Civic Media
Creating, deploying, and evaluating tools and practices that foster civic participation and the flow of information within and between communities.

Communities need information to make decisions and take action: to provide aid to neighbors in need, to purchase an environmentally sustainable product and shun a wasteful one, to choose leaders on local and global scales. Communities are also rich repositories of information and knowledge, and often develop their own innovative tools and practices for information sharing. Existing systems to inform communities are changing rapidly, and new ecosystems are emerging where old distinctions like writer/audience and journalist/amateur have collapsed. The Civic Media group is a partnership between the MIT Media Lab and Comparative Media Studies at MIT. Together, we work to understand these new ecosystems and to build tools and systems that help communities collect and share information and connect that information to action. We work closely with communities to understand their needs and strengths, and to develop useful tools together using collaborative design principles. We particularly focus on tools that can help amplify the voices of communities often excluded from the digital public sphere and connect them with new audiences, as well as on systems that help us understand media ecologies, augment civic participation, and foster digital inclusion.

Research Projects

  • "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck!" Hackathon

    Tal Achituv, Catherine D'Ignazio, Alexis Hope, Taylor Levy, Alexandra Metral, Che-Wei Wang

    In September 2014, 150 parents, engineers, designers, and healthcare practitioners gathered at the MIT Media Lab for the "Make the Breast Pump Not Suck" Hackathon. As one of the midwives at our first hackathon said, "Maternal health lags behind other sectors for innovation." We are bringing together people from diverse fields, sectors, and backgrounds to take a crack at making life better for moms, babies, and new families.

  • Action Path

    Erhardt Graeff and Ethan Zuckerman

    Action Path is location-based survey platform for Android smartphones that crowdsources feedback from citizens in a way that fosters civic learning through reflective political practice. Existing platforms for civic engagement, whether online or offline, are inconvenient and disconnected from the source of issues they are meant to address. They require that citizens leave the places they normally inhabit physically or virtually and commit to a separate space and set of processes. Action Path is designed to answer the challenge: How do you address barriers to effective engagement in community projects, and ensure all citizens can have their voice heard on how to improve their local communities? It does so by converting individual actions into collective action and by providing context and a sense of efficacy, which may help citizens become more effective through regular practice and feedback.

  • Call to Action

    Sasha Costanza-Chock, Rodrigo Davies, Alex Goncalves, Tami Forrester and Erica Deahl

    Call to Action is an open-source web platform for creating telephone-based services such as hotlines, voice petitions, and phone blogging. The platform, currently under development, provides an easy-to-use graphical interface that enables the user to plan the flow of calls, record custom audio, and make use of all the input and output features offered by a regular telephone. The service requires no software programming experience, and users can build a service in under half an hour.

  • Civic Crowdfunding Research Project

    Ethan Zuckerman and Rodrigo Davies

    The Civic Crowdfunding project is an initiative to collect data and advance social research into the emerging field of civic crowdfunding–the use of online crowdfunding platforms to provide services to communities. The project aims to bring together folks from across disciplines and professions–from research and government to the tech sector and community organizations–to talk about civic crowdfunding and its benefits, challenges, and opportunities. It combines qualitative and quantitative research methods, from analysis of the theory and history of crowdfunding to fieldwork-based case studies and geographic analysis of the field.

  • Codesign Toolkit

    Sasha Costanza-Chock and Becky Hurwitz

    Involving communities in the design process results in products that are more responsive to a community's needs, more suited to accessibility and usability concerns, and easier to adopt. Civic media tools, platforms, and research work best when practitioners involve target communities at all stages of the process–iterative ideation, prototyping, testing, and evaluation. In the codesign process, communities act as codesigners and participants, rather than mere consumers, end-users, test subjects, or objects of study. In the Codesign Studio, students practice these methods in a service learning project-based studio, focusing on collaborative design of civic media with local partners. The Toolkit will enable more designers and researchers to utilize the co-design process in their work by presenting current theory and practices in a comprehensive, accessible manner.

