Literacy is more than reading

Below is a year-old memo I wrote for the Transmission Project was later polished into a more general statement on media literacy:

Synopsis: Digital Literacy Training should not continue the skills-based approach of the basic Computer Literacy that forms its foundation. To effectively prepare participants for 21st employment, Digital Literacy Training must focus upon the motivations and context for using new media and social networking technologies within business, nonprofit and community environments

Internet technologies—and the methods in which individuals and organizations utilize them—have undergone a paradigm shift over the past decade. Broader computer literacy skills coupled with high-speed broadband and the mobile internet have altered the barriers to becoming technology users and technology creators. The skills necessary to create modern internet technologies—rich media and interactive websites, custom social networks and mobile applications—have become professionalized: the education and experience necessary for their creation has moved beyond the scope of a community-centered training program. Meanwhile, those same technologies have undergone a process of consumerization, making their usage accessible to those with only basic computer literacy training. Today, millions of people every day create online, interactive, and rich-media experiences (for example, by embedding YouTube videos on their Facebook profile). yet do not have the skills necessary to build a basic website, nor do they need those skills to engage through these modern technologies.

While Basic Computer Literacy skills form the foundation for a Digital Literacy curriculum, an effective Digital Literacy Training will provide participants with the motivations and context for utilizing modern internet technologies and applications within business, nonprofit and community environments. This educational model requires a broader focus upon training participants in community building, decision making, and team facilitation. Training participants to apply digital technologies within these given contexts will best prepare them for 21st century employment. The job interview of tomorrow will not ask “What new media tools can you use?”, but rather “Given a business problem, how would you use new media tools in its solution?”

…of course, “you’re burying people at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy” is a pretty easy criticism to make about many things.


The work itself isn’t inhumane

Two weeks ago, while riding BART from East Bay to San Francisco, I was offered a transit survey from a BART Survey Team member. Pointing to what seemed to me to be a large number of written-response questions for a survey being delivered on a moving train, I asked her, “Do you have to read and code all these surveys?”

The answer was on my mind as I was in the Bay Area to attend a Summit at Code for America, the organization where I will be serving as a Fellow for 2012. During this trip, I observed (though this is by no means a fresh observation) that geeks are drawn to architecting databases, “open” no less, without recognizing or paying much attention to the experience of the people who will be entering and maintaining the data.

As someone who has spent a large amount of life sorting (and resorting) spreadsheets in Excel—and creator of an open database of my own—the experience of maintaining data isn’t particularly liberating (nor is compiling federal grant reports, for that matter). The experience reminds me of what Joel Johnson wrote for Wired Magazine in “1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?”:

“…the work itself isn’t inhumane—unless you consider a repetitive, exhausting, and alienating workplace over which you have no influence or authority to be inhumane. And that would pretty much describe every single manufacturing or burger-flipping job ever.”

Which is to say that maintaining a database is work and doubly so when the “data driven decisions” are not the maintainers’ to make. I think of this whenever the licensing costs of “closed” commercial databases are cited as driving the need for “open”; I agree that data in the public interest should be “free”,  but I recognize that freedom comes with a cost.

At the Summit, Tim O’Reilly said, “Data is infrastructure.” If that’s the case, I hope us data “architects” recognize the experience of people—the data pavers, data plumbers, and data janitors—who maintain such “virtual” infrastructure if we expect to gain greater liberties than our current physical landscape provides.

The BART Survey Team member’s answer on that shaky train was “Yes”.


The point where creativity and invention occur

From the preface to Arnold Pacey’s The Maze of Ingenuity : Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology:

So far I have written about efforts to inaugurate a new direction for technical progress as if the chief problem is a lack of methods and discipline. But there are other problems too. Technology does not exist apart from the people who create and use it, and its precise forms have a lot to do with the way these people choose to organise their society. One of the problems about the use of intermediate or appropriate technology in the developing countries is that the people there often do not have suitable forms of local organisation to make effective use of the equipment being offered to them. Frequently, it is equipment devised by well-meaning Westerners who have little understanding of the social component of technology or of complex local patterns of social organisation.

