Whoo.ly: Facilitating Information Seeking For Hyperlocal Communities Using Social Media

April 15th, 2013 by andresmh

You hear sirens blaring in your neighborhood and, naturally, you are curious about the cause of commotion. Your first reaction might be to turn on the local TV news or go online and check the local newspaper. Unfortunately, unless the issue is of significant importance, your initial search of these media will be probably be fruitless. But, if you turn to social media, you are likely to find other neighbors reporting relevant information, giving firsthand accounts, or, at the very least, wondering what is going on as well.



Social media allows people to quickly spread information and, in urban environments, its presence is ubiquitous. However, social media is also noisy, chaotic, and hard to understand for those unfamiliar with, for example, the intricacies of hashtags and social media lingo. It should be no surprise that, regardless of the popularity of social media, people are still using TV and newspapers as their main sources for local information, while social media is just beginning to emerge as a useful information source.  We created Whoo.ly to address this issue.

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The New War Correspondents: The Rise of Civic Media Curation in Urban Warfare

January 8th, 2013 by andresmh

A few weeks ago, while I was visiting a city in northern Mexico, I witnessed some of the drug-related violence people have been experiencing almost every day: several bodies were hung from a bridge and a number of shootouts were reported throughout in the city. As if that was not terrifying enough, I was not able to learn about those events through the news media. Instead, like many people in these cities, I learned about them on Twitter. Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that a handful of Twitter users, many of whom are anonymous, have emerged as civic media curators, individuals who aggregate and disseminate information from and to large numbers of people on social media, effectively crowdsourcing local news. We set to investigate this emergent phenomenon by looking at a large archive of Tweets associated with the Mexican Drug War and interviewing some of these new “war correspondents,” as one of them referred to herself.

Twitter message [edited] alerting citizens of drug-related violence.

Twitter message [edited] alerting citizens of drug-related violence.

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The Cost of Collaboration for Code and Art

December 13th, 2012 by andresmh

Does collaboration result in higher quality creative works than individuals working alone? Is working in groups better for functional works like code than for creative works like art? Although these questions lie at the heart of conversations about collaborative production on the Internet and peer production, it can be hard to find research settings where you can compare across both individual and group work and across both code and art. We set out to tackle these questions in the context of a very large remixing community.

Remixing in Scratch

Example of a remix in the Scratch online community, and the project it is based off. The orange arrows indicate pieces which were present in the original and reused in the remix

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Scientist and activist gone missing in Mexico after fearing for his safety

September 24th, 2012 by andresmh

Here is my attempt at capturing some of the information I have read in Spanish on the apparent forced disappearance of Aleph Jiménez, a scientist at CICESE (one of the leading research centers in Mexico) and the spokesperson for the local branch of the #YoSoy132 activist movement. His disappearance is generating a lot of discussion on Mexican social media. For example, his name is currently one of Mexico’s trending topics on Twitter. A couple of things are particularly troublesome about the case:

  1. Jiménez was arrested and released for being part of a protest on September 15. Two days later he and his fellow activists held a press conference denouncing police repression.
  2. Subsequently, Jiménez reported being followed and fearing for his safety.
  3. Apparently, the bodies of two of his colleagues at CICESE were found in the past few weeks, something that he interpreted as a warning. I was only able to find this news article about the apparent homicide of one of his colleagues on September 14.
  4. In an interview, Aleph’s father mentioned that he feared the authorities are behind. Read the rest of this entry »

Panel discussion on the #YoSoy132: Mexico’s Networked Social Movement – Sep 20, 5pm at the NERD Center

September 12th, 2012 by andresmh

In collaboration with the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, Microsoft Research New England is hosting a discussion about the #YoSoy132 activist movement. Open to the public.

What: #YoSoy132: Mexico’s Networked Social Movement

When: Thursday September 20 at 5:00 PM

Where: Microsoft Conference Center (Barton Room) located at One Memorial Drive, First Floor, Cambridge, MA

Photo: (c) Omar Torres/AFP/Getty


The role of social media in movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street has been much discussed, and such “hashtagged” social movements continue to appear in multiple latitudes. The panelists will discuss the development of the #YoSoy132 movement, “I am 132” in English, an ongoing student-led activist group that fights for democracy and against media bias in an apparent attempt to impose the next president of Mexico during the recent 2012 general election. The movement embodies the collision between centralized traditional media and distributed social media, and reveals the limitations of social media in reaching beyond those who are already networked. The panelists include a member of the #YoSoy132 and researchers investigating networked social movements. Read the rest of this entry »

Turn This into That: a Remixing Experiment

September 11th, 2012 by andresmh

Two sides of social production: crowdsourcing and remixing

Networked technologies have facilitated two forms of social production: remixing and crowdsourcing. Remixing has been typically associated with creative, expressive, and unconstrained work such as the creation of video mashups or funny image macros that we often see on social media websites. Crowdsourcing, on the other hand, has been associated with large-scale mechanical work, like labeling images or transcribing audio, performed as microtasks on services like Amazon Mechanical Turk. So the stereotype is that remixing is playful, creative, expressive, but undirected and often chaotic, while crowdsourcing is useful to achieve actual work but it is monotonous, and requires (small) financial incentives.

