Category Archives: MIT

How to Grocery Shop in Shanghai

Another update from China. Thanks to the Great Firewall, I’m stuck in a Web 1.0 world of email and blogging.

Our group spent the day conducting ethnographic interviews of food sellers and consumers in a wide variety of contexts. We met with restaurant managers, supermarket shoppers, rice shop owners, and sidewalk crab hawkers. We interviewed people from several age brackets, to learn about the unique but also shared habits and concerns regarding food in China.

It’s hard to understate the level of concern around food safety. The elderly we spoke to actively avoid eating outside of the house, at any time, because of safety concerns. People who raise their own chickens and eggs take comfort in knowing that the food is not only fresh, but also safe.

Supermarkets offer a wide range of processed carbohydrates in shiny packaging while promotional specials blare out of speakers. Major brands offer a trusted name to wary consumers. They also offer a range of imported fruits from all over the world: apples from Washington state, bananas from Chile. The supermarkets do not even bother trying to compete with local produce markets, an interesting behavior I’ve also seen in Liberia, where Lebanese-owned supermarkets complement fresh produce at traditional market stalls. Traditional and local crops are fresher and cheaper at traditional markets, and consumers shop at both types of market for to combine their needs. A weekly trip to the supermarket provides a bounty of shelf-stable goods and supplies, while the more perishable items can be found at small vendors closer to home. Given this split in offerings, there might be potential to get some of the local market supply chain into the larger supermarkets, the way Target has introduced fresh groceries, and Walmart and Whole Foods have incorporated local offerings into their national supply chains.

Restaurants signal their quality by posting licenses and certifications at the entrance. Meat and seafood are considered fresh if it’s still alive in a cage or tank at the market. One of our group members said she never sees people buy fish at one market, because it’s already dead, and therefore not as fresh as it could be.

Local vendors are creative in augmenting their offerings. A woman selling live crabs also offers bath towels (which we purchased, to augment our hostel’s offerings). A vegetable seller gets higher profit margins on the fried turnip cakes she cooks while watching over the produce.

We’ve generated a wide spectrum of ideas, and begun to qualify them on axes of potential scale and the amount of time required to implement. We then bucketed them into a handful of themes, which emerged rather organically across our many post-it notes:

  • Markets (the physical place – e.g. a seed market)
  • Distribution of food, to improve the supply chain from producer to consumer
  • Building integration (e.g. vertical farming)
  • Sharing and coops offer communal opportunities
  • Our island’s surrounding waterways, polluted as they are, offer unique food distribution opportunities.
  • The branding of the island and its products in the mind of Shanghainese

Tomorrow we jump into full ideation and selection mode, and begin to tear into a specific proposal.

Designing Urban Food Systems in Shanghai

I’ve joined the Media Lab’s Changing Places group for a week in China to design the future of sustainable cities in Shanghai.

China presents enormous challenges and huge opportunities, all at a dizzying scale. 300 million Chinese, the population of the entire United States, will move to urban areas over the next 20 years. 20 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in China. Only 1% of China’s 600 million urban residents have access to clean air, as measured by EU standards. Anyone serious about climate change, human welfare, and other challenges of the 21st century must consider China’s role.

We’ve joined up with students from Aalto University in Finland and Tongji University in Shanghai. It’s sort of like the Wizarding Cup in Harry Potter, with three nations of mages converging to meet and work together. Our Powerpoint slidedecks paint similar utopian cityscapes comprised of mixed use city blocks, local food production, and chic cyclists. We’re moderating these dreams with what we learn of Shanghainese culture and the built environment already in place.

Our groups are broken into five areas of urban sustainability:

  • Food systems and urban farming
  • Energy
  • Transportation
  • Housing and buildings
  • Macro-scale urban planning

Our worksite is a small banana-shaped island in the Huangpu River, separated from the rest of the city by a canal. It’s essentially a 3.5 kilometer brownfield, full of former and current industrial sites. A shipyard occupies much of the land. Any food we grow here is going to require imported topsoil or aeroponically-delivered mist.

The government has requested that we propose new designs for the island, and is in the process of constructing a subway stop to better connect it with the rest of the city. The subway stop represents new energy, and likely a sharp spike in traffic and land values.

We’re struggling to determine how seriously our proposals will be taken, as well as the degree of freedom we can exert in redesigning the island. It’s certainly not a blank slate, but at the same time, as many as 50% of the existing structures could be torn down to make better use of the land. The island is open for new urban experiments, and the government seems receptive in that these innovations could attract further investment and development to the somewhat dreary existing landscape. Our professor, Kent Larson, is encouraging us to think big, and establish dramatically progressive goals. Perhaps the island will be made car-free, or produce 50% of its food locally, or go completely carbon neutral.

