On September 6, we hosted a mixer introducing new Journalism School students to both to the Brown Institute at Columbia as well as the Tow Center for Digtital Journalism. The room was, gratifyingly, packed! For those of you who couldn't attend, Brown offers unique training events like the Transparency Series -- where you will learn journalistic uses for VR and AR and Machine Learning, for example -- and various hack and design workshops. We also sponsor speakers and special conferences like Sneakercon. We hold open office hours and unique training modules on topics like design, mapping and data analysis. Finally, our Magic Grant season begins in November with gatherings to help you refine your ideas and turn them into successful proposals.
Stanford University faculty and 1000 Cut Magic Grant member Prof. Jeremy Bailenson was recently among those cited and quoted in an August 1 USA Today Article entitled "New breed of VR pushes for social change." The article examines how this emerging platform is being used as an instrument for letting participants examine their conceptions of social practice and norms in the real world.
Professors Courtney Cogburn and Desmond Patton are going LIVE on CSSW's Facebook page to talk about the projects they are doing with the help of two Magic Grants from the Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Professor Cogburn's project took place this past year. she will report on what it was like to create a visceral experience with racism using Virtual Reality. Professor Patton will describe the projet hel plans to begin in the fall, furthering his data analysis of scoial media exchanges among youth in communities with high rates of gang violence, in hopes of providing an alternative narrative.
The Internet has grown so omnipresent today that it's easy to overlook the continuing role of "offline networks," systems for exchanging digital information that bypass the Internet. "Sneakernets" (by which we mean any kind of offline networking, a slight abuse of the terminology) take many forms, whether it's a thumb drive passed between friends or a semi-trailer truck full of hard drives delivered to a server farm, or games played over a private network. Sneakernets form countless links in our digital infrastructure, but nevertheless tend to pass unnoticed in favor of a totalized, global Internet. The purpose of Sneakercon is to reexamine the offline side of the digital age by foregrounding the prevalence, variety, and uses of offline networks during two days of talks, discussion panels, and workshops.
Sneakernets serve many purposes: to overcome transmission limits, to circumvent surveillance, to foster community, or simply for convenience. Companies like Google and Amazon have found that massive collections of data sometimes travel more quickly by physically moving hard drives from place to place. A whistleblower may decide that delivering a tranche of data to a reporter through the postal service would pose fewer risks than contacting them electronically. Meshnets may provide communications in times of crisis or upheaval, when online network infrastructure may be damaged by severe weather or shut off by the authorities. Even when friends or coworkers share files in person, they may casually opt for some offline method despite the ready availability of the Internet.
Studying unique sneakernets around the world can reveal the complexity and variety of information ecosystems in different cultures, subcultures, movements, and communities. Before the Internet was widely available in Cuba, a static, offline slice of the Web called El Paquete was regularly downloaded in Spain, transported to Havana, and then transmitted through a network of dedicated readers who shared each new edition by copying it in person from drive to drive. During the 'Umbrella Revolution' in Hong Kong, students coordinated their protest using a mesh network rather than risk using centralized communications infrastructure. In Afghanistan, some people create a custom ringtone and share it only with friends and allies, then the tone is treated as evidence of their social connection when they encounter mutual acquaintances.
Even some historical, non-digital sneakernets could be considered precursors of alternative information networks in use today. The SecureDrop anonymous whistleblowing platform was originally called 'Dead Drop' in reference to hidden locations where spies could exchange parcels without having to meet in person. Similarly, in the USSR, where publishing was strictly controlled by censors, dissident writers organized underground newspapers called samizdat that both collected articles and distributed each issue in a hand-to-hand, no-questions-asked network so that the route to the publishers could not be retraced by investigators. As a model of anonymous information exchange, this bears a striking resemblance to onion routing, the system that secures web traffic over the Tor browser via a network of nodes with strictly limited knowledge of one another. These precursors and parallels highlight that even online systems may take on certain qualities of a sneakernet in the interest of security, privacy, or anonymity.
The inaugural Sneakercon will convene on August 25-26, 2017, at Columbia's Brown Institute for Media Innovation. Our audience of journalists, academics, developers, activists, and artists will collectively learn how to notice, measure, map, and otherwise make sense of an offline network -- while bearing in mind the potential risks and ethical concerns that may arise when you observe or enter into these communities.
Keynote talks by Nathan Freitas and Hans-Christoph Steiner of The Guardian Project will highlight the political and social stakes of sneakernets today. Lectures and panel discussions will provide a forum for experts to discuss the significance of different case studies and highlight both the challenges and the promise of offline networks. Finally, a series of workshops will allow the audience to focus on the specific technical, journalistic, ethical, or practical aspects of sneakernets that interest them most.
