Creating Technology for Social Change

Story And Algorithm: A Comprehensive #CivicMedia Conference Summary

If anything sums up this year’s Knight MIT Conference on Civic Media, it was Joi Ito’s argument for creativity and risk, encouraging us to pursue visions that we do not yet know how to describe. The Civic Media Conference is a new breed of gathering for networked thinking and doing: action research woven with creative diversity and energised by funding model innovation.

Part SXSW, part Barcamp, the conference combined hackdays, funding announcements, panel discussions, and stand-up storytelling. As a flagship demonstration of Ethan Zuckerman’s vision for the emerging field of Civic Media, the conference was spectacular. But for Civic Media to flourish while bridging so many communities, this new ecosystem needs to foster stronger, more diverse ties.

This is a summary post. Each session gets one or two paragraphs, with the video embedded. Each section also has a link to amazingly comprehensive and detailed posts by our liveblog team. If any of these ideas interests you, the liveblog is the best place to find in-depth discussion.

The conference had a remarkable diversity of ideas & fields, emphasized conversation, and gave academics time limits. The common format was a combination of project reports with broader musings. The hack day produced work that has been extensively reported (See Andrew Phelps’s excellent post at Nieman on 22 future of news hacks you’ve never seen before, as well as Nieman’s overall coverage of Knight News Challenge 2012.)

All the same, there are clear areas of improvement. Sean Bonner suggested new formats to encourage more efficient use of panelist expertise. The conference convened an amazing network within news innovation. I admit I was surprised not to see people from TV news. Many of the most important developments likely happened at lunchtime and in the surrounding cafes.

As a student at the conference, I would have loved to see students from other universities. Knight funds numerous journalism innovation programmes. Even though university collaborations often happen through student partnerships, the Knight community offers limited opportunities for students to connect and collaborate. A Knight student conference could empower an amazing community currently locked away in the silos of our individual institutions– building powerful teams that could take off in amazing ways after we graduate.

I also would have loved to get a status update on the Knight Mozilla News Technology Partnership, which is now halfway through its first term.

Overall however, the conference was incredibly thought-provoking, bringing together an amazing cast to report and forecast innovation in journalism. One of the main goals of the conference has been to define the field of Civic Media beyond the confines of academia and journalism. In addition to the amazing Knight media team, I coordinated an amazing MIT team of livebloggers to summarise and post conference happenings in realtime. Many of the livebloggers were doing this for the first time, and they did an *amazing* job. This summary post is my thank-you note to you and your amazing work.

This year’s theme was Story and Algorithm. The full schedule is here.

What stories do data tell? In Turning Data into Narrative, panelists shared their strategies for finding and telling stories with data.

Designer Laura Kurgan encouraged us to find powerful stories from unexpected data: understanding migration through bank remittance alongside photo essays or exploring incarceration by mashing up prisoner addresses with budget information. Next, Kara Oehler encouraged us to tell stories with the archive of everyday media online. Great storytelling puts personal experience in a statistical frame, a creative vision which guides the Zeega storytelling platform. Dan O’Neil of the Smart Chicago Collaborative told us to get on with it, even if we don’t have the perfect tools. His post about the Old Noel State Bank Building at 1601 N. Milwauki may not use the shiniest technology, but you can do a lot with a blog post. Finally, Jonathan Stray encouraged us to recognise and embrace the editorial responsibilities of finding and telling data with stories. Vast collections like the Iraq War Logs require automated investigation; we can’t settle for the hermeneutics of screwing around. To avoid screwing around with data, we need to become capable editors of data stories. In the Q&A, panel moderator Emily Bell highlighted Matt McAlister’s extensive review of crowd-journalism.

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How can our stories slow down, look more closely, and see things with new eyes? The panel on Extreme Data and Extreme Stories explored this question through data, maps, storytelling.