In the industrialized countries also, we do not have many social structures with suitable organisation to use alternative technology. And although the necessary changes in society may come partly through unconscious evolution, or through individual efforts to organise self-help groups, village societies or communes, change will be needed at the political and legislative level also. And Dickson sees the great weakness of much alternative technology as its neglect of the ‘political dimension’ – neglect which implies ‘an idealistic concept … that does not coincide with the social reality of technology as it has been experienced’.

This is fair criticism in many respects, but it is a mistake to think that the political dimension is the over-riding totality within which all other aspects of technology are worked out – and my book is very largely about some of the other dimensions of technological change. The distinction becomes clear when we consider the symbolic purposes which technology is made to serve, about which Dickson has useful things to say. For example, individuals buy automobiles or household goods and nations buy armaments, not solely with a view to their utilitarian value but because of what they symbolize. Discussions about more modest lifestyles for an age of zero growth, or about disarmament, rarely acknowledge this, and so become confused as people invent phoney utilitarian or practical purposes for their acquisitions, and nations invent unreal threats to justify their arms.

The Report from the Iron Mountain almost a decade ago explained how the armies, structures and industries associated with preparedness for war in fact perform many non-military functions. Many of these functions can be described in terms of the ‘symbolic objectives’ discussed in this book and have to do with ‘ideological clarification’ and building national unity.

As a partial substitute for the non-military functions of war, the Iron Mountain report suggested that a massive space programme could fill the place of the armaments industry in the economy and would provide an equally potent, but less dangerous, symbolism to express national goals and national prestige – rather as the building of cathedrals in the 12th century, provided an effective substitute for the non-military functions of the Crusades (P. 42).

Dickson’s argument is that the symbolism of armaments, or of cathedrals, is largely invented by the ruling groups within society as a means of controlling the mass of the people. Thus Dickson sees the building of the cathedrals as a way in which the Church could extend its influence over craftsmen, artisans, and I would add, merchants.

There is much truth in this, but to present such political aspects of a creative technological movement as the whole of the picture seems wrong. From the viewpoint of the architects and stone masons who built the cathedrals, the work was something that carried conviction because of its symbolic meanings, whether concerning the New Jerusalem, the glory of God or the prestige of their own home town. It was these things which fired the imagination and sparked the immense burst of artistic and technology creativity which the cathedrals represent. We need to understand the reality of the symbolism, and not just its political uses, if we wish to understand the ideals and objectives which give rise to discovery and invention in technology. So I do not agree with Dickson that ‘technological development is essentially a political process’. It is partly a political process, but at the point where creativity and invention occur, it is the values and ideals of individuals that matter, and personal appreciations of ‘quality’ or fitness for purpose. The convictions and sensitivity of the technologist have a validity beyond just the social environment which shapes them, important though that is.


The prevailing worldview of the present

From the preface to The Vision of Islam by Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick:

In this book we try to pry open the door to the Islamic universe. We are not interested in evaluating Islam from within those dominant perspectives of modern scholarship that make various contemporary modes of self-understanding the basis for judging the subject. Instead, we want to portray Islam from the perspective of those great Muslims of the past who established the major modes of Koranic interpretation and Islamic understanding.

This is not to say that we will simply translate passages from the classical texts in the manner of an anthology. The classical texts ask too much from beginning readers. They were not written for people coming from another cultural milieu. Rather, they were written for people who thought more or less the same way the authors did and who shared the same world view. Moreover, as a general rule they were written for those with advanced intellectual training, a type of training that is seldom offered in our graduate schools, much less on the undergraduate level.

The classical texts did not play the same role as contemporary textbooks, which attempt to explain everything in a relatively elementary format. On the contrary, they were usually written to present a position in a broad intellectual context. Frequently the texts would present only the outline of the argument—the rest was supplied orally by the teacher. Students did not borrow these books from the library and return them the following week. They would often copy the text for themselves (by hand, of course), and spend several months or years studying it word by word with a master. We ourselves have attended sessions in which classical texts were being studied in the Islamic World, and we can attest to how easily a good teacher can choose a word or a sentence and draw out endless meaning from it.

