Reflections on the Spring 2013 Codesign Studio

The Codesign Studio concluded on Tues May 14. This year we had 8 enrolled students, a mix of graduate and undergraduate students from around the institute, from Computer Science, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Mechanical Engineering and from other universities — Boston University, Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Wellesley. Our partners were Cambridge Community Television (CCTV) and Design Studio for Social Intervention (DS4SI).

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This is the second time I’ve TA’d this class. The following are some observations from the courses in 2012 and 2013 and how these are helping us to reflect and iterate on the structure of the course and how these iterations played out in the most recent term. In Spring 2012, Sasha Costanza Chock was instructor. You can see the 2012 syllabus here: http://brownbag.me:9001/p/codesignstudio. In that class, students worked individually and in small groups with community partners to collaboratively design media and communication projects and the syllabus was a mix of theoretical grounding at the intersection of collaborative design and social justice and hands-on codesign: http://codesign.mit.edu/projects/. Most class meetings were split between discussion of readings to provide theoretical and historical context and hands-on activities facilitated by project groups. In Spring 2013, with Federico Casalegno as the lead instructor and Denise Cheng and myself as TAs, the class worked in 2 groups. In early classes, the class developed an understanding of codesign through investigating existing work and becoming familiar with their partners’ work. This semester, our partners joined us during class meetings and for most of the semester, class meetings began with group updates and were followed by separate group work. You can see the syllabus here: http://bit.ly/codesignstudio2013.

Some of the changes to the structure of the course were made in response to observations about the 2012 course. The goal in making these changes was to create container in which students and partners were able to practice design together and to focus on the projects more than the project development.

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Observation: Building partnerships and to specifying projects takes time
Adjustment: Create project partnerships and identify problems in advance of the beginning of the term

In 2012 students were responsible for forming a partnership with a community partner and identifying a problem or project to work on together. These steps took more time for some groups which meant less time for experimenting and implementing. In order to remove these initial steps so that groups could begin the course instead with developing their working relationships and designing and iterating, we initiated the partnerships and identified problems together before the start of the class.

In December and January, I spoke with a number of potential partners for the course. At the start of the term, we had 3 partners prepared to join the class and I had spoken to an additional two. One of our partners, a student organizing group, was unable to join as we began the term because the people who would have joined our class had classes of their own at the same time.

Of the potential partners I spoke with with whom we did not partner for the class, joining the meeting time weekly was a limitation. Some of these groups are volunteer committees and both making the time to join the class and agreeing on a problem of high priority to address through the class were challenges.

Even with partnerships and problem definitions in place, groups evolve as the term continues developing intragroup working relationships and clarifying project aims as they iterate.

Observation: Class time was separate from group working time, creating separation between conceptual learning and practice
Adjustment: To create one shared space for the processes of learning and practicing codesign, we invited partners to join the class during class time

Feedback at the end of the term from partners was that this format allowed for weekly meeting times that were productive, but that the time commitment was challenging some weeks. It also meant that the groups had enough time to communicate and work together.

Each group included 2 individuals from the partner organizations and as the term continued, the individuals alternated attending class so there was one member present for each class meeting. This seemed to work fine and split the time between 2 people.

Holding the class meetings as a space for both enrolled students and partners did create formal space for inclusion of additional voices in decision making. After the midterm, both groups met with more members of their partner groups. From the midterm discussion, it was clear to the CCTV group that the journalists were a key part of increasing the visibility of the NeighborMedia program. The CCTV group met with NeighborMedia journalists continuously for the remainder of the course. The DS4SI group included the 2 directors of DS4SI in the class immediately following the midterm review and had a clarifying discussion, confirming some design choices and laying out open needs and questions.

One element lost from engaging during class meeting times with project teams was that teams were not explicitly required to meet together in one another’s spaces. In future courses, we should suggest or require that groups work early and throughout the course in the partners’ spaces some weeks and in the campus meeting space other weeks. This will help the group to ground their suggestions and plans in understanding of the partner’s operating environment.

