most popular measure is the implicit association test, where you play a sorting game. The speed at which you sort things tells researchers how things are linked in their minds.

Things that are more closely linked in our memory are more easily done, so people tend to be faster and better at sorting things. That allows Lai and colleagues to study the associations that people make with race. Most whites and asians have a pro-white bias. For example, in one study, 72% of white Americans who visit the Project Implicit site have shown a pro-white bias. The Project Implicit site was started in 1998, and over the last 17 years, they've collected data on a wide range of implicit biases from over 50 countries. And these biases seem to be predictive of discriminatory behavior, whatever people might believe.

Normatively, we might want to try to change people's implicit racial biases. People have tested hundreds of ways to change these implicit biases. We know we can do it. But if a policymaker came to them and asked: "how can we do this?" it wouldn't be possible to give a straight answer. Individual researchers go on their own paths, and it's not possible to compare the effectiveness of different interventions. Calvin wanted to know: what's the best way to reduce implicit racial biases?

Coordinating Mass Collaboration with Research Competitions
To find out the best way of reducing implicit biases, Calvin created a research competition. He wrote researchers around the world asking them to suggest their best idea for reducing implicit biases. 24 researchers suggested 18 different interventions, with the idea of testing them all at the same time. Why a research challenge? Calvin pointed to the Ansari X prize that organized engineers to create a private space shuttle, an initiative that kickstarted the private spaceflight industry. One reason it was so successful was that it found a single problem that a lot of people knew was important, and it pooled resources, handed out an incentive, and asked people to work on that problem. Another example was the Netflix prize, where they asked the public to create the best algorithm for matching people to movies.

Calvin wanted to apply that to the important public issue of racial bias. The prize was author order. Calvin would be first author, and the rest of the authors would be sorted by the effectiveness of their intervention. They ran the experiments with roughly 17,000 non-white participants on the Project Implicit site and gave teams a chance to revise their experiment.

Researchers tried four overall approaches, all of which had to fit within 5 minutes. The first approach was to offer counter-stereotypes. The second approach was to change how people took control over their biases-- perhaps you could give people a strategy to override their biases. A third approach was for people to reflect on their values. The fourth approach asked people to take the perspective of a black person. In a final intervention, they taught people how to fake the test, as a point of comparison to gauge successful interventions. In other words, they got a lot of great ideas that sounded plausible, all of which had some evidence behind them. By pooling researchers, they were able to show what works.

Calvin shows us a chart showing the results of the interventions. Half of the interventions were effective, and the other half were not. That was shocking, says Calvin-- since they had asked researchers to suggest their best ideas. The first run of the experiment was even worse-- only one out of five worked. After further iteration on the experiments, they were able to refine the experiments to the point where half were effective.

Overall, interventions that involved perspective taking and reflecting on your values tended not to work at all. In contrast, things that involved controlling bias or exposure to counter-stereotypes were most effective. There's also a lot of variability between the weakest and most powerful interventions, ranging from reducing bias by a quarter to reducing bias by a half.

Do Bias-Reduction Efforts Last?
The second phase in the contest asked if the effects for the 9 effects lasted after a 24 hour delay. To test this, they were able to convince 18 universities to participate. The more participants contributed by a university, the higher position they played in authorship order. The answer is: no, they don't last at all. The effects dissipate very quickly. This has been nerve-wracking, says Calvin. They've taken 100 interventions from the literature, taken the top 18, found that only half of them worked, and then found that of all of those, none of them had an effect after one day.

Mass-Replication of Research
Next, Calvin talks about the Reproducibility project. One of the foundations of science is reproducibility. If we do a study, we expect that if someone else does it, they should get the same effects--that's the hope of generalizable knowledge. Unfortunately, there are roadblocks to reproducibility, and it doesn't happen very often. Incentive structures discourage replication by individuals, and publishing incentives can reduce replicability, since journals are often looking for novelty. Basically, the lack of reproductions is a cooperation failure. Individually, it makes sense for people not to invest their resources into replications.

The Reproducibility Project took 3 journals from top psychology journals, sampled 100 studies from these journals, and tested whether doing them again got the same effect. Instead of harnessing scientific resources to create new ideas or pool participants, they were repeating what came before. Doing 100 replications is no small task. Calvin ran two of the replications. Students at a class at Stanford each did a study. They ended up with a bunch of authors: around 270. The goal was to get a representative sample of the field.

Calvin shows us the effects from the original studies. Of the 100 original studies, 97% of them had a statistically-significant effect. When they did replications, 37% had a significant effect, using samples that were often much larger than the original projects. The effect sizes were also much smaller on average. Perhaps the foundations of psychological science are not firm as we thought, Calvin wonders. What's in the published literature may not be a representation of what's robust and reliable. Now, another group is doing a reproducibility project for cancer biology.

Summing up the Benefits of Big Science
Calvin concluded with a few quick takeaways about large scale cooperation:

  • it can help you solve bigger and bigger problems
  • it can spur innovation
  • it can broaden participation in science. Someone from a small university might not be able to run a large lab, but they could add a small part to a larger effort
Categories: Blog

Practicing Data Science Responsibly

June 6, 2016 - 12:19pm

I recently gave a short talk at a Data Science event put on by Deloitte here in Boston.  Here's a short write up of my talk.

Data science and big data driven decisions are already baked into business culture across many fields.  The technology and applications are far ahead of our reflections about intent, appropriateness, and responsibility.  I want to focus on that word here, which I steal from my friends in the humanitarian field.  What are our responsibilities when it comes to practicing data science?  Here are a few examples of why this matters, and my recommendations for what to do about it.



People Think Algorithms are Neutral

I'd be surprised if you hadn't heard about the flare-up about Facebook's trending news feed recently.  After breaking on Gizmodo if has been covered widely.  I don't want to debate the question of whether this is a "responsible" example or not.  I do want to focus on what it reveals about the public's perception of data science and technology.  People got upset, because they assumed it was produced by a neutral algorithm, and this person that spoke with Gizmodo said it was biased (against conservative news outlets).  The general public thinks algorithms are neutral, and this is a big problem.

Algorithms are artifacts of the cultural and social contexts of their creators and the world in which they operate.  Using geographic data about population in the Boston area?  Good luck separating that from the long history of redlining that created a racially segregated distribution of ownership.  To be responsible we have to acknowledge and own that fact.  Algorithms and data are not neutral third parties that operate outside of our world's built-in assumptions and history.

Some Troubling Examples

Lets flesh this out a bit more with some examples.  First I look to Joy Boulamwini, a student colleague of mine in the Civic Media group at the MIT Media Lab.   Joy is starting to write about "InCoding" - documenting the history of biases baked into the technologies around us, and proposing interventions to remedy them. One example is facial recognition software, which has consistently been trained on white male faces; to the point where she has to literally done a white-face mask to have the software recognize her.  This just the tip of the iceberg in computer science, which has a long history of leaving out entire potential populations of users.

Another example is a classic one from Latanya Sweeney at Harvard.  In 2013 She discovered a racial bias trained into the operation Google's AdWords platform.  When she searched for names that are more commonly given to African Americans (liked her own), the system popped up ads asking if the user wanted to do background checks or look for criminal records.  This is an example of the algorithm reflecting built-in biases of the population using it, who believed that these names were more likely to be associated with criminal activity.

My third example comes from an open data release by the New York City taxi authority.  They anonymized and then released a huge set of data about cab rides in the city.  Some enterprising researchers realized that they had done a poor job of anonymizing the taxi medallion ids, and were able to de-anonymize the dataset.  From there, Anthony Tockar was able to find strikingly juicy personal details about riders and their destinations.

A Pattern of Responsibility

Taking a step back form these three examples I see a useful pattern for thinking about what it means to practice data science with responsibility.  You need to be responsible in your data creation, data impacts, and data use.  I'll explain each of those ideas.

Being responsible in your data collection means acknowledging the assumptions and biases baked into your data and your analysis.  Too often these get thrown away while assessing the comparative performance between various models trained by a data scientist.  Some examples where this has failed?  Joy's InCoding example is one of course, as is the classic Facebook "social contagion" study. A more troubling one is the poor methodology used by US NSA's SkyNet program.

Being responsible in your data impacts means thinking about how your work will operate in the social context of its publication and use.  Will the models you trained come with a disclaimer identifying the populations you weren't able to get data from?  What are secondary impacts that you can mitigate against now, before they come back to  bite you?  The discriminatory behavior of the Google AdWords results I mentioned earlier is one example. Another is the dynamic pricing used by the Princeton Review disproportionately effecting Asian Americans.  A third are the racially correlated trends revealed in where Amazon offers same-day delivery (particularly in Boston).

Being responsible in your data use means thinking about how others could capture and use your data for their purposes, perhaps out of line with your goals and comfort zone.  The de-anonymization of NYC taxi records I mentioned already is one example of this.  Another is the recent harvesting and release of OKCupid dating profiles by researchers who considered it "public" data.

Leadership and Guidelines

The problem here is that we have little leadership and few guidelines for how to address these issues in responsible ways.  I have yet to find an handbook for a field that scaffolds how to think about these concerns. As I've said, the technology is far ahead of our reflections on it together.  However, that doesn't mean that they aren't smart people thinking about this.