[…]

We are perfectly aware that many contemporary Muslims are tired of what they consider outdated material: they would like to discard their intellectual heritage and replace it with truly “scientific” endeavors, such as sociology. By claiming that the Islamic intellectual heritage is superfluous and that the Koran is sufficient, such people have surrendered to the spirit of the times. Those who ignore the interpretations of the past are forced to interpret their text in light of the prevailing world view of the present. This is a far different enterprise than that pursued by the great authorities, who interpreted their present in the light of a grand tradition and who never fell prey to the up-to-date—that most obsolescent of all abstractions.

The introductory texts on Islam that we have encountered devote a relatively small proportion of space to the Muslim understanding of reality. The reader is always told that the Koran is of primary importance and that Muslims have certain beliefs about God and the afterlife, but seldom do the authors of these works make more than a cursory attempt to explain what this means in actuality. Usually the reader encounters a short history of Islamic thought that makes Muslim intellectuals appear a bit foolish for apparently spending a great amount of time discussing irrelevant issues. More sympathetic authors try to explain that these issues were important in their historical context. Rarely is it suggested that these issues are just as important for the contemporary world as they were for the past, and that they are constantly being discussed today in our own culture, though with different terminology.

We like to think that the Islamic tradition provides many examples of great answers to great questions. The questions are those that all human beings are forced to ask at one time or another, even if contemporary intellectual predispositions tend to dismiss them as irrelevant or immature or unanswerable or self-deconstructing. We have in mind the great whys and whats that five-year-olds have the good sense to ask—though they soon learn to keep quiet in order to avoid the ridicule of their elders. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? Where did we live before we were born? Where do we go after we die? Where did the world come from? Where does God come from? What are angels? Why is the world full of evil? What are devils? If God is good, why did he create Satan? Why does God allow good people to suffer? How can a merciful God predestine people to hell? Why do I have to go through all this?

Texts on Islam often tell the reader, in extremely cursory fashion, what Muslim thinkers have concluded about such issues; what they do not address is the universe of discourse that informs Islamic thinking and allows the conclusions to make sense. Studies usually highlight the differences of opinion; what they do not clarify is that the logic of either/or is not always at work. Perspectives differ in accordance with differing interpretations of the sources, and the perspectives do not necessarily exclude each other. We are told that people took sides, for example, on free will and predestination. But any careful reading of a variety of texts will show that the common intuition was that the true situation is neither/nor, or both/and. The extreme positions were often formulated as intellectual exercises to be struck down by the thinker himself, if not by his followers.

[…]

Readers need to be warned at the outset that this book is not designed to provide the “historical acts.” In the last section of the book, we will say something about the Islamic view of history. That will help explain why the concerns of the modern critical study of history are not our concerns. To write history, after all, is to read meaning into the events of the past on the basis of contemporary views of reality. The events themselves cannot make sense until they are filtered through the human lens. If the Koran and the Islamic tradition are read in terms of contemporary scholarly opinions or ideologies, their significance for the Islamic tradition is necessarily lost to sight.

Naturally, we as authors have our own lenses. In fact, some people may criticize us for trying to find Islam’s vision of itself within the Islamic intellectual tradition in general and the Sufi tradition in particular. But it is precisely these perspectives within Islam that provide the most self-conscious reflections on the nature of the tradition. If we did not take seriously the Muslim intellectuals’ own understanding of their religion, we would have to replace it with the perspectives of modern Western intellectuals. Then we would be reading the tradition through critical methodologies that have developed within Western universities. But why should an alien perspective be preferable to an indigenous perspective that has survived the test of time? It does not make sense to us to employ a methodology that happens to be in vogue at the moment and to ignore the resources of an intellectual tradition that is still alive after a thousand-year history.


Fundraising Tool Memo Boilerplate

Sent this off after some wild, though not misplaced, enthusiasm for Kickstarter, Indiegogo and a few other newish online fundraising services; the soft lead-in and enthusiastic closing paragraph are not included.

