eChicago Symposium (April 2-3, 2009)

The third eChicago symposium was held in Dominican University on April 2-3, 2009. The symposium began in the evening of April 2 and went full day on April 3. Professor Matthew Zook gave an interesting keynote talk titled “Cyberscapes and Digiplace: Rethinking the Digital Divide in Urban America” on Thursday evening.

The melding of physical and digital places is what he refers to ‘digiplace’. In other words, he uses ‘digiplace’ as a heuristic that refers to the melding of data located and ranked in cyberspace, and people’s understanding and use of physical places. People’s perception, understanding, and use of place does not only depend on the physical place anymore, it is also influenced by its digital representation in cyberspace. As we increasingly rely on corporate mapping services, we also put ourselves in growing risks of corporate control. Matthew consistently used the word ‘blackbox’ to refer to the software codes Google uses to rank spatially referenced pages. More worrying is that corporate interests may lead to the change of their proprietary ranking algorithm at any time without consultation to users or the general public. Thus, if unchecked in time, there might be a unilaterally shaping of digiplace by corporations.

Matthew also introduced another concept called ‘cyberscape’. While web 2.0-based mapping is relatively easy, his firm emphasis was in the study of the processes and meaning underlying these mapping activities and their potential consequences. Using the compelling example of mapping after Hurricane Katrina, he showed a correlation between placemarks mapped on Google earth and racial composition of the mapped areas in New Orleans immediately after the Hurricane. He argued that cyberscape carry same or even amplified divides that exists in the physical landscapes. Followings are the two papers he gave me to read; I found both these papers insightful.

  • Zook, M. and M. Graham. (2007). The Creative Reconstruction of the Internet: Google and the Privatization of Cyberspace and DigiPlace. GeoForum.
  • Crutsher M. and Matthew Zook. (In press). Placemarks and waterlines: Racialized cyberscapes in post-Katrina Google Earth. GeoForum.

Friday was packed with many interesting demonstrations and discussions. One of issues that surfaced was about the competition for resources. Because there are several organizations working for eChicago, they often compete for resources. This brings an interesting question: how can multiple organizations work together for a shared goal? Under which model? One of the panelists in the concluding session highlighted the need for research. He began his talk asking a simple yet important question: How do we know that the resources put in the past are working? He called for research that evaluates the past efforts, identifies best practices and make recommendations for the future. The need for community informatics research was further emphasized in the context of the investment the new administration is making on broadband. Community informatics research has a promising time ahead as investigations are required on different dimensions of the investment on the broadband technologies.

One of most exciting parts of the symposium was the meeting among about 20 graduate students from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, and Dominican University on the sideline of the symposium. Students from Michigan and Dominican were interested to know more about community informatics and youth community informatics program in UIUC. They were curious to see similar program in their institutions. We introduced each other and exchanged ideas and experiences on range of topics related to community informatics. In sum, this was an interesting symposium and I enjoyed it.

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