Category Archives: Civic Media

Companies Mobilizing Customers

Because I don’t have enough Tumblrs, I’ve started Companies Mobilizing Customers to collect examples of web-native companies mobilizing their customers to advocate on behalf of the services the companies offer. It’s a brave new world of corporate advocacy, disruptive technological possibilities, and evolving regulatory landscapes. Help me add new examples and those I’ve missed?

Uber intervenes in Boston bus driver striker
Uber intervenes in Boston bus driver strike

Gift Idea: Puzzle States

Puzzle States gerrymandered jigsaws

I’ve combined political nerdery with fabrication nerdery to produce laser cut gerrymandered jigsaw puzzles. Each state’s political boundaries are laser cut into finished maple plywood to create a real wooden jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are the gnarly congressional districts designed every decade or so by politicians. States with lots of congressional districts (like California, Texas, and New York) make for pretty difficult puzzles. Even states with fewer districts get tricky to solve in the more populated areas.

The mere act of assembling a puzzle becomes a lesson in controversial computer-assisted gerrymandering, where politicians use Census results to carve their constituencies into districts that will keep them in power. I’m excited to say that for every puzzle purchased, we’ll be donating an additional puzzle to an innovative school civics education program. Students will learn about congressional representation and the decennial redistricting process. The puzzle pieces are also a great conversation starter for learning about The Great Compromise, whereby the far less populated states receive equal representation in the Senate.

Puzzle States are now for sale over at Etsy (you can always just go to Get one today for the campaign geek in your life.

Laser cut jigsaw puzzle

Thinking ethically about our relationships with social robots

Liveblog of Kate Darling’s Berkman Center lunch, A discussion of near-term ethical, legal, and societal issues in robotics.

Kate begins with the observation that there aren’t nearly enough experts in robotic law. Those that are interested in the emergent field need to become more expert, and many more need to join them in the pursuit.

Here are some of the emerging issues:

  • Liability: the chain of causality of harm is going to get longer and more complex
  • Code is going to contain ethical decisions as autonomous units interact with their environments
  • People’s sensitivity to invasion of privacy is more strongly manifested when infractions are committed by robots (vs. NSA infrastructure-level scripts). Public aversion to such invasions may actually be an opportunity to push for stronger privacy rights.
  • Our tendency to project lifelike qualities on robotic objects. People bond with their cars, phones, stuffed animals, and virtual objects in video games. But this effect is stronger in robots.
  • Physicality: we react differently to objects in our physical space than things on a screen


Continue reading Thinking ethically about our relationships with social robots

Clay Shirky: Planning Shan’t Trump Reality

Clay Shirky‘s on stage with Ginny Hunt at Harvard’s Institute of Politics discussing the lessons we can take away from the boondoggle (#netrevolution).

Clay’s first point is that of all the criticism of and the Affordable Care Act, no one has argued that it’s a bad idea to rely on the web as the central component of citizen interaction with a government program. All of the other communications options, from phone to fax, have been considered second-rate fallback options. Continue reading Clay Shirky: Planning Shan’t Trump Reality

How do you make research more accessible?

One of my pet peeves in life is how rarely serious research is shared with lay audiences. There are many reasons for this, like overbearing publisher copyright policies and overburdened researcher duties, but I’m curious about creative solutions. What ideas do you have?

the YPP logoThis month, I’ve had the ridiculous opportunity to sit and read through the Youth & Participatory Politics corpus of research. YPP is part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative. They study how young people use new media to become more civically and politically engaged people, and how online expression can become structural political impact. There are other deliverables, but I also want to use this opportunity to distribute and prepare this work for a broader audience.

Continue reading How do you make research more accessible?

Characterizing the Life Cycle of Online News Stories Using Social Media Reactions

I’ve graduated, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting to see my first academic paper accepted for publication. Thanks to Carlos CastilloMohammed El-Haddad, and Jürgen Pfeffer for driving this paper, and for inviting me to collaborate. Take a look. Al Jazeera English provided us with some great data.

To appear in Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. Baltimore, USA. February 2014.

[Download PDF]

The shelf-life of hard news vs feature pieces
The shelf-life of hard news vs feature pieces on Al Jazeera English

This paper presents a study of the life cycle of news articles posted online. We describe the interplay between website visitation patterns and social media reactions to the news content. We show that we can use this hybrid observation method to characterize distinct classes of articles. We also find that social media reactions can be used to predict future visitation patterns early and accurately.

We validate our methods using qualitative analysis as well as quantitative analysis on data from a large international news network, for a set of articles generating more than 3,000,000 visits and 200,000 social media reactions. We show that it is possible to model accurately the overall traffic articles will ultimately receive by observing the first ten to twenty minutes of social media reactions. Achieving the same prediction accuracy with visits alone would require to wait for three hours of data. We also describe significant improvements on the accuracy of the early prediction of shelf-life for news stories.

Participatory Aid Marketplace: Designing Online Channels for Digital Humanitarians

(a summary of my MIT Media Lab Master’s thesis)

Unlike my thesis readers, who may or may not have made it through all 244 pages, you get to experience the condensed version. The full PDF is here, if you’re into reading and citations.

Participatory Aid
People are using information and communication technologies (like the internet) to help each other in times of crisis (natural or man-made). This trend is the evolution of a concept known as “mutual aid”, introduced by Russian polymath Peter Kropotkin in 1902 in his argument that our natural sociable inclinations towards cooperation and mutual support are underserved by capitalism’s exclusive focus on the self-interested individual. My own reaction is to the bureaucracy’s underserving of informal and public-led solutions.

The practice of mutual aid has been greatly accelerated and extended by the internet’s global reach. I introduce the term “participatory aid” to describe the new reality where people all over the planet can participate in providing aid in various forms to their fellow humans. In many of these cases, that aid is mediated at least partially by technology, rather than exclusively by formal aid groups.

Formal aid groups like the UN and Red Cross are facing disintermediation not entirely unlike we’ve seen in the music, travel, and news industries. Members of the public are increasingly turning towards direct sources in crises rather than large, bureaucratic intermediaries. Information is increasingly likely to originate from people on the ground in those places rather than news companies, and there is a rich and growing number of ways to help, as well.

You are more than your bank account Continue reading Participatory Aid Marketplace: Designing Online Channels for Digital Humanitarians