Print & Share: not everyone is a social media ninja (nor need they be)

Today is the deadline for DonorsChoose’s Hacking Education Contest, and fortunately I have completed and submitted  Print and Share (with no small effort by Billy on the design). I previously wrote about the details.

Billy wrote my favorite part of the front-page copy: “Not everyone is a social media ninja.”

There is also a awkward screencast by yours truly. “This is a great” indeed.

Irrefutable gerunds

Gerunds were referenced in yesterday’s post. Below is from William Easterly’s “ Foreign Aid for Scoundrels”, published in the New York Review of Books:

The concept of development helps rationalize the position of autocrats by postulating an unstoppable transition toward a bright future. This is why donors call all poor countries “developing.” Once the donors started paying lip service to democracy, they could label undemocratic aid recipients as “democratizing.” Let’s call this the Gerund Defense for supporting dictators. Thomas Carothers, an expert on the connections between aid and democracy, described the Gerund Defense in a classic article [Critical Mission: Essays on Democracy Promotion (Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2004), p. 169]. He quoted a USAID description of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2001 as a country in “transition to a democratic, free market society.” (Such “democratizing” is still notably weak in 2010.)

The World Bank’s response to Helen Epstein’s article in these pages accusing the bank of supporting Ethiopian tyranny is a classic Gerund Defense. The World Bank’s country director for Ethiopia and Sudan, Ken Ohashi, replied:

We start…with a belief that in every country people want…to develop a transparent, accountable…governance system. Ethiopia is no exception. Our task…is to support that innate tendency.

However, building institutions… takes a long time…. Changes are incremental, and at times they may suffer serious setbacks…. The Gerund Defense has the attraction of being irrefutable. We don’t know the future, so we don’t know whether a particular event is a “setback” to “building institutions,” or whether the “building” is a myth. We could of course observe the actual trend in “democratizing”—but this has been discouraging in Ethiopia, where parties and politicians that seriously challenge the government risk prison. Donors could conceivably overlook anything, even the 1994 Rwanda genocide, as a temporary “setback” to an “innate tendency.” Such a view is not as easily dismissed as you might think.

Developing intent

A comment by the author, Tony Roberts, on his Laptop Burns post “Why apps can’t transform society”:

The point I was trying to make is that people are the agents of change and not technology. Technology can play a role but it cannot instigate anything – only amplify existing momentum and direction. People without sophisticated technologies can transform their world (e.g the Haitian, Cuban & Zanzibar revolutions). On the other hand technology without people is just an inanimate ‘hunk of junk’.

Apps can’t transform society. Apps do not have volition; they cannot take purposeful action. That requires people. I strongly agree that people, in struggle, can make very productive use of technologies to change society, as happened in Egypt.

However it is important to note that the uprising in Egypt drew on ten years of community activism and trade union struggle to build the bonds of solidarity that made it possible to bring thousands of people into Tahrir Square by using Facebook as one technique among many. (See next post “ Development as Struggle” for more on this). Technology alone is impotent. Yet where people are already organised and intent on action then technology can definitely ‘amplify the existing intent and capacity’ to great effect.

The lessons here are that development should start – not with technology – but rather with people, and the development of the capacity and intent of people’s organisations. Building Apps should not be the starting point or primary sight of development engagement.

Tony Roberts also connects the dots in a previous post entitled “People’s Power: have we got an app for that?”:

  • providing market info to privileged individuals is not development
  • development requires solutions that serve the common good
  • resource distribution is currently grossly uneven
  • more equitable redistribution requires reversing power relationships
  • this will be resisted by powerful elites
  • reversing power-relationships will therefore require collective action
  • technology can not be a substitute for people’s collective action
  • people’s capacity and intent can be amplified with ICTs
  • equalising power & redistributing resources is a political project

So to be clear, this isn’t to argue that building apps is a waste of time, but that the capacity and intent needed to actually change the status quo first needs to be identified if not built—and building intent ultimately hinges on political questions that those in power (and those currently pushing public app development) may be loathe to address.

App contest submission boilerplate

This project represents a new way of democratizing access to [whatever, especially with a gerund; e.g. “the tools for understanding local educational outcomes”] which is needed by [whomever], and many others.  

