Category Archives: Digital Media Storytelling

The Importance of Audio and Podcasts

The first thing I learned about podcasting was that it is powerful medium. Podcasting is powerful not only because it has the ability to relate complex arguments into digestible bits of information, but also because it can transform those arguments into relatable stories. Rather than shoving statistics at an audience, podcasts can transform statistics about subjects (i.e. the number of people arrested in 2012 in the U.S. on nonviolent drug charges was 1.55 million) into stories about real people who felt the impact of those statistics. The unique ability of audio to highlight the experience of making knowledge can also connect listeners to scholarship in a way that books often fail to do. Podcasts can allow academics to infuse themselves into the arguments they make rather than downplay their connection to their scholarship.

Podcasts – meaning audio uploaded to iTunes – are just one way to use audio to connect with a wider audience. There are many other platforms including WordPress, SoundCloud, and MixCloud that allow you to share audio. Often, these non-iTunes venues allow for a stronger engagement with your audience because they allow users to post comments on audio files. And, depending on your resources, posting at all four of these venues can give you the most engagement.

Making a good podcast requires planning. A podcast posted on iTunes should have a consistent length, release time, and theme to be successful. In other words, if you want a create a weekly interview-based topically connected 15 minute podcast series, iTunes is probably the most powerful platform to gain a strong following. On the other hand, if you want to post interviews sporadically and have audio that varies in length and topic then something like SoundCloud or your own personal WordPress site would probably gain more traction.

Not all good audio projects have to be formatted like a podcast. Projects can vary in length and subject but use the same intro and outro to make the audio files cohesive. For example, the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series uses the same music intro and outro for every episode. We also use that slice of audio for our shorter audio projects that we post exclusively to SoundCloud.

Collecting audio does not have to be expensive, but it can be. Like most media projects, you can make podcasts as expensive or inexpensive as you want. SoundCloud has the hefty price tag of $121.50 per year to upload an unlimited number of tracks. Using services like BuzzSprout, which offer podcast hosting can cost between $12 and $24 a month. You can upload audio to a server and link that file in a post in your WordPress site. Audio files take up a large amount of room so, often, you will have to pay for some type of server space.

You can be scrappy with equipment. Smartphones have the ability to record surprisingly excellent audio. iPhone apps like Voice Recorder HD ($1.99) or the built in Voice Memos can give you high quality audio. If you want to have higher quality audio you can purchase a number of different microphones that plug directly into your computer (I like the Apogee Electronics MiC Studio Quality USB Microphone) or that plug right into your iPhone or Android (I like the Rode SmartLav or the iRig MIC Cast).

Editing can make all the difference. You can use a number of different programs to edit your audio. GarageBand is one of the easier ways to learn to edit your audio. You can record directly into GarageBand or import audio from prerecorded files. It is free to Mac users so it is a great option for beginners. Audacity is free, open source, cross-platform software for recording and editing sounds that is compatible with PCs and Macs. It is slightly more clunky than GarageBand, but is an equally effective way to edit audio.

Length is up for debate. There are ongoing debates about how long a podcast should be. Some say 3 minutes, some say 30 minutes. I say, the most important thing is to pick a length and stick to it. If your audience is engaging with 30-minutes of content, there is no reason to switch to a 3 minute format. On the other hand, if you are making 30-minute podcasts and no one is engaging with them, it may be time to rethink your strategy.

There are many different types of podcasts. One powerful way to weave stories for listeners is through audio interviews. The podcasts and audio that I have produced for JustPublics@365 have mostly consisted of these. I think interviews are most effective when combined with “on the ground” audio, but they can also be powerful in and of themselves.

When JustPublics@365 interviewed people affected by the East Harlem Building Collapse the interviews were edited to have the same intro and outro for every interview in addition to the same music from the JustPublics@365 Series.

Community Conversations – East Harlem Resident Sam Goudif

This method of interviewing consisted of asking the interviewee a series of questions to get them primed for the interview and then recording their uninterrupted story from start to finish. When editing these interviews, I inserted myself only in the beginning and end in order to give context to the story.

When creating the JustPublics@365 Podcast Series, I took a different approach and included my questions in the produced audio. This interview style podcast involved in-depth research and thought out questions, which I shared with the interviewee before the interview. These podcasts are structured in a way that allows for replicability and their format is designed for a structured ongoing series.

Podcast Episode 1 – Michael Fabricant and Michelle Fine

The most important thing is consistency. However you decide to structure your podcast, you should be consistent and stick to your strategy!

Heidi Knoblauch (@heidiknoblauch) is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Medicine at Yale University and JustPublics@365’s program coordinator.