  • Controversy Mapper

    Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman, Rahul Bhargava, Erhardt Graeff, Matthew Stempeck, Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Yochai Benkler

    How does a media controversy become the only thing any of us talk about? Using the Media Cloud platform, we're reverse-engineering major news stories to visualize how ideas spread and media frames change over time, and whose voices dominate a discussion. We've started with a case study of Trayvon Martin, a teenager shot and killed in Florida. His story became major national news several weeks after his death. We looked at attention paid through multiple media sources talking about Trayvon: news and blog articles, broadcast television, tweets, Google search trends, and petition signatures calling for his killer's arrest. Then, we dove into the networks of interlinked articles, tracing how the framing of Trayvon's story changed and identifying the most influential sources according to network structure. Analyses of stories like Trayvon's provide a revealing portrait of today's complicated media ecosystems.

  • Data Crowdsourcing

    Ethan Zuckerman, Rahul Bhargava, Nathan Matias and Sophie Diehl

    Passing On uses data from twenty years of New York Times stories about society's heroes, leaders, and visionaries to crowdsource improvements to Wikipedia. Obituaries reflect society's values for men's and women's achievements, aspirations, and families. Passing On creates compelling stories about notable women to inspire the public to contribute to Wikipedia.

  • Data Therapy

    Ethan Zuckerman and Rahul Bhargava

    As part of our larger effort to build out a suite of tools for community organizers, we are helping to build their capacity to do their own creative data visualization and presentation. New computer-based tools are lowering the barriers of entry for making engaging and creative presentations of data. Rather than encouraging partnerships with epidemiologists, statisticians, or programmers, we see an opportunity to build capacity within small community organizations by using these new tools. This work involves workshops, webinars, and writing about how to pick more creative ways to present their data stories.

  • Digital Humanitarian Marketplace

    Matthew Stempeck

    The Internet has disrupted the aid sector like so many other industries before it. In times of crisis, donors are increasingly connecting directly with affected populations to provide participatory aid. The Digital Humanitarian Marketplace aggregates these digital volunteering projects, organizing them by crisis and skills required to help coordinate this promising new space.

  • Erase the Border

    Catherine D'Ignazio

    Erase the Border is a web campaign and voice petition platform. It tells the story of the Tohono O'odham people, whose community has been divided along 75 miles of the US-Mexico border by a fence. The border fence divides the community, prevents tribe members from receiving critical health services, and subjects O'odham to racism and discrimination. This platform is a pilot that we are using to research the potential of voice and media petitions for civic discourse.

  • FOLD

    Alexis Hope, Kevin Hu

    Imagine reading about the 2008 housing crisis without knowing what a mortgage is. Jumping into complex news stories is difficult, particularly stories requiring historical or technical context. We hypothesize that the feeling of frustration and inadequacy that comes with not being able to understand the news causes readers to turn away from specific pieces or entire stories. FOLD is an authoring and publishing platform allowing storytellers to structure and contextualize their stories to make their work more accessible. Authors can provide “curated tangents” to readers by integrating contextual information from online sources or by reusing other authors’ context blocks. Readers can progress through a story vertically to read the narrative, and side-to-side to access these context blocks. We believe that FOLD can help readers of all ages and backgrounds confidently engage with complex stories.

  • Framework for Consent Policies

    Willow Brugh

    This checklist is designed to help projects that include an element of data collection to develop appropriate consent policies and practices. The checklist can be especially useful for projects using digital or mobile tools to collect, store, or publish data, yet understand the importance of seeking the informed consent of individuals involved (the data subjects). This checklist does not address the additional considerations necessary when obtaining the consent of groups or communities, nor how to approach consent in situations where there is no connection to the data subject. This checklist is intended for use by project coordinators, and can ground conversations with management and project staff in order to identify risks and mitigation strategies during project design or implementation. It should ideally be used with the input of data subjects.

  • HackathonFAQ

    Ethan Zuckerman, Willow Brugh and J Nathan Matias

    Discourse on hackathons tends to emphasize projects and project creators rather than the events as a social practice within existing communities. Hackathons have a history as a community building method for education and creation. More recently, institutions have used hackathons to invite conversation and design with groups affected by those institutions. This step towards broader participation is obfuscated by stories that focus on the creation of products and the lucky geniuses whose work is appropriated by institutions. Critiques of hackathons often accept the same assumptions, focusing on high profile events, critiquing the small number of sustained projects, and questioning hackathons as a form of entrepreneurial free labor.

