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Archive for the 'What I learned at Berkman' Category

Media Cloud, because media are like weather, isn’t it?


Media Cloud. It’s a tool. It’s a database. It’s a kind of mechanized form of content analysis. It’s chocolately goodness.
It’s raining news
Developed by some of the clever folks at Berkman, Media Cloud takes the output of many many many (1500 so far) news sources, from the New York Times to blogs of all persuasions and parses them using an incredibly powerful free tool from Thomson Reuters with the lovely if mysterious name of Calais. After that, you can use it to ask questions about who’s covering what country, what topics are mentioned most in which media (“New York” is in the top ten for the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, but NOT for the New York Times? hmm) and what terms are used with specific terms (in non-Boston general interest media, the top ten things mentioned with “Boston” almost always includes the Celtics).

The stuff you can try out now on the site is just the beginning – the developers want you to begin to help them imagine the possibilities.

As Ethan Zuckerman explains on his blog and in a video interview at Nieman Labs, one of the reasons Berkman decided to do this was to help people like Ethan (and me) prove to Yochai Benkler and others that the blogosphere’s power is mostly not about initiating original reporting.

I am compelled to put in my own tiny claim (success has a thousand mothers, or however it goes) to a place in the Media Cloud origin myth. Early on in my year at Berkman, I went to talk to Berkman guru Jonathan Zittrain about how to shape my Media Re:public project. He had two suggestions – one was an interesting and complicated idea about the political blogosphere and the presidential election which I rejected instantly not so much because it would have eaten the entire project and not been what Berkman and MacArthur had in mind but because although at that time I didn’t dare admit it, I find political blogs more boring than I can convey in polite language. The second thing that Prof. Zittrain said was vaguer, but much more intriguing. He said – “Don’t just produce another boring white paper” (oops) “why don’t you make something for MacArthur that lasts beyond the project – a gift that keeps on giving. Some kind of tool or something.” I relayed this thought to Ethan Zuckerman, who’d already done some experiments in this area, and Hal Roberts, who was able to conceive of how to do it on a much grander scale. They brought in other folks, including the multi-talented Steve Schultze and the rest is history. Or at least weather. Go, play!

PS it’s not just the name of Calais that’s opaque, try understanding the dense prose poetry below (you downstream reader, you!)
About the Thomson Reuters Calais Initiative
The Calais initiative supports the interoperability of content and advances Thomson Reuters mission to deliver intelligent information. It leverages the company’s substantial investment in semantic technologies and Natural Language Processing to offer free metadata generation services, developer tools and an open standard for the generation of semantic content. It also provides publishers with an automatic connection to the Linked Data cloud and introduces a global metadata transport layer that helps them leverage next-generation search engines, news aggregators and more to reach more downstream readers. For more information or to get started with the Calais API, visit

2007_09_09_bos-iad-lhr069.JPG by doc searls
Uploaded September 15, 2007

Community media in a new light


What can a Haitian radio station teach people about building a successful local news website?

Something about what it means to really be vital to your community.

Imagine a town of 25,000 people (easy for me, I grew up in one). Now imagine that, for whatever reason, there is really only one news source (in the US, until recently, this would often be nearly true of the local newspaper; we semi-affectionately called ours the Piddletown Mess).  Now imagine that one local news outlet (doesn’t matter – newspaper, radio, TV, website) having 200 fan clubs of 10-50 people each meeting regularly to talk about the outlet’s content, contribute money, discuss how they can help. Are you thinking about that? Somewhere between 8 and 40% of all the men, women and children in an extremely poor community volunteering their time and money to support independent local news and information.

I don’t care where you are, that’s serious community involvement!

With my year as a Berkman fellow officially at an end, I’m now focused on trying to bring what I learned there back into my old life in international media development. First attempt at this was in writing a small piece for a publication put together by Internews on community media and sustainability. The Community Media Sustainability Guide: The Business of Changing Lives (3 MB PDF), is out now and although most of the advice is aimed at and examples (except for my small piece) are drawn from community radio, mostly in developing countries, I think it’s well worth reading for anyone working on not-for-profit media online or otherwise in any country. In fact, there are similarities between the struggles to sustain a radio station in Nepal and a cooperative hyperlocal site in New Hampshire. So much of the time when I was at Berkman, I found myself referring to the same discussions about what is needed for small media outlets to succeed that we had when working with local TV in the former Soviet Union:

  • How can low-budget local content best compete against big-buck national outlets?
  • Should we try to be a one-stop shop, including (or linking to) national/international news or should we focus on original, local content?
  • How do you go beyond your instinct or the comments from your friends and family to learn what your audience is really interested in?
  • How do you achieve the critical mass needed to attract advertisers?
  • What kind of partnerships might bring in useful content or new audiences without threatening your independence or credibility?

