Archive for boston

Door-touching and civic virtue

Recently I spent a lot of time watching people walk in and out of the doors of the Forest Hills subway station in Boston. As people rushed out of the station during the afternoon commute, motivated by a desire to catch a connecting bus or to simply get to the next thing, earbuds firmly positioned in ears, they had little opportunity to see the immediate environment and the people within it. That is, unless, they touched the door.  You see, the station doors served as an important conduit between people and their surroundings.

There are two ways in which people moved in and out of the station – with touching the door and without touching the door. The door, aided by hydraulics, closes slowly once opened, introducing the opportunity for people to slink through it after it is pushed. It is possible for five or six people to pass through from a single hearty push. If one can no longer fit through the closing door, they are forced to push the door open so that they might get through. But with that simple touch, the door-toucher becomes a very different kind of user. They now find themselves responsible for the environment, compelled to hold the door for the people behind them as they similarly stream out of the station. Simply touching the door makes the person complicit in the function of the door, and as such, invested in the environment that the door mediates. Conversely, the door-passer (one who does not touch the door) continues to walk through without the added responsibility for the people around them.

How is it that merely touching the door creates responsibility for the environment? The door-toucher can no longer pass through the environment with the absolution of social responsibility. They are now part of the socio-technical system (which includes human and non-human actors), partly responsible for its function. And they remain responsible until the next human actor enters the system.

As I watched people navigating the complexity of the hydraulic door closer, I was struck by the pro-social benefits of touching the door. The door-touchers were immediately made aware of their social obligation within a socio-technical system and were forced to contend with their responsibility for other human actors in the train station. The door is a pro-social technology that has significant implications for the design of civic media. As I consider the challenge of designing apps, online experiences, or games that cultivate civic engagement, it seems that the primary design goal is to create door-touchers. The goal is to make users aware of the socio-technical system in which they are operating and feel responsible for the human actors within it. The door accomplishes this in the train station – what would the technology look like that accomplishes this on the scale of the block, the neighborhood, or the city?

Can a mobile app transform users from door-passers to door-touchers? I, for one, am very eager to find out.

 

 

 

Meaningful Inefficiencies in the “Smart City”

Information communication technologies (ICTs) hold considerable promise for cities. Sometimes framed as “smart cities,” technologically enhanced urban spaces create efficiencies through streamlined infrastructure (because complex systems can better coordinate) and access to services (because people can be more aware of systems, i.e. real-time transit data on mobile phones). But urban technologies do not always create efficiencies; they can also create meaningful inefficiencies in the form of social connections, and complex, nuanced understandings of place. This happens when people use technologies to achieve unpredictable outcomes: a process not typical of the “smart cities” paradigm. When information is contextualized and opportunities exist for data not simply to be transmitted, but for ideas to evolve through deliberative dialogue, there are meaningful inefficiencies. Social connections, deliberation, place-based story telling, and play, create nuance in how people understand local community and consequently influence how people construct meaning in an urban context.

Meaningful inefficiencies have typically been the jurisdiction of artists. Stemming from the articulated problem that cities create sameness and social alienation, the social theorist Guy Debord in the 1960s established a theoretical framework and methodology through which to interrupt these phenomena. Debord sought to create alternative logics through which to experience the city, where a pre-defined pattern would determine how one moved, or “randomness” would dictate how one drifted through the urban landscape. This sparked a genre of “new media” art loosely termed psychogeography, which employed technology as an intervention into existing urban patterns. Projects such as Eric Paulos and Elizabeth Goodman’s The Familiar Stranger (2002), which foreshadowed contemporary location-based social networks such as Foursquare, used bluetooth technology on mobile phones to make people aware of those who shared geographic space. Or games such as Can You See Me Now? (2001) by the UK-based art collective Blast Theory, employed GPS devices to construct a kind of hybrid space where the urban environment was augmented by people and objects only findable within the virtual environment (de Souza e Silva, 2009; Gordon and de Souza e Silva, 2011). These projects, conceived as art not commerce, experiment not activism, have remained rhetorically distinct from the smart cities project.

IBM defines the “smarter city” as one that acts “efficiently and purposefully” (IBM Corporation Forward Thinking Cities Are Investing in Insight, 2012) – a definition that would seem to run counter to the interventionist impulse of much new media art. While there has been some room for issues such as education and media access and literacy in the smart city framework (Caragliu, Del Bo, & Nijkamp, 2009), for the most part, the qualitative experiences of social interactions, place-making and trust building have been excluded.  As intelligence and efficiency have the moral authority in policy debates, there is a danger that participation, especially as technologies are designed to “fix the problem,” is captured by the rhetoric of efficiency and treated only as a thing to streamline.