I’ve spent the semester in the urban food systems group. It’s an opportunity to work in several areas of passion, from nutrition to local food to city environments. Our group has investigated a variety of ideas, including aeroponic vertical farming systems, a social network and identity campaign to unite the nascent class of urban farmers, and a buy-one, give-one urban farming kit subsidizing agriculture in informal settlements. But we’re eager to design a realistic urban food system that will scale, and not remain confined to designers’ concept videos.

In true Media Lab spirit, my group is comprised of an extremely interdisciplinary group of designers, venture capitalists, artists, and community organizers. Each of us brings unique skillsets and experience, and also ambitions. Fortunately, we’ve combined enthusiasm with agility, and not become too married to any one proposal, because the local situation is quite different than the LEED-certified condo buildings many popular urban farm concepts take as a prerequisite. Since the beginning of the semester, we’ve kept an eye on those complicating human factors like income, cultural norms, and reaching meaningful scale.

Smarter Cities, Better Use of Resources?

Dr. Lisa AminiIf you’ve read a magazine or traveled through an airport in the last couple of years, you’ve probably seen ads for IBM’s Smarter Cities initiative. Today in our Post-Oil Shanghai course, we got to learn about some of the projects behind the very public campaign. Dr. Lisa Amini is the first director of IBM Research Ireland, based in Dublin. They focus on creating urban-scale analytics, optimizations, and systems for sustainable energy and transportation.

Lisa’s group focuses on transforming cities with:

  1. Sensor data assimilation: how do we ensure data accuracy, and account for the volume of data that comes in from sensors deployed at a metropolitan scale?
  2. Modelling human demand: how do we design a robuest enough model to reliabily infer demand and peoples’ use of city infrastrucure
  3. Factor in uncertainty: we’re talking about humans, here.

Sensor Data
Smarter CitiesWe have a massive amount of diverse, noisy data, but our ability to use it productively is quite poor.

One reason Lisa’s team is based in Ireland is that Dublin shared their municipal data on energy, water, and other core services. IBM wanted to focus on making use of available data, not laying down new sensors. Lisa shows us a map generated by bus data. The data is much more granular at the city center than in the suburban outreaches. And even downtown, the GPS isn’t terribly accurate, and sometimes locates buses smack dab in the middle of the River Liffey. This complicates efforts to infer and improve the situational awareness.

Bus bunching is a major problem in cities. Buses that begin ten minutes apart get slowed down, and end up clustered in bunches, with long waits in between. One goal is to dynamically adjust schedules and routes to compensate for predictable bunching conditions.

Another project looks to improve traffic signalling, not just for public transportation, but all traffic. Scientists are finding links between vehicle emissions and health, and certain urban corridors and certain times see a dangerous buildup of pollutants. Smarter planning could help us at least prevent this buildup from taking place around schools and hospitals.

Lisa talks about Big Data, but also Fast Data. It’s continuously coming at you, and if you can leverage it in realtime, it can be much more useful than a study conducted well after the fact. Her team is working on technology to make use of data as it comes in, and construct realtime models and optimizations. They can see bus lane speed distribution across an entire city of routes and a fleet of a thousand buses, accounting for anomalies past and present.

Sensor data’s great, but what do you do when a segment of the bus route is flashing red? Often, a disruption requires a person going to the scene to find out what’s wrong. The IBM team is experimenting with using Natural Language Processing data to determine if the cause of traffic is a Madonna performance at the O2 Centre. They can analyze blogs, event feeds, and telco data. Twitter isn’t useful for this yet because of the low percentage of Twitter users with geocoding enabled on their tweets.

Congestion is a significant contributor to CO2 emissions, so proative traffic control is becoming an important tool. Europeans are more and moer concerned about the livability of their cities, and even when they’re not, the EU Commission is happy to regulate. Cities are excited to avoid paying heavy fines, and invest in technologies that help avoid such costs.

At the individual level, congestion charging only works if there’s a reasonable alternative to driving. Even then, Praveen notes, it creates equity issues, where the wealthy can afford to drive into the city, and the poor cannot.

Lisa’s team is also modeling coastal quality and circulation patterns. One of the big problems is the treatment of water in waste plants. These plants treat the water to a static chemical index, and then release the water back into the world. Marine life dies, and we have toxins in the water, because
Large rainfall creates road runoff into the wate system. And tidal conditions can push water back upstream and hold the toxins in place, killing marine life. People are deploying sensors across the water systems, which is a huge improvement on annual testing conducted by a diver. But sensors don’t work incredibly well underwater – they’re limited by range and “fouling” of data.

New technology uses light sensors to understand the movement of water, which, combined with other sensors and de-noising models, can produce a cleaner picture of what’s happening across the bodies of water.

Modelling Human Demand
How people move, interact, and how they prefer to consume resources.
They can improve city services by taking advantage of telco data, smart car data, and other private and public information. The findings show a surprising sapital cohesiveness of regions. Geography still plays a huge role in how we look for services, communicate, and travel. Cellphone path data can illustrate points of origin that can better inform the planning of transportation paths. Political lines are a particularly ineffective way to organize services.