Creating Change with Storytelling

The way we measure impact is changing, whether the “we” is academics, grant makers or activists. Recently, I wrote here about “transactional” and “transformational” metrics.  Transactional metrics are things we can quantify and count, including altmetrics.

Transformational metrics have to do with those qualitative changes that are more difficult to measure, such as collaborative projects, changing the conversation about a topic, or really creating social or cultural changes. In order to measure these kinds of changes, what I argue is that we need more kinds of storytelling.  We do this already in academia, when we craft recommendations, tenure letters, or make our case to a committee for why someone should be promoted. What we do is tell a story about the impact this scholar has has on the field, or the world.

And, storytelling is a crucial part of what makes us human. We have a deep, human desire both to have an impact on the world and to tell stories.

Around the campfire

Given that I’ve been saying this for a while now here, I was delighted to come across this Storytelling & Social Change: A Strategy Guide for Grantmakers (pdf) by Paul VanDeCarr.

Story Guide Cover

This guide compiles the wisdom of more than 75 storytellers, media-makers, community activists and foundation staffers into a comprehensive overview that’s the first of its kind. It’s aimed at grant makers, but of use to other change makers as well.

In a recent post, VanDeCarr notes other, less obvious, applications of storytelling that can create real change, such as Heart & Soulor Marshall Ganz’s “Public Narrative” method, adapted by the 2008 Obama campaign. There are also projects designed to educate the public such as Voice of Witness does with human rights or to advocate a cause such as the grantees of the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Foundation.

VanDeCarr also highlights Nation Inside, a project he works on, which hosts a web platform for activists working on mass incarceration to organize around personal stories. VanDeCarr finds that more and more organizations are integrating storytelling into their daily work as a more effective way to meet the demands of the massive challenges they’re facing.

Engaging with communities to create innovate social change is finding its way into some universities as well. For example, in 2006 the University of Minnesota established an Office for Public Engagement (OPE) to further the integration of public engagement into the University’s core mission of research and teaching.  Part of the conversation that’s happening at University of Minnesota’s OPE includes a discussion about metrics, in other words, how do you tell if you’re successful at “public engagement.” And, sure enough, under their menu item “Impact” are Stories and Videos.

There will be a time, in the not too distant future, in which young scholars, grant seekers and activists, will be compiling videos and multimedia portfolios to tell stories that illustrate their impact on the world. Or, perhaps that future is happening now.


Teaching and Learning with Documentaries in the Digital Era

Young people entering college today have grown up immersed in a multimedia digital environment. Yet, the classroom environment they encounter often reflects nineteenth-century pedagogy of “walk and chalk,” of a lone professor standing in front of a chalk board, professing about their subject. Not surprisingly, emerging research indicates that teens are not engaged by this antiquated mode of instruction.  Moreover, the work force our students are entering demand a different kind engaged learner.

Multimedia Worker

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At CUNY, I’m also honored to have a wonderfully diverse student body. That incredible diversity presents some pedagogical challenges. How do you have a conversation, use examples, illustrate points when people don’t share a common cultural background? Once in a gender course, I tried to use an exercise about the gendering of Halloween costumes only to have it fall flat when half my class reminded me that they didn’t grow up with Halloween and the whole thing still seemed bizarre to them. In another course, the students included one woman who had been a sargeant in the Bosnian army and another who had fled the famine in Somalia.

This set of challenges required more of me as instructor than writing a new lecture or getting students to put their chairs in a circle. We needed to find a way to have a meaningful, deep discussion about the course material. And, unfortunately, the books and assigned readings were often as much a barrier as they were a gateway to those discussions.

In re-thinking my strategy in the classroom, several years ago I began experimenting with various forms of digital media to engage students in learning the abstract, sometimes difficult, concepts of the basic sociology curriculum. My explorations led me to documentaries, a medium experiencing its own digital revolution, as a mechanism for engaging students, encouraging critical thinking, and enticing them to complete assigned readings.

Nat'l Geographic Documentary Crew



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For at least a decade, educational scholars have urged teaching critical media literacy through popular culture. Popular culture is often an easy pathway to student engagement because it has already captured young peoples’ attention, and then instructors can scaffold more difficult concepts around that interest. The images that drive much of popular culture may be part of the key to this as a pedagogical strategy. Scholars in cognitive psychology are finding that students learn more deeply from visual media (words and pictures) than from words alone (Mayer 2001).

