The Combine

There’s a problem brewing in America: the American way of life is facing an attack which could shred the fundamental liberties and rights enjoyed by its citizens to pieces. This attack is multifaceted, and comes not in the form of boots on the ground, but a misalignment on the fundamental tenets of what is required for free and open society.

Civic participation is down. Mistrust in the institutions which define our society is up, and for good reason; the government is failing to serve and protect it’s people. In the last decade or so, America has seen itself embroiled in seemingly pointless wars, responding poorly to national disasters like Hurricane Katrina, and mass surveillance programs have been revealed that put theories the “tinfoil hat” theories to shame.

Can civic participation and trust be restored? While this is debated, at least one small fact seems true: civic restoration cannot begin without first responding to the attack.

How does one respond to an attack?

With weapons.

Continue Reading…

Mint it Yourself: Making Complementary Currencies More Compelling

Concerns over two particular problems with American society have grown over the recent years. The first and perhaps more broadly evident is the volatility of the economy. The Great Recession and the feeble job market that accompanied it shook the faith that many held in the nation’s markets and financial institutions. An ever-widening wealth gap has not helped to reinstate any of the confidence that was lost, and a government that has proved at many times to be ineffective and often in deadlock has allayed few fears. This wariness of the economy and those who hold sway over it provides a useful segue to the second issue. Civic involvement and engagement in the United States have been proclaimed by many academics to be on a downward trend. There is disenchantment over the government’s ability to affect change and represent ordinary citizens; at the same time, many have also argued that there is a lack of participation in the sort of community organizations that dominated the social lives of previous generations. The purported result has been twofold: hesitation to voice opinions over government channels and the demise of service organizations like the Rotary Club.

While it would be presumptuous to think that both of these problems could be solved in full by the application of a single new program or technology, many of the symptoms exhibited by these systemic failures can be combated on the local level. Communities across the United States have chosen to do this by means of complementary currencies. These methods of exchange are meant to be used in parallel with the extant notes that are recognized as legal tender by the federal government. Though ways in which these currencies are backed, exchanged, and represented vary across different implementations, almost all were established with several common advantages in mind. One of these is that complementary currencies cannot be used in transactions outside of the community where they were issued. This results in the creation of a trade barrier that prevents cash from flowing out of the locality, insulating all members from volatile national markets and promoting the patronage of local businesses. Complementary currencies are also often designed to encourage utilization of the community’s full labor potential and to discourage hoarding of wealth.

Alongside a desire to create healthy local economies is also a push to encourage civil interaction. A notable example of the potential of complementary currencies to spur community involvement is the Fureai Kippu currency used in Japan. Created to tackle the lack of care available to the country’s rapidly aging population, the basic unit of account is an hour of service rendered to a senior citizen. Accumulated credits can then be spent once the holder is themselves an elderly. Another more experimental attempt at using an alternative currency to foster engagement occurred in 2011 with Macon Money. A number of residents of Macon, Georgia received bonds of values ranging from $10 to $100, albeit with a catch. Each physical note had been cut in half before it had been issued; to redeem their notes, holders had to find their missing half. Matching halves were deliberately distributed to neighborhoods separated by physical or socioeconomic distance; the notes themselves, which could only be used at local businesses, bore images of famous historical residents and celebrated town values.

Despite benefits such as these, widespread adoption of complementary currencies is hindered by multiple problems. The difficulty of and time needed to create the infrastructure for a new currency can be prohibitive, and result in a high barrier of entry. Once a framework is established, local businesses must also be convinced to accept it as a form of payment in order for circulation to start. Finally, issues of poor inclusivity prevent digital-based currency systems to be truly egalitarian. In this paper, we propose the outline for an open-source digital framework that can be used to quickly and easily establish a customized complementary currency, as well as possible approaches to bridging both the digital divide and the initial reluctance of merchants. The impacts of different monetary options are also discussed, as well as the positive effects that such a platform might have on the civic engagement and development of the community.

Full paper here.

The Thanksgiving Playbook: A Tool to Combat Denialism and Help You Win Thanksgiving Debates


Habermas’ public sphere is a critical architectural component of democracies around the world. In this paper, I argue that while the public sphere is important, the psychology literature dictates that the public sphere could never have existed as the ideal discursive space ruled by reason that Habermas described. I then argue that the phenomenon of denialism, where large amounts of people reject the scientific consensus on an issue, is the result of an exploitation of these specific flaws in the public sphere. I then propose that we combat denialism through two methods: (1) a bottom-up strategy which involves the construction of a web and mobile app called The Thanksgiving Playbook (TPP) which empowers users with strategies to convince denialists, and (2) a top-down strategy which involves the creation of an anti-denialism public relations organization that creates media aimed at denialists to shift the norms of denialist communities.

