Monthly Archives: May 2007

Great visualization tools

First, if you haven’t seen it, there is a fascinating presentation by Hans Rousling (at TED conference) of data on issues like child mortality, life expectacy, GDP, Internet use, etc.  His interactive software is available at Gapminder and here.  You can chart variables by nation over time like military budget, phone usage, doctors per capita, urban population,  percentage of women in the paid workforce, etc.

Secondly, IBM has some interesting new Alphaworks tools that let you visualize dominant themes.  Click here for a visualization using tag clouds of the House of Commons debate about Iraq War [IBM calls this Many Eyes].  Larger words are more commonly mentioned words.  You can select in the radio box whether to sort by 1 word or two word phrases.  You can use Many Eyes to upload a large amount of text and find and visualize dominant themes.

Central voting centers to increase turnout

A Fort Wayne Journal Gazette article “Voting centers could prevent election disaster” (5/16/07) highlights the success of a Wayne County experiment in having fewer centralized voting centers that are open for several days in the run-up to the election.  It increases the chance that highly skilled personnel can be found to manage the process, rather than relying on much lower quality poll workers that typically must be recruited.  (This problem was one motivation that led to the Carter-Baker Commission (Jimmy Carter/James Baker) arguing for weekend voting, in the assumption that better poll workers could be recruited when voting did not happen on a typical workday.  The official name of the Commission was the Commission on Federal Election Reform.  CFER also endorsed Voting Centers as their recommendation #4.3.) The Wayne County pilot replaced 31 precinct polling places with just four centralized voting centers.  The article notes:

Finding enough inspectors, judges and poll clerks to adequately monitor the state’s 5,648 active precincts has been a challenge for years. The $110 stipend paid to inspectors and $70 given other poll workers is little incentive for a job that requires training and a 14-hour workday. And grass-roots folk just aren’t as eager to work the polls as they once were. As political scientist Robert Putnam reported at the end of the 20th century, “By almost every measure, Americans’ direct engagement in politics and government has fallen steadily and sharply over the last generation.”

Richmond got slightly higher voting rates than typical: 16% of registered voters turned out which was over a 50% jump for the 2003 election where 11% turned out.  Moreover, Wayne County needed 80% fewer poll workers than typical.   The program was modeled after a Larimer County, CO similar program that has gotten a 96.4% turnout in their 2004 general election with a combination of centralized voting centers. absentee ballots and early voting.

Surveiling ourselves

There’s an interesting article in the Utne Reader describing how citizens unwittingly reveal lots of information about themselves, in Invading Our Own Privacy. Tell-all blogs, digital surveillance, online profiling: Who needs Big Brother? (May/June 2007,  David Schimke)

The article points out that “On February 22, ClickZ.com reported that Fox Interactive Media, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns MySpace, had hired a high-tech ad firm to mine user profiles, blog posts, and bulletins to ‘allow for highly refined audience segmentation and contextual microtargeting . . . which might put it in more direct competition with the likes of Yahoo, AOL, and MSN.'”

The article also mentions a Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 12, 2007) piece that notes that “two professors at Drake University’s law school, worried that their students’ casual approach to digital correspondence could hinder their careers, started a class stressing online discretion. The lesson, according to one student, is simple: ‘If you are not comfortable with shouting your comments from a street corner, you probably shouldn’t convey them via electronic print.'”

Finally, the article also refers to a New York article “Say Anything” (2/21/07) on the digital exhibitionism of youth today, willing to reveal lots of personal information about themselves on blogs, through e-mails, etc.

Ze Frank’s humorous summary of Social Capital

Ze Frank, the webvideo artist, has a humorous video that describes Robert Putnam and social capital about 2/3 of the way through (in typical Zezian style).  Warning:  some of the language is a bit ‘dodgy’ as the Brits would say.

 What else have you heard or read humorous or engaging on social capital?

Johnnie and Janie learn civics better

Fourth-Graders Improve History, Civics Scores; Seniors Make Significant Gains Nationally (Washington Post, 5/17/07, p. A9, Jay Matthews) reports that the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) chronicled a rise from 69% in 1998 to 73% in 2006 in the percentage of fourth-graders performing at or above basic level; high school seniors’ civic scores remained flat. [History scores also rose from 64-70% over this period for fourth graders and rose for high school seniors.]

The 2006 Civics Report is available here.

“Experts said the rise in fourth-grade scores might be linked to strenuous efforts…to improve the teaching of reading in kindergarten through third grade. ‘Higher scores in fourth-grade history and civics go along with the recently reported higher reading scores,’ said Karin Chenoweth, a writer for the District-based Achievement Alliance and author of the book  It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools. In the last NAEP reading report, fewer students — particularly African American and Latino students — scored below the basic level in the reading test, which means that more students are able to read and learn about history and civics. This could very well explain the higher history and civic scores at fourth grade, which are most pronounced among African American and Latino students.”

The civics test measures: Civic Knowledge, Intellectual Skills and Civic Dispositions.

Civic Knowledge tests concepts like the foundations of the American political system, the relationship of the U.S. to other countries, the rights and roles of citizens.

Intellectual Skills measures skills of mind and analysis to enable citizens to put knowledge to civic effect through identifying/describing, explaining/analyzing, and evaluating/taking positions/defending positions.

Civic Dispositions tests the traits of public and private character necessary to preserve an effective democracy, such as: participating in informed, thoughtful and effective manner in civic affairs, respecting individual worth and human dignity, or promoting the healthy functioning of American constitutional democracy.

Sample question booklets here.

Increased youth engagement; Massachusetts Civics on the Hill

Mike Sances’ blog points out that youth are likely to be a force in the 2008 elections, citing the Boston Globe front page article “Youth Voters a Force in ’08” (Susan Milligan) 

 and the attached graph of increased youth turnout in 2004 presidential election. 

This is something that we’ve been pointing out for a while on the Saguaro website

But in this light, it is interesting that Social Capital Inc. and the Deval Patrick Administration (Commonwealth of Mass. Public Liaison Office is launching Civics on the Hill (May 21, 2007).   Massachusetts youth can register for this historic event through MassYouth.org.  [Deval Patrick made civic engagement a key theme of his candidacy.] 

At Civics on the Hill, youth, through an afternoon of civic engagement, can experience the energy of being an active citizen by learning about civics, and touring the state house.

Schools of choice boost civic values

In a meta-analysis of 21 quantitative studies, Patrick J. Wolf (Univ. of Arkansas) found that schools of choice (private and public) better inculcate students in 7 civic values  necessary for democratic citizenship: political tolerance, voluntarism, political knowledge, political participation, social capital, civic skills, and patriotism.  Study called “Civics Exam: Schools of Choice Boost Civic Values” in EducationNext journal (Summer 2007). Among the more rigorous studies analyzed, 23 of 59 findings (52%) show school choice or private schooling as having statistically significant positive effects on civic values. [Ten findings show a neutral effect and only one finding showed a negative effect of school choice on civic values.]

All these studies control for selection bias in addition to differences in student backgrounds in the various schools. Most of the studies  compared students in private schools with those in public schools, but the effects were found in Catholic and non-Catholic private schools.

Wolf concluded that “These results suggest that the expansion of school choice is more likely to enhance than diminish the civic values of our next generation of citizens.”