In the energy space, two trends have converged: First, we have more and more renewable energies, but they’re only available when the wind blows and the sun shines (efforts to store this energy notwithstanding). Our fossil fuel power plants require careful management, and must be gradually. Ireland could actually use more windpower than they currently do, but it would have adverse effects on the traditional plants.

The second trend is smart meters, which provide much more information on how energy is used. This allows for demand shaping, dynamic pricing, and smart appliances that act based on this information. But the energy companies are structured around predicting national energy demands, and follow very conservative policies that optimize for fulfilling peak demand. Energy companies are learning to forecast energy demands for pockets, rather than huge regions, and to take advantage of reneweable energy sources with pilot projects. They foresee running hundreds of thousands of dynamic energy models, rather than their current one-model-that-rules-them-all.

A project with Électricité de France simulates massive amounts of realistic smart meter demand data to test future scenarios. They’re building additive models based on human events like holidays and residential vs. commercial energy usage. The IBM Research team has build complicated flowcharts to identify compelling datastreams.

Utility leaders are forced to make decisions that are fraught with risk and uncertainty. It’s not just optimization, but social welfare and balancing competing costs. Lisa would like to incorporate the notion of risk into the technological systems. When your phone tells you there’s a 10% chance of rain today, it’s not very actionable information. Medical tests and treatment plans can be equally infuriating in that they fall short of complete predictability. How do you communicate information that carries risk with it so leaders can make decisions?

Interconnected water systems, with water treament plants, households, and geographical features demanding different priorities. Water utilities spend enormous amounts of energy moving water from one place to another, losing between 20-70% of the water along the way. We need to begin considering these systems as integrated, and acknowledge the risk and uncertainty inherent within them. When you start working on any one aspect of city services, you quickly involve other departments.

There have been many studies on providing energy and water information to homeowners to encourage conservation. The biggest change you can make? It’s not laundry or watering your lawn. Fix your leaky faucet.

Culture matters, too. Europeans expect more of their government, and citizens get up in arms when a resource like water becomes metered.

Rather than produce a perfect formula and answer to a question like municipal water demand levels, they have built models that allow for imperfections in data and can optimize for cost or service delivery.

An area of hope is to target non-experts with well-communicated information and visualizations of existing data.

What would you do if you had a city’s worth of data?
Lisa’s team is working to convince the city of Dublin to release more municipal data for others to make us of, following in the footsteps of, Washington, DC, and San Francisco.

The Social City project seeks to better understand the social context of people in a city to better understand why certain groups of people aren’t getting the resources they need. The conditions in which these people live could be major drivers of why


Sandra: Have you thought about incentivizing people, rather than just providing information?
Lisa: Incentives don’t need to be financial. One study found that knowing how other people like you behave has the ability to change individual behavior.

Praveen: Is it feasible to offset the cost of installing smart meters with the energy savings it provides?
Lisa: Right now, it’s still a net loss, because you still don’t have systems on the energy utlity side to take advantage of smart meters. But utilities know their time to adjust is limited, and governments are helping utilities to see that their time is limited.

People like to see immediate changes when they alter their behavior. Anything you can do to show people a change early in the feedback loop can be powerful (anecdotally).

Q: Can we do a better job of choosing sites for our buildings?

Lisa: There’s great data for this, but there are a lot of difference influencers. The telco data and the social context projects, for example, show just how many factors are at play. People may take advantage of a welfare system, but in the data, we often see them pop up once, and then disappear. They may register under different names. Cities know their service centers aren’t meeting peoples’ needs, often because of inconvenience of location.

Zack: There are a lot of policy implications in your work, and new technologies at play. You’re also in a position to educate policymakers and advocate for specific policies. What kind of barriers do you run into talking to those folks?

Lisa: Where it works is when you find some city leaders who are incredibly passionate about trying to do better and fix their city or some aspect of their city. Predominantly, people take these jobs because they do care about the city and services and infrastructure and making that better. The challenge is that a lot of policy and politics and regulations at larger levels that an individual leader can’t work around. Bus drivers’ union leaders were initially upset about the city sharing the Dublin buses’ GPS data. Are you going to spy on my lunchbreak?? Cities have histories and personalities and election cycles. Some people are afraid that the data will paint a negative picture of their work. Lisa compares it to the tide: sometimes you just can’t command it due to its scale. Leaders can’t yet prove a return on investment on a project because there’s so much uncertainty.

How to Surface the Valuable Resources All Around Us

I started my morning with an exciting (to me) development: Verizon had finally approved the Jelly Bean update to my Android phone. One of its features, Google Now, works like the iOS 6’s Passbook. Both systems pull from the vast number of things your phone and connected services know about you to surface relevant information when and where you need it. The day’s weather, the score of your favorite sports team, and traffic on your commute home are pushed to you so that you don’t even have to search. It was a fitting way to start the morning as I headed to the PhD. thesis defense of Polychronis Ypodimatopoulos (or Pol, or @ypodim, if you’re a fan of brevity).