Full Text: The Thanksgiving Playbook: A Tool to Combat Denialism and Help You Win Thanksgiving Debates

Civic Data Analysis with DataHub

I propose a platform for civic data analysis based on the MIT CSAIL project DataHub. DataHub is a GitHub for data, allowing users to follow other users and their data analysis projects and fork others’ projects to extend them. It provides an ecosystem of composable applications for data ingestion, cleaning, visualization, and statistical analysis. I argue that DataHub’s centralization of datasets and analyses on a single platform, support for extension of others’ analyses, and emphasis on composability of applications make it uniquely suited – unlike Socrata and other competing platforms – for creating excitement around civic data analysis, which is imperative for a large community to form. Simply put, DataHub lowers the barriers to gleaning insights from civic data dramatically, eliminating the standard challenges of installing a variety of software applications, reformatting data, and more. I suggest a few extensions to DataHub as it appears today, including comment sections on datasets and analyses, news articles about interesting analyses, and a news feed surfacing analyses and datasets that may be of interest to users. I believe these extensions will further solidify the platform as a one-stop shop to be inspired by others’ work and quickly go from idea to execution on one’s own analyses.

Full Paper

Pairwise Empathy: Socio-Structural Interventions for the Networked Public Sphere

The networked public sphere is today’s most active domain of public debate. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and a number of micro-spheres in the form of comment sections on news sites and blogs provide a platform unlike open societies have ever seen. Debate rages on the internet, thanks to significantly open exposure of ideas, and at least the potential of finding ideas far divergent from one’s own. There were hopes early on in the days of the internet that this would usher in a renewed form of deliberative democracy. Unfortunately there are a number of problems with the current form of discourse the internet gives rise to.

Given the right structures, social interaction can lead to perspectives that would not have been likely otherwise. I would argue that these structures have not arrived in the networked public sphere. Simply relying on the lower-level network architecture of the internet and the web in order to create the kind of productive deliberation that an open society needs to function is not enough. What I will describe here is one instantiation of novel structures for a social network, intended to increase respectful deliberation, relegating interactions to a more confined and guided space, trading some of the outright limitless architecture for one with norms encoded in it, so that conversations occur in a protected space and allow a pair of deliberators to hear one another clearly.

Full Paper Here

– Sands Fish  |  @sandsfish  |

Music For Change

Throughout the course of history, there have been so many things that has separated humankind. Whether it was race or language, these man made classifications have mainly been used to further separate humanity. One aspect of human culture that has managed to transcend this is music. Music is one of the most diverse fields yet musicians are still able to come together and understand one other thanks to hearing each other play. It wasn’t until the 20th century that people finally thought to use the tremendous power music has to unite people behind a movement. This case study looks to analyze the ways music has been used to inspire others within three events: the Live Aid concerts, the Honk festivals, and the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. From these events, I would like to learn what each of their missions was and just how efficient were their methods. With this information, I want to propose an ideal strategy that utilizes music to advance a certain cause.

Rest of Essay

WebJD: A Legal Knowledge System with a Civic Purpose


Proposes a new online legal knowledge system that would be free to use and targeted at ease of accessibility. The harms of legal ignorance are explored, and issues of equality in the status quo are raised. The benefits of general legal knowledge for society are also explored and used to motivate the proposal. A legal ontology tailored to this project is established. Some specifics of the system are elaborated upon and analyzed in the civic context. Ethical questions about such systems are posed, and necessary future steps explored.


Silence! Or how can a group of voices help control urban noise

(Read the full project paper here)

There is a buddhist proverb that say “the more you have, the more suffering it will cause”, as one will probably worry eternally about losing the possession in question. When I move to my apartment in Sao Paulo, in 2003, I was not aware of that, but loved the silence around: from the seventh floor, I could hear water running on the street at night. Seven years later, a tic-tac-toe of urban problems poorly handled changed my luck.

Sao Paulo always had a good share of traffic, that gets worse every year. By 2009, the former mayor Gilberto Kassab decided to blame trucks driving around the city during the day for the problems and banned their circulation to a very specific night period. That had an immediate effect on the traffic, of course – that took not much time to come back, as more cars occupied the empty spaces left by the trucks. But the side effects could be felt in many parts of the city, during late night: lots of trucks simply started waiting at the restriction “border” until 10PM and, sometimes a little before that, other times a minute after, started making deliveries all night long until 5AM, when they had to leave again. The system may work on industrial areas, but on residential spaces it was the recipe for problems. That was exactly what happened when a company started to erect a building 12 meters from my bedroom window in August 2010.