Technologies can and should create meaningful inefficiencies. As more technological solutions get proposed, funded, and implemented to solve urban problems, we need to safeguard against them becoming technocratic solutions.

Works Cited

Caragliu, A., Del Bo, C., & Nijkamp, P. (2009). Smart Cities in Europe. Serie Research Memoranda 0048, VU University Amsterdam, Faculty of Economics, Business Administration and Econometrics.

de Souza e Silva, A. (2009). Hybrid Reality and Location-Based Gaming: Redefining Mobility and Game Spaces in Urban Environments. Simulation and Gaming, 40(3), 404–424. doi:10.1177/1046878108314643

Gordon, E. and de Souza e Silva (2011) Net Locality: Why Location Matters in a Networked World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

IBM Corporation. Smarter, More Competitive Cities. (2012). Smarter, More Competitive Cities. Forward Thinking Cities Are Investing in Insight. IBM Corporation.

Exploring New Modalities of Public Engagement – a White Paper

Engagement_Game_Lab_CPI Eval_6.11.12

We’re proud to share the white paper about Community PlanIt with the Boston Public Schools.

Community PlanIt in Boston Public Schools

How do you convince people to take time out of their busy schedules, leave their home around dinner time, perhaps get a babysitter, all in order to participate in a slow-moving conversation about something very abstract? It’s not easy. While the debates in local community centers might be invigorating; and in the best of situations, they represent meaningful deliberation about important issues in people’s lives, they also represent power inequalities (both in terms of who shows up and who is comfortable speaking).

Digital media have irreversibly changed communication patterns within most communities. People are increasingly accessing local news on mobile devices, reading the newspaper online, interfacing with government websites, and sharing opinions on social networking services (SNS) such as Facebook and Twitter. That these forms of communication are not widely incorporated into planning processes demonstrates a bias of one exclusionary tactic over another. It is typically understood as more effective and equitable to have 20 people in a room discussing the recent school board decision, for example, than to have 200 people online discussing the same thing. The assumption is that the “digital divide” excludes people. And it does. But the assumption is also that limiting the engagement process to face-to-face town hall meetings does not exclude. And it does as well.

There are limitations of access to both physical meetings and technologically mediated connections. If there were a spectrum from totally mediated to totally unmediated, there would be power differentials on either side. The solution, as with most solutions, is found somewhere in the middle. But public agencies, from governments to school boards, continue to err on the side of the unmediated. The fact that the majority of planning processes rely disproportionately on the town hall-style meeting suggests a real lag between public process and the public’s process.

Introducing Community PlanIt

For this reason, we developed Community PlanIt, an online platform designed to re-imagine the process of engagement through the logic of games.  Community PlanIt is a mission-based game that asks people within a local community to “map the future.” The game lasts anywhere from 3 to 5 weeks and is designed to culminate in a face-to-face meeting where players can debrief and meet decision-makers. Players earn points by answering questions about themselves and their community. The more questions they answer, the more influence they gain in the overall planning. The logic is to reward learning with the amplification of voice.

We pilot tested Community PlanIt with the Boston Public Schools (BPS). The school district was interested in engaging the public in a conversation about their “accountability framework.” In recent years, BPS has undertaken a series of broad district-wide reforms aligned to its Acceleration Agenda goals and strategies.  The Agenda’s targets are appropriate district-wide aims; but BPS had not yet created a set of uniform performance expectations for individual schools, nor devised a way for the district and external stakeholders to evaluate schools based on performance and on the opportunities they offer students.

The “School Support and Accountability Framework” was created for this purpose.  The Framework’s goal is to align all school stakeholders around a common definition of school excellence and to empower school leaders, teachers, and parents to strive toward this shared standard. After an initial public engagement process that included a series of face-to-face meetings, that garnered a total of 70 participants, BPS was interested in expanding the reach and effectiveness.

Made possible through a partnership between the Boston Public Schools, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Engagement Game Lab at Emerson College, Community PlanIt was implemented from September 15 to October 20, 2011. The game culminated in a face-to-face meeting on the evening of the last day. The objective of the game was to engage students, parents, and other community stakeholders on aspects of the proposed BPS support and accountability framework.  Students were to be a special focus of the engagement – and to this end Home, Inc,a local non-profit organization that teaches video production and media analysis to educators and youth, was brought in as a new partner.  Seven students working with Home, Inc. served as “technology interpreters” for the game – leading discussion within the game by posting videos and engaging with other participants, and using social media and face-to-face outreach to encourage their fellow students to enter the game and the conversation.

