erhardt's blog | MIT Center for Civic Media

Building Civic Tech with Mexico City's Experts (Its Citizens)

written by Erhardt Graeff and Emilie Reiser


CC-BY-SA: Mexico City by Kasper Christensen


Mexico City is huge. Over 21 million people live in the metro area—the most populous in the Western hemisphere. Nearly 9 million people live in the federal district alone. There are pockets of immigrants from all over the world and of course the full spectrum of Mexican ethnicities. This means there are myriad interesting issues to tackle and a wide mix of voices with opinions on how best to go about it.

August 31–September 4, 2015, the MIT Center for Civic Media traveled to Mexico City for a workshop organized by the Laboratório para la Ciudad and MIT Media Lab. Gabriella Gómez-Mont, the Laboratório's founder and director, is a Director's Fellow at the Media Lab this year, which opened the door to collaboration.


In a few intense days, we worked with Laboratório staff and local experts, as well as select students from nearby universities, to prototype projects worthy of Mexico City's scale and complexity. Our team focused on how to integrate new forms of citizen input into the planning and transformation of public spaces around the city using both digital and non-digital strategies. Our solution: EncuestaCDMX (

How Interfaces Demand Obedience

This is a liveblog of a talk by Mushon Zer-Aviv on April 23, 2015 at the MIT Center for Civic Media. This is not a perfect transcript but are notes collaboratively taken by Yu Wang, Dalia Othman, Erhardt Graeff, and Catherine D'Ignazio.

Mushon presenting at Civic

Mushon Zer-Aviv introduces himself as interested in disinformation and ambiguity. He is teaching at Shenkar College and is working with Public Knowledge Workshop on civic engagement and government transparency. As a designer he's been working on these issues for many years and will discuss political design interface through:

  1. Communication cycle
  2. Protocol
  3. Interface for resistance

When we talk about life online, it is distributed, open, social, emancipatory. Online life is repressive, destructive, shallow. All these hopes and concerns when it comes to online life, we meet them through interface. It is at the heart of the debate.

What is interface? Mushon defines interface as "a common boundary or interconnection between systems, equipment, concepts, or human beings." Specifically, the concept of common boundary and interconnection. The idea that the interface is common implies some kind of relationship between all the components without implying a level of control or that one is more important than the other. 

Yo! Your Honor! Carl Malamud's Fight to make Public Law Public

Live notes from a lunch talk by Carl Malamud, co-hosted by the MIT Center for Civic Media and the Laboratory for Social Machines. Notes by Rahul Bhargava, Erhardt Graeff, Yu Wang, Chelsea Barabas, and Ed Platt

Ethan introduces Carl as a ferocious public domain advocate with a long history with the internet. He led an election campaign for non-elected office (public printer of the United States). He is working on making existing government docs online and machine readable form. Today he will speak about Yo, Your Honor, which focuses on PACER—a system that provides access to critical government documents for a price.

He started by doing a lot of workshops around the idea of, coming up with a set of principles about how the laws should be available in the United States. But nothing concrete really came from this effort.Carl mentions his history with the Media Lab; he was here years ago writing a book. His non-profit's goal is to make all public governmental documents, aka the “raw materials of democracy,” free to access. Carl wants to make the laws available to the people, because in the US the people own the law (unlike other countries). The law has no copyright here.

In 2007–2008, Carl started publishing all the building codes in the country, because these are law in all the states. No one sent him takedown notices, even though they are copyrighted documents published by standards organizations (501c3s). They keep copyright for these documents even though they want to make them into the law. When Carl started posting the safety regulations, and he got sued.

The National Fire Protection Association argues they should be the only ones allowed to publish the code because it is their only revenue stream and if they can't sustain then… babies will die. But he argues that they are the law, thus they should be public. This case is currently in litigation (he is being defended by the EFF).

At this same time, he started looking at the PACER system. This includes all arguments the lawyers make and all relevant briefs and other documents involved in public cases. If you want access to these documents, you pay 10 cents a page for every single page. That makes research expensive. There are close to 1 billion documents in the system.

He had the idea to have lots of people download documents from PACER and share them for free, which he thought of as “recycling the public domain.”

America's Interested Bystander: New Research from Google on Civic Duty

This is a liveblog of the talk "Understanding America's Interested Bystander: A Complicated Relationship with Civic Duty," by Kate Krontiris, John Webb, Charlotte Krontiris, and Chris Chapman. Blogged by @natematias and @erhardt, with illustrations by @willowbl00.

What motivates everyday people in America to do things that are civic, and how do we engage the unengaged? Kate Krontiris and John Webb shared the results of a major study carried out by Google's Civic Innovation team today at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

[note: we were asked not to include any photos of the event, which was not recorded, but we were allowed to publish these notes]

Kate Krontiris is a researcher, strategist, and facilitator working to transform civic life in America. In pursuit of a society where more people assert greater ownership over the decisions that govern their lives, she uses ethnographic tools to design products, policies, and services that enable a more equitable democratic future. Charlotte Krontiris is a principal at KN research, and who has conducted research at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Harvard Business School, and Google. John Webb is a senior user experience researcher at Google who conducts tactical and investigative research to inform design and product direction for Google's Social Impact team with a particular focus on developing Civic Engagement experiences.

