The human search engine

I’m working my way through danah boyd’s recent book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens and really enjoy it.  It describes the Internet in a way that feels like it actually is, situated somewhere between our worst fears, and highest aspirations for technology.  Framing youth through their use of social media also serves to forefront broader dynamics affecting the lives of young people.

In challenging the idea of universally high levels of youth literacy and agency with technology, boyd makes the observation that both youth and adults often have skewed notions of trust around Internet information sources. A simplified version of the observation is this: information users demonize Wikipedia articles and deify Google search results.

Boyd says, one reason for the trust in Google’s results over information in Wikipedia is the idea that an algorithm lacks the bias of human authors or editors.  Young people often lack an educational background that lets them understand how bias also exists in software and that ultimately leads to skills for critical consumption of any Internet information, regardless of the source.

Living with two teenagers, I often see how research projects are not engaging or exciting and how choosing sources feels like a process guided by confusing, unfounded rules rather than critical thinking.

This made me wonder, what would an activity look like that helps participants think critically about information on the Internet and better understand the technology that delivers it? I sketched this idea out, which I call “The Human Search Engine”.

The human search engine

Shout out: this is largely inspired by FreeGeek Chicago’s The Human Internet activity.

The idea of an algorithm is explained, possibly by having one participant or group of participants control the motion of a volunteer, robot style.

Collectively, the group brainstorms categories of good information and bad information listing these where they can all be seen.

Participants  break into smaller groups.  Each group is given or asked to find 5-10 pieces of media that would match a given search query, ideally about a topic of their choosing.

Participants then order the pieces of information in order of highest to lowest quality.  They must then consolidate their reasoning into an “algorithm” that would generalize the ranking of results in their search engine.

Finally, participants reconvene and are given another group’s search query/ results to pass through their ranking algorithm.  They rank the results and then share how their algorithm works.


  • What practices could be used to game the search engine algorithm and elevate low-quality information the ranking?
  • How would you design an algorithm to censor certain kinds of information.

Tithing tied to consumption

A Facebook friend shared this critique of TOMS shoes today and it reminded me that ethical consumerism is kind of a fail in terms of substantial economic or environmental justice.  However, as much as my consumption has serious consequences, often not felt by me, I still buy stuff.  Rather than having my “lesser of two evils” consumption prescribed by producers, I’d like to have my consumption offset by pushing resources to strategies that offer the most leverage toward economic justice.

I image a system that integrates with a service like Mint, or other banking API that calculates a tithe as a percentage of my consumption in certain categories.  This would be weighted based on the harmful externalities associated with a particular type of purchase.  I think it’s really difficult and perhaps dangerous to try to model the actual consequences of consumption, but its still important to have a reminder that consumption isn’t neutral.  After a certain threshold is reached, I’d be notified by the system and could then push the calculated tithe to recommended projects, or some other project of my choice.  As an added feature, I could get recommendations of non-monetary ways (volunteering, taking part in an action, attending a government hearing)  as a way of fulfilling the “tithe”.

One technical constraint is how to get access to my spending data.  I found this Stack Exchange thread about Mint APIs and this mention of an Open Bank API.

On food and cultural appropriation

Craving the Other is an interesting article by Soleil Ho about food and cultural appropriation.  The most powerful criticism of fetishizing foods from other cultures is in the last paragraph of the article:

Over time, you grow to associate nationalities with the quaint little restaurants that you used to frequent, before they were demolished and replaced with soulless, Americanized joints. You look at a map of the world and point a finger to Mongolia. “Really good barbecue.” El Salvador. “Mmm, pupusas.” Vietnam. “I love pho!” When you divorce a food from its place and time, you can ignore global civil unrest and natural disasters (see: Zagat declaring Pinoy cuisine the “next great Asian food trend” this past fall as deadly floods swept through the Philippines), knowing as you do that the world’s cultural products will always find safe harbor in your precious, precious mouth.

Ho worries that  accumulating insider knowledge of the food of other cultures, while continuing to frame it as exotic is a strategy for non-immigrant Americans to “make you look like a more exciting, more interesting person”.  I think this is a valid concern, and certainly a dynamic that non-migrants should be aware of and accountable to, but I think the dynamic of interest in food and culture has another important dimension to consider.

My father, a fourth generation Chinese American, came from a family whose parents pushed hard for their children to assimilate into what they perceived as American culture in Flint, Michigan.  While his parents could speak Cantonese, they never passed this language to the children.  My dad’s uncles owned and operated a Chinese restaurant, but I remember my grandmother meticulously cooking dishes like meatloaf when she came to visit rather than any Cantonese dishes.  I remember my dad cooking dace, using fermented bean pastes and stinking up the house. In retrospect, I think that this was a way that he tried to define and connect with his Chineseness.

