Category Archives: Tools

Social Media Toolkit

We initially released our JustPublics@365 Social Media Toolkit in December and now we’re pleased to announce you can now read or download it on ISSUU.

ISSUU 2Many academics want to engage in research and produce knowledge that informs progressive social change. Digital media technologies are making it easier for academics to connect their research with people, community groups, and movements who are also trying to bring about social change. Yet, most academics are perplexed about how to share their research with publics beyond the academy.

JustPublics@365 is here to help meet this unmet need, connecting academics and social change agents through digital media for the public good. Our toolkit, available in multiple e-book formats, is an easy way to get started.

Get it three ways:


We initially released our JustPublics@365 Social Media Toolkit in December and now we’re pleased to announce you can add us to your Kindle.


The idea behind the Toolkit is simple.

Many academics want to engage in research and produce knowledge that informs progressive social change. Digital media technologies are making it easier for academics to connect their research with people, community groups, and movements who are also trying to bring about social change. Yet, most academics are perplexed about how to share their research with publics beyond the academy.

JustPublics@365 is here to help meet this unmet need, connecting academics and social change agents through digital media for the public good. Our toolkit, available in multiple e-book formats, is an easy way to get started.

Get it three ways:

Punishment to Public Health: Bringing it All Together

Over the last couple of months, we’ve highlighted the ways scholars, activists and journalists work to further social justice by shifting the public policy framework from one of “punishment” to “public health,” or P2PH. As we’ve shown, the research is clear that our policy of mass incarceration of the past 30 years damages our society.  Today, we bring it all together.

The P2PH Information Guide is designed to bring together scholarship, activist strategies, and digital media tools to help you create your own social justice campaign.

punishment(Image source)

Our goal with bringing this all together is to create a practical, resource-rich, all-in-one introduction to start a social justice digital campaign, whether you are an activist on the ground,  a journalist writing a story or an academic who may want to connect your research to creating a more just society.

We hope that the Information Guide will help you reach you more people by integrating some of the most widely used social networks into your social justice campaign, your reporting, and your research or your classroom projects. 

Click here to download the PDF.

Click here for the eBook.

If you have any questions in planning your campaign, please feel free to contact us at or send us a tweet, @JustPublics365.


JustPublics@365 Toolkit: Social Media Guide for Academics

Academics engage in research and produce knowledge that, intentionally or not, may inform progressive social change.  Digital technologies are making it easier for academics to connect their research with movements and community groups who trying to bring about social change.  However, many academics may still be perplexed about how to use social media.

JustPublics@365 is here to help meet this need, connecting academics and social change agents through social media.   Our toolkit, available in multiple e-book formats, is an easy way to get started.

toolkit cover

Get it three ways:

Using Infographics to Shift the Debate on Gun Violence

Infographics, a blend of solid statistics and compelling graphic design, can help shift the debate on important social issues like gun violence. Our current series examines the ways that policy approaches rooted in criminalization might shift if they were re-framed as public health issues instead. In many ways, gun violence is the best example of how our criminalization has not solved a problem that seriously harms peoples’ health. As previous posts here have noted, the data on gun ownership and gun violence can be daunting. Infographics can help clarify what the patterns are, and what the harm to health really is, like this one:

Gun Violence in America

Explore more infographics like this one on the web’s largest information design community – Visually.

This inforgraphic was created using the web-based tool, which is among the best tools available for telling compelling stories with data.

Illustrated Blogging Advice for Researchers

I really think that you should blog. That whatever is getting in your way, you should shove it aside and just write something.

But let’s be honest, my advice is insufficient. As my last couple of posts went up I could just picture some of you saying, “well sure, it’s easy for you, you draw cartoons.”

So I sought out a little help (or rather, a lot of help). Today’s post features expertise from (and cartoons inspired by)…

  • Seth Godin (
  • Beth Kanter (
  • Henry Jenkins (
  • Robert Kosara (
  • Jessie Daniels (
  • Nathan Yau (
  • Lisa Wade (
  • Ewen Le Borgne (
  • Tom Murphy (
  • David Henderson (
  • Jane Davidson (
  • Molly Engle (
  • Jara Dean-Coffey (
  • Bonnie Koenig (
  • Stephanie Evergreen (
  • Karen Anderson (
  • Pablo Rodriguez-Bilella (
  • Chi Yan Lam (
  • Ann Emery (
  • Sheila B Robinson (
  • Molly Hamm (
  • Jamie Clearfield (

The Questions

I asked two questions, other than the slightly leading nature of the questions (woops, I’ll do better next time), I provided no direction on response length or style, so the responses varied greatly.

1. What’s been your biggest blogging challenge (finding the time, picking good topics, the technology, etc.)?

2. What piece of advice would you give (or have already given) to an evaluator or researcher interested in starting a blog?

Advice and challenges change over time, so it was important to me to reach out to bloggers with a wide range of experience. This post would not exist without the expert help. I’ve thanked each blogger, but if you get anything out of their advice, please send them your own appreciation.


A little admin before we get started…I’ve been considering putting together an online workshop on blogging for evaluators and researchers.

The basic approach would involve walking through content development, helping you set up the technology, and talking about strategies for reaching an audience. The workshop would take place on the web and include video tutorials and practical lessons.

I would want to do it right, so this would take a lot of work on my part, and I’ll only set this up if there is enough interest. So if you are interested, sign up here to let me know.

