Creating Technology for Social Change

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.

The Good, The Monitorial, and The Effective
In his book The Good Citizen, Michael Schudson talks about different eras in America that idealized different types of citizenship (1998). What it meant to be a good citizen at the dawn of American democracy differs substantially from whatever it means now. In particular, Schudson talks about how the ideal of the “informed citizen” dominated the discourse of the 20th century and was deeply intertwined with the role journalism played in society.

However, we are at a point where journalism’s role is fraught in society and where the range of information necessary to be a fully realized participant in democracy, according to these ideals, is impossible. There is too much to know and too much to have an opinion on. Schudson argues that we need a new framework, a new kind of citizenship for contemporary times.

One model he proposes is the “monitorial citizen.” “Monitorial citizens scan (rather than read),” in Schudson’s words (1998, 310). And they integrate their civic duties into their daily lives: 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. In aggregate these might give us the omniscience necessary to fully participate in Walter Lippmann’s opinion, that is according to Lippmann’s books The Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925). So rather than rely on individual specialist and experts, we might crowdsource expertise among monitorial citizens—to use contemporary jargon.

This can be a year-long, rather than a season-long practice of citizenship, argues Schudson. We can’t and don’t need to expect the kind of participation that only emerges during the fall of a Presidential Election year.

Where I think we can go one step farther than Schudson is by saying that monitorial citizens are gathering useful information rather than simply watching. Mobile phones and social media give us a trail of data that might be convertible into civic utility.

My advisor at MIT, Ethan Zuckerman, has been thinking about whether there might be such a thing as an “effective citizen” rather than the “good citizen” (2013). In his blog post, he talks about Schudson in relation to Lawrence Lessig and his book Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace (2006). Lessig sees four ways by which complex systems are regulated: laws, norms, markets, and code or other similar architectures. Similarly to Schudson, Zuckerman sees Lippmann’s challenge to produce omniscient and omnicompetent citizens as far out of reach. But perhaps, we just need to find citizens effective at working with one of the four means of regulation Lessig outlines.

Effective change campaigns are typically multifaceted in a way in which they can work on multiple fronts: pushing for legislative change, while also working on public opinion to change norms, and introducing boycotts or buycotts to change the flow of money through political networks. With code, we are seeing activists work on new means for secure communications in order to change the architectures through which we ourselves can monitor or be monitored. These are particularly pressing examples in the wake of the Snowden revelations.

What might be needed then, in Zuckerman’s estimation, is the ability to assemble teams of effective citizens to take on particular issues using particular theories of change.

But must we all be such “justice-oriented” and “participatory” citizens, to use Joel Westheimer and Joe Kahne’s terms (2004), or “actualizing” citizens to use Lance Bennett’s (2008)? What is left for the “personally responsible” and “dutiful” citizens, or the disengaged—to use a term suggested in the Civic Education panel yesterday? Can they also be effective?

This is what brings me back to the concept of the monitorial citizen. You can imagine a very proactive version of the monitorial citizen, which Jude and Alexis will talk about, but I’m interested in the more passive version, the one that represents most of us, most of the time. That’s whom I want and need to design for.

So what will this tool I’m building actually do?

User Experience Walkthrough
Imagine you’re walking to work, not really paying attention, not feeling particularly civic. Your phone vibrates with a notification because you just walked into a geo-fenced civic opportunity. Geo-fences are virtual borders at a given radius, centered around GPS coordinates—in this case the location of a planning poll. The push notification on your screen reads:

Planning Poll
110 yards ahead
10 seconds
Do you want to participate?

You think, “Yeah, I have 10 seconds.” So you accept, and follow the walking directions until you’re in front of a vacant storefront. The app asks:

What do you wish were here?

  • Grocery store
  • Day care center
  • Co-working space
  • Something else

You think for a bit, and decide it would be nice to grab fresh produce on the way home. You click “grocery store” and submit. The app thanks you and fades away. And you continue onto work.

Or how about a different case. It’s the weekend and you’re walking down Warren Avenue. Your phone vibrates, and the notification reads:

Document a Rally
30 meters ahead
30 seconds
Do you want to participate?

