Thursday, July 26, 2012

Compasses Over Maps

At the Media Lab, I’ve been working on principles that define our DNA and our world view. One of these is Compasses Over Maps. The idea is that in a world of massive complexity, speed, and diversity, the cost of mapping and planning details often exceeds the cost of just doing something–and the maps are often wrong.

We experienced this firsthand during our trip to Detroit over the weekend.

In early July, we announced a new initiative: The Innovators Guild. Our idea was to bring the best and brightest chief innovation officers on a field trip to work together with our students, faculty, and local innovators in a community and do an impactful hackathon. The plan was to do a one-time thing in a bunch of cities around different themes. Detroit was the first on our list.

The general idea—the compass heading—was right, but the details were wrong in many ways.

We knew we had to go in to listen, be humble, and not try to be top down and prescriptive, but we were surprised nonetheless.

We met incredible people—smart, practical, passionate, driven, focused—doing amazing things. These people were tired of privileged “do gooders” coming in like tourists doing unsustainable superficial stuff and then just taking off or convening meetings and doing a lot of blah blah blah. “Are you here to blow smoke up our ass like everyone else?” There was a lot of baggage and they were skeptical, and rightly so. Detroit is “exciting” in many wrong ways to people who want to “help.”

But before we innovated on anything, we needed to listen and build trust. We realized immediately that to do that we had to think long term and in a sustainable way, while working closely with the people on the ground. This wouldn’t be just a three-day hackathon, but rather a long-term project connecting us to a network of networks in Detroit.

Urban Farm
Brother Nature Farm in Detroit | Joi Ito Photo | CC BY 2.0

We were amazed and humbled by the complexity of Detroit’s various networks, as well as their tensions and cohesion. Once we started making individual connections, we found that beneath the skepticism was a passion and cautious excitement. We discovered that there were definitely connections that could be cultivated into real relationships where we would learn, share, build, and grow together.

Greg of Brother Nature Farm | Joi Ito Photo | CC BY 2.0

One of these relationships is with Jeff Sturges, our guide on the ground in Detroit. Jeff runs the Mt. Elliott Makerspace in the basement of Church of the Messiah, and is just the first of many like-minded, creative individuals we anticipate inviting to the Media Lab as part of an ongoing collaboration.

We are super excited about the future of the Innovators Guild and our engagement in Detroit. And while our map was wrong, we listened and pivoted to this new plan, which I think is even more exciting. We returned to Boston completely energized and inspired, and can’t wait to go back to Detroit with more of our team to see what kind of work we can do with our new friends.

Joi Ito is director of the Media Lab.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Understanding the Global Rise of Citizen Media: Nairobi Trip Report

Witnessing the passionate enthusiasm of others is one of my great pleasures. The Center for Civic Media trip to Nairobi for the Global Voices Summit offered this delight in abundance. It has also given me a sober and urgent picture of the crucial importance of citizen media in society.

The summit was an amazing five-day gathering of bloggers, translators, and academics who care about blogs and citizen media around the world. For the first few days, as Global Voices working groups developed ideas for the future of their community, an academic conference organized by Zeynep Tufekci discussed the Internet and social change. After a day of rest and safari, we reconvened for a remarkable two-day conference, a public celebration and reflection on the promise and challenges of citizen media around the world.

Matt Stempeck and I were privileged to blog many of the public conversations:
Do also check out the Global Voices podcast on the summit by Jamillah Knowles.
IMG_0205 Academic Workshop #GV2012 "Elephant Plaza" at #GV2012 Global Voices Group Photo #GV2012 Untitled Coffe Break #GV2012
(Photos by the Global Voices community)

The trip to Nairobi has challenged me to rethink what it means to be a maker and an academic among journalists and activists. Before joining the Media Lab, I could rapidly jump into projects and causes with impunity. As a grad student, I move more slowly, seeking broader questions than the needs of the moment. This also happens with making as I filter my hunches for the ones that have broad relevance.

That's a good thing. One of the most amazing moments in the summit occurred during a joint gathering of the academics with the Global Voices community. After introducing ourselves, we asked the bloggers, activists, and translators to tell us what questions they think we should research. As I listened to their questions, I was moved by their passion and urgency. We academics can easily become distracted by the inside game of measuring our work by citation, remarking with a resigned sigh that the outside world is uninterested. The Global Voices community was telling us that they care deeply about the work that we do, and that we should focus on issues that matter to our world.

Making technology does open up special opportunities. Ethan sometimes jokes that Media Lab students communicate via the medium of the demo. At the Global Voices Summit, I did just that. I have been studying who gets quoted and whose voices are amplified most by the media. To learn from the Global Voices community, I developed a datavisualisation of social quotation on Global Voices and demoed it during the summit's Dataviz panel. Using the quantitative data as a starting point for conversation, I'm having fascinating discussions with the community.

In-between the conference, Ethan, Matt, and I also researched an open hardware idea we're playing with: a technology for energy-scarce settings that enables people to sell power to their neighbors. Ethan has written an extended, thought-provoking blog post about the experience.

