Creating Technology for Social Change

Research Is Cooperation: The 40+ People Who Made My Thesis A Reality

Three weeks ago, I submitted my Master’s thesis, packed everything I own into storage, and got on a plane for Seattle, where I’m spending the summer as an intern at Fuse Labs, part of Microsoft Research. I’m deeply excited to be here, where I have a chance to continue to work on technologies for local journalism and community organising. Mentored by Andres Monroy Hernandez, I’m also working alongside the amazing FUSE interns Emma, Yuheng, Erin, and Ill Won. Outside Microsoft, I’m enjoying the chance to participate in community events, hack for seattle, and meet people at the University of Washington, where I’m staying.

I’m also very excited to announce that I will be continuing into a PhD at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media with Ethan Zuckerman as my advisor. Joining @CivicMIT is one of the best things that ever happened to me, and I’m excited to continue that journey with Ethan (whose latest post on linking news with action is well worth reading). 

Seattle scenes modified from an original photo by Andy Simonds

I’m still exhausted from the thesis, which needs work before I can make any of the gender+media projects public. I’ll talk more about them at the MIT Knight Civic Media conference later this month. 

How To Do Impactful Work As a Gradstudent?

Doing impactful work as a gradstudent is HARD. I have spent a year and a half on gender in the media, most of the projects haven’t launched yet, and there are no published academic papers (yet). Finishing the thesis is just the first step, and the real-world usefulness of the work is still unknown. As a Media Lab gradstudent, I can work with partners, but I’m not allowed to do consulting, start a company, or build a team to take the work to the next level (one reason I may go on leave for the fall). To have the kind of career I want over the next four years at the Media Lab, I need to figure out how to channel that opportunity in ways that produce good research and support sustainable change. Later this month, I’m going to publish a reflection of the master’s thesis process at the Media Lab, a blog post that I hope other students will find helpful.

Research is Cooperation

One thing is very clear however, that great work happens in collaboration. In a week and a half, when I give an Ignite talk about my thesis at the Civic Media conference, here are the people I wish I had the stage time to thank:

  • Ethan Zuckerman (@ethanz) has been a thoughtful, supportive, and principled advisor, offering context and advice throughout my exploration of civic technology for two years. Working with Ethan is one of the best things that ever happened to me.
  • Tom Steinberg (@steiny) has offered direct and practical design feedback throughout this project and first suggested that I incorporate randomized controlled trials into my research.
  • Kate Crawford (@katecrawford) has offered relevant provocations, constructive suggestions, and deeply helpful encouragement throughout the writing process.
  • Judith Donath (@judithd) doggedly asked important questions that stumped me until I found answers to completely different ones.
  • Irene Ros (@ireneros) of Bocoup has been the best kind of collaborator, sharing encouragement, inspiration, and rock solid code since the very beginning, especially with Open Gender Tracker, which is primarily her work.
  • Sarah Szalavitz (@dearsarah) who first proposed TBA, has been remarkably prolific and indefatiguable in our collaborative journey to imagine, create, and evaluate what has become a gorgeous and excellent project.
  • Sophie Diehl has been a talented and capable collaborator on TBA, creating the beautiful prototypes that inspired it and collaborating closely on this work of meaning and impact.
  • Adam Hyland (@therealprotonk) of Bocoup defined our approach to citizen media platform analysis and developed the Global Name Gender Data project.
  • James Home (@jameshome) took the concept of TBA glasses and crafted a beautiful design for TBA. I enjoyed the privilege of implementing his elegant design.
  • Diyang Tang collaborated on the Twitter news quotation project.
  • David Larochelle (@dlarochelle) collaborated on an afternoon hack that turned into my thesis.
  • The Knight Foundation funded Open Gender Tracker through a Prototype Fund grant and has supported helpful conversations throughout my work.
  • Sasha Costanza Chock (@schock) advised my first independent study on this topic and consistently directed me toward principled action grounded in relevant research.
  • Adrienne Debigare (@adebigare) and Chris Marstall (@marstall) of the Boston Globe Globe Labs supported our integration with the Boston Globe API.
  • Alberto Ibarguen (@ibarguen) encouraged this project from its very beginning by sending me an interested Tweet that led me to step out my door on this adventure.
  • Lisa Evans (@objectgroup) collaborated on the study of UK news we produced for the Guardian.
  • Ami Sedghi (@AmiSedhi) and Simon Rogers (@smfrogers) published our series in the Guardian Datablog.
  • Anna Powell-Smith (@darkgreener) provided UK name genders for the Guardian series.
  • Solana Larsen (@solanasaurus) helped us understand Global Voices better.
  • Emily Bell (@emilybell) offered encouragement, advice, and a chance to brainstorm with students from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism school.
  • Sam Meier (@sammeier12) helped me navigate the feminist blogosphere.
  • The creator of Binders Full of Women answered questions about the Facebook page.
  • Lynn Cherny (@arnicas) supported data analysis in one of the Guardian posts and inspired the section on women in the book trade.
  • Brian Keegan (@bkeegan), SJ Klein (@metasj), and Luisa Beck helped me navigate Wikipedia’s contribution requirements.
  • Hanna Wallach (@hannawallach) advised on some of the data analysis.
  • Katie Orenstein (@katieorenst) and Taryn Yaeger shared ongoing conversations and inspiration on The Op Ed Project and what it means for women to be thought leaders.
  • Rahul Bhargava (@rahulbot) worked with me on nytcorpus-ruby, a ruby library for processing the historical New York Times content archive.
  • Charlie De Tar (@cdetar) shared many debugging sessions and feedback about design, consistently encouraging me toward meaningful impact.
  • Evan Sandhaus (@kansandhaus) and Alexis Lloyd (@alexisloyd) of the New York Times provided inspiration and conversation on our use of the New York Times Annotated Corpus.
  • Bill Thompson (@billt) at the BBC shared the inspiration of his personal approach to gender on speaker panels.
  • Matt Stempeck (@mstem), Molly Sauter (@oddletters), and Kate Darling (@grok_) have been inspiring, witty, and deeply supportive colleagues online and in the office.
  • All of my other colleagues at the Center for Civic Media: Erhardt Graeff, Catherine D’Ignazio, Lorrie Lejeune, Edward Platt, Leo Burd, Nicole Freedman, Huan Sun, Chris Peterson, Dan Schultz, Denise Cheng, Pablo Rey Mazon, Rogelio Alexandro Lopez, Becky Hurwitz, Andrew Whitacre, Rodrigo Davies, Alexandre Gonclaves, Marco Bani, Willow Brugh, and the Dalek have created a fascinating and supportive community for this work. Except for the Dalek.
  • danah boyd (@zephoria) shared helpful advice whose value will continue long after this thesis.
  • Jeff Howe took on some of my writing at The Atlantic so I could finish this thesis.
  • My parents Karin and Jorge Matias continue to encourage and inspire me to do work of principle and empathy.
  • Hannah Eagleson has shared especially kind encouragement, solidarity, and support.
  • Thanks also to committee members of the Davies Jackson Scholarship, who maintain an enduring interest in my life, many years after funding my study at the University of Cambridge.

Thanks, everyone. Working with you has been truly amazing, I hope we will find many new chances for collaboration in the coming years.