Crowdsoucing Creativity: “Mixsourcing”

The space between remixing and crowdsourcing has partially been explored. For example, one could argue that Wikipedia exists in a unique space in between these two ideas as it relies on some, albeit small, degree of human creativity, requires no financial incentives, and leverages large numbers of contributors who are encouraged to tweak one another’s submissions. However, Wikipedia’s texts are mainly functional, purposely devoid of any personal expressiveness, and constrained by the task at hand.

On the more creative end of the spectrum, artists have explored the use of crowdsourcing, such as the Johnny Cash Project and the Sheep Market, and researchers have evaluated the uses of creative crowdsourcing for design. We wondered then, if there is a way to create a generic platform to perform creative and artistic work in a more directed, crowdsourcing-like way, some kind of “bounded creativity,” which we called “mixsourcing.”

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Mentoring Crowd Workers

May 7th, 2012 by andresmh

Traditional workplaces spend a fair amount of effort mentoring and training their workforce as a way to increase the quality of their work and their job satisfaction. Does mentoring crowd workers also increase the quality of their work? How can one mentor the crowd workforce? These were the questions we tried to tackle this weekend at the Crowd Camp Workshop at CHI.

First we approached these questions by setting up a task that we thought people could improve through mentoring: slide design. We asked Mechnical Turkers to help us improve the design of a set of three slides (which we purposely created to look really ugly). We provided Turkers with a set of guidelines for well-designed slides that included tips on color, graphics, text, etc. We then gave each Turker a slide to improve.

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Is Anonymous vetting presidential candidates?

April 16th, 2012 by andresmh

The group called Anonymous Hispano, the Spanish-speaking branch of the famous hacker collective, issued a statement a few weeks ago announcing that, despite their efforts, they “could not find any evidence of corruption” to incriminate the Mexican presidential candidate López Obrador.  The group prefaced their message by clarifying that they “do not have any partisan agenda and do not support any one” of the candidates. The message ended with an invitation to send them evidence of corruption. In a follow up tweet, they invited the public to submit evidence of corruption of any of the other candidates, suggesting specific hashtags for each of them.


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Cross-cultural Differences in Twitter Syntax

April 8th, 2012 by andresmh

I have been reading a lot of Tweets in Spanish lately. One thing that I find particularly interesting is how a lot of people use a different retweeting syntax is. For example, a lot of retweets look like this:

"@JohnSmith: original message" // commentary

I wonder if this is linked to the type of client early adopters used. I also see this among Mexican celebrities, so maybe this is something that they started and it spread from there. I wonder how many different ways of using Twitter or other social technologies there are that we are not even aware of.

Trip report – March 2012

March 25th, 2012 by andresmh

I’ve been to a couple of conferences and presentations lately so I wanted to write a trip report, but then I thought it would be more useful to summarize it in terms of the most popular topics I noticed.

1. Big data. People are trying to figure out how to make sense of so much information and, more importantly, what to do with it. So far most of the work has focused on trying to understand costumers for marketing purposes, which I find pretty uninspiring. However, as part of this theme, I’ve seen a number of sub-themes that are more interesting. Here is one: The “quantified self” movement. As exemplified by Steve Wolfram’s analysis, he did of his own personal big data , the movement is getting more attention.

In general, it seems like Big Data is need for some innovative tools that can help lay people understand it and manipulate it for practical purposes.

2. Techno Politics. From SOPA, to the Arab Spring, to Wikileaks. An interesting question people are asking is on what should be the role technology tech companies. Some companies are gaining cultural capital by demonstrating how their services are being used for noble causes (like Twitter) while others are using their visibility to push publicly for their agenda (like Google supporting SOPA). Regardless, it seems like having a voice in this space will be even more important for tech services to demonstrate relevance.

3. Online learning. Seems like everyone is doing online learning these days, from the Khan Academy, to Udacity, to MITX, and others. It’s becoming a very rich space that is getting a lot of attention, but most efforts are focused on information delivery, which is only a small part of learning. Ironically the social aspects of learning, which some would argue are the most important, are being ignored.

4. Open vs Fauxpen. Now that “open” has become some sort of a brand, people are starting to realize that there’s a lot of fake openness. It seems like we are going to start seeing a bigger push for truly open systems (i.e. Creative Commons licenses, data portability, etc). Like “organic” food, I suspect web services are going to have to show how open they are. For example, Google’s data portability efforts and YouTube’s ability to upload content under Creative Commons licenses are these type of signals of openness. The reality is that many consumers didn’t used to care about this, but an increasing number do, especially those that are loud and influential.

5. Crowdsourcing. I saw three interesting platforms that go beyond Amazon MTurk. Crowdflower which is more reliable than MTurk, captures its audience from people playing social games (e.g. Farmville), and has a very high female base. Kaggle, which attracts top talent to compete in data analysis contests. Taskrabbit, which allows you to crowdsource things in the physical world (e.g. hire people to run errands). In general, it seems like crowdsourcing has shiften from buzzword to an actual usable tool for doing all sorts of things. I think there are opportunities to either leverage some of these platforms or build new ones that tap into a wider range of people.