Observation: Concluding projects is difficult
Adjustment: We identified problems and projects with a clear end date, designed for a specific event

In the 2012 class and in our work at the Center more broadly, defining an end-point for an engagement can be difficult. If the work we are doing requires maintenance over time or ongoing administration and management — who will do that work? If the work we are doing together is iterating on existing services and campaigns, how do you decide when the final iteration is? To help ease defining the how the engagements for the 2013 class would end, projects, we defined this with our partners before the class began.

Reflecting on the popularity of hackathons, day to weeklong design and development sessions, we thought about designing the course as a critique of hackathons with a focus on collaboratiavely creating an inclusive design event. In the end, our projects were developed for a specific event, but were not framed as hackathons.

We addressed this when we developed problem statements with our partners. With CCTV, our problem was how to increase the visibility of the NeighborMedia program in time for the 5 year Anniversary event; with DS4SI, our problem was how to make planning processes public as a component of the Making Planning Processes Public event.

New observations from this term
Our midterm review period was a moment that catalyzed collaboration in new ways because it required the groups to share proposed designs and to reflect on how their designs and aligned with the needs and interests of the partners. As a result, both groups met the following week with additional people from their partner organizations to have conversations that generated ideas more consistent with their partners’ needs and vision. I think we can actively create this kind of catalytic moment earlier in the semester by doing early sketch reviews or perhaps just by making this review earlier in the term.

Both teams were very multidisciplinary and the resulting work was an expression of their myriad skills and talents. This class has drawn students from MIT and elsewhere who are developing skills in wide ranging fields. This has led to rich projects in both semesters and is something we should continue to welcome.

Enroll in the Fall 2013 Codesign Course!

We’ll hold this class again in the Fall 2013 semester listed as CMS.362/.862, Tues 7-10pm E15-363. Sasha Costanza Chock will again be the Instructor for the course and I’ll TA. We’ll be working on the design of the course this summer. Please consider signing up or getting in touch if you’re interested!

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Improving the Visibility of Citizen Journalism in Cambridge

This is a post by Karina, Victor, and MC about our experiences in the Civic Media Codesign class. You can find a timeline showing what we did in the class here.

Our group worked with Cambridge Community Television (CCTV) in the Spring 2013 Civic Media Codesign Studio. CCTV is a community media non-profit in Cambridge with a web-based citizen journalism program called NeighborMedia.

Process

The codesign process was incredibly iterative, and went through five stages.

In the first stage, we explored examples of successful codesign – on a broad level, and specifically in relation to issues similar to CCTV and Design Studio for Social Intervention (the other organization the codesign class worked with). We used these examples to define codesign and understand what makes a codesigned project succeed. We found that some of the best codesign projects not only included stakeholders throughout the whole process, but sparked discussions between stakeholders who may not otherwise meet. An element of playfulness and a clear path to involvement were other key characteristics. In this stage, we also engaged in citizen journalism by reporting our own stories using Locast and a participatory planning exercise to experience first-hand the process of CCTV’s NeighborMedia journalists and the Design Studio for Social Intervention.

In the second stage, we split up into two groups and started working with CCTV. We started by talking with Clodagh Drummey (Associate Director of Programs and Development at CCTV) and Susan Fleischman (Executive Director of CCTV) about the problems they wanted us to address. We came up with the rough problem statement that CCTV’s NeighborMedia program lacks visibility even though it is one of the few local news sources in Cambridge. We also met with one of the NeighborMedia reporters, Saul Tannenbaum, to better understand the program.

After establishing the problem, we started to brainstorm project ideas. While we had Susan and Clodagh in each of our classes, most of our brainstorming was done in separate meetings and calls where they were not present. This later lead to a huge disconnect between our group and CCTV. We were brainstorming mostly high-tech projects that involved things like guerrilla projection and drones/copters. We did not discuss these ideas in detail with CCTV let alone work with them to come up with the ideas in the first place.