No fundraising tool will replace an engaged membership who well-understands the necessity for monetarily supporting the organization’s activities. Yes, a certain tool may be marginally more effective for certain kinds of asks or circumstances, but the common framing of tools (especially new/hot online tools) as alternatives to the regular grind of individual giving and relationship development (“cultivation”) is a LIE.

When evaluating any tool, the questions to ask is:

  1. Why is our existing fundraising strategy/planning insufficient to meet the need for which this tool is the (potential/alleged) solution?

  2. Why can’t we ask our membership to fund the need directly or through existing channels?

Which is not to take a reactive stance against any adoption of any new tool, but to ensure that we are investing in creating a stable base of individual donors who will fund us regularly and consistently—and building the organizational capacity to ask people for their money honestly, confidently and DIRECTLY.

See also FreeGeek Chicago’s Funding Statement; an excerpt:

We believe these questions should be kept in mind when pursing funding:

  • How does funding sustain or improve something FreeGeek Chicago already does?

  • How does funding make FreeGeek more sustainable?

  • Who provides the funding? Do their values and behavior match FreeGeek’s mission and values?

  • Has FreeGeek planned for the time when funding runs out? Where does it leave us?

  • What forms of overhead does the funding create? Do we have the organizational resources to properly manage the transactions?

  • What forms of accountability go along with the funding?

  • How could the obligations of funding affect our organizational structure and community process?

  • Can the goals of a funding source be better filled by another organization (either existing or to be created) outside of FreeGeek?

  • Does the funder require personal information from participants? Are we comfortable asking for that information?


That Californian Ideology

From “The Californian Ideology” by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron who ask the question “who would have suspected that as technology and freedom were worshipped more and more, it would become less and less possible to say anything sensible about the society in which they were applied?”:

The Californian Ideology derives its popularity from the very ambiguity of its precepts. Over the last few decades, the pioneering work of the community media activists has been largely recuperated by the hi-tech and media industries. Although companies in these sectors can mechanise and sub-contract much of their labour needs, they remain dependent on key people who can research and create original products, from software programs and computer chips to books and tv programmes. Along with some hi-tech entrepreneurs, these skilled workers form the so-called ‘virtual class’: ‘…the techno-intelligentsia of cognitive scientists, engineers, computer scientists, video-game developers, and all the other communications specialists…’ Unable to subject them to the discipline of the assembly-line or replace them by machines, managers have organised such intellectual workers through fixed-term contracts. Like the ‘labour aristocracy’ of the last century, core personnel in the media, computing and telecoms industries experience the rewards and insecurities of the marketplace. On the one hand, these hi-tech artisans not only tend to be well-paid, but also have considerable autonomy over their pace of work and place of employment. As a result, the cultural divide between the hippie and the organisation man has now become rather fuzzy. Yet, on the other hand, these workers are tied by the terms of their contracts and have no guarantee of continued employment. Lacking the free time of the hippies, work itself has become the main route to self-fulfillment for much of the ‘virtual class’.

The Californian Ideology offers a way of understanding the lived reality of these hi-tech artisans. On the one hand, these core workers are a privileged part of the labour force. On the other hand, they are the heirs of the radical ideas of the community media activists. The Californian Ideology, therefore, simultaneously reflects the disciplines of market economics and the freedoms of hippie artisanship. This bizarre hybrid is only made possible through a nearly universal belief in technological determinism. Ever since the ’60s, liberals - in the social sense of the word - have hoped that the new information technologies would realise their ideals. Responding to the challenge of the New Left, the New Right has resurrected an older form of liberalism: economic liberalism. In place of the collective freedom sought by the hippie radicals, they have championed the liberty of individuals within the marketplace. Yet even these conservatives couldn’t resist the romance of the new information technologies. Back in the ’60s, McLuhan’s predictions were reinterpreted as an advertisement for new forms of media, computers and telecommunications being developed by the private sector. From the ’70s onwards, Toffler, de Sola Pool and other gurus attempted to prove that the advent of hypermedia would paradoxically involve a return to the economic liberalism of the past. This retro-utopia echoed the predictions of Asimov, Heinlein and other macho sci-fi novelists whose future worlds were always filled with space traders, superslick salesmen, genius scientists, pirate captains and other rugged individualists. The path of technological progress didn’t always lead to ‘ecotopia’ - it could instead lead back to the America of the Founding Fathers.