Kate begins by outlining the social impact and civic innovation group at Google. They include the civic innovation team, which organizes election data and making it universally accessible and to broaden collective decision-making.

  • leverage Google's technology for the common good
  • Organize election data and make it universally accessible and useful
  • Broaden engagement in collective decision-making

What motivates ordinary Americans to do things that are civic? Kate and her colleagues concede they are not the only ones researching this subject. A lot of this falls under the question of "How do we engage the unengaged?" and then to support details of platform design at Google including their Google Now cards, as well as support a broader civic technology ecosystem. They hoped that by conducting and sharing this research they could contribute to informing the broader set of tools being developed. We conducted quantitative and qualitative research to try answer these questions. 

Jad Melki: Developing an Arab Digital and Media Literacy

This is a liveblog of the talk "Developing an Organic Arab Digital and Media Literacy, Pedagogy, and Theory" by Jad Melki on March 23, 2015 at Emerson College, sponsored by the Engagement Lab.

Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change faculty member Jad Melki speaks at the inaugural MDLAB in Lebanon (source)

Emerson professor Paul Mihailidis introduces Jad Melki as director of the media studies program at American University of Beirut and founder of the Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut (MDLAB).

This talk serves two purposes according to Jad: an overview of how digital media is being used in the Arab region and the work that MDLAB is doing in response to that. He highlights one prominent example of the need for media literacy being ISIS's successful online media campaigns, recruiting supporters from around the world by selling a particular vision.

MDLAB was founded in 2006/2007 following the war between Israel and Lebanon. There were some interesting uses of media that coincided with this conflict, but little media literacy among the residents of the region. Media education programs were not teaching critical thinking skills or developing relevant digital media skills—no one was being prepared to be an activist or a professional. 

Visualizing Impact: Data Driven Journalism in Palestine

This is a liveblog of a talk by Ramzi Jaber entitled Visualizing Impact: Data Driven Journalism in Palestine at MIT on February 27, 2015. It was blogged by Erhardt Graeff and Dalia Othman.



Ramzi Jaber is the co-founder and co-director of Visualizing Palestine, an initiative to amplify civil society actors working in Palestine through powerful and shareable design work. It is the first project of a larger effort called Visualizing Impact, an interdisciplinary nonprofit.

Ramzi begins by showing a data visualization of politician’s salaries across the Arab world and Africa. It was inspired by Lebanese politicians salary, where politicians still earn their salary after their deaths. In the case of Norway and Hungary the politician earns more than the citizen, but still stares the citizen in the face. Lebanon and Jordan at about 15 times and Palestine at 24 times and Kenya at 97 times are far from the average citizen. 

Visualizing Impact is about "visual stories for social justice." Ramzi mentions the issue of administrative detention—an archaic law, a vestige of British colonialism—that is still being used and exploited to put thousands in jail. It has been used by Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. One detainee, Khader Adnan, had enough and started a hunger strike. A campaign started on Twitter to support Adnan with the hashtag #dying2live. It wasn’t until day 50 that the first media outlet (Al Jazeera) reported on Khader Adnan's hunger strike, then other outlets followed around the world. Eventually at day 66 Khader Adnan ended his hunger strike and was soon released. 

#StopEbola: What Nigeria Got Right (liveblog)

This is a liveblog (not a transcription) of the talk "#StopEbola: What Nigeria Got Right" delivered February 17, 2015 by Aimee Corrigan at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Cambridge, MA.

Aimee Corrigan is the Co-Director of Nollywood Workshops, "a hub for filmmakers in Lagos, Nigeria that supports and delivers movie production and distribution, training, and research". Nollywood Workshops uses entertainment for various social goals, and was involved in Nigeria's response to ebola. Aimee is also developing a long-form documentary about Ebola in Nigeria.

In July 20, 2014, Nigerian-American Patrick Sawyer landed in Lagos, Nigeria; he was the "index case" of ebola for Nigeria. Lagos has a population equal to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia combined. There was the chance for an "apocalyptic urban outbreak" in lagos. Nigeria contained it, suffering only 20 cases and 8 deaths. The WHO called Nigeria's response a "spectacular success story." 

The disruptive moment is over: Micah Sifry on why the internet hasn't transformed politics (yet)

This is a liveblog of Micah Sifry's book talk hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. It is not a perfect transcript of the event.

Livebloggers included Erhardt Graeff, David Weinberger, Nathan Matias, Sands Fish, Dalia Othman, Mayte Schomburg, and David Larochelle.

Micah Sifry at the Berkman Center

Keeping Up and Keeping it Real: An Analysis of the Social Life of Civic Media

Talk by Eric Gordon (@ericbot) of Emerson's Engagement Lab and Rogelio Lopez (@Tochtli_exe) of USC Annenberg at the MIT Center for Civic Media.