Game developer Jane McGonigal joined Brown Institute Stanford Director Maneesh Agrawala on May 23 for a conversation about critical topics in game theory and culture entitled “This is Not a Game.” The two discussed how new forms of media - online gaming and augmented realities – influence our personal wellness, political views and collective behaviors. The discussion capped a day-long symposium during which McGonigal joined UC Berkley Professor Greg Niemeyer (visiting this year at Brown) and Antero Garcia for a discussion of talks in conjunction with the release of a new book: Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gamplay.
On May 26 and 27, members of the Brown Institute traveled to Panama City, Panama, for the launch of El Tabulario, a new platform promoting data transparency in the country. Journalists from the area, as well as representatives of the government's transparency initiative, attended the launch. The two-day event was a mini design sprint, taking participants through the data aggregated and disseminated in El Tabulario. We emphasized a journalistic approach, starting with the journalists own knowledge of the goverment and its ministries.
The response was, frankly, incredible. In many cases, the journalists were shocked that the data they had long wanted for stories were actually available. Ana Méndez told the Knight Journalism in the Americas Blog "The most important thing is that people feel empowered to make informed decisions and that is only done with real and transparent access to the information that belongs to them." You can read the full interview on the Knight Center site. A report has also appeared about the launch in La Prensa, the leading daily in the country.
On June 7th, the Brown Institute hosted the New York meeting of the Credibility Schema Working Group. The Credibility Schema Working Group is a body of data scientists, researchers, journalists and other professionals who are dedicated to addressing the growing problem of misinformation in the media. Through combining diverse perspectives on the issue, the members of the Working Group plan to develop a set of indicators of misinformation in a news article. More specifically, by organizing these indicators into a technical schema, the Group aims to create a system that is capable of assessing the credibility of news articles and sources.
Throughout the day, various individuals presented their work in combating this issue of misinformation. From researchers who have developed software that can detect levels of bias, to businesses that have created tools to annotate misleading articles, to news websites that aim to source their content ethically, the multitude of ideas that were exchanged showcased the vast efforts that are currently being undertaken to fight the spread of misinformation.
Later in the day, members of the group engaged in a brainstorming session to identify characteristics of news articles that contain misinformation. While tackling the issue of misinformation is certainly a daunting task, the Working Group was able to develop a set of indicators that prove promising for further efforts to develop the technical schema needed to combat misinformation in the media. This workshop demonstrated the power –and the necessity– of collaboration between many different disciplines in tackling an increasingly complex and important issue.
In 2015, the Brown Institute funded the Nueva Nación team in Panama to create the country's first truly accessible public data platform, El Tabulario, and now they're finally ready to launch. On May 26th and 27th, we'll be hosting journalists, computer scientists, and students in Panama City to pore over the team's compiled data and explore new story ideas with the country's untapped statistics.
The Nueva Nación team is particularly excited about exploring student-teacher ratio data for public schools, never-before seen historical government payroll data, government spending and budgeting numbers, the country's debt numbers, and private and public credit consumption data.
The Brown Institute for Media Innovation and Enigma, a data start-up known for its civic-minded projects, named Rashida Kamal as the 2017 Data Journalism Fellow. The fellowship gives recipients the choice of covering healthcare or issues surrounding financial sanctions as a tool to inform foreign policy, anti-terror and anti-organized crime efforts.
Contemporary reporting is a melding of traditional journalistic practices and new data technologies. The Brown Institute’s work sits squarely at this intersection by providing innovative programs, fellowships and grants that are changing the media landscape.
Ms. Kamal will focus on questioning the vast collection of data offered by Enigma, which has one of the broadest repositories of clean and standardized public data available. She will also explore how decisions in data collection and organization affect the types of stories that can be derived from the data. Brown’s Data Journalism Fellowship is akin to a “Journalist in Residence” program at one of the most innovative start-ups in the country.
Ms. Kamal, a first-year student, is pursuing a dual degree in Computer Science and M.S. in journalism from the Columbia Journalism School. She was previously enrolled in the school’s LEDE program, a post-degree certification on computational skill building offered by the Journalism School and the university’s Computer Science department.
“I’m excited to work with a team that values making data accessible to all and to have the chance to use data to tell stories,” said Rashida Kamal, who has an undergraduate degree in Linguistics from NYU and hails from Allentown, Pennsylvania.
“At Enigma we are committed to helping people understand and improve the world around them,” said Marc DaCosta, Chairman of Enigma. “Narrative-driven, critical approaches to data are an important part of this mission and we are excited that Rashida will be helping us to pursue it this summer.”
“The Brown Institute is thrilled to be partnering with Enigma for a second year. Our journalism students are hungry to tell stories in new ways and this fellowship is a unique opportunity to explore how their journalism depends on and can actively shape basic database design and operations,” said Mark Hansen, Director of the Brown Institute at Columbia. “Enigma has been a joy to work with.”
Established in 2012, the Institute is a collaboration between Columbia and Stanford Universities. Our mission is simple: Sponsor thinking, building and speculating on how stories are discovered and told in a networked, digitized world. Join our mail list. See us on YouTube.