Mapping the News and Engineering Serendipity


I’m a second year master’s student at the Center for Civic Media where we do a lot of thinking about how technology can foster strong and engaged communities. Since a democratic society is predicated on an informed citizenry, much of our work centers around analyzing news media. How does a story unfold in the new media ecosystem of blogs, broadcast, print and mobile? Whose stories get told? Whose stories get read? How do we translate information into action?

I spent last year building tools for creating a critical geography of the news media. I started by working with an experimental API by GlobeLab (the Boston Globe’s R&D wing) and created Mapping the Globe. This interactive tool maps two years of Boston Globe articles into MA towns and Boston neighborhoods and associates keywords with each geography to show us not just differences in quantity of attention but also differences in how news media talk about different geographies. Click on Foxboro vs Mattapan to get a stark illustration of this framing. After creating this tool, I went on to build technologies that can automatically extract geographic locations from news articles so that we can start mapping very large data sets of news articles from MediaCloud.

While I’ll continue to work on mapping the news this year, I’m going to focus my thesis research on “Engineering Serendipity”. Too many spaces are engineered around the principles of “homophily” – our tendency to congregate with others like us. This goes for physical spaces (gated communities) and online spaces (social networks). So how can we build systems, websites and apps that make us encounter people who are not like us and worlds that are not like ours? How can we translate those encounters with difference into increased openness to new information, empathy and civic engagement? These are some of the questions I’ll be experimenting with this year. By the end of the year and after a couple of wacky experiments, I’m hoping to create a set of design guidelines titled “How to Engineer Serendipity”.

I’m psyched to participate in the diversity committee because they(we) are fulfilling an important role at the Media Lab to engineer a little serendipity into our lab environment and demonstrate that the field of creative technology is wide enough to accommodate all of us.