Technological Initiatives for Social Empowerment

Dissertation by Leo Burd, MIT Media Lab

Despite the recent advances in science and technology, never in history has
the world seen so much discrepancy in wealth, power and living conditions.
Believing that information and communication technologies can help address
this issue, governments and funding organizations have been investing in
bringing computers and internet connectivity to underserved communities.
Unfortunately, many of those initiatives end up privileging the community
residents who were the most visible, literate or active, leaving behind the
ones who would need additional support and reinforcing even more the status

In order to foster a more democratic and participatory society, it is
important to create initiatives that are more inclusive and empower
individuals to control their own development. In this thesis, I propose a
framework for the design and analysis of technological initiatives for
social empowerment and I apply the framework in the implementation of two
initiatives that focus primarily on youth participation and local civic

In the Young Activists Network initiative, I worked with youth technology
centers from different parts of the world organizing young people to become
agents of change in the places where they live. After two years trying
different ideas, it became clear that, in spite of the localized successes,
the Young Activists Network approach required so much effort from our
partner community organizations and volunteers that it would be virtually
impossible to sustain it over time and scale it to other sites.

Based on the lessons learned, I started the What’s Up Lawrence project, an
initiative that aimed at building a self-reinforcing, city-wide network to
help young people in the organization of personally meaningful community
events. In order to support such a network, I built What’s Up, a
neighborhood news system that combines the power of the telephone and of the
web to make it easier for young people to share information, promote
community events, and find out what is happening in their region.

This thesis provides a detailed description of the process that led to What’s
Up. It also highlights the main technical, educational and organizational
elements that have to be considered in the implementation of technological
initiatives for social empowerment and suggests the creation of a special
organization to help in the adoption and further refinement of the proposed

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