The question that has guided Pol’s research is how we can enable people to easily tune in to what’s going on around them. When a curious mind walks into the Media Lab, how do they find out all of the amazing things happening inside this building? The Lab has Glass Infrastructure screens, but most other buildings do not.

The pain point here is the “If only I had known…” feeling. We work on projects similar to others, without ever connecting. We could better exchange products and services, engage in joint activity, or pool resources, like finding a roommate.

Cities offer many resources and opportunities, but navigation remains a daunting challenge. High rise buildings and crowds make us feel intimidated, not empowered. How can technology help us see our neighborhoods as the rich hives of potential they really are?

Pol’s answer is the decentralized social network. His first application was a mesh network on a mobile device that showed you what was around. Writing apps on multiple platforms and limitations of battery life were issues, though. So he moved the network to the cloud with Ego. Ego sought to put the user at the center of activity, with apps circling us, rather than our current model of competing platforms, where users revolve around sites like Facebook and Amazon.

Pol added indoor location-sharing to the mix with Bluetooth devices. The Twitter-like interface allows you to literally follow your friends. He charted the aggregate location results of two competing sessions at the same event, and could visualize the depressing effect poor venue selection has on the size of your audience.

The aforementioned Glass Infrastructure is a place-based social information system comprised of 40 touch screens placed around the building. It maps out the Media Lab’s many people, groups, and projects for visitors. By exposing this information in a public place for the first time, students rushed to update their projects and headshots (this novelty effect has worn off, however).

The GI architecture consists of a large touch screen in vertical orientation, which can read RFID tags on the nametags of passerby. This allows the infrastructure to provide different applications for different user classes (Media Labbers, sponsors, visitors).

The Bird’s Eye View application for the Glass Infrastructure provides a collage of faces. When you walk by the screen, your photo is pinned for the next 5 minutes so that others can see your recent presence and potentially reach out to you.

These two projects introduced a decentralized social network and a place-based social information system, but Pol sought to create a discovery mechanism that works across different contexts. Siri and Google Glass are interesting ways to present the information around us, but Pol thinks there’s room for improvement in creating the actual content of what’s interesting around us.

One such application is discovering the experts around us. This is usually done by starting with a corpus of information, such as emails or a forum, and then identify and suggest expertise. But when you’re in a new space, you don’t have such a corpus. FourSquare doesn’t tell us much about the people around us. Twitter has hashtags, but we have to advertise that hashtag’s existence before people know to use it. Starbird, et al. proposed hashtagging everything, which gets messy quickly. And combining Facebook + Highlight limits you to your existing social network’s reach.

Pol pulls up his own Facebook Profile. There’s a lot of information here, but it’s not enough to capture him, especially when you throw variables like location into the mix. is a discovery service that centralizes our skills across users. It’s designed so that multiple discovery services could compete using the same format. You, the subject, list objects (topics) paired with a predicate (talk to me about these topics).

Pol simulated the discovery service with thousands of users at the scale of a city block. A coffee shop owner would be able to determine how many people walking by match the profile of a person likely to buy coffee. Pol sees this as a way to make markets more efficient, and let consumers group themselves to achieve better prices.

This being MIT, most of the skills listed in the demo are software development skills. Your personal taxonomy consists of tags for your skills, gender, and languages spoken. The average user contributed 15 values about themselves, which is actually the same amount of datapoints Pol found in Facebook Profiles.

Pol tested at O’Reilly Ignite Boston 9 to help attendees find people they might want to talk to. TED has actually produced a similar iPhone app, TEDConnect, with the same “Talk to me about” field.

This list of information doesn’t scale, though. It quickly becomes unwieldy. So Pol looked at exposing information selectively based on the user’s current context. The lists become applications based on specific geographically-defined areas depending on whether you’re looking for dinner or a study partner.


Pol also mined a useful Media Lab listserv discussion to extract the knowledge within and import it into He mapped the tips and displayed . He asked users which format they preferred. People like the email thread for the personal touch and the contextual information provided in each email. But it takes a long time to digest many emails in a thread. extracted the valuable data, but not the personal stories behind it.


Me: Are we forever doomed to choose between inefficient but meaningful personal narratives and rich, if soulless, databases?

Pol has attempted to design a sweet spot between the two, and points to databases that link back to the personal context as a solution. provides a map with database entries of rich, concrete information, but each entry also shows the faces of the people who made the recommendation and a link to the email where they tell the story behind that great shot of espresso. You can have the best of both worlds.

Eyal asks if Pol has considered the emergency applications of such a skills database. Could we quickly determine if there’s a doctor in the vicinity?