In 2014 the White House brought together a team to create their report on Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values.  The title itself reveals their acknowledgement of the threat some of these approaches have for the public good.  Their recommendations include a number of things:

  • extending the consumer bill of rights
  • passing stronger data breach legislation
  • protecting student centered data
  • identifying discrimination
  • revising the Electronic Communications Privacy Act

Legislations isn't strong in this area yet (at least here in the US), but be aware that it is coming down the pipe.  Your organization needs to be pro-active here, not reactive.

Just two weeks ago, the Council on Big Data, Ethics and Society released their "Perspectives" report.  This amazing group of individuals was brought together to create this report by a federal NSF grant.  Their recommendations span policy, pedagogy, network building, and area for future work.  The include things like:

  • new ethics review standards
  • data-aware grant making
  • case studies & curricula
  • spaces to talk about this
  • standards for data-sharing

These two reports are great reading to prime yourself on the latest high-level thinking coming out of more official US bodies.

So What Should We Do?

I'd synthesize all this into four recommendations for a business audience.

Define and maintain our organization's values.  Data science work shouldn't operate in a vacuum.  Your organizational goals, ethics, and values should apply to that work as well. Go back to your shared principles to decide what "responsible" data science means for you.

Do algorithmic QA (quality and assurance).  In software development, the QA team is separate from the developers, and can often translate between the  languages of technical development and customer needs.  This model can server data science work well.  Algorithmic QA can discover some of the pitfalls the creators of models might not.

Set up internal and and external review boards. It can be incredibly useful to have a central place where decisions are made about what data science work is responsible and what isn't for your organization.  We discussed models for this at a recent Stanford event I was part of.

Innovate with others in your field to create norms.  This stuff is very new, and we are all trying to figure it out together.  Create spaces to meet and discuss your approaches to this with others in your industry.  Innovate together to stay ahead of regulation and legislation.

These four recommendations capture the fundamentals of how I think businesses need to be responding to the push to do data science in responsible ways.

This post is cross-posted on my datatherapy.org website.

educationliteracytechnology solutionsvisualization
Categories: Blog

A Primer on Non-Binary Gender and Big Data

June 3, 2016 - 12:32pm


This is a draft piece for a larger project called The Visual Catalogue of Uncertainty in Data that I'm just beginning with Mushon Zer-Aviv that seeks to catalog the ways in which the data never, under any circumstances, speak for themselves.

Gender data is often more complicated than it appears on the surface. Our received wisdom is that there are two categories: the world is made up of men and women. And yet, the historical record shows that there have always been more variations in gender identity than society has cared to outwardly acknowledge or collectively remember. These third, fourth and n-th genders go by different names in the different historical and cultural circumstances in which they originate, including female husbands, indigenous berdaches, Hijras, two-spirits, pansy performers, and sworn virgins.

In contemporary Western thought, there are several different but related concepts to untangle when it comes to sex and gender. Biological sex refers to a person's chromosomal and anatomical make-up whereas gender identity refers to the what gender a person feels themselves to be. Gender expression is the gender that a person presents to the outside world. Biological sex, gender identity and gender expression are aligned for most people, but not for people who identify as transgender, queer and gender-queer. And gender identity is different from sexual orientation which refers to being romantically attracted to people of a particular gender (or possibly more than one gender). Sexual orientations range from gay and straight to bisexual, pansexual and more. The site OKCupid defines 13 sexual orientations.


Moreover, rather than seeing either biological sex or gender as immutable and given, there are ways that these identities shift, change and may be directly manipulated over time. In the case of biological sex, this includes gender reassignment surgery for intersex infants born with "abnormal" genitals as well as medical and surgical transition for transgender people who are transitioning from one gender to another. Some individuals feel that their gender identity shifts from day to day or situation to situation - a concept known as gender fluidity. A newer term - gender datafication - can be used to refer to the external digital classification of gender and its representation in databases and code.


Non-Binary Gender and the State

Official, state-sanctioned acknowledgement and rights for sexual and gender minorities have been expanding in Western democracies over the past fifty years. There are nineteen countries that recognize same-sex marriage. Nations around the world have varied and uneven ability for individuals to officially amend their sex. Some, like Japan, mandate hormone therapy and surgery in order to be legally recognized as another gender. Only three countries as of 2015 allow individuals to self-determine their gender, including Ireland, Denmark, and Malta. Amnesty International considers LGBTQIA rights as human rights. In practice, sexual minorities and gender non-conforming people face harassment, discrimination and violence even in the most "enlightened" places despite the fact that they represent a significant sub-population. A study out of UCLA estimated that 0.3% of the US population is transgender and 3.5% is not straight in sexual orientation. This translates into 9 million individuals, about the population of New Jersey.


Non-Binary Gender and Social Media

Recognition of non-binary sex and gender differences has begun, slowly, to extend itself into the technological realm, primarily for social media companies responding to user pressure. In 2014, Facebook expanded their gender options from 2 to 58 for English speakers in the US and UK. The gender options they added were created in consultation with the LGBTQIA community and range from "gender non-conforming" to "two-spirit" to "trans female". The corporation later added the ability to identify as more than one gender and to input a custom gender. Other social networking and dating sites like Google+, OKCupid and Match.com have followed suit. While these changes may appear to be progressive, Facebook's databases still resolve custom and non-binary genders to Male and Female on the backend based on the binary gender that users select at sign-up where the custom option is not available. Here is how the Facebook Marketing API views gender: 1 = Male, 2 = Female. So while a user and her friends may see her presented as the gender she elects, she is a 1 = Male or 2 = Female to any advertisers looking to purchase her attention.  


Automatically Detecting Gender

Computational, Big Data and artificial intelligence applications that deal with gender have invariably treated it as a binary. Competitions on Kaggle, a popular web platform for predictive modelling and analytics, have sought to predict gender from fingerprints and handwriting. Other work has sought to automatically identify the gender of bloggers, novelists, movie reviewers and Twitter users based on the style of their language. There are multiple libraries for predicting the gender of people based on their name, like OpenGenderTracker and the controversially named "Sex Machine" Ruby Gem (now called GenderDetector). Nathan Matias has a comprehensive account from 2014 of more of this research, including different uses, methodological choices and ethical guidelines.


While these applications seek to generalize about majority populations who largely do fall within the binary categories of male and female, they reinforce the idea that the world is only made up of these two groups which is categorically, empirically, and historically untrue. Moreover, these works tend to codify (literally, to write into code) essentialist, stereotypical characterizations of male and female communication patterns and present them as universal, context-free, scientific truths. For example: "women tend to express themselves with a more emotional language"; "men are more proactive, directing communication at solving problems, while women are more reactive". As we know from disciplines like Communication Studies, Geography and Science and Technology Studies (STS), representations do not always reflect reality but also have a role in producing it. This applies to code and statistical modeling just as it does to visualizations, images and videos. And when things are left un-represented they effectively do not exist.  


Non-binary genders will always be outliers

Trans and gender non-conforming people will represent statistical outliers and minorities in any dataset that collects gender (around 0.3% if the UCLA study is correct) just as Native Americans will represent a small minority in any US-based data set that collects race. But this is not a good reason to simply ignore this group. As Brooke Foucault-Welles states, "When women and minorities are excluded as subjects of basic social science research, there is a tendency to identify majority experiences as 'normal,' and discuss minority experiences in terms of how they deviate from those norms". Minority experiences are relegated to the margins of analysis or, as mostly happens with trans people in relation to computation and gender, excluded altogether. Instead of ignoring these statistical outliers (which has dubious ethical and empirical implications and has even been called "demographic malpractice”), Foucault-Welles proposes that data scientists use minority experiences as reference categories in themselves. This means not just collecting more than two genders but also disaggregating any data processing, analysis and results based on these categories.


The risks and challenges of collecting non-binary gender data

At the same time, depending on what data is being collected and whether it is personally identifiable (or easily de-anonymized) it is important to recognize the potential risk of stating one's gender as something other than male or female. Because the sample sizes will be so small, these individuals may possibly be identified even within otherwise large data sets. Even when individuals do not volunteer this information to an application, it may be possible to algorithmically infer gender or sexual orientation from knowledge of their social networks. This can pose risks of repercussion, either in the form of personal shame for people who have hidden their gender identity or even discrimination, violence and imprisonment depending on the context and community where they live.


There are also challenges to collecting information about non-binary genders. As we can see from historical studies of non-binary gender, how many and which other genders exist depends heavily on culture and context. For example, the government of Nepal attempted to add to their census the category of "Third Gender" but gender minority communities, more likely to consider themselves Kothi or Methi, did not identify with this term. The Williams Institute at UCLA and the Human Rights Campaign provide short guides for collecting non-binary gender data. Just providing more choices in a drop-down menu is not always the best path. Depending on the circumstances, the most ethical thing to do might be to avoid collecting gender data, make gender optional or even stick with binary gender categories. Nathan Matias and Sarah Szalavitz chose to do this for their application FollowBias which detects gender from names in order to avoid outing someone's gender identity against their wishes. And if gender data is going to be used in processes with known structural inequalities such as hiring and promotion the most ethical action might be to entirely obscure a person's gender from either the human decision makers or the algorithms making discriminatory decisions in order to avoid bias.

In summary, non-binary gender and data represents complicated terrain for computational applications for numerous reasons. But we have an ethical and empirical imperative to tackle this complexity. The world is not and has never been comprised of only two genders. To assume gender is a simple binary is simply wrong.