Jamie Clearfield

On challenges

I’d say the biggest challenge for me is actually hitting the publish button. Getting an idea that I think is worth writing about is challenging for sure – but I think the bigger issue is believing in the idea enough to actually put it out on the web. The first blog post sat as a draft for a bit and finally it was a “rip the band-aid off” moment…

Hit the damn publish button


I think the best advice I’ve gotten and would give is to just keep things simple and believe – believe in your ideas and experiences and that there are people who are reading. Don’t over think things too much and have fun.

Jamie Clearfield Advice

Molly Hamm

On challenges

Biggest blogging challenge: Keeping up with all of the information from other bloggers in the field while finding time to create your own contributions. I find that it can be easy to get so involved in following other conversations that you forget to add your own two cents! So you may feel as though you are actively participating in blogging and other e-communities while your own blog sits in silence (yes, I need to update my blog!)

Embarrassing story, blog journal


Create a regular schedule for blogging and stick to it. This is something that I really need to work on, but I think it’s important to set a realistic writing goal for your blog (number of posts per week, month, etc.) and then reserve a specific day/time per week/month where you commit to writing on a regular basis. This will ensure that you take the time to gather your thoughts and put them out into the blogosphere.

Also it’s useful to have handy a notepad (tdigital or Post-it!) to jot down inspiration/ideas when they hit. Especially useful to write down ideas as you’re sifting through other blog posts, tweets, reports, websites, e-learning, etc. This allows you to constantly use available information to inform your own writing (reading with a purpose that is actually connected to your blog!)

Molly Hamm Advice

Sheila B Robinson

On challenges

My biggest challenge is content. I have lots of ideas that spring to mind, but my challenges lie in:

a.) having enough “meat” to go along with an initial idea to flesh it out and write something I think will be relevant, interesting, helpful or useful to someone, and

b.) having the confidence to put it out there – I hold back sometimes thinking about the fact that lots of people are blogging about similar ideas (after all, the “hot topics” are of interest to lots of us), and wondering if I have enough of an original spin on something to create a viable post.

Blog diet program


I would give someone the same advice I received (from someone you know VERY well!) [ed. note: she’s talking about me :) ]

a.) Just do it! You have virtually nothing to lose. I overcame the concerns about “what if I won’t have enough time or enough content, or enough visitors,” etc. by coming to terms with the fact that if I write something, there it is and it’s fine.

If I don’t have time or content, I simply don’t post. If the blog goes by the wayside and I decide to move on to other projects, I’m OK with that. Holding myself to a weekly schedule didn’t work for me for very long after all, and I’m OK with that. It may very well work for others, so I would advise them to try a schedule and see how it goes.

Blogging is somewhat like dieting – you may have to try different strategies; some may work for a short time, or a long time, or not at all, and you have to be willing to change your strategies based on your results. And your expected results are unique to you. Some people diet to lost weight, some to alleviate a health problem, some to feel better. Some people blog for fun and because they enjoy writing; others do it to build a reputation or clientele, or to sell their products.

b.) Some posts will be more interesting and receive more traffic than others, and so be it. Whether you’re Seth Godin, or Sheila Robinson, traffic will ebb and flow and I’ve learned that that is not what it’s all about for me.

Sure, it’s fun to watch the numbers and I get excited when I get more traffic and people are paying attention to my work. Who wouldn’t? But neither am I crushed when a post fails to generate much interest. It’s all fun for me, and the evaluator in me finds it interesting to look at my data and think about what people like and want to read. But I have nothing to sell right now, so my goals may be different from some others.

Sheila Robinson Advice

Ann Emery

On challenges

At first: Nor having anything to write about.

Now: Having way too much to write about.

Live Blogging a Meeting


Include an image with every post. Images make your content more share-able (aka a mini version of your image will show up when you and others link to your post on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, etc.)… which means more views and more appealing, interesting posts.

Get creative. Avoid those generic stock images. Go for screenshots, photos you took yourself, videos, sketches, and cartoons.

Ann Emery

Chi Yan Lam

On challenges

My biggest blogging challenge… probably has to do with finding the time. It takes a real commitment to sit down and produce something of a ‘blah’ quality, let alone something of a ‘wow’ quality. It’s challenging because blogging isn’t particularly accorded any value within academia. (Can it really go no my CV? No.)

I wrote this post for you


1) I kept a blog for more than a year before gaining any traction. The turning point for me was when I started the 5×52 project. I let go of the idea that I had to write full-length scholarly ‘high-quality’ posts.

I realized that the blog could be a space for my thinking. Instead of insisting on writing for an audience, I wrote for myself. I guess what this boils down to is this: Blogging is simply a platform. There are many successful models of blogging. The important thing is to make blogging goals consistent with one’s goals. Don’t Emulate. Create.

2). I really buy into the whole concept of digitals scholarship. It starts with the belief that no research is good unless communicated. Building on that, I believe that all academics/researchers should engage in knowledge dissemination. For a practical field like ours, it makes sense to engage in digital scholarship — blogging, tweeting, etc…

Chi Yan Lam

Pablo Rodriguez-Bilella

On challenges

Being regular and constant has been my biggest blogging challenge. Some (good) months I can write two or three times what I write in others (bad months). I have also tried to have at least a “light post” each week (smartly call “Viernes Light”), but the issue of regularity has also been present there.

