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Civic Media at Sun Yat Sen University – Hal Abelson

I’m on this road this week, in Guangzhou, China, and in Tokyo, Japan, giving a set of talks at academic conferences and to journalistic organizations. My first stop is at Sun Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, where my friend and colleague Jing Wang is the director of the program on Civic Communications, as well as teaching at MIT’s department of Comparative Media Studies. She’s put together a bilingual symposium around questions of civic media and mobile learning, where four MIT profs, and a set of professors at Sun Yat Sen will be presenting some of our current work. In introducing the symposium, she offers a wonderful formulation: “Even though we in China believe in harmony, in academic conferences, harmony is bad news.” Here’s hoping we might have an open enough conversation that we work our way around to some controvery.

Our host at the School of Communications and Design is Hu Shuli, who is both dean of the school, and editor in chief of Caixin Media. In her opening remarks, she notes that while Chinese media is opening up, there is a serious problem with building business models to support serious journalism. As in the west, conventional models for supporting journalism – subscription, advertising – are losing out to a desire for free, entertainment-focused media. There may be more freedom for controversial speech in online environments, but without better business models, we will see the success of “pure business” media that has no attempts at public benefit. Hu Shuli hopes to see he development of new media that’s oriented towards the humanities and towards public development.

Hal Abelson, director of MIT’s Center for Mobile Learning, presents App Inventor, a software toolkit developed by MIT and Google. It’s an extremely user-friendly toolkit that allows non-programmers to build sophisticated applications by joining together puzzle-piece-like blocks of code.

The logic behind ap inventor is to ensure that, as new technology emerges, it empowers people and make them creative rather than just turning them into consumers. The goal is to ensure that the mobile phone, which has emerged in the last five years as the dominant platform for computing, can be a creative space.

AppInventor tries to open up the mobile phone application space, allowing people to make things that are meaningful, personal and useful. Combined with the idea that aps can be shared with ten to millions of people, Hal argues that the joy of personal control can lead people into the world of programming. He shows us a demo program which puts a cat on the phone screen, which meows when you press the button. Simple as that is, he shows a program created by a father which puts pictures of his kids on the screen and triggers the sound of their laughter when clicked. Simple as this is, it allows a creator to build something he has control over and pride in. Hal tells us a story about a young man who built a Harry Potter-themed quiz for his girlfriend – the third question asked the girl to marry him and sent him a text message when she said yes.

It’s not hard to build more complicated programs, as App Inventor opens different aspects of the phone: the accelerometer, the camera, the GPS system and others. Hal shows an application that’s designed to allow you to drive safely by shutting off your ability to send text messsages. When the accelerometer detects that you’re driving, it automatically sends text messages back to incoming messages and tells the sender to wait and talk with you later, then reads the text of the message to the driver.

There’s a great set of applications built by App Inventor users that show the power of the platform. Students in Alabama built a tool to track wild pigs, a local hazard, which stores GPS location and helps naturalists track the movements of the animals. A 14 year old student in India built a pair of applications that lets his parents track his progress on the schoolbus, and allows him to tell them when he gets on the bus. Students in the US built a program called “Tag it”, which lets them report grafitti in their neighborhoods and schedule cleanup events. One of the most sophisticated uses is ComPal, a project that uses an App Inventor-enabled mobile phone to read a medical test strip using the camera.

Some of the most exciting work, for me, is being done by ACDI VOCA in Haiti – they’ve built a commodity price tracker, and relief workers have used the toolkit to build a tool for tracking food distribution.

More that 800,000 users have made 1,800,000 projects thus far… but none of those users are in China, because China blocks Google’s server. Part of Hal’s mission in China is to set up local versions of the App Inventor server so that Chinese users can build and learn as well.