What do you think? In the interest of strengthening this piece, I'd love to hear about others' work in collecting, securing and analyzing gender data beyond the binary. What are best practices? What are the urgent research questions and knowledge gaps? What potential insights might we derive from working with non-binary gender and data? What are the risks to gender minorities in relation to data? What kinds of variation do we see across culture, context and history? How might non-binary gender and data deal with intersectionality?

Post responses in the comments below or @kanarinka on Twitter.

Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #ODR2016: Afternoon sessions on innovating justice

May 24, 2016 - 6:03am

I'm here at the #ODR2016 conference at the Peace Palace in The Hague. ODR2016 is the annual meeting of the Online Dispute Resolution Forum, an international assembly of lawyers, mediators, technologists, and others who care about technology and dispute resolution. It is cohosted by the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, where I am a fellow.

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

After lunch, we have three speakers lined up for afternoon sessions:

  • Making ODR happen: an executive branch perspectiveTom Wynne-Morgan, UK Ministry of Justice
  • Making ODR part of cutting edge innovation strategies of governments - H.E Al Majid, Chief Innovation Officer UAE Ministry of Justice
  • HiiL Innovating Justice approach to ODR and justice innovationSam Muller, CEO, HiiL Innovating Justice

Tom Wynne-Morgan is a designer who currently works as a product manager within the UK Ministry of Justice. A few years ago, the UK announced a 'Digital by Default' standard for their government, and implementing this has required a massive amount of work to transition basic (and advanced) government services into usable digital experiences. Doing this well has required focusing on the user, shifting the role of government from IT procurement to service delivery, and setting UI/UX standards.

Tom has been working on a project for UK MOJ to facilitate divorces. He quotes a UK legislator working on family issues who issued a call to "to foster a cultural change to enable people to solve their own disputes in a less acrimonious way and not look to government to do it for them."

~50k Britons attend court to make arrangements for children as a result of marriage disputes. There are an increasing number of litigants who may not fully understand what the courts can (or can't) provide them. Part of his mandate, Tom says, is to design systems that better understand and facilitate user needs and expectations so they don't have to fall-back on the courts.

Tom argues that policy-making and service-design are (or should be) the same thing. He quotes Herbet Simon: "everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones." He describes the methods by which the UK MOJ mapped user 'touchpoints' in family courts to abstract needs that a newly designed service could fulfill, as well as the challenges of trying to implement conventional best-practices for digital service design (i.e. agile methodology) within a legislative context and culture that accepts and generates change much more slowly.

Tom views the future of building government technology for the UK as one where the government does the work of settling political questions (e.g., what kind of taxonomies should be used to structure public data) and making available data, and then both public and private partners build on that base to design new products for constituent/consumer use.


H.E Al-Majid opens with a history of the foundation of the UAE and also a vision of its future. The seven touchstones of UAE Vision 2021, includes a safe and fair public judiciary..

Al-Majid says that UAE is innovating to achieve justice by transitioning toward more ODR. Based on the metrics outlined on the UAE website, it seems that one way that UAE self-evaluates is by a set of World Bank metrics, e.g. "A composite indicator that measures the effectiveness of enforcing contracts within the "Doing Business" report..." So, from my perspective, it seems like ODR makes sense in terms of helping UAE meet certain goals.

To be honest, this talk was way more about how UAE is trying to create national happiness than it was about anything substantively related to ODR or justice.

I wanted to ask whether ODR would be available to the migrant workers laboring under so-called 'modern-day slavery' to build much of the UAE, but unfortunately, I was not able to get access to the microphone during Q&A.


Sam Muller, the CEO of HiiL, wants to share some insights on why he helped start HiiL and what he sees the future of ODR to be. Sam believes that 'a good state' offers its citizens a 'bundle of effective procedures' that helps people negotiate disputes as they encounter them in daily life.

The traditional solutions, argues Muller, are more of everything: more courts, more lawyers, more rules, more systems. But, Muller argues, the continued accretion of traditional legal concepts and entities will not actually provide more justice to anyone. He points to the ICC (which he was involved with initiating) as the ultimate, inadequate legal institution. Instead, a more 'innovative' approach will contemplate new actors and ways of approaching and resolving disputes.

Part of this approach requires better data on the kinds of actors who have disputes and the disputes that they have. Muller points to a survey HiiL carried out in Yemen at the behest of the UN. They assumed that most of the problems would have been in the traditional 'human rights' realm, but most people actually reported consumer complaints, like buying a cellphone or car that didn't work. This kind of empirical work can help set priorities for governments, NGOs, and companies in this space, which can be consolidated through political coalitions. Muller sees the 'innovation of justice' as proceeding through a combination of this kind of data-driven and compromise-enabled empirical/political work.

Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #ODR2016: Reconfiguring legal representation to provide justice for detained asylees

May 24, 2016 - 3:54am

I'm here at the #ODR2016 conference at the Peace Palace in The Hague. ODR2016 is the annual meeting of the Online Dispute Resolution Forum, an international assembly of lawyers, mediators, technologists, and others who care about technology and dispute resolution. It is cohosted by the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, where I am a fellow.

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

As part of the #ODR2016 conference I attended a working group meeting on asylum cases hosted by Vikki Rogers, Director of Institute of International Commercial Law Pace Law School. Her talk/slides: "Mining the Process: The Case of Asylum-Seekers from the Northern Triangle into the United States Using Technology to Promote the Rule of Law in Asylum Cases."

Vikki volunteers with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project, which organizes legal representation for asylees, particularly women and children, who have been impacted by the intensifying 'deterrance' policies and practices of the Obama administration. CARA works "to ensure that detained children and their mothers receive competent, pro bono representation and to end the practice of family detention entirely by leading aggressive advocacy and litigation efforts to challenge unlawful asylum, detention, and deportation policies."

So what makes this an ODR issue? After canvassing the set of stakeholders, policies, and politics, Vikki tells the story of LawLab, a nonprofit software company/product developed by immigration lawyers to organize effective legal representation. In the most basic sense, LawLab is case-management software, but what it facilitates is a kind of distributed legal representation that has not previously been possible (or at least effectively applied). According to Vikki, the US government strategically places deportation centers in rural, relatively inaccessible areas in order to make it more difficult for sufficient lawyers to be able to do pro-bono work. With LawLab, CARA has organized a network of legal volunteers who can track, advance, and assist cases from wherever they are located in the country. Vikki is based in New York but continues to volunteer on cases via LawLab.

Vikki positions this as an interesting flip on the traditional model of providing legal services: instead of a small number of lawyers working on a small number of cases from beginning-to-end, the CARA project, facilitated by LawLab, has allowed a large number of volunteers, some (but not all) lawyers, to work on a large number of cases by breaking up the processs into modular tasks. The project was successful in closing one government detention center in Artesia, NM and continues to work today to provide justice to asylees and refugees.

What made me want to attend and blog this working group, besides my personal interest and investment in immigrant rights, is the way this project flips the traditional script for how technology will change the legal profession. For decades, Richard Susskind and others have predicted the 'end of lawyers,' arguing that new technologies, particularly forms of automated text analysis/processing and decision-making, will make human analysis/processess/decisions obsolete. And certainly this has happened to some extent; LexisNexis and WestLaw are easily searched than books, and LegalZoom has made it easier to fill out legal forms like TurboTax has for tax forms.

However, I tend to be skeptical of arguments that certain forms of intelligence will be replaced. As my friend Erik Stayton argued in his master's thesis "Driverless Dreams: Technological Narratives and the Shape of the Automated Car", the idea of automation divorced from human agency is only one of many possible futures of how humans and computers can work together to make things possible.

In this case, I see LawLab as reconfiguring the process of legal representation; not eliminating but rather redistributing the kind of work historically done by one lawyer across many people, some of whom have specific legal expertise and credentialing, some of whom do not. This offers genuinely new possibilities for providing legal aid and justice to some of the poorest, least-resourced populations who have historically struggled to obtain adequate representation.

Categories: Blog

Liveblogging #ODR2016: Present Practices and Future Directions for ODR

May 24, 2016 - 1:01am

I'm here at the #ODR2016 conference at the Peace Palace in The Hague. ODR2016 is the annual meeting of the Online Dispute Resolution Forum, an international assembly of lawyers, mediators, technologists, and others who care about technology and dispute resolution. It is cohosted by the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, where I am a fellow.

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

My liveblogging begins with day 2 of the ODR conference (I missed day 1 due to various travel delays). The morning begins with a series of remarks from some of the key organizers of the conference:

Jin, our host for this year's conference, welcomes everyone back for the second day. He outlines the events of the day and quickly introduces Ethan as the 'godfather' of ODR and to have him speak on the future directions of ODR.

Ethan begins by quoting at length a 1996 essay by Richard Susskind about the printing press, the slide rule, the videophone, and the ATM. Two decades ago, Susskind wrote this essay to outline different histories/futures of 'transformative' technologies. Ethan asks the audience to consider which of these technologies ODR seems most akin to.

Jeff Aresty, of the Internet Bar, asks Ethan what he thinks about the focus on 'ODR in the courts' means in the context of this conference. Why are we focusing on courts when they move so slowly?

Ethan says that, for a long time, it indeed seemed like courts were not going to be the first place for ODR to function well. Part of this depends on what we count as 'courts': as Ethan notes, eBay has been essentially administrating its own private small claims court for decades now. However, he points to developing EU regulations that require alternative-dispute resolutions in traditional courts as a potential driver of innovation in traditional public courts.

An audience member brings up research done here in the Netherlands that the very poor and rural citizens don't use the Internet or have the same access. She asks how ODR will empower these types of people?