I cannot say that I can´t find good topics to pick, usually the problem has been that there are several good topics I would like to write about them.

I was spam


Writing a post is usually lot of work, but don´t forget to let the world know about it! You should become a good friend of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and find the smartest way to post in each of them.

For instance, in LinkedIn you should carefully select the groups more appropriate for your topics, and be careful to not spam every group with your messages (you will receive some warnings before being expelled for not following the etiquette).

Pablo Rodriguez-Bella Advice

Karen Anderson (

On challenges

I’ve been blogging for a couple years now and I’d say the fire burns out for me at times and I can’t think of anything fresh or relevant.

Blogger's Block


Don’t start, it becomes quite the addiction. (lol)
look outside of evaluation for inspiration and tips…places like problogger.
Make efforts to engage and partner with bloggers online and offline.
Consitency is king
Find a niche…quick, you don’t want people guessing what they’ll get from you all the time.
Subscribe and comment on other Eval blogs
Have a larger purpose for your blog, what mark do you want to make, what’s the ‘end goal’?

Karen Anderson Advice

Stephanie Evergreen

On challenges

Opening myself to criticism. Blogging was originally just an outlet for me but as it grew and got attention I realized the world includes people who like to argue and Internet trolls.

Troll Armor


Choose topics you want to learn more about and use the blog as an excuse to bone up on your skills or knowledge a bit.

Stephanie Evergreen Advice

Bonnie Koenig

On challenges

I haven’t had any particular blogging challenges. Perhaps because I came ‘late to blogging’ compared to many of my colleagues and friends, I asked for a lot of advice before I started blogging and mostly knew what to expect (and perhaps challenges to anticipate).

Heed my words


Blog when you have something useful to share – don’t be bound by specific timelines and feeling like you ‘have to write something’.

Bonnie Koenig Advice

Jara Dean-Coffey

On challenges

I think it is probably two things:

1) Finding a concentrated amount of time (at 2 to 3 hours) to focus in on a topic and then move in to writing a strong enough drive that requires no more than 30 minutes to refine, and

2) Creating a range of voices that speak to our approach, our experiences and reflections that resonate with a variety of audiences and which compel others to take risks, have confidence in their inherent knowing and to strengthen their intentionality.

There it is behind the couch


Spend some time looking at other people’s blogs and the blogs they read. Find ones that speak to you in terms of perspective and tone.

Ask yourself a few questions (I have a couple worksheets) such as:
a) why do I want to write,
b) what do I want to write about,
c) who is my audience and what interests them,
d) what is my perspective/voice (expert, trainer, synthesizer….) ..etc.

And now, just write. Make yourself a schedule and commit. It doesn’t get any easier unless you practice. Oh, and part of the value I find in blogging is disciplined reflection on my own practice.

Jara Dean-Coffey

Molly Engle

On challenges

My biggest blogging challenge is what to write…there is so much; yet is it timely, needed, wanted? I have to remember that evaluation is an everyday activity…however obscure. (I ignore the technology unless something goes wrong; I am, after all, a technopeasant.)

The peasants are blogging


Starting a blog—be passionate about your topic; if you are, you will always be able to write something even if it doesn’t seem timely or needed. (chocolate torte, anyone?)

Molly Engle Advice

Jane Davidson

On challenges

Definitely finding the time! Patricia and I started strong but seem to have been so swamped with other things that it is difficult to get much up on the blog. But, we would rather do good stuff less often than just fill the space for the sake of it.

Personality Removed


The blogs I love the most are the ones where the bloggers’ personalities and senses of humor shine clearly through. Write good, thought-provoking stuff, but don’t be shy about putting your own signature spin on it.

The nice thing about blogs is that people deliberately opt to tune intoyou – unlike discussion lists, where we have to be conscious of chewing up too much of the airspace. Don’t swamp people with too much content, but make whatever you put out there fun to read! And a cute cartoon will do wonders as well! ;)

Jane Davidson Advice

David Henderson

On challenges

Finding the time is a good excuse, but I am too intimately aware of my stupid internet browsing habits to justifiably argue I don’t have time to blog.

I think more challenging is not to psych myself out. I will regularly start posts all to decide that whatever “insight” I’m writing about feels so plainly obvious to me, that it wouldn’t be valuable to anyone else, and then scrap the post all together.

Too busy mindlessly surfing the web


There’s a lot of crap and dubious advice out there. I always encourage folks who want to start blogging to not be afraid to elevate their posts above the all too common nonprofit blogging dribble.

I like to think about blogs as light version of a research report or paper. In this framing, blog posts are not totally absolved of the constraints of substantiating arguments and citing sources. The best bloggers are those who I learn from. To that end, I’d advise new bloggers to think about blogging as (at least in part) a teaching platform.

David Henderson Advice

Tom Murphy

On challenges

For me it is still getting over publishing and putting myself out there. Even when I am doing more of a reported story than a blog/opinion I feel a sort of resistance to publishing and the vulnerability that comes with it once it is out there. The other stuff is relatively easy for me at this point, but there is that fear of rejection or failure that immediately follows hitting the publish button.

Handling Vulnerability


Think of it as an extension of what you are already doing. You are reading and pulling together a lot of information and resources about what you know best. Blogging is a public way to gather that information, make a few notes and share with others.

