Applications of Civic Media and Evaluating their Impact, Success and Metrics in Different Fields

| Jackie Lender

#bostoncivic panel | Photo via @EngageLab

The beauty of civic media is that it can be applied to an amalgamation of different disciplines: government, art, mathematics, etc. However, creating one methodological approach for civic media implementation and measurement is arduous, if not impossible, as each field has its own set of standards.

For example, a civic media arts initiative may not resemble a civic media government initiative. Furthermore, the “arts” and “government” arguably cater to different audiences. Therefore the type of impact and success by each civic media initiative will be inherently unique.

In the “Metrics and Methods” in Civic Media Conference sponsored by the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, our speakers grappled with the provocative questions: “Given this proliferation of methods and variety of origin points from which people are approaching this civic media topic, what should the goals of the leaders of this field be? Who is this research for?”

Microsoft is proud to have been a primary sponsor of this event as it encouraged an in depth conversation between academics who focus on media and civics, with professionals specializing in designing, implementing and aiding civic interventions. This specific session contained dedicated speakers, each of whom added a different perspective on metrics, methods and applications.

Catherine D’Ignazio
Art and Civic Media
Catherine D’Ignazio is redefining how participatory art can influence our civic goals. According to D’Ignazio, art can be a research method for activating civic imagination. The project D’Ignazio highlighted was The City Formerly Known as Cambridge which was initiated through the Institute for Infinitely Small Things. In this project D’Ignazio and her team attempted to rectify a problem they identified within the city of Cambridge, MA: many street names and public places had Anglo-Saxon name derivatives. In response to this, her group held created a multifaceted approached in which they researched the origins of the Anglo-Saxon street names, informed the public about these “infinitely small histories” and then held an outdoor convention at which they invited members of the local community to “rename” the spaces. These newly renamed places were then put on a map, and “The City Formerly Known as Cambridge” commenced.

Matthew Battles
Media in the Arts and Humanities

Matthew Battles is re-imagining civic media as a catalyst for understanding the arts and humanities. How can media change the value of the material we produce? Battles’s project focused on history of libraries: he explored the Harvard depository in Western, MA. With the help of colleagues, Battles created a video of the depository to better understand how the storage unit of a library system works. His hope was to contrast the physical representation of a traditional library (i.e. Widener Library in Harvard Yard) and the concept of a temporary holding unit for books (the depository). Battles then expanded on this concept by questioning the “social dimensions” of the library system as well. He challenged the audience to ask: “What does it mean to be an employee at the Harvard depository, but have no interaction with campus life?” To find out more, look at <>.

Cold Storage Teaser Trailer from metaLAB(at)Harvard on Vimeo.

Justeen Hyde
Gaming for Change

Introducing a new perspective to the discussion on civic media, Justeen Hyde stressed the importance of utilizing new technology platforms to address issues in health care. Hyde represented the Institute for Community Health, a research and consulting firm that started in the early 2000s in a response to the pervasive problem that hospitals were unaware of the needs of the community they served.

In an attempt to engage more community members in discussions pertaining to health care, the Institute for Community Health partnered with the Community PlanIT. Community PlanIT is a game platform that originated out of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab. In this “simulation,” members of a community can voice their opinions, give feedback on public projects and express substantial concerns about their neighborhood.

Within the version of the game introduced by the Institute for Community Health, players had three weeklong missions. While playing, there were also trivia questions and ways for constituents to gain extra points.

  1. Mission one was about “healthy people”.
  2. Mission two was about “healthy neighborhoods”.
  3. Mission three was about “The City of Boston”.

Overall Justeen considered this initiative to be a success. 488 people played the game and 60% of those who played said that they had not had prior involvement with the Institute for Community Health. Moreover, there were many advantages with data collection from this game simulation: citizens could play/participate at their own convenience and the questions had been specifically constructed to engage the players.

Community PlanIt Primer from Engagement Lab on Vimeo.

Sarah Williams
Open Data In Nairobi, Kenya

Sarah Williams is striving to employ civic media to (1) expose urban patterns and (2) affect policy change. As the acting director of the Civic Design Lab, Williams spearheaded a case study about Matatus in Nairobi, Kenya. Public transportation routes for Matatu were ambiguous: there was little public data pertaining to Matatu stops, routes and operating times. Williams’ group wanted to make a dataset to account for this data-deficiency and utilized the ubiquitous nature of cell phones for data collection.

Through engaging local academics, the Matatu Association and Matatu drivers, and the GTFS technology of cell phones, Willaims’ group created a paper map to show the Matatu routes. Furthermore, her team helped with the creation of Ma3Route, a mobile app that also displays Matatu traffic. One of the biggest successes of the program was when the local government celebrated the initiative of these new Matatu digital maps and certified them as official maps of the city.

Williams argued that the best way to measure success in an open data project is to observe how/if others leverage the data created to generate their own policy changes. Williams noted at the World Bank now uses the Matatu dataset.

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