After some months complaining and calling the cops late hours, I decided to create a blog and try to mobilize neighbors and other citizens suffering the same problem on different neighborhoods. I called it “Obra Barulhenta” – or Noisy Construction. In two years, I posted more than 50 videos – all gathered in a Youtube channel – and other comments about what was happening. Curiously, it irritated the company – from the WordPress stats I could see their PR office sharing links from the posts – and the workers themselves, that curiously managed to find the site and videos and started posting not so polite comments there. But, for a series of reasons, it lacked civic engagement – although it served as an example for a follower to create a different blog and Youtube channel to complain about his own noisy construction. My noisy karma ended up in 2014 –  I hope -, but the idea of developing a tool to help people with similar problems kept coming back. And it started to take a new shape after the Civic Media classes.

Not having the knowledge to develop the nuts and bolts of an app, I decided to present the project of Silence! conceptually. Roughly, it is a sound collection app – based on another application, called Soundmeter -, linked to a mapping system and a forum structure. The idea is to allow citizens to measure urban noise, compare the numbers with the limits allowed per region and time of the day and map abuses. The forum structure could allow people from different regions, but with similar problems (the noise source – church, bar, construction etc, e.g.), to exchange ideas on how to deal with the situations.

The idea speaks directly to the concept of public spheres defended by Jurgen Habermas. Noise, at least in Sao Paulo, is a problem that affects lots of individuals, regardless of origin, social class, political view and so forth. A loud jukebox on a noisy bar at one of the city’s favelas can be as annoying as the sound of iron bars being thrown at the future site of a new trendy building on a rich neighborhood. The sound pollution, in its own way, removes social and economical barriers and can serve as a way to gather people to pressure the State for a common cause.

The project can also be related to the personally responsible/dutiful citizen concept, as it deals with values and a current law that regulates noise during the day; the participatory citizen, as several complaints on the same noise source may cause people to organize and discuss/act about it; and the monitorial citizen, since the app would require eventual participation as the noise happens. The justice oriented citizen is not a very strong feature in this case, as Silence! has no direct action in discussing traffic restriction regulations or zoning laws, some of the causes of noise. But the forum system may help citizens to organize online and offline, and that can lead to bigger debates.

A slight dose of hacktivism can be imparted to the project, as I have tried on Obra Barulhenta: it is possible to track owners of noisy places/companies on public records, as well as their addresses – and cross the data on the telephone list, to obtain the land lines on their residences. Wisely used, a call in the middle of the night to “debate” the noise can be as surprising as effective.

Civic Coding Collector

Full article(Google Doc)   Prototype Github Repo

Civic Coding Collector (CCC) a tool designed for creating long-term engagement in civic coding activities. It encourage cross-sector (coder, designer, activist; new-comers, veterans) participation around civic coding topics.

CCC focuses on building a space for Digital Civics. It support self-organizing, deliberation, and long-term engagement for DIY/Entrepreneurial citizenship. CCC help builds identities among civic coders, and it solving some problems such as reusing existing work in civic coding activities. It exploits agencies within interfaces such as Google Chrome browser, allows users to create categories to sort out civic coding projects, encourages critiques around projects, creates opportunities for everybody to contribute, and provides incentives of participation through gamification.

CCC allow user to collect Github repositories(repos) related to civic coding. After installing a Google Chrome extension, users can bookmark Github repos in the repos’ project pages by clicking a button. After that, users may add descriptions, add the repo to one of the lists, and discuss with other users.

This project also includes a web backend, allowing users to create lists, reply in discussions, and submit ideas related to civic coding.

Building a Better Chat Room


Chat rooms can be highly toxic. They are the frequent haunt of trolls and spammers. This is especially true for chat rooms connected to live video streams. But chat rooms are also one of the only places where viewers can discuss what they are seeing in real time with a group of people who are all seeing the same thing. Communities form around chat rooms, and they sometimes develop their own unique culture and norms of behavior. This paper explores the problems and potential of chat. I will argue that chat is necessary but problematic, and will articulate a model of citizenship and community that could be built with the help of chat. I will survey existing chat moderation features on several platforms to analyze some of the technical solutions that are used today, and consider the importance of these features in positively influencing the tone and tenor of chat rooms. Finally, I will propose new features that might encourage vibrant, participatory, and civil communities around chat rooms.

Full Paper Here.