WeCott, an online platform to act on journalism

WeCott is a tool for investigative journalists to engage with users in creating a civic movement around investigative stories. The original prototype was built by Amy Zhang and friends during the iCorruption hackathon. They envisioned a platform of communities where people could participate in boycotts together – offering advice on alternatives, uploading photos of their boycott, and otherwise supporting each other.

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We (Amy, Wahyu, Alicia, Giovana and Anna) updated the idea in order that WeCott could serve to engage readers based on solid evidences and compelling stories produced by investigative journalists. They could engage not only in boycott, but also buycott or even “vericott” where we ask users to verify a story in their nearest community/neighborhood.

The objective is also allow the participants to offer advice on alternatives, uploading photos of their boycott or buycott or vericott, and otherwise supporting each other. Not only would this make the process more fun and supportive, it also allows people and companies to see the effects of the movement all in one place.

The nail salon exposé published by The New York Times this week is one of the best examples of stories that could generate this kind of engagement. After the first part being published, hundreds of readers wrote to NYTimes asking what they could do, as customers, to help solving the problem. We believe that a tool as WeCott could be perfect to offer some options. For example, people could contribute to create a map pointing salons with bad practices, but also those who develop good practices.

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Why climate change won’t fit in a tweet (a non-assignment)

Updated at 17:10

As a journalist, I’ve written about climate change long enough to know that no matter what is your approach to tackle the issue, you will always face some comment of disagreement. I’ve tried everything: longs stories, short stories, beautiful explanatory graphics, bullet key points, pure scientific stories, stories with the human side. You name it. Still there were always some people insisting in don’t believe in it. Period.

This feeling was reinforced when I heard this 14 year old girl, Erin Gustafson, maintain her disbelief in what she calls as a “propaganda” even after a very long explanation with the best scientific knowledge about climate change available today. I had the impression that she simply chose not accept, even with a professor answering absolutely all her questions.

So I had what I thought a brilliant idea. Reach as many climate scientists and communicators as I could to ask their help with this challenge using a new strategy: a tweet with 140 characters trying to convince a skeptical, denier, disbeliever – whatever name you prefer – about climate change.

My intention was to have a nice collection of strong sentences and then work with them in same graphic way. Following the suggestions of “The Debunking handbook”, I imagined the tweets could be effective for at least two aspects: would focus on the facts and be simple enough to be more cognitively attractive. I also suggested them to use not just science, but also emotions and values in their sentences.

I sent 22 e-mails with the same request to renowned climate researchers at MIT, Harvard, Yale e from some Brazilian institutions as well to a few climate communicators from NGOs. Seriously, 22! Hoping that I could get maybe 10. But the result surprised me negatively:

3 positive answers

1 traditional answer suggesting me some papers, but without a tweet

1 “interesting idea, I will think about it”

1 “ I’d be glad to help but I am dealing with a medical emergency with my daughter”

1 “I’m not sure I can reduce this argument to 140 characters”

1 “If I understand correctly, you are asking Prof. XXX to distill mountains of data into a single sentence?”

I guess the last answer was probably what some of the others also thought because the rest 16  14 people invited to participate in this challenge just decided to ignore me.

In a sincere appreciation to those three (two Brazilian researchers and one environmentalist that were my sources in several occasions) who gave me answers (more than one, in fact), I will share them here.

“Believe in science or not, reducing emissions, pollution, preparing ourselves for severe weather is unreservedly good. It is about your and mine welfare.”
Carrlos Rittl, environmentalist, Observatório do Clima

“The problem with deniers is not lack of information. Some of them are paid for the fossil fuel industry, so their concerns are economical not scientific”
Paulo Artaxo, professor of Environmental Physics, University of Sao Paulo, and member of IPCC

Wei-Hock Soon, scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, claims that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. Released documents showed he has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade.

Wei-Hock Soon, scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, have been claiming that variations in the sun’s energy can largely explain recent global warming. Released documents showed he has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade.

“What about we try to build a sustainable society considering the responsible use of natural resources?”
Paulo Artaxo, professor of Environmental Physics, University of Sao Paulo, and member of IPCC

“The extreme events are getting more frequents. The number of days with temperatures above 34ºC has been growing exponentially since 1990.”
Eduardo Assad, agronomist, Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa)

***

I think my unsuccessful task can at least bring some thoughts for discussion. I wasn’t expecting to explain the entire issue just in 140 characters. But imagine something like a campaign in Twitter. If hundreds of smart people, with strong messages, started tweeting these messages with hashtags like #thinkclimate, #changeyourmind, #climatematters. It wouldn’t just be one sentence, but many. Honestly I think could be a powerful thing.