The benefits are that people will interact with you. It can foster connections and potential suggestions/opportunities that may not have existed prior. Also, there is the fact that there is evidence showing how blogging about research can lead to more citations and reads of published works. As long as the person does not say anything improper, blogging is a great support for a researcher’s work.

Tom Murphy Advice

Ewen Le Borgne

On challenges

Originally it was the discipline to get at blogging and to carve out time for it. It took me 2 years to become a regular blogger but at some point it clicked and became a bit of an addiction – of the nice type though!

No, more recently I find that the challenge has been to precisely reverse the engine and to perhaps blog a bit less but really aim at good quality posts – the wow posts you mentioned. I sometimes post a piece that I know I’m not too happy with – but it’s sometimes difficult to resist the instant gratification of getting a post out there and seeing the reactions.

Toddler Blog


First off, to find out that they are not alone in this and to look at other testimonials and experiences from other researcher/evaluator bloggers (it’s likely to be much more convincing coming from their peers than from any other source), then to think carefully about the focus of their blog and its relation with their organisation/clients etc. This can become a thorny issue so it deserves a bit of thinking.

The rest is just fly and fly higher, trial and error, reflection all along the way, engagement… and fun! My personal motto if ‘fun, focus and feedback’ and I think it suits blogging pretty well :)

Ewen Le Borgne

Lisa Wade

On challenges

Thinking big picture, one of the biggest and most exciting challenges is change. Adapting to unexpected change started right away.

When we started blogging six years ago, the idea was that it would be a place for my sociology instructor friends to swap images we were using in teaching. As more and more people started reading who weren’t sociologists, we had the opportunity to adapt the site, making it a place for anyone interested in sociological commentary. The result was a lot more work and responsibility, but the reward was proportionally exciting.

Technological change has also offered both opportunities and new demands. When we started, blogs were just blogs. As the years have gone by, the importance of being on Facebook (especially) and Twitter (secondarily so) and the fun possibilities of things like Pinterest have emerged. Now it isn’t just Sociological Images, it’s Sociological Images and its auxiliary sites. These are now all part of the day-to-day work and reward of the site.

Finally, my own career has changed in ways that I never anticipated. The blog has made me more visible as a social commentator and I’ve had wonderful opportunities to speak to journalists, write for well-known outlets, and travel for public speaking.

Together, the rising readership, expanding reach of the site, and the new dimension to my career has required me to adapt many times over. It’s been a fun, but wild ride.

Digital Media Conglomerate


Academic blogging is, I believe, win-win. As a community, the more we share each others material and try to draw attention to each other, the more social science will become a go-to way of thinking about social problems.

So, if you’re interested in starting a site, think about all other sites as your friend. Borrow their content, let them borrow yours. Talk them up and refer people there. Link and link again.

When we all do our best to draw attention to social science as a lens, more and more people will visit all of our sites. When they do that, the policy makers, voters, and Thanksgiving table debaters all become better able to understand our world and help others understand too. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Lisa Wade Advice

Nathan Yau

On challenges

The biggest challenged with FlowingData is probably maintaining the right balance between academic and casual. If I get too technical, I confuse a lot of readers, but I can’t get too casual, because I might oversimplify concepts that are actually complex.

Minimum Viable Explanation


It’s really easy to start a blog these days, so you might as well try it out. Some researchers might be worried that the general public will misunderstand findings, but it’s a great chance for you to explain what you do and involve yourself with groups of people who are excited about the same stuff as you.

Nathan Yau Advice

Jessie Daniels

On challenges

I would say that the biggest challenge with blogging has to do with time. And, by this, I don’t mean “finding the time” to blog, but more to do with pacing.

I’ve been blogging at Racism Review since 2007, along with Joe Feagin, the blog’s co-founder (and, long ago, my dissertation chair). Ours is a scholarly blog, so we’re always trying to take some current event or news item and reflect it through the research literature to add a new dimension. The pace of how quickly things happen online and the pace of how slowly scholarly research happens are really at odds with each other. I often find that by the time I’ve really thought deeply about some item rippling through Internet, the moment of when that is ‘new’ has long since passed.

The other challenge that has to do with pacing is thinking about the long haul. We’ve been blogging since April, 2007 which, according to my math, is a little over six years. When we first started it, we tried to blog every day. Posting every single day is a pretty daunting pace to keep up with over a long period of time. To help ease that burden, we’ve tried to enlist as many ‘guest bloggers’ and additional contributors as possible, but sometimes cajoling other academics into blogging presents its own set of challenges. In general, I think we’ve done pretty well keeping it up given that Joe and I have very busy academic lives beyond the blog.

Academic vs blog timing


I get asked for advice about blogging fairly often and my biggest advice is to figure out what your particular niche or formula is. As I mentioned, at Racism Review, we try to connect current events having to do with race or racism to solid academic research. Having a really very clear, specific idea at the outset about what your contribution will be makes it much easier to get started and to maintain it over time.

Jessie Daniels Advice

Robert Kosara

On challenges

There is an obvious answer here and there is a somewhat deeper one. Of course it’s a challenge to find the time. I could do other things. I could read. I could sleep. I could go for a run.

I think the biggest challenge has been to find the right direction for this blog. After almost six years, I’m still not sure where this thing is going. I keep changing direction. Sometimes, somebody tells me they do or don’t like something. But I don’t have a clearly defined audience like a fashion blog or a technology blog or similar.

