Cambridge, Massachusetts is a hub of technological innovation influenced by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where academic and technological collaboration fuels the tech industry in Massachusetts. Two centers in particular - the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and the Center for Civic Media at MIT are developing strategies that could benefit marketers and businesses as well as the non-profits and academics that are more familiar with their work.Directed by Yochai Benkler and Christopher Bavitz, the Berkman Center’s stated goal is to identify and engage with the challenges and opportunities of cyberspace. This past week, the center just announced the formation of Digital Asia Hub, an independent non-profit Internet and society think tank based in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, students from the Center for Civic Media at MIT, which is headed up by Ethan Zuckerman, were recently named finalists at 2015 Innovation by Design awards from Fast Company for a student developed publishing platform called FOLD. The innovative platform will help writers easily create interactive, exploratory experiences for their readers.
The Drum's Laurie Fullerton caught up with Harvard Fellow Hal Roberts from the Berkman Center to talk about collaborative work with the Center for Civic Media at MIT particularly the Media Cloud - a platform for studying media ecosystems and the relationships between professional and citizen media, between online and offline sources.
LF: What is the current goal of the Media Cloud tool?
HR: We have been working a good deal on the Media Cloud, which is an open platform for understanding online media content. Our motivation is seeing how online media works for organizations. We are committed to the research of online media and are providing platforms for anyone who wants to use this.
LF: What are some of the most notable efforts where the Media Cloud was useful?
HR: We've done a number of different research projects including online piracy. We brought our findings to the attention of the United States Congress, which widely supported a bill called the Stop Online Piracy Act. However, the bill was ultimately voted down and we wanted to know why. Although Congress was close to taking a vote, which we felt would be favorable, there was a sudden groundswell of activism or actors who reached up to 20,000 people online and surged in. They urged their congressmen to vote the bill down. And the vote did not pass to stop online piracy. It is quite rare for this to happen. We wanted to know how this happened? We could identify actors - but they were not mainstream or bloggers. In the case where it is issue specific like this, we looked to organizations, tech policy or tech industry actors. We are constantly looking at who is influencing the debate. We have tools that look at overall debates and we want to know how these things originate. Most people are interested in knowing - why or how did this get all the attention?
LF: What are some of the uses that an individual can benefit from with the Media Cloud and one of its tools - the Media Meter?
HR: The purpose of the tool - and it is a Dashboard tool available to anyone - is so you can search through stories, words used in media, or where a story comes through and generates attention. We have data that is open and people can connect in. A lot of people want to do research, and other tools are end user and user friendly where individuals can use and get results.
LF: Can you describe who some of the users are?
HR: We have two kinds of users. Those doing large or small research projects. Some are looking at the influences of something like a corporate press release, or academic releases. The other users are often non-profit human rights organizations that use us most.
Human rights organizations might use it to help change the debate. The challenge is whether their campaign is having an impact. We can use social media analytics to help figure that out. At the end of the day, a human rights organization wants to influence or encourage actions to happen. They cannot always determine this by trying to figure out what their website hits were about. We can tell them what happened or whether people saw their report or release but did not share it with anyone on social media, or inform them if these stories did get a lot of attention. We can help them determine the overall shape of the influences.
We use existing tools to analyze and draw a network map. We do that quickly, in a couple of days. Often times the hardest part is having a human eye to look through all of it. It is easy to put out a quick set of data/charts. We find it takes time to come in and check out results. We are always skeptical of emergent systems. Systems are always a bit of a black box. So, we bring the academic team to the mix. We think about it.
LF: As academics, what do you ultimately feel is your most important role?
HR: We are bringing insights and the ability to think deeply about the interchange between democracy and digital media. The business world can benefit from this and we have been moving into the area of public health. We don't want to gloss over the basic question of changing public sentiment and changing the language. We are deeply committed to having an open platform and as academics we want to let people replicate what we have done. We make as much of our data available and the vast majority of it is all open.
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