Shifting Paradigms: Docs, Digital Media & Distribution 

Today, there are simply more documentary films in existence than ever before due to the rise in the independent and documentary film industry, widespread use of digital video cameras by the general public, and the rise of documentary-style television. Prominent documentarians such as Michael Moore (e.g., Sicko, 2007; Fahrenheit 9/11, 2005), Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, 2006), and Morgan Spurlock (e.g., Super Size Me, 2004) have experienced mainstream commercial success with the theatrical release of their films. In addition, documentary-style television shows (e.g., Discovery Channel and A&E have re-branded their entire programming schedules around these shows) and made-for-television documentary series (e.g., Transgeneration for Sundance Channel) abound on cable channels. HBO Documentaries led by Sheila Nevins, an arm of the cable powerhouse HBO, has built an impressive archive of documentary entertainment over twenty years, many of those titles concerned with social issues. For instance, in a landmark collaboration between National Institutes of Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, HBO launched Addiction(2007), an award-winning collection of documentary films by some of the leading directors in the field. The ascendancy of the documentary form has led some commentators to suggest that we are experiencing a “golden age” of documentaries.




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At the same time that professionally produced documentary television and films are rising in prominence, the price of digital video cameras and digital editing software are falling, effectively lowering the barrier to would-be documentarians.  The shift from more expensive analog celluloid film stock to less expensive digital video, and the equally important shift to digital editing software, has meant that more people are producing, directing and creating documentaries.  Indeed, digital video technologies are becoming commonplace in American households.

The do-it-yourself digital video technology allows almost anyone to document the most microscopic details of their existence and make them available to the larger public, in effect becoming a new, visual form of memoir. This democratization of documentaries further contributes to their wide availability for the sociology classroom and increases the likelihood that beginning students will have some familiarity with the documentary form. Taken together, the rise in the number and the success of professionally-produced documentaries alongside the DIY (do-it-yourself) documentary and digital video means that today there is an ever increasing array of documentaries from which instructors may choose. Given this greater selection, it is now likely that there is a documentary film that addresses nearly every topic covered in the typical introductory sociology class. Not only is it likely that there is a documentary for each unit in an introductory college class, it is also now possible to acquire said documentaries through a shift in distribution networks.

Distribution networks for films shape the way they are used in the college classroom. Professors have long used feature films as teaching tools in college courses. At least in part, this pedagogical practice was shaped by the distribution networks for feature films produced by Hollywood studios. Conventional distribution networks, such as chain video stores and cable television channels, made feature films widely available to the general public and thus more accessible for sociologists interested in using films in the classroom.

The explosive growth in the production of documentary films means that there are simply more documentaries to distribute.  And, the commercial success of a few of those documentaries released in theaters has made distributors more aware of the broad audience for the non-fiction film.   Most importantly, vastly diversified distribution networks mean that many of the economics of the “long tail” work to the advantage of documentaries without a wide theatrical release.




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According to Chris Anderson’s theory of the long tail, creative products and content of all kinds with a smaller than mass-market appeal can find modest commercial success through distributed networks; so, for example, one can now find obscure tunes via iTunes which would have once been difficult to locate in record stores based on old distribution networks that relied on mass-market appeal.


And, this shift in distribution networks has affected documentaries as well, most notably through the online retailer Netflix which has gained a reputation for distributing relatively hard-to-find documentaries.  In addition, literally millions of short documentary films and clips from longer documentaries are available at no cost through online video portals, such as,, and

Taken together, these shifting trends in digital video technology and distribution networks have led to an increase in the number of non-fiction films being produced, and this increase in the number of films has driven down the overall cost of acquiring documentaries for individual instructors and educational institutions.

Transforming (my) College Classroom through Documentaries

The wider accessibility of documentaries has transformed the way I approach the classroom. Now, I combine documentary films with peer-reviewed articles or other assigned readings around key concepts. My background and training is in sociology and I teach in a public health program, so the content I teach is, broadly, in the area of “medical sociology.”

In courses I design, there is some overlap between the films and the readings, this repetition is meant to reinforce the material for students, as well as provide opportunities for insights about the connection between the films and the readings. In order to highlight the importance of authorship and credibility, near the beginning of the semester I describe for students the process of peer-review for publication and contrast this with the publication process for print-based journalists and for new media journalists, such as bloggers.

In lecture and class discussion, I drive home the importance of peer-reviewed literature and emphasize that this is the research that professionals consult and rely upon for their work. I challenge students to master the ability to find and read the peer-reviewed literature as a basic standard for becoming a college-educated and engaged citizen. As I introduce the first documentary to the class, I revisit the issues of authorship and credibility in visual texts. For each film, I provide students with a “Video Worksheet”  prior to the class the day the film is shown through the a learning management system (e.g., Canvas, Moodle, Blackboard).  Students are required to bring the worksheet with them and to complete the assigned reading before the class. The “Video Worksheet” includes questions about the key concepts, the content of the film, the connections between the film and the assigned reading, and asks about the mechanisms the filmmaker employs to convey their message.

