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Recap: Boston Civic Media Kick-off Event

February 05, 2016

Live-blogged by: Renee Siobhan

As a follow-up to the Boston Civic Media Conference this past June, today’s kick-off event is for consortium members to proceed forward with this project in a collaborative and co-creative manner. This event aims to promote cross-institutional relationships and collaboration through dialogue and creativity, reflecting on what it means to be engaged with Civic Media as a practitioner, academic and/or community partner?

Moderator: Willow Brugh

Speakers: Eric Gordon, Erhardt Graeff, Sarah Wiley, Paul Mihailidis, Catherine D’Ignazio

Eric Gordon from Emerson College- Engagement Lab

Eric welcomes the consortium members and introduces the event. He notes that Boston Civic Media will be funded by Microsoft Civic Engagement and the Teagle Foundation, whose mission is to encourage and enhance liberal arts education, as a crucial element within civic life. Reflecting on how we approach the liberal arts is important because it can be engaged in such ways to make more porous the lines between the University and the community. Eric emphasizes, we can use media not only as a tool for media practice, but as an object of study. The event is introduced as a kick-off for a three year grant to administer this consortium. We already have a rough outline, but today we want to ask everyone here to co-create what this will be over the next three years.

There are existing projects already connecting people across disciplines such as BARI (Boston Area Research Initiative), URBAN.Boston, The MIT Center for Civic Media, and The Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Considering that there are already networks connecting the people in this room, the question becomes what is needed in this regard? Within this already rich space of Boston and Civic Media, what could this group provide that is missing? We can focus on teaching and learning, seeking opportunities with a variety of institutions and engage with Boston, a localized network of academics, practitioners, and activists. We don’t want to compete with existing efforts, so how can we be additive and enrich this space in the Boston area?

**Willow Brugh — MIT Media Lab, Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University**

Willow lays out the rules of the road for the forthcoming discussions, which include: Respect for each other, respect the schedule, be inclusive of the people here, always keep empty chair at the table to keep things open, ask lots of questions, there are no experts in this room and no debates, as it holds the room hostage and we want to encourage the flow of dialogue. Willow introduces the first of the “Framing Talks,” to better understand What is Civic Media?

Erhardt Graeff from MIT Center for Civic Media To address the question of “What is Civic Media?” Erhardt approaches it from the perspective of making media, building communities and designing tools to affect change. For example, young people who create and share a political joke represents a form of engaging in political discourse, building up a community, participatory practice, and effectively creating their own public. 3 Pillars of Civic Media:

  1. Open and accessible — tools which allow for participation
  2. Participatory and Community building — creating opportunities to be heard and to set an agenda
  3. Foster or Enhance Civic Engagement

In order to ensure these values translate into the project at hand, he emphasized that “Participatory civics demands participatory design.” Erhardt’s current project Promise Tracker explores the question, “how can citizens hold elected leaders accountable for promises that they made during the campaign season?” Promise Tracker is a tool currently being piloted in Brazil, allowing citizens to prioritize issues most important to them. They are able to see the origin of a promise, participate in collecting data and track the promises politicians make taking the necessary action if they are not fulfilled. The project enables young people to become more active and engaged members in their own community, surveying, recording data, and Erhardt says, “making data to make change, not just making media.”

By building a technology that is able to facilitate change in meaningful ways, we think this is one way we can contribute to building community here at Boston Civic Media.

**Sara Wylie from Northeastern University- Public Lab** Sara investigates the political heart of civic media work.

“Thus we seek to bestir the people into an awareness of their own condition, provide inspiration for their thoughts and rouse them to pursue their true insights”

(John S. Knight, 1969)

Sara has developed Public Lab, an open network community of educators, technologists, researchers and community organizers working in collaboration to find low cost solutions for monitoring air, water and land. The group aims to help rural communities self-determine and act collectively to protect their environment, health and communities from extractive industries. This initiative uses accessible and inexpensive DIY techniques to create, for example, alternative grassroots mapping approaches in contrast to the more broad use of public satellite imagery, a tool she says which tends to centralize knowledge. This work is connected to civic technoscience, where we question the state of things, rather than serving a state. We ask questions like:

> “How do we build systems and community owned tools, so that research can be scaled across communities?”