You think, “Yeah, I’ll check it out.” The walking directions take you to the rally, where a handful of activists are waving signs and chanting. It’s about something you agree with—worker’s rights—but wouldn’t normally protest about. Maybe protesting is not your style, or maybe you are just less confident about the issue. The app simply asks you to “Take a photo.” You try to capture as much of the crowd as you can with your phone’s camera. The app asks if you want to add a caption or comment. You type, “Yes to Worker’s Rights!” and submit.

Upon submission, there is an option to learn more about the protest when you submit and follow the issue or similar ones from the organizers. At this point, you are already at the rally, and you actually have the choice to join in or not. There’s the chance that you might engage in a “thicker” form of participation now or down the line. Or you can continue on to the shops, and feel satisfied you contributed.

Pain Points
In technology design, we often speak of pain points, which our designs will address. Well my comes down to the question of “How can opportunities for civic engagement and civic learning be more seamlessly integrated into our daily lives?” We start with the Town Hall Meeting…

Taking people out of their routine spaces, and in some cases forcing them to work synchronously, represents a high barrier to entry for many would-be active citizens. The merits of synchronous, non-routine forms of engagement are many, of course. Community-building requires that people stop and pay attention to each other, finding and perhaps literally inhabiting common ground. However, this limits engagement to those that enjoy the freedom to make such commitments. In particular, it can exclude the voices of youth who may be marginalized within certain spaces as well as middle aged citizens who may lack flexibility in their schedules due to career-building activities and child rearing. Furthermore local civic engagement is not simply inconvenient in these cases but also struggles with relevance for citizens in terms of immediacy, personal connection, and the context of the actual urban landscape.

Related Technologies
Many platforms for civic engagement, whether online or offline, require that citizens leave the places they normally inhabit physically or virtually and commit to a separate space and set of processes. We’ve already talked about town hall meetings, occurring during specific times and in specific places.

But there also virtual town halls like MindMixer, where deliberation occurs within yet another profile-based website that you need to sign up for and regularly return to in order to participate.

Petition sites like work more like push notifications via social media spread and ease of use, but they are disconnected from the issues they represent and easily forgotten.

Finally, “Report a Pothole” 311 service apps like Citizens Connect have already taken advantage of the strengths of mobile devices to serve as location-aware data collection tools, snapping photos of street-level problems, geotagging reports, and uploading them to a central service to help increase the speed and efficiency of government service provision. We could critique these apps in terms of smartphone ownership patterns and how that skews the data toward richer neighborhoods (Crawford 2013), but for me the longer-term issue of what’s missing from most of these services is the ability to reflect more deeply on how to improve the community and take action collectively rather than individually, pothole by pothole. As Peter Levine stressed this morning in his keynote, “Not only are we more effective together, but we lead deeper and richer lives when we strive together.” And, of course, these apps only work if you remember to open them up and use them.

Goal for Civic Technology Design
I believe there is a need for civic engagement platforms that are lightweight and compelling enough to enjoy continued use without resorting to simple point-based gamification. A good paradigm for lightweight civic engagement and community-building to me looks like the creation and sharing of political memes like those seen during the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign (Graeff 2013).

Though critics of such “thin” forms of civics—to use Zuckerman’s terminology (2013)—have derided such activities as “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” (Morozov 2009; White 2012), they can serve as gateways to thicker forms of engagement as well as important contributions in and of themselves (Kahne, Lee, and Feezell 2013), especially when seen as fitting in among different roles of citizens necessary for successful functioning of society, as Westheimer and Kahne’s categories imply. The key is enabling dutiful, but lightweight citizen contributions that travel with you and encourage a moment of deeper reflection during action.

Let’s start with the traveling around part.

Theories of Citizenship and Civic Action at Work
Walking, especially along routes you don’t take everyday, can and should be a public service in itself. The Jane Jacobs Walk organization enshrines this principle of Jane Jacobs’ work as a community organizer and scholar, using the art of observation in urban spaces “to see how cities actually work through experience, to go out and see what makes a neighborhood thrive, or to see what makes a neighborhood struggle,” to quote their About page. This approach honors the unique qualities of different cities—communities need home-grown solutions born of local experience.

This is one of Jacobs’ key contributions to urban sociology and planning: the need for what she calls “eyes on the street” (1961, 35). In her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she refers to this in connection to safe streets being a function of their level of vitality capable of attracting people and their eyes, whether it’s from windows above the street or benches along it or at the thresholds of businesses, where proprietors and customers interact with the street. This isn’t merely surveillance though, it’s also the study of public life. Jacobs insights in book are based on the observations she made on her home street in Greenwich village and similar streets in cities across the United States. Moreover, it powered her arguments as a civic activist. This is the quintessential case of monitorial citizenship in Schudson’s definition.