Ethan agrees that there are several issues. However, he says that he is no longer as concerned about the 'digital divide' as he once was. Everyone has, or soon will have, mobile phones; the larger problem, in Ethan's opinion, is that you can't dialup access to the justice system like you can access to Uber. We need to simultaneously build that infrastructure so there is something for them to connect *to*.

Ethan combines several questions to ask whether ODR is a *part* of the courts or an *alternative to* the courts. He says the ultimate question is whether these labels will even apply or make sense in a few decades. The goal of ODR, as he conceptualizes it, is not based so much around courts or not, but a more abstract question of what it takes to have access to justice, and what tools and technologies will help achieve that. As an example, Ethan points to HiiL, which is trying to develop ways to measure justice. What would it even mean to measure justice, Ethan asks? It's a hard question to ask and answer, but maybe it's one we need to in order to guide us to the kind of change we need to realize.

Jin tells the audience that unfortunately Daniel could not attend today because he is working in Washington on the forthcoming presidential transition. However, he has submitted a video presentation, which I will try to edit in here later.

After Daniel's presentation, Jin invites us all to split off into the working groups which will take us up to a mid-morning coffee break:

  • ODR and the legal profession: enabling legal professionals to deliver more justice – Janet Martinez, Director of the Martin Daniel Gould Center for Conflict Resolution
  • Bending the Bar rules – Professor David Allen Larson, senior fellow at Mitchell Hamline’s Dispute Resolution Institute
  • Landlord-tenant disputes – Eiichiro Mandai, President ODR Room Network Japan
  • Timing interventions in the ODR process – Nicolas Vermeys, Associate Director Cyberjustice Laboratory University of Montreal
  • Small Claims – Sue Prince, Associate Professor in Law University of Exeter

I will be floating between these working groups and may not be able to liveblog many of them.

Categories: Blog

Finding other Christians in Computer Science at CHI 2016

May 15, 2016 - 7:54pm

Academic conferences offer many great moments to connect with other people who share passions and interests. In that spirit, Robin Brewer (PhD candidate, Northwestern) and I hosted a coffee break for Christians at CHI 2016 this year.

Before posing for this photo, we paused to pray for each other and for everyone attending the conference. It can be hard to convey the remarkable sense of peace and encouragement that something simple like group prayer can bring.

It's like being a traveler far from home, in a place with local cuisine of great depth and variety, a place that already satisfies you. Then one day, someone sets your table with a dish from your childhood, a meal that renews in a deep, mysterious way through its smells, tastes, and familiar nourishment. That's what our time of prayer felt like to me -- acknowledging a deeply important part of my life and nourishing me to enjoy the wider world with a renewed spirit and perspective.

Before I started blogging about Christianity and technology in my first year at MIT, I didn't know a single Christian who I could talk to about the issues and ideas in my research. Christian teachings and traditions speak into every conversation I've taken up in my work, from cooperation, gratitude, and equality, to justice. Yet when I looked around me, I couldn't find anyone who could speak intelligently to the academic issues while also participating in the long conversation within Christianity on these issues. Across my work, I tend to focus on public-interest, non-partisan, non-religious projects, so I haven't always fit the mold of apologists for Christianity that are typically more visible within academic Christian culture. That left me unconnected within my field and within my faith alike.

As I continue to be honest about my Christian faith in my blogging and social media use, I have discovered that I was far from alone. Many other Christians have found themselves drawn to social computing because it offers an opportunity to reflect on the moral and social dimensions of technology. Over the last year, several gradstudents and I have been hosting semi-regular Google Hangouts of Christians in computer science and HCI, building a community for prayer and encouragement. And since Robin and I were both presenting multiple papers at CHI, we decided to try an experiment: could we find out who else were Christians by advertising a coffee morning?

Are you a Christian attending #CHI2016? Join our coffee break on Monday @ 10am @_rnbrewer https://t.co/KxqoY54aF9 pic.twitter.com/uce4EnseVh — J. Nathan Matias (@natematias) May 9, 2016


Once we decided to go ahead, organizing the gathering was straightforward. After finding a core group, we picked a time and location and advertised the gathering on Twitter. One of the conference organizers was kind enough to share our announcement on social media.

Reflection, Encouragement, Community among Christians at CHI

I found myself deeply encouraged to sit in a circle with so many other computer scientists from so many different cultures and geographies who also share a Christian faith in some way. In our brief conversation, we talked about things that Christians in many fields discuss:

  • Ways that our faith has shaped our research and career
  • Challenges and support for Christians in academia (our Namibian colleague reminded us that in some countries, Christians are the majority of computer scientists!)
  • Ways to carry out our calling to love others within an academic context
  • Avenues to support and serve Christianity in particular through our research and skills

Continuing the Conversation
We're planning to continue the conversation we started at CHI this year, so if you're a Christian in HCI, social computing, or computer science more broadly, contact me and I can add you to our mailing list. We have no boundaries of denomination or belief; everyone who has a connection to Christianity is welcome.

If you're not in computer science and want to try something similar, consider reaching out to InterVarsity's Emerging Scholar's Network, Black Scholars in the Academy and Professions, the American Scientific Affiliation, which all facilitate relationships among Christian academics.

I hope this note inspires other people, whatever your identity or belief, to think about ways that a similar approach might help you connect with others in your field who share your interests and beliefs. If you're at MIT or within HCI and would like some feedback or support in your own efforts, let me know. I would be delighted to help, whatever your faith or identity.

CHIcomputer sciencehciChristiansresearch
Categories: Blog


May 10, 2016 - 6:44am

This past March, 3,500 students walked out of Boston Public Schools (BPS) in a well organized action to protest a proposed $50 million budget cut to BPS which would result in the closure of schools, layoff of teachers, and diminished services in extracurricular spaces, AP classes and support for special-needs students. Young organizers began to mobilize weeks prior, beginning when a group of students reached out to the youth-led Boston Area Youth Organizing Project. In an interview published last week in The Nation, young organizers from the movement expressed pleasant surprise with the number of youth who participated, articulated the process of organizing the walkout as well as the disastrous effects such budget cuts would have on the lives of young people throughout Boston and made sophisticated links between budget policies and institutional racism.

The walkout has been covered nationally by the press, yet mayor Marty Walsh’s immediate response questioning who was behind the walkout stripped the youth organizers of their agency. Such ageism is unfortunately common and results in the important role of young organizers being overlooked in social movements (see Contanza Chock, 2012). Youth across Boston continue to organize for their right to education. Just last week students across the city participated a “walk in” where they organized outside of their schools and walked in together in an act of solidarity along with students in more than 80 cities across the nation. In an interview with the Boston Neighborhood Network about the movement, a student organizer with Boston Student Advisory Council Edward Tapia questioned the validity of mayor Walsh’s response to the action, which purportedly safeguards high schools from budget cuts. Edward spoke of six teachers at his high school losing their jobs and pushed back against the suggestions from a McKinsey audit that suggested BPS could save $85 dollars per year by closing 40% of its schools. Edward smartly mentioned the price tag of the audit, costing over $600,000 to the city, and clarified that the $85 million figure comes from closing the maximum amount of schools on the spectrum presented in the report, which ran from 25 to 50. What Edward didn't mention, is the role that school choice and charter schools play in the decreasing population of students across BPS.

The youth organizing efforts to counter the disastrous budget cuts proposed are making mainstream national media and organizers have employed social media in their actions through the #bpswalkout conversation on twitter and a letter on facebook in February which helped organize the walkout. While successful and visible, this movement is just one of myriad organizing and community engagement efforts young people in Boston are pushing forth every day, engaging with a host of community organizations and projects. Youth organizing groups such as the Boston Student Advisory Council, the Boston Area Youth Organizing Project, The Center for Teen Empowerment and the Hyde Square Task Force actively train youth in organizing to affect political change and engage lawmakers, civic leaders and community members while myriad other creative youth organizations employ the arts as a tool for youth development. Within this host of arts-based youth development spaces, several focus in particular on media-arts, training young people to tell their own stories and engage critically with media rather than being consumers of mass media, such as Presspasstv, CCTV's Youth Media Program and the Do it Your Damn Self! film festival.

Youth activism is alive and well in Boston, evidenced by the battles young organizers have won making the MBTA safer and more friendly to students, campaigning to revitalize public spaces, engaging national actions for educational justice and continuing to rally against budgetary cuts to education in the city with the greatest income inequality nationwide. It’s time to start recognizing the role that young people here play in the struggle against inequality and their work challenging stereotypes and pernicious policies. We must learn to stand alongside, not in front of, the young people leading us in progressive movements today.

activismCivic mediaeducationIntro to Civic Medialocal communitiesyouth
Categories: Blog

Going Dark: Social Factors in Collective Action Against Platform Operators in the Reddit Blackout

May 9, 2016 - 5:39pm

This is a live-blog account of Nathan Matias' talk at CHI titled "Going Dark: Social Factors in Collective Action Against Platform Operators in the Reddit Blackout" which is work he carried out with Microsoft Research.



This paper describes how people who lead communities on online platforms join together in mass collective action to influence platform operators. I investigate this by analyzing a protest against the social news platform reddit by moderators of 2,278 subreddit communities in July 2015. These moderators collectively disabled their subreddits, preventing millions of readers from accessing major parts of reddit and convincing the company to negotiate over their demands. This paper offers a descriptive analysis of the protest, combining qualitative content analysis, interviews, and quantitative analysis with the population of 52,735 active subreddits. Through participatory hypotheses testing with moderators, this study reveals social factors including the grievances of moderators, relations with platform operators, relations among moderators, subreddit resources, subreddit isolation, and moderators' relations with their subreddits that can lead to participation in mass collective action against a platform.


