Creating Technology for Social Change

Civic Innovation Workshop in Mérida, Mexico

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.
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.
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 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.
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.