Civic media | MIT Center for Civic Media

Civic media functions inside the public sphere model

Civic media functions inside the public sphere model

How does each kind of civic media project work in relation with the public sphere? How can we understand the relationship between civic media projects and the public sphere? I would like to address these questions by classifying the civic media functions inside the public sphere model. It’s true that there are some different understandings about this concept and its operationalization, but for this post I am just going to use a basic model inspired by the Habermas’ concept.

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." 

Civic Values in Technology Design: Read Along With Me!

When people in society come together to collectively perform a task -- from cleaning up a park to organizing around a cause-- the benefits of their cooperation extend far beyond the specific task at hand. People get to know each other, build bonds of trust, argue their understanding of a situation, and often form long-lasting partnerships, organizations, and communities for learning and action. Within cooperative technologies, these civic and community values are not easily computable. As a result, it is easy to pass over these values in favor of improving the performance of a task, increasing the number of petition signatures, or measuring the immediate outcomes of a social action. A core theme of my work at MIT has been to imagine how new kinds of measures more aligned with civic values, community, and social justice might transform our technology designs and our social interactions online. 

Supporting Change from Outside Systems with Design and Data: Stuart Geiger on Successor Systems

Are social computing and data science just tools for the powerful, or can they be used to question power and reshape the structures that influence us? It's a question I've been wondering as I've watched civic tech & academic communities idolize the employees and "alums" of big corporations and governments-- partly because of the resources they have, and partly because it seems like these companies are the sole gatekeepers of social experiments and large-scale interventions to influence society.

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

The Responsive City: Susan Crawford at the MIT Media Lab

Today at the Media Lab, we were joined by Susan Crawford, visiting professor at Harvard Law School and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Susan's last book, Captive Audience, focused on net neutrality. Her most recent book, The Responsive City, focuses on ways that cities are using data to support governance.

(this blog post was written by Nathan Matias and Ed Platt

"The most human technology we have is the Internet," Susan tells us. It gives us the ability to talk to the people we need to, when we need to. "I'm very worried about democracy," she tells us. This past midterm election had the lowest voter turnout in 72 years. At the same time as we have all time lows in participation, citizens are worried about issues of surveillance.