Strengthening community information experiments at MIT’s Center for Civic Media

Journalism / Article

Today’s a busy day for Knight Foundation. In addition to the list of News Challenge winners, which we will share later this afternoon, we are announcing a $3.76 million grant to the (newly renamed) Center for Civic Media at MIT. This is a major investment for us, one that we’re excited to make because of the center’s trajectory and its status as a driver of technology in service of communities. The grant will enable the center to expand its curriculum and outreach programs that make new technologies work for communities.

We’re betting on the leadership of Ethan Zuckerman, who today is being announced as the center’s new director. We’re eager to see where Ethan, a leading Internet thinker and builder, and new MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito take the project. The center was originally funded through one of the inaugural Knight News Challenge grants. It was conceived as a bridge between the university’s Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies programs. Since then, it has launched dozens of projects and is helping to define and shape the emerging field of civic media.

An external evaluation was recently completed examining the center’s first three years of operation. (The review was led by John Palfrey of the Harvard Law Library and Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Catherine Bracy.) It examined the center’s teaching programs, projects and contribution to the field of civic media. The full set of findings are available online here; here are some excerpts:

For starters, a large part of the center’s success derives from its community-oriented approach to developing technology. The center first looks at who will benefit from a technological development and how. Once specific community information needs have been identified, students and faculty set out to create the tools that will ultimately resolve the issues at hand.

For students like Jeff Warren, this is one of the program’s main attractions. Warren likes the fact that researchers at the center are willing to “get back to basics, and frame problems in their human terms rather than just throwing in a bunch of shiny technology.” He also appreciates that the center’s projects “attempt to ground their inquiry in real issues, actual conflicts and inequalities in the world.”

Warren is the creator of Grassroots Mapping, which uses balloons, kites and digital cameras to help people map their communities. The method was used to create open maps of the Gulf Coast in the wake of the BP oil spill in 2010, so that residents could track the damage caused by the disaster.

Two other projects developed using the center’s methodology are Heroes Project, which has helped the people of Juarez, Mexico highlight positive acts in their community, and Beyond Bars, which allows prisoners to reengage in their communities by blogging (through letters that are scanned, uploaded onto the web and tagged).

We would not be making this announcement were it not for the leadership of Chris Csikszentmihalyi, and Mitch Resnick. Because of their work, we are optimistic the Center’s future trajectory. We hope you will follow the center’s continued efforts to bring a community-based, interdisciplinary approach to media and technology development.

(You can follow this week’s MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference here at Knight Blog, at the Center’s site, and via #civicmedia on Twitter.)