Play into a Broader World View with Terra Incognita

My colleague Catherine D’Ignazio is one of those rare people who manages to create beautiful art and clever software while remaining incredibly down to earth. I’ve been helping out here and there on her Media Lab Master’s thesis, Terra Incognita. Here’s an overview of the project I wrote up for the Internews Center for Innovation & Learning.

We’re building a news game that helps you explore a wider swath of the globe than you may have before. Terra Incognita: 1000 Cities of the World is a game delivered by Chrome browser extension. When you open a new tab, you’ll be prompted to read a news story from one of the top 1,000 global cities. You’ll also get credit for news stories you read on a limited set of news sites. You can get early access to Terra Incognita today.

Terra Incognita screenshot

Catherine D’Ignazio has built Terra Incognita as her Master’s thesis at the MIT Media Lab. We’re looking for beta testers to help pilot Terra Incognita: 1000 Cities of the World for a research study about news and geographic diversity. Participating in the user study means installing the Chrome browser extension and using the Chrome browser for at least 30 days.

In my two years working under Ethan Zuckerman at MIT’s Center for Civic Media, there were few questions we considered as seriously as that of the empathy gap: Why do people care (or not care) about other places? What makes us follow international news and memorize world capitals and ace international media quizzes? What makes us check out and focus instead on the local Little League scores? (Ethan’s award-winning book, Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection, explores these questions in great depth).

What drives our interest in other people and places?

Things resonate with us when they intersect in some way with our personal lived experience. Have you traveled to that country, or the region? Do you know someone from that place? Our personal experience can include beloved stories and narratives that cultivate affinity for foreign subjects and lands we may never visit.

Our sense of identity is another hugely important factor. Do you see yourself as a cosmopolitan person who follows global events? Are you passionate about the topic of the coverage (politics, but also music, food, or sport)? At a more basic level, do you have the leisure time required to read several articles each day?

Terra Nova, by Martin Waldseemüller

We also need to consider the tone of international news. The consistently depressing professional news coverage we see about entire continents (e.g. Africa) can create inaccurate frames in our hearts and minds. Even this coverage can miss huge portions of the world. Catherine has also built a tool called Media Meter Focus to look at how a variety of technological media (radio, online, print) represent each portion of the planet. She conducted a similar critical cartography of international media coverage the week of the Boston Marathon bombings, only this time, filtering coverage by individual news outlets like the Boston Globe, the BBC, and Al Jazeera English.

Terra Incognita hopes to solve some of the easier problems on this list of barriers to cosmopolitan media consumption. It invites you to take a moment here or there to broaden your perspective. And it serves up content from a far wider range of geographies than even the best news websites.

1000 Cities

We chose the 1,000 cities in Terra Incognita by balancing geographical coverage and a rough measure of relevance. The list is comprised of the most populous cities on Earth, geographically diversified with every national capital and the two largest cities in each nation. The result is a list with far more Chinese cities, for instance, than your nightly newscast will ever consider.

Familiar US cities like Detroit still make the cut, but you’ll also enjoy coming across a number of places you’ve never even heard of. The extension also provides a small scale map to help you place where in the world it is located. Clicking the big red button will bring you to a serendipitous piece of news or content about that place. We’ve worked with international communities like Global Voices to help ensure we have quality content for an incredibly wide range of places.

Help Us Map Media Terrain

If this project interests you, or want to help more people explore more of the world, here are three ways you can help Terra Incognita succeed:

  1. Install the Chrome extension and sign up for our user study
  2. If you know an area of the world that isn’t often well represented in English language news coverage, we could use your help identifying more content sources for that area. Email me at (my last name) at
  3. If you can code or design, we’d love your thoughts and contributions on this open source project.

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