Know Your Watershed, Mapping Rivers, Mapping Our Commons

Mississippi river upstream sources
Part of my childhood was spent living just a mile from the Mississippi up around Minneapolis.  Screenshot from the US National Atlas Streamer Map

Fresh water is more valuable than oil because humanity can live without one of these. There’s something about mapping water, about mapping rivers, that resonates so well with our online hyper connected lives. Maybe it’s because we take water for granted almost as much as we take all of our social connectedness for granted.

Maps used to be very powerful during the so-called age of discovery when sailing ship design and technology was considered to be cutting edge, when surveying the world was celebrated as a great human achievement even though the purpose was largely focused on exploitation of people and their lands. Mapping then was a tool for innovations in what is possible by regimes focused on greed.

"Americae Nova Tabula" by Hondius in 1640.
Americae Nova Tabula” created by Hondius 11 human generations ago  (in 1640)

In today’s geospatial digital mapping the question we should be asking is, as with any technology, who is making it and for whom? As with the Internet itself much of the mapping technology has come from military usage, and much of the power in mapping today is held by the credit card and banking systems that are tracking our spending in great detail to optimize methods for encouraging further spending and debt. So many of these maps are made by the already very powerful for the increasingly more powerful.

Hudson river upstream sources
I live in NYC, along the estuary portion of the Hudson river. NYC’s water source is under threat of fracking. Screenshot from the US National Atlas Streamer Map

This is why it’s refreshing to see maps like this National Atlas Streamer Map created by the National Geospatial Program of the U.S. Geological Survey that provide some service for all of those organizing to protect freshwater for future generations by fighting the selling off of land rights for fracking, and fighting against policies that enable land usage for industrial petrochemical farming and its toxic effects on our world. It’s maps like these that we should be most excited about that should be celebrated, maps like these can better help preserve and protect the commons that we all share. Check it out, pick a place in the US that you know and care for and look at all of the rivers connection.

Embrace The Mayoral Shift, The Two Decade Old NYC Tech Boom Has Always Been About Bottom-Up Tech Diffusion & Urbanization

Photo via de Blasio’s facebook page

Like the right-wing myth of the broken windows theory, some people who make the FUD-inducing pro-Bloomberg warnings that the NYC tech industry should be wary of not having a cheerleader in mayor-elect de Blasio basically ignore the general social & tech paradigm shifts going on: in this case, since the 1990s, the move to a mostly urban digital networked world.

NYC as a global capital has the tech industry it does because it is famously a socially dense heterogeneous human network, a center of culture, media, and finance. NYC’s tech success is not a result of being governed by Bloomberg, an oligarch, the 13th richest person in the world, and the 7th richest person in the US.

New York’s digital boom coincided with Giuliani’s term and he didn’t claim credit for the force of history but Bloomberg jumped on the bandwagon and with a few welcome tokens tech-washed his way into it according to some ahistorical eyes. Bloomberg didn’t invent the boom and it’s happening regardless of who is in office.

Aside from the global paradigm shift’s fueling by government funded programs that created protocols like IP, TCP, HTTP, and crucial private sector hardware innovations, the real credit goes to NYC’s existing urban culture and architecture that is social by nature of its active free expression, density, mass transit and walkabilty, and the industries already present.

Tech is an easy and important bandwagon for politicians to jump on, just ask Al Gore. All elected officials would be welcomed to support the tech paradigm shift and more importantly guide the wise use of technology in our society… after all we still face the choice of creating a closed libertarian hell or an Open socially responsible tech enabled world.

The various NYC tech subcultures need to talk more about tech ethics, about the value of digital and public commons, about privacy, about enabling more bottom-up civic participation, and about the requisite universal Net access for a 21st Century democracy. With his progressive-tilted ethics de Balsio is oriented more closely to these ideals than we have seen in decades.

How tech diffuses, for who, for what, is largely up to us, emerging from our values and practices. Take this time to reflect on what we’ve considered normal. If you think it’s about the mayor then you’ve been too accustomed to the top-down technocratic culture of the past 20 years of NYC mayorship. In a markedly more open administration NYC is what we demand and organize for. There’s wider input-ouput bandwidth in the system. More nodes in the system are included in the calculations.

NYC is us. Let’s move on. Let’s push the new administration on socially responsible tech policy, that would be truly innovative.

Smart Cities Or Wise Cities?

Smart cities, smart politicians, smart leaders, smart writers, smart journalists, smart policy makers, smart planners, smart consultants, smart authors, smart… people.

When most people use the word “smart” in civic life they are really saying some person: has technocratic or corporate efficiency, or has skillful rhetoric regardless of logic or ethics, or has an exemplary command of status quo worldview. When these so called “smart” people let society down people don’t often ask why. The reason why is that we praise what is “smart” rather than debate what is “smart” and debate who defines what is “smart”, all of which distracts us from asking, “what is wise?”