Ho describes observing how families of childhood friends would prepare pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw and how she tried to meticulously mimic the rituals around eating this American food in the same way that peers would later watch her to learn how to eat Vietnamese food authentically.  I wonder if most kids who grew up in America, distant from immigrant experiences, even have food traditions like pulled pork sandwiches with coleslaw on them.  My parents’ generation was one that felt the full pressure of the big food industry on American culture.  Many of the meals of their childhoods were ones prescribed by cookbooks from Betty Crocker, Jello or advertisements for canned green beans in Good Housekeeping.  I feel like many of my generation take interest in non-American foods, or regional American foods, outside of their own families’ experience, to try to try have some deeper relationship with food and culture, any food and culture, other than the one afforded them by large corporations pushing a mass-produced, homogenized version of American food.

This leaves us in an uncomfortable space.  Americans whose experience with food has been mediated by a few generations of corporate food production are hungry for having food, and really a culture at large, that feels based on lived experience and not one that’s so heavily prescribed for them.  At the same time, this doesn’t make the food, traditions and culture of migrants to the United States a buffet for us to pick from, out of context, to try to fill the gap left by a lost generation of American eaters.  I think it’s important to recognize the sadness of loss of culture experienced by many non-migrant Americans that exists beneath or alongside a more dubious desire to be in-the-know about the most recently “discovered” or most exotic foods.  At the same time, those of us foraging for meaningful cultural experiences around food need to be act in a way that acknowledges that appropriation of food can be destructive in magnitudes equal to the damage done to American food traditions by corporate food.

Ultimately thinking about food and cultural appropriation makes me feel the same way that I feel about economic and racial residential segregation: angry and sad to be left with a situation where it’s so hard for our best-intended motions to not perpetuate the very systems that left us in this mess.


These are a couple of cultural artifacts that I’ve come across recently that fit in a similar brain space as Ho’s essay.

  • Roy Choi’s Tacos Channel LA And The Immigrant Experience – Really interesting Fresh Air interview.  Choi touches on his experience as an immigrant of trying to find cultural touchstones that felt more American but weren’t necessarily those of White, suburban American culture.
  • The Mind of a Chef: Season 1 – Really entertaining PBS show (I’ve been watching it on Netflix) that follows chef David Chang.  Personal experience with food and cultural appropriation collide.

Big words

Last weekend we lamented the loss of words.
How they were stolen and multiplied and proliferated until they lost their meaning
and power
by those who didn’t understand what they meant
but did
perceive that they had meaning
and power.

I lament these words
stretched beyond their elasticity now floppy and loose
because it feels so hard to find meaning in the first place:
Like the arguments I had as a kid, in defense of big words
,that I can only win in retrospect,
where I would have said,
“the point isn’t to bludgeon you with their size*”
* though I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t that, a little
,”but that it’s amazing to find that one word,
that captures, that encompasses, that makes true
all the contradictions and nuance and confusion of an idea or an experience.”

That lets you escape the feeling that it hasn’t happened until you can name it.
Which I think was what I needed more than profanity*
* the words that didn’t need defended around that time.

And the lost words were like that,
essential to trying to understand something, to figure it out
but fuzzy. Foundational
even though we couldn’t quite pin down what they meant.
They could be two things at once, in two places at once.
but always aware of their presence.
And now their absence.

“A/B testing” the impact of school closures using crime data

This weekend, the Knight Lab is sponsoring a hack day focusing on Chicago Crime Data as made available by the Tribune’s crime data portal and API.

I’m a little wary of crime data first because crime data does not equal a resident’s experience of safety.  It’s easy to think of situations where crimes go unreported, or where increased community cohesiveness might lead to an increase in crime reports.  Second, the way crime stats are framed and parsed by Chicago residents often seems to be alarmist and often further stresses racial and economic tensions in gentrifying communities rather than offering a space for increased community collaboration or developing progressive solutions to neighborhood safety.

Are there uses of crime data that contribute to a different civic discourse? One idea that came to me is based on this current moment where Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is slated to close a number of schools.  One issue raised by critics is the safety of students who may have to cross gang boundaries to reach their new “welcoming school”.  CPS’ proposal to provide resources for students who must attend a new school after their school has been closed, includes an expansion of the “Safe Passage” program which partners with neighborhood organizations to help increase safety for students on the way to and from school. From my knowledge as a caregiver of CPS students and as a frequent news consumer, I don’t have much sense of how successful this program has been so far.  After the closures happen, how will CPS and city residents know how school closures affected students on their way to and from school?

I hypothesize that we might be able to use crime data as one way to see changes in communities after schools have been closed.  I also think this is a general case of “how does crime change along with some policy event”.  I imagine a web platform where residents can define an “experiment” by looking at a specific geography, types of crime and time period.  Crime data would then be compared before and after the test time period to see how crime changed.

