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Logging on to Make a Difference

facebookSLUG REPORT > Websites like Facebook and Twitter have become a part of daily life for many people—social media is used to connect with others, document lives, and arrange social calendars. But UC Santa Cruz film and digital media associate professor Warren Sack is joining forces with two professors from UC Berkeley to see if social media can be used for more than just tagging and poking.

Sack has been appointed Director of the Data for Democracy Initiative by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS). In his new post, Sack is charged with exploring the possibility of social media as a catalyst for social change. He will be bringing with him his experience as chair of the UCSC Digital Arts and New Media (DANM) graduate program.

CITRIS is a UC-based organization formed in 2001 that strives to not only create new technologies, but also apply them to different relevant issues and causes. According to CITRIS director and UC Berkeley Professor Ruzena Bajcsy, the focus is on helping people.

“The title is self-explainable,” she says. “It’s in the interest of society.”

Data for Democracy builds on that theme, and applies it to social media.

“Social media today has been about connecting with family and friends,” Sack said in a June 28 UCSC press release. “The next phase of social media has to be connecting with each other as citizens, and making it possible to take action.

Sack pointed to moveon.org, a progressive website that “began as just an email list, but actually catalyzed a whole political movement.” This is the type of work he and his colleagues will try to emulate as part of the cross-campus initiative.

Sack also brought up “citizen-centered media,” such as the way different rebel leaders in the Middle East have taken advantage of Twitter and Facebook to spread their messages, as proof that social media has the potential to bring people together around different causes.

Data for Democracy has already implemented a few different projects, such as Peer to PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology), which allows expert scientists to give their input on different government issues.

“We invite high profile scientists to say what they think of the testimony,” Sack said in the press release. “The idea is that if you develop the right kind of website, you can allow people to peer review the advice the government is getting.”

Another endeavor is Metavid, an interactive archive system created by UCSC graduate students in 2006, which is currently used by both houses of congress. By combining video with a wiki format, users can correct transcripts and add to speeches on the web.

It remains to be seen what new projects Sack and his team will come up with, but Bajcsy shared what CITRIS as a whole is paying attention to at the moment, which may have some influence over what path Data for Democracy takes.

“Right now we’re all collectively focusing on health care and energy savings,” she says.

Another factor shaping the Initiative is the help it will likely receive from different partners, which will include UCSC’s Center for Games and Playable Media and UC Berkeley’s Center for New Media.

Regardless of what issues Data for Democracy tackles next, Sack is focused on moving social media beyond its current functions by giving people more of a stake in things.

“You’re not just saying you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ it,” he said. “You actually have a role to play.”

 

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