Of course that by myself, for the sake of this assignment, I could have found hundreds of facts to present here as a truth claims about climate change. Just for the record, for me, one of the most eloquent is this:

2014 was the warmest year since 1880. The 10 warmest years in the record, with the exception of 1998, have now occurred since 2000.

But my intention was to use real people, that dedicate their lives to this issue, to help me think in a different way to convince people. I guess the idea of a tweet may have sound offensive and almost absurd. But what shocked me was to find almost no one willing to try something new. At least not here in a school project.

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Meet Amy X. Zangh: ‘Lurking’ around social media

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One can learn a lot about Amy X. Zangh on the Internet. That if you pay a special attention to the X. part of her name. Another Amy Zhang, writer, author of books for young adults almost fooled me. But then I thought I had never seen that face before. And Amy X. was someone that had impressed me two weeks before I discovered that I would have to profile her for a MIT class assignment. Amy X., I remembered, had helped to create a new tool to track her browsing activity, her movements online.

Forget programs like Rescue Media, the idea of Eyebrowse is allowing “users to be selective about what they track, and then share that information publicly as a way for people to find interesting content from each other and converse with other people while browsing”, she explained in the occasion.

On that moment, I just thought: “so young, so quick-smart MIT material”. And two weeks later I found myself having to discover all about that talented Chinese girl. As a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at MIT CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), Amy made my job relatively easy by sharing online all her professional achievements in the last few years. Knowing about her personal life, however, was much more difficult. A picture in her facebook page again fooled me. Looked like she got married, but she was just all dressed up with her boyfriend in the marriage of some friends, not theirs.

One personal thing is online: her passion for photography. Her Flickr page, with the curious name of “moderngirly”, brings hundreds of beautiful images. But, again, is almost professional. You can see real art, but not exactly Amy.

I figured out later that Amy loves social media, but only to discover what other people are doing. She realized this official “lurking” is what she wants to do as a scientist. But knowing so much about others, of course she couldn’t commit the same “mistake” of reveal herself.

From her blog and personal page at CSAIL, I could track pretty much all her academic life and career so far. She took her Bachelor degree in Computer Science (CS) at Rutgers (The State University of New Jersey), with an athletic scholarship as a tennis player. Then went to Cambridge University (UK) to get a Masters in CS and now is at MIT pursuing a Ph.D. She did a summer internship last year at Microsoft Research, in Seattle, and she is going to the Google headquarters in Mountain View (CA) to do a new internship next summer.

She defines her focus on “human-computer interaction” and following that line she discovered, for instance, how Americans behaved on Twitter and eventually changed their mind about same-sex marriage. She also collected information from activities on location-based social networks in order to characterize urban spaces and recommend certain neighborhoods for tourists.

Amy, 25, was born in Beijing, China, the day before the beginning of the protests that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre, in 1989. “My parents were planning to go to the protest, they were college students, I think that is what all students colleges were doing. Except my mom was pregnant, so she had me instead”, she told me in the following interview. In this Q.A, is possible to get much more of her than the online registers show up.

Why did your family come from China to US?
My dad came to US when I was 3, because he got a research position at Nebraska University. But we were really poor, so he came by himself. My mom just came a year later and I lived with my grandparents for a year or two and then I followed my parents to US when I was 5. We went to Nebraska, then my dad got a post-doc at UCLA, so we moved to LA, we lived there around 6 years. He used to do Forestry research, but during the first dotcom boom, he switched into computers. Then we moved to Irvine, when he started working for Cisco Systems. We lived there for two years, then moved to Texas, my family is still there now since 2000. I left when I went to college, in New Jersey. I like moving around, never lived in a place for long time.

Did your dad influence you to work with computer science?
(Laughs) Maybe… not really. He pushed me to do computer science when I was younger, but I didn’t liked it, whenever he tried to teach me. I think I might have liked it despite him, instead of because of him… even tough he exposed me to it.

Then, what motivated you to study computer science afterwards?
In high school you can take this AP classes, which is basically college credit for high school students. A lot of high school students take it in order to get better college admissions, i mean. I took a lot of those classes, including CS, and I really liked them. Then I joined the high school programing team, we had competitions and it was a lot of fun, I decided that I liked it. Before went to college, I just decided that Computer Science would be my major.

I guess your dad loved this.
Yes, he is happy.

Your Facebook page photo gives the impression to have been taken in your marriage. A friend congratulated you in the comments. And then I got that you are not married. So, who is the guy?
(Laughs) No, I wasn’t getting married. He is my boyfriend. I live with him, but we were just dating. This photo was in another wedding. I met him in the UK, when I did my masters. He and I were in the same fellowship program, the Gates, we became friends and we were friends for like half year, before we started dating. We started dating in UK, then he came back to Harvard for his PhD, I went to New York for a year, we did long distance, and then I moved here.

