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Lessons In Civic Prototyping

My thought process in building tools for civic spaces.

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This year at the Open Lab I set out to create a DIY civic tool to encourage citizen newsgathering. To accomplish this I, admittedly, tried to solve a few too problems at once. I wanted to figure out how to repurpose old mobile devices and expired electronics to cut down on e-waste. I didn’t just want to repurpose their parts, I specifically wanted to work them into the schematic of the prototypes. Finally, I wanted to simplify this complex process into a consumable piece set of steps that would make the work an approachable entry point for the novice tinkerer.

Ambitious, I know.

Design + Philosophy

A rule of thumb in the wearable development environment is that one should design to solve a problem and address the solution through wearable design, not the other way around. I worked hard to place this philosophy at the heart of my work.

The problem is discretion to enhance safety when recording threatening civic engagements. The problem expands to include the question of who gets to tell stories in our communities. Discretion should not require intricacy.

I tried to keep in mind that my goal was not to build a product. Products can be based in smoke-and-mirrors styled development. They are usually made up of proprietary technology that rarely requires explaining. My work would have an open hood which meant it needed a simple, approachable design.

Within the first quarter of my fellowship the desire for a simple, open-sourced solution led me ruling out repurposing old electronics after I comprised a sixty-step tutorial for tearing down, reassembling and installing JanOS to a prototype. Instead I decided to prototype with Raspberry Pi which is a favorite in the maker community due to its compact form-factor, affordability and high processing power.


A brief landscape analysis proved Raspberry Pi to be a great low-tech entry point. Raspberry Pi is extremely easy to engage with especially if you work with the Raspbian operating system which is as user friendly as Windows and Mac OS.

One thing I notice with a lot of tutorials I came across is the huge amount of assumed knowledge. Tribal knowledge is huge in the maker and development communities. Tutorial authors take for granted that novices understand Terminal commands, disk imaging and a host of other things. I wanted to try staying away from the search engine rabbit holes that can easily consume a “beginner” tutorial.

Another huge part of my research was understanding the landscape of civic surveillance gear. I read a lot about Steve Mann who coined the term “souveillance”. His work in spans from the 90’s to present day where he’s prototyped several playful and serious hardware pieces that question both how civilians interact with authority as well as corporations.

A fantastic part of my research revealed a company called BioLite that prioritized prototyping for communities right next to prototyping for profit with their camp fire product line.

User Testing

I did not have as many users testing the embedded camera prototype as I could have. I constantly struggled with attempting to perfect the prototype over having it in actual hands. On the other hand, I was able to engage with several people who attempted to build the hat following my documentation and verbal instruction over a series of workshops.

I learned a lot about my own tribal knowledge and was able to shift my instructional pieces to more specific, inclusive language. This is certainly an ongoing process. I hope to do more work in documentation, alone. I think it could be a fun exercise to create visually stunning, relatable and digestible tutorials that reach across generations and technical backgrounds.

I also conducted brief focus groups during our weekly fellowship critique sessions. There I decided to prioritize GIFs in my tutorials at the recommendation of another fellow. GIFs are not only a means of online humor but also a useful learning tool in visually demonstrating the repetition of a step.

Value Setting Embedded Camera Footage

The footage from a discrete camera is pretty cool. I can say that without bias. I found myself growing bored of my footage and longed to determine a method for determining the value points of footage recorded during a thirty minute commute to work. There are ways to alleviate such tedium with programming but I also genuinely enjoyed scanning footage. At one point I moved past worrying about what was “good” and “bad” footage.

When watching the footage there is obvious movement which really lends to the first person perspective another individual is gaining by watching your experience. But our shortened attention spans are now a commodity. So if this were a product for market there would need to be a means for easily determining the importance of footage. In civic spaces, every recorded moment could lend to establishing a narrative arc in the story of an engagement with authority. I don’t know if I’d change the short scripts I used that recorded minute long increments with a few seconds off for a processing break.

Digital Privacy

As with many tools, there is also potential for unintended use and/or abuse and I wonder what it may look like creating provisions to limit that potentiality. I want to insure the community's privacy is not at risk. Some ideas include a mobile app that would require uploading and as a result could create a community for policing footage.

There is also a large social factor at play here. What happens when we over document our lives? How does that change who we are, our authentic behavior and how we interact with one another? I want help thinking through the social and psychological implications so as to not harm our communities.

Parallel Innovation Model + the Future of the Work

In 2012 BioLite introduced a portable biomass stove that leverages thermoelectrics to create a smokeless fire all while charging personal devices - CampStove. What many don’t know is the company’s commitment to providing energy everywhere, affordably and with the smallest possible carbon footprint.

In 2009 Biolate bifurcated their business and developed the Parallel Innovation Model. They innovate and sell their products in the energy space while simultaneously using the same innovative technology, in HomeStove, to actively impact energy poverty across the other half of the world where communities lack safe and reliable ways to cook, charge, and light their lives.

This is where I hope to see my work live. I constantly debate with whether the market needs more product. Moreover, does the world need more “stuff”? I am growing tired of commerce and consumption. But it's the world we live in. I can see this work going on as a home assembly toolkit with a parallel effort to create free/affordable kits for community workshops in storytelling and hardware assembly.

Follow my work via my website and twitter.