The BPS game was comprised of seven five-day missions – each with a set of activities related to a theme or priority in BPS’s accountability framework.  The BPS Office of Accountability chose the six priorities (growth, proficiency, achievement gaps, attendance, school environment and safety, and student/family engagement) as well as “opportunities to learn” – as the themes for each mission.  Users completed activities, created and responded to “challenges” – questions or tasks posed by other users in the game, and earned points and PlanIt Tokens.  All game content was translated into Spanish and Haitian-Creole, the two most prominent languages (besides English) spoken by BPS families.

Outcomes

Over the course of the 35-day game, over 400 community members signed up to play and set up user profiles – indicating a user “type,” gender, race, income and education level, and any custom “affiliations.”  260 users completed at least one activity in the game and left comments.  Of these users, 104 were students, 64 parents, 19 teachers, 26 administrators, and 44 classified their user type as “other.”  Only five played in Spanish, and zero played in Haitian Creole. As a percentage of all users, 40% (181 users) earned zero points, 29% (129 users) earned between 1 and 100 points, 18% (81 users) earned between 100 and 500 points, 7% (30 users) earned between 500 and 1000 points, and 6% (25 users) earned more than 1000 points.  These 1000+ point “super-users” completed more than 40 activities each on average.  And in many cases, their response to a single activity contained multiple-paragraph answers to extremely complex questions. It is noteworthy that there was no overlap between super-users and participants in the previous engagement process.

Feedback generated through Community PlanIt was significant. Over 2600 comments were entered into the system and hundreds of conversations started about everything from social media policy to racial bias in teaching.  The Community PlanIt pilot provides evidence of the effectiveness of the general approach. The feedback generated by the system will factor into the decision-making process. And despite its failures in reaching difficult-to-reach populations, by a number of other measures, it surpassed expectations of non-technological approaches.

The game is currently being redesigned and redeployed in other contexts. On May 1, it will launch in Detroit as part of the Detroit Works Project’s efforts to engage the public in long-term planning. On May 3rd, it will launch in the City of Quincy, MA. And it is likely that the game will be used again in the Boston Public Schools as part of the district’s efforts to engage the public in issues of school assignment. Community PlanIt is illustrative of an approach to local community planning that incorporates the affordances of the web by focusing on networks, collaboration, and sharing. Planning is more than just a solicitation of feedback from the community. It is about creating conversations that are productive, sustainable and enriching.

Participatory Chinatown Launches

Participatory Chinatown launched on May 3 in Boston’s Chinatown.  It’s a 3-D interactive game designed to augment the traditional community meeting.  Instead of the traditional model of people responding to a powerpoint presentation about the neighborhood, participants in this meeting played a multiplayer game about the neighborhood just as they sat next to each other to discuss the issues they care about.  During our launch, we had over 50 people gathered around 40 computers.  Each player, or team of players, was assigned a character. Some characters are new to the neighborhood and country, with poor english skills and seeking employment.  Others have advanced degrees and good jobs and are seeking luxury apartments close to the office.

character

Whatever the specific situation, each character is on one of three quests: to find a job, to find a place to live, or to find a place to socialize.  The players walk through the streets of Chinatown and are tasked with making the best decisions possible for their character.

After the players made decisions for their characters, the facilitator asked players to discuss how they felt about their experiences.  The room erupted in conversation as people spoke about their characters’ problems.   This conversation was then transformed by the faciliator to the specifics of the area being considered as part of the Chinatown Master Plan.  The second part of the game asks players to make decisions as themselves – no longer as their characters.  They are asked to prioritize their personal values for the neighborhood, choosing from labels such as ‘walkability,’ ‘identity,’ ‘affordability,’ ‘connections,’ etc.  From these priorities, people are informed with which of three planning scenarios their preferences most closely align – either residential, commercial, or mixed-use.  The values of the room are calculated and all the players enter into one of these scenarios where they can view what the area might look like and answer questions about their values.

All of the input provided during both parts of the game are saved and streamed to the website, where players can return to follow the status of their comments and continue the conversation.

The goal of Participatory Chinatown is to get people talking about their neighborhood in ways that involve a range of experiences.  Instead of coming to a meeting with a few pet peeves, playing the game gets people to think outside of their comfort zone and participate in a conversation that transforms the abstract concepts of urbanism into the everyday experiences of the characters in the game.

