Virtual Street Corners : using technology to bridge social divides

May 28, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I originally wrote this blog post for my new favorite wesbsite, Dowser.org

Boston area neighborhoods Brookline and Roxbury are two miles apart, but they might as well exist in different countries. Brookline is a majority white and Jewish suburb, while Roxbury is a low-income neighborhood in Boston proper known as “the heart of Black culture.” A city bus links the districts, but racial, cultural and class boundaries prevent all but a few from making the trip. In June 2010, however, a new initiative, Virtual Street Corners, will begin working to overcome this divide via video conferencing. They’ll be placing large video screens with built-in cameras above shop windows to create a forum where people in the two locales can interact publicly in real time.

Project founder, John Ewing, drew his inspiration for Virtual Street Corners while conversing with locals as he painted murals around Boston.  He found that most people knew little about the city beyond their own neighborhoods. “I wanted to bridge that gap and recreate that street corner conversation,” he said. “We need citywide dialogue on many issues.” As example, he cites the issue of the CORI laws, which require mandatory criminal background checks for employees, adding that “the people in Roxbury would see that differently than the people in Brookline.”

When he tested the project in 2008, Ewing found that most people were excited to try out the screen, but quickly ran out of things to say.  But when a political or religious leader started talking, a crowd would gather and soon take over the conversation. Preparing for the June launch, Ewing is soliciting participation from civic leaders. He’s also asking residents in both neighborhoods to submit one-minute videos that will identify key issues to kick off the discourse.

The project is part of the Idea Lab, a Knight Foundation-backed initiative dedicated to using digital technology to reshape community news. The process will be documented and archived online so that anyone can use it as a model.  If it succeeds, Ewing hopes to recreate it elsewhere in Boston and in other cities.

If you are a Boston resident, keep a watch and let us know how interactive street conversations affect the feel of your city.

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