After the film, class discussion – either in small groups or with the class as a whole – focuses on answering the questions on the worksheet. I collect these worksheets and give participation points based on completion, but do not grade them closely for accuracy; rather I rely on the class discussion following the films to drive home the correct answers. Questions from the worksheets are often adapted as exam and quiz questions. The “Video Worksheets” also help scaffold the development of students’ critical media literacy skills by helping them understand the “point of view” (POV) of the director by analyzing the component parts that make up the documentary.

Can you give me an example? 

As just one example of this approach, I offer this example of one of the more difficult topics I cover: medical sociology and race.

Race, a socially constructed category, is nevertheless an important determinant of health. This can be a difficult concept for students to understand. By providing some historical context for contemporary health disparities, a deeper understanding of racial discrimination in the U.S., as well as the ethical violations in medical experimentation can be an effective strategy for teaching this concept. To address this topic, I show “The Deadly Deception” (Denisce Di Ianni, writer, producer and director; Films for the Humanities & Sciences, 1993, 60 minutes), a documentary that deals with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study conducted by public health officials in the U.S. from 1932 to 1972. The film features first-person accounts of African American men who were enrolled in the study and a number of doctors who were investigators on the study – some of whom objected to the study and one white doctor who still defends the study as a worthwhile scientific endeavor. In addition, the film features archival footage and interviews with experts in medical sociology. The documentary is quite affecting and holds up well even though it is now older than most of the students.

For most traditional-aged college students (born around 1995 or 1996) who are unfamiliar with the history of the Tuskegee study, the film is compelling. For an introductory class, the power of this documentary is further enhanced through the assigned readings and there are a number of articles that work well with this film. For an early undergraduate course, “The Tuskegee Legacy: AIDS and the Black Community,” (1992) is a short (three page) article written in easily accessible language. For more advanced classes (and learners), Thomas and Crouse Quinn’s article, “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: Implications for HIV Education and AIDS Risk Education Programs in the Black Community,” (1991) works well as a companion reading to the documentary. Both articles provide a connection between the historical background on the Tuskegee study and contemporary distrust of medical intervention on the part of African Americans. Rather than seeing resistance to medical professionals as an artifact of social isolation, lack of education, or cultural superstition, these readings provide students a way of seeing the deeply rooted, systemic racial oppression that pervades the U.S. and the consequences this has for the lives of African Americans. The film students with an engaging and critical background to the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. and its attendant health consequences. The film also raises important questions about the ethics of medical experimentation and about public health research that focuses exclusively on one racial or ethnic group. The peer-reviewed readings take the background provided by the documentary film as a given, and add further complexity by exploring the implications of this history for the health of contemporary African Americans. Without the film, most students unfamiliar with the history of the Tuskegee experiments would have a more difficult time with the peer-reviewed readings; without the peer-reviewed literature, students who only saw the film might erroneously assume that the lessons of Tuskegee were confined to a remote historical period. The “Video Worksheet” and class discussion build on theses lessons and introduce students to critical media literacy concepts by asking questions about the point-of-view of the filmmakers and the way they used particular filmic techniques to construct an argument visually.

But, is this an effective strategy for teaching and learning? 

I’ve published a couple of pieces on the results of some research I did on how this teaching method works. The shortest answer is: it seems to work well for increasing student engagement in course material. I have a good deal of data (both quantitative and qualitative) on student responses to this method, but perhaps my favorite is this quote from an undergraduate student:

“The videos helped because they were usually taking a stance on an issue, while the text briefly described the arguments/positions. Seeing and hearing video is much better than reading the text because the historical footage, impassioned speeches, and other interviews are relayed with much more clarity. The videos are easier to watch for 90 minutes than 90 minutes of reading the text, so even if the information was the same, I grasped more of it.”

As an instructor, hearing a student say this method of teaching enabled me to “grasp more of it” is gratifying.

I measure the effectiveness of this as a teaching strategy in other ways, as well, such as the number of other instructors who have adopted this method. The wiki I set up to catalog documentaries has, at latest count, received more than 67,000 visitors.

We are living in a different era, one that is saturated by multimedia and students come into the classroom expecting to learn this way, but they are often disappointed. This method of combining visual culture through non-fiction films digitally distributed with traditional peer-review literature as a way of teaching critical thinking provides a way forward.

If you’d like some help getting started using this teaching method, here are some resources:

Happy doc watching! 😉


Interview: Digital Media Activist István Gábor Takács

In our on-going series “Punishment to Public Health,” I interviewed István Gábor Takács who is the Video Program Director with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU).  Takács makes award-winning advocacy videos.