Wisdom and discernment

Another excerpt from Gift Hub, “Conducting the Charitable Giving Conversation as a Rational Person Would”:

Little by little tax and legal professionals are coming to see that the wealthy very often want to have impact beyond self and family. How to have a conversation about aspiration and impact? Not easy for those whose training is limited to facts and figures. The skills needed are those of Socratic dialogue and thematic listening. Those who have such skills are generally found in public relations, advertising, proof reading, teaching, social work, fundrasing, or walking the streets looking for a job. We have, as a culture, subordinated wisdom to profit and now our best hope is to teach “discernment” to tax, legal, and financial professionals. The strategic part of philanthropy can be taught by MBAs, and often is. The wisdom part? We are still treating giving as a consumer preference or proclivity. Questions like, “What does the community need? To whom are you responsible? What must we do to be saved? If not now when?” are syptomatic of a mind gone mad. I know it and accept it.

Data divides and umbrellafication

Jesse Lichtenstein in “Transparency for All”, writing for Wired:

The concern that open data may simply empower the empowered is not an argument against open data; it’s an argument against looking at open data as an end in itself. Massive data dumps and even friendly online government portals are insufficient. Ordinary people need to know what information is available, and they need the training to be conversant in it. And if people are to have more than theoretical access to the information, it needs to be easy and cheap to use. That means investing in the kinds of organizations doing outreach, advocacy, and education in the communities least familiar with the benefits of data transparency. If we want truly open government, we still have to do the hard work of addressing basic and stubborn inequalities. However freely it flows, the data alone isn’t enough.

Yes and yes. Most government data is policy-level, which means to understand and act on that data, you not only need to be data literate, but also civically literate to transform knowledge into power. Call me a constructionist, but community organizing creates a stronger sense of agency than statistics.

And “cheap” data inconsiderately presented can be harmful. The worst data abuses come from trying to use policy-level, non-contextualized or incomplete data to inform individual decision-making. For example, I had to add this caveat to the Boston Bike Crash Map after getting several anxiety-producing inquiries:

This data alone is not appropriate for making routing decisions. The presence or absence of incidents in a location should not be used to determine the relative safety of biking there as this data does not include ridership or traffic information; i.e. a location may contain less incidents because bikers know to avoid it.

For decision making, I’ve come to call this phenomenon the “umbrellafication” of data—after the service that boils the weather forecast down to a simple yes/no answer to “Do you need an umbrella today?” Unfortunately, like trying to portray crime as a spectrum of green to red, issues and datasets that can be easily synthesized and presented are the exception, not the rule.

Uncrime Mapping

I really don’t understand the appeal of crime maps. Trulia, a housing search tool, just launched a crime map, too (via FlowingData, whose commenters are full of criticism). Since Trulia doesn’t have data (now that’s something to map with transformative potential) for Boston, I had to look up my friends’ neighborhood in Chicago. Above is a heatmap I photoshopped showing the uncrime—the area is clearly rife with it.

Below is McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World. Think about it.

Minimal Mass

I was searching for something else in Google Reader, but it seemed timely to resurface this note:

A great example of why I’m skeptical of [app-centric RFPs]. Rather than focusing on critical mass, I’d rather see a requirement of “minimal mass” : Who do you need participating in order to demonstrate a proof of concept of the outcome/social effects? Fund it in Stages:

  1. Fund the outreach organizing of a minimal mass who will serve as focus groups during the development phase
  2. Then fund development of the app buildout

This would help with what I dislike about [app-centric RFPs]: not that they fund bad projects, but that the process is structured to encourage exactly these outcomes: a focus on a novel function/problem rather a novel audience (who then needs that function/solution).

This was inspired by Ryan Sholin announcing the closure of ReportOn:

…a few recommendations for developers of software “for journalists”:

  • Reporters don’t want to talk about unpublished stories in public.
  • Unless they’re looking for sources.
  • There are some great places on the Internet to find sources.
  • When they do talk about unpublished stories among themselves, they do it in familiar, well-lit places, like email or the telephone. Not in your application.
  • Actually, keep this in mind: Unless what you’re building meets  a very journalism-specific need, you’re probably grinding your gears to build something “ for journalists” when they just need  a great communication tool, independent of any particular niche or category of users.