You describe yourself as focused in the “human-computer interaction centered on discourse and social sharing”. And that you are “interested in designing and building interfaces and systems to improve discourse, collaboration, and affinity on the web, with applications to news, political discourse, and civic engagement”. What does it mean?
What I do is: I study social media, I study data from social media to find out interesting things about people, I build new social media tools, new algorithms for how social media decides to show certain things, or new technics for collaboration, or new tools for showing content or allowing people to talk.

Does it mean you are planning to create a super popular social media, like Facebook, or you are more interested in understanding how people behave in social media?
I think both. Well, I don’t really plan on making something super popular, but something novel, that people try out, and I hope they like it. I think people reveal a lot when they have conversations, they reveal a lot about themselves, their values, their feelings about certain things, so you can learn a lot from that. I always thought interesting the wide variety of things that people just talk about online and I really enjoy reading other people conversations. One of the reasons that I got into this research is because part is centered in discussions online, how to improve them, how can we study them, how can we build better interfaces to make easy having this discussions online. That came out of me because I really love reading them. Whenever I read something, I love to read comments about it, to just see what people are saying about things. I think that is why I got in this whole thing.

It is funny you said that, because everything that I could find about you on internet was not exactly about your values and your feelings, but your achievements as a professional. So, precisely because your are interested in this behavior you act on Internet exactly not revealing yourself?
Yeah, I guess I use social media more to put may professional stuff, specially in Twitter. But Facebook has some work too. I don’t really engage in posting a ton of personal stuffs, pictures, like many friends do, but I really love reading other people stuff.

You are going to Google in Mountain View this summer. What are you going to do there?
I am not sure yet exactly. Probably along the same lines I am studying here, but with Google products, doing some research, like Youtube comments, or Google Store comments, maybe Google plus.

In one of your last papers was examine almost 2 million public Twitter posts related to same-sex marriage in the U.S. states. What did you discover?
Last summer I interned in the Microsoft Research, in Seattle, and one of the greatest thing is that they have access to the entire Twitter firehose, which is all the public tweets ever, tons and tons and tons of tweets. So we were looking, within the American states, how people were discussing same-sex marriage, all the way back to 2011 until today. Several different laws were passing or failing in different states and we could look what people were talking about related to these legislations. We could see how public opinion changed depending on whether the law passed or failed. Then we tried to understand whether we could predict if something will pass or fail depending on how people are discussing it on Twitter. Overall we got a pretty good accuracy, like 85% on 45 events.

What are your projects on MIT now?
One of them is the Eyebrowse. I built a lot of it, but it was not just me, a lot of people built it too. And I am really excited now. Hopefully we will get more users and then we will run some experiments later this semester. We are hoping for a couple of different goals for the project. The way we see this being useful is 1): you can track your own media consumption and sort of audit what you look at. 2) It is useful way to find out about interesting stuff. So if you have data on a lot of people about what they are reading about, you can sort of see like: “oh, tons of people are reading this” or “this must be an interesting article because people are spending 10 minutes on this”. Once you have this metadata it is possible to you can recommend interesting things to read. And 3), having this data you can know, on real time, where people are on the Internet and so you can do things like chat on certain pages, leave comments on pages, leave notes for your friends, things like that.

Several news outlets can already say what their readers are consuming, like the top stories. The difference is that your project could track the entire Internet, not just one site?
Yes. Every media company has their servers that can track their own consumption, but don’t have a comparison with others, for instance. And we don’t believe it should be sold. We will be releasing this publicly. Right now companies can install things in your computer that you are not realizing and checking what you are visiting in the web without consent. And then this companies sell that data without your consent for tracking you. We specifically ask you which pages you want to be tracked. People could use this data to do research or build new things. The point it that nowadays all this power is concentrated in big companies or governments, and scientists or developers don’t have access to this data.

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Past and future of Artificial Intelligence

What does define Artificial Intelligence? Are the researchers still looking for nature or human characteristics to the robots? If not, what are the main goals of AI research nowadays? And where is AI going to?

I had these questions in my mind when I arrived, Monday morning, in a quite empty MIT Museum. A drawing, made with green pencil in a white sheet on the table for children, caught my attention. It is so simple and so enlightening. The idea that robots will help people is behind these researches since the beginning, almost 60 years ago, and still is in the popular imaginary. More than that, we still expect for humanlike robots to be created and be part of our to facilitate our lives.

Read more at Storehouse.

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Giovana’s ‘dear’ media diary

The first thing that came to mind when we received this assignment was to play with the idea of teenager diary. I had just attended a few classes on animation and decided to use the program After Effects as a tool to tell this story. Subjects as the inclement weather, the death of David Carr and water shortage in São Paulo caught my attention between moments lost in e-mail reading and Carnaval songs searching.

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