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The drug-policy focused videos he creates along with his colleague Péter Sárosi, head of the Drug Policy Program. Takács and Sárosi created a closing video of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference  (back in October, 2013) that was impressive. The video both reflected on the several days of the conference and rallied the assembled activists to leave the conference with a renewed commitment to transforming drug policy globally.  The video was so good created so quickly, and such a great example of digital video activism that I wanted to know more. I emailed questions to Takács and here are his replies.

Jessie Daniels: How did you get involved in working on drug policy?

István Gábor Takács:  While attending university in about 2001, I started working as an assistant at the HCLU, where I got to know a lot about harm reduction and drug policy. I then spent three months in Frankfurt working in a needle exchange program, called Cafe Fix, where I learned a lot about good social services and harm reduction. Later, in Budapest, I worked for four years at a needle exchange and worked at the drug policy program of the HCLU, where with Peter and Balázs Dénes, our boss at that time, we started experimenting with making videos. Then I got trained in Montreal, by Witness, in human rights video activism, and since then we have produced more than 500 videos at the HCLU, (not just in the field of drug policy), reaching around 3 million views online. We have also trained several activists in video production.

JD: Can you share a little bit about how digital video fits into your strategy for change?

IGT: Our video-making is always embedded in a wider advocacy environment. We always have a certain goal in mind, a change that we would like to happen. Video is a tool for achieving that change by educating and mobilising our audience. We are documenting what is happening with our movies, but documenting also serves a purpose. We record events, protests or conferences, where we try to chronicle, for example, the harm reduction and international drug policy reform movement, by highlighting the most important issues. We also document rights abuses by recording testimonies, which later can be used in court cases (which we also document for educational purposes).

Beyond documenting, we also try to educate the masses about important drug policy (and other human rights) issues through videos that try to be as short, interesting and understandable as possible. All our videos are freely available online, and they often appear on leading online news portals. By educating the masses, we hope to achieve attitude change, fighting stigma and discrimination and promoting public policies that help people instead of hurting them (for example decriminalisation of drug use and possession, and promotion of needle exchange or methadone treatment). With movies like the one on InSite, the only legal safer injection room in North America, or the one on Mexico’s Drug War and its consequences, we try to serve educational purposes. We know that our movies are used in universities worldwide.

We have also had feedback from decision-makers, that they use our movies as reference points to show where global drug policy is heading and what are the key challenges and good practices. We have also heard that our drug policy movies, published on our website Drugreporter, by thematising and showing good examples, and good ideas, help the drug policy movement define itself and clarify its messages. We also aim to reach out to the affected population and their relatives. Beyond documenting and educating, our main tool is mobilising. We try to get people engaged in acting for policy change. With viral videos like our Drug Lords Series, we try to get them involved in campaigns, like sending letters, signing a petition, spreading a message. We try to amplify the voice of the voiceless by working with activists who are drug users, Roma, sex workers,  or people living with disabilities or with HIV. We also use our movies to raise funds for particular programs, such as the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, the only needle  and syringe distribution program in Moscow. We use our movies in international campaigns like the Count the Costs of the Drug War campaign, as a support tool for research papers and policy papers, protests and other traditional, no less important advocacy tools.

JD: What sort of impact do you hope your videos have?

IGT: We try to improve people’s knowledge, and try to mobilise them to act for change. In our Romanian campaign for example we called on people to write to the ministers of Romania to ask them for financial support of harm reduction. In other campaigns, we ask for people to sign petitions, targeted at decision-makers. We believe that to a certain extent our movies contributed to the change in the strict drug related penal code in Poland, to the introduction of needle exchange in Stockholm, the opening of safer injection sites in Denmark, and the continued funding of harm reduction services in Russia by the Global Fund.

We were the first to produce video reports of the proceedings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, the annual UN gathering on drugs, with the aim of bringing more transparency to this level of decision-making. Making films like “Silenced NGO Partner,” that showed the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime avoiding the question, and shouting at a psychiatrist who asked how he explains the fact that in the Netherlands cannabis use is lower than in the surrounding countries, despite its legal availability, showed how decisions are made, and how really serious questions are avoided, at the UN level. This campaign resulted in several hundreds of letters being sent to Mr. Costa, head of the UNODC, which caused him to visit a coffee shop and a safer injection site in the Netherlands – something he’d never done before. (He still never answered the question though).

In non drug-related issues, our movies have also had a direct impact: We were able to stop a village from blocking deinstitutionalisation of a mass institution for people living with disabilities. We were able to stop the racist marches and the occupation of the Roma-populated parts of a village by radical right wing paramilitary in Gyöngyöspata, by documenting rights abuses and showing them to the masses. We documented the beating of Roma by the police, and this footage was used in a successful case at the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights. We were able to stop the wasting of taxpayer money, by using videos and the Freedom of Information Act to highlight corruption cases.