And I recognize that “critical” mass and “minimal” mass should be equivalent, but somewhere along the way critical mass became related to sustaining the growth of the community, not the benefits membership accorded (probably cause you make weasely appeals to “network effects” just beyond the horizon… and ad impressions)

Data-driven, content-first design

I’m working on an app for the Hacking Education Contest. DonorsChoose works by having teachers submit classroom project/supply needs that people can then donate to pay for through the internet. Right now the only way to “share” those projects is through the usual email, Facebook and Twitter; my idea for am app is to create custom printable 4-up (quartersheet) flyers for handing out, and pull-tab sheets for posting-up. Despite the “power of teh internets”, I think consideration of local resources and capacity is an important value to recognize—and helping teachers and allies advertise their needs (and the positive outcomes they hope to create) more easily within their physical communities would go far towards advancing’s mission.

This project has the typical technical difficulties: my goal is to use the DonorsChoose API to fetch a particular project and then populate an HTML+CSS preview—allowing the teacher to then live-edit the text (both for layout and because writing for a local audience is different than an internet one)—and then use dompdf to convert that HTML+CSS to a printable PDF. The dompdf library is nifty: it supports CSS 2d transformations, custom fonts, images (necessary for QR code hotness), light positioning (no floats, so tables it is), and media-queries  (@media screen and @media print) to fix all the little layout and typography issues in translating from the web to print, as well as dompdf’s own myriad quirks. Basically it’s everything I need to make a not-too-ugly flyer and pull-tab sheet; the image at the top of this post is the ugly proof-of-concept.

But the biggest challenge is designing a layout scheme that is flexible to the wide range of DonorsChoose project content. Designing for an 8.5 x 11” sheet of paper is way different than designing for the web: creating a balanced—or at least aesthetically-acceptable—design is no easy matter when there is no such thing as overflow. I hope to get around some issues by providing a live-preview so that teachers can fix any egregious text over-/under- runs, but the goal is to get teachers to Click-Print-Post as quickly as possible.

Fortunately I have a designer (the awesome  Billy Brown) helping with the layout, but I need to give him some idea of what to expect. Fortunately DonorsChoose made available project data for ~296,000 projects. So I parsed through the lengths for the 4 main pieces of content I want to use in order to get the distribution of lengths. Sure, saying “Design for a title that is 10-50 characters” doesn’t have the highest specificity, but it’s a whole lot more useful than the alternative of blind experimentation. The data below is charts of those lengths—I probably will have to limit my data to just the past year or so since DonorsChoose has changed their requirements/text-fields over time, but its interesting so far to see the full distributions.

Nailed that response

Google just announced a new national technology service corps, in partnership with the HandsOn Network and AmeriCorps*VISTA—not unlike the Digital Arts Service Corps I have managed for the past 4.5 years and will be shutting down this August as our funding expires. Google describes their program thusly:

These AmeriCorps*VISTA members will work full-time for one year developing introductory seminars and involved in-person trainings for smaller nonprofits that are working to lift people out of poverty. The Tech Corps will start in September with a one-week training at our campus in Mountain View, learning about both our nonprofit tools and cloud-based offerings from other technology companies like and LinkedIn. Once they are armed with tech know-how, they’ll spend the rest of the year in three-person teams serving nonprofits in the Bay Area, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Pittsburgh and Seattle.

Our response:

Google’s commitment is certainly a step in the right direction. However, we wish Google and HandsOn would place the particular needs of organizations at the forefront of their new initiative. Google mentions that its Tech Corps members will be trained in its own nonprofit tools. Although familiarity with these tools may prove helpful to some, the solutions its Corps will be able to offer organizations after this kind of training are still highly prescriptive and techno-centric. Nonprofits need and deserve to have a voice in determining the nature of the project that will presumably transform their organizations. For Corps members, much more important than technology skills are the skills to collaborate with organization staff and work toward a solution. For organizations, a technology solution that is well planned-for and has the support of staff is more valuable than a predetermined set of technology practices. Rather than prescribing specific practices, the Transmission Project serves as adviser during the project design process, so that organizations are prepared to maximize the impact that the addition of a Digital Arts Service Corps member makes.

The above was written by Howie Fisher and the top collage created by Billy Brown—both Digital Arts Service Corps members serving with the Transmission Project whose value far exceeds any training seminars they can deliver.