Communications and Society Program
Communications and Society Program
Strategies for Adapting Mobile
to the Civic Sphere
During the roundtable, participants formed three break-out groups, each one representing a different category of mission-driven or nonprofit entrepreneur. These included organizations of a social or cultural nature, journalists and journalism entities, and political and governance organizations. The sessions resulted in each group identifying ways to adapt mobile media technologies to their mission.
Social-cultural forms of mobile media
Participants observed that the cultural imprint on civic engagement covers a wide swath in the mobile space. “It could be arts, health, medicine, community building—there are a host of organizations in these domains that can make effective use of mobile technology,” Mary Evslin said, “but we realized the issue was not with the kids and young people who’d be the recipients; the problem is in the institutions best situated to reach them.”
As a result, the breakout group recommended the formation of pilot projects and initiatives to develop prototype lesson plans and best practices that encourage the use of mobile technologies in creative and positive ways in educational settings and in the public health system.
James Katz of Rutgers pointed out that use of mobile in the classroom remains a contentious issue. “These devices are disruptive, but they’re also beneficial,” he said. Many high schools and grade schools have policies that proscribe the use of mobile devices altogether.
Entrenched resistance to the use of mobile in classroom settings will not be easy to overcome. "There's an institutional fear of technology in the schools, especially mobile," Deb Levine said. "Teachers and administrators have an almost palpable fear of what will happen if we put mobile technology in the hands of students."
Already, advances in wireless applications—such as multimedia, podcasts, speech to text, voice recognition, language translation and collaborative technologies—have shown the value of mobile in classroom settings. Of today’s devices it might be said: This ain’t your daddy’s cell phone. Some of the new mobile gadgets can project images from the device’s tiny screen onto a wall, while others enable users to type on full-size computer keyboards.
Writes Mark Dean, vice president of the IBM Almaden Research Center: “Mobile phones are used in education around the world. For example, in the United Kingdom, grade-school students use cell phones to take pictures and produce videos as part of a geography class, and in Japan university students are more likely to use mobile phones than PCs to read class assignments and collaborate with fellow students and teachers. For many countries, the mobile phone is, and can be, a student's entry into the World Wide Web.” 
Joaquin Alvarado said it would not be difficult to find internal champions to evangelize the proper use of mobile to advance education. "My daughter is 8 and her teacher is 25, and the younger teachers are not fearful of these devices," he said. "We have to get beyond the idea that SMS is mobile’s killer app. It's only the entry point. With the advent of the iPhone, these are full-fledged Internet devices from here on out. So we have to think about the Internet in a mobile context to really understand what the possibilities are."
The group recommended that an umbrella group undertake a limited number of pilot programs with thought leaders in the schools to demonstrate how mobile could be effectively deployed in the classroom to facilitate learning. The pilots should develop from the bottom up as well as from the top down. The output of best practices gleaned from such pilot programs could then be evaluated and shared with other educational institutions and the larger community. “Young people are hungry for this,” Katz said. “We need to tease out the empirical evidence that it works.”
Katz said the goal is to hold out the prospect of mobile technologies “as tools of personal liberation and not to make people into victims of large social engineering schemes. People should have the freedom to use these tools to create civic engagement as they see fit. It may turn out that not all uses of mobile will contribute to civic culture.”
An investment of resources from the community could go a long way toward adapting these ubiquitous devices to serve the public good. “Probably the smartest thing we could do to enhance public education would be to turn mobile devices into magic wands for students, where they can access any number of resources at a moment's notice," Alvarado said. “We can prepare teachers to use them effectively, and we can normalize the use of these resources in the public interest. Media literacy needs to be reframed to be about media citizenship."
Alvarado volunteered his institute at San Francisco State University to serve as an incubator or sandbox for such an effort.  One specific proposal that resonated with the participants was the idea of a simple text-messaging service that connected high school educators with parents to communicate basic information about their child’s progress in school. Call it EdText—a free service that lets teachers transfer updates from any existing learning management system onto their mobile device and then text it to their students’ parents. “That, right there, would catch fire with PTAs and schools,” he said.