JD: Are there any ‘lessons learned’ on bringing together academics, activists and journalists in ways that promote social justice, civic engagement, and greater democracy that you could share? 

IGT: Our videos make use of academic knowledge, and try to translate that into short, easily understandable messages. By using personal stories, we bring the issues which are sometimes abstract, closer to the viewer. Traditional advocacy tools like protests, reports, scientific research can be complemented with videos to make them more successful. The voice of activists and academics is amplified by these videos. Journalists use our videos as background material or illustrations to their own work. Overall, in the age of internet videos and low-cost video production, self-made video production can be very successfully integrated into the work of activists, academics and journalists.

Digital Media Storytelling Can Influence Policy

Policymakers are influenced by compelling stories and academic researchers who want to influence policy should consider the power of digital media storytelling to influence policy, as this experience in East Harlem reveals.

East Harlem is among the first of New York City’s “Aging Improvement Districts.”  In a global society that’s rapidly aging, Aging Improvement Districts are intended to address the concerns about mobility and accessibility for older adults living in large cities. The Age-Friendly New York City Project, which is behind the Aging Improvement Districts, conducted a public health community-assessment survey to find out about the needs of aging New Yorkers living in East Harlem. The researchers were eager to influence policy makers with some of their findings about the needs of seniors in this community, and they wanted to reach back to those in East Harlem had participated in the survey.  They soon realized that an ordinary research paper or presentation wouldn’t accomplish either of these goals.

Instead, the researchers decided that telling the stories, in digital video format, was the best way to reach both policy makers and members of the community. This video (15:53) illustrates the research findings of NYAM’s community-assessment survey through the stories of several seniors living in East Harlem:

The video features the stories of several seniors living in East Harlem and was screened at a large event (August, 2011) hosted by NYAM, and attended by policy makers, service providers and members of the community, many of whom cheered when they recognized friends and neighbors on screen.

One of the issues raised by elders in the video was the reluctance to use public pools and a desire for seniors-only hours for swimming.  While the video was being screened, one policy maker representing the NYC Parks Department placed a phone call and implemented a “seniors-only swim” on the spot – and then announced it later in the meeting.  Today, Senior Swim in NYC is a city-wide program that opens up access to an important recreational resource to older adults.

While it’s possible this change would have happened following a standard research report and slide presentation, but it seems unlikely. What got the policy maker to pick up the phone was seeing and hearing a compelling story, told by people affected by the policy.

Of course, not all policy issues are as easily addressed. Another issue facing seniors raised in the video is the struggle to do laundry. The video features the story of two seniors taking their clothes from a laundromat and then hauling it up four-flights of stairs to their apartment, a struggle for the even the youngest and fittest among us, and a herculean task for two grandparents.  Added to this is the fact that many elders in East Harlem live in public housing, and the local housing authority, NYCHA, recently announced a plan to close all laundry facilities in public housing buildings.  A deputy commissioner from NYCHA attended the video screening and, moved by the stories of the seniors and their laundry struggle, promised to keep laundry facilities open.  Still, the battle to keep laundry facilities open – and operating – at NYCHA buildings is one that continues.

The point is, policymakers are influenced by compelling stories.  Research still plays a role here because it informed the development of the stories in the video.  Research can also provide information about the scope and scale of a policy issue.  The community screening of the video added an accountability and exerted additional pressure on those with some power to make changes. After the screening, the video was posted to the web and circulated among those in the community, to journalists, and a much wider audience than attended the event.

The strategic use of digital media storytelling – both to engage community members and influence policy makers – is a new and innovative development.

Digital media storytelling can influence policy and researchers should consider it as an important tool if their goal is to shape policy.

Flickr for Visual Data Research and Analysis

In the spring term of 2013, CUNY sociology Professors Juan Battle and Bill Kornblum offered a unique course called CUNY As a Lab, in which MA and PhD students at the Graduate Center conducted research about CUNY itself. Together, the class documented the wide variation in student experience across the wide array of CUNY institutions. JustPublics@365 helped CUNY As a Lab students collect, store, share, and analyze visual data using the online digital photo storing and sharing site Flickr. While there are many ways to collect and store visual data, I want to highlight some of the tools that made Flickr especially useful for research and teaching.

How did we use Flickr?

In small groups, CUNY As a Lab students used multiple research methods to profile each of the 23 CUNY colleges. They profiled campuses using history, ethnography, demographic analysis, interviews, and observations about campus space. As students conducted research on their respective campuses they uploaded pictures to a Flickr account shared by everyone in the class. Photos from each campus were grouped into “sets”. In order to preserve confidentiality of research participants, the Flickr account was kept private so only students in the class could see it.

Why visual data?