This is a liveblog of a talk on November 6, 2014, recorded by Alexis, Ali, Adrienne, Catherine, Nathan, and Erhardt.

Keep Up and Keeping it Real: An Analysis of the Social Life of Civic Media

The context of the talk is the space of "civic tech." It's a field that has been defined by corporations and foundations. They have been seeking to put a lot of things into recognizable envelopes.

Mostly, civic tech is associated with government and government innovation. Increasingly, there’s an effort made by other organizations to use that term. Some of the narratives that pop up in civic tech are that of the smart city, entrepreneurship, and efficiency.

They were curious about how would you characterize civic tech through a metaphor in terms of the operations of your organization? "We're the NASA of non-profits." This is to say it is a scientific enterprise and also that there is a frontier out ahead. This was a very positive spin on the use of technology in nonprofit work.

When we talk about civic tech to NGOs the rhetoric isn’t as positive. “It’s a sourdough starter, you have to keep feeding it unless it dies,” or “deer in the headlights.”

Most of the time, the metaphors being used to describe the technologies of integration are filled with fear and anxiety.

“Everything keeps changing all the time,” Gordon says to express his frustration with the technology landscape. "Keeping it to the traditional, like, grassroots organizing tools of going out and having one-on-one conversations."

Themes of "Keeping up" and "keeping it real" kept coming up in their interviews. Rogelio explains that keeping up means staying current with technologies, but they wanted to focus on “keeping it real,” because many of these communities were focused on communities who worked in the grassroots activism space.

For many organizations, legitimation is based in the grassroots. The efficacy is judged based on how it affects residents. The reality is organizations are struggling with the normative maxim “keeping it real.” Eric notes that they are particularly interested in community organization and grassroot techniques.

There is a need to complicate discourse. “There is so much stuff going on in the course of using technology." 

Molly Sauter and The Coming Swarm: A Fireside Chat

On October 29, 2014, The Berkman Center hosted Civic Media alum Molly Sauter in a "fireside chat" with Nieman Fellow Laurie Penny about Molly's new book The Coming Swarm: DDOS, Hactivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. This is a liveblog of that conversation (not a transcript), co-written with Dalia Othman and Kendra Albert.

The Coming Swarm book cover

Laurie: Can you tell us please what is a DDOS?

Molly: How many people have younger siblings, and you may have gone to Disneyland? I have a little brother, and when we were going to Disney wherever, he would be like "Hey Molly! Hey Molly! Hey Molly!” repeatedly. Now, imagine your younger sibling is a server saying that to you over and over and over again. That’s a DDOS. Pinging a targeted server a bunch of times until it falls done. An activist DDOS is doing this with as the target. And there was a time when that was a reasonable action: on 4pm on a Wednesday, you would coordinate and start refreshing the page on and crashing it with your friends.

Laurie: I didn’t realize that this is something that has a long history, it spans long before wikileaks and Anonymous’s DDOS attacks then, it goes back to the WTO Battle for Seattle.

Molly: DDOS has been around at least since the early 1990s. For example, Quebec redphoning: calling the same political switchboard. Flood your congressman with more mail than they can read. Those are types of DDOS.

The Strano Network Net Strike was the first example back in 1995(?) that Molly found. Italian group attacking a French nuclear company. Electronic Disturbance Theater (that were involved with the zapatistas) and Electrohippies were both American groups who did activist DDOS in the 1990s

Laurie: Can you break that down a little bit, can you talk more about attention getting versus direct action?

Molly: Attention getting activism is a good way of describing the paradigm of activist intervention that we see contemporarily. Through press coverage of the intervention, you gain the attention you need to put it on the political agenda. Direct action is instead about working on the issue you want to make change on. Spiking trees to stop logging, or sending out your own ships to drive off whales from whaling ships in environmental activism and Electrohippies stopping the WTO from emailing itself.

Laurie: Protest is when I say I don’t like a thing, resistance is when I stop that thing from happening. So where does DDOS fall?

Molly: It really can be on either side of the spectrum. It depends on what your goals are. It's so easy with DDOS, where activists will direct the press toward an issue or target by DDOSing them. It's easier to do an attention-getting DDOS now than ever before - but much more difficult for you and your friends to take down servers on your own, because of advances in web infrastructure.

Laurie: Can we talk about Operation Payback linked to Anonymous? Especially for journalists in the room, that was a big deal, I remember that I did trying to learn the background.

Molly: Operation Payback was in the late fall / early winter of 2010. Everyone remembers Cablegate and Wikileaks in this room, right? The US government got upset over the cables publication and asked financial institutions to stop enabling funding of Wikileaks.

Anonymous was already, confusingly enough, involved in an action called "Operation Payback" targeting the MPAA and RIAA. They expanded their target pool to VISA, MasterCard, a Swedish banking site, and several congress member's sites. This lasted for a about a week, also under the name "Operation Avenge Assange."