The group members envisioned this as a multi-pronged initiative involving software development, a test school, a wireless carrier willing to dedicate services at cost, an existing educational service such as TeacherEase.com , a nonprofit steering group to pull it all together and funding to support it. Jed Alpert of Mobile Commons offered to help develop the application for schools.
Since this discussion, a coalition of organizations including the Institute for Next Generation Internet at San Francisco State University, Mobile Commons, the Bay Area Video Coalition, Applied Learning Technologies of Arizona State University, and the Zero Divide Foundation of California have partnered to bring this idea to fruition. In early March 2008, Alpert and Alvarado launched EdText at the Microcomputers in Education Conference at Arizona State University.
Such an umbrella group should also draw from ongoing pilot programs in the developing world and in the private sector at companies like Boeing, said Susanna Hietala, a manager with the Community Involvement team at Nokia. “There are amazing pilots taking place around the world. Let’s pick the ones we want to replicate, scale the ones that work and build a business case.”
Katrin Verclas suggested that instead of a new pilot program what’s really needed is a meta-analysis of the hundreds of mobile projects that have already been conducted with conclusions drawn about how learnings in one field could be applicable to education, election monitoring or civic engagement. “We're seeing innovation silos,” she said. “What we really need is silo busting to help spread innovation through new distribution channels.”
Once new or existing pilot programs are evaluated, a set of “how-to” tutorials could be assembled and publicized to journals read by school superintendents, administrators, city and county managers and health officials, and then disseminated to the wider public through general circulation publications like Ladies Home Journal and USA Today. “Through these efforts, we can dispel the mythology that mobile technologies are all bad and keep kids distracted, isolated and uninformed,” Evslin said.
EdText is a communication tool that allows teachers, parents and students to communicate more effectively via text messaging. It is a platform that bridges between the classroom and the community by allowing teachers to use a simple web interface to send messages out and receive messages back from the mobile phones and devices of parents and students. This provides an immediate and pervasive connection that does not require a major investment by either the school or the parents and leverages the stunning penetration of mobile phones in the U.S.
EdText was the result of the Aspen Institute Forum Mobile Media and Civic Engagement, attended by a diverse group of community catalysts, entrepreneurs, and researchers who were engaged in exploring the possibilities of mobile communication as an extension of the social space in the U.S. As the conversation progressed, evolved and exploded over two days it became evident that something quite tangible could be forged from the spirit of the convening itself.
On day two the discussion arrived at a question: What simple step could we take to advance the civic and social engagement of communities in the U.S. through mobile communication? The answer was EdText. A team immediately formed from several participants to fund, develop, pilot and begin marketing the solution and within 100 days we had EdText launched. EdText is now being implemented in schools and non-profits in several states.
Prepared by Joaquin Alvarado
Journalism and mobile media
Participants in this breakout group circled around three ideas: the increasing participation of citizens in the news process, the immediacy afforded by mobile media, and the issues involved in establishing confidence and trust in news sources. In the end, the group members came up with two proposals:
• Twitter Posses, which emerge from the interaction between a journalist and a cadre of citizen volunteers via a mobile service or application;
• A graphics-rich Smart News Widget application for mobile devices than can be set to be location-aware or tuned for personalized news.
The first of these proposals is based on the idea of collaborative efforts toward a shared goal, which has its root in several cultures. Jon Funabiki of San Francisco State University referenced a popular comedy in Japan called Train Man, ostensibly based on a true account of a shy blogger who screwed up the courage to go out on a date and used real-time input from his peers about what to wear, what conversation to make and so on.
The idea of using real-time interactivity in covering the news is not a new one, although recent advances in technology make it more practicable now. J.D. Lasica recounted a magazine story he wrote in 1996 detailing John Perry Barlow's vision of being able to feed questions to reporters in the field at an interview or at the scene of a breaking news story. Interactivity—the promise of a two-way dialogue between journalist and reader—was what Barlow held out as a model form of journalism.
The group members, particularly Evan Hansen of Wired News, took that notion in a slightly different direction by proposing the creation of Twitter Posses, based on the popular social network that enables friends to share short bursts of conversation or news. Reporters at newspapers or magazines could begin using the immediacy and interactivity of Twitter (or a similar network such as Jaiku or Pownce) to interact with a small circle of readers. For example, a beat reporter could enlist a dozen or two dozen passionate, driven readers to serve as a kind of brain trust, idea factory or sounding board. Whenever the reporter was about to tackle a big story or difficult interview, she could begin a mobile dialogue with her posse members about what approaches to take or questions to ask. 
