Center for Civic Media


In 2007 I founded (with Mitchel Resnick and Henry Jenkins) the MIT Center for (Future) Civic Media. The Center has changed quite a bit since I led it, but by our original formulation, "civic media is any form of communication that strengthens the social bonds within a community or creates a strong sense of civic engagement among its residents."

The Center’s original mission was a direct response to the decline of local newspapers, but specifically not an attempt to save newspapers or journalism in the digital era. Rather, we sought to understand how the critical functions of journalism — local investigation, accountability, community dialog and deliberation —

could be extended with contemporary technologies and techniques. This included spending a great deal of time trying to understand what collaborative peer production, online reviews, and other forms of making that were unique to the internet could mean at the local community level.

Initially funded by the Knight Foundation for 5M$US over four years, then again at 3.76M$US over three years, I took on the directorship some months into the project, when Henry Jenkins left MIT.

In the first four years that I led the Center, we prototyped a wide array of projects, concentrating especially on the mutual amplification of online and offline community information and activism. We sought to imagine how online technologies could better help geographic communities like neighborhoods or villages (as opposed to “communities of interest,” which is how a majority of tech people conceived of community). In particular, we looked at how global forces, such as capital markets or extractive industries, can erode local civic empowerment, and how global communications networks might hold those forces accountable. Below are some of the projects that have continued to live on as free software projects, nonprofits, and for-profits.

Between the Bars (2010 - present)

[Charles Detar and Benjamin Mako Hill]

After we had created a variety of projects that required online participation, Civic researcher Charles Detar asked: what about the 1% of Americans who are incarcerated, and do not have access to the internet? Detar and Hill embarked on a long research project to understand the communications of prisoners, their relationships to their families, and human subject ethics when working with prisoners.

In a nutshell, Between the Bars allows prisoners to create blog posts by sending letters, which are scanned, uploaded, and transcribed by volunteers around the internet, allowing the posts to be searchable. Comments on individual blog pages are printed out and sent back to the prisoners.

As many prisoners had “gone in” before the existence of blogs, careful work needed to be done to inform them about blogging, including who might read their posts or how it might affect their parole, etc.  After a several step informed consent process (by mail!) prisoners can start to blog. From tattoo art to recipes, details of the lives and experiences of prisoners become visible to the outside world, and many prisoners are reunited with loved ones and friends.

Civil rights movements can only go so far without its members asserting their rights to speak for themselves: for example, a Frederic Douglass or Susan B. Anthony. As prisoners are systematically prevented from using contemporary modes of communication, giving them access to a remediated version at least allows them that most emblematic form of contemporary inclusion: to be Googleable.




ExtrACT! (2007 - 2010)

[with Sara Wylie, Dan Ring, Christina Xu, 
Matthew Hockenberry, Lisa Sumi, 
Seak Meng Lay, and James Rotich]

From 2006-2007 Sara Wylie, a PhD candidate in STS/Anthropology at MIT, conducted fieldwork around endocrine disruption in the western USA. As a participant observer working with the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), she learned first hand how the process of hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — was introducing unregulated amounts of chemicals into communities around the country. In 2007 fracking was not a well-known term, but Sara was taking one of my classes just as the Center for Civic Media launched, and the combination of high-tech companies impacting low-tech communities seemed like a perfect challenge for the Center to take on.


SourceMap (2008 - pres)

[Matthew Hockenberry, Leonardo Bonani]

Global supply chains are a great example of what Manuel Castells calls “global flows” — that is, capital, information, and materials that move around the globe in often unaccountable ways. Raw materials from Botswana — often involving problematic labor and externalities — may be processed in Pakistan, turned into product in China, and sold in France. No one, even those involved in the chain, understands the full story.

Are supply chains mysterious because companies want them hidden, to prevent us from finding out the hidden labor and environmental costs? Or are they obscure because of the ad-hoc way they criss-cross time and space, jump from organization to organization, order to invoice, with no single entity responsible or accountable? One thing is clear: Obscurity prevents accountability.




Grassroots Mapping & PublicLab (2007 - pres)

[Jeffrey Warren, Sarah Wylie, et al.]


Hero Reports (Mexico) (2009 - 2012)

[Alyssa Wright and Yesica Guerrera]


1. Leonardo Bonanni, Matthew Hockenberry, David Zwarg, Chris Csikszentmihalyi, and Hiroshi Ishii. 2010. Small business applications of sourcemap. 937. https://doi.org/10.1145/1753326.1753465

2. Jessica Breen, Shannon Dosemagen, Jeffrey Warren, and Mathew Lippincott. 2015. Mapping Grassroots: Geodata and the structure of community-led open environmental science. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 14, 3: 849–873.