Pol points out that verification of one’s medical degree would be important in such a scenario. Pol has played out a scenario where your train station is closed, and you are able to hitch a ride with someone headed the same direction. But realtime location sharing apps will probably leapfrog Pol’s tag-based attributes in this specific application.

Catherine Havasi notices a number of Google Maps pins in the Charles River and asks about moderation and verification. It turns out this was intentional, for a flashmob-by-sailboat app. But in general, Pol relies on user flagging for crowd moderation.

Privacy is managed by users themselves, who can set how many degrees of Facebook friend can view their location and attribute information.


Look Who’s Talking: Non-Profit Newsmakers in the New Media Age

Liveblog of the first Media Lab Conversations event of the semester, with help from Nathan Matias and Molly Sauter. You can view tweets from this event here.

“We’re a nonprofit, and we’re moving into the media business.”

Carroll Bogert (@carrollbogert) is the Deputy Executive Director for External Relations at Human Rights Watch. She also spent more than a decade as a reporter, bureau chief and editor of international news at Newsweek. Since 1978, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the leading human rights organizations.

There are two threads of international advocacy. You have researchers in the field, traveling and gathering information much like a journalist, pen and notepad in hand. And then there are the people who meet at tables in suits. HRW’s work stretches all the way from the personal testimonies collected in villages to strategic meetings at the upper echelons of international institutions.

How big is Human Rights Watch? Their annual budget is $64 million, none of it from governments. They have 358 staff spread across 48 locations worlwdide

To illustrate research, she shows us a photo of a Human Rights Watch researcher interviewing people who are experiencing the Naxalite conflict. To illustrate advocacy, she shows a meeting between HRW and the Mexican president Calderón about people who have been affected by the drug war in Mexico.

How can research be applied to create social change? Carroll boils the process down to three steps:

  • Investigate (gathering)
  • Expose (communicate)
  • Making Change based on facts

Their researchers arrive in places like Sierra Leone and conduct research, gather interviews, and fact-check to determine whether or not an event like a massacre has taken place. The facts they uncover are heavy, and can have impact in the world if they are then reported and communicated more broadly.

Specific facts and information can be used tactically, at the right place and right time, to create change. Carroll tells us a story from her journalism days. In a room with the leader of a country that had violently repressed protests, the conversation with journalists was going nowhere. Then, someone from HRW stood up and offered a pointed question based on well-documented research. The leader squirmed, the reporters focused, and the dialogue was shifted.

Information and communications is central to the methodology of HRW’s work. Other NGOs come to media as an afterthought, when it comes time to fundraise. HRW takes pride in sharing some DNA with journalists as fellow information-providers. The group is happy to adopt the newswire style to help their reporting blend into the broader media environment. They structure their press releases like news pieces, complete with ledes and compelling quotes, and have seen steadily rising media mentions as a result.

The web has made their work more visual and opened new audiences to human rights content. But at the same time, it’s blown a hole in the budgets of traditional news organizations and hampered their ability to conduct international news-gathering.

HRW has used photos from photographers like Brent Stirton, Tim Hetherington, Marcus Bleasdale, and Platon. Carroll attributes the involvement of such talented photographers’ to the basic human need to share the awful things you’ve seen with others. Photographers want to be involved in the solution to the atrocities they’ve witnessed.

The organization now produces multimedia releases, with edited and disaggregated formats of video available. News editors can grab finished, produced pieces, or take and use raw footage for their own pieces. We watch a BBC story that makes use of HRW-provided video as well as a live interview with a HRW correspondent.

Other news organizations have lifted their video without attribution. This doesn’t bother Carroll in her role as an HRW employee who wants to disseminate the videos far and wide. But it raises questions for journalism, she says, when news organizations gather footage from third parties without identifying their sources.

The group has released a report on torture taking place in Syria. It includes extensive maps, gps coordinates, witness statements, and photographs.
Again, a press release of an embeddable interactive map of toture centers in Syria provides a hook for news organizations to further amplify the report’s findings.

Carroll has drawn on her experience as Russian editor for Newsweek to work to spread the Syria report in that country’s media. Russia provides a complicated media environment for HRW’s work. The country has free newspapers, but there are also clear pressures from the government.

Carroll considers HRW an original news producer in today’s complicated media environment. Google News now treats the organization as a news provider like any other, and they’ve won two Peabody Awards for their work.

Distribution remains a major challenge. They still reach the largest audience if the mainstream media picks up a story. Mainstream media coverage also reinforces social media discussion. reaches 600,000 unique visitors a month, and they maintain a YouTube Channel and Arabic, French, Japanese, Spanish, and German Twitter accounts. They have a lot of Facebook fans, but aren’t sure yet what this means.

What is the right balance between the short form content that the Internet requires and the long form content that HRW is known for, which gives them their credibility? They don’t want to follow the mainstream media into a “hail of Twitter bursts.” They want to be a bulwark against culture. They want to do heavily-researched, time-invested work that others aren’t doing.