“This kind of transparent reporting stands the traditional news-gathering approach on its head,” Hansen said. Wired magazine has written about the idea of “radical transparency,” and the Wired News blogs have a long tradition of readers adding insightful comments to extend and deepen a reporter’s journalism.
“Twitter would allow us to intersect the news gathering process as it happens,” Hansen said. “This could be very exciting. Imagine I'm on my way to interview General David Petraeus and I twitter my contacts in the military. You might get some real gems.” The concept wouldn’t scale to thousands of people, so the reporter would have to keep membership restricted to a small, trusted group of collaborators. Hansen said he may experiment with such an approach on Wired News, and it’s likely that reporters at other news organizations have already begun doing so.
Ken Ikeda of the Bay Area Video Coalition outlined the session’s second proposal for the development of software to run a Smart News Widget on mobile devices. Adobe has been developing a graphical search widget, and that prototype could serve as a model for a service that could quickly and easily summon up temporal content relevant to users’ lives, whether related to their neighborhood, temporary location or area of interest.
“Citizens want to access information from multiple sources that is closely related to their own interests but that also offers both serendipity and a high degree of trust,” Ikeda said. Such a device would be able to tap into not only the usual panoply of traditional media sources but vetted content from alternative media and trusted peers. A new breed of broadband-capable Web-enabled mobile devices is just beginning to emerge with huge opportunities for civic engagement and commercial prospects.
The Twitter Posse: An Experiment in Social Media at Wired.com
Our Twitter efforts, along with a variety of other social media usage, began in December 2007 on the Wired Science blog.
We began with three explicit purposes:
1. to build community, reader engagement, and the Wired Science reputation;
2. to provide transparency in our reporting by letting readers and interested parties know what we were working on;
3. to get scoops from our reader community by asking them what they knew early in the reporting process.
While I think we've been remarkably successful on the first two points, the third—actually pulling stories—has proven a lot more difficult to achieve.
A snapshot of the current situation
I follow 120 people, 220 people follow me. I've sent 421 updates. I now send about 20 Tweets a week. I'm in the process of asking all pitches to come to me via Twitter (Twitches?) and manage a substantial amount of my other newstorrent flow via the third party program, Twhirl, running on Adobe AIR. It's a very important part of the way that I do my job and interact with readers, other writers, newsmakers, etc.
Now, some history: the effort started slowly. After several months, I probably only had 50 followers and only Tweeted once a day.
Part of the difficulty was that I was trying to shovel our readers into using Twitter. Among our readers, a small percentage was already on Twitter, but many of them just weren't interested in incorporating another online tool into their routines. That wasn't going to change as a result of a Wired.com reporter asking them for their help.
In April, things began to change as I came across a group of people—the #Biotwitterers, who had assembled themselves. This set of tech-savvy life scientists has proven very valuable in keeping track of the news bubbling up in the industry. One notable example is that I became involved early with a BioBarCamp, which is drawing together some of the most innovative biologists at the Institute for the Future in August 2008.
My involvement with the group through Twitter has allowed me access to a group of people working at a host of generally closed institutions. I haven't pulled a major story out of the group (which also uses a Google group and FriendFeed, for the record) but they are already turning into a valuable sounding board for ideas and excellent trackers of the news.
A preliminary conclusion
The lesson I have taken from the #Biotwitterers experiment is that it is far easier to buy-in to a preexisting group than it is to try to build my own social network for reporting. In the offline world, this makes a lot of sense: you don't reorder the neighborhood to make it easier to report on, you walk the streets and find the people willing to talk to you.
Building a community takes an enormous amount of work, and any artificial one is likely to need a lot of care and feeding. This has made me rethink the Twitter posse best case scenario. Instead of starting a Wired Science community from scratch, we become a part of the greater community of people in our beats and get to listen in on the good stuff without having to pay the bills or maintenance costs.
In general, I now try to follow only those people who regularly break news or provide interesting commentary. I don't track any of the life-status givers. My total time investment now is about 20 minutes per day.