3. Carmen Gentile. 2010. Cries for Help via Text Messages Are Used to Direct Aid to Haiti. The New York Times. Retrieved February 21, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/world/americas/21text.html?hpw

4. Belinda Luscombe. TIME’s Mobile Tech Issue: Tracking Disease One Text at a Time | Healthland | TIME.com. Time. Retrieved August 20, 2012 from http://healthland.time.com/2012/08/15/disease-cant-hide/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+timeblogs%2Fnerd_world+%28TIME%3A+Techland%29&utm_content=Google+UK

5. Moos, Julie. Google Centralizes Haiti People Finder; News Sites Share Data. Poynter Online. Retrieved January 25, 2010 from http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=101&aid=176027

6. Marcia Stepanek. 2010. Citizens Rising. Cause Global. Retrieved June 7, 2010 from http://causeglobal.blogspot.com/2010/06/citizens-rising_05.html

7. The Associated Press. 2010. New Tech Tools Help Haiti Quake Relief. The New York Times. Retrieved January 25, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/01/19/business/AP-LT-TEC-Haiti-Tech-Relief.html

8. Juárez “Hero Reports” records acts of kindness - El Paso Times. Retrieved February 14, 2011 from http://www.elpasotimes.com/ci_17374373?IADID=Search-www.elpasotimes.com-www.elpasotimes.com

9. Between the Bars : Human Stories from Prison. Retrieved August 6, 2019 from https://betweenthebars.org/

10. “Hero Reports”: MIT Collaborates With Mexico Cities To Promote “Positivism.” Retrieved December 19, 2015 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/19/hero-reports-mexico-mit-civic-media_n_970806.html

11. Director of crowdsourced website in Mexico: go offline to build participation. Retrieved December 19, 2015 from https://ijnet.org/en/blog/director-crowdsourced-website-mexico-go-offline-build-participation

12. Mapping the Grassroots | OnEarth Magazine. Retrieved October 15, 2011 from http://www.onearth.org/article/mapping-the-grassroots

13. Mapping good deeds with Hero Reports | PRI.ORG. Retrieved October 3, 2011 from http://www.pri.org/pri-videos/hero-reports-thetakeaway.html

14. Mexico: Hero Reports, Mapping Acts of Kindness · Global Voices. Retrieved October 3, 2011 from http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/09/06/mexico-hero-reports-mapping-acts-of-kindness/

15. MEXICO: Hero reports map acts of kindness | The Nelson Daily. Retrieved October 3, 2011 from http://thenelsondaily.com/news/mexico-hero-reports-map-acts-kindness-13466

16. Positivity to Mexico, Heroreports Show the Good in Mexican Cities - Hispanically Speaking News. Retrieved October 3, 2011 from http://www.hispanicallyspeakingnews.com/notitas-de-noticias/details/bringing-a-little-positivity-to-mexico-heroreports-show-the-good-occurring-/10475/

17. “Hero Reports”: MIT Collaborates With Mexico Cities To Promote “Positivism.” Retrieved October 3, 2011 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/19/hero-reports-mexico-mit-civic-media_n_970806.html

18. Blogging from “Between the Bars” | The Stream - Al Jazeera English. Retrieved May 6, 2011 from http://stream.aljazeera.com/story/blogging-from-between-the-bars

19. Taking On the Gulf Oil Spill With Kites and Cameras - Bits Blog - NYTimes.com. Retrieved June 10, 2010 from http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/09/hacking-the-gulf-oil-spill-with-kites-and-cameras/?hpw

20. Colin Delany: Saving the Gulf with Helium, String and a Digital Camera. Retrieved June 8, 2010 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/colin-delany/saving-the-gulf-with-heli_b_602409.html

21. Who Made My Bed? - Science and Tech - The Atlantic. Retrieved May 24, 2010 from http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2010/05/who-made-my-bed/57039/

22. The Emerging “Fifth Estate” | Ford Hall Forum. Retrieved February 17, 2010 from http://www.fordhallforum.org/programs/the-emerging-fifth-estate

23. Tech Tools Help Haiti Recovery. Retrieved January 25, 2010 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/01/19/tech-tools-help-haiti-rec_n_428649.html

24. Information on Haiti Is Getting Siloed - Pogue’s Posts Blog - NYTimes.com. Retrieved January 25, 2010 from http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/01/17/information-on-haiti-is-getting-siloed/

25. Where’s My iPod Made? SourceMap Has the Answer. Retrieved January 6, 2010 from http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/kit-eaton/technomix/sourcemap-answers-wheres-my-ipod-made-eco-questions

26. See Where Stuff Comes From with SourceMap : TreeHugger. Retrieved January 6, 2010 from http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/10/see-where-stuff-is-from-sourcemap.php

27. Worldchanging: Bright Green: The Backstory of Stuff: New Sites Enable More Transparency in the Supply Chain. Retrieved December 15, 2009 from zotero://attachment/1889/

28. City Subpoenas Creator of Text Messaging Code - New York Times. Retrieved September 12, 2008 from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/30/nyregion/30text.html