Nathan mentions the choices that people have when they disagree with an institution. Who shapes the choices people have vis a vis institutions? Moderators have supported people online for more than 30 years. Now we have moderators and administrators on most online platforms. These moderators are at the centers of things when there is collective action against the platforms. He references the DailyKos Writer's Strike and Mechanical Turker Collective Action.


Moderators were appealing to the company for help and ways of addressing hate speech on the site. They had been talking about blackout for months. In July 2015, there were over 147,000 moderators on reddit. These people help people find jobs, seek mental help, celebrate cultural values and more. When the company let go a key employee who helped support moderators, one went dark, i.e. made their subreddit private. More than 2000 subreddits joined into this action, cutting off advertising revenue and public visitors to the site.


Also, there was a front stage and back stage thing happening. Reddit employees were calling moderators on back channels to try to negotiate.


Nathan is looking to link this to social movement theory. He's looking at Political Opportunity Theory which looks at who is going to take action at what time. There is another school of thought called Resource Mobilization Theory that looks at how institutions and people mobilize people to take action. That has been leveraged for online communities as well.


But, how do we study social action online during times of mistrust?

This has historical roots in Participant Action Research. Kurt Lewin was trying to understand behaviors of workers in a heavily surveilled situation.


Nathan started with data collection from the reddit API. He interviewed moderators. That fed into 12 explanations for blackout participation or non-participation. First, he offers qualitative findings and then builds those into a quantitative statistical model to see if those apply at scale. He then went back to participants and asked for feedback and advice in the form of participatory hypothesis tests. He grouped reasons into 5 themes - Grievances, Relationships, Resources, Group Isolation (how isolated the subreddit was from the rest of reddit), and Leader-community Relations. The statistical model predicted the likelihood of a subreddit to join the movement or not.


Of these five themes, there were two that had greater magnitude in predicting the likelihood of a subreddit to join the blackout. Grievances increased the likelihood and group isolation decreased the likelihood.


Nathan offers that his paper is also a methodological contribution because it provides a model for participatory hypothesis testing in which research hypotheses are vetted with their subjects.


Q: Victoria Bellotti from PARC. She asks about the availability of data on reddit vs other platforms where the data is closed. In some cases you have disagreements about religion or military actions. What kind of correspondences might you draw?


A: I also do work on online harassment. When people think about extremism they are trying to look at content and communication theory about how it spreads. There is value in looking at what are the conditions that lead people to be more likely to join a cause or movement. Hopefully this research encourages people to study more about people's wider social factors in different kinds of collective action.


Q: Dominic from UW. Did you come across rumors about what could have caused subreddits to go black but wasn't really a cause?


A: Yes there were a lot of rumors flying around across reddit. There was a belief that subreddits with employees were more likely to join that. But that was not the case. There were a number of cases where moderators held a vote. It's unclear how influential that was. They said they held votes to buy themselves time. Other cases moderators wanted to put it to a vote.

Q: Josh from MSU. Reddit still exists and is going thru transformation. Was it the event of the termination of this employee that caused this change? Or was the system graducally changing over time when it was ripe for this event? The termination then is a straw on the camel's back.

A: The work of predicting when a rare event will happen is challenging. In the qualitative work, many of the moderators who participated were long-term moderators. They had been asking for better tools and feeling pressure for years. They wanted to take some action to pressure the company. Moving forward there are follow-up studies. This could be seen as a model for a natural experiment. Are there peer influence hypotheses that could be tested? Those are a few that might be possible.


Categories: Blog

How do Social media Shape Collective Action? Helen Margetts at the MIT Media Lab

May 3, 2016 - 12:10pm

How does the changing use of social media affect politics?

Today at the Media Lab, Helen Margetts of the Oxford Internet Institute joined us to talk about a new book with Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri, Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action. Ethan Zuckerman facilitated the conversation.

Margetts and her colleagues wrote the book because they wanted to look at the relationship between collective action and social media, putting meat on the conversation. There's a widespread feeling that political mobilization is on the rise and that it has something to do with social media. In this book, Margetts and her colleagues delve into the data on that question. As a political scientist, Helen is in a continual state of excitement about the availability of behavioral data. Typically, political scientists have studied what people think they did, think they might do, or what they might prefer. Social media is exciting because it provides researchers with new sources of data about the political world that political scientists have never had before.

Social media allows "micro-donations of time and attention" to political causes, tiny acts of politics. With just one click of a button, you can encourage others to take action too. These tiny acts of participation can scale up to very large mobilizations, says Helen. She shows us an image of Tahrir square. The people there are not carrying out tiny acts. How did they get there? How did they get enough signals of viability suggesting that there would be a million people there? That happened via a wide range of media, says Helen, with each like sending a signal of viability leading to a mass mobilization.

These series of chain reactions of tiny acts of participation are affecting people's individual lives for whole groups of people. How many refugees changed their course, asks Helen, after seeing an image on social media stating "refugees welcome"? These mobilizations also achieve policy change, although 99% of them fail. What factors predict their success or failure? It's hard to generalize, says Helen. Successful mobilizations on the UK government e-petitions site develop fast, going up straight away in the first few hours. It's not what political scientists expected. Political scientists expect an s-shape-- that things would grow until they reach a threshhold and then take off. Instead, successful mobilizations take off almost immediately. When things rise quickly, attention also decays very quickly. If your petition hasn't become popular within ten hours, "it's digital dust."

What does this mean for politics? When successful movements move rapidly, the result is unpredictability. How might we get a handle on this unpredictability? Margetts and her colleagues tried to get at these things through experimentation, looking for the forms of influence that they felt were most influential on social media. She talks about (a) social information, real-time information about the participation of others, as well as the (b) ways that our actions are visible to others. In the Ice Bucket Challenge, people's actions were being made visible, adding more social information to shape others' actions.

Changes in platforms also offer the potential for conducting natural experiments. When the UK government introduced trending information on their petition platform, it concentrated signatures toward the most popular petitions at the expense of the least popular. Rather than expand the number of signatures, it just concentrated them towards the most popular petitions.

Can these rapidly-unfolding movements lead to sustained, enduring change? Supported by digital communications, says Margetts, large mobilizations can develop without more classic forms of leadership. But these "act-first, collective-identity later" movements can struggle to lead to enduring change. To sum up, Margetts argues that online organizing has led to a system of political turbulence, a dynamic system with unpredictable behaviour. This turbulence, which is shaped by personality but lacks leaders, institutions, and organizations, has a high sensitivity to initial conditions, non-linear relationships, high interconnectivity, and tipping points. The book offers a start, but there's still a way to go to better understand these issues.

Discussion with Ethan

Ethan: in many ways, you're offering a response to Malcolm Gladwell's way of seeing online activism, that activism is all about physical risks rather than online clicks. At some levels, you have a straightforward argument that many little things can add up to something more powerful. But when we lose risk and danger, are we talking about a very different form of mobilization.

Helen: it's not just Gladwell. Many political cultures, especially British political culture thinks that if it doesn't hurt or involve some long meeting or protest on the streets, or something that infringes on your life and making it worse-- then it's not politics. We are arguing against that view quite strongly. However, there is another sense in which the post-revolution will not be tweeted -- there needs to be some kind of institutional catch-up.

Ethan: In many ways, the cost of participating in activism is being reduced. In a pre-digital age, your first form of activism might have been going out to attend a speech or rally, or purchasing the bumper sticker. In the grand scheme of things, those require effort. Now, any time there's a political joke, we can retweet it and feel like we're doing our part. How would you see the fear that the requirements of activism have become so low that the line between jokes and civics has begun to blur. What do you make of that?

Helen: most people never go to the demonstration or participate in the other, lumpy things. It's blurring the line; the jokes have always been important. I wouldn't agree that sharing a joke is not a political act. Social media is drawing people into politics and into fights against injustice who are young. Political scientists and political commentators have often worried that young people aren't involved in politics, and now they've just voted Jeremy Corbyn into being the leader of the labor party.

Ethan: how does retweeting get us to electing Jeremy Corbyn? What is it about the ability to inexpensively make and spread media that makes an apparently-outsider, countercultural figure so powerful?

Helen: before, there would have been no way for an outsider to garner support without those institutional mechanisms. Now, it's possible. Corbyn and his supporters ran a campaign that spread on social media in ways that the other candidates didn't. It's having a cumulative effect. It's giving people the feeling that the extraordinary can happen. When people see that figures from outside the mainstream can become leaders, it's having a pervasive effect on what people think about politics.

Ethan: that notion that the unlikely can happen seems well supported by the theory that you're putting forward. If 99% of mobilizations fail, how do we deal with the issue of confirmation bias? Is it surprising that so many Arab spring movements failed?

Helen: Most books about political participation either have no evidence, or they are surveys, or they offer narrative and stories. We can't get a sense of failures from that. There are many other datasets I wish we had that we don't.

Ethan: I am struck by your three badgers example, where one petition gets only a few signatures, one gets a few thousand, and another gets over a hundred thousand signatures. Is there any possibility that if you could synchronize your research with people who study the spread of ideas on social media, could you figure out which petitions will be successful? Or will that be difficult to predict at the end of the day?