In general, I think it’s important to frame these experiments as “what changed” instead of “did this work” because I think the crime data set probably isn’t enough on its own to determine


  • What kind of crimes would be indicators of school commute safety? Or, should we look at crimes from specific time periods before and after school?
  • What methods do sociologists use to do these kinds of comparisons?
  • Which schools/communities currently participate in the “Safe Passage” program

Other use cases:

  • Neighborhood cleanups
  • Proposed city legislation targeting liquor stores
  • “Positive loitering”
  • Negative outcomes for heightened targeting of youth by police

Who’s accountable?

This is another “inspiration” I submitted to the 2013 Knight News Challenge. The original post is here.

Your block has been skipped in trash pickup for the last month! The air conditioning in your child’s public school building doesn’t work very well! Details about entitlement benefits are changing or confusing but you’re not sure who to ask!

There has been awesome progress for helping people identify their elected officials based on geopgrahic boundaries, or reporting issues that are a government’s responsibility, but there is still a gap in identifying the individuals or entities within a structure of governance that are responsible for specific services or information. This creates a frustrating lack of responsiveness, real or perceived, to civic concerns.

Can technology be used to visualize and query boundaries of civic accountability around services, programs, issues or problems in the same way that we can with geographic boundaries? Can this be done in a way that is open, scalable and deployable across government and civic entities?

Categorized as Civics, Ideas

Overflow at civic meetings doesn’t have to mean silence

This is an “inspiration” that I posted as part of the 2013 Knight News Challenge.  The original post is here.

Public meetings are a fundamental means of civic participation in the United States.  However, in cities like Chicago, meetings can be notoriously overcrowded causing participants to have to wait in line, sit in overflow areas or be locked out. In other cases, public comment can be monopolized or sidetracked by a few outspoken participants or tensions (or real threats) can intimidate people from speaking publicly. Economic mobility, physical ability, childcare needs and differences in language can also impede participation in public comment.

Digital technologies offer an opportunity for officials, advocates and journalists to enage people in public comment in real-time, in a physical place, or to connect participants across barries of geography, ability and time.  They also offer a parallel means of public comment that can act as a sort of A/B test for existing forms of public comment. Who participates through digital parallels who doesn’t in the big room of a civic forum? What topics, questions or concerns are surfaced through digital parallels that aren’t raised at the microphone? In this way, communities deploying digital technologies for forum participation don’t aim to replace time-honored methods of civic engagement, but instead gather insight into ways to improve in-person events.

Categorized as Civics, Ideas

Public schools + artist studios, music practice spaces and startup offices

Chicago is filled with grand neighborhood school architecture, but the infrastructure doesn’t always match up with current population demographics.  Schools may be closed due to low enrollment or converted to charter magnets, or if open, have large portions of the building unused.

Schools have space and Internet connections and are often only used during school hours. Schools could rent unused space at an affordable cost to artists needing studios, musicians needing practice space, or startups needing offices.  This tenancy would provide a new dimension of connection between public schools and their neighborhoods, particularly in the case of magnet cluster schools where the student body comes largely from outside the neighborhood.  Bringing more people into the schools on a regular basis offers the opportunity for resource sharing or leveraging the tenants for mentorship or cocurricular activities.  Though these relationships could be formalized, it would be an awesome experiment to see what kind of relationships evolve organically just from sharing space.

Crowdsourced usage help and observations for data visualizations

This is my pitch for the Media Ideation Fellowship.

Project Description

This project would provide a platform for user-contributed usage instructions (“move the slider to the right to see the data for different years” or observations (“wow, DC has so many charter schools”) for web and print-based data visualizations. The project would help make data visualizations and their insights more accessible and provide a body of feedback for developers and journalists to create more usable visualizations. Through a public API for web applications and QR codes and short URLs for print, journalists and developers can integrate the platform into their visualizations.

What problem or issue are you trying to address with this project?

We live in a culture which increasingly fetishizes policy decisions that are “data-driven”.  From the future of publicly-funded education in Chicago to the disconnection of residents from city infrastructure in Detroit, data fills a prominent role in the discourse around issues that profoundly impact our lives. Certainly, data has always driven decision-making by policy makers and evaluation of proposals by the public, and it’s an important part of civic process. The danger is for data to take on a magical quality instead of being framed as a tool that can be used, and abused, in the service of civic problem solving. If publics are to leverage data, we must be empowered consumers of this information.


While researching information about the Chicago teachers strike, I came upon this data visualization about the growth in charter schools, I came upon this visualization:

While a careful reading of the instructions could have told me that this was a map of the US and that moving the slider shows the change in the number of charter schools over time, I just wanted to dive in and was confused. Having more human instructions that say “Hey, this is a map of the US” or “move the slider” and observations like “look how charter schools grew in D.C.  That documentary Waiting for Superman talked a lot about that” seemed like something that should exist.