The Future of Civic Media

Alexa Mills of MIT’s CoLab, Andrew Whitacre of MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media and I hatched an idea to start a Q&A triangle where each of us asks questions through the lens of our program. Here’s the first in a series of two where I asked Andrew questions about C4.

Center for Future Civic MediaThe MIT Center for Future Civic Media creates and deploys technical and social tools that fill the information needs of communities. We are inventors of new technologies that support and foster civic media and political action; we are a hub for the study of these technologies; and we coordinate community-based test beds both in the United States and internationally.

KM: How does C4 identify areas that can use civic media technology and tools — and then, translate that knowledge into action?

AW: Areas can mean both geography and intellectual spaces. So we constantly evaluate our strengths, needs, and interests and seek out community partners that are a good fit in terms of the setting and the problem being addressed.

For example, masters student Ryan O’Toole, who developed the community financial data platform Red Ink, was able to establish a strong relationship with the Community Foundation of South Wood County (and supply us with a limitless source of Wisconsin chocolate-covered cranberries). South Wood is facing tough economic times after the contraction of local industry. They’re looking to reinvest, and they want to maintain a good standard of living in a relatively rural setting. So Red Ink allows county residents to show exactly where their money is going, whether or not it’s staying in the community. South Wood presented us with a geographic partner and intellectual partner where the key question was one in the same: how can a rural area make use of technology to nurture its local economy?

But Red Ink isn’t a tool that can, or should, be picked up and reapplied point for point in, say, Lexington, Massachusetts, or Tupelo, Mississippi, because translating knowledge into action, for us, requires trusting local partnerships, local knowledge, and a good dose of humility on our part, acknowledging that our tools may not be right for everyone. It’s up to us to test them and report out what works and what doesn’t.

KM: Globally, what do you see as the trends in civic media technology?

AW: We’ll continue to see the dominance of mobile devices in the developing world rising in parallel with a cryptographic arms race, including legislative battles that, frankly, I don’t expect to move in the direction of privacy. But more importantly, we’ll see a reconceiving of what we think of as civic technology: it was supposed to change the world, make it possible to support a revolution in a country thousands of miles away, but instead we’ll see everything zoom down to the community level, as civic technology starts to overcome the long-standing irony that citizens tend to have more access to news in Los Angeles and London than they do to news around the corner.

KM: What are the urgent gaps left to bridge with potential technologies?

AW: A lack of financial stability is usually people’s first critique. But even trickier are questions around platforms, habits, and accessibility. The poor have been adaptive to changes in communications technology, for example, but their adaptations don’t necessarily track with the wealthy’s. Neither’s is better or worse…they’re just different, leading to a siloing of or discomfort with communication between groups. (An analogy would be parents’ comfort with email versus their kids’ preference for texting.)

One of our researchers, a software engineer named Leo Burd, developed a tool called VOIP Drupal. Aimed at poorer communities that have lots of mobile phones but few computers, it’s a way to interact with local websites through mobile phones that aren’t smartphones. It’s a great project, because it tries to bridge content by bridging technologies.

- – - – - -

This post is part of a Q&A triangle between three offices at MIT: the IDEAS Competition and MIT Global Challenge, the Center for Future Civic Media (C4FCM), and the Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). Each office asked three questions of the other two offices, generating six blog posts. Check out the other posts, which will be published between January 6th and 11th, if you’re interested:

• CoLab interviews C4FCM • C4FCM interviews IDEAS • IDEAS interviews CoLab
CoLab interviews IDEAS • IDEAS interviews C4FCM • C4FCM interviews CoLab