Category Archives: MIT Civic Media

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

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

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

  • Accessibility

  • Collaboration

  • Social & Environmental Justice

 

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

 

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

 

Guyana Case Study

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Ecuador Case Study

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Mapeo

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Seikopai digital participative mapping from Digital Democracy on Vimeo.

Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • How long does this take?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Organizing Christians to Protect Migrant Rights: Robert Chao Romero

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions:

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

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

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

Biohacking and the FBI: Ed You at the Defiance Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escaping The Conspiracy Trap: Masha Gessen at the Defiance Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiring a Media Cloud Contract Software Engineer

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Minimum Qualifications:

  • B.A. degree, preferably in computer science or data science related field;
  • at least two years experience working as a software engineer;
  • programming fluency – Python required, Perl and Javascript are helpful;
  • demonstrated ability to design, build, test, and deploy robust code;
  • demonstrated ability to iterate quickly through prototypes;
  • demonstrated ability to use data to validate architectural decisions using data.
  • interest in working on issues related to democracy, gender, race, health, and globalization.

Helpful Skills:

  • passion for solving difficult engineering and data problems;
  • experience writing, maintaining, and optimizing SQL queries against large databases;
  • experience implementing and maintaining a production ETL pipeline;
  • experience scaling platforms to handle large data sets;
  • experience writing web crawlers;
  • experience working with PostgreSQL and Solr / Lucene in Ubuntu environments;
  • knowledge and interest in social sciences;

Duties:

  • work with senior engineers to establish technical vision for project;
  • contribute to, and follow, a technical roadmap to meet research needs and complete grant deliverables;
  • collaborate with other developers, designers, and system administrators in implementing technical roadmap;
  • communicate project status internally and externally to our community of users;
  • maintain, upgrade, and build systems within large, existing codebase to collect, archive, and analyze content from online media;
  • writing code to scale systems to handle ever expanding data requirements.

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

These are the resulting projects:

Open Book/Libro Abierto – atelier/co

Open Book Screenshot

 

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

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

 

East Boston Voices – Peas in a Podcast

Peas in a Podcast

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

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

 
Homesticker

Homesticker

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

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

 

Rainbow

IMG_0748

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

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

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

On May 30, 2017, Kathy J. Cramer, professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and author of The Politics of Resentmentspoke at the MIT Media Lab. This is a summary of that talk; any errors are mine.

Research Question

Cramer notes that the question on many scholars and citizens minds right now is “Why do people vote against their interests?” Most are implicitly asking, “Why are people getting it wrong?” But she believes that the better question to ask is “How are people understanding their world?
 
The motivating question in the research Cramer has done that culminated in her 2016 book is “How does social class identity matter for the way people understand their world?” She tries to listen to people talk in the places where they live and spend their time. This gives her a chance to understand their social identity. So she invites herself into conversations with people who vary across socio-demographic characteristics. 

Methods

When she started in 2007, she chose to study a couple dozen communities in Wisconsin that would represent a diverse sample. Before she set out to visit a place, she would contact the local newspaper and the University of Wisconsin extension office nearby to learn where to find groups people who meet up regularly that she might chat with. She found herself in diners, churches, gas stations, and other local haunts. 
 
Cramer had a semi-structured interview protocol to follow but tried to let the conversations go where they would. In the first year of research, she would return to the groups up to three times over the following year, and then at least once a year going forward until the study ended in 2012. When her book came out in 2016 and after the election, she followed up with the groups, sharing her book and findings and asking them about their current opinions. 

Rural Consciousness
In the smaller communities, Cramer hears an unexpectedly intense resentment toward the big cities. There is a clear sense of Madison and Milwaukee (the state’s biggest cities and capital) versus the “outstate.” The mental map for rural folks is that power emanates from Madison, and not the reverse. They feel they aren’t getting their fair share of power and resources and respect. Small town Wisconsinites feel deeply disrespected by urban dwellers. 
 