HRW is accustomed to producing around 100 reports a year. That’s now falling as they diversify the formats that they’re producing. What’s the right number? They also want an audience, but their purpose is not to inform the public: they’re not targeting a mainstream audience. At the end of the day, they want their information to change the minds of people whose choices make a difference. That’s why they try to occupy the information sources that people in power pay attention to. This “acupunctural advocacy” is different from having the widest possible audience.

Given their limited resources (and a digital team of 3), what is the right strategy for engagement? Should they focus on supplying the mainstream media with content, or should they reach out directly to new audiences online?

Ethan begins the conversational portion of the talk by contrasting HRW’s targeted audience strategy (targeting decision-makers) with KONY 2012’s pursuit of huge numbers of easily-influenced teenagers. Advocacy organizations are working very, very hard to get attention and sway the minds of policymakers, and there is some diversity in how careful these groups are with the facts. Who wins between HRW’s dense reports and Kony 2012’s slick documentaries? (See Ethan’s post on Kony2012 and his followup post. Listen to Michael Poffenberger of talk about the Kony2012 campaign at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference earlier this year).

Carroll says that HRW is certainly aware of the KONY effect, and have produced their own video postcards, using video to allow victims in the Congo to appeal directly to US President Obama for military intervention. The group doesn’t know if it affected any policy, but do know the video was watched by people in the White House. Kony 2012, likewise, has generated millions of views and set records, but it’s not clear if it has changed US policy.

Ethan hones in on the tension between the production of compelling video and staying true to the facts. He mentions a recent rap video by FARC which claims that they’re undefeated and keen for peace. How does HRW navigate this landscape? And doesn’t it get complicated when countless other organizations are producing videos to gain a finite amount of attention?

Carroll responds that because HRW’s strategy is to influence decision-makers, they would never make a video as sensationalist as KONY2012. They rely on the media as intermediaries between themselves and the public, and focus on reaching reporters with verified content. The organization is quoted in the New York Times on a near-daily basis.

Ethan mentions his last interaction with Human Rights Watch, over the mismatch between HRW’s research cycle and the speed of bloggers over the story of an Israeli attack on Lebanese Red Cross ambulances. Misinformation moves quickly online, and groups like HRW do the long, difficult research work. Carroll quotes a HRW researcher who summarized this balance to her: “Carroll, it’s your job to make my work shorter, punchier, and faster, and it’s my job to resist you.”

There are atrocities happening around the world, Ethan says, but we’re more likely to pay attention to some than others. How does HRW think about agenda-setting and balance their spotlight across all of the global crises?

Carroll admits that there are more human rights abuses than they have time to cover. They use four criteria to determine their agenda:

  1. How serious is the abuse, how badly are people being hurt?
  2. Does HRW have the resources and staff and knowledge to address the situation?
  3. Do they have the right partners on the ground who will stay on the issue and run with the report?
  4. Is the time right? Is there something in the zeitgeist that suggests HRW’s involvement could make a difference?

HRW is OK covering subjects that most people aren’t going to read. They want their work to be covered, but refuse to determine their agenda based on perceptions of what will interest a wide audience. Their researchers need to be ready to pounce at the split second the global media is suddenly focused on their specific area of expertise.

Audience Q&A
Alex wonders how the group’s reporting of the Nigerian story (A Heavy Price: Lead Poisoning and Gold Mining in Nigeria’s Zamfara State) was designed to effect change.
HRW’s Health and Human Rights division produced the video and showed it at a conference of health professionals, where it resonated deeply. Attendees were thankful that the video was able to transport these peoples’ voices from their homes to the conference.

George wonders about the different forms of influence that HRW aims to achieve, and how they go about it.

When Carroll thinks about expanding the audience of HRW, she is thinking about expanding the people in power who pay attention to them.

She tells us a story from Samantha Power’s book A Problem from Hell: the Human Rights Watch researcher in Rwanda is put off by the “politician’s dodge: my phone isn’t ringing about it.” Carroll doesn’t think it’s possible to make that phone ring.

The group conducted a survey at the State Department and on Capitol Hill to find out what these policymakers read (report PDF). The New York Times’ international reporting remains hugely influential, but there has also been a dramatic shift to mobile. If The West Wing were shot today, the walk & talk scenes would see the characters staring at their iPhones. If you can’t communicate your message to that attention span, you’ll fail to communicate.

Ethan responds: isn’t this the case for the limits of Human Rights Watch? Aren’t there times where there needs to be a major policy shift quickly? If you have a major shift in public will, do you think you might have a different outcome? What if we got people on social media talking about it, might that start to matter alongside the New York Times?

Carroll doesn’t think so. Public pressure on complex situations, by the public, is not something she thinks she’ll see in her timeline. She asks us: why, as an act of foreign policy, did Clinton go to war in Yugoslavia? He didn’t do it because it was popular in the United States. He did it because of a steady drumbeat in the New York Times and Washington Post that made him feel like that was the best thing to do. Carroll points out that there are a lot of problems with so called humanitarian military intervention. But she does think that articles in the mainstream media are of primary importance in influencing power.