  • Mapping the Globe

    Catherine D'Ignazio, Ethan Zuckerman and Ali Hashmi

    Mapping the Globe is an interactive tool and map that helps us understand where the Boston Globe directs its attention. Media attention matters–in quantity and quality. It helps determine what we talk about as a public and how we talk about it. Mapping the Globe tracks where the paper's attention goes and what that attention looks like across different regional geographies in combination with diverse data sets like population and income. Produced in partnership with the Boston Globe.

  • Media Cloud

    Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman and David LaRochelle

    Media Cloud is a platform for studying media ecosystems—the relationships between professional and citizen media, between online and offline sources. By tracking millions of stories published online or broadcast via television, the system allows researchers to track the spread of memes, media framings, and the tone of coverage of different stories. The platform is open source and open data, designed to be a substrate for a wide range of communications research efforts. Media Cloud is a collaboration between Civic Media and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

  • Media Cloud Brazil

    Ethan Zuckerman, Alexandre Gonçalves, Ronaldo Lemos, Carlos Affonso Pereira de Souza, Hal Roberts, David Larochelle, Renato Souza, and Flavio Coelho

    Media Cloud is a system that facilitates massive content analysis of news on the Web. Developed by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, Media Cloud already analyzes content in English and Russian. During the last months, we have been working on support for Portuguese content. We intend to analyze the online debate on the most controversial and politically hot topics of the Brazilian Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, namely network neutrality and copyright reform. At the same time, we are writing a step-by-step guide to Media Cloud localization. In the near future, we will be able to compare different media ecosystems around the world.

  • Media Meter

    Ethan Zuckerman, J. Nathan Matias, Matt Stempeck, Rahul Bhargava and Dan Schultz

    What have you seen in the news this week? And what did you miss? Are you getting the blend of local, international, political, and sports stories you desire? We’re building a media-tracking platform to empower you, the individual, and news providers themselves, to see what you’re getting and what you’re missing in your daily consumption and production of media. The first round of modules developed for the platform allow you to compare the breakdown of news topics and byline gender across multiple news sources.

  • Media Meter Focus

    Muhammad Ali Hashmi

    MediaMeter “Focus” shows global media attention focus mapping. What was covered in the news this week? Did the issues you care about get the attention you think they deserved? Did the media talk about these topics in the way you want them to? The tool-set also shows news topics mapped against country locations.

  • NetStories

    Ethan Zuckerman, Heather Craig, Adrienne Debigare and Dalia Othman

    Recent years have witnessed a surge in online digital storytelling tools, enabling users to more easily create engaging multimedia narratives. Increasing internet access and powerful in-browser functionality have laid the foundation for the proliferation of new online storytelling technologies, ranging from tools for creating interactive online videos to tools for data visualization. While these tools may contribute to diversification of online storytelling capacity, sifting through tools and understanding their respective limitations and affordances poses a challenge to storytellers. The NetStories research initiative explores emergent online storytelling tools and strategies through a combination of analyzing tools, facilitating story-hack days, and creating an online database of storytelling tools.

  • NewsPad

    J. Nathan Matias, Andrés Monroy-Hernández

    NewsPad is a collaborative article editor that empowers small communities to write articles collaboratively through community sourcing, structured stories, and distributed syndication.

  • NGO2.0

    Jing Wang, Wang Yu, Sun Huan

    NGO2.0 is a project grown out of the work of MIT's New Media Action Lab. The goal of NGO2.0 is to strengthen the digital and social media literacy of Chinese grassroots NGOs. Since 2009, the project has established collaborative relationships with IT corporations, universities, and city based software developers’ communities to advocate the development of a new brand of public interest sector that utilizes new media and nonprofit technology to build a better society. NGO2.0 addresses three major need categories of grassroots NGOs: communication, resources, and technology. Within each category, NGO2.0 developed and implemented online and offline projects. These include: Web 2.0 training workshops, a crowdsourced philanthropy map, news stories and videos for NGOs, NGO-CSR Partnership Forum, online NGO self-evaluation and on-site NGO participatory evaluation, database of Chinese NGOs, and online survey of Chinese NGOs' internet usage.

