Tracking Global Prayer Metrics: Ten Questions
At the Center for Civic Media and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Nathan designs and researches civic technologies for cooperation across diversity. At the Berkman Center, he applies data analysis and design to the topics of peer-based social technologies, civic engagement, journalism, gender diversity, and creative learning.
Nathan's current projects include large scale research on community building online. In the summer of 2015, Nathan will be a PhD intern at the Microsoft Research Social Media Collective. A full project list is at natematias.com.
Nathan regularly liveblogs talks and events. He also publishes data journalism with the Guardian Datablog and PBS IdeaLab. He coordinated the Media Lab Festival of Learning in 2012 and 2013.
Before MIT, Nathan completed an MA in English literature at the University of Cambridge, where he was a Davies Jackson scholar. In earlier years, he was Riddick Scholar and Hugh Cannon Memorial Scholar at the American Institute of Parliamentarians. He won the Ted Nelson award at ACM Hypertext 2005 with a work of tangible scholarly hypermedia. He facilitated #1book140, The Atlantic's Twitter book club from 2012-2014, and was an intern at Microsoft Research Fuse Labs in the summer of 2013.
Tracking Global Prayer Metrics: Ten Questions
Would it matter if we could track the total sum of global prayer and compare hourly analytics on the spiritual attention of religious people around the world?
Last month, I spent a day discussing this and other questions with Andy Moore and James Docherty at the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, which facilitates connections across student Christian movements in over 150 countries.
As a Christian, I often find myself wondering how the Internet is shaping my religion, especially given the deep influence of other information technologies such as the printing press, radio, and television. Will the Internet lead to greater understanding across geography and faith? Can it enable new models of kindness and generosity? Might the Internet help us overcome the inequalities within Christianity created within colonisation and global capitalism? As an Evangelical Christian, I also wonder how technology can support our efforts to share our beliefs with others while also providing robust support for equal liberty of conscience.
This post on prayer analytics is my first written attempt to explore technology and religion, to untangle the theology, business models, and tech surrounding a matter of religious practice.
First, Some Straw Man Arguments
To take an honest look at prayer analytics, we need to go beyond the obvious arguments for and against.
Prayer analytics are a good thing because more prayer is a good thing. It is also good if more Christians pray in a more coordinated fashion. Data analysis can help us increase the total sum of prayer by providing comparative metrics on the performance of prayer initiatives. By measuring topical focus, we can direct attention to issues that Christians don't typically pray about. Great miracles like Peter's escape from prison and the survival of Jewish people recorded in Esther were associated with community-wide prayer or fasting. With this in mind, prayer technologies offer a more democratic, networked form of the Book of Common Prayer--offering the positive effects of personal tracking in a social context. By seeing aggregate data on what others are praying for, we can be nudged to pray in a concerted manner, and God will respond to the collective prayers of His people.
Prayer metrics are a terrible idea because faith and counting don't go together. Even worse, online social prayer tracking disrupts core aspects of the best prayer: secrecy/privacy, relinquishment of the self, and relational intimacy. If it was wrong for King David to count his army, counting our prayers seems even more like a presumption upon God. Sharing publicly whether we have prayed or not ignores the merits of praying in secret and risks public hypocrisy. If prayer involves relinquishing agency before God and accepting His way, then such a quantitative, goal-oriented petition is surely against the very nature of prayer. Finally, mutual prayer is a strong interpersonal bond. If algorithms rank and choose our prayers, we lose the personal intimacy of mutual prayer.
Taking Prayer Analytics Seriously
We need to acknowledge that prayer software is already a major part of many religious people's lives. Prayer journal apps for all faiths have millions of users (apps which integrate compasses seem to be most popular of all). The Vatican has endorsed iBreviary, a cross-device mobile prayer platform. Facebook apps like the Scripture Union's Pray Live app coordinates prayer sharing within your social network. Tracking software like The Prayer Engine and iPrayerworks work much like bug-tracking and CRM software: online teams pray for every request that is submitted. The software tracks metrics on a team's prayer coverage, with special algorithms to highlight emergency requests. Both systems can be used to coordinate responses beyond prayer: home visits, meals, and other acts of support.
We also have to be honest about the multiple roles of prayer within a life of faith. We sing and dance and praise together, we pour out our deepest needs in private. We learn by imitating the prayers of those we admire. Prayer is a time to re-orient our thoughts along the paths of God's vision. It can also be the emotionally complicated experience of confessing sins and processing mistakes.
Prayer and action are natural companions. We often ask friends for help in the form of prayer requests. Praying for someone is often a person's first step towards practical action. A great deal of what amounts to international journalism is shared in the form of prayer requests. Those requests in turn influence our giving and our politics. Public prayer itself can function as powerful, emotionally-motivating political rhetoric.
Christians are already using the Internet to build prayer relationships across cultures, language, and geography. During the IFES World Student Day, students from around the world use Google Hangout and Skype to pray with each other (trailer video). Can we use the Internet to build stronger cross-cultural relationships which last beyond these one-time events?
Ten Open Questions for Prayer Technology Platforms
With that in mind, here are big questions I have as a designer and Christian about prayer technology platforms and prayer analytics:
- Can we design web platforms to shepherd users along a ladder of engagement from prayer to other actions? How do we design this experience in a way that balances faith and action?
- Once we track prayer attention across topics and geographies, what design values should shape the algorithms we use to filter and highlight items of prayer?
- Aid organisations, missions agencies, and services like Operation World are the global newsrooms of prayer, verifying and amplifying information about Christianity across languages and culture. Bloggers have already disrupted theology, culture, and opinion. What might more networked, participatory models of prayer look like?
- Can online platforms use prayer as a bridge between the subjects of prayer and those who pray?
- What forms of privacy and anonymity make sense for social prayer systems?
- Might combined statistics on an entire community's prayer provide ideas for community reflection on what our priorities actually are? (c.f. Red Ink)
- Public prayer highlights our differences as much as the things we share in common. Can competing prayers, differences of priority, or even different styles become grounds for learning and mutual understanding? Or would this just result in PrayerShowdown.com? What forms of comment or discussion are appropriate?
- Prayer requests often don't contain the kinds of helpful context which we expect of journalism. How can we remix online content to improve the quality of the prayer information we create and spread?
- Who owns copyright on prayers submitted to online platforms, and is there a case for Creative Commons prayer requests?
- Prayer remains a contentious but promising part of attempts to find common ground among people of different beliefs. What might this look like online?
Technology platforms for prayer already exist, and they're already tracking the attention we pay to prayer, allowing individuals and small teams to process requests efficiently and take action. As a designer and Christian, I'm fascinated, disturbed, and excited by the possibilities.
For now, I have more questions than answers. What do you think?