Learning From I-Neighbors

Posted: May 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Blogosphere, ePlanning, History, Justice, Technology, University of Michigan, Urban Development | 2 Comments »

The story of I-Neighbors.org is important to anyone hoping to use technology to complement traditional forms of urban community. The website was created by Keith Hampton, a scholar interested in “the relationship between new information and communication technologies, social networks, and the urban environment.”

A trained sociologist, as a newly minted PhD Hampton taught at the MIT Urban Studies and Planning program from 2001 to 2005. Here he developed and launched I-Neighbors, a “social networking service that connects residents of geographic neighborhoods.” The website allows registered users to look up and join “neighborhoods.” Each neighborhood has a variety of default functions: email list, polls, business reviews, photos, documents, events, and a directory of other members. Originally it had a “GovLink” service allowing users to connect to local elected officials, but this has been shut down due to cost.

i-neighborsAlthough the website could use some design tweaks (fonts are too small, for one), the website is reasonably straightforward to use and clearly carefully thought out. I think I remember reading the site was accompanied with some offline training sessions in the Boston area.

Unfortunately, it’s taken off in relatively few neighborhoods. According to a 2006 paper, as of then 23.6% of website users hadn’t joined any neighborhood, and only 9 neighborhoods have over 50 users. These facts suggest it’s either not what they’re looking for, too complicated, or have another usability issue. When users look up a zip code, if another user has not created a neighborhood the systems says there “are currently no i-Neighborhoods in your area” asking, in smaller letters, if they want to create one. Creating new neighborhoods is simple enough, but I bet pre-creating any searched for neighborhood would get more users engaged in the system.

Individually, the tools are useful, and in fact sites have thrived performing almost all individually:

  • Business reviews – Yelp
  • Geocoded Photos – Flickr
  • Neighborhood listservs – Yahoo, Google, private lists
  • Neighborhood news – Variety of local news, blogs, neighborhood (offline) newsletters.

Why isn’t there greater use of these functions on the website? In marketing parlance, the ‘unique value proposition’ of social networking websites, is the content and the people, not the functionality. Thus in the fickle world of social networking, some have thrived while others have withered according to their relative popularity among users, not necessarily the sophistication of the functionality. I-Neighbors has struggled to take off in many communities.

Additionally, the content is carefully organized into neighborhood-specific stovepipes. This reduces the potential users able to see, say, the review of a local business. Additionally, urban residents have famously fluid conceptions of neighborhoods, suggesting perhaps the content should be organized in a less rigid way. Although functioning in some ways like a social networking websites, users don’t select which friends they will allow to see their profiles, instead all members of the neighborhood are thrown in together. Additionally, there’s no search functionality for users and users can only see other people in their networks, not across the system. These barriers to finding other people thwart one potential source of interest in the system.

A related conundrum for academic innovators is although they may be able to imagine possible new tools, they can rarely keep pace with the private sector in terms of usability, design, and functionality. However, the market may not produce the websites with precisely the sort of arrangement or functionality we’d like to see. I give Prof. Hampton credit for developing such a sophisticated tool, but it will have trouble to keep pace with private sector websites with dedicated staff making continual improvement.s

One approach to the success of a myriad of highly specialized sites for specific geographically specific information is the one taken by EveryBlock, which aggregates private and government data for every block (or zip code), including Yelp! reviews, geotagged Flickr photos, restaurant inspections, blog posts and crime reports.

A Success Story

One neighborhood, profiled in this academic paper, was particularly successful, resulting in a very vibrant email list. What can we learn from this case? This neighborhood was already well organized offline, is a physically distinct community with an association that adopted I-Neighbors as a platform for online collaboration. The group requires members to use their real names (something the e-democracy.org folks believe in). As an aside, the use of the site also shows the direct connection between neighborhood media to planning and policy, a early hot topics was a redevelopment plans, how the neighborhood corporation was investing revenue in the neighborhood.

This successful neighborhood benefited from several very active members. Although hyperactive participants can be a liability, overwhelming visitors or dominating conversations, a core of enthusiastic participants can benefit a forum because they create a public good – information and opinion – that others can read or react to. This relates to Noor Ali-Hasan’s blog study that argued active conversation starting blogs play an important role in a larger ecosystem of online communication.

Closing Questions

Considering the lessons this website provides, two questions arise. First, what is new? What new information was communicated, new relationships developed, or most importantly new outcomes resulted in the real world? It’s not clear how you could prove something like this, but it is the question of central importance evaluating the significance of a new community-building tool. The second but related question, how did the online intervention change existing relationships and arrangements? Did it reinforce them, alter them in another way? Answering these questions rigorously — about I-Neighbors or any other community building website — will help us understand the true potential for the Internet to affect local communities.

