Mobile Action Lab Update: When Journos Make Apps

It's been an especially intense period at Youth Radio, home of two projects that seriously heated up in the last few weeks.

First, there's the Mobile Action Lab, our 2010 Digital Media and Learning Initiative competition winner. Through the Lab, 25 young people are partnering with pro app developers to create 5 apps that serve real needs in youth communities. The design process is well underway on two apps, each with its own production team. One app centers on food equity--enabling re-distribution of free fruit in Oakland--and the other promotes youth expression and news reporting through spoken word.

In conjunction with these efforts, on Friday, we dedicated one of Youth Radio's Brains and Beakers events--live demo-dialogues between inventors and youth--to mobile app development. It was an amazing display of digital music products created by two genius developers who are working with us on the Lab (thank you, Nick and Nick from Stanford!). Scroll down to the video below to check it out. 

And then this week, we've been running a workshop making simple apps using Google App Inventor. Our workshop facilitator, Drew from Mills College, promised that by the end of our time together, the eight participants would know more about programming than most people on earth.

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Damn! That comment reminded me of what Douglas Rushkoff said at SXSW 2010, which we excerpted in our DML proposal video. He talked about creating a society where people at least know there's a thing called programming. Otherwise, Rushkoff said, those who don't will be not the programmers but the users or, worse, the used. The Lab's highest aspiration is not to crank out cohorts of professional programmers (though that'd be nice!). Our goal is to engage young people as digital producers driving every stage of conceptualization, design, development, testing, and dissemination, generating compelling products and--as if not more important--robust and rigorous literacy practices.

The second big thing that happened this week at Youth Radio might not seem as directly relevant to digital media and learning, but the connection's there too. Our Investigative Unit released a two-part series, produced in collaboration with NPR's All Things Considered, on child sex trafficking in Oakland. Trafficked is based on six months of reporting (you can listen to the NPR stories here and here, the Huffington Post front-page articles are here and here, Boing Boing's post is here, Gawker and Jezebel picked it up, or follow the story @youthradio).

The FBI has said 100,000-300,000 children and youth per year are trafficked. But perspectives from the girls themselves, who are caught up in what's known as "the game," are often missing from reports. Part One of the series, reported by Youth Radio's Denise Tejada, reveals those perspectives, focusing on two 18-year-old survivors who now work with community organizations to help others escape sex trafficking. Part Two directly addresses the role of the Internet and social media in sex trafficking systems (something danah boyd wrote about when Craigslist shut down their adult services section). Youth Radio's investigation reveals a legal system with a double standard that makes it difficult to arrest and prosecute pimps and johns, and instead criminalizes girls. Trafficked exposes an emerging infrastructure of photo studios and digital marketers who produce trafficked girls online identities. The story has got members of the Mobile Action Lab thinking about developing an app that somehow addresses and intervenes in young people's often-fraught relationship with local law enforcement, especially in high-crime neighborhoods (we'll keep you posted!). 

The simultaneous escalation of efforts from these two major Youth Radio initiatives has, in turn, got me thinking about the relationship between journalism and app development when young people take the lead. Journalism is our newsroom's core competency, with a track-record that extends over more than 18 years. App development is much newer to us. Here are some preliminary ideas, which I hope to elaborate and on which I'd love your insights:

Stealth Mode: Journalists--especially when working on investigations like Trafficked--rely on ethics codes and legal protections to guarantee confidentiality to sources whose safety would be jeopardized if reporters released their identities. There are also standards within journalism of not talking too much about a story thats still in progress. It's not always in the story's best interest to alert interested parties about what's coming, and, frankly speaking, you don't want anyone to beat you to publication or broadcast. Given these long-established practices, many of Youth Radio's teen and young adult reporters have serious experience not talking about things they're working on. But app development has introduced us to a different form of not talking--that is, non-disclosure agreements. For at least one of our apps, the Mobile Action Lab has been advised not to say too much about it until weve got something awesome to share. We need to comply with NDA protocols of our partners, and we need to manage communication across multiple development teams. It's complicated! And it raises fascinating questions about the role of discretion, selective disclosure, and downright secrecy in digital literacy, especially as these principles rub against ideals related to open development, public iteration, and transparency.

Age of Expertise: I've written a lot (with Vivian Chavez in our new book, Drop That Knowledge, for example) about what we call collegial pedagogy inside Youth Radio's newsroom. In Youth Radio's version of collegial pedagogy, youth and adult journalists jointly produce media that goes out to massive audiences. Neither party could create the work as well independently. Both rely on each other and are mutually vulnerable and accountable to outside judgment of the work's quality. Producing media within this dynamic means young people at Youth Radio are used to collaborating with adult professionals, and that's very much the model were carrying over into the Mobile Action Lab. What's different--and of course now I can't believe I didn't see this coming!--is that with journalism, in almost every case the top professionals are significantly older, sometimes one or two generations, than the teens and young adults (14-24) in Youth Radio's newsroom. With mobile app development, that's totally not the case. With technology changing so quickly, the pro developers with the most dazzling skills and portfolios can be the same age or younger than members of the Mobile Action Lab. In the evaluation of our most recent Brains and Beakers workshop on digital instruments and mobile apps, one participant replied to a question about what surprised him/her not with an observation about the technology that was shared, but with the remark, "that the presenters were so young!" I'm really looking forward to observing and writing about how these dynamics play out over the course of our collaborative development efforts.

What's the Story?: There's one thing that strikes me about working between journalism and app development: story matters enormously for both. Whether we're pitching a radio feature or brainstorming an app idea, we're constantly asking ourselves, how will this thing move a meaningful conversation forward? Who are the key characters? What happens? What changes? Why should we care? I'm also noticing that talking about app ideas sparks story ideas, and vice versa. In discussing possibilities for an app related to youth and law enforcement, one Mobile Action Lab member shared the story of recently being detained by police in the middle of the day and accused of engaging in prostitution (she was in fact on her way to school). That connected, of course, to the newsroom's Trafficked story and lent further evidence to the finding that girls--even those with no relationship to prostitution--are being criminalized in the current legal system. And just yesterday, while reviewing the features of the App Inventor, we started talking about how well the voice and translation tools worked. Out of that conversation came the idea for a radio story that tested various voice recognition products for whether they could understand speakers who used a range of accents and dialects.

All of this is to say, it seems Youth Radio won't just be doing parallel journalism and app development. We'll use journalism to report on apps and digital media. And we'll use app development to discover and tell new stories.