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Boston Civic Media: Metrics & Methods conference | Session 3: Institutions

December 04, 2015

By Engagement Lab


This is a liveblog account created by Christina Wilson, Becky Michelson, Alex Eby and Jedd Cohen at the Boston Civic Media Metrics & Methods Conference. (Cross posted at the MIT Center for Civic Media)

This panel will engage in a discussion on the role of institutions–universities, governments, public and private organizations–in civic media research and practice. A panel will explore institutional constraints and opportunities partnerships between universities and the public/private sector, constraints on academic research for and with public partners, and barriers to collaboration between institutions and implementation of products, designs, and technologies. This session includes a panel and a workshop where groups will explore potential solutions to the constraints of institutional partnerships.

Moderator: Paul Milhailidis

Speakers: Colin Maclay, Holly St. Clair, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg

Paul introduces panelists and the session connecting to the previous panel sessions and notes that most people in the room come from a diversity of institutions. Outcomes in our work are somewhat constrained by the frameworks of our institutions, e.g., at the university, peer-review; at NGOs, work is constrained by human and financial capacity. Panelists will discuss how institutional constraints and capacities inform their research and work.

**Holly St. Clair from MAPC**

Holly works at a research and planning agency, providing technical support to 113 cities and towns around Boston to guide processes and broaden participation in the process. MAPC specializes in data, information, and technology. The conversation starts with money. Collaborations with institutions and expectations are guided by finances. For example, grant funding with universities often offer more flexibility. Foundation funding grants often function at the beginning of a long-range process to set the agenda over several years. When money comes from a fee-for-service model, in conjunction with multiple municipalities, MAPC has to negotiate among differences in financial capacity, in order to maximize voices in the collaborative process. One of the challenges is how to work with smaller municipalities when their funding models are at a much smaller scale.“Best practices” are defined only in relation to large municipalities adopting an intervention. Financial planning cycles often differ between institutions — fiscal year, academic calendar, grant-making timeline.

**Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg from Circle**

When institutions in the community want to partner with academic institutions, certain challenges arise, particularly in the arena of culture. Circle‘s research is informed mainly by practice, separate from institutions. Larger and louder institutions and municipalities have access to more capacity and more funding.How does the university as an institution catch that “great idea” and scale up?Institutions gravitate toward like institutions, and often ignore those who are outside of the academic system, not knowing what to do with them. Another challenge is working with faculty who plan courses maybe 6-months out, but grants often require a planning timeline up to a year out. There can be ways around this, if institutions are willing to be flexible, working on shorter funding timelines. Another challenge and opportunity involves the sustainability of research projects in communities, how they can go on after the initial research and injection of funding ends. Finally, it is important that there is a clear process for bringing partners into the process, e.g., clear guidelines for nonprofits seeking students and for students who are going out into the community who areaware and ready to contribute.

**Colin Maclay from Harvard Business School**

Partnerships between academic institutions, foundations and communities, uniting the threads between research and practice are the “holy grail” — but often not realized. How do you unlock those complex opportunities? The inherent mismatches between institutions can only come through attentiveness to 1) patience, 2) setting expectations clearly, and 3) mutual respect between the students/faculty and the communities. Important for organizations avoidingseeing universities as free consulting, and universities seeing practitionersas “subjects” rather than collaborators. We do have a lot to learn from each other. It’s important that all of this work happens in an atmosphere of learning, with opportunities to adjust the research and real world obstacles organically. All of these can help to lay out a sustainable relationship between institutions and communities that will bear fruit over time. None of this is easy or quick.


Paul contextualizes the panelists remarks for the Q+A portion of the session. Demands from universities to think about civic engagement as more than service learning, making students work more part of the lived world while making sure they are getting meaningful learning out of it. What is the mode of production and output, i.e, the question of methodology, and how is that seen?

> > Paul: Can you give an example of a successful relationship between communities, agencies and academic institutions?

HS: Names the collaboration with the Engagement LabParticipatory ChinaTown and two implementations of Community PlanIt in Salem and Quincy. This repetition of use of a platform was rare and beneficial, to get to know the researcher and his methodology, e.g., Eric Gordon‘s emphasis on the role of empathy in his research interests. Cut down on the time to figure out how to work together. Joe Fereirra at MIT, Metric Future Project. — two way learning relationship, understand each other’s cycles, how students can get involved. From the MAPC perspective, it’s important to make sure academics remember to include communities, think of processes as community-driven.

Eric Gordon: Academic outcomes from the universities’ perspective was productive in terms of understanding limitations. This work also helped Emerson College grow as an institution, as Eric moved ahead with his research interests. Structures now in place at Emerson were born out of the initial work Engagement Lab did with MAPC.

CM: Important to note from these examples how various parties “learn to speak each other’s languages” in a long-term, evolved relationship: adjusting to each other’s need, being flexible.

> > Q1: There are three different kinds of projects: pedagogy (classroom), internships (connecting with the profession world, and “basic“ research (intersection between academics and the agencies working in the community is the place where most things go awry). How can we maximize that third category?

KKG: Communicating clearly about outcomes and commitments throughout and after the research is done.

CM: When there is a higher degree of trust between the researcher and the partnering agency or community, there are often better outcomes. When agencies or companies cannot share proprietary data, company/agency can be flexible by taking on a graduate student as an intern and have them work internally.

HS: Sharing data openly is not a problem for MAPC, but things get tricky when the faculty and students want to engage directly with the community. Trust is at stake and MAPC is on the line with the community, when professors or students don’t come through.

> > Q2: For basic research, we are not necessarily trained to think in terms of reciprocity. Have you seen places where the sense of reciprocity clicked? How can we better cultivate this?

KKG: When Circle worked with Indiana Humanities they wanted to map what the civic network looked like in Indiana and what key relationships were in place. From the IH side, it was critical to have researchers to take the information garnered from the relationships and then help them understand what directions they should be moving over the next several years. That is an example of an easy, great collaboration, because everyone came to the table with openness and enthusiasm.

HS: From the outset of any project, its important to have an honest conversation of what skills will need to be in place to build the capacity of communities, with all the stakeholders around the table in the collaborative process. Having a mindful conversation about that in the beginning of a project or relationship is so important.

> > Q3: The need for connectors between entities in the community and academic researchers. As we talk about civic media, how do we ensure that we are not excluding those institutions that are most in need with the least resources, so that they can benefit most from what academia can offer?

CM: It’s all about putting good people together — it’s not about institutions. When companies want to work with an institution, it’s important to ask “who? which faculty member, which graduate student?” because they are the ones who will be making things happen and doing the work. How do we retain the humanness, but expand the network to maximize the availability of opportunities? Institutions with high profiles get tapped often, but also can reach capacity faster because of that. There is a value judgement and strategic aspect to deciding where and with whom to work.

KKG: Important to spread the word in the community that Circle was available to do work in partnership with communities. Otherwise, the partnerships were not eventually distributed across different demographics.

HS: It’s important not to tap the same neighborhoods over and over and to expand the way we think about “needy” neighborhoods. For example, in Boston, Dudley often gets tapped, but there are many other neighborhoods that are in need of these kinds of relationships with academic institutions.

Paul concludes by saying there is space for better understanding the role of universities in connecting with surrounding communities, tying academic research to needs in the lived world of communities.

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