Freedom is Slavery

If its holy precepts are refuted by profane history, why have the myths of the ‘free market’ so influenced the proponents of the Californian Ideology? Living within a contract culture, the hi-tech artisans lead a schizophrenic existence. On the one hand, they cannot challenge the primacy of the marketplace over their lives. On the other hand, they resent attempts by those in authority to encroach on their individual autonomy. By mixing New Left and New Right, the Californian Ideology provides a mystical resolution of the contradictory attitudes held by members of the ‘virtual class’. Crucially, anti-statism provides the means to reconcile radical and reactionary ideas about technological progress. While the New Left dislikes the government for funding the military-industrial complex, the New Right attacks the state for interfering with the spontaneous dissemination of new technologies by market competition. Despite the central role played by public intervention in developing hypermedia, the Californian ideologues preach an anti-statist gospel of hi-tech libertarianism: a bizarre mish-mash of hippie anarchism and economic liberalism beefed up with lots of technological determinism. Rather than comprehend really existing capitalism, gurus from both New Left and New Right much prefer to advocate rival versions of a digital ‘Jeffersonian democracy’. For instance, Howard Rheingold on the New Left believes that the electronic agora will allow individuals to exercise the sort of media freedom advocated by the Founding Fathers. Similarly, the New Right claim that the removal of all regulatory curbs on the private enterprise will create media freedom worthy of a ‘Jefferson democracy’. [28]

[…]

Across the world, the Californian Ideology has been embraced as an optimistic and emancipatory form of technological determinism. Yet, this utopian fantasy of the West Coast depends upon its blindness towards - and dependence on - the social and racial polarisation of the society from which it was born. Despite its radical rhetoric, the Californian Ideology is ultimately pessimistic about real social change. Unlike the hippies, its advocates are not struggling to build ‘ecotopia’ or even to help revive the New Deal. Instead, the social liberalism of New Left and the economic liberalism of New Right have converged into an ambiguous dream of a hi-tech ‘Jeffersonian democracy’. Interpreted generously, this retro-futurism could be a vision of a cybernetic frontier where hi-tech artisans discover their individual self-fulfillment in either the electronic agora or the electronic marketplace. However, as the zeitgeist of the ‘virtual class’, the Californian Ideology is at the same time an exclusive faith. If only some people have access to the new information technologies, ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ can become a hi-tech version of the plantation economy of the Old South. Reflecting its deep ambiguity, the Californian Ideology’s technological determinism is not simply optimistic and emancipatory. It is simultaneously a deeply pessimistic and repressive vision of the future.

From the response by Louis Rossetto, Editor & Publisher, Wired Magazine:

A descent into the kind of completely stupid comments on race in America that only smug Europeans can even attempt. (Any country which prohibits its own passport holders from residing within its borders, or any people who are currently allowing genocidal war to be waged in their own backyard after the stupefying genocide of WWII, shouldn’t be lecturing Americans about anything having to do with race, much less events which occurred 200 years ago.) The charge of technological apartheid is just plain stupid: “Already ‘red-lined’ by profit-hungry telcos [isn’t every company, by definition, “profit hungry?”, although that description in this context is also stupid since telcos are regulated monopolies with government enforced rates of return], the inhabitants of poor inner city areas are prevented from accessing the new on-line services through lack of money.” Oh really? Redlined? Universal telephone access is mandated in the US. And anyone with a telephone has access to online service. Lack of money? On-line is cheaper than cable television, and you can get a new computer for less than $1000, a used one less than $500.

The utterly laughable Marxist/Fabian kneejerk that there is such a thing as the info-haves and have-nots - this is equivalent to a 1948 Mute whining that there were TV-haves and have-nots because television penetration had yet to become universal, the logical conclusion being that, of course, the state had to step in and create television entitlements. This whole line of thinking displays a profound ignorance of how technology actually diffuses through society. Namely, there has to be a leading edge, people who take a risk on new, unproven products - usually upper tenish types, who pay through the nose for the privilege of being beta testers, getting inferior technology at inflated prices with the very real possibility that they have invested in technological dead ends like eight track or betamax or Atari. Yet they are the ones who pay back development costs and pave the way for the mass market, which, let me assure you, is every technology company’s wet dream (the biggest market today for the fastest personal computers is not business, but the home). Not haves and have-nots - have-laters.


