I’m working on a project called Action Path. Similar to Promise Tracker, which will be the featured case study in this session, Action Path is a smartphone app for civic engagement. Specifically, the app uses geo-fencing, a technique based on the awareness of the user’s GPS coordinates, to send notifications to users about opportunities to take quick actions in the form of polls or documentation of a local area for easy, yet contextually-relevant civic engagement. As indicated by my promo slide here, it’s meant to marry mobile computing with the concept of a “Jane Jacobs Walk,” whereby you only really understand a city’s needs and resources through walking its streets. I hope you all agree that this sounds great… at least in theory.
But what does this look like in practice? Well, right now it looks like three two-hour public meetings per week, where I sit and learn about the ongoing planning processes in Somerville—the city where I live and hope to do my research. I am building trust with folks in the planning department at the City of Somerville and the leaders and organizers in civil society organizations who work on issues like land use, affordable housing, and beautification in different neighborhoods around town.
There are lot of conflicting agendas among these different groups, all of whom I need buy-in from in order to, 1) make sure that I have enough people test my app, and 2) ensure the app is stocked with relevant actions that a) make my partners feel good about endorsing it among their members, and b) make the city and private developers happy because the feedback will be in a form that can inform their planning processes, WITHOUT becoming overly politicized. I want to have real impact, and tying the technology to real impact is important for my research
In the end, I have to write this up as a thesis. And that means I need a rigorous study of some kind showing that people’s understanding of their ability to make a difference in their city has changed.
I appreciate that this is an iterative and interactive process that demands flexibility, but it’s also hard from the perspectives of design, research, PLUS overall impact. And it’s actually the social processes around the technology that are harder to design than the mobile app itself.
Originally published as a post on Unified Field’s blog [Internet Archive].
Legible Cities conversation with Erhardt Graeff from MIT Media Lab
Eli: How can Legible Cities be manifested? Now it is mostly a concept. I was reading Townsend’s book on big data and smart cities, which inspires this question. If city government’s are more interested in using smart city models for promoting economic development and front the street development seems to take the form of Foursquare or Arduino projects, what is there out there for the “people’s” view? Who would own and manage these new types of projects?
Erhardt: This is an interesting and difficult question because the rhetoric of the “front the street” developers like Foursquare is that it is the people’s view which is aggregated, somewhat passively, as people use the app and navigate the city. There is some truth to that idea since passive observation allows us a better sense of what someone’s actual experience of the city is rather than asking them, which brings in all sorts of biases like social desirability. Of course, you can argue that the designs of these systems—their affordances and the behavioral economics imbued in their user experiences—produce new and different biases. The competing paradigm seems to be the open data movement that seeks to release as much public and private data about city resident experiences and give them the chance to analyze it themselves and make their city smarter through some kind of discussion or policy recommendation. It always gets fuzzy from there.
I think the people’s view could look like an app that allows a bit of reflective storytelling to be taken on by the user. We see this working on small scales with organizations that do community mapping projects like Map Kibera. This gives a real, personalized view of the city, where hidden resources relevant to real people are identified and highlighted. The key question is how to scale that. What’s the middle ground between individualized community mapping and Foursquare-like location apps?
Eli: I don’t think aggregated passive data from Foursquare is an indication of the people’s view. Reminds me of the Sanskrit tale of the blind men describing an elephant. Can you tell me more about social desirability? I am not sure exactly what you mean. I am sure you are familiar with the promises of urban dynamism. Like the myth, evidence-based medicine can be a replacement for diagnosis but in many ways is hardly a complete picture.
The open data plans that I’ve seen and heard about in conversations with city officials who manage these open data programs is that they are focused primarily on economic development and in particular mobile apps. For the vast majority of people, the missing piece is not only access, but context and data literacy. Not to say that people should become data scientists, but like STEM and science literacy as a people we need to have a data literate population and workforce.
I cannot believe that people would not be interested in the real picture and status of their city, environment and neighborhood. The question is what does that look like and how can one sustain it? Should it be only mobile apps and websites, or should there be some physical representation that is not just an art project, we has some utilitarian value?