Charlie De Tar says there’s a dichotomy between gathering facts and actual research. If the organization knew which of the two was more effective, would they drop one or the other, and what would those metrics look like?

Carroll’s focused the definition of impact. They consider impact to mean a long-term change in law or policy or international treaty or enforcement. Freeing an individual person from jail is less interesting to them than changing a long-term policy that will affect many.

Carroll notes that our children can have a powerful influence on our behavior as powerful adults. Teenage sons and daughters judge our actions, and Carroll hasn’t ruled out giving a talk at certain schools in Washington, DC, where certain policymakers’ children are students.

Nick Patterson of the Broad Institute points out that human rights violations are sometimes justifications for going to war. He wonders if they noticed that policymakers are also using them.

Carroll says that they have in fact noticed this and that they sometimes call for investigations of US policymakers for acts of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees. They don’t have any way to protect themselves of being used, but they are in fact able to

Sasha Costanza Chock: The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world, higher than Rwanda and Russia. Human rights abuses are rampant inside this system.

Research has a key role to play in challenging the ballooning for profit prisons. For example, today the National Justice for Families Coalition and released this report about youth incarceration. Does HRW face special difficulties getting attention in the US press for human rights abuses here in the US?

Carroll responds: No. It’s always hard to get media attention, but it’s easier to get attention if their stories are in the United States. They actually release more reports about the United States than any part of the world (not because the US is the worst violator of human rights). All the same, it’s hard to get policy impact, particularly for their work on immigration. In general, the media everywhere are more interested in their own countries.

Marco asks if the group’s focus is too broad, or if they would do better to foster community with a more narrow focus. Carroll remains skeptical of working to accrue large numbers of followers on online platforms like Twitter when compared to reaching the few people who will truly change policy.

Ethan wonders if the common man and woman reading the New York Times are just collateral damage on the path to reaching policymakers. Is it a missed opportunity to reach and educate them, but leave it at that?

Carroll asks us to contribute our time and knowledge and energy to take the information Human Rights Watch has made available and make it travel. If you have the online skills or an audience, you would do HRW a favor to help disseminate their research. HRW is not a membership organization; they are a highly professionalized NGO with a very small staff doing very specific things. But outsiders can help, and making HRW’s information move is one clear way to do so.

An audience member asks about the Russian media: how does Human Rights Watch overcome the standard narratives that dominate media coverage?

Carroll responds that Russian media are often very surprised to hear from Human Rights Watch. They have been more successful than they expected. More generally, individual journalists have their own tendencies and ways of seeing the world. Human Rights Watch tries to reach individual journalists with stories that are packaged in a way that appeals to them.

Larry, a former AP reporter, mentions how many nonprofits and universities are now funding journalism. He thinks that there’s a lot of distortion in that process; those funders are able to shape what gets covered. Has Human Rights Watch considered directly funding papers; is it financially tenable?

Carroll thinks it’s important to distinguish between journalists funded by Foundations and nonprofits like Human Rights Watch that are moving into the media business. She doesn’t think Human Rights Watch would want to fund outside journalists to do their work. They use journalistic talent to produce good pieces of journalism (though she wonders if you can call it journalism if comes from Human Rights Watch). Susan Meiselas has expressed that she wants HRW to support the profession of photojournalism. Carroll says that beyond hiring photojournalists, there’s not much they can do.

An audience member asks: Why have a research-led projects when you could collect just what your targeted powerful people need to create change? Carroll says that Human Rights Watch is moving increasingly in that direction. In addition to researchers, HRW now has a growing number of advocacy staff who work with governments and other powerful actors in national capitols. The needs of those advocates is increasingly shaping the research agenda.

Technology to Improve the Speaker-Audience Relationship

Liveblog of Drew Harry‘s (@drewwww) MIT Media Lab thesis defense (with readers Wanda Orlikowski, Judith Donath, and Chris Schmandt).

Drew’s thesis presentation covers a range of projects that tell a broader story about complementary communications systems and how people use them. A complementary communication system is simply how a group talks about their shared experience together. From the whisper to the written word, communication’s been around forever, but technology has changed who we reach and how we behave. We sit in rooms with technology interwoven in our presence: our laptops open and projectors whirring.

There are a multiplicity of communication systems, with official front channels and informal back channels of conversation. Anyone who’s ever had to speak in front of a Twitter stream understands the difference between these channels. Drew reframes the relationship as main stages and side stages on which we project our identities. Stages are more intimate than channels, and there’s a stronger feedback loop between the front stage and side stage. The backchannel can be covert and counterproductive, as seen in the tweeted uproar during Sarah Lacy’s interview of Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW 2008, or it can be incorporated into the main stage.

