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Ethan Zuckerman, cyberscholar and activist, to lead MIT Center for Civic Media

He will direct MIT's influential group of technologists and academics committed to empowering communities around the globe by inventing and testing civic media tools and practices.
Ethan Zuckerman, the new MIT Center for Civic Media director, is als co-founder of Geekcorps and founder of the international blogging platform Global Voices.
Ethan Zuckerman, the new MIT Center for Civic Media director, is als co-founder of Geekcorps and founder of the international blogging platform Global Voices.

Ethan Zuckerman — scholar of the global blogosphere, free expression and social translation — was introduced yesterday as the new director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media.

The announcement was made at the Center’s annual Civic Media Conference, co-hosted with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

"Since its founding five years ago, the Center has enlisted leading innovators and new technologies in empowering communities through grassroots information experiments. Its work shows that lab-based news technologies can be applied successfully in geographic communities," said Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation, in its announcement. "The Center now aims to build on that strong foundation with new leadership and expanded programming. If it becomes an international hub of civic media, as it strives to, we expect the benefits to radiate to communities everywhere."

Zuckerman has been a longtime fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, as well as a fellow and advisor to the Center for Civic Media. He was co-founder in 2000 of Geekcorps, a non-profit technology volunteer corps, and in 2004 of Global Voices, a global citizen media platform with volunteers in more than 100 countries.

"I'm grateful for the opportunity to continue the exploration of civic media at MIT," Zuckerman said. "I'm excited for the chance to build on the great work done the past four years by Chris Csikszentmihalyi and his team and very much looking forward to the chance to work more closely with new Media Lab director Joi Ito, who's been a key collaborator in civic media projects I've worked on for the past decade."

The hiring of Zuckerman caps the rapid rise of the Center from a 2007 Knight News Challenge-winning proposal by Henry Jenkins, Mitchel Resnick and founding director Csikszentmihalyi into a powerhouse in the field it has come to define. Civic media are forms of communication that strengthen social bonds within a community or create a strong sense of civic engagement, and with its unique brand of tech development — such as on-the-ground partnerships with communities — paired with far-sighted, rigorous academic work, the Center for Civic Media has created groundbreaking projects such as:
  • Grassroots Mapping: inexpensive kits and software for quickly creating and sharing high-resolution maps, an offshoot of which just received a large Knight News Challenge grant to expand its work from balloon-and-kite-mounted camera mapping to creating new methods for collecting community information.
  • Between the Bars: a blogging platform for prisoners, featuring crowdsourced transcriptions of mailed-in blog posts.
  • Lost in Boston: low-cost community signage leveraging resources such as live bus arrival data and local neighborhood knowledge of news and events.
Zuckerman looks both to build on the Center’s successes while leading its work in some new directions, in particular internationally.

"The importance of civic media in documenting the protest movements of the Arab Spring has been a reminder of both the power of digital tools and how little we understand the ways in which citizens, activists, governments, new and traditional media interact," he said. "I believe the Center for Civic Media will be able to contribute both to the understanding of the role and power of civic media in the broader media ecosystem, and build tools that help communities around the world share their perspectives and stories."

The Center is a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab and the MIT Comparative Media Studies (CMS) program and is funded by Knight Foundation, which announced renewal of the Center’s funding yesterday, with a three-year $3.76 million grant.

Zuckerman will work with CMS’s newly announced faculty member, civic media scholar Sasha Costanza-Chock. "I'm particularly excited about working with Sasha," Zuckerman said. "He is committed to understanding civic media through scholarly inquiry and through the creation of activist projects like VozMob," a platform Costanza-Chock developed for immigrant and/or low-wage workers in Los Angeles to create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones.

"Ethan has been my colleague and co-conspirator on many of my most inspiring and important adventures," said Media Lab director Joi Ito. "I'm so excited for this opportunity to work even more closely with Ethan and appreciate very much the Knight Foundation's continuing support for this and so many other world-changing programs.

Added Comparative Media Studies interim director James Paradis, "Having a media strategist and designer of Ethan's talents come to MIT to take the lead in crafting the next episodes of the Center’s story has us all looking forward to the coming seasons. With Sasha Costanza-Chock, joining Ethan as co-principal investigator, our collaboration will have an amazing team to lead the way to exciting new possibilities in civic media."

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