Posted May 6th 2010 at 11:03 am by
in The Urban Labs

Introducing the Urban Labs (on CoLab Radio)

Malia Lazu is founder of The Urban Labs and a Mel King Community Fellow at CoLab.  In this blog feed, she chronicles The Urban Labs’ projects and processes.  The Mission of The Urban Labs is to increase the effectiveness of community organizing by integrating new media and mobile phone platforms to enhance connectivity and deepen relationships between individuals and community organizing.  These posts originally appear on The Urban Labs Blog.

In the recent past there have been many examples of the mobilizing and organizing potential of networking platforms. One example, the Easter Sunday flash mobbing in Times Square, left me a little dumbfounded. The notion that a couple of hundred young black men were going to 42nd street because their networks on twitter suggested it as an activity for Easter Sunday, was intriguing and while I cannot condone the violence that occurred, the turn out impressed me. I created The Urban Labs because I want to see this type of organizing outcome coming from social justice organizations, not just gangs in these communities.

The Urban Labs was created to explore organizing tools being offered by technology. We have started working in New York City with The Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives(IJJRA) to test using SMS technology to harness the power of the networks in an organizations sphere of influence. We decided our first test would be having high school students use SMS to organize a Stop The Violence talent show for their community.

Over the past month Urban Labs founding board members Chuck Baker, founder of FileBlaze; Rick Borovoy, Center for Future Civic Media scientist at MIT; and some great programmers from txtshot have been working with us to create a short code program that will allow each student to track their outreach and will allow IJJRA to send alerts, quizzes and surveys to the database built by the students. Yesterday I went to IJJRA and met with their students from West Brooklyn High School to unveil the first rendition of our SMS deck and get them to use it together.

The recent mobbing in Times Square gave us a great context to talk networks and technology. We asked the students: “What would you mob for?” We started by asking a series of what if’s regarding a text message. The outcomes were quite surprising. Highlighting why networks are important, all of them said that who sent the text was the number one reason of why they would or would not show up.

When asked if they would show up for a free iPod Touch, one student said “It depends who sent it. I would probably think it was a scheme for something… nothing’s free.” They also said that they would not show up somewhere if Nike promised to give a dollar to Haiti for every person who shows up. One student, Jon, summed it up this way “Nike has a lot of money, they should just write a check.” Even the promise of summer jobs didn’t get all the kids to show.

While this turned into an interesting focus group including popular cultural trends (sorry Jay Z, they wouldn’t show up for a free autographed CD from you). There was one text message that they ALL would show up for, which is a great lesson about motivation. All of them agreed they would show up if it meant closing a prison.

We then introduced them to their short code and we worked together to create a campaign to test. They first decided that the keyword would be “Power” and then the students all texted Power to 70376. The response they got back was one we created together: “State your name” (don’t ask how we came up with that and why, just know that trust and cynicism are huge issues). Once these kids saw the response in their phones, the connection was made, their eyes lit up and Corey said “Yo… this is what Hot 97 does! We can do what Hot 97 does.”

Next week this class begins to organize for their talent show. They will be using the SMS code by setting up weekly surveys about juvenile justice and violence in their community. This will allow them to build their organizing chops and learn the power of a good list. I will close here with a concluding quote from one of our students: “This is the way to do it. I don’t want to have to pass out pamphlets, no one reads them anyway…”

Post by Malia Lazu.

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