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CFCM show and tell: Making Change

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

Ryan Toole is designing a platform called Red Ink, a tool designed to enable secure, collective financial action. He points out that there are existing tools – wesabe, mint.com, yodlee – which unify your online financial information. The bleeding edge in this field is financial tools for collective action – carrotmob, groupon, merry miser, buy it like you mean it.

Red Ink fits into this latter category. It’s a “social financial platform” designed to let you visualize spending at regional levels, in different industries. This is useful information for organizing a boycott – you can show the effectiveness of a collective action by asking everyone to report their purchasing behavior. Similarly, you could get a constituency of people to report on local spending, or just try to negotiate a discount on your local beer spending. The goal for the platform is to be highly private and anonymous, maximizing communications and minimizing private data leakage.

Nadav Aharony focuses on close proximity communications. He points out that we have good tools to send information around the world, but few tools to send things locally. His project – Comm.unity – focuses on connecting devices to one another through WiFi or Bluetooth, independent of central servers.

This vision could be very important for activists, allowing them to spread information person to person. It might also matter to people off the grid, allowing communication in an otherwise unwired village. And for general users, there could be services allowing communication and discovery.

Some of the projects that have emerged from this work are:
– SnapN’Share, a sort of local twitter that works totally off the grid
– Social Dashboard, which displays devices around you, sorted by social trust
– Will It Blend? – A living lab/reality mining approach to evaluating these new social technologies.

Matthew Hockenberry shows off the new iteration of SourceMap, a powerful tool to visualize open supply chains. He shows a bottle of Poland Spring Water and points out that you can figure out where this water actually comes from – a set of springs in Maine. There’s no similar labeling information for a laptop, so it’s hard to know about the Indonesian tin in the product.

With this information, we can consider the carbon impacts and social impacts of our products through supply chain transparency. A demonstration shows the inputs into an Ikea Alsarp bed, including the origins of the wood and steel – this report is published and becomes a resource for anyone looking at purchasing the bed in the future.

Hockenberry’s strongest example is a map of breweries in Scotland, all of which are currently bottled in northern England. By mapping their supply chains, he was able to make an argument for a transition to a central Scottish bottling plant, which might transform the local brewing industry.

Chris Csikszentmihalyi speaks on behalf of the ExtrAct project, a project focused on mapping and countering the ill-effects of energy extraction. Chris asks the question, “How do you unionize a community to oppose outside forces?” He roots his work in Manuel Castells, who points out that local democratic systems have been transformed by global capital and markets.

ExtrAct focuses on energy extraction and its impact on communities in North Texas and Colorado, specifically the impacts of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas. This process is very chemically intensive and is unregulated by federal law. Chris tells us that it’s causing such severe health and environmental damage that we’re seeing communities organize to fight fracturing.

The ExtrAct project started with extensive ethnographic studies in these communities. That study pointed to the landman – a representative of the energy companies sent to purchase mineral rights from homeowners – as a pivotal piece of the extraction system. ExtrAct functions as a “Landman review site, like Rotten Tomatoes or Yelp.com”, trying to address the problems of accountability in the process of acquiring land for mineral extraction.

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