Cesar Hidalgo, who is a Media Lab professor, encouraged us, like Galileo, to find completely new stories by increasing the resolution of our data. The Atlas Of Economic Complexity breaks industries into their component pieces to map and predict the evolution of nations’ economies. Nathaniel Kelso of Stamen Design told us to escape the false dilemma between participation and aesthetics. Stamen’s beautiful watercolor maps have fostered remarkable creativity online, including cupcake versions. Finally, Paul Salopek argued for “slow journalism” that situates the particular within grand visions, embraces ambiguity, and helps us understand the ongoing journey of our species. Late this year, Paul will begin a 7 year walk across 2,500 generations of human history and 15% of his life. He plans to report on contemporary issues while creating a storyline which spans years.

The newly-announced winners of the 2012 Knight News Challenge shared amazing stories and innovative ideas:

  • Haroon Meer and Mohamed Nanabhay demoed, a platform which compares the social media popularity of news content across newspapers.
  • Nadav Aharony, a Media Lab graduate, talked to us about Behavio, a company which helps individuals and organisations track detailed behavioural data from mobile phones while controlling privacy. It is currently being used by the One Laptop Per Child project to learn how children learn with the OLPC.
  • PeepolTV, which arose frmo the needs of protest livestreaming in 2011, is a project by Felipe Heusser and Jeff Warren to make a social publisher of livestream content.
  • Caitra O’Neill told us the story of her home town’s recovery from a tornado, which inspired her to build, an out-of-the-box disaster recovery coordination web service. supports the three common coordination needs after disasters: I need help, I want to help, and I want to donate.
  • Karen Reilly of the TOR project explained that while open source developers have been successful at making technologies to safeguard anonymity, journalists and their sources often don’t know about those technologies. They plan to use Knight funding to improve designs and develop trainings for journalists and activists.
  • Adriano Farano concluded the session with a beautiful demo of WatchUp, an tablet app for creating a personal TV experience out of just the clips you want to see.

Knight Prototype Fund

Next, the Knight Foundation launched a prototype fund in an attempt to shorten the pace of grantmaking. Michael Maness and Joi Ito held an amazingly revelatory conversation with Elise Hu on Knight’s vision for the fund:

Joi: The cost of innovation goes down and predictability is going down, and they [startups] often only seem great in retrospect. What is the cost of saying no? If we calculated the billable time of the people in this room, we could probably fund 20 startups. I don’t look at business plans– I just bet. If you try to manage risk, then you end up losing money. Think about peer review– you have to explain to five other people what you’re doing. Really amazing ideas you can’t even explain. If you can write a grant proposal that a program officer can create metrics for, then you already know the answer. You’re not in discovery mode- you’re in answer mode.

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What are the ethics of creating tension with stories? In the discussion of Stories and Fables, panelists talked about the psychology of storytelling, online crime reporting, and The Kony2012 campaign.

Novelist and psychologist Keith Oatley, author of Psychology Today’s Psychology of Fiction blog, encouraged us to create narratives which resonate with audience experience. Stories have been shown to improve reasoning in planning initiatives and to encourage empathy. Laura Amico of Homicide Watch challenged our notion of newsworthy by arguing that every homicide is worth reporting. Homicide Watch gives every victim a page where family, friends, neighbours, detectives, and more can share stories and news surrounding the crime.

Michael Poffenberger of Resolve and the Lord’s Resistance Army Crisis Tracker talked about the Kony2012 campaign, in which The Resolve was an official policy partner. Although the campaign has been criticised for oversimplifying the issues, Michael pointed out that complexity is an enemy in campaigns: it demotivates participants. How can we mitigate the risks of simplification or overpopularity? Start from comprehensive knowledge of the problem and the tools needed to solve it. Secondly, develop means to channel public attention in effective directions. Finally, Sam Gregory, Program Director for, outlined a spectrum of human rights video online: from Kony2012 advocacy storytelling on one side to documentation on the other. Sam outlined three main responsibilities for human rights videos: responsibilities to the people, responsibilities to the truth, and the responsibility of action. Technologies like the Informacam and ObscuraCam offer protection to participants while documenting the time and location of the video. The WITNESS YouTube Channel aims to direct attention and action towards human rights issues online.

