The Complexity of Detroit

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Most of our ICT4Detroit research team met today at MSU’s Detroit Center. We discussed the results of our network analysis of collaboration among non profit civic organizations in the city, and developing our plans for interviewing individuals in some of the key organizations and projects.

Members of our Detroit Research Team at the MSU Center

Members of our Detroit Research Team at the MSU Center

The major theme arising during the day of discussion was the sheer complexity of the ecology of actors involved in initiatives to support the revitalization of different parts of the city, from the central business district to some of the most distressed neighborhoods. In this context, one ICT initiative does not fit all. It brought home the challenges for collaboration, open data sharing, and visioning across the diverse actors, areas, and problems of such a dynamic city.

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Using ICT to Develop Infrastructure Systems for the “Digital Anthropocene”

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the design and management of society’s core infrastructure systems (which I define broadly to include things like healthcare, education, housing and “money”) in an era marked by several important trends (for reasons suggested below, I refer to this as the “digital anthropocene”):

  1. substantial (and currently destructive) impacts of human activities on natural systems, a planetary phase referred to as the Anthropocene;
  2. continued and arguably mounting evidence that the status-quo dynamics within our dominant political and economic systems are aggravating rather than reducing inequalities in wealth and related factors;
  3. the dramatic expansion in scope, content and functionality of digitally-mediated connectivity among humans and “things” via ever-more-capable information and communication technology (ICT).

To flesh this out a bit, here are some examples of developments reflective of these trends (some of which I’ve already written about here):

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Is Your Democracy Failing? There’s an App for that!

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Well, no, actually there isn’t (at least not yet). But there are some intriguing and potentially important efforts underway to give democracy a much needed boost via Internet-based applications and platforms.

It’s certainly not hard to make the case that some help is needed, and the sooner the better.  A short and incomplete list of problems plaguing the U.S. political system includes campaign finance reform, gerrymandering, the Senate filibuster, voter disenfranchisement, and the apathy and non-voters all this engenders.

Speaking of the latter, one data point recently brought to my attention is that only 10% of California’s eligible voters aged 18-24 voted in the 2014 mid-term election.  That’s shocking and downright depressing.

But it’s not all bad news about millennials and the prospects for their political participation. The potentially good news is that these same politically turned off young peoples are probably the most likely to adopt tech-based tools that can make political participation seem (and actually be) empowering rather than pointless.

The potential of civic tech to enhance democracy was a major theme at the ninth annual Voting and Elections Summit, held Feb. 5-6 at George Washington University in DC, and co-sponsored by Fair Vote, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Overseas Vote Foundation and the U.S. Vote Foundation.

For anyone interested in this topic (and, more generally, in the future of our democracy), I’d recommend the following five videos, which discuss a number of intriguing civic tech initiatives:

The My Voter Account: Your Personal Democracy App, which is being developed by the U.S. Vote Foundation.

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ICT4Detroit: The Role of ICT in Collaboration for Detroit’s Revitalization

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Facing the nation’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, the city of Detroit is emerging as a test bed for initiatives aimed at reversing the city’s longstanding decline. These efforts are coming from a range of sources, including federal, state and local governments, major corporations, startups and startup incubators, social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, non-profits and citizen-driven community groups. While the depth and dimensions of Detroit’s challenges may be historically unique, so too are the opportunities for revitalization-focused communication, computation and collaboration afforded by today’s information and communication technologies (ICT).

The unprecedented nature of both the crisis and the potential power of ICT-enabled responses to it raise a set of questions with significance not only to Detroit’s citizens and businesses, but also to cities facing similar challenges in the U.S. and the world.

– To what extent and in what specific ways are ICTs being used to support revitalization efforts in Detroit?

– How is such usage impacting the success of such efforts, and which of these impacts were intended and which were not?

– Does ICT usage and impacts vary by type of organization and/or by the specific goals and sectors they target for revitalization?

– What combinations of organization- and project-type seem best suited to leverage the power of ICT to achieve revitalization goals?

– How important are leadership and organizational structure and processes in determining how successful an organization and project will be in using ICT to help achieve its revitalization goals?

– In what ways does the use of ICT impact the structure, function and effectiveness of revitalization-focused organizations and projects, and to what extent does this impact vary by type of organization, project and project goals?

– To what extent are obstacles to ICT usage (e.g., lack of connectivity, affordability, digital literacy) a constraint on the success of revitalization projects? And are these constraints particularly problematic for particular types of organizations, projects and goals?

Our exploratory research is initially focused on the role of collaborative networks in the revitalisation of Detroit. This focused project will enable us to refine our understanding of the range of ICT initiatives involved in supporting effective revitalization efforts in Detroit and to develop a richer theoretical understanding of the potential for collaboration network organisations, among other types of initiatives, to develop and sustain healthy economic, social and political systems.

This project is being developed by Mitch Shapiro, Alison Keesey and Bill Dutton in its early phases.

Detroit courtesy of Knight Foundation

Detroit courtesy of Knight Foundation

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ICT4D in Agriculture by Avshalom Ginosar

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Do you have any idea what ICT4DAg is? Well, I have had no idea until I attended a fascinating seminar with Professor Charles Steinfield that focused on his projects in sub-Saharan countries. It was the third Quello/Law School VIPP seminar.

So, all of you are familiar with ICT, and ICT4Ag stands for ICT for Development in Agriculture. And in simple words, Prof. Steinfield and his colleagues study the use of new communication technologies and devices – mobile phones in particular – in rural areas in East Africa. However, they do not study merely the social uses; rather, what is more interesting are the uses that aim at improving agriculture (as well as education, for example) in these poor areas and by that improving their standards of life. For example, providing professional advice, market and financial information, weather conditions, and so forth.

There are three main gaps that prevent a more success in these efforts. First is the huge gap between the developed world and the developing world regarding the penetration of new technologies; second is the gender gap regarding access to these technologies; and third is a gap in access and use of these devices between different countries within the same region (Kenya vs. Malawi, for example) and between cities and rural regions within the same country.

Anyway, there is an optimistic angle to this story as well, and it is associated with the old media of radio and television. Professor Steinfield told us about Shamba shape up, a reality TV program in Kenya, which manages to achieve in a very clever and interesting way the same goal of helping these farmers in their daily life in the fields and at their homes. And there are some other similar radio and television programs such as Rukaa Juu in Tanzania.

There is a lot more to tell about the issue, so if you are interested, search for Professor Steinfield’s publications on this topic.

 

Avshalom Ginosar

Avshalom Ginosar

Avshalom Ginosar, PhD, Communication Department, The Academic College of Yezreel Valley

 

Visiting Scholar, The Quello Center, The Department of Media & Information, The College of Communication Art & Science, Michigan State University

ginosar at msu.edu

 

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