Community mapping class interview & outcomes

Last year I interviewed Richard (Dick) Howe, Lowell’s Registrar of Deeds about the impact of his participation in a Community Mapping class I taught at LTC in Spring, 2006.

The interview came about as a result a NTIA administrator asking the Transmission Project for evidence of a community training initiative that resulted in the creation of something of lasting economic or social value to a community, specifically a brief “ example in which tech training –> spurs creativity –> results in innovative outcome”.

This is what I submitted:

As a result of community technology training, the city of Lowell, Massachusetts better targeted public safety resources during the foreclosure crisis. After attending classes on online community mapping offered through the local Community Media Center, Lowell’s Registrar of Deeds created a series of maps of foreclosed properties in the city. These maps helped the city government see foreclosures not as isolated incidents but as patterns within specific neighborhoods. This analysis allowed the city to better target these areas in distress with police and public services, helping reduce the safety and community impact of foreclosed and abandoned properties. Speaking about the online community mapping class, Registrar of Deeds Richard Howe said “Beyond the nuts and bolts, it was inspirational and opened my eyes to that type of technology”.

Beyond that brief summary, my interview with Dick gave me a lot of insight into how he benefited from the online community mapping class—benefits I hope I and others are able to reproduce in all their technology trainings. Those benefits Dick explained fell into three broad categories: functional skills, a greater general appreciation of technology, and a sustained curiosity for the topic.

Function Skills: 1. As a result of Dick’s participation in my class, he gained the functional ability to create map mashups using tools like batch_geocode, Google Maps, MapBuilder.net, Platial, etc.

Dick used these skills to plot foreclosures in Lowell, extracting data from the registration of deeds and creating map mashups to show geographic distribution. These maps got some attention from the Lowell Sun newspaper and the Lowell City Council, alllowing them to “see” neighborhoods or sub-neighborhoods with significant foreclosures. These maps helped the city to allocate resources (police, public services) in a more rational manner and helped shift the perception of foreclosures from isolated events to more systematic patterns. That helped the city direct limited resources to issues caused by crisis (abandoned properties, crime, etc.). Without a visual depiction on a map, planners and public servants would have had to rely on their knowledge of the city.

On his personal blog, Dick mapped campaign contibutions for congressional and county seets. He took data from the campaign contributions and mapped where residents were contributing from.

An issue Dick identified though was that he never cracked through to a larger scale. He created the maps manually and because of geocoding limits, he would have to break the dataset down by neighborhood before recombining them. He further has had difficulty making the climb to more advanced tools like ArcGIS.

**Greater appreciation of technology: **For example, on his blog Dick takes pictures of olding building in Lowell. When he purchased a new digital camera, one of the big selling points was that the camera imbeds GIS data into the picture. Furthermore, Dick says he now is always on the lookout for websites and apps to use for communications:

“I was given imagination and vision on how it can be used,” he said. “If a project came along, I’d have the motivation to figure it out.”

Sustained curiousity: Dick says he is more likely to look behind the scenes of technology and do stuff. During the class I talked about the power of Drupal and its plugability and CMS features, which we were using for mapping. This led Dick to create a Wordpress blog and move off of Google’s free services. He’s now teaching himself PHP & MySQL.

“It got me interested to look under the hood” Dick says, and gave him confidence to to try things that he would otherwise have thought were too hard to use, but is more functional and tailorable to what he wants.

In his work as the Registrar of Deeds, Dick uses the knowledge and experience he gained in class. Working with different state agencies and contractors, like MassGIS and Applied Geographics, he is trying to better link deed and ownership information with maps, shapefiles and photography resources. Dick does though see difficulties in the bureaucracy as different priorities, such as access-limitation and security, results in pushback. He takes the long view: it’s a failure of imagination today but folks will catch up eventually.