> I-Neighbors.org


Michigan Campus Activism Guide Published

Posted: September 18th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Ann Arbor, Politics, University of Michigan | Comments Off

Guide to Campus Activism

Although it has been a while since I’ve written about the University of Michigan, I thought I would note the publication of a book by my friend and U-M senior Mollie Bates. An Art and Design senior, in collaboration with the progressive paper the Michigan Independent, Mollie has designed and produced an 80-page, full color book on progressive campus activism at the university titled The Michigan Independent’s Guide to Campus Activism. The book features detailed descriptions of activism from 2003 to 2007 (Students Supporting Affirmative Action, The College Democrats, Voice Your Vote and The Coke Coalition), historical information dating back to the 1960s, and a how-to guide for future activists. I had the opportunity to peruse a copy this summer and was duly impressed. You can get a copy of the book by getting in touch with Mollie at mollie.bates at gmail.com. She informs me it will eventually be available for purchase online, and I will update this post when that happens.

> Preview the book on Mollie’s online portfolio

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Almost everyone has had a printer at one time or the other. This is the age of lexmark printers. Throw away the old ones, and get new printer accessories and start printing right away.


‘It’s Fun To Be In the O-R-D-E-R’

Posted: April 9th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Ann Arbor, History, Justice, Michigamua, Michigan, University of Michigan | 2 Comments »

For those accustom to my usual topics about urbanism and D.C., permit me a brief digression about a University of Michigan “leadership” society with a controversial history, that recently re-named themselves from Michigamua to The Order of Angell.

The Ann Arbor blog Left Behind in the Fishbowl has posted what appears to be a copy of lyrics of a song written to be used during initiation rituals by Michigamua/Order of the Angell, titled “YMCA (Pride 2008)”. Whether or not the document is authentic of a sophisticated parody, it makes for hilarious reading.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about Michigamua/Order of the Angell because they just inducted new members. Readers of this blog will know I think the group should be abolished since it is a shameful blemish on the history of the University of Michigan, but I won’t belabor the point. I think my views are a quite reasonable conclusion based on my research. It seems some basic history is a good starting point.

1. At its founding, the group created an elaborate invented mythology using their views of Native American culture, which they proceeded to use for nearly 100 years.
2. For 90 years of their history most internal communication (including all newsletters) was in a stylized speech (see below for examples)
3. The group first admitted women in 2000
4. The organized had privileged space in the Michigan Union from the 30s until 2000, had close relationships with administrators for many years, and even at one point had a special university account for their finances. For years, they used university property outside downtown Ann Arbor for special events.
5. They agreed to abolish all references to native American culture in 1989, however the tower occupation revealed numerous objects and a wigwam retained by the organization

Whether it is even possible — or even desirable — to whitewash this history with a quick name change I think is an open question. This is not to mention the appropriateness of having such a group with such an elitist past (and present) claiming to act “for Michigan.”

Here are the new members, from the Daily:

“Pride of 2008″
-Sarah Banco – Women’s soccer
-Lindsey Cottrell – Women’s soccer
-Steve Crompton – Dance Marathon
-Lindsay Davis – Women’s golf
-Alessandra Giampaolo – Softball
-Sam Harper – College Democrats chair
-Michael Hart – Football
-Jen Hsu – Co-chair of the Michigan Student Assembly’s LGBT commission
-Nellie Kippley – Women’s gymnastics
-Matko Maravic – Men’s tennis
-Doug Pickens – Baseball
-Randal Seriguchi – VP of the National Pan-Hellenic council, MSA
-Sejal Tailor – Multicultural Greek Council president
-Alex Tisdall – ROTC
-Tyrel Todd – Men’s wrestling
-Alex Vanderkaay – Swimmer
-Zack Yost – MSA president
-Michael Cromwell – A capella
-Nicole Wojcik – Marching Band
-Anup Shah – IASA
-Rohan Patel – Dance Marathon
-Kelly Sanderson – Women Engineers
-Gervis Menzies – Residence Hall Association

Here’s some images I pulled from my collection:

tower talk-1940s
Newsletters from the 1940s

Michigamua Class of 1966
Class of 1966

Michigamua 3
Induction ritual photo and account from 1960s

more michigamua
This letterhead was used well into the 1970s. Ironically, this copy contains notes from a meeting where negotiations with Native American students was discussed.

Michigamua 1
Note, donations from this 1980s fundraising letter are payable to a “University of Michigan — Michigamua Account”

tour1-2
Objects discovered in the “wigwam” during 2000 Student of Color Coalition occupation.

Recent News
> Michigan Daily: “After seven years, group recognized by ‘U’ once again
> Michigan Daily: “The secret society that lived: New name alone can’t cover blemishes of a shady past
> Michigan Daily: “Jim Toy Viewpoint: To build a bridge” (Community member describes why he is working with group)

Resources
> Native American Student Association — Michigamua “Guide to Understanding”
> The Order of Angell Maize pages entry
> The Order of Angell website
> Michigamua Members: 1999-2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 (For previous years just drop me a line, I have a printed directory going all the way back to 1902)

More
> Previous Michigamua Posts


Wanted: Photos of Google’s Book Digitization Project

Posted: March 9th, 2007 | Author: | Filed under: Books, Technology, University of Michigan | 4 Comments »

I’ve engaged in some speculation before about the size and character of Google’s effort to digitize the nearly 5 million volumes in the University of Michigan library as part of their plan to digitize the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the University of Oxford, and The New York Public Library. I’ve also long intended to post this request.