Action Path is also meant to connect Jane Jacobs-style urban exploration with Harry Boyte’s theory of “public work,” which attempts to undo the separation between civic engagement, public service, or other variations of do-goodery from normal life and work (2011). Peter Levine mentioned this idea earlier. Boyte argues that the relegation of civic work to the voluntary sector has also led to the professionalization of politics. Instead, many things we already do also have public service implications—one example being the work of builders who might be engaged in the effort to create a public building or space that betters the community rather than something functional in only a strict sense. In line with the ideal of public work, prompts for civic engagement should arise naturally from what you already do, which is how location-triggered push notifications represent an experiment for creating a low-friction opportunity to reflect on a civic issue and take action.

Another motivating concept that brings us back to civic education is what Markus Prior calls “by-product learning,” which is when people “learn politically relevant facts as a by-product of nonpolitical routines” (2007, 4). Prior focuses on the “efficiency” of citizens’ media environments, and argues that less efficient systems like old-school broadcast television actually produce high levels of by-product learning because exposure to political information was high when so few channels and programming options existed. I’m interested in thinking about how to promote by-product learning through the nonpolitical routine of walking through the city. The city as a routine experience is generally perceived of as nonpolitical, and yet it is of course teeming with political realities that could be exposed through Action Path prompts.

Theories of Learning Made Civic
My hope for studying this learning process is in the form of Donald Schon’s concept of the “reflective practitioner” (1983). I want to show that civic expertise can arise through quick moments of thinking on your feet or “reflecting-in-action” in Schon’s terms. By having a body of these actions saved up, as wel as the means for returning to issues through follow-up, you also gain what Schon’s calls a “repertoire” consisting of notes, images, and contributions that enable “reflecting-ON-action,” whereby practitioners can develop new theories and questions about their work, which feed back into their future practice. This is the development of expertise. And while it seems obvious—as in how all learning proceeds—there is a deeper concept behind Schon’s insights, which is its critique of “technical rationality” (all problem-solving is a linear and logical process).

Schon’s work on reflective practice and critique of technical rationality is motivated by his earlier work, published in Beyond the Stable State (1971), wherein he diagnoses mid-twentieth century society as one in which we can no longer rely on the stable state and its institutions in the same way we once could because they are in a continuous process of transformation. He argues that contemporary companies, social movements, and governments need to be “learning systems.” He says that learning happens at the periphery in response to technological progress, and then should ideally be absorbed into the core over time, through what he calls “dynamic conservatism,” which allows institutions to learn and transform while continuing to maintain some semblance of stability by continuing to perform the essential functions that keep them from collapse.

I’m curious to see if we can’t unlock Donald Schon’s concept of “government as learning system” from its paternalistic, top-down approach by re-emphasizing Schon’s own arguments about learning happening at the periphery. The periphery aren’t just young, savvy bureaucrats. They are also private citizens who can participate in this process as reflective actors and contribute to policy designs at the core.

To give you a research hypothesis: the reflection of civic issues in context might allow Action Path users to gain expertise and become more effective citizens themselves.

The thinker who pushes these ideas further is Ivan Illich. Similar to Schon, Illich is aiming for the learning society, but where they differ is over the role and location of expertise. In his book Tools of Conviviality (1973), Illich takes a Marxist view in that the control of the means of production in industrial institutions reduce people to mere consumers, deprived of the essential freedom to have a say in how things are made and what can be done with them. His greatest fear is a pure technocracy.

His antidote is the pursuit of tools and social processes of “conviviality,” which he defines as the “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment” (Illich 1973, 11). These tools and processes would ensure individual freedom through personal interdependence by being in the public interest and guaranteed so by being controlled by the public, in other words, by political processes.

It’s ideas like these, which make Illich an intellectual hero of the “maker” movement and constructionist educators. In many ways, the internet—in its purest form—is the ultimate tool of conviviality. And the promise of the internet and associated digital media has been one of a return to the Agora of Ancient Athens, where direct democracy can be practiced with equal distribution of responsibility and at least the potential for expertise.