It’s not that there aren’t enough good topics, there are more than I could ever write about. Rather, the question is what do I think I can contribute to? I don’t care about just posting links to interesting stuff, others do that already and I can’t bring myself to just summarize what somebody else has done for a link posting.

The challenge is to not let that paralyze you. I keep a list of topics in my todo program, in a folder. When I don’t know what to write, I look through those and pick one. You need to keep writing, and you need to try things to see if they work. A simple posting today, a little visualization project next week, then a book review, etc.

To summarize it in a word, perhaps the biggest challenge is consistency. Consistency in topics, style, and frequency.

Which way to go


I have three pieces of advice.

1) Don’t worry about the technology. Don’t tinker. Just write.

2) Pick an audience to write for, but don’t get too focused on that. Your audience might change. People you wouldn’t have expected to read your blog will read it. Be prepared to go outside the box and change direction accordingly. But to write reasonably well, you need to have an idea of who you’re writing for.

3) Hang in there. Nobody will read your blog at first. Nobody. After a year, you might have a few readers. Don’t give up. A blog doesn’t just explode onto the Internet (unless you’re incredibly lucky). It’s going to take time. If you give up after a few months with just a few readers, you will never get more.

Robert Kosara Advice

Henry Jenkins

On challenges

Before I started blogging, the biggest concern I had was whether I would have the time to keep up with my blog. The advice I got from Cory Doctorow (Boing Boing) was “make the time.” And he was right.

Reflect and Blog


For me, a key is integrating the blog into the broader range of activities I am doing, so I am always looking for ways to use the blog in my teaching, my research, my recreation life, my friendships. You need to decide going in how often you are going to blog and stick to it like you would do any other deadline.

On any given day, there is always going to be something more pressing than blogging, so if you do not think of it as a responsibility to yourself and your readers, you will slow down and eventually stop. I think of it as like a journalist putting out a daily edition, i.e. it’s a deadline that must be met.

I put it out at a consistent time on a consistent day and I can count on my fingers the number of times I have missed a deadline since I started my blog in 2006. When I need to take a break, I announce that I am doing so and give myself permission for downtime, but I do not miss a deadline arbitrarily on a day in, day out basis.

Given the complexities of my life, this means I am planning further and further ahead, so I have a fall back if a piece of content fails to materialize. For this to work, I end up balancing between topical issues and ever-green content that I hold in reserve in case I am facing a hole on any given day that needs to be filled.

Henry Jenkins Advice

Beth Kanter

On challenges

I’ve been blogging for ten years now. I love it. I look at it my personal learning time and I try carve out a half hour or hour every day to write about something. This reflection time is so important. But, with that said, what’s hard is to keep up the discipline so I make the time to reflect and write every day. Sometimes with a busy speaking schedule and client work, it is hard to do.

My biggest challenge is when I get bored … when my muse goes into hiding. Sometimes, I’m so excited new developments or new angles on topics that I’ve been writing about – but there are some times that ennui creeps in. What I do is allow myself to write about a slightly different or adjacent topic or recruit guest bloggers and take a break.

Trolling your own posts


Look at your blogging time as a form of professional development and a commitment to write something regularly. Don’t get caught up with making it perfect either …. a blog is different from writing a research article.

Beth Kanter Advice

Seth Godin

On challenges

Decide on the audience you want and ignore everyone else.

Speaking just to us


Write every single day. If something you write spreads to the audience you care about, and if it changes them in the way you hope, write more like that.

Seth Godin Advice


Are you a blogger, if so, what are your biggest challenges? Have any advice to share, or reiterate?

Not a blogger, why not? What’s holding you back?

Let me know in the comments.

~ This post is by Chris Lysy and  originally appeared at FreshSpectrum; it is re-blogged here with permission.

Modernism and Audiences, or Killing Time

There has been much happening on this blog of late, and as I return from this mass of ideas that almost sizzle with newness to my more prosaic world of undergraduate teaching and reading, I feel my head brimming over with ideas. I want to bring ALL of this to my students. I want to restructure my entire syllabus(es) so that we can discuss, say, immigration reform and web technologies. I want to build a whole class around the Stop and Frisk app, and turn the conversation away from essay structuring, thesis statements, narrative arcs, and so on to the one that I want to be having: this one.

Rest assured, my English Composition students will still be stuck discussing themes and writing claims until they can formulate insights on their own in well-worded journals and essays. My British Modernism students will be brought back to the Eliot poem (The Waste Land) or the Bernard Shaw play (Pygmalion) on the syllabus for the week, even though we could talk about the social nature of linguistic markers in contemporary New York for hours. And it’s (kinda!) relevant, because Shaw especially builds his whole play around the hollowness of sounding “posh,” showing a flower girl who changes her accent to completely change social perception about her. Language, especially slang, is delicious, as these authors show. Moreover, such “text-to-world” conversations where we take an idea from a play from 1916 and relate it to us today are really important. But they remain curtailed parts of my classroom. Caught between my responsibility to finish the syllabus and the appeal of transforming that curriculum, I am struck in a way by the question of audiences.

Take, for instance, a previous student wandering around the hallways of our department last semester. Seeing me, Rahila popped into my office and with sweet naïveté assumed I was available to speak with her. She told me about enjoying her Chaucer class but that she kept feeling the same disconnect she had experienced with British Modernism in a previous semester. I liberally paraphrase: “These people are clever enough about describing their problems,” she said, “and I like their skills. But where am I in that audience? And, where are the books from then that talk to me and of me?”