I’m looking for photos of the process at work at any of these libraries. I will protect the privacy of any submitted photos to the fullest extent I am able. Please email them to rob.goodspeed at gmail.com


Races I Was Watching

Posted: November 8th, 2006 | Author: | Filed under: District of Columbia, Elections, Justice, Politics, University of Michigan, Urban Development | 10 Comments »

With so many candidates and initiatives on the ballots across the country yesterday I thought it would be worthwhile to point out a few items I was watching.

Although it was exciting to watch the Democrats take back the House for the first time since 1994, the evening wasn’t without its disappointments. At the top of that list must be the success of the affirmative action ban in Michigan. Although the full impact will become clear in the next months and years, the ban threatens not only affirmative action policies for university admissions but also scholarships, retention programs, and other policies that assist not only racial and ethnic minorities but also women. A similar policy in California has led to sharp and stark declines in the number of black students at the top campuses in the UC system – as a particularly egregious example out of nearly 5,000 incoming students this fall at UCLA just 96 are black – around 2%. In Michigan this could mean we see the percentage of black students at the University of Michigan drop below 10% in a metropolitan region that is over 21% black. (Although University of Michigan president pledged today in a rousing speech they would use ‘every legal option available.’) My friend Dumi who is a graduate student at the University of Michigan has posted his thoughts about the initiative. (Which he points out was endorsed by the KKK) Also in Michigan, Carl Levin’s son Andy Levin lost his race for State Senate by a tiny margin in a hotly contested race for a Republican-majority district. Democratic challenger Jim Marcinkowski also failed in his attempt to knock off Republican Mike Rogers in Michigan’s 8th. Overall the picture in Michigan isn’t all doom and gloom — Governor Jennifer Granholm and Senator Stabenow won re-election, and Democrats took over the Michigan House. Another Michigan friend Chris Wilcox was helping out Michael Arcuri, who successfully won the contested race for New York House District 24.

Another largely-overlooked outcome of the election was the continuing popular backlash against the Kelo vs. New London case: eight states voted to prohibit or restrict the use of eminent domain for economic development purposes. I have mixed feelings about this. Although eminent domain has had a shameful history, I am mostly worried constitutional amendments and ballot initiatives is an inappropriate way of handling the issue and could lead to unintended consequences down the road.

Lastly, as I have already posted it appears my neighborhood ANC in D.C. will have a new chair – Kevin Chappele. Perhaps now that body will publish a regular agenda, post their meeting location on the web, and do a better job serving the needs of the neighborhood.


Michigan Daily Editor to Join Controversial Society

Posted: July 12th, 2006 | Author: | Filed under: Michigamua, University of Michigan | 2 Comments »

Michigan Daily Editor in Chief Donn Fresard has announced he plans join the controversial University of Michigan senior secret society formerly known as Michigamua. Fresard told the Daily for their own story he decided it was the “the right thing to do,” adding he found “nothing objectionable” about the group after their recent announced changes. In response, the newspaper’s Managing Editor Ashley Dinges has quit the newspaper, arguing Fresard’s decision would constitute a conflict of interest.

Founded in 1902, for nearly 80 years the all male group’s identiy was based in organizational language and practices inspired by Native American culture. In 1989 they agreed to abandon much of the offensive cultural trappings in a negotiated agreement with Native American Students after years of protest. In 1999, the organization admitted the first woman. In 2000, activists forced the organization from their office space in the tower of the Michigan Union they had occupied since the 1930s, revealing a “wigwam” space and artifacts in blatant violation of the 1989 agreement. In 2001 I began posting the names of members to this website.

In 2006, after a year-long series of embarrassing publicity including organization members ejected from student organizations, a critical art exhibit, and investigative documentary film (to which I contributed), the organization announced they would abandoned their 104-year name and released the names of current members.

> Michigan Daily: “Daily Editor in Chief to join senior society
> Ashley Dinges: “Why I quit my job
> Romenesko: “Michigan Daily ME quits over top editor’s club membership
> See all my recent posts on Michigamua


Student Housing in Ann Arbor

Posted: July 3rd, 2006 | Author: | Filed under: Ann Arbor, Politics, Public Policy, University of Michigan | 1 Comment »

My friend Dale has just posted a rough introduction to his urban planning thesis to his blog. He is making an ambitious argument — perhaps too ambitious — but I’m interested to see what he uncovers in the process of investigating it.

In this thesis, I argue that students individually and collectively were agents of change in this period of major alterations in the educational project of the university, in local and university housing policy, and in federal housing policy, making significant contributions to urban development even while they worked within a structural framework of national economic depression and world war, changing federal housing policy, suburbanization, the emergence of the research university, and urban crisis and revitalization. This consideration of student housing, then, is an effective means of examining the changing relationship between the city and the university in twentieth century American urban history.

I’ll also be interested to see what comparisons could be made with College Park from his finished work, and what insights he uncovers on the topic of student voting rights. A year ago I blogged about an interesting group, the Student Voting Rights Campaign, but sadly just noticed their rich trove of articles collected in 2004 was lost to a server crash. Here’s to hoping it’s backed up somewhere.

> Urban Oasis: “Allow Me to Introduce Myself

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