Of course, there are realities to contend with around access and ability in both cases. Few residents of Athens were allowed to be voting citizens, and the those skilled in rhetoric had more power than those less skilled. The contemporary versions of this are the digital divide and the “participation gap” (Jenkins 2006), rendering those without access to tools or without the ability to participate fully in the creation of effective digital media are disempowered.

It’s possible there will always be a periphery disempowered through some means. Smartphone ownership trends in the developed world suggest that at the very least access to that technology may not be a barrier (Smith 2013), but execution is still critical to succeeding with conviviality.

What does success look like?
Yesterday during his keynote, James Holston also discussed the enfranchisement of the periphery, and the open questions who asks about the new digital tools of democracy and their ability to help bring to bear a sustainable “peer-to-peer urbanism” that might represent a new digital citizenship:

  • Do new direct democratic strategies give us the associational forms necessary to realize a true new digital citizenship?
  • Are these new digital means simply conveniences?
  • Does a digital method of peer-to-peer urbanism give us a new rhetoric for political life in the classic Athenian sense: to turn normal citizens into public and political ones?
  • Can crowdsourcing direct democracy sustain membership and define citizenship in a digital demos rather than merely a digital hoi polloi?

So how does the tool or genre of tools I’m proposing today stack up against Holston’s demands?

Empirically, we still don’t know—and won’t for a few more months in terms of my project. But I like to think that Action Path can be both a convenience as well as a convener for a more participatory democracy, one in which we collectivize power and work through, as well as against institutions. But I also know it’s not perfect, nor will it be. It certainly won’t ever live up to the comprehensive model Peter Levine proposed earlier for civic renewal. Once again, though, it’s a question of execution. A lot more thinking needs to go into designing the side of the tool that enables users to create their own geo-fenced actions. But hopefully it’s another step in the right direction.

The power and potential of both active and passive forms of monitorial citizenship have been demonstrated by projects like FixMyStreet and related 311 apps like I already mentioned, which crowdsource demands for government service provision and offer follow-up, as well as Ushahidi, using SMS to centralize eyewitness reports during crises, OpenStreetMap, which has been used in places such as the Kibera Slums of Nairobi to crowdsource a digital geographic record where institutions failed, and SafeCast, which developed an inexpensive Geiger Counter after the Tsunami and Fukushima disaster and mapped radiation levels across Japan with truck drivers willing to put them out their windows as they drive their routes. And I’m excited about the work of my colleagues on Promise Tracker, another smartphone app, which you will hear about next.

The hardest thing to design is not the technologies themselves but the social processes that surround them—this is why Illich believes we must invert our institutions first—establish a norm that connects individual efforts to official outcomes. That’s why I agree with Holston’s point that the project is the “making of the city,” which is a social project rather than simply one of material construction. People are at the heart of these projects. It’s important that we design in collaboration with the real stakeholders, and that we negotiate and establish our values and expectations upfront. You could say we practice deliberation for the exact reason that Peter Levine stressed that civic activity earlier.

My final inspiration in this work comes from Bent Flyvbjerg. Flyvbjerg has been developing his concept of “phronetic social science” for the past decade, taking the best from action research and mixed method case studies to develop social theories tailored to real world application (2001). He uses the Greek concept of phronesis from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, which refers to a knowledge of the value of something, which requires an understanding of context but also the projection of the usefulness of research and what impact might look like to all the stakeholders, including the researcher. There is a bit of experimentation in here, and perhaps grounded theory, in letting things emerge through the application of different critical lenses on a given situation or phenomenon.

Furthermore, Flyvbjerg argues that it’s the responsibility of the contemporary social scientist to ensure they keep impact in mind when doing their research, such that when papers are published and accounts are given, they can inform an audience of politicians, designers, urban planners, activists, etc. about what worked and what didn’t, and how that was a function of the context, giving them the ability to iterate and do better subsequently.

I think all of us who practice social science believe that this is what we are doing, or it’s what we aspire to do. But we quickly get wrapped up in the insular tendencies of our disciplines, and present incomprehensible research to each other on more than a few occasions.

I’m hoping as I see this project through that I don’t get too wrapped up with my own theoretical hopes and dreams. That as a designer of civic technology, I don’t confuse learning with education, or confuse efficacy with information. And that I can produce a contribution to theory and practice that helps us answer some of James Holston’s questions, but more importantly perhaps: helps some citizens write their own questions.


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