Designers of communications systems have long sought to conquer distance with technology. Replicating face-to-face communication is a huge goal and area of investment, from CISCO’s telepresence strategy to Apple Facetime. But Drew argues that technology can also improve upon the face-to-face experience. Face-to-face is a very difficult medium to compete with; we drop our technology when we can simply experience the rich interactions of face-to-face contact.

But there are downsides: not everyone is equally comfortable participating. Simultaneous speaking is viewed as impolite, so larger groups only sustain a single speaker, leaving out others’ voices. Lastly, you’re stuck with the identity you were born with, which can hinder your ability to be heard.

Drew reviews the checkered history of virtual spaces like SecondLife. Anyone following technology in 2006-7 will remember the hype behind it. And yet the promise of the limitless virtual world often resulted in replications of our existing worlds:

“We can do anything!”

“What should we do?”

“Build virtual houses and offices to live in!”

Drew built new environments in SecondLife where your physical location in the virtual space could signal your feelings. A football field with two endzones marked AGREE and DISAGREE allows individuals to vote with their virtual feet. There was friction in this interface, though. People were used to the real world models of coming into a room and sitting down in one place. was a project in 2009 to reconfigure the relationship between a conference speaker and the audience. The project sought to improve on the inefficient social contract that puts us all at the mercy of the first person at the Q&A microphone. allowed anonymous identities and crowd up-voting of questions, with questions deteriorating over time.

The tool was put online, where it was used for 791 events, from conferences to classrooms to business meetings. The MIT Admissions office used it for their information sessions with remote applicants.

A key consideration in designing these tools is managing attention. We’re all competing with screens, but Drew argues that there are a million ways to ignore the main stage, from sitting in the back of the room to staring at the speaker but zoning out inside your head. People see relevant side stages as a way to keep themselves engaged with the main stage of communication. Additionally, the existence of a backchannel on which to raise concerns and otherwise be heard provides audience members with a sense of agency and control, and a path to improve the conversation, all of which mitigate the traditional attention problem. Allowing the audience to surface shared problems, whether it’s a broken microphone or an overactive air conditioning system, creates awkward moments that force those on the main stage to address the backchannel.

Tin Can is an iPad app to support the flow of attention and participation in more intimate classroom discussions. Students are told that the app keeps track of time, ideas, and topics that come up in the discussions. But its designers were also interested in student engagement, participation in discussion, and awareness of their fellow students. The app shows a roundtable of conversation participants and lists of topics and ideas. Students felt rewarded when their app content made it into the actual conversation, and overactive minds were OK when not every idea they submitted made it to the main stage. The professor brought it all together by promoting individual quotes and ideas from students without necessarily focusing the entire class’s attention on a shy contributor. Students who don’t participate turned out to be very self-aware of their lack of verbal contribution, and appreciated their ability to contribute and interact with the professor without becoming the center of the group’s attention.

The app raised the question of defining the main stage itself. The main stage might be a boring Powerpoint slideshow, while the Tin Can app hosted a more compelling conversation. Drew sees the app as training wheels for the classroom environment, where it can pick up the slack when the main stage’s communication fails the audience, but it can clearly also be a distraction.

ROAR blows up the scale of the online audience to stadium-level proportions. There are two levels of interaction in a stadium, Drew says: the small group of people you came with, and the much larger crowd around you. Drew sought to determine the broader activity levels across the larger crowd: What are they interested in? What are the immediate trending topics and reactions across the large audience? The Pulse feature scans the realtime chat for keywords and highlights them in the fluid stream.

Drew compares and contrasts the key variables across these tools. Is the main stage mediated? Is the side stage publicly displayed, or is it private? How frequently is the side stage expected to be used? And what’s the scale of the audience?


We have long assumed that being face-to-face is the best environment for social interaction. But is “being there” the best we can aspire to? One common approach to improving face-to-face contexts is to add new communication channels — a strategy often described as creating “backchannels.” In my work, I use a series of novel complementary communication systems to show both how adding communication platforms to collaborative situations can be useful while also arguing for a new conceptual model of side stages (in the Goffman sense) that contrasts with the traditional model of backchannels. I will describe a series of projects that embody this approach and explore its limits. This will include work on virtual world meetings and presentations, an audience interaction tool for large groups (, a tablet-based system for small group discussions (Tin Can), and a platform for connecting huge distributed audiences (ROAR). In each of these projects I will trace my three major research themes: understanding how conversational grounding operates in these environments, how non-verbal actions complement text-based interaction, and how people make decisions about how to manage their attention in environments with multiple simultaneous communication channels.

I’m at the GlobalVoices Citizen Media Summit in Kenya

I’m in Nairobi for a few weeks, primarily for the GlobalVoices Citizen Media Summit, a biannual conference with many of the network’s top bloggers, translators, and editors, who hail from all over the planet. Here are a few liveblog posts I wrote the last couple of days to give you a taste of what we’re talking about:

More to follow, mehopes.