The real Alice from Alice in Wonderland

Rahila’s real intellectual distress put me in mind of an article by Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (2008; in the spirit of open access, here is a non-subscription copy), where they discuss the broadening scope of Modernist studies in recent times. For them, modernism is no longer a time-bound and hidebound grouping of canonical texts but an organizing principle with core texts and ancillaries so that “scholars now attend to works produced in, say, Asia and Australia” and “investigate complex intellectual and economic transactions among, for example, Europe, Africa, the United States, and the Caribbean.”

As a result of expansions in the field, we can and should disrupt the idea of modernism as “a movement by and for a certain kind of high (cultured mandarins) as against a certain kind of low (the masses, variously regarded as duped by the “culture industry,” admirably free of elitist self-­absorption, or simply awaiting the education that would make the community of cognoscenti a universal one)”. To emphasise their point, the article teems with references to further reading. In other words, to see Eliot’s work as simply a “high art” piece meant for elitist people with lots of extra energy for esoteric research is reductive of the literary work which teems with high and low art references, its author’s desire to be both intellectually rigorous and populist, and our own imperative to see beyond the prescribed modes of learning. It’s unfortunate that Rahila still finds herself trapped on one end of the high/low paradigm that critics working in the field find as limited and limiting as she does.

In other words, scholars and authors have already responded to her dissatisfaction–but she hasn’t yet reached them, and not for want of trying but for lack of time. She’s what can be called a new audience member, and it seems to take a lot of time for true insight to develop. (I speak from experience; eight years of graduate study have mostly revealed the stretches I still need to learn and think about.) Unfortunately, the typical undergraduate survey course hardly allows the time to cover half of what one ought to know about a subject. My students often leave vaguely dissatisfied while I follow them out the classroom door talking about all the outside reading they should do when they can. Sometimes, they invest all their frustrations into a final research paper that digs deep into its chosen subject, and after long hours of their reading and thinking, emerges at the end of the term like a crystalline gem.

This returns me to my original thought about audiences. I don’t know if Rahila read the article I referred her to, nor if my Composition students would have preferred to talk about au courant social justice issues instead of the regular lesson on a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. How can I give them those things when I haven’t given them a good handle on the concept of modernism yet, or even some basic guidelines about how to write cogently? In class, I privilege the core skills from my syllabus “Learning Outcomes” and hope that my recommendations, reading lists and the like, will at some later stage be of use to these next wave of thinkers and citizens. The new digital technologies we use certainly allow us more “room” to think and write in, but we need both space and time. How can we, as audiences new and less-new to a variety of subjects, use these new technologies to re-confront the tyranny of time?

Data Visualization of Activist Lesbian-Queer Histories

lha org records - all copy

Jen Jack Gieseking CC BY-NC-SA

Activist history is especially important to lesbian and queer women because it is this marginalized group’s primary public, visible history. Data visualization tools can help us understand that history.

My research looks at the lives, spaces, and experiences of justice and injustice of lesbians and queer women in New York City from 1983 to 2008, a span of time marked at the beginning by AIDS activism toward the end by the popular cable tv show “The L Word” and asks: did these women’s lives get better? If so, how important was activism to this? Part of this answer is in the archival data of lesbian and queer women’s activism.

Originally part of my dissertation research and now a part of the series of books I am writing, I knew the activist and organizational history was much more complex because I surveyed the complete collection of 2,300+ organizational records at the Lesbian Herstory Archives (LHA). Out of that, I created a data visualization (see left) of all NYC-based organizational records spanning my period of study, 1983-2008 (n = 381).

My choice of data visualization as a tool was inspired by a conundrum: how do you make sense of 25 years of radical and mundane social, sexual, political, and cultural history in nearly 2,000 detailed nodes of information spanning a word to a paragraph to a few pages each?

The minutiae of politics, places, and people’s everyday lives was available in the stories of lesbian and queer organizational records and publications in ways that weren’t accessible through other research methods, like the focus group interviews I used in another part of the research.  Rather than the individual stories that emerged from personal interviews, an entire chronological history of lesbian-queer life could unfold in the quantitative study of these places, spaces, and people.

This is where data visualization came in. I had read Nathan Yau’s utterly inspiring Visualize This when it came out but never dug in to data visualization and didn’t know how it might be useful for my research.

Attending the MediaCamp workshop on Data Visualization with Amanda Hickman was a breakthrough for me.  In that workshop, I realized that the only way my data from the LHA would be revealing and fun was through data visualization. Using the data visualization tools HighChartsJS and jsFiddle, in just a few hours I saw the way my data shifted from 2D to a 3D platform for the public. These tools made my data about activist lesbian and queer women suddenly interactive and engaging in ways I had not imagined.

Here’s an example. One of the key takeaways from my focus groups with lesbians and queer women who came out between 1983 and 2008 was the persistence experience of loss and mourning of key lesbian-queer places, namely neighborhoods and bars, as well as bookstores and other community spaces. At the same time, many women, especially those who had come out in the 1980s and 1990s generations, lived with an expectation that one just created the organization or space they required, often through activism or socializing. When we turn to the actual numbers of lesbian and queer organizations in terms of their totals and their patterns of opening and closing, there is more to these shifts.

