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CFCM: Crossing Borders

This post covers presentations at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media at MIT’s communications forum.

Josh Levinger leads off the final session at CFCM’s show and tell, titled “Crossing Borders”. His project, Virtual Gaza, aggregates the stories of civilians who were present in Gaza as bombs fell earlier this year during the Israeli incursion. The project centers on a map of Gaza that shows bombed houses.

The impetus for the project was the lack of media coverage of Gaza, a fact complicated by the fact that there were only 6 international journalists in Gaza during the war. Levinger is troubled by the ways in which the suffering of Israelis and Gazans was reported as equal in US media – he feels like this is a distortion of what happened on the ground.

The project grew from a collaboration with the Harvard Alliance for Justice in the Middle East. Working with a social network, they maped 77 testimonies from 29 authors, mapping 32 neighborhoods in 5 cities. People were able to upload their stories and annotate the map, helping combat the “media blockade” against Gaza by showing personal stories.

The project shows the power of Open Street Map – “in conflict areas, there’s much better data through Open Street Map.”

Josh acknowledges the challenges of getting people to pay attention to these maps. “We never got mainstream media to really pay attention to this.” He hoped to travel to Gaza this summer to improve the maps – that wasn’t possible, so he went to the West Bank, and helped with a project called Voices Beyond Walls, a project that mapped the local neighborhoods through video, drawings and photos.

Aside from improving Boston’s signs, Rick Borovoy is pioneering “microtourism”, a new strategy to build bridges in local communities.

He shows us the photo of a Brazilian restaurant in Framingham in a beautiful old building. It’s very popular with Brazilians, but not outside of the community. Why don’t people go there? Borovoy has talked to Framingham residents and they tell him “the traffic’s bad, it’s not safe – basically, they’re saying it’s not on their map.”

Brazilians rescued the downtown of Framingham, Borovoy tells us, and the downtown of the city isn’t especially unsafe. He tells us that non-Brazilians do go to the library, which is downtown, but tend not to go any further.

Talking to Brazilians, some mentioned that they thought that community members wouldn’t come downtown unless they were literally led by the hand. So they’re leading people by the hand. They’re issuing paper passports that have barcodes – those codes are scanned at sites downtown, and people who complete the circuit – led by Brazilian-American guides – will be send an incentive to come back downtown. The hope is to turn a guided tour to self discovery into a rediscovery of downtown. Borovoy recognizes tourism as one of the world’s biggest industries, and hopes that the process of exploring the other will lead to a joy of discovery in our own communities.

The first microtourism excursion takes place this weekend – I hope for a website shortly after the tour is completed.

Charles DeTar is building a blogging platform for prisoners, making it easy to blog on paper using US postal mail. The project, “Between the Bars: Human Stories from Prison” is intended to fight recidivism. He points out that, with prison populations rising, we’re seeing an even bigger population of ex-prisoners. These people have reduced opportunities for civic engagement (they usually can’t vote), have a hard time finding a job, and face cultural exclusion. This leads to high recidivism rates. But people who retain an identity outside of the bars are much less likely to be recidivists.

DeTar points to Jon’s Jail Journal, an amazing blog started by a prisoner in an Arizona jail. The journal was maintained by sending paper letters and posting them online. The father of the blogger tells audiences that the blog ended up being a lifeline for his son. Citing my work (thanks!) DeTar points to the idea of bridgeblogging and the importance of listening and of being heard.

Between the Bars is a platform to scan letters, post them online and enable communication and commenting within the framework and constraints of the US prison system. At this point, DeTar is working with “prison stakeholders” – families, former prisoners, prison employees – and waiting for approval from MIT’s research review board to start talking to prisoners.