  • Open Gender Tracker

    Irene Ros, Adam Hyland, J. Nathan Matias and Ethan Zuckerman

    Open Gender Tracker is a suite of open source tools and APIs that make it easy for newsrooms and media monitors to collect metrics and gain a better understanding of gender diversity in their publications and audiences. This project has been created in partnership with Irene Ros of Bocoup, with funding from the Knight Foundation.

  • Open Water Project

    Adrienne Debigare, Ethan Zuckerman, Heather Craig, Catherine D'Ignazio, Don Blair and Public Lab Community

    The Open Water Project aims to develop and curate a set of low-cost, open source tools enabling communities everywhere to collect, interpret, and share their water quality data. Traditional water monitoring uses expensive, proprietary technology, severely limiting the scope and accessibility of water quality data. Homeowners interested in testing well water, watershed managers concerned about fish migration and health, and other groups could benefit from an open source, inexpensive, accessible approach to water quality monitoring. We're developing low-cost, open source hardware devices that will measure some of the most common water quality parameters, using designs that makes it possible for anyone to build, modify, and deploy water quality sensors in their own neighborhood.

  • Out for Change: Transformative Media Organizing Project

    Sasha Costanza-Chock, Becky Hurwitz, Heather Craig, Royal Morris, with support from Rahul Bhargava, Ed Platt, Yu Wang

    The Out for Change Transformative Media Organizing Project (OCTOP) links LGBTQ, Two-Spirit, and allied media makers, online organizers, and tech-activists across the United States. In 2013-2014, we are conducting a strengths/needs assessment of the media and organizing capacity of the movement, as well as offering a series of workshops and skillshares around transmedia organizing. The project is guided by a core group of project partners and advisers who work with LGBTQ and Two-Spirit folks. The project is supported by faculty and staff at the MIT Center for Civic Media, Research Action Design and by the Ford Foundation’s Advancing LGBT Rights Initiative.

  • PageOneX

    Ethan Zuckerman, Edward Platt, Rahul Bhargava and Pablo Rey Mazon

    Newspaper front pages are a key source of data about our media ecology. Newsrooms spend massive time and effort deciding what stories make it to the front page. PageOneX makes coding and visualizing newspaper front page content much easier, democratizing access to newspaper attention data. Communication researchers have analyzed newspaper front pages for decades, using slow, laborious methods. PageOneX simplifies, digitizes, and distributes the process across the net and makes it available for researchers, citizens, and activists.

  • Promise Tracker

    Ethan Zuckerman, Rahul Bhargava, Alexis Hope, Jude Mwenda Ntabathia, Chelsea Barabas, Heather Craig and Yu Wang

    After an election, how can citizens hold leaders accountable for promises made during the campaign season? We are exploring the role citizen monitoring can play in holding elected leaders accountable for promises they make about infrastructure. We are designing and piloting a tool called Promise Tracker in both the United States and Brazil. Promise Tracker will allow citizens to see evidence documenting the origin of a promise, collect data about the status of a promise—for example, going to the location of a proposed health clinic and taking a photo of the site—and then take action if the promise is not fulfilled. Actions can take many forms: citizens can notify civic leaders of their concerns, approve of progress being made, join a recall effort, or amplify a story about unfulfilled promises to journalists.

  • Sambaza Watts

    Joe Paradiso, Ethan Zuckerman, Rahul Bhargava, Pragun Goyal, Alexis Hope and Nathan Matias

    We want to help people in nations where electric power is scarce to sell power to their neighbors. We’re designing a piece of prototype hardware that plugs into a diesel generator or other power source, distributes the power to multiple outlets, monitors how much power is used, and uses mobile payments to charge the customer for the power consumed.