The generational social and political shifts explain a great deal about the growth of these organizations and this helps to frame my reading of this visualization. The number of activist lesbian-queer organizations rises significantly in the 1980s and early 1990s, as we can see in the graph above, both in terms of the total and those founded. Many of these groups were inspired by the continued to response to issues facing women and the successes of the feminist movement, as well as the burgeoning and powerful response to the AIDS crisis and the inspiration for change instilled by many movements for action.

There are also outcomes for organizing in the 1980s and 1990s that this graph also illustrates. Prior to this time period, there were very few if any social support services especially for LGBTQ people at the state or national level.  During rhis period of activism there was a pattern of growth in the non-profit industrial complex as a primary method of social support for LGBTQ people in the US.  In the 2000s, the number of these groups plateaued.  This matches the ways non-profit organizations have become the official brokers of what remains of the US welfare state as it relates to LGBTQ concerns.

The LHA records have more to say on a range of issues relevant to lesbian and queer women. In a series of posts on my site, I’ll be posting a set of interactive data visualizations from my analysis of the 381 NYC-based records available at the LHA of lesbian and/or queer organizations spanning 25 years (1983-2008). I invite you to join me in exploring the meaning behind an often invisibilized activist lesbian-queer past.

~ Jen Jack Gieseking, PhD is the Project Manager of JustPublics@365. She is a cultural geographer and environmental psychologist. Her website is

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.

5 Steps for Counter-Storytelling Using Storify

Storify is an online tool which can be used to compose digital counter-stories to challenge racism, sexism, classism and promote social justice.

Why is Storify one of the best online tools for counter-storytelling?  Part of the reason is that it’s built into the software

“Our goal is to amplify the voices that matter by enabling our users to make sense of what people are reporting on social networks, to find meaning and provide context.”

However, it’s important to keep in mind that Storify is only a tool. This means the critical job for academic and digital activists is to (1) research and identify the online voices that need to be heard and (2) provide the meaning and context to those voices.

What is counter-storytelling?

Counter story-telling stems from critical race theory, which began around the mid-1970s.  Solorzano & Yosso (2002) define counter-storytelling as “a method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told” (p. 26).  So, counter-stories can be used to expose, analyze, as well as challenge deeply-entrenched narratives and characterizations of racial privilege, sex, etc.  In this sense, counter-stories can help promote social justice by putting a human face to the experiences of often-marginalized groups.  This promote their sense of social, political and cultural cohesion and teaches others about their social realities.

storytelling (cc: Flickr)

With that been said, counter-stories don’t always need to be created in direct response to majoritarian stories.  In fact, some scholars warn that “by responding only to a standard story, we let it dominate the discourse” (Ikemoto, 1997; Delgado, 1989). Therefore, the simple sharing of views and experiences of someone outside of dominant culture can be enough to create a new narrative (Williams, 2004).

When gathering individual stories to form a counter-story, scholars suggest the importance of maintaining theoretical and cultural sensitivity (Solorzano and Yosso, 2002; Strauss and Corbin, 1990; Bernal, 1998).  Theoretical sensitivity refers to the special insight and capacity of the researcher to interpret and give meaning to data (Strauss and Corbin, 1990). Cultural sensitivity (Bernal, 1998) refers to the capacity of individuals as members of socio historical communities to accurately read and interpret the meaning of informants (Strauss and Corbin, 1990).

An example of counter-storytelling includes Josh Stearn’s Storify tracking of reporter arrests at Occupy demonstrations. Stearn’s effort was named the Best Storify of 2012, and it has the kind of written narrative and contextualization that brings depth and structure to his topics.

Another example is from The Gates Foundation which produced an exemplary Storify called, “Voices of Change: A trip through Dharavi” that incorporates video, images, and short and insightful narrative to walk the reader through the life and people in one of the largest slums in the world.

And, the Storify of The Gay Girl In Damascus That Wasn’ttells the compelling story of “Amina Abdallah Arraf,” a the supposed Syrian-American woman involved in the Arab uprisings who it was later revealed was actually a man living in the UK.

5 Steps for Counter-Storytelling Using Storify

1. Draft story first – then search and aggregate online media content.

Before you start aggregating the online content, make sure you outline your story.  This extra step will add depth to your work and provide much needed context for readers of your Storify.  A common way to begin developing a counter-story is by finding sources of data, existing literature on topics, or from your personal experiences.  Storify allows you to write an opening paragraph and narrative transitions between the social media elements you pull in, so you can then begin crafting an outline of your story in this manner.  More here on how to craft a counter-story.

 2.    Make sure you have accounts for all the major social networks.

In order to make it easy to drag and add content from an array of social media sites, make sure you have accounts for all the major social networks.  The popular ones are Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.  However, two other good social media sites I like to use: Soundcloud and RSS feeds.  Soundcloud is especially useful for counter-story telling as you can incorporate short interviews, songs, narration, etc. to showcase first-person narratives in the community.   

social networks

(cc: Flickr)

3. Use hashtags and keywords to find story content.

Hashtags and keywords are the easiest way to find relevant social media content.  Make sure to check out current hashtags on Twitter so that you can pull in content linked to current tags. If your counter-story features a specific geographical location, use Trendsmap to locate the most popular trends and hashtags for that area.  Trendsmap can also help you find interesting and relevant local news.  Lastly, remember you can search for multiple hashtags and pull that content into the same story.

