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Berkman Community Newcomers: Erhardt Graeff

Berkman Community Newcomers: Erhardt Graeff

This post marks the second in a series featuring interviews with some of the fascinating individuals who joined our community for the 2014-2015 year. Conducted by our 2014 summer interns (affectionately known as "Berkterns"), these snapshots aim to showcase the diverse backgrounds, interests, and accomplishments of our dynamic 2014-2015 community.

Interested in joining the Berkman Center community? We're currently accepting fellowship applications for the 2015-2016 academic year. Read more on our fellowships page.

Q&A with Erhardt Graeff

Berkman Fellow and member of MIT Center for Civic Media and MIT Media Lab
interviewed in summer 2014 by Berktern Ebru Boyaci

Before this fellowship, how had you been involved with the Berkman Center?

EG: One of my first jobs in the Boston area after moving here five years ago was at the Berkman Center. I was a research assistant on the Industrial Cooperation Project managed by Carolina Rossini during her fellowship. I focused on mapping the landscape of open educational resources. Later, I moved on to a research position at the Harvard Project Zero studying youth and digital technology use, which coincided with the start of Berkman's Youth and Media project. Sandra Cortesi asked me to serve on the mentorship team during the inaugural year. More recently as part of my graduate studies at the MIT Media Lab and Center for Civic Media, I've been working with the Media Cloud team on Controversy Mapper.

What drew you to work on civic media and technologies? What was the landscape of civic technology when you first became interested in the field?

EG: I came to what is now called civic media / civic technology when I was in college at RIT. I had several great mentors and transformative experiences there. Professor Liz Lawley introduced me to the burgeoning field of social computing, where I started to see the intersection and interplay between social systems and technological systems. Professor Amit Ray asked me to help him study the role of authorship on Wikipedia, which gave me my first taste of critical academic research connecting social theory to an online community and essentially civic enterprise. At the same time, I rose to editor in chief of the student newsmagazine, Reporter, which gave me a taste of the practical side of media and politics.

The landscape of civic technology back in the early to mid-2000s was dominated by the promise of e-government. I studied the successes of Estonia in that space. But it didn't fully bridge back to my interest in social computing and what was happening during the "Web 2.0" moment. I did an MPhil in Sociology at the University of Cambridge in 2007–08, investigating how to connect these questions to social capital and online/offline community building. I was inspired by Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks and the just published paper by Henry Jenkins' research team outlining what he called "the participation gap." I've been doing research in this area ever since.

Your most recent project, Action Path, is a mobile app enabling civic engagement and reflection for its users. What’s happening with the project currently, and what are your expectations for it?

EG: I am writing up the early phase of the Action Path project right now, which focuses on the design of the tool and feedback from potential partners and alpha users. This fall I'm planning to conduct a couple of test deployments in Boston Area communities to see whether my theory holds up in practice with the real goals for citizen feedback on contemporary issues.

It's important to me that the location-based mobile survey tool I'm building reflects a realistic view of both municipal planning processes and everyday user behaviors. This is important for my larger goal of investigating design principles for civic technologies in order to foster civic learning. You could think of this in terms of a ladder of engagement common to community and political organizing. How do we design technologies that scaffold civic engagement for both youth and adults in ways that are appropriate and efficacious? That's the big question.

With Action Path, you are aiming to get citizen feedback on contemporary issues. Does being a good citizen necessarily require taking action? What would your description of "the good citizen" be? Does he/she have particular duties?

EG: I'm open to a pretty broad and multi-faceted definition of what makes a good citizen. The debate my advisor and long-time Berkmanite Ethan Zuckerman and I have been engaging in, however, is less about what is a good citizen and more about what makes for an effective citizen. If there is a duty we keep coming back to, it's monitoring.

In Michael Schudson's book The Good Citizen, he introduces the monitorial citizen as one type of citizen demanded by the practice of contemporary democracy. There are different ways to look at monitoring, which Ethan and I are exploring. Without getting into the weeds too much, experiments like Action Path are about trying to see what types of activities citizens can engage in to produce substantial change and how technology can support those efforts. Just like there is no single category of a good citizen, there isn't a single category of an effective citizen.

That said, we should be able to evaluate the efficacy of a citizen's efforts against what they had hoped to change. This is part of my larger research goal in developing design principles connected to civic learning because ultimately it's not about prescribing duties for good citizens, but identifying a range of tools and approaches that have proven effective for others. Voting and volunteerism have their place here, as do much maligned e-petitions, but social movements and now civic technologists are constantly innovating in this space. The question is: How do we make all of these options accessible to citizens?

What are the main tools and platforms that are being used by you and others for civic technology?

EG: I believe just about everything within the broad category of information and communication technologies has civic technology potential. If it connects you to others or to information, then it can serve a civic role. Mobile technology is fast becoming a key civic technology because of its increasingly widespread distribution and its growing position as a primary computing platform for many users. There is a huge spike right now in the development of original civic technology platforms and apps like Action Path. But I believe the most important civic technologies are the ones used by the most people.

Facebook is a key civic technology. It's being used in explicitly political ways by activists around the world, such as those in Myanmar campaigning for lower SIM card prices. I'm really interested in how we transfer explicit civic technology design into broad consumer technology design; I've started arguing (like Nick Grossman does) that we don't really need more civic apps.  Rather, we need to be making all apps more civic.

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