  • Student Legal Services for Innovation

    Ethan Zuckerman and J Nathan Matias

    Should students be prosecuted for innovative projects at hackathons? In December, four undergraduates associated with the Media Lab were subpoenaed by the New Jersey Attorney General after winning a programming competition with a bitcoin-related proof of concept. We're working with MIT administration and the Electronic Frontier Foundation to support the students and establish legal support for informal innovation and hackathons.

  • Terra Incognita: 1000 Cities of the World

    Catherine D'Ignazio, Ethan Zuckerman and Rahul Bhargava

    Terra Incognita is a global news game and recommendation system. Terra Incognita helps you discover interesting news and personal connections to cities that you haven't read about. Whereas many recommendation systems connect you on the basis of "similarity", Terra Incognita connects you to information on the basis of "serendipity". Each time you open the application, Terra Incognita shows you a city that you have not yet read about and gives you options for reading about it. Chelyabinsk (Russia), Hiroshima (Japan), Hagåtña (Guam) and Dhaka (Bangladesh) are a few of the places where you might end up.

  • thanks.fm

    J. Nathan Matias and Mitchel Resnick

    Thanks.fm is a web platform for thanking and acknowledging your creative collaborators. Add a project, acknowledge individuals, and embed acknowledgments throughout the social web.

  • The Babbling Brook

    Catherine D'Ignazio and Ethan Zuckerman

    The Babbling Brook is an unnamed neighborhood creek in Waltham, MA, that winds its way to the Charles River. With the help of networked sensors and real-time processing, the brook constantly tweets about the status of its water quality, including thoughts and bad jokes about its own environmental and ontological condition. Currently, the Babbling Brook senses temperature and depth and cross-references that information with real-time weather data to come up with extremely bad comedy. Thanks to Brian Mayton, the Responsive Environments group and Tidmarsh Farms' Living Observatory for their support.

  • The People's Bot

    Ethan Zuckerman, J. Nathan Matias, Chelsea Barabas

    Telepresent robots are often pitched as a technology to extend the influence of those who already have money and power. We want to use robotic telepresence for the public good—broadening access, supporting public interest reporting, and funding access initiatives.

  • VoIP Drupal

    Leo Burd

    VoIP Drupal is an innovative framework that brings the power of voice and Internet-telephony to Drupal sites. It can be used to build hybrid applications that combine regular touchtone phones, web, SMS, Twitter, IM and other communication tools in a variety of ways, facilitating community outreach and providing an online presence to those who are illiterate or do not have regular access to computers. VoIP Drupal will change the way you interact with Drupal, your phone, and the web.

  • Vojo.co

    Alex Goncalves, Denise Cheng, Ethan Zuckerman, Rahul Bhargava, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Rebecca Hurwitz, Edward Platt, Rodrigo Davies and Rogelio Lopez

    Vojo.co is a hosted mobile blogging platform that makes it easy for people to share content to the web from mobile phones via voice calls, SMS, or MMS. Our goal is to make it easier for people in low-income communities to participate in the digital public sphere. You don't need a smart phone or an app to post blog entries or digital stories to Vojo–any phone will do. You don't even need Internet access: Vojo lets you create an account via SMS and start posting right away. Vojo is powered by the VozMob Drupal Distribution, a customized version of the popular free and open source content management system that is being developed through an ongoing codesign process by day laborers, household workers, and a diverse team from the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA).

  • What We Watch

    Ethan Zuckerman, Rahul Bhargava and Edward Platt

    More than a billion people a month visit YouTube to watch videos. Sometimes, those billion people watch the same video. What We Watch is a browser for trending YouTube videos. Some videos trend in a single country, and some find regional audiences. Others spread across borders of language, culture, and nation to reach a global audience. What We We watch lets us visualize and explore the connections between countries based on their video viewing habits.

  • Whose Voices? Twitter Citation in the Media

    Ethan Zuckerman, Nathan Matias, Diyang Tang

    Mainstream media increasingly quote social media sources for breaking news. "Whose Voices" tracks who's getting quoted across topics, showing just how citizen media sources are influencing international news reporting.