Occupy Research: Methods and Tools for a Decentralized Future

Occupy Research is a highly participatory band of researchers active in the Occupy Wall Street movement, with working groups popping up across the country. Committed to using open methods, they outline different areas of interest in a wiki and share ideas, tools, and information about the movement.

Sasha Costanza-Chock, one of the initial visionaries of the project, has a strong interest in media use at social movements. Currently Assistant Professor of Civic Media at MIT and a Fellow at Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, he answers some questions about technologies and the decentralization of information.

Technologists in the Occupy camps set up the basic infrastructure for communication with electrical generators, wireless internet, and media teams. The old-school chat client IRC makes an appearance for realtime conversations between camps. They use existing corporate media sites like Twitter and Tumblr to broadcast information about the movement, and as a result, most reporting is about what happened on social media sites during protests.

"The process or methods should reflect the vision of the movement," says Costanza-Chock. To decrease reliance on corporate media, protestors are moving towards building their own open source tools. Hackathons have been organized in New York, Boston, DC and San Francisco. The projects are available on Github, a site for social coding, so different camps can download and run them locally.

"But tools might not be useful for folks on the ground -- yet." Costanza-Chock acknowledges that more projects have been created than are practical. Even if camps have internet access, they are dealing with low bandwidth due to having so many participants. Phones are constantly running out of batteries.

In the camps, old-fashioned, face-to-face communication is the way to go. Protestors use the People's Mic and take minutes at General Assembly meetings that they post to their sites. The library at Occupy Boston provides paper printouts, so that protestors can get information despite connectivity issues. "It's a working example of direct democracy."

To help people outside the movement understand what's going on, sites like 99% Media aggregate content and let the most compelling stories float to the top. Occupy Streams collects video streams from camps around the world, and many maps have been created using Ushahidi software.

"We recognize that not everyone needs to work together," says Costanza-Chock, about the many people getting involved in Occupy Research. "But we do share questions and make statements about the larger movement." For instance, many different groups were interested in scraping Twitter for Occupy Wall Street hashtags in order to create visualizations. "Occupy Research gave them a place to talk and share databases, and now there's a team."

An Occupy Data hackathon is being planned for December 9th-11th.