If you would like to use your counter-story to promote mobilization around a certain issue, consider creating your own hashtag and then asking individuals from the group you are showcasing to share stories online via that hashtag.  Your job then is to collect these stories on Storify and share them with the world!

4.   Quote direct sources and add first-person accounts.

One of Storify’s strengths is its ability to portray online conversations as they unfold, instead of confining them to a static report or document.  Therefore, be selective about the voices you highlight.  Reach out to the people whose social media voice you are featuring and let them know you are using their content.  Overall, you will find most people are enthusiastic and supportive.   Also, studies have found that if you quote influential people on Twitter they will retweet you!

5.    Embed an interactive map to engage your readers

In social media lingo, interactivity = increased engagement.  Therefore, rather than limiting your counter-story to a series of updates and pictures, consider adding some interactive elements of social media.  One of the most common is an interactive map that readers can click through to find any relevant points of interests, local community news, or any other useful information related to your counter-story.  For instructions on how to create an interactive map for Storify, click here.


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.

Data Anywhere: an Open Data Commons

Data is available in bits publicly, but aggregated by companies that want to charge for it.  Other data may be free in aggregate form, but governments and well-funded institutions function as the custodians, excluding smaller institutions, local community groups, and individuals from contributing to open data initiatives.

Using open source tools, the Data Anywhere project aims to solve these problems, one data set at a time.  The solution is to set up simple database, which will replicate itself, and simple scrapers on various virtual machines.  These are cheap (about $5+/mo on digitalocean), and many go unused/underutilized.


March Occupy Data Hackathon, James Gallery

The immediate goal is for the servers to aggregate any type of data, and make it accessible to the public. The longer term vision of this project will appeal to any data geek.  We’d like to use the data for examining unexpected relationships chronologically at first, but could be compared along any index.

Although just taking off, the Data Anywhere project has the potential to help many organizations. It integrates a persistent data model; if one machine is shut down, no permanent loss is incurred to the data set, since it replicated itself to several other machines. These servers can be used to aggregate any type of data, and make it accessible to the public at large, through a simple RESTful web interface.

We are actively looking for more individuals and community partners to grow the Data Anywhere community.  Our very first workshop was at the March Occupy Data hackathon.  We had two groups initiate projects, and we’re planning our next workshop for a summer Occupy Data hackathon.  At these events, participants are provided with simple instructions on how to set up and secure a server, and databases that maintain themselves, and replicate. Knowledge of Linux or Python is helpful but not necessary. Patience and a willingness to learn is MUCH more important.

More Info:  Our next workshop is being planned for this summer and is lead by an incredible software developer and Linux admin, teaching Linux basic system admin, MongoDB setup and usage, and flask web API. For Data Anywhere announcements subscribe to the Occupy Data discussion list, follow @occupydata on Twitter, or join us

Visualizing Big Data, Resisting Criminalization

Visualizing big data sets with easy-to-read illustrations can help tell a story and make complex data easier to understand by more people.

Earlier today at the Graduate Center a panel of experts discussed a range of visualizations that may help in efforts to resist and transform criminalization.  The panel was moderated by Evan Misshula, Data Visualization Fellow with JustPublics@365.

In her presentation,“Data Visualizations in the Newsroom,” Amanda Hickman, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, shared some of the ways that she teaches aspiring journalists to dive into data.  Given that journalists are doing the hard work of translating academic jargon into plain English, Hickman also made a plea for the academics in the audience to avoid “academese.”  She closed by offering this list of resources, including a link to the course she teaches at the J-School:

Following next on the panel were María Elena Torre and Scott Lizama,“Visualizing Stop and Frisk Data” Morris Justice Project and the Public Science Project.  María and Scott presented work on their community-engaged project in the Morris Avenue section of the Bronx.  They have been meeting every Saturday for several years to collect, compile and visualize data with the Morris Justice Project, which is a collection of community members, academic researchers, and activists. Most of the data they are compiling has to do with the stop-and-frisk policing of the NYPD.  Working with members of the community, they have created a range of visualizations of this data from fairly high-tech mapping illustrations to what they described as “very low-tech, pen-and-paper illustrations.”

The final member of the panel was Sabrina Jones, a graphic artist, Brooklyn, NY who talked about her work illustrating “Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Re-Telling” based on Marc Mauer’s academic, no-picture text Race to Incarcerate.

Race to Incarcerate Graphic Re-Telling Cover Illustration
Participants in the Summit’s Invited Round Tables earlier this morning were given complimentary copies of Jones’ book. Jones discussed her influences from art history, to classical Greek mythology, to contemporary artists.  When asked about how she imagined her work contributing to social change, she responded, “I’ve already seen it create change when people who’ve been incarcerated read it and realize, ‘it’s not me, I’m part of a larger system, and there’s a movement to resist.’ ”

All the panelists talked about the need to work collaboratively with others to create work that connects to broader audiences and transforms social inequality.  As María Elena Torre put it, “we’re able to work for change because we work in solidarity.  We come together with people who are good at what they do, like displaying things on the sides of buildings…” referring to The Illuminator who displayed some of their data on the side of a public housing project in the Bronx. Torre continued,”And, we work in solidarity with people in communities who are experts at the lived experience of what it means to be stopped-and-frisked thousands of times.”

The archived livestreamed video of the event is here.  To follow soon, we’ll post a more polished video recording of the panel discussion.

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