Sara says, “For me civic media is away of building civic science and connecting the practice of democracy.”

**Paul Mihailidis from Emerson College — Engagement Lab and The Civic Media Project**

Depiction of Civic Media Civic Media for us includes “the technologies, designs and practices that produce and reproduce the sense of being in the world with others toward common good. While the concept of ‘common good’ is deeply subjective, we use term to invoke the good of commons or action taken that benefit a public outside of the actors intimate sphere.” Paul notes, that they chose ‘common good’ because it encapsulates intentionality, a move beyond the personal and into the public realm. The “_civic_” in Civic Media is not about outcomes, but about process and potential. It is about the mechanics of acting in the world with the tools and conditions available. It represents a mediated practice enabling a community to imagine themselves as being connected, not through achieving but through striving for common good.

Eric and Paul co-edited a book, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice (2016). It is a collection of thematic essays to frame the idea of Civic Media. The book includes 19 chapters, 25 case studies, and brings in scholars and practitioners from diverse fields, with the hope of finding a common language and purpose.

Paul notes that in order to be relevant, it needs to be theoretically informed. To make the theories from the book come to life, Paul and Eric have received many short case studies that mirror sections in the book, presented as an extension of the book and meant to activate ideas on politics, play and creativity, systems and design among others. The case studies can be found on the Civic Media Project. The goal is to connect theory to practice by using case studies that are representative of real world accounts.

Civic Speed Dating Participants were encouraged to chat with people they’ve never talked to before, explain some of the challenges they’re facing and what you are up to in pairs.

Upon this instruction, the tables were pushed aside and chairs were placed so people were forced to encounter one another. A series of passion-filled discussions ensued, ranging from urban planning and community media (Nse Esema, program director, executive editor at MIT’s CoLab Radio), to working with urban data and urban systems data collecting insights into how cities and people behave, (Kristian Kloeckl, associate professor of Art + Design and architecture at Northeastern University and previously research scientist with the Real Time City Group Lead at MIT’s Senseable City Lab), to socially engaged, interdisciplinary art as a means to collaborate with communities and build connections (Sarah Kanouse, interdisciplinary artist, writer and associate professor of Media Arts at Northeastern University). A common thread of concern emerged from these “dates”, articulated by Daniel O’Brien (Assistant Professor at Northeastern University focusing on the psychology and sociology of urban neighborhoods and research director of the Boston Area Research Initiative), who asked,

> “Where does community come in? We’re working with data that the community is generating, but where is the community’s agency?”

The Civic Speed Dating was followed by a brief period of reflection, during which people huddled together, still fervently exchanging ideas.

Consortium Introduction

Catherine D’Ignazio, Professor in Journalism of Civic Media and Data Visualization at Emerson College, a fellow at the Engagement Lab and founding member of Boston Civic Media

Goals & Structure Catherine discusses the structure and nuts and bolts of how we’re seeing this effort move forward. Goals Include:

  • Building relationships

  • Sharing knowledge

  • Co-developing a curriculum

  • The purpose of this meeting is to begin building the relationships with each other to gain knowledge about different institutions, and projects currently in the works, building cross-institutional ties.

Structure: We want a successful organization that is not too onerous. With the grant we received over the Summer from the Teagle Foundation, we have structured this organization to include:

-Coordinator: Becky Michelson our point person for organization!

-Faculty organizers: Catherine, Eric and Paul

-Faculty Steering Members, 40 (approx.): “Ya’ll.” We’re interested in adding more racial and gender diversity to this group. Boston has historically been a majority minority city, and so we are aiming to move beyond the usual suspects, to also include members from community colleges, for example among others.

-Network Members 250 (approx.): This includes Boston- based community partners, government entities and funders. We are all teaching in collaboration with this wider network which we are also interested in growing, and we want to keep them in the loop, inviting them to our annual conference.

