erhardt's blog

Notes on Monitory Democracy and a Networked Civil Society

Schudson's The Good Citizen

Ethan and I have been exploring the concept of monitorial citizenship in the pursuit of a definition or roadmap for "effective citizenship." We are working on related projects trying to operationalize Michael Schudson's idea of monitorial citizenship from his book The Good Citizen, but using slightly different definitions. Ethan's project Promise Tracker, being developed by several of our colleagues at the Center for Civic Media, thinks of monitorial citizenship as the responsibility of citizens "to monitor what powerful institutions do (governments, corporations, universities and other large organizations) and demand change when they misbehave." My master's thesis project Action Path thinks of monitorial citizenship more like Jane Jacobs idea of "eyes on the street," whereby average citizens are being civic and gathering useful information in aggregate by simply "watching their kids, keeping abreast of important consumer recalls, noting how weather affects the cost of groceries or their ability to check in on family members' safety."

Both of us may be thinking of monitorial citizens in different ways than Schudson and other scholars use the term. Marc Hooghe, in a paper reacting to Schudson called "Does the 'Monitorial Citizen' Exist?" [paywalled] looks for citizens who are critical non-participants in political life, but care deeply about social issues.

This week Ethan and I read a couple of papers as part of our ongoing conversation of monitorial citizenship. Schudson, himself, kindly pointed us to an essay by John Keane, unpacking monitory democracy as a new vision of "democracy in our times." Ethan has also been eager to dive into a prescient manuscript by David Ronfeldt, which proposes a framework for societal evolution wherein networks represent the latest organization form necessary for the success of advanced societies.

The following are our thoughts on these two pieces... 

Thinking about Design with Geo-fences

Here at the Center for Civic Media, we're exploring the use of smartphone apps for civic engagement. I'm really excited about using geo-fences for civic engagement; my project Action Path uses them to trigger push notifications about opportunities to participate as you walk down the street. But it's still an open question: What constitutes good uses and good design for geo-fences?

Nathan Matias and I ran a workshop on March 14, 2014 at MIT exploring this question with other students interested in using geo-fences in mobile design. The following are our notes and takeaways.

The What and Why of Geo-fences
First off, it's important to differentiate geo-fencing from geo-location and geo-awareness. Here are some definitions:

  • Geo-location: identifying the real-world location of a user with GPS, Wi-Fi, and other sensors
  • Geo-fencing: taking an action when a user enters or exits a geographic area
  • Geo-awareness: customizing and localizing the user experience based on rough approximation of user location, often used in browsers

Since geofencing is focused on action, not all location-based mobile experiences require it. Many designs can and should avoid the messiness of using geo-fencing by relying on basic geolocation services.

Geofence Example
Entering and exiting a geo-fence

Good, or common, uses of geo-fencing include: location tracking of objects and users, lifehacking, games (in the form of run-arounds, check-ins), and hyper-local ads and offers. Apps that are obvious employers of geo-fences include: foursquare (check-in reminders), ChildrenTracker (alerts for parents when kids are home or at school), and Field Trip (notifications about places to see around a community). However, there are some clever, non-obvious uses of geo-fences like Google Keep, which allows you to set location-based reminders for notes to self (lifehacking) and Pandora's radio app, which sends hyper-local ads to you as you walk-about, most notably McDonald's.

Action Path: A Location-Based Tool for Civic Reflection and Engagement

This is the talk I delivered for the "Civic Media Geography: Experiments In Cosmopolitanism, Citizenship and Accountability" panel I organized at Place, (Dis)Place and Citizenship: Eleventh Annual Conference in Citizenship Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI on March 21, 2014.

Today, I'm going to talk about a tool I'm building. It's a smartphone app called Action Path. But it hasn't been deployed yet, so I can't tell you how it's revolutionized civic learning or engagement. But I can tell you about my motivation for building it. Specifically, I want to talk about the theories of citizenship which inspire me and what I see as currently missing in the landscape of approaches to civic technology, and even civic engagement more broadly.

Balancing Deep and Wide Impacts in the Design of Civic Tech

These are the prefatory remarks I made as moderator during the panel "Balancing Deep and Wide Impacts in the Design of Civic Tech" at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, Boston, MA on March 8, 2014.