We see a lot of work like Jason Bruges, and other artists and designers doing art installations that are mostly eye candy, not much that is usable. My take on Foursquare is that although it provides a useful service, it’s primarily for the hip urban digerati. This holds true for digital wayfinding systems based solely on smart phones. Although there is evidence in developing countries that the mobile phone is becoming the standard web interface device, we still have situations, at hospitals and other locations and facilities, where you find demographics that either do not have mobile devices or ones that cannot be plugged into a network like Foursquare.
I’d like to see more focus in general on not what would only benefit cities in their planning and management, but what would the people need and use.
Erhardt: I agree with you that the missing value proposition is what everyday people can gain; what do they need and what can they use? Legibility, literacy, comprehension is at the core of this. I think access is a real concern not only in terms of being able to understand the data, but the media it comes through. I agree that it’s interesting and important to consider what a physical instantiation of community data looks like. My colleague Rahul Bhargava is doing great work along those lines, which he calls Data Therapy—check out the mural! I believe that the current obsession with big data and data science is actually hurting the legibility and accessibility of data. It’s making it more elitist. I think a City Data agenda should be organized around empowerment and not the empowerment of coder elites, who will build apps or produce free labor analysis and visualization for themselves.
Erhardt Graeff is a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab and MIT Center for Civic Media, studying information flows across mainstream and social media, and exploring technologies that empower people to be greater agents of change. Erhardt is also a founding trustee of The Awesome Foundation, which gives small grants to awesome projects. He holds an MPhil from the University of Cambridge and two B.S. degrees from Rochester Institute of Technology.
One of the biggest news stories of 2012, the killing of Trayvon Martin, nearly disappeared from public view, initially receiving only cursory local news coverage. But the story gained attention and controversy over Martin’s death dominated headlines, airwaves, and Twitter for months, thanks to a savvy publicist working on behalf of the victim’s parents and a series of campaigns offline and online. Using the theories of networked gatekeeping and networked framing, we map out the vast media ecosystem using quantitative data about the content generated around the Trayvon Martin story in both offline and online media, as well as measures of engagement with the story, to trace the interrelations among mainstream media, nonprofessional and social media, and their audiences. We consider the attention and link economies among the collected media sources in order to understand who was influential when, finding that broadcast media is still important as an amplifier and gatekeeper, but that it is susceptible to media activists working through participatory or nonprofessional media to co-create the news and influence the framing of major controversies. Our findings have implications for social change organizations that seek to harness advocacy campaigns to news stories, and for scholars studying media ecology and the networked public sphere.
‘Mapping the Trayvon Martin Controversy.’ MIT Center for Civic Media blog. http://civic.mit.edu/blog/erhardt/mapping-the-trayvon-martin-media-controversy
Action Path is location-based survey platform for Android smartphones that crowdsources feedback from citizens in a way that fosters civic learning through reflective political practice. Existing platforms for civic engagement, whether online or offline, are inconvenient and disconnected from the source of issues they are meant to address. They require that citizens leave the places they normally inhabit physically or virtually and commit to a separate space and set of processes. Action Path is designed to answer the challenge: How do you address barriers to effective engagement in community projects, and ensure all citizens can have their voice heard on how to improve their local communities? It does so by converting individual actions into collective action and by providing context and a sense of efficacy, which may help citizens become more effective through regular practice and feedback.
Related Talks and Publications
- Graeff, E. 2014. ‘Crowdsourcing as Reflective Political Practice: Building a Location-based Tool for Civic Learning and Engagement.’ Presented at Internet, Politics, and Policy 2014: Crowdsourcing for Politics and Policy, Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford, UK, Sep 26.
- Graeff, E. 2014. ‘Action Path: a location-based tool for civic reflection and engagement.’ S.M. Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Graeff, E. 2014. ‘Action Path: A Location-Based Tool for Civic Reflection and Engagement.’ To be presented at Place, (Dis)Place and Citizenship, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, Mar 22.