With funding for this network for three years, what could be accomplished?

Agenda We will have four meetings annually

-The kick-off meeting, today!

-Partnered pedagogy at District Hall- Faculty and community partners will discuss models, best practices and failures (Jan. 29th 2016)

-Theme & Location (TBD) -We would love your input here! (Apr. 15th, 2016) We would love to have this at another institution, and maybe we can discuss the theme of this meeting today.

-Annual Conference at Microsoft NERD (New England Research and Development Center) — The entire network and the public are invited (Jun. 10th, 2016). This is a chance for us to present our work over the past year to the larger network, members and public.

Communications Infrastructure

Join for the Boston Civic Media (BCM) network, where we will be posting any upcoming events at institutions, relevant calls for research, any opportunities including jobs, internships, etc. Feel free to send any relevant work or events, even if they are not located directly in Boston. We will be using this space to put together our Quarterly Newsletter, which will go out to BCM network.

What could be most useful to people in this room? The BCM Syllabus Directory: The goal being, since we have shared interests and similar forms of practice for example, participatory design models or data storytelling, we can build an online depository to share our work, references etc. We have about 30 syllabi contributed thus far, with about eight institutions represented, so we would love to have more, please contribute! Catherine gave a demo of accessing the syllabus directory and encouraged its use.

The Future These are just some of the things we’ve been thinking about, but it is also about you all contributing with what you see as possible. In the future we hope to continue:

-Building relationships across institutions by leveraging local knowledge within the community.

-Building curriculum through collaborative syllabus development, running courses at the same time, developing course modules together, taking courses on field trips (shared outings), allowing students from other institutions into your classes. For example, Catherine says she has spoken with consortium member Dorris Sommer about having an underground economy, where professors in Boston can give permission to students to sit in on their classes without going through the registrar’s office.

-Building Institutional Connections, with cross-listed classes for example or shared graduate programs. There are a lot of things possible here, however on the institutional level things might take longer.

-Building Shared Resources and Projects. For example, the syllabus directory, Community IRB project, (Community-based institutional Review Board) and what else? With the Community IRB project, we are currently seeking a research assistant and project coordinator to help establish shared criteria and collaboratively written set of ethical standards which organizations can use to evaluate research partnerships, ensuring that the relationship is not extractive, but rather mutually beneficial.

-Q&A Period Eric — I think the question is, we think this is a great project to work collaboratively on (referring to the Community IRB Project). The design right now is based on a number of focus groups within the community. The research plan is that we do that for the next couple of months, getting a core group of individuals to help and a core group of organizations to ratify this over the next year. We think this is a local effort, where we see how it works in Boston, and then depending on how it goes, we can extend this to different localities. Moving forward, we either want an incredible grad student, or researcher, we can form a collaborative process with people in this room and beyond. Maybe what we should do first, is figure out core group and then move forward. I would love for our January meeting, if we can present what we’ve done so far.

-Sasha Costanza-Chock (MIT, Comparative Media Studies)- I was thinking maybe to broaden the criteria for this position, to include someone perhaps with a community organizing background? Eric-Yes that’s a great idea.

-Q- Who is benefiting from this project? Should we consider a more democratic focus, where the impetus of the group would be to become broader, more open and representative of under-represented groups? Asking ourselves the question,_ “How would the person on the street articulate ‘Civic Media’?”_

-Catherine- we are bound in a certain sense by the funder, the Teagle Foundation, which has an undergraduate focus. So in a way we are bound by that, but how do we connect our research to this? I think community IRB is an example of our ability to connect our research interests with that focus. We will see how our research develops and reflect on what are our own gaps might be? Who are our community partners? Maybe we’re ignoring a geographic swath of Boston? How do we make a more concerted effort to address these gaps?

-Eric- I don’t think anyone’s wedded to the term “Civic Media,” but maybe using other more recognizable terms might be a good thing. We struggled to keep this meeting to just faculty, we struggled with that, but we wanted today to stay focused on structure and agenda-setting going forward. I want to point out a necessary tension, we are not naive that people are competing for resources, we want to share and open this organization to community partners, but we also want to keep the conversation open, to address when we are competing with each other and we want to be strategic about it.