Perhaps most importantly, Participatory Chinatown extended not only the what of the conversation, but the who.  The mean age of participants was 30.  For a community meeting, let alone a community meeting about a master plan, that’s incredibly low.  By integrating a game into the planning process, Participatory Chinatown succeeded in bringing people into the process that are typically excluded.  In addition to the young participants, we also worked with 18 local youth to help design the game.  The youth helped make the characters by interviewing people in the neighborhood; they helped build the 3-D environments by photographing the neighborhood.  They were involved from the very beginning of the process.  And during the actual meetings, they functioned as “technology interpreters” and helped people play the game and operate the computers.

Participatory Chinatown changes the nature of the community meeting.  It makes democracy fun without being frivolous.   There is much more to do to realize the full potential of games for urban planning, but this is a good start.

Civic Multitasking

Local civic engagement is an outcome of local attention.  When people engage in their neighborhoods they are paying attention to their neighborhoods amidst the myriad other things to which they could be paying attention.  They are stopping to engage in a local group, a process, or a meeting, and for that brief period of time, turning their focus towards their local geographic space.  So, the problem of waning civic engagement, so thoroughly documented by scholars such as Robert Putnam, is not merely a disenchantment with group processes, but can also be considered a problem of attention.  And, if we consider attention as something that is multiple, rather than binary, civic engagement (local attention), is not undivided.  In other words, we have the capacity to participate in local affairs through many avenues – joining a neighborhood listserv is one; attending a community meeting is another.  Civic multitasking is a viable form of participation and it in no way compromises the value of that participation.  It is similar to what N. Katherine Hayles describes as hyper attention – “Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.”

Civic multitasking does not presume shallow focus, but instead assumes multiple foci, with each capable of depth.  And with most instances of hyper attention, deep and momentary focus bleeds over into other foci.  For instance, seeing a powerful film will influence the way you see other films, engage in fan communities, etc.  Just because focus is multiple, it does not mean that it is equally distributed.  So I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the participatory chinatown project.  We have built a game to engage residents of Boston’s Chinatown in that neighborhood’s master planning process. The game is intended to provide a deep and meaningful engagement in the neighborhood’s issues over the course of a two-hour meeting.  It is intended to, through the process of augmented deliberation, create a deep and lasting experience.  It is clear how the game can create a deep experience – it provides a scaffolding of interaction that quite literally captures the user’s attention and focuses participation onto the local context.  However, how it provides a lasting experience is less clear.

The game is intended as a reference point for civic multitasking.  It becomes a powerful reference within the multiplicity of a user’s attention.  Through the creation of a deep experience, it draws attention back to the locality, when attention might otherwise have gone elsewhere.  We have devised many, less time consuming mechanisms of paying attention to the game space after playing it, without playing it again.  Users can consult the website for continued updates on the process and on their own contributions to the game.  Paying attention to the game’s website, if only periodically and momentarily, is precisely the kind of civic engagement we are seeking.  The game provides an attentional reference point that can be continually called up within a psychological and social environment of multitasking.  In order for a game like this to be meaningful and effective, we have to adjust our terms of assessment.  The game will not result in a return to focused civic engagement; however, through the lens of civic multitasking, the game will hopefully provide that moment of deep attention that will ground the hyper attentional realities of civic life.  Our goal is to get people to pay attention to their local communities; but, likewise, our goal is to reorient expectations of attention and to discover and develop new platforms for civic multitasking.

Augmented Deliberation

The central premise of the Participatory Chinatown project is the staging of what we call “augmented deliberation.”  We introduce augmented deliberation as a possible design solution that addresses uniquely difficult contexts where deliberation is complicated by one or many external factors, including language barriers, power differentials, visualization and challenges with communicating professional discourses.  It is specifically relevant in the context of urban planning, because the prospect of communicating complex urban concepts associated with rather abstract spatial dynamics is a significant challenge – one that requires creative solutions.  Augmented deliberation is the process whereby a group of people deliberate in a face-to-face setting while they are simultaneously immersed in virtual environments. It consists of three design values: 1) it is a multimedia group communication process which balances the specific affordances of digital technologies with the established qualities of face-to-face group deliberation; 2) it emphasizes the power of experience; and 3) it promotes sustainability and reproducibility through digital tracking.