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During the MIT Civic Ignite Session, researchers from the MIT Center for Civic Media presented fast 5 minute talks of our latest research:

Day Two

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In the session on Internet Native News Networks moderated by Christina Xu, panelists discussed the future of news online, from international reporting to advocacy repackaging of media for impact.

Ivan Sigal talked about Global Voices, a network of bloggers and citizen journalists which drives a different set of voices and perspectives into the global media conversation, inverting the traditional news editorial structure by giving individual writers agency. Next Charlie Sennott spoke about The Global Post, an all-digital international news organisation which tries to go beyond breaking news to tell the story behind the story in International reporting. David Wertime talked about Tea Leaf Nation, wihch interprets Chinese Social media for Western audiences. They are working to redefine the quote, reading sentiments from the public. They are also trying to carry out linguistic and cultural arbitrage in a way that lets local people set the new agenda. Finally, Hong Qu of Upworthy talked about their mission to amplify awesome, visual, and meaningful content on the web, attaching calls to action to channel viewers of viral videos towards advocacy campaigns. To achieve this, they need to be responsive to the devices and platforms people use, fast at using data to develop an unfolding content strategy, and focused on understanding how content is shared, adjusting the platform weekly in response to changes in behaviour online.

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In the discussion of Open Gov: What’s Gone Wrong, What’s Gone Right?, Susan Crawford of the Harvard Law School moderated a conversation ranging from civic hackathons and crowd funding to government innovation.

Code for America, says Mark Headd, is “a Peace Corps for geeks.” They run hackathons designed to show cities the possibilities of data projects, while also connecting them with developers who can create that vision. Mark thinks that these initiatives need more commercial traction before they can become mainstream. Mike Norman, founder of Crowd investing platform WeFunder, outlined four challenges for Gov 2.0 startups: complex sales processes; limited access to capital; a need for better business skills; and difficulties finding interested stakeholders. Mike argues that crowdfunding will open up an “ocean” of capital for Gov 2.0 software and told the story of the recent passage of the JOBS Act which he thinks will make that possible. Finally, Chris Vein, US deputy CTO for innovation, argued that open innovation is about more than data: it relies on transparency, participation, and collaboration alike. He hopes that the upcoming will be able to build community and offer the support needed to turn data into meaningful initiatives. Read the liveblog for a fascinating Q&A discussion of their hopes and concerns in open government and civic innovation.

Lunch featured a wonderful discussion between Benjamen Walker of WFMU’s Too Much Information and Michael Kupperman, author of Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010

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What is the relationship between the recent global cycle of protests and the new media ecology? Sasha Costanza Chock moderated a conversation on how civic action moves between online and offline spaces.

Jamillah King of Colorlines talks to us about the media campaigns which surrounded The Trayvon Martin story, from local campaigns and the petition to the Million Hoodie March. Next, Hal Roberts shared a beautiful presentation analysing web data leading up to the blacking out of Wikipedia in opposition to the bills SOPA and PIPA in the United States (watch the video, or this talk by Yochai Benkler at the Personal Democracy Forum. It’s amazing). Renata Teodoro spoke with us about the Student Immigrant Movement’s use of videos to tell the stories of undocmumented immigrant students, taking control of the public narrative through which society understands them. Holmes Wilson talked to us about Fight for the Future and the Free Bieber campaign. The Q&A offered a fascinating discussion of what works, what doesn’t, and how to measure outcomes online and offline(liveblog here).

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Next, Lorrie LeJeune moderated a “completely different” panel on what news can learn from the porn industry, how AI can produce journalism, how drones can be used for journalism, and how to spread satire and fight misinformation online. I’m not even going to try to summarise this. It’s awesome, and you should look at the ideo or teh blog post.

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Michael Maness concluded the conference with a summary of top lessons from the conference in his “Moments of Profundity” session. Michael pulled a dozen lessons from the conference overall. You can read Stephen Suen’s animated gif enhanced version here.