Digital Placemaking at Project for Public Spaces

Screen shots of recent Digital Placemaking projects in Baltimore, NYC, Denver, and San Antonio
Screen shots of recent Digital Placemaking projects in Baltimore, NYC, Denver, and San Antonio

In the past 14 months at Project for Public Spaces I’ve started up a Digital Placemaking practice, you can read my into post there to find out more on how I’m bringing Cultural Studies, Media Ecology, Open Government, and Agile approaches into Placemaking. We’ve done 5 projects in this time and the value and promise of this community-led online/offline approach is really resonating with the cities we’re working with.

Renewing Networks: Egypt & “Losing Control”

(Image: “Thursday 10 February 2011 – Day 17 Al Qasr Al Aini Street, Cairo as doctors and nurses walk peacefully on one side of the street, others take video from mobile phones in the other side of the street.” photo by sierragoddess. cc-by-nd)

A lot of the recent talk about what’s going on in Tunisia and Egypt, about organizing today, digital media, anxieties about political organizational transitions… this all reminds me of this passage:

“Losing control is more important than trying to gain it. One distinguishing characteristic of the digital world is that power is being pushed to the edges away from organizations and towards people. This shift is good for organizations that need to engage many people in their work; yet to successfully power the edges, organizations have to be willing to lose control.

“Losing control” is a frightening phrase; it connotes flying through space without a parachute or a net. In this respect, social media are kryptonite for people who feel a need to control their efforts too tightly. But the reality in our connected world is that spending energy trying to control what other people do and say is counterproductive.

Organizations still need to be intentional about their efforts, they still need messages and plans, but they also have to expect that people and organizations in their ecosystem will march to their own drummers. More important, imperfectly coordinated efforts can be enormously successful, even exhilarating, as they unfold in unexpected ways.

Only by letting go and throwing off the yoke of control can organizations unleash the power and creativity of many people to do amazing things on their behalf. …”

— Beth Kanter & Allison Fine, The Networked Nonprofit

Some group of outside commentators frame changes like this as “chaos” or fog. But isn’t change the norm in life, and stability the exception often accomplished via some spectrum of repression? As the pre-Platonic adage goes, we never walk through the same stream twice. Where are we? We’re in an “unscripted time,” as Harvey Sarles has said in his essay “Responses To Change“— “a moment in history in which our ideas of the future seem really murky, unclear, unsure”— and what some in grappling with this recognition over the past 30 years have labeled: The Third Wave, The Aquarian Conspiracy, Blessed Unrest, or the Gutenberg Parenthesis.

Those involved in the the Egyptian and Tunisian protests are operating with a new spirit— the spirit of this age we’re in— and are doing amazing work to accomplish simple goals that have been articulated widely and for some time… a social code perhaps most eloquently documented in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and adapted and focused in on for local context. Some people focus on freedom to communicate, or freedom from want, or freedom of representative choice, or all of this and more.  How we’re doing this now has augmented, morphed, or in many ways is renewing long standing ways of human association that have been repressed via the narrow abstraction of printed words.

“Leaderless organization” is another phrase for networks. “Chaos” as used today is another word for networks, often used by idealist print-centered minds who’ve yet to reboot their awareness with actual human communication reality.

What can an organization learn from these recent events? The value of articulating outcomes and improving skills in sharing them, to then learn and co-create with like-minded peers… that’s the positive phrasing of what is meant by “losing control.”

That shock we feel over and over these days?
Sparks from reconnecting networks of human trust.

Civic Social Media – PARK(ing) Day Video

“We now have all these powerful social technologies that instead of using them for entertainment purposes we can use them for civic purposes.”

Been thinking about my product design work on mass collaboration and ongoing sustainability of peoples’ participation. The short video below on PARK(ing) Day includes nice shots of the site which I conceived and was the Senior Product Manager. began as my volunteer project with Transportation Alternatives’ Brooklyn Committee and came to life in collaboration and consulting work with The Open Planning Project, it’s one recent project that’s helped clarify the variables at play in civic involvement and also at play in the cultural assumptions of those working on civic collaboration tools.

In many ways change is needed in the cultural understandings of human nature, the social animals we are, on all sides involved in civic social media from the makers and the participants of this media. More to come on this theme…

For now check the video, the team quoted me and one of my favorite mantras these days, “we now have all these powerful social technologies that instead of using them for entertainment purposes we can use them for civic purposes.” Looking forward to more peers of mine joining in and switching their energy towards these challenges of renewing what democracy & civil-participation means in our networked globe.