I'm working on a project called Action Path. Similar to Promise Tracker, which will be the featured case study in this session, Action Path is a smartphone app for civic engagement. Specifically, the app uses geo-fencing, a technique based on the awareness of the user's GPS coordinates, to send notifications to users about opportunities to take quick actions in the form of polls or documentation of a local area for easy, yet contextually-relevant civic engagement. As indicated by my promo slide here, it's meant to marry mobile computing with the concept of a "Jane Jacobs Walk," whereby you only really understand a city's needs and resources through walking its streets. I hope you all agree that this sounds great... at least in theory.

But what does this look like in practice? Well, right now it looks like three two-hour public meetings per week, where I sit and learn about the ongoing planning processes in Somerville—the city where I live and hope to do my research. I am building trust with folks in the planning department at the City of Somerville and the leaders and organizers in civil society organizations who work on issues like land use, affordable housing, and beautification in different neighborhoods around town.

There are lot of conflicting agendas among these different groups, all of whom I need buy-in from in order to, 1) make sure that I have enough people test my app, and 2) ensure the app is stocked with relevant actions that a) make my partners feel good about endorsing it among their members, and b) make the city and private developers happy because the feedback will be in a form that can inform their planning processes, WITHOUT becoming overly politicized. I want to have real impact, and tying the technology to real impact is important for my research

In the end, I have to write this up as a thesis. And that means I need a rigorous study of some kind showing that people's understanding of their ability to make a difference in their city has changed.

I appreciate that this is an iterative and interactive process that demands flexibility, but it's also hard from the perspectives of design, research, PLUS overall impact. And it's actually the social processes around the technology that are harder to design than the mobile app itself.

Binders Full of Election Memes: Expanding Political Discourse

This is text of the talk I delivered for the "Click, Meme, Hack, Change: Civic Media Theory and Practice" panel I organized at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, Chicago, IL on March 14, 2013.

What do I mean by memes? Well I'm talking about internet memes: cultural artifacts that are generally user-generated content that is shared widely and remixed in various ways. This should be very familiar to most people in the Digital Media and Learning community.

We've got image macros like the lolcat, we've got animated gifs, and the viral video. There are of course political versions of these popular meme forms. And I'm going to focus on three that came out of the last US presidential election cycle: "Fired Big Bird," "Binders Full of Women," and "You Didn't Build That."

Each of these memes mainly consist of image macros, and I'm going to feature the image macros because they are the easiest meme to produce, thus available to the most people to produce. There are several image macro meme generators online now that allow you to upload your own image and overlay the classic bold white font.

But what I want to argue in this talk is that it isn't just about the creation of these memes—which we all know is interesting and valuable—it's also about the sharing of them. Sharing these memes I believe represents a political speech act itself, which generates political discourse of value. And just like we have low barriers to entry for creation, so also do we have low barriers for sharing with ready audiences on Twitter, coalescing into publics around hashtags, or on Tumblr, through tagging and curation.

Mapping the Trayvon Martin Media Controversy

This is a summary of the article “The Battle for ‘Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy Online and Offline,” co-authored by Erhardt Graeff, Matt Stempeck, and Ethan Zuckerman and appearing as the lead article in the February 2014 issue of First Mondayhttp://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4947.

News coverage about the killing of Trayvon Martin started as a short-lived, local Florida news piece, but through strategic activation of traditional broadcast media and participatory online activism, eventually became the most-widely covered story about race in the last five years. The story drew immense coverage from professional journalists and active public engagement online and offline, offering a potent case study for examining the role and influence of participatory media on media agendas.

To make this research possible, we’ve been building Media Cloud with colleagues at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. It’s a toolset for rigorous, quantitative studies of media agendas and frames. Media Cloud collects stories from a corpus of more than 27,000 mainstream media and blog sources, and uses a link-following methodology to expand the corpus to other relevant sources.

The first major analysis to use Media Cloud’s tools for the purposes of “controversy mapping” considered the emergence in nontraditional, online media of opposition to proposed SOPA-PIPA legislation. In contrast to SOPA-PIPA, the Trayvon Martin story occurred and unfolded substantially offline: the shooting of a black teenager eventually sparked a national debate across multiple media channels, in rallies and marches, and in the speeches and actions of major political figures. Initially, the story passed with little notice, but the efforts of a small pro bono team of lawyers and publicists attracted the national limelight. From there, the Trayvon Martin story spread to broader audiences through a widely signed online petition, 24x7 cable news coverage, multiple activist campaigns including competing political agendas pushed by participatory media, a deeply emotional response from President Obama, and a widely televised criminal trial.

