Researchers such as the University of Washington’s Phil Howard study revolutions in places such as the Middle East, often by going there. Howard, profiled on GeekWire earlier this month, may be jetting over to Tunisia this fall to study how they put their constitution together. He’s in Turkey now.

But scholars like Howard also do a lot of their collaborating online, even before they go abroad (and while they’re home). The professor says one of the coolest new spots for academics to pool their intellectual resources and dig into case studies — pro bono, and as part of an impromptu international research team — is the Meta-Activism Project.

The project calls itself a “non-traditional digital activism think tank,” and depends on volunteer-scholars to chronicle and code a myriad of case studies from around the world, as part of a Global Digital Activism Data Set (their “distribution map” shows how much work they’ve done already, and where). These studies include data sets that cover everything from Facebook statistics to smoking rates, among lots of other niche areas.

The Meta-Activism Project's Mary Joyce

Mary Joyce, who helped to found the project in March 2010, and is its executive director, took the time to answer a few questions about online-research collaboration, and how hunting for data on “digital activism” works:

How would you define “digital activism”? Is it more of a spectrum of activity, and who’s usually involved in it? 

Digital activism is the use of digital technology in grassroots efforts to achieve social and political change. As academics make up a relatively small percentage of people globally, I’d guess they also make up a small percentage of digital activists, though some may be interested in studying it. Also, in countries like the U.S. where digital activism is pervasive, most academics have probably engaged in “entry-level” digital activism by signing an e-petition, liking a cause on Facebook, or joining the email list of a nonprofit organization.

Why is it important for your project to operate under a Creative Commons license?

I’ll quote Beth Noveck here, who led President Obama’s Open Government Initiative: “working in a transparent, participatory, and collaborative fashion helps improve performance, inform decision-making, encourage entrepreneurship, and solve problems more effectively.”

We believe this is true in research as well as in government. The mission of the Project is to facilitate the study of digital activism. If we share our data and analysis, we are creating porous borders to our organization, making it easier for collaborators to join us or even for autonomous projects to take out data and ideas and work on them. More heads are better than one, especially if they’re networked.

What are some of the challenges associated with being a “non-traditional” think tank? Do you think, too, that your model is where even the more traditional institutions are moving?

By non-traditional I mean that we are not legally incorporated, don’t have a physical office, and work mostly through volunteers. It’s very much built on the principles of Clay Shirky‘s book Cognitive Surplus, and he happens to also be an advisor to the project.  So far it has worked extremely well.  There is nothing that I have wanted the Meta-Activism Project to do that it has been unable to do because of its non-traditional structure. In fact, I think this structure allows us to be more flexible, more productive, to do more with less overhead.

And it doesn’t mean we can’t accept money, we just do it differently. For example, Ethan Zuckerman of MIT connected us to some funding from the MacArthur Foundation, but the money is being paid directly to coders through Mills College, so there is 0% overhead on our end. It’s a big step, and it can’t be used universally, but I think there would be great benefit in implementing the model more widely.

Why is it challenging to hold together such a divergent set of methodologies and approaches?

The Data Set is actually collecting content of the same type — case studies of digital activism instances.  The challenge is that these case studies come in many different forms. A lot of our cases come from online sources like Global Voices and Movements.org, but we also need to look at books, journal articles, and the traditional media.

In addition, we are having a volume challenge because the rate of creation of new digital activism cases is increasing rapidly. Our technologist, Brian Riley, is now working to create a research scraper to automatically collect digital activism cases to be moderated by volunteers. This increase in data is ultimately good for us, but also presents some challenges.

If you got the skillz or time, how can one get involved with the project?

We are currently looking for people to help us collect digital activism cases and to build apps. You can enter cases independently by using the public form or contact me at Mary@meta-activism.org. We are also looking for programmers and developers to help us with our scraper project and other research apps we might like to develop.

GeekWire contributor Will Mari is a first-year Ph.D. in the UW’s Dept. of Communication, and studies the history of technology and journalism. You can reach him at: wtm2@uw.edu.

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