Helen: It could be part of the story. We did use data on celebrity tweets and institutional support, and we didn't find evidence for that. Even if Justin Bieber were to retweet to something, it wouldn't be guaranteed success. Our dataset doesn't indicate where an institution is supporting the petition or not. But some of the success of a petition must be down to luck-- if people don't happen to notice the petition at the right time, it might not succeed.

Ethan: And you found that extroverts are less sensitive to social pressure than introverts? Helen: extroverts are more likely to do things when no one has done it before-- they're more independent. It's complicated-- we found a much weaker effect among people who saw themselves as the captain of their fate.

Ethan: You've argued that people can participate in ways that are much easier, they can take smaller acts. People can see each other's actions, and when they see each other, they can coordinate and make decisions about what to do. These can turn into powerful mobilizations, except it often doesn't. What I want to know is: what happens when we build these new social movements? Citing Zeynep Tufekci, Ethan talks about the Gezi Park protests of 2013. The result is the world's least likely political collaboration: gay and lesbian turks and ultra nationalists are marching together because they're both interested in mobilizing against Erdogan. But when they decide what to do together, they have a fragile movement of individuals who made their own choices, rather than a movement of groups who are committed to working together. Do you think this new form of mobilization is a good thing?

Helen: In social movement theory, you first get collective identity, and then you get collective action. Here, you get "act first, identify afterwards." It's more difficult to do that. But you might have said the same about the Indignados in Spain, which was based on many different dissatisfactions. Yet, we have seen that turn around; Podemos has emerged as a force in Spanish politics. The mainstream politics is still unable to accommodate it, but it still has a major part of the vote.

Ethan: is this unique moment resulting from changes in technology or something else? We have a lot of insight into how our institutions work, including their failures. Is this a moment of high mistrust in institutions, or are these movements uniquely enabled by technology?

Helen: I'm a social scientist-- I'm not going to take the deterministic argument. But technology is definitely a factor. And yet our mistrust might be related to social media as well. Transparency has often been seen as a good thing, but it often leads to less trust. The more we know about our institutions and how they work, the less we trust them. There's no way we're going to get systemic democratic changes without society and technology alike.

activismCivic mediamediasocial networks
Categories: Blog

The Effects of Surveillance and Copyright Law on Speech: Jon Penney at Berkman

April 27, 2016 - 10:03am

What effects do laws and surveillance have on the exercise of freedoms online?

Today, the Berkman Center welcomed Jon Penney (@jon_penney), who is finishing his D.Phil at the University of Oxford, to talk about his dissertation research on chilling effects. Jon is a lawyer, Oxford researcher, and a research fellow at the the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.

What is a chilling effect? The idea, theorized in a US context by Schauer in 1978, was that laws might have an effect on legal, protected, and desired activities. Judges have been skeptical about this idea. In Laird v Tatum, judges claimed that chilling effects were not a 'cognizable' injury. In response to recent NSA cases, chilling effects were dismissed as too speculative. Scholars agree. Kendrick argued that chilling effects have a "flimsy" empirical basis. Many open questions remain, including the magnitude of chilling effects and their reach. In his dissertation, Jon set out to answer some of those questions.

How do you prove a negative? Jon points out that this challenge is one of the reasons that chilling effects have been so difficult to identify. Datasets of online behavior offer resources that can help us answer these questions in greater detail. Jon promises to offer two case studies with us today.

The effect of NSA surveillance on online participation

In June 2013, Edward Snowden released information about the US surveillance system PRISM. By 2014, Pew found that 2014 people had "heard" of PRISM. Matthews & Tucker (2015) looked at Google search activity and found a 5% decrease in Google searches on sensitive topics after June 2013. In March 2015, Wikimedia and the ACLU brought a lawsuit against the NSA, saying that pervasive surveillance had a chilling effect on participation.

Jon asked this question in his work, using an interrupted time-series design to examine traffic for sensitive content before and after revelations about NSA surveillance. What Wikipedia articles did he include in the study? Penney focused on 48 Wikipedia articles that corresponded with U.S. Department of Homeland Security "terrorism" keywords. The articles in this set received a total of 81 million views over the period of study. Jon checked these articles by asking Mechanical Turkers "if you knew the Government was monitoring online, how likely would you to be avoid them?" On average, the survey showed that this was content that would give some internet users cause to avoid them. Jon's research also normalized the traffic to these articles to overall traffic on Wikipedia.

What did Jon find? Firstly, he found that after the Snowden reports, sensitive content experienced a drop-off. But over time, people started to realize that they probably wouldn't go to jail, and the trend continued to increase over time. But there's a problem: there are two extreme outliers. What were these? Both of those outliers represent Israeli operations in Palestine, leading large numbers of people to read articles about Hamas.

In a second analysis, Penney developed a comparison group of security-related, non-terrorism articles from the same homeland security list. He also looked at the subset of potentially-chilled articles that were rated as most risky by Turkers. In this final analysis, he showed that among those articles, not only did fewer users read Wikipedia pages about those articles, the trend line reversed -- the traffic to those articles declined over time. In contrast, the comparison group did not have a reverse in trend lines. Penney suggests that there might be a long-term, ongoing chill from surveillance.

Do copyright laws like DMCA have a chilling effect on speech?

Next, Jon tells us about the DMCA "notice and takedown" copyright enforcement scheme, a statute that aims to police and enforce copyright on the internet. For example, imagine a blog on Google blogs. Imagine that some blogger has posted a video without permission. The rightsholder sends a DMCA notice to Google, who will then take the video down. The blogger can then decide if they want to accept the takedown or file a counter-notice. If they do file, the rightsholder can file a lawsuit. If not, the video is restored.

This scheme has been criticized widely. Many scholars have argued that this has a chilling effect-- there are millions of notices being sent every single day. Wendy Seltzer described this as a "chilling effect architecture" -- a regulatory scheme that favors a chilling effect on users. To test this, Penney did a random sample of 500 Google blogs. He visited each blog and coded them to identify which were online/offline, suspended, locked, and whether they had grounds for potential legal defenses. He then followed up to find out why they had made those decisions. The blogs in the sample ranged from business, culture, politics, adult content, science, personal blogs, and spam. The targeted content on those blogs were text, images, music, software, and "mixed."

What was the impact of the DMCA? Of the 500 notices, 88% of the content targeted by the notices was offline or inaccessible. 12% was still accessible. Among blogs that were targeted through the DMCA, 43% of the blogs were still there, the blog was suspended in 32% in the cases, 13% of the blogs were deleted or relocated by the user. Jon also analyzed the targeted content for potential legality. Across several categories, Jon found substantial percentages of likely-legal content that had been taken down, where the blog had been suspended or the person had deleted or relocated their blog. When challenged, users aren't replacing the content and leaving it offline, even if they have a good case for keeping it online. Penney also found no evidence of counter-notices -- people very very rarely challenge a DMCA takedown.

Overall Implications
Both case studies suggest the existence and persistence of regulatory chilling effects, says Jon. Secondly, Penney suggests conforming effects of these regulatory regimes, where people avoid certain information or leave content offline. Yet he's not sure if there's a single overarching theory to understand these effects. In the case of the DMCA, there might be a specific legal punishment that people fear, but perhaps surveillance is a . Finally, Penney's findings suggest that there's a huge potential scale of chilling effects. With 1 billion takedowns per year, a chilling effect at the size of 7% or 10% could be affecting very large numbers of people.

Questions & Answer

Could you talk about the choice of your comparison-related terms? Jon answers: this is one area of the study where I would like to enhance the sophistication of the comparison group. I wanted to avoid the bias. I considered a random sample of articles, but if you gather a group of random wikipedia articles, it's probably going to track certain trends that different kinds of events are going to influence. If I had to added articles about Justin Bieber, for example, it would be too different from terrorism content, such that whatever trends you would get would be too different. Instead he used what he called a "normative matching" approach, in the absence of a randomized trial.

I asked Jon if findings like his ever have impacts on courts, and what that path looks like. Jon: one of the challenges over constitutional litigation around surveillance is that there have been concerns about how to "prove" these claims. They're often described as subjective, speculative, "non-cognizable" injuries. Many of these fall down on the grounds that people don't have a standing to prove that they have been injured. Wikimedia lost at the first instance in the federal court, especially on standing grounds. Jon is hoping that having an empirical foundation for these kinds of claims might help the Wikimedia litigation and potentially other surveillance litigation. In other litigation, survey studies about chilling effects have been cited by briefs filed with courts. They've been successful sometimes to persuade courts.

Penny identified basically three routes for influence. One impact comes through methodologies that others could use when demonstrating they have experienced harm. Another impact comes through specific legal cases drawing attention to Penney's research to argue that chilling effects are real and that their specific complaint should be taken seriously. Finally, findings like Penney's could be shown to lawmakers as they consider similar regulations, to show them the side-effects of certain kinds of policies.

What might we do to reduce chilling effects? Penney replied that it's important to reform laws, which can be informed by empirical findings. Platforms also have a role; Google has been a leader in this area by providing all takedown notices to the Lumen project and supporting research. If more companies provided data to Lumen and collaborated more with researchers, they might be able to develop novel approaches to protect speech rights while responding well to the law.