In the third stage, we settled on our initial idea of a mini news helicopter/citizen journalist team for the midterm presentation. We hoped a citizen journalist could use a copter to record and project interviews with people on the street. We researched how to make this work technically, came up with a plan for building it, and made a draft video to show how the idea would work. This idea was not well received. It was alienating for the CCTV staff because they had not been involved in the development of the idea and it was more of an interesting technical project than something that addressed their needs. The news helicopter was also not a good fit for the organization’s culture and may have sent the wrong message to people interested in citizen journalism (after all, you do not need expensive and high tech tools like copters to be a citizen journalist). Additionally, CCTV did not have the technical capacity to use a copter in the future.

In the fourth stage, we worked with CCTV and NeighborMedia journalists to completely change our idea. We met right after the midterm review to discuss working on a collection of several lower-tech visibility projects like making coasters, stickers, and fliers. We also realized there was an important group of stakeholders we were including even less than the CCTV staff- the NeighborMedia journalists. We met with one of the NeighborMedia journalists, Saul Tannenbaum, during spring break and finally understood that the NeighborMedia journalists and CCTV staff represented different constituencies. We also realized the importance of greater collaboration. Up until that point, we had been talking to the CCTV staff about ideas, but it was presentation – not discussion or collaboration.

We set up a meeting after break with several NeighborMedia journalists, CCTV staff, and our team to discuss the problem and brainstorm ideas for our new project. The problem statement (that CCTV’s NeighborMedia program lacks visibility even though it is one of the few local news sources in the news desert of Cambridge) was fairly similar to our original problem statement, but the ideas were completely different. We continued to consider branding for greater visibility of NeighborMedia on stickers, but also included new ideas. These new ideas were things like campaigns around topics of public interest in Cambridge (like budgets, preservation of a mural, and homelessness) and low-tech ways to engage people in public spaces (like asking what people like most about living in Cambridge and allowing them to record their responses on a poster in a T station).

In the fifth stage, we tweaked our project yet again and finished working on it. After the Boston Marathon bombing, we realized that any public issue campaign would go ignored. In a discussion with the NeighborMedia journalists and CCTV staff, we suggested the Cambridge Responds campaign. Cambridge Responds is a series of articles by NeighborMedia journalists examining Cambridge’s perspective and role in the events around the Boston bombing.

Aside from Cambridge Responds, we made a few other things. We worked with NeighborMedia journalists and CCTV staff to create a NeighborMedia logo/branding. We turned this into a sticker. Additionally, we developed and discussed a list of suggestions for the NeighborMedia website with the CCTV staff and NeighborMedia journalists. We also compiled a list of tools for storytelling in citizen journalism. We passed this list of storytelling tools and the NeighborMedia stickers out at CCTV’s 25th anniversary event. Finally, we made a detailed guide on how to post NeighborMedia articles and use some of these tools.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes the process is more important than the product. Even though our final products were ultimately not as cool or high-tech as our original idea, they ended up being more useful and sustainable for CCTV. And even though we spent most of our time this semester in meetings – at first, internally, and then increasingly with stakeholders from CCTV and NeighborMedia journalists – rather than actually creating products, the process was in the end beneficial to us as students interested in collaborative design. It was also constructive for the CCTV stakeholders and NM reporters, who said that they could not have organized the #CambridgeResponds campaign otherwise and also would not know how to use these new technologies.

In codesign, ideally there should be no distinction between the stakeholders and the team working on the project. We are all one team, not distinct groups working together. Functioning as one team keeps everyone on the same page when it comes to the problem, development of ideas, and the best solution. Once we started working as more of a team with the NeighborMedia journalists and CCTV staff, the process was much smoother and more productive for everyone involved.

And it is a really good that we discarded the drone idea. Otherwise we would be trying to fly drones over Cambridge after the bombing.

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