Ultimately, Dick said the class “Raised my sights and capabilities to the stuff that can be done.”


Project fecundity

I put this chart together after a friend told me my project productivity was unusually high. I picked out the major web projects I’ve done over the past several years and highlight how they’ve influenced subsequent (or previous) projects. Every one of these projects launched or shipped… except the DigitalBicycle, which is why it holds a special place in influencing all Project Design (we never did make those “defunct” t-shirts).


Meet AmeriCorps no more

[ ![](/uploads/2011-09/Home-Meet-AmeriCorps.png “Home Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/Home-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)

This month, the lights on Meet AmeriCorp—a directory and messaging service for AmeriCorps members that launched in 2006—has gone dark for the last time. With over 450 members and a long history of technical problems and blackouts, I’m relieved to pull the plug though a little sad that the 80,000+ AmeriCorps members who serve every year still have great difficulty connecting with eachother.

Meet AmeriCorps started as ServiceSpeak in 2005, which was my introduction to CivicSpace—Howard Dean’s presidential campaign-technology spinoff—and eventually led me to Drupal, the platform Meet AmeriCorps is built on (Drupal 4.7, to be exact). The design was minimal, but I spent many hours on enriching the experience for users—which still annoys me 5 years and 3 major Drupal releases later that Users are still 2nd class Drupal citizens when it comes to treating them like a fully-fledged content type. This meant repurposing a lot of specialty node fields and taxonomy code (like tag clouds) for users; and creating rich lists of users and fun stuff like geographic hierarchies (clicking through a weighted tag-cloud of States to see a weighted tag-cloud of Cities). Looking back, the code wasn’t pretty (and there were a few hacks to core [shudder]), but Meet AmeriCorps, for being 5 years old, still has more character and spunk than many modern Drupal-based websites.

[ ![](/uploads/2011-09/California-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “California Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/California-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)  [ ![](/uploads/2011-09/rebecca-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “rebecca Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/rebecca-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)  [ ![](/uploads/2011-09/Map-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “Map Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/Map-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)
[ ![](/uploads/2011-09/Interests-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “Interests Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/Interests-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)  [ ![](/uploads/2011-09/All-about-Meet-AmeriCorps-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “All about Meet AmeriCorps Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/All-about-Meet-AmeriCorps-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)  [ ![](/uploads/2011-09/So-you-need-help-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “So you need help Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/So-you-need-help-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)
[ ![](/uploads/2011-09/Service-Area-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “Service Area Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/Service-Area-Meet-AmeriCorps.png) [ ![](/uploads/2011-09/Alaska-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “Alaska Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/Alaska-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)  [ ![](/uploads/2011-09/user-account-Meet-AmeriCorps-150x150.png “user account Meet AmeriCorps”) ](/uploads/2011-09/user-account-Meet-AmeriCorps.png)

Technology aside, Meet AmeriCorps scratched a lot of philosophical and ideological itches—from organizing to communication and technology—in a time when no one was sure if Facebook would stick (not to mention the advertising and personal data collection, either). Last year, when it was finally clear that Meet AmeriCorps should be sundowned, I penned this open letter about the project and the AmeriCorps ecosystem in general:

Since we launched this website, first as ServiceSpeak then Meet AmeriCorps, our goal has always been to connect AmeriCorps members and alumni. Networking members, within communities and across the country, enables them to learn from one another and bonds them in the shared experience of service. We believe this creates greater well-being in members, greater impact upon the communities they serve, and greater strength to national service as a whole.

5 years ago the technology needed to create a successful online community required both commitment and technical skills. Frustrated with the lack of investment by AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), we spent considerable time surveying, designing, building, launching, and incorporating feedback into Meet AmeriCorps. We were informed by our own experience as AmeriCorps members and motivated by our desire to better recognize the innate experience and ability of its corps members.

Today, anyone can create an online community without significant resources or technical skills. Online social media and social networking tools now require only passion and commitment to create thriving communities of practice. Many new communities have already been created by other AmeriCorps members who identified the same needs and opportunities we did so many years ago.