In total, I've pulled two stories and a handful of blog posts from my Twitter activities, but I've also been alerted to a lot of news quickly and extended my reach within the geeky, young science community.
Prepared by Alexis Madrigal
Staff writer, Wired.com
M-governance and civic engagement
One of the most promising potential uses for mobile technology is its use at the local level to empower citizens to become more active in their communities and in the public square—at the federal, state, county, city and school district levels. Already, demo projects are underway in which citizens use mobile to alert their local governments about problems they encounter in parks, on streets, along bus routes and in other real-world civic spaces.
Participants in the last breakout session looked to the still nascent field of m-governance (m for mobile) as a way to put into place a mechanism to:
• improve feedback loops between citizens and public officials,
• offer the equivalent of an online ticket system that allows stakeholders to track the progress of reported issues from inception to resolution, and
• give people an easy way to report irregularities or attempts at voter suppression in real time during elections.
In the past, citizens have felt disconnected from local government when their complaints about problems in their neighborhood are met with inaction. Today, mobile offers the opportunity to provide the glue that connects all the stakeholders.
“When someone sees a broken swing,” Jed Alpert said, “there’s a connection between the person reporting it from the scene on her mobile phone and a human being identified as being responsible for fixing it. To ensure accountability, there should also be an online clock or widget that measures how long it takes until the swing is actually repaired.”
Ben Rigby held out the possibility that communities of interest could form around local issues in the public sphere, even for something as small as a broken swing. No longer is the swing the concern of a single taxpayer and her elected officials; other residents with the same concern can now be brought together and drawn into the conversation, especially through mobile communities connected through postings and alerts.
J.D. Lasica suggested that local governments should experiment with offering a more inclusive role for citizens and companies. Today’s Mobile Generation is comfortable with the idea of a distributed knowledge network where peers might know the answer to local questions and offer solutions superior to those proffered by government employees. Perhaps the private sector—including businesses, private individuals, media organizations and community groups—could play a greater role in townsquare upkeep or purchasing new playground equipment. “Why not a small placard that says, ‘This swing set sponsored by Cisco’?” suggested Lasica.
Joaquin Alvarado of the Institute for Next Generation Internet agreed: “Commercial donations could help develop hyperlocal economic activity. My neighborhood in Oakland was depressed for years but could have benefited by sponsored solutions driven by the marketplace. A $150 swing could take three years for local government to act on but a local business could step in, sponsor it and get it up in a matter of weeks if it meets certain requirements. One can easily imagine an AdWord system for solving problems at the city level that benefits businesses as well.”
Barbara Cohn Berman of the Fund for the City of New York cautioned that any such undertaking could face resistance from entrenched interests and government bureaucracies. “One barrier is the institutional culture, where the mindset is that customer service is not delivered or expected. That would have to change.”
Mary Evslin pointed out that such an effort would need to be done carefully so that the most aggressive constituencies do not receive undue rewards. “We’d need to build in checks and systems to make sure that we don’t produce monopolies and leave out the needs of the poor, rural areas, old people and the disadvantaged.”
Goals of m-governance
For m-governance to work in a meaningful way, it has to touch the real-life concerns of citizens in their communities—and achieve results. Charlie Firestone of the Aspen Institute laid out three requirements of m-governance for it to achieve the desired effect:
1. Put the customer first in the provision of government services.
2. Achieve greater efficiencies and reach in the delivery of government services.
3. Increase and enhance citizen-representative interaction.
The barriers to problem resolution through local government services are well known and can be summed up in a single word: bureaucracy. But Firestone outlined a new approach, dubbed “competitive representation,” whose goal would be “to enhance the representative’s standing with his or her constituents, promote government efficiencies, better satisfy citizen demands of governments and enhance the democratic process.” (See Firestone's paper "Competitve Representation and M-Governance" in the appendix).
Where local government agencies now try to sidestep additional demands on their limited resources, a system of competitive representation would foster a new dynamic where elected representatives at various jurisdictional levels could compete with each other for the loyalty of the voter through the provision of m-governance or broader e-governance services, he said. The officials, in effect, would serve as navigational intermediaries who cut through jurisdictional red tape and enable citizens to interface with the government agency responsible for remedying the problem. Mobile technology helps extend the reach and scope of such an effort.