Visual data is different from “data visualization” which usually involves representing abstracted quantitative data in creative ways. The visual data collected by CUNY As a Lab students was digital photographs which students analyzed for clues about life on any given CUNY campus. Because the Flickr account was shared, students could also analyze each other’s photos during the research process for insight into what their peers thought was important to document. This helped students to generate ideas about what they wanted to capture in their photos.

Why Flickr?

Flickr is a great place to store photos if only because it is free, open, and easy to use. It allows users to choose from a range of licenses for each of their photos, including a license which allows people to contribute to a commons of photos with “no known restrictions” which can be used and shared by anyone. Often people don’t know that the photos they find using a Google image search can’t necessarily be used and shared freely due to copyright restrictions.  Flickr offers many open access photos, and makes it clear which ones are free to use and which aren’t.

Beyond being a great place to store photos, Flickr offers a number functions which make it a potentially rich tool for pedagogy and research practice. For the purposes of CUNY As a Lab we focused on annotating, tagging, mapping, and sorting photos into sets. As students uploaded photos to their campus sets, they came up with tags which conveyed themes that were represented in their photos.

Tagging is kind of the equivalent of coding.  That is, the process by which social researchers identify and keep track of themes in their qualitative data shares much in common with “tagging” in social media. After students had tagged (or, coded) their photos they could click on any given tag and a Flickr-generated group of photos with the same tag from all campus sets was produced. This allowed students to compare themes like “common area,” “leisure,” “activities,” and “security” across campuses. The following Flickr-generated tag cloud indicates the range of tags students came up with:

Flickr-generated tag cloud

Flickr-generated tag cloud

Another feature offered by Flickr is the opportunity to annotate photos. If tagging photos is like coding, annotating is like taking field notes. Some students made notes on particular sectioned-off parts of their photos to draw attention to what they thought was important about the photo. Flickr allows notes to be tagged by theme and linked together. We didn’t take full advantage of that in CUNY As a Lab, but here’s a link to a great idea for an exercise that does.

One of the most visually compelling outcomes of the use of Flickr in CUNY As a Lab was the  Flickr-generated map of New York City with CUNY campus locations tagged. Here’s a frame which encompasses all the locations tagged in photos of CUNY City College:

Flickr Maps function

Flickr Maps function


Most students who responded to my survey of the class reported that they hadn’t collected visual data for research purposes before their CUNY As a Lab research, and all agreed that the collection and coding of visual data enhanced their projects. One student commented that:

[Using Flickr] “gave me an additional frame of reference when thinking back and analyzing my data.”

Most responded that they had spent time looking at each others’ photos during the research process and that the open, collaborative nature of the Flickr account enhanced their own research. The process wasn’t perfect.  A number of students commented that there could have been more parameters set for the collection of photos. One great suggestion that emerged from the class survey was that the instructor could specify a set of tags or themes beforehand that students would then go out and look for. As one student commented, this could make for a more cohesive research and photo-browsing experience.

Students used photos in their final presentations about each campus. The following slides are from CUNY As a Lab students Rachael Benavidez and Amy Blair’s final presentation about CUNY Community Colleges in Queens. Many students chose to document the outdoor spaces of their respective campuses, which made for really interesting comparisons of the range of physical environments on CUNY campuses:

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez's final project

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez’s final project

In the slide below, the same students captured a theme that was reiterated in their interview data, that access to advisement is slow and difficult at both LaGuardia and Queensborough Community Colleges:

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez's final project

Slide from student Rachael Benavidez’s final project

While we know that photos enhance our ability to communicate ideas, the use of Flickr in CUNY As a Lab suggests that the process of collecting, coding, and organizing photos can also be useful before the presentation stage. Organizing visual data can be an opportunity for a class to collaboratively clarify and organize their ideas, and learn from each other’s work in the process.

If you’re interested in this technique and would like to learn how to take better photos with your mobile device, you might consider taking one of these workshops designed to help you do that: Smart Photos with Smartphones.

Turning an idea into a tool


Unless you are blessed with better party invites than I, chances are you know just as little about what goes on in the minds of our toolmakers.  All of us, at some point or another, wish that we were BFFs with a coder so that we could finally build our brilliant self-destructing media app that would erase — with the swipe of the screen — all personal messages released into the eternal preserve of digital correspondence.  Oh yeah, or RateMyDate.

Kidding aside, regardless of whether digital tools trigger your personal faculties of enthusiasm or ennui, they powerfully shape the way scholars work and the way that work enters both the scholarly and public conversation.  And while I have preferred reading little poems composed when poetry was still meant to be sung, I too, have fallen charmed by the potential of tools to shape not just the way we communicate, but the way we think.