We owe special thanks to iHub Research, who helped us find test devices and advised us on who to meet. Our friends at Pawa 254 helped us interview people in Baba Dogo, one of Nairobi's slum areas. Parallel to our work, Civic Media grad student Molly Sauter was also in Nairobi, interviewing people for our upcoming project on youth digital activism.

Like many of the Lab's students, I'm traveling this summer. Matt Stempeck is probably in a Matatu somewhere between Mombasa and the ancient Swahili city of Lamu. For now, I'm in London to work on my MS thesis. I'm also preparing to welcome our amazing crew of incoming students. Travel is fun, but there's no place like home. See you soon, Boston!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Zin-Side Out

As part of the Media Lab's visit to the Aspen Ideas Festival, we designed a wine tasting experiment to showcase our technology and explore an important element of human behavior: the desire to conform to popular opinion.
At the Festival's mid-week reception, on a glorious rooftop deck with Rocky Mountain vistas, we set up three tables inviting attendees to taste a pair of red wines. Participants received a sheet describing wines A and B, tasted the wines sequentially (served from masked bottles), and then chose their favorite of the two, circling either A or B on the sheet.
Coco and Ben running the wine experiment
Coco Krumme and alum Ben Waber running the wine experiment.
Eric Rosenbaum photo, CC BY 2.0
A participant samples one of the wines as Ben Waber and Coco Krumme look on.
Micah Eckhardt photo, CC BY 2.0
Our experiment was designed to test whether the perception that one wine was "preferred" or "special" would have an impact on an individual's preference. In addition to the (real) descriptive review of the wine, we added a fake "Robert Parker score" to each of the wines. For half of the participants, wine A had a score of 91 and B of 83; for the other half, this was reversed. In addition, the person pouring the wine emphasized the "specialness" of the wine with the higher score.
At two of the tables, we additionally tested the effect on electrodermal response of priming with the points information, using two sensors placed on the fingers to capture skin conductance. Through a software interface, we recorded response as well as "events" when a person sipped each wine.
Dan explains the wine experiment
Dan McDuff explains the experiment to several interested AIF attendees.
Eric Rosenbaum photo, CC BY 2.0
At the non-sensor table, participants were about evenly split between the two settings (A is promoted as higher ranked, versus B promoted). Using a chi-squared test, we found that people preferred A when it was emphasized at a statistically significant level (p ~ 0.01). However, when B was promoted as having the higher ranking, we didn't find any effect. This suggests that the belief that a wine is special may have an effect on people's preferences: but it also depends on the wine itself.
At the tables with sensors, we observed peaks in response when each wine was tasted, although there was no clear difference between tasting the promoted versus non-promoted wine.
In addition, we found curious scrawlings on several of the surveys, including cryptic arrows, heart shapes drawn around the preferred wine, equal signs indicating the (mistaken) belief that the two wines were the same. A couple of participants tried to argue with us that they had "figured out" the experiment: one person was adamant that we'd switched the descriptions for the wines.
In fact, each description correctly described the tasted wine, for both A and B throughout the experiment. Most people, after they'd tasted the wines, were curious about one thing: what were the wines? We can finally reveal the varietals and wineries: wine A was a Terrazas Reserva Malbec, and wine B a Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel.

Coco Krumme is a doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab in the Human Dynamics group.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Innovating Innovation

Detroit Riverfront

Since I joined the Media Lab a year ago, I’ve been constantly amazed and amused by the tribe of iconoclasts, risk-takers, and renegades here who look to the edges for new ideas. On a walk through the Lab buildings, you'll see–among other things–robotic ankles, smart wallpaper, an interactive ping-pong table, fuzzy robots, and a model of a folding electric car. We call ourselves antidisciplinary, and we’d like to extend this way of thinking and working into a program we've named the Innovators Guild, aimed at bringing together like-minded trailblazers.

One thing I've noticed is that the people in organizations who are the most responsible for innovation are frequently working alone–and they're lonely. When you're the person who walks the tightrope between risk and results day in and day out, you need colleagues to bounce ideas off and peers to give a simple reality check: to tell you whether an idea is awesome–or simply crazy.

I'm envisioning the Innovators Guild as a cohort for CIOs and other innovators, a cross-sector network that can work together to make a challenging job a little less lonely, and a lot more fun.

We talked about the idea this morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and we’re still developing the details. As a first step, the Lab has teamed up with Knight Foundation (who will be filming a documentary of this project), and IDEO for our first hands-on activity, an on-the-ground project in Detroit, where we'll work with local innovators to hack out a new possible solution for inner-city food production and think about how to create sustainable systems. In the process, we expect to find new inspiration, make new connections, and engage in hands-on experiences to speed innovation. John Seely Brown, the former head of Xerox PARC and John Gage, former Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems are the two first recruits for the guild who will be joining us on this trip.

We’ll be sharing more details about the Guild in the fall. Stay tuned!

[Interested in joining the Guild? Contact us at innovators-guild [at]]
Joi Ito is director of the Media Lab.

Image: "Detroit Riverfront" | Ian Freimuth | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0