-Q- What is the level of student involvement?

-Catherine — None thus far. Maybe Erhardt, but this is something to work on!

Next the participants started to self organize into topical groups to address long-term strategic planning for the consortium. The prompt was to, “be constructively selfish”, meaning not to over promise or over extend ourselves, so when we talk about what we want to see (ideally), it must also serve us personally, so that we will take the time for it.

Q- “What is the criteria?” Paul- Address the three main areas of funder’s criteria:

-Pedagogy- shared, partnerships

-Reinventing or blending research and education, our work in communities and how can we use collaborative power and wealth of resources to work with communities?

-Grant has mandate for diverse inclusion, to show that this consortium is diverse and inclusive.

Eric- I would just add, ignore the funder, I would hate to have that guide the group. We need to find things that compel us, that we are excited about.

Ideation and Agenda-Setting for the rest of the Year Groups focused on:

-Group theme

-End objective, what does success look like?

-Idea of how to get there

Report Backs from the Groups

A. Art and Civic Media

-Looked at how social media tools can be effective for changing perceptions of users, to re-frame their experience of the world. However, there exists great divergence in outcome assessment especially in the visual arts.

-Aim of creating a group, as space to use the language of visual arts and social, civic media practice to inform one another.

B. Journalism

-How do we help each other get better at working with outreach partners to have a more inclusive impact in a learning setting?

-Producing standards and case studies, examples, or coming up with an experiment that is open for critique.

-A focus on access of engagement

C. Community IRB Group

-Focus on understanding what these terms mean? IRB and Community?

-Creating a contract allowing for mutual benefit, a scale from non-disclosure to consent, to mutual benefit.

-We talked about the process of engaging community organizations, where that starts and ends? What scale are we working on?

-Coming up with a language that is mutually beneficial.

-Having some influence within the for-profit as well as the philanthropic sector.

-A document that could be included in tenure files, etc. with the aim of changing the culture of university institutions

D. Humanities and its impact on today’s communication

-What can we use from this tradition? To build in to urgent projects (presentist) the range of interpretations, historical experiences, and/or conflicts that exist, as a means to spark dialogue. Speaking across real social divides, as an element of aesthetics, we would like to see built in.

-Coming up with an ideal curriculum, or core courses. For example a course titled: Aesthetics: Reflection on Civic Agency, incorporate into artistic and civically-minded projects.

E. Development Group, action research and tech. dissemination

-Civic media for development.

-Building a shared resource, using classes to look at design of civic media to sustain the impact and work with communities moving forward. Could we co-design pedagogy for civic media, for development?

F. Co-Design

-For example, the sonic commons

-Developing a shared object or process that courses being taught across the city could use together. For example, environmental sensing, measuring water quality using a shared tool and shared space to collaborate.

-Important to have informal collaborations as well as formal ones.

-For example we could have a Disco-Tech, as a Boston Civic Media event, as a low commitment, city-wide event, taking place in a community setting.

-Connecting course modules to research projects. Investigating similar questions and building through the courses a shared research project.

Willow — 5 minutes to complete this next part.

First Activity — write on sticky notes and post around the room “I will” — a personal deadline — accountability — by when and who “we should” — longer goals for the group “Don’t forget” — for next gathering

Second activity — Start building map of the space — of partners you are with and who you would like to connect with. A Community partner map.

Concluding Remarks

And as a flurry of sticky notes assume their positions on the walls of the room, Boston Civic Media’s Kick-Off event concludes. Things to think about in the future are- How can we better create an environment for these events that might enable relationships to develop in more depth? How to encourage people to linger after the event? A different setting, a more intimate space? On a conceptual level, important questions moving forward include:

> How can we incorporate democratic values of inclusivity, diversity and co-creation into the model? How can we better address real community needs? How do we balance the tension between doing this while still meeting the funding criteria? And how can we ultimately sustain the momentum moving forward from this event?

Originally published at on January 20, 2016.

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