And so, in attempt to begin bridging the gap between tool makers and tool users, I begged the kind and illustrious programmer Andrew Badr to answer a few questions via email.  Thus far, Andrew has worked on an array of interesting projects, such as the art site Your World of Text which was misattributed to Miranda July and gushed about on Reddit.  Currently, he’s working on a start up project called Jotleaf — an interactive web canvas.  Though not built specifically with academics in mind, one never knows exactly what prototypes will become tomorrow’s fork and knife.  In his answers below, Andrew kindly spills the beans on what it’s like to turn an idea into tool.

1.  What is JotLeaf?
A Jotleaf page is an interactive canvas for the web. You can click anywhere on it to starting writing, add pictures, or embed videos or music players. You can style it in different ways, with custom colors and fonts, or invite people to collaborate on a page with you. It’s like a new creative medium. (See and for other descriptions.)

Some ways people are using it:

To make art:

-To talk to their friends & fans:

To some degree, we are trying to let the community guide our understanding of what this new medium is best suited for. But we also think things are possible that it isn’t being used for much yet, like creating more general-purpose websites, which guides some of the feature development.

The idea for it came out of a previous site I did, called Your World of Text. See and the description on my homepage (under “Some Things I’ve Done”). Your World of Text is an art project, and I want to keep it that way. But for the past couple years, I’ve been thinking about what it would mean to turn the same kind of interactivity into a “startup”. Jotleaf is the answer to that question. And that’s just as much about my attitude towards the project, and how the site is presented and marketing, as it is about features.

I first saw Jotleaf in my mind some time in April of last year (2012). I started working on it part-time for a few months, then more seriously starting in September. In December, a friend from college joined the project, and we committed ourselves to it full-time. He lives in Italy, so in January I moved out here for three months to work more closely with him. We got some funding from friends and family — enough for a few months, to try to get the site to the next level and then raise a real round. In May, he’s moving to San Francisco for three months, and we’ll continue our work there.

2.  What does building such a tool entail?
A day’s work, at this point, is mostly writing code. Code to make the site do new things; make it look better; make it more reliable; and fix any problems that come up. There’s also marketing and customer support: Facebook and Twitter accounts, a monthly newsletter, and constantly talking to our users to see what they like and don’t like about the site.One challenge is that people can’t really tell you what they want. The best thing for your startup might be to radically change the product, but a user will never say that. Or say your site is slow — that will drive people away, but people don’t necessarily consciously realize that. So that’s where measurement and intuition come in.

3. How did you personally get involved in this line of work? Have you worked on any other similar projects?
I’ve been making websites since high school, and experimenting with the medium from the start. I didn’t know it was “what I wanted to do” until late in college though. The big appeal to me is how you can put something out there, and then the next day — you make the right thing  — the whole world could see it. You aren’t limited by who you know, or your credentials, or your hourly wage. It’s an exponential game.

4.  Tell us about what’s most exciting in digital innovation today! 
For the most exciting things today, Chris Dixon pretty much lists them out in this blog post.

But programming is always exciting, because it builds upon itself in a way that no other human endeavor has done. Something that took a year to program ten years ago is now a page of code that you could write in a day. And it’s been happening like that for decades, building layers of abstraction on top of each other, and it’s going to keep happening. The amount of leverage that one person has is amazing, and is going to keep getting more so.

5.  How might academics better collaborate with digital folk to improve upon or create new tools?
Re: academia, to be honest it’s hard to imagine new tools coming fromthat direction. The best people to create the tools are the people who use them. Academics should create tools insofar as they are practitioners. The most useful stuff I see out of academia is studies about user behavior.

6.  You’re in Turin right now.  Anything interesting to report about the international digital scene, or how exactly you started collaborating with an international partner?
I don’t know nothing about no international digital scene. I’m in Turin because my friend from college lives here. I don’t really hang out with anyone besides him, his wife, and their two year old daughter. 🙂

7. And perhaps not-relevant, but have to ask:   Are you socially-engaged with any academics in a way that influences the way you think about the potential of technology?
The only way I can think of that I’m socially involved with academics is that I follow @golan on Twitter and he posts interesting stuff sometimes.

8.  What inspires you?
What inspires me? Well, if you mean what’s my source of ideas, I’m just thinking about the web all the time. I have at least one idea. I’ve literally dreamt several website ideas. If you mean motivation… I want to push the web forward, and change people’s conception of what it could be, and create a space for new kinds of creativity and communication, and make something big.

9.  If time and money weren’t an issue, what would you build?
If money weren’t an issue, I’d hire my friend Brian. If time stopped, I’d first write a framework in which to write a framework in which to write my website. But basically I’m doing what I want to be doing right now.

Photo Credit: Joe Aranda, from