How Do We Design Media That Makes The World Better?

Rebecca Michelson
Jul 5, 2016 · 7 min read

Or why to stake the widest tent

Graphic Recording by Tamra Carhart

How often do academics, community organizations, media-makers, and government agencies convene to learn from each other? Those who contribute to the Boston Civic Media network believe the answer is “not frequently enough,” and, the feedback from the Design, Technology, and Social Impact event confirms the need for a plurality of voices to shape civic media and technology. Over 200 attendees had over 30 lightning talks to choose from about civic media in Boston, ranging in topic from the user-centered redesign process of to a citizen science art project case study about thermal fishing bobs via Public Lab. The hands-on workshops provided opportunities to play with data analysis tools, practice design-thinking skills, and learn how to adapt programs and tools for accessibility.

All of these conversations converged on a single question:

How do we design media that makes Boston a better place for the most people?

Starting with the Why

The keynote speaker, Boston City Councillor Ayanna Pressley, set the tone by emphasizing equity and inclusion in civic projects. She reminded the audience that inclusion is not a buzzword, it is about shared power. If our designed projects and products do not reflect a participatory process, or at least one geared to the best interests of those in the margins, then we are not acting in the service of the public. According to Councilor Pressley :

“(It’s) not just about everyone getting a fair share of the pie, but everyone getting a chance at baking the damn thing.”

When reflecting on integrating media and technology into the public sphere, we should be wary of mistaking the means for the ends. Councilor Pressley reminded us that relying on social media for public input is merely one piece of the puzzle, since it can result in a shallow, polarized perception of constituents. Further, relying primarily on social media for community engagement can give politicians an out by fostering a culture of immediate responses and not necessarily the long-term action in the form of policy change to back it up. Civic media designers and technologists should consider creating products that enable meaningful, reflective, and lasting relationships and dialogues. Policy suffers when there isn’t space for public officials to be thoughtful with their constituents.

Graphic Recording by Tamra Carhart

Design for the Margins: An Imperative not a Suggestion

Designing for existing systems runs the risk of perpetuating existing inequalities within them. Ceasar McDowell (Interaction Institute for Social Change) explained the need to design for the margins to ensure that participants can exercise their agency. When more of us can participate in any given process or product, we are stronger as a society. Ceasar reminded us that this is analogous to staking a net farther at the margins to provide more stability. Beyond the benefits of a healthier society, designing for the margins enables participation. Echoing Councilor Pressley’s words,

“if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu”.

We cannot always rely on groups like designers, technologists, and politicians to speak on our behalf, and approaches of co-design and participatory democracy aid in bringing more voices to the table. Several of the conference workshops focused on designing for the margins, including the Accessibility First! Workshop and the panel on inclusive design.

Right: Rahul Bhargava leads a workshop to use workshop Left: Inclusive Design Panel withBen Wilson (VP of Interactive Design at the Museum of Science), Laura Greer-Cowan (Accessibility Program Manager at Microsoft), Harlan Weber (GovNext at the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), Lauren Lockwood (City of Boston), and Mary Martin (Olin College). Organized by Cathy Wissink and Aimee Sprung of Microsoft New England

Intentionality is Not a Byproduct

As designers, technologists, and researchers — we cannot retroactively tack on purpose and values to our work. Throughout the day, participants discussed how intentionality, for user-friendliness and efficacy, becomes embedded in our work. Reflecting on the Civic Art track of the conference, Sarah Kanouse (Northeastern University) said that impactful civic art is the creation of learning situations, rather than instances of expertise to be enacted or expected. This theme resonated throughout the day’s presentations. During the Systems and Advocacy lightning talks, Jeff Warren explained how Public Lab designs their kits and products with intuitive instructions as part of the objects themselves. When considering how to expand awareness of global news sources, Professor Catherine D’Ignazio (Emerson College) created an Internet plug-in to randomize exposure to news from around the world via Terra Incongnita. Whether fostering learning environments, designing tools, or enhancing media literacy, creators can make a series of intentional choices to maximize civic impact.

Participants mingle and participate in workshops

Civics In Action

Civics is not extracurricular. The conference included a panel of directors of service learning centers from Northeastern, Tufts, Simmons, and Emerson. Panelists discussed how to embed civic learning throughout the curriculum. In this panel and the workshop on the advocacy framework developed by Generation Citizen the importance of critically examining social issues and committing to improving them in the classroom was highlighted. Similarly, artist Lina Giraldo spoke about the multimedia project City Journalist where students interviewed neighbors and business owners about gentrification and place-making. The workshop on the Emerging Citizens game shared how to play with hashtags and memes to unpack current events and cultural norms while learning media literacy. In addition, Boston’s City Hall to Go set up their “kitchen table talks” station, asking participants about how engagement can be improved. The day ended with the book launch of Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice which features scholars and practitioners from many different backgrounds sharing multimedia approaches for social change. We hope leaders and participants of civic institutions, such as schools, government offices and museums walked away with an understanding of the abundance of participatory approaches to collectively address local social issues.

Left: City Hall to Go engages attendees with their City Hall to Go “Kitchen Table Talks” Project Right: Speakers Alex Gellar and Susan Owusu

Bridge the Gap

In our increasingly complex world, professions are becoming more specialized (hello, Data Visualization Analysts!). Yet the need for generalists, or people who can adapt to the changing needs of the workplace is also on the rise. To creatively solve today’s multi-faceted problems, we need teams that represent diverse skill sets, perspectives, and talents. A newly formed subgroup of Boston Civic Media is the civic data sensor group, composed of researchers, city leaders, and scientists who are learning about and implementing local sensors (you can join their listserv here). Boston Civic Media functions as a convener of many different types of expertise who are committed to improving the commons.

In our work and conversations over the past year, we have observed that there are often gaps among designers, makers, and the people they aim to serve. For example, hackers in places like the Code for America brigades may need more background research about local issues for which they are building an app. Similarly, academics may be eager to work with a local community organization for a class project, but may lack the capacity to create a mutually-beneficial partnership. Boston Civic Media is a connector to groups with shared interests who might otherwise lack a clear path of communication or network of shared interests. We’ve received positive feedback from people in the same institutions who had previously not met and were excited to connect. Finally, the local service learning center leaders had never before previously gathered for knowledge-sharing and we are pleased to have facilitated the connection. Boston Civic Media is committed to helping reduce silos to work across institutions, communities, and areas of expertise for the betterment of public life. Join us at next year’s summer conference to learn about the connected Boston civic media landscape and to share your ideas!

A Few Participants’ Concluding Reflections

To learn more, read Microsoft New England’s recap here: and sign up for a bi-weekly listserv or quarterly newsletter here: Videos of the conference talks are available on the site as well.

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