What are the economic impacts of chilling effects? Jon notes that chilling effects can hurt public value in nonprofits like Wikipedia and can also hurt platform revenue, when they push users away from platforms.

penneycopyrightchilling effectssurveillanceberkmandiscontinuityinterrupted time serieslawpolicysnowdenNSACivic mediasocial networks
Categories: Blog

From User to Citizen - Erhardt Graeff at TICTec 2016

April 27, 2016 - 8:32am

This is a live-blog of Erhardt Graeff's talk at the TICTeC 2016 conference. Any errors or omissions are the fault of the author, Rahul Bhargava, due to trying to type as quickly as Erhardt speaks!

Erhardt is evaluating online learning engagement as civic learning. He works a lot on case-studies for civic impact - to inform how we design these tools. Instead of focusing on specific problems, he is interested in growth of individuals to be able to effectively participate in democracy.

Lets think about how our research serves a purpose. Our current model is a debate about slacktivism or “actualizing citizens". Morozov write about slacktivism as feeling good for doing something, versus having impact in the world. Micah White talks about clicktivism as distracting participants from doing real world important work to build social movements. Others suggest this digital engagement is “actualizing citizens” to work with others online, working with networks about an issue that matters to them.

This should be a core motivation question for all of us here at the conference. The participation gap (from Jenkins in 2006) is really important. Tons of folks are publishing media online, and that is where we are doing our civic work. If you don't have the skills to publish and share, then you won't be able to participate in 21st century democracy. This is very concerning.

What kind of citizens are we building? When you look back to education scholars, we can find models for civic educaton that create different types of citizens (Westheimer and Kahne 2004).

  • Personally Responsible - folks that are following rules
  • Participatory Citizens - the organizers that try to activate others
  • Justice Oriented - folks looking at systemic problems and how to solve them

While we do need all three types, we don't need everyone to be all of these. We have to redefine what it mans to participate in society now - it is about getting the skills and experience participate and engage with others online and offline.

We need a definition of civic learning, so he uses Merrifield's one from 2001 include knowledge, abilities and dispositions. Knowledge is about awareness of tools, theories of changes, and experiences to bring to bear. Abilities is broad - anything you can do to help bring about change. Dispositions are the values you bring and your sense of efficacy; we need to understand how youth thinks about this and how it grows. You need a combination of all three of these to get there. Merrifield says this is about linking to existing experience, practicing democracy, and solving problems. You have to engage with things in different ways, include scaffolding to on-board folks, and allow for deeper self-reflection to close the loop. This last bit is about how we learn. Have to participate in communities of practice, and more.

So you can map Civic Tech in multiple ways, but civic learning has to be at the center of it. Doing this well requires all methods to understand this well - longitudinal, psychometric surveys, ethnographic insights, and pre/post tests. This has to get deeper than if you feel efficacy today, to include the context and culture behind it. We have to built up a set of validated tools to assess learning. Erhardt admits he hasn't done this - it is a shared challenge we need to work on. Shute's Stealth Assessment approach about instrumenting video games is inspirational in how to determine learning over time.

He pivots to talk about Action Path as an example, a tool he has been building with Rahul Bhargava (me) at the MIT Center for Civic Media. Imagine walking through your community and being alerted via a notification on your smart-phone to ask you for input on an issue up for public debate. This is attempt to lower the cost of engagement for participation. His goals including increasing quantity and quality of engagement, increase knowledge of city, and increase sense of efficacy. This is “design-based research”, where we try something new to see how it goes. He assessed this via ethnographic interviews with participants.

In partnerships with SeeClickFix in New Haven he found 14 people to work with. Every interaction with the app was logged with time and location, to assess if they are doing the behaviors designed into it. He starts with qualitative aspects to understand how it made people feel. At a high level, they said that they felt more connected. the vast majority said it changed how they viewed the city. This suggests that he is on the right track. Erhardt shared a number of quotes to highlight how people ended up feeling. There were about the folks around doing the work, and what role they felt in the process - all pieces of how connected each individual is.

So this is the challenge - how are our users evolving? To address these questions he started with, we have to figure out how to track this. We must create a framework for putting civic learning at the center of our design goals.

Audience Questions

One audience membe asks: Most of what you talked about is positive reinforcement loops, but mostly we have a lack or negative? You participate and it doesn't work, or you participate and see nothing happen. Erhardt responds The center for civic media believes you can't answer this in the tech itself; it relies on the partners and deployment in context. The community provides the opportunity to asses goals were actually achieved. This is quite a design challenge.

Another person asks about values as an element of disposition. As we think about impact, what are the values that are baked into the things we make? Does civic learning espouse a specific set of values that you see come up again and again? Erhardt responds that the core for the values question is that you have to be there to empower users vs. their potentially disempowering context they are in. This is about democratic participation. If you find that is uncomfortable, then the whole civic learning framing isn't going to work for you. He hesitates to go beyond this, because tech isn't neutral and the values baked in aren't always easy to counteract. Designers need to reflect, as do organizations; and community it transparently.

Categories: Blog

Educating for Democracy

April 18, 2016 - 8:37am

Despite spending the last few years of my work in conversations around creative community engagement and participatory projects, the idea of “civic education” still conjured images of my high school government teacher, a white-haired man with a love of golf who teased me for being the lone liberal in a sea of farmers more than he taught me about government. It was a surprise then when my colleagues at the Harvard Ed. School (HGSE) pushed me toward civic education conversations like those convened by the Civic and Moral Education Initiative; it was an even bigger surprise when I began to find resonances in the new civics dialogue unfolding at HGSE and the conversations I’ve entered through the Introduction to Civic Media course.

Drawing from practices of civic engagement, critical pedagogy, civil discourse and service learning, civic education seeks to strengthen democracy. Helen Haste, HGSE faculty and co-convener of the Civic and Moral Education Initiative, identifies the goal of democracy as “providing the conditions for humans to flourish.” In her introductory course to civic education, she poses the pivotal question “What ethical systems provide the best criteria for human flourishing?”

While no single ethical system can be the “right” one, scholars and educators articulating, practicing and studying Civic Education today:

I. Start from the premise that democracy is necessarily deliberative
II. Articulate distinct concepts of citizenship behind goals of civic education
III. Analyze different forms of patriotism which inform trends in the U.S. education landscape today

I. Democracy and dialogue

Civil discourse is essential to democracy and a core element of civic education approaches. In his introduction to a study of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, David Hansen explains Dewey’s assertion that for democracy to succeed inquiry is not merely an option for a select few of society, but rather is an obligation for all. In this way, education is necessary for democracy, which Dewey conceptualizes as an “associated mode of communicative living.” This notion of communicative living offers an excellent image for dialogic practices and civil discourse in education. Addressing questions of democracy and the public sphere roughly half a century after Dewey published Education and Democracy, Jürgen Habermas argued that “democracy requires communicative competence, the ability to deliberate by taking account of all perspectives on an issue with recognized intersubjectivity” (Haste, class lecture slides, February 2, 2016). The role of civil discourse is regarded as important by scholars throughout the civic education conversation, whether that takes the shape of mock debates in government class or engaging local community members in dialogue through service learning.

II. Kinds of Citizenship

In What Kind of Citizen, Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne ask what kind of citizen is needed to support effective democracy. Drawing on democratic theory and their findings from a two-year study of U.S. education programs that promote democracy, they develop three conceptions of the ‘good’ citizen: personally responsible, participatory, and justice oriented. While personal responsibility is a value that is held widely and often taken for granted as a definition of citizenship, the authors make the case that “There is nothing inherently democratic about personally responsible citizenship, and specifically undemocratic practices are sometimes associated with programs that rely exclusively on notions of personal responsibility.”(Westheimer & Kahne, 2004, p. 248)

The conflation of this ideologically conservative conception of citizenship with the broad notion of civic education is pernicious to the role education must play in strengthening democracy today. However, notions of citizenship as personally responsible in combination with the participatory and/or justice oriented approaches are essential to reclaiming the narrative of civic education as one that promotes participation and strengthens democracy. Such frameworks of citizenship necessarily employ civic discourse, critical thought, participation in civic life and the pursuit of justice.

III. Forms of Patriotism

In Once Upon A Time when Patriotism Was What You Did, Gloria Ladson-Billings looks at the dissonance between patriotic rhetoric during George W. Bush’s second term and the reality of grave inequality brought to light by hurricane Katrina. The slow response of federal aid and the racialized poverty exposed in the disaster “stripped away the veneer of equity and justice in which American society regularly cloaks itself” (Ladson-Billings, 2007, p. 19). Ladson-Billings explains her own contested relationship to the idea of patriotism as an African American who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the simple and potent notion that “It is hard to remain patriotic when confronted with a government that cannot be counted on in the face of a disaster”(Ladson-Billings, 2007, p. 19). The premise she drives home through the discourses of patriotism, democracy, and inequality that shroud the disaster of hurricane Katrina is that “patriotism is not what you say, it’s what you do.”

Ladson-Billing’s challenge of a narrow patriotism is visible in the rise of what Westheimer identifies as an “authoritarian patriotism” (Westheimer, 2007, p. 173) as a phenomenon that grew markedly in the aftermath of September 11th. Westheimer’s work traces educational policies, like mandates to create time in the school day for reciting the pledge of allegiance or social studies curriculum guidelines which assert the superiority of the U.S. form of government, to portray the role of authoritarian patriotism institutionalized in the education sphere today. Westheimer draws attention to the danger in allowing a narrow patriotism to replace dissent in political discourse and charts out how democratic patriotism employs dissent and critical awareness to ultimately reinforce “American principles of equality, justice, tolerance, and civil liberties, especially during national times of crisis.” (Westheimer, 2007, p. 174)

Takeaways and Challenges

Participatory and justice oriented frameworks of citizenship are essential to reclaiming the role education plays in democracy from the narrow authoritarian version of patriotism that threatens our public sphere today. The limited, if valuable, concept of citizenship as mere personal responsibility to obey the law and be a good neighbor is not inherently conducive to democracy. In fact, such a concept of citizenship would be equally desirable under a totalitarian regime. Participatory and justice-oriented approaches must go hand in hand with the personal responsibility notion of citizenship in civic education spaces.