Rural consciousness is identifying as a rural person, regardless of where you are from or end up, and a strong perception of distributive injustice that disfavors you and your identity. Cramer notes that this is a complex identity ripe for mobilization. It comprises resentment toward:
  • cities and city people, 
  • elites (government, financial, cultural), 
  • people of color, and
  • partisan polarization.
When you tap into one part of the resentment, it can activate the other parts, which makes rural consciousness a fertile ground for populism. Cramer defines populism here as essentially, “people are good and government is bad.”
 
Rural folks explain, “Our hard-earned taxpayer dollars are going to people who don not deserve them.” They thoroughly believe that others don’t work as hard as they do. And by hard work they mean, “when you have to shower after work, not before it.” And when Cramer followed up with the groups after the book came out, they agreed that they were resentful.
There is also a sense of loss. That these people’s communities and their standard of living have been taken away—that their status is threatened. 
 
Despite high levels of government employment throughout the state by local, state, and federal authorities, there is a belief that government is urban and distant. Even if workers are local, the decisions they follow are from the city to the rural area. They believe the government is not really working for them. 
 
In 2010, Scott Walker ran for governor of Wisconsin. He tapped into rural resentment by saying those folks were right. He proposed Act 10, which undermined state worker unions, arguing that private workers deserve to benefit more. There was a schism among voters: 50% of the state was for it and 50% against. The other big issue he campaigned on was a proposal for high-speed rail between the main cities of Milwaukee and Madison, which was badly needed. However, Walker argued this didn’t benefit real Wisconsinites, saying it wouldn’t help any of those with poor roads in the north of the state. 
 
Cramer is still reflecting on how Donald Trump’s campaign activated rural consciousness. In contrast to Scott Walker’s assault on public employees, Donald Trump pointed to immigrants, Muslims, and women as undeserving groups. And he made strong claims about policies that would alleviate resentful voters’ problems. 
 
Importantly, when she ask these rural folks what they hope will change with the new administration, they say they don’t expect anything to change. They set a very low bar. And it’s clear to her, that their criteria for Trump’s success is not anything like liberals criteria. They don’t believe he is going to solve their problems, which complicates attempts at bipartisan discourse.
 

Public Opinion

Often during elections, we are interested in how people are going to vote. Generally speaking, this refers to people’s preferences. However, Cramer argues that their perspectives are also important. The lenses they put on the world matter so much, and public opinion polls don’t capture them well. Perspectives can help you understand why people make the preferences they make. When you hear people’s conversations, see where they live, and notice how they think about their options and choices, it makes it more understandable.
 
Cramer asks, “Where does public opinion occur?” Is what someone says to a pollster the same as what they would say in private? What expression is more real: pollster response or what they say to their group of pals in the morning. These are different expressions of public opinion. It’s worth our while to consider where else public opinion is expressed and the venues that aren’t reliant on polls.
 
So what does understanding public opinion look like? Cramer’s book is not about causality, it’s descriptive of how the people she talked to think about their political lives. That said, she admits that it has been helpful to put the 2016 election in context. Generally, you want to understand what X set of attitudes predicts Y vote. But she notes that maybe it’s about how Z lens makes X relevant to Y vote.
 

Building Bridges

Cramer isn’t sure exactly what will work to address this problem of resentment in rural consciousness. She believes that it’s important to have authentic conversations like she did during her research. And any solutions will require that rural folks enjoy a sense of agency and respect in the process. The case of the Department of Natural Resources in Wisconsin is illustrative. Those state employees live in the community and work alongside locals trying to make a positive connection, and yet they are widely despised—their work seen as regulating how average people carry out their jobs or even spend their leisure times. Rural folks feel like the department is in their face all the time.
 
Since the book came out, Cramer has received emails from people across the country trying to build bridges, with some creative approaches emerging. One person wrote that she is driving classic cars across the country, since they tend to invite interesting conversations with more conservative residents. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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