In a way, a system of competitive representation would resemble a return to an era when block captains or ward leaders had political incentive to address residents’ complaints and perform constituent services. Abramson said such an approach “would reinject real competition into the system and foster a more responsive government.”
If elected officials can claim credit for such a facilitation role, perhaps through a series of online scorecards, they would have every reason to participate in a system where real-world benefits flow to their constituents. “Politicians are desperate lonely people,” Alvarado suggested. “They can't get enough of this stuff.”
Horizons: Mobile Media and the Public Good
An earlier Aspen Institute report, The Mobile Generation, explored the impact that nearly 3 billion cell phones are having on community, culture and our global economy. Particularly in developing nations, mobile devices are much more than digital communicators; they are used for cash transactions, banking, telemedicine, bartering, news and entertainment. Indeed, a mobile device seems to suffuse its user with an identity that transcends boundaries.
This report has a narrower focus: How are the new mobile technologies being put to use in the sphere of civic engagement? Does mobile augur an era of connectedness that will drive citizens to take part in local causes, improve our communities, engage in politics and advance worthy social movements? Or will mobile drive more dissonance and atomization in our civic institutions, increase our sense of isolationism and unrest, and lead to a generation of self-absorbed social misfits?
One matter on which there is little doubt is that mobile is becoming increasingly a part of our daily lives. By 2010, a projected 81 percent of Americans ages 5 to 24 will own a cell phone, up from 53 percent in 2005.  Already, 35 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds own a mobile phone, and 20 percent have used text messaging.  The new phenomenon of geotagging is just beginning to take off as people assign coordinates to their photographs, news stories and other location-based content, offering dazzling new possibilities for attaching context and meaning to geographic proximity.
As mobile’s reach expands, we need to be careful not to constrain our vision and regard mobile devices as mere cell phones used by chattering high school youths and Type A business execs stuck in traffic jams. In the dawning era of always-on connectivity, we will be carrying mini-supercomputers in our pockets, able to access virtually all the world’s knowledge with a few thumb taps. When mobile truly becomes an extension of ourselves, the frivolous and mundane artifacts of mass culture will tug at us alongside more weighty concerns. But there will be a place here, too, for civic engagement.
Not everyone will find the democratic nature of the new mobile reality reassuring. In this world, people move in and out of ad hoc mobile communities, donning new identities like it’s Fat Tuesday. Others congregate in strange new circles. One of the oddest location-based mobile social networks is called MizPee.com. Members post reviews of public toilets in Barcelona, London, Paris and Rome, with ratings for cleanliness and cost.
As the new mobile era dawns, we are conflicted. More of us are volunteering at schools, food banks and homeless shelters; more of us are participating in civic engagement programs. Millions of us contribute to charitable causes and local benefits. At the same time, too many people feel isolated and divorced from their government and local institutions. As newspapers and media outlets continue to trim costs, coverage of municipal affairs is often the first casualty, exacerbating the problem of disengagement from local affairs. We need a new kind of civic renewal that reflects the realities of the new age.
In the report “Citizens at the Center: A new approach to civic engagement,” consultant Cynthia M. Gibson argued that a true citizen-centered approach to civic engagement extends beyond voting, volunteering and community service. Instead, true engagement manifests itself with the emergence of community-based hubs for problem solving. She writes:
These kinds of citizen-centered and citizen-driven approaches move away from defining and viewing civic engagement as a set of tactics (voting, volunteering, service or organizing) or outcomes (planting more trees or increasing the number of people who vote). Instead, they focus on creating opportunities for ordinary citizens to come together, deliberate, and take action collectively to address public problems or issues that citizens themselves define as important and in ways that citizens themselves decide are appropriate and/or needed—whether it is political action, community service, volunteering, or organizing. 
Now, add to this notion the power brought to the table by the Mobile Generation. There are more than 240 million mobile subscribers in the United States, or four out of every five Americans. What is needed is not a tactical game plan to lure them into sporadic volunteer efforts but a new sensibility that welcomes the Mobile Generation into the civic square—with all the innovative messiness and costly disruption that such a move entails.