Additionally, it’s worth noting the overlap between participatory and justice oriented civic education spaces and transformative media campaigns. The Out for Change report details the findings of a national participatory action research project involving diverse groups working with media to advocate LGBTQ issues. Two of the report’s key findings that transformative media campaigns are participatory and transformative align closely with the goals of civic education. It is no surprise then that education scholars have noted shared practices between Youth Participatory Action Research and civic education. The overlapping areas of youth activism, critical pedagogy, transformative work and participatory practices offers insight that should contribute to the civic media discourse.


Hansen, D. T. (2006). John Dewey and our educational prospect: A critical engagement with Dewey's Democracy and education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ladson-Billings, G.(2007). Once Upon A Time when Patriotism Was What You Did. In Westheimer, J. Pledging allegiance: The politics of patriotism in America's schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

The MIT Center for Civic Media, RAD, SAS, QUIP, INCITE!, GSANetwork, Freedom, Inc., Esperanza, and Black & Pink (February 2015). Out for Change: Towards Transformative Media Organizing. LGBTQ and Two-Spirit media work in the United States. Retrieved from http://transformativemedia.cc/research/lgbtq-and-two-spirit-media-work-i...

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy. American Educational Research Journal,41(2), 237-269. doi:10.3102/00028312041002237



educationIntro to Civic Mediayouth
Categories: Blog

Of Nodes and Knots

April 11, 2016 - 11:18am

In our Introduction to Civic Media class this week we were fortunate to be joined by Eric Kluitenberg who, amongst much else, has recently authored an enlightening essay, “Affect Space: Witnessing the Movement(s) of the Square”. In our class discussion, Eric helped draw out several of the most prominent themes and emphases of his essay and one, in particular, struck a chord with me.

Earlier in the week, I read about some reported findings from recent neuroscientific studies, which support the idea that “that ‘the self’ isn’t constant, but ever-changing”. Research is therefore increasingly serving to disabuse the notion of an ‘unchanging’ self with fixed, intrinsic characteristics that remain stable over time.

The implications of these findings for our ‘individual’ online presence is intriguing. Social media sites are typically predicated on the idea of each user as a node in a network, connected to others through a series of links. As an organizing principle for online social platforms, this certainly makes sense, making it easy to navigate networks of social connections. Yet even as our online footprint has grown exponentially in the decade since social media has become fully commonplace, at the same time we are arguably witnessing something of a complication and diversification - really, a pluralization - of our virtual selves. Take Facebook. On one hand, with its 1.6 billion users representing somewhere between a fifth and a fourth of humanity, Facebook is not far off being the ultimate social network. Yet by shifting the question from how many people are using Facebook to how they are using it, the issue becomes more complicated. A recent report suggests that rates of “original sharing” - that is, personally-created content (as opposed to sponsored ads, news updates, and so on) dropped 21%. In contrast with Facebook’s dethroning of early rival like MySpace, it’s hard to identify any one place where this “original sharing” impulse has disappeared to - though smaller, more private platforms like Snapchat and Whatsapp (itself owned by Facebook) are likely some of the beneficiaries.

For the avoidance of doubt, my concern here is not the long term viability of Facebook’s bottom line. Instead, my point is merely to complicate the notion that any one platform - that is, any single version of ourselves - constitutes our online Self in its entirety. Thus, our online self is really a “series of selves” distributed across the Internet, rather than restricted to any single platform.

Nonetheless, it could be argued that the chronological basis of modern social media - think news streams and live feeds - actually represents the changing nature of self rather well. If I change my mind about who I support in an election, for example, or start a new relationship, social media platforms are well adapted to reflect that change (and have an interest in paying attention to it, for the purposes of more accurate targeted advertising). Yet a fundamental adherence to a node-based network structure is still evident on social media and the Internet more broadly. Consider Facebook’s resistance and reluctance to allow users control over how they name themselves on the network - a draconian policy that has made life difficult for, amongst others, trans and Native American people. Or consider Google’s opposition to the European Court-mandated Right to be Forgotten from its search index. There is a reasonable case to be made on political grounds that information that should be in the public domain not be censored, a priori, by commercial organizations. But the basic premise of this argument (and indeed the debate more generally) is that there is a given, fixed, irreducible ‘self’ that may or may not be “revealed” by the presumably omniscient index of the web. Thus, the issue is presented as an epistemological one (what should or shouldn’t be knowable about ourselves) rather than an ontological one (who we actually are, and how we are represented, online.)

Thus, a fundamental node-based structure predominates on the Internet, supporting the notion that - for all our changing tastes, interests and relationships - in a basic sense, yesterday’s you is today’s you is tomorrow’s you online. To reiterate, if this suits the business interests of leading social media platforms, then this state of affairs is likely to remain the organizing principle of the commercial-social web. Yet one of the great advantages of civic and tactical media and technology is that it gives practitioners an opportunity to improvise and experiment with alternative approaches, often with significant social and political consequences. This is where Eric’s essay, and in particular his allusion to Vilem Flusser’s work “The City as Wave-Trough in the Image-Flood” becomes so interesting and useful. Flusser’s concept of the self or subject is “as a ‘knot’ of relations, as the intersection of various ‘channels’ of information, out of which the ‘net’ of a city is formed”. Flusser continues:

We must imagine a net of relations among human beings, an “intersubjective field of relations.” The threads of this net should be seen as channels through which information like representations, feelings, intentions, or knowledge flows. The threads knot themselves together provisionally and develop into what we call human subjects.

Although writing before the emergence and mass adoption of the social web, the applicability of Flusser’s concept of knots is remarkably suggestive of it. Today, even while the sanctity of my supposedly fixed self is rhetorically reified and reinforced every time I go online - with my password, using my device, to my social network of choice, to see my notifications, and maybe share my thoughts and feelings - Flusser reveals the fiction and fallacy of this fixity. He goes on:

One recognizes this when they unknot themselves. They are hollow like onions. The Self (I) is an abstract, conceptual point around which concrete relations are wrapped … If one holds fast to the image of an intersubjective field of relations—we is concrete, I and you are abstractions of this—then the new image of the city gains contours.

Flusser’s use of the term “city” here is noteworthy: neither entirely metaphorical nor completely literal, in Flusser’s usage “the city” can be and is constituted by both physical and mediated encounters. This means that, in the words of his translator, Flusser's framework “is able to deal with technology and media in a more supple fashion.” By overcoming the tired real/virtual dichotomy, Flusser provides theoretical space, as it were, for the concept of “hybrid space” which Eric in turn draws upon in his essay. As Eric argues,

While the concept of hybrid space is thus not necessarily defined by the superimposition of technological infrastructures onto the “natural” or built environment, the spatial density and heterogeneity is greatly increased by electronic media, especially by the increasing presence of electronic signals, carrier waves, wireless communication and data networks in lived environments.

This more flexible and nuanced understanding of the intersection of “technological” and “natural” infrastructures, and, just as important, our "knotted" position within it, offers great potential for civic technology - something I hope to build upon in my class project. It’s my suspicion that, by shifting our a sense of ourselves from nodes to knots, and embracing the concept of hybrid space, the power of civic technology for positive change can be enhanced.

Header image courtesy Domiriel on Flickr

Intro to Civic Media
Categories: Blog

Surveillance in the Telegraph Era

April 4, 2016 - 1:42pm

This week in class we discussed how the telegraph started shaping communication after it was invented. My final project is about domestic surveillance, so I thought it would be interesting to look at what type of surveillance got dreamed up when we had just the telegraph.

Nowadays we are subject to PRISM, a surveillance program that allows agencies to query stored communication at various technology companies that match court-approved search terms. Back when we had the telegraph there was a similar program called Project SHAMROCK. The project involved accumulating all telegraphic signals that enter or exit the United States. This data got printed and passed down to law enforcement agencies, who sifted through it all to find evidence. It can be thought of as a physical manifestation of database querying we use nowadays to match search terms, except that comparison breaks down because the SHAMROCK investigators get to see a bunch of other communications in the search for information on an open investigation. By the 60's they did actually have an electronic system for searching for keywords.

Similar to PRISM, Project SHAMROCK also depended on the cooperation of the companies that owned the telegraph lines, Western Union, RCA, and ITT. It got to be a big operation. At it's peak it had 150,000 messages printed and analyzed every month. In the mid 70's members of Congress started investigating the program so the director of the NSA terminated it. This resulted in the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which is the legal framework that the NSA operates under nowadays.

Nowadays the focus of surveillance falls largely on terrorism. Who were the targets of Project SHAMROCK? History says Shamrock used "'watch lists' to electronically and physically spy on “subversive” activities by civil rights and antiwar leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Jane Fonda, Malcolm X, Dr. Benjamin Spock, and Joan Baez—all members of Richard Nixon’s infamous 'enemies list'" via historycommons.org

Categories: Blog