Diversity and Contention Online: Talks by Anselm Spoerri and Jisun An

On Friday, November 22nd, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society's Cooperation group and MIT Center for Civic Media hosted two speakers—Anselm Spoerri and Jisun An—to talk about their research into diversity and contention online. This is a liveblog of those talks authored by Erhardt Graeff, Dalia Othman, Catherine D'Ignazio, Chelsea Barabas, and Nathan Matias.

Anselm Spoerri

Anselm Spoerri: Visualizing Controversial and Popular Topics in Wikipedia across Languages
Anselm is a Swiss-born information visualization researcher. He did his PhD at MIT in computational vision, and is now a lecturer and assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information. His latest work looks at contention in Wikipedia.

The project he shares with us, on Edit Wars in Wikipedia, presents a fascinating visualization of a dataset prepared by Taha Yasseri and Janos Kertesz of the "most controversial" topics in 10 different language versions of Wikipedia. 

Patsy Baudoin and Lessig address Boston's Aaron Swartz Hackathon

In cities around the world this weekend, people are participating in an Aaron Swartz Memorial Hackathon. Patsy Baudoin of MIT Libraries and Larry Lessig addressed the Boston-based hackers working from the MIT Media Lab.

Patsy Baudoin (@pbmit)
Patsy begins by saying that today she's not speaking as an MIT librarian, but just as a librarian. She quotes Peter Suber's definition of Open Access: "Open-access (OA) literature is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions." The last part is a black hole of academic discussion, which he goes into in his book.

Patsy argues that the ecosystem that we call scholarly communication is unfriendly to open access. The three legged stool of publishers, libraries, and readers, needs to change such that the power flows from readers and publishers and opposed to vice-versa. 

Moving Beyond the Question of Whether Neighborhoods Matter

Liveblog of Patrick Sharkey's presentation to the Inequality & Social Policy Seminar Series at Harvard on September 23, 2013.

Patrick SharkeyPatrick Sharkey is an associate professor of sociology at New York University and affiliate of the Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. His research looks at stratification and mobility with a specialized interest in neighborhoods and cities, and he is the author of the recently published book Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality.

His talk entitled "Where, when, why, and for whom do neighborhoods matter?" was based on a just completed review paper, co-authored with Jacob Faber, updating the literature on neighborhood effects (specifically the research looking at cognitive / developmental outcomes), looking at how this literature has been interpreted and evaluated over time, and proposing what is or should be the future of this work.

Sharkey focused on three examples from his own research that suggest ways in which the literature can get beyond what has been long-term hangup in the field in terms of ignoring various contextual factors and nuance in order to answer the question, "do neighborhoods matter?" I found that his insights offered a helpful critique not only to his own sociological subdiscipline but for social scientific research in general, pushing us to never blindly disregard the particular for the universal or play into dominant research narratives.

Ethan's Five Questions about Mapping Attention at Links 2013

This is a liveblog of Ethan Zuckerman's keynote at Links 2013. His slides are available online.

Ethan opens by saying that his stock and trade is "the unusual connection." He starts talking about the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. The museum hasn't changed since it's early collector mentality. The labels actually list the white dude who collected the items rather than their creator. It's still a colonial approach to museums.

He shows a "rebellib" or "stick chart / shell chart" which is a map from the Marshall Islands with shells representing the islands and curved and diagonal lines representing ocean swells. Since the Marshall Islands are scattered across 500-600km. A Marshall Islander around 1900 is going to be in their boat and traveling between the atolls without seeing them over the horizon. You must travel dozens or more kilometers at a time between them. And when you miss the next atoll you die. And bad things happen evolutionarily if you die on the way to the next atoll. There is a need for inter-island "booty calls" to produce the diversity necessary to sustain a population.

Contemporary scientists have gone back and found that these rebbelib are incredibly accurate. And if you check Google Maps, you realize this is an area of the Earth that we have not sufficiently mapped. Google is a decent proxy for interest in an area since the best resolution is based on demand: people's willingness to pay for high resolution images without clouds.

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