CMAP Student Spotlight: Melissa Teng, 2017–18 cohort

Melissa Teng is a Masters candidate in Civic Media at Emerson College. She is an interactive designer, developer, and artist. Her work is primarily concerned with data ownership, cultural imagination/memory, and creative placemaking. Previously she led the design of award-winning open data web platforms for governments in South and North America at a startup, Datawheel. Locally, she served as a gallery curator at EMW Bookstore, exhibiting artists from marginalized communities. She received her BA in Economics from Rice University.

What was the path that brought you to CMAP?
I was lucky to know Catherine D’Ignazio from her work with DataBasic.io and she introduced me to the program director, Paul Mihailidis. At the time, I was working as a web designer at a startup where we made government tech projects involving public data. I helped design these custom open data platforms that visualized massive amounts of cleaned, cross-departmental/institutional public data and that carried over best practices from the web and data industries. The first year after our site, DataUSA.io was launched, we received a bunch of awards/recognitions from industry but didn’t see as much in actual user engagement. I started to really question my design process: was it fair to call this a public good when there was no “public” involved in the making of it? I realized I didn’t have the skills to design for or even read inherently systemic challenges like open data. Yes, open data is about releasing free public datasets, but it’s also about building better data channels (between government departments and between government and research institutions, journalists, new businesses, students, citizens); improving data literacy in usage and protection; discussing the ethics around what data to make public and to whom, etc. CMAP has been great at challenging me to work at this intersection of tech/media and civics.

What does civic media mean to you?
I think civic media projects share a fundamental desire to improve coexistence and democracy in society, where media/technology is the means or vehicle of this desire. This shared desire results in different communities with different approaches, tactics, priorities, etc. for how they choose to address democracy and coexistence, which creates opportunity for deliberation, collaboration, and dissent. The approaches we’re learning in CMAP emphasize participation throughout the life cycle of civic media projects.

Photo credit: Anna Ladd
Yes, open data is about releasing free public datasets, but it’s also about building better data channels (between government departments and between government and research institutions, journalists, new businesses, students, citizens); improving data literacy in usage and protection; discussing the ethics around what data to make public and to whom, etc.

What is one change you would like to see in the world?
More role models for feminist masculinity.

What would you want the civic media community to know about you?
I’ve been exploring interactive storytelling and would love to work together on art projects!

Are there any specific projects that you’ve done in the past that intersect with your studies now?
I hadn’t thought about this in years, but in college I worked with a team of students to put on an arts festival. We were at an engineering-focused school and the idea was to invite everyone to make art through a party. The first year, part of our publicity involved installing guerrilla art pieces around campus, including a living room set at a bus stop and participatory post-it mural in the library. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about these as socially engaged art pieces, but recently I’ve been thinking about the spirit behind this festival and how I might try to recreate that sense of wonder in my work.

Photo credit: artist, Wen-ti Tsen

How do you define engagement? What does being engaged mean to you?
I think engagement is about caring in the face of pressures. When there are time and budget pressures, it can be hard to care about or prioritize things that otherwise matter to us. Being engaged is seeing enough value or believing in something that you can sacrifice some of those pressures.

What are some of your favorite pieces of media?
There are so many good ones. I’m reading the therapeutic and lovely Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks. Recently I learned about the vibrant community behind glitch, a digital service redesigning web development. Last, my friend shared this interactive VR experience today and I spent 30 minutes getting lost: http://a-way-to-go.com/

Learn more about Civic Media, Art & Practice.