The Participatory Chinatown project, which is the second iteration of Hub2, is coming close to realizing the goal of augmented deliberation.  We are in the process of designing a 3D game that will run in a web browser.  The goal of this game is to get participants playing a role whereby they accomplish everyday tasks in their neighborhood.  The game board is the existing space of Boston’s Chinatown.  Players are tasked with things like finding a job, finding an apartment, or finding a place to socialize.  In doing this, we aim to create the shared experience of the space in question that can serve as the springboard for productive deliberation.  Once the players have had  the opportunity to explore and complete their quest, they are then asked a simple question: “what does the neighborhood need now?”  They are then given the opportunity to make decisions both individually and collectively as a means of providing input into the process and, perhaps more importantly, to give them the sense that they are engaged in an ongoing conversation about the neighborhood.  They will have the opportunity to go back into the game to play different quests and to read and write comments about the neighborhood.

Augmented deliberation is the process.   The game is the form that we happen to be investigating.  We believe that providing the game scaffolding is going be very useful for getting citizens to deliberate over the complex matters of physical urban transformation.  Specifcally, the qualities of immersion and role play.  We are spending a good deal of time trying to make the game fun and engaging; this is the incentive for participation.  But we remain aware of the potential pitfalls in this kind of project.  If the serious work of community planning is fun, will it be misinterpreted by the community as frivilous?  We will see.

 


3-D Worlds for Land Use Planning

Holly St. Clair writes about the Participatory Chinatown project in an article for the American Planning Association newsletter.  In explaining what PC will do for the planning process, she says:

The emphasis is not just on the computer simulation, but rather on the conversations and learning or rather deliberation that happens in between gaming sessions. Participants are facing each other playing navigating their avatars through quests. The 3-D virtual environment augments the deliberation with additional information, tracking decisions impacts and results of decisions and helping to participants experience the space.  These new 3-D virtual environments are fun but not frivolous. They can help create an understanding grounded in experience and create a common ground for to continue conversations. These virtual works can help participants understand complex urban issues by literally walking in someone elses shoes.

The full article is available here.

Creating Empathy Through Role Play

We’ve made some good progress on the Participatory Chinatown (PC) project.   Building off of the first iteration of Hub2, PC will continue with the focus on creating platforms for “augmented deliberation,” but it will do so by more thoroughly exploring the power of role play in people’s ability to understand urban issues.  In the past project, we experimented with role play by giving participants a piece of paper with a character description on it and asking them to “inhabit” their avatar “as if” they were that person.  They were immersed in the space via Second Life, but they weren’t sufficiently immersed in the character.  This time, we’re taking role play to the next level by building the experience around character identification.  I’ve partnered with Eric Klopfer at MIT to develop the game concept and we’re using a new platform called Sandstone, developed by the good folks at Muzzylane, to build out the game.

The premise is simple: we want people who come to a community meeting to have the experience of Chinatown as someone other than themselves so that they might  be better able to make good decisions about the neighborhood.  By getting people out from behind their own concerns (if only for a few minutes), we hope to create the kind of empathy and civic mindedness that is ideal for providing valuable input into a planning process and also for developing trust amongst stakeholders.   The idea stems from some research done by Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford.  In their article, “Walk a Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective-Taking on the Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments,” they demonstrate how the strength of stereotypes that college students hold about the elderly is reduced when they inhabit an avatar of an elderly person.  By being in someone else’s digital shoes,  a player is able to identify with that person in a substantial way.  Yee and Bailensen develop their study from the concept of perspective-taking.  

When we judge ourselves, we tend to rely on situational factors (i.e., “I did poorly on the test because I didn’t sleep well the night before.”).  On the other hand, when we judge others, we tend to rely on dispositional factors (i.e., “He did poorly on the test because he’s not that bright.”).  Thus when people are forced to observe their own actions (via a video tape), they tend to make more dispositional rather than situational attributions.  The reverse is also true.  When participants are asked to take the perspective of the person they are observing, participants tend to make situational rather than dispositional attributions (148).

This is precisely what we’re trying to accomplish in PC.  We want players to make situational observations about their characters so that they might be better able to put their needs into a situational rather than dispositional context.  For instance, we want people to say “gentrification might affect that person adversely because of their social circumstances,” not simply to say “those people don’t know what they’re doing and what they’re missing.”

There are lots of questions remaining about the nature of the game we’re designing, but the goals are becoming quite clear. We want empathy to enter into the practice of community deliberation.  And we think we can get there by allowing players to literally walk a mile in someone else’s digital shoes.

Stepping Into Virtual Worlds

This should be an interesting discussion about out-of-the-ordinary applications of virtual world technologies.  I will have the opportunity to speak about Hub2 along with John Lester from Linden Lab and Drew Harry from MIT’s Media Lab.  It’s happening May 1 from 6-7:30 at the MIT Museum.