A space to play games, learn and inform

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in 2011 on my urban issues blog, Urban Conversations, but relates to much of what’s on my mind.

I found myself eating lunch with Amanda Hickman — most recently of DocumentCloud (among other things) — in Bryant Park on their Southwest Porch back in late September. A chance glance at my Hardly Strictly Young list via Tweetdeck led to the opportunity to catch up with her while home — leading us to have one of those discussions you know you’ll relish having had even months later.

We somehow got on the topic of how much I’d wanted to go check out the BMW Guggenheim Lab while I was in town but I wasn’t sure if I would. Twenty minutes later we were on the “B” train heading towards Houston St.

As we arrived, the folks from Third Root in Brooklyn were staffing a table and leading an introductory yoga session as part of a free community health care day.

There were folks gathered around taking stock of the first of what will be three distinct structures used for the lab over the next six years in all of its carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer glory (designed by Atelier Bow-Wow, a Tokyo-based architecture firm).

A chalkboard invited visitors to share hashtags for Twitter conversations they considered important to pay attention to in the coming days, including one that had gained a great deal of steam just the night before — #occupywallstreet. Risers were set up for a performance taking place later in the afternoon, allowing people to watch what was going on in the Lab while resting up to explore the East Village (or perhaps another round of food at the last day of the the Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy).

Two large display screens engaged passersby. One shared information about upcoming lab events. The other was being used for an interactive game about cities. The game was one of the most intriguing things about the lab for me — and something that had me thinking about a larger issue long after heading uptown for a Yankees/Red Sox game.

There were five pieces that had been specifically built for the game. They were placed horizontally across a board that went both + and — 5 spots. It appeared that number of people gathered around the board determined whether there would be teams or individuals. Ten questions were asked (we joined in on the last three questions of a round during our visit). After all of the questions were answered and the points tallied, participants were told what your “future city” would look like — comparing your answers to actual decisions made by cities around the globe. Incidentally, if you’re interested in seeing what your future city is, an online version of Urbanology is available on the Lab’s website.

One look at the offerings Guggenheim Lab made me ask a question I forgot I posed about until after seeing Amanda’s Foursquare check-in via Twitter later that evening:

Good questions from @acnatta…why didn’t a newsroom do this first? (@ BMW Guggenheim Lab w/ 5 others) [pic]: http://t.co/41sSSv5V

I’ve got this weird notion of the modern-day newsroom being more interactive than purely a place where we tell you what’s happening. This may stem from a long-ago realization that The Terminal is not quite ready for an “office” in the traditional sense. I enjoy sitting on the front porch of the house too much to justify the additional expense when I can pass that potential revenue on to contributors.

I have often wondered what an office for the site would look like if and when we needed one. I see the resulting space as more of a listening post than anything else — a place where people can share their knowledge with each other while we get to educate and inform. A chalkboard would cover an entire wall, perhaps with a space dedicated to sharing suggestions directly from Twitter and Facebook. Maybe the space would allow for yoga classes as well as town hall meetings, even a cup of coffee?

Spaces like this already exist — they just aren’t necessarily dedicated to the newsgathering process. The first space that seemed to fit the physical interpretation of what I envision is the original location for Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC’s U Street corridor. The ability to host a night of poetry, film screenings and round table discussions — even simultaneously — is intriguing. There’s also what The Register Citizen is doing in Torrington, CT.

Maybe games like Urbanology would allow news organizations to inform members of our community while also learning more about them. What if the conversations that followed participating in those games were captured for all to see and to respond to — either by typing a comment or recording a video? The opportunity to see who you’re engaging with on the website when you’re leaving your comments is extremely powerful.

Having a place like this doesn’t take away from getting out there and engaging with the community where they are normally (maybe even invading neighborhood coffeehouses like The Washington Post did last summer). It would be nice though to provide a space where they don’t think twice about coming to visit you from time to time.

If news organizations are to be serving the community, perhaps adopting some of the objectives of the Guggenheim Lab isn’t that bad of an idea. It’d be a good basis for future newsroom transformations. It helped me realize the idea for the bus that served as the crux of my brief talk at ONA in Boston isn’t as out of reach as I felt it was as I gave it the day before.

It may even be a way to help developers think of a way to build a content management system specifically for this kind of engagement-driven journalism that’s not relying on too many moving parts. If you think of how to do that, consider sharing it as a comment over on Amanda’s recent piece for PBS MediaShift.

I’m interested in what I’m missing or if I’m being overly ambitious about something that can’t or won’t ever really change. If you’ve got any comments or suggestions, feel free to share them down below.

By the way, folks traveling overseas to Germany or India will have an opportunity to see what I’m talking about in 2012; it’ll be in Berlin this spring and in Mumbai after that. The results derived from the lab’s first round of activities will be shared via an exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City in 2013.

It’s one I’m looking forward to heading home for when it’s finally announced.

Photos: acnatta/Flickr.



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André Natta

I’m an urban conversationalist who enjoys exploring how we approach local news… and baseball games.