I hope this community media guide starts some conversations about how media outlets of different kinds in  in radically different communities might actually have experiences to share with each other. Naturally, as I post this I’m listening to my favorite community radio, even though it’s not my community,’s weird and wonderful mix of talk and music.

TED envy, 2009 edition


For the second time since I started my wonderful year at the Berkman Center, I’m devouring my friend Ethan Zuckerman‘s blogposts about the TED conference. (He was delayed getting there by travel nightmares; Erik Hersman did a great job standing in for him on the first day or so.)

Now that I’m back in the world of grant-funded international media development, one of the things I hope to hold onto from my year as Alice in cyberland is the amazing tradition of eclecticism, openness to new ideas and generosity I found among the people I met at and through Berkman. TED is the epitome of this. I’ve never been to TED, but from what I’ve heard and read, it’s an inspirational event where super-smart people from an amazing range of fields talk about what they know, think, do.

A quick selection of quotes from the more than 20,000 words in the 30+ TED 2009 posts on Ethan’s blog gives a hint of what we missed:

“There is no such thing as a viable democracy of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.”

Ariely filled fridges at MIT with coke cans and tracked their disappearance… and also put in plates containing six dollar bills. The half-life of the coke was very short, and very long for the bills.

Hunting bushmeat means lots of blood contact between hunters and their primate prey.

Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline and the owner of a legendary library, … tells us that the desire for people to learn English is now approaching mania state much as Beatlemania, sports manias or religious manias have swept through populations.

We see a video of a wooden rollercoaster made by eight year-olds.

Ueli Gegenschatz tells us he’s “addicted to air”. What he means is that he’s addicted to jumping off things. He began with paragliding, then moved to skydiving, and eventually to skysurfing – diving with a stiff board allowing him to fall more slowly, and with twists and tricks.

Mary Roach projects a slide titled, “Ten things you didn’t know about orgasms.”

The strategies that get us through childhood alive keep us from growing up.

Willie Smits lives in Borneo, Indonesia, where he works as a forrester and microbiologist. But he’s better know as the guy who saves orangutans.

Don’t worry about octopuses taking over the world – not only is their structure wrong for life outside the oceans, but they have very short memories, appropriate for their short lifespans.

The legs she wears today make her 6′1″, not her usual 5′8″, and she tells us that friends say, “Aimee, it’s not fair that you can change your height.”

Other things I love about TED:

TED is expensive (it costs $6,000 to attend)

TED is free (you can watch and participate online)

TED is a fierce meritocracy (you have to be really good to present there)

TED is egalitarian (they work hard to get people of all kinds)

TED is serious (hey you could win a fellowship of $100k, that’s no joke!)

TED is silly (I just registered, was offered the chance to identify myself as “atheist, blogger,foodie”)

Let me clear – I’m not saying that people in development or nonprofits aren’t openminded or creative but after a year in Cyberland going to a media development conference (as I did in December in Athens) made me want to hang myself. Even though GFMD2008 was a GREAT conference by the standards of typical conferences (all the right people, some good discussions, very well organized), it could not come close to the chaotic, creative juiciness of the Knight Digital New Challenge gathering (which Ethan liveblogged, of course) organized by my friends at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media last June.

Many of the people I work with in media development are dedicated, passionate (even obsessed) about their work, and also fun to hang out with. But like most people they draw lines between stuff they love that they keep separate from work, which must remain serious and serious=dull. Whereas, at their best, my new cyberpals consider that everything they’re interested in may be a learning experience, even when silly, and that everything they learn must belong to the world, just in case someone might need it. They actually work incredibly hard (take a look at the output of people like David Weinberger, Doc Searls and Ethan Zuckerman on their blogs and you will realize how much effort it takes) to share it. They understand that they are phenomenally privileged to have the time and opportunity to meet people and learn about things and they feel compelled to give back.

Anyway, thanks people for a transformational experience, hope I can do it justice as I return to life as an electronic paperpusher.

Images: Aimee Mullins‘ amazing legs; Living Skyscraper, Blake Kurasek