Mapping the Future of Cities & Education

Aug 27, 2010

The following is a guest post from Mark Belinsky of Digital Democracy. What does real-time mapping with New York City public school kids look like? Recently, Digital Democracy was invited to work with 120 young people from all 5 boroughs as part of the Department of Education's "Future Now" program. Having gone through the NY Public School system myself, I jumped at the opportunity to help them innovate. My task was to engage the kids in a conversation about what they'd like to see in the year 2020. Future Now is creating NYC’s Digital Storybook – a citywide youth project about school, community, and dreams. What better way to explore these themes than a mapping exercise to literally add and remove items in their communities and on their streets?

Solar Flashlight & Kazoo created by the students

To give the kids a real-life example of the changes that are happening in their community, we built a modified Ushahidi map with data overlays from the NYC Data Mine and I explained that these are the government’s official data related to spending and therefore allows for the reporting of potential fraud, waste, and abuse, but also for innovative new solutions by identifying the gaps. To make it personal, I asked them what they would do if they knew how much money their school was getting compared to the neighboring school. Not only did that set off a flurry of ideas from the students, but the teachers got pretty excited as well. This already started to show that opening government data can impact the lives of everyday New Yorkers and lead to a smarter city by getting citizens young and old involved in urban planning. Another exercise that I had the kids run through was stating a mock vision: of the year 2020, gasoline would be expensive, the environment polluted, cars more scarce, and so encouraging the city to place a bike rack in front of my office would enable people to bike to work, making the city more peaceful, healthier and cleaner. Plus, if the government thought a bike rack existed where one didn't, I could let them know about their error. In this case, I overlayed "Bike Racks", as a set made available in the Geo Data Catalog. I then asked the students to brainstorm their own scenarios for the year 2020. The kids had a field day dreaming up solutions and adding them to the map. You can visit the website or see it embedded below to see their ideas. When working with young people, it's important to keep in mind their protection and security, and so of course viewers of the site will notice that their personal information remains private. Our Ushahidi lesson plan builds off of our participatory collaborative learning curriculum from around the world, Project Einstein. In this case, it was exciting to see the successes of incorporating a tool that integrates lessons from across different discipline: geography, computer science, economics, math, art, social studies, etc. But each local context reveals new insights for our culturally-specific programming and this case was no different. The biggest problem I ran into was spell-check. I noticed that the students were taking an unusually long time to fill in their reports and after looking into it, found that when students were entering in their main body of information, a line would show up automatically under misspelled words. Every time this happened, students would backtrack and try to figure out the right spelling. This happened so often that I estimate it took about twice the time to create each entry as it otherwise would have. In the places where there was no spell-check, like in the titles, the entries are littered with bad spelling, but they were entered quickly. Our work confronts language problems head on, mainly working with visual media such as maps, photos, videos, etc that can allow people to connect beyond these barriers. It's important to consider language barriers even with native English speakers as well. And in NYC, it's even more complicated, with our students coming from places as varied as Tibet, Thailand, Congo, Madagascar and Brooklyn. "OMG kids are on Facebook!" is one of my favorite challenges that also arose quickly. Two skateboarders had finished mapping their vision for perfect place for a skatepark in their community ahead of the other students and got distracted, finding themselves wandering the internet and logging into Facebook. Instead of scolding them and demanding that they go back to our site, I told them that no other students had added a photo to their posting so could they find the best photo to go along with their post, to make it easier for a politician to see exactly what they had in mind. The hunt was on, and they indeed found a great photo, without another distraction. To me, this is a key aspect to the model of 21st century education - information management. Can students find information that is going to add value to their post. Do they know whether it's creative commons and how publicly it can be used. There are still many steps before getting to that point, but this is a start. Ushahidi serves as a strong tool because the barrier to entry is low, but the opportunity to dig deeper continues. Thanks to the new plug-in architecture, they can even proudly display that skate park on their Facebook wall. While technology access is growing in our schools, so is censorship. These kids were astonished to see their work up and live on a website that is free and accessible to anyone. Increasingly, there is a limit to what they can access due to filters and firewalls, and what they can publish because the media that they're producing has work that can't be licensed, such as the videos they had made about New York that features the song "Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z & Alicia Keys. Due to alleged copyright violations, their work can't be screened to other kids. School banned website lists resemble the ones in Tunisia, a notoriously closed society. To ensure the continuation of the open web and that students are given increasing access to powerful and empowering tools like Ushahidi, Digital Democracy used this instance in our lobbying efforts, testifying to the New York City Council Technology Committee on Open Data. Our testimony, available here, details how free and open source technologies, coupled with open data and progressive 21st century schools can foster positive engagement between students, their government and their community. Whether working with kids or lobbying to government, I'm thankful to be able to use such a flexible and interesting tool to convey the message that technology can be used for civic engagement. And as a native New Yorker, the diversity of ideas, skills, backgrounds and approaches in this project reminds me how much I love this city. I just hope that we stop censoring it and start supporting more of these kinds of initiatives in the future and by 2020.

Future Now Ushahidi Map

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