Unfortunately, AmeriCorps and CNCS still place little emphasis on connecting and networking their members. Official websites are created without community input, poorly designed, rarely communicated to members, unmoderated by knowledgeable staff, and frequently replaced with equivalently disengaged websites. Communication tools are designed for top-down announcements rather than bottom-up dialogue, and even then are used rarely to meaningfully inform members or recognize their abilities and impact.

We are glad that technology is now accessible enough for AmeriCorps members to connect themselves. We are disappointed that that AmeriCorps has not done more to lead, nurture, facilitate and inform these networks. With the energy of the Obama administration and its complementary focuses on both national service and empowering uses of technology, we hope that AmeriCorps and CNCS will better recognize the individual benefits and national impact a purposely and well-connected corps can have.

In community,
The Meet AmeriCorps Team


Crime and Data Leadership

This afternoon I have been following the mis-framing of Chicago’s newly announced plan to release 10 years of… not crime statistics as has been reported, but… police incident reports. From the Boston Globe:

Chicago to publish crime stats online

CHICAGO—Long a city with a reputation for withholding information, Chicago now wants to make public every crime over the past 10 years – a highly unusual move among the nation’s major police departments.

Starting Wednesday, millions of crime statistics dating to 2001 will be posted online in a searchable database. It will be updated daily, providing fodder for residents to evaluate their own neighborhoods, academics to study crime and techie types to create websites or apps.

I’ll harp on that last sentence in which the “techie type’s” activities are described so rudderlessly: this data will fuel a hundred red and green heatmaps, but probably provide little opportunity for reflection on the true nature of this data—police incident reports—let alone the politics, policies and policing that generated this data in the first place. Just as an example, this is from a WBEZ story entitled “ The downside of hiring more cops in Chicago”:

But there are also costs with increasing the number of police on the street and those costs can be tough to measure. “The good intentions of actually creating the uniformed presence to lower the immediate problems of crime may have an unintended result when you’re looking further down the line,” according to George Gascon. He’s the district attorney for the city of San Francisco, and before that he was the chief of police. He says low-income, often minority communities, are flooded with police, and residents are over-criminalized. Lots of people are arrested, sometimes for small infractions.

Kids get criminal records, they’re cut off from educational and employment opportunities, and all of that ultimately makes the crime problems worse. “I’m not saying that we should look the other way to crime, to the contrary. What I’m saying is that the strategies that we used in the past have not worked well, and we need to evolve away from that. In many neighborhoods basically we have been at war with our people,” Gascon said.

An incident does not make an indictment, and an infraction need not be a crime, let alone a conviction; nor should we forget what goes unreported. And yet this dataset is being distributed and—this is the actual problem—represented by the media and (soon) a myriad of websites and apps as full-stop crime.

This is not a criticism of the police or the City of Chicago, who should be commended for being more transparent and making this information more readily available; this is a plea for the media and application makers to appropriately label this data and use it with an understanding of its limitations.

Ben Fry, on visualization future and data literacy looks toward the future:

“I think the real thing that’s going to change is that we’re going to start understanding that visualization isn’t this sort of monolithic thing… I like to look at it a lot like writing. You have novels and poetry and haikus. You know there’s lots of different types of writing and styles of writing — and I think the same thing happens in visualization… some things are tools for analysis and some things are purely for entertainment, and there’s not so much a spectrum that there is different ways of addressing it.

But this understanding and widespread “data literacy” is not here yet. It’s up to us so called techie types to exhibit “Data Leadership” and work to better interpret and explain the complexity and nuance of our analysis—the absence of which I’ve complained about before.

Data leadership is appropriately labeling data. Data leadership is presenting data with a recognition of its limitations. Data leadership is consideration for how your presentation of data may be interpreted and responsibility for the consequences.

Data leadership is ultimately a recognition of the broader context of human experience and how information is collected, analyzed and integrated into our lives and decision-making processes—both individually and socially. I realize that’s awfully heady for discussing glorified spreadsheets, but to riff off the old chestnut, you can’t manage what you misrepresented.

(Thanks Justin, Bec and David for drawing my attention to this.)