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ParTour: A Community-Academia Partnership Uses Bikes, Cell Phones and Maps as a Tool for Research and Advocacy

Photo Credit: user 7332

There is a lot of buzz recently about the potential of mobile phones and technology that can be used toward community and social change goals—but can it be a part of community building and social change in local neighborhoods, without requiring fancy smart phones? A recent collaborative community project between the USC Mobile Lab, T.R.U.S.T. South LA, and the Metamorphosis Project attempts to use mobile phones toward social change goals that included advocating for the extension of the tri-annual Los Angeles CicLAvia route into the heart of South LA.

The project is called ParTour and rooted in participatory action research principles, uses residents’ ordinary phones to tell a new kind of story for community organizations.  ParTour was tested in October at the CicLAvia event that took over 10+ miles of city streets in Los Angeles with walkers and bikers.  The test worked well within CicLAvia and empowered everyday people to tell their own stories as a community, as they served as citizen journalists, mappers, photographers, and explorers.  In just one day, 70 citizen journalists were trained on ParTour and collectively produced a phone-based documentary of the October 2011 CicLAvia event.  More than 200 stories and snapshots were collected that day, which included mapping data, while others were tagged to advocate on particular issues like #bike friendly streets. 

What lessons were learned from the process?

1. ParTour is an innovation in partnership, as much as in technology.  Consider the complementary roles of the three primary organizations:  First, for the technological dimension, the USC Mobile Lab adapted a platform for everyday cell phones that was initially developed by MobileVoices.  Second, the community-organizing partner was T.R.U.S.T. South LA, which also set the advocacy agenda.  Third, for theory on how media affects civic outcomes, the USC Metamorphosis Project was involved in the design and evaluation, and helped the project focus on storytelling networks.  These three partnerships represent a positive outcome for the project in connecting research and practice across the community/university divide.  Beyond the pilot at CicLAvia, the project's sustainability will depend on finding continuing alignment between partners.

Photo Credit: Bikermom

2. Advocacy should be an important criteria when designing research and mobile technology tools for the community.  One of the main goals was to advocate to change CicLAvia.  Specifically, ParTour sought to advocate to bring the 80,000-person event further into South LA in future years, a goal discussed by Tafarai Bayne of T.R.U.S.T. South LA in a previous MetaConnects community interview.  To do this, there was a deliberate set up of a booth at the southern spur of CicLAvia, at the African American Firefighters Museum.  This way ParTour could sign up people from South LA as they entered, and send them on “quests” to both document the event and take pictures that help advocate for the southern extension. 

3. Small and big events are different creatures.  One lesson learned was that success is different in a massive public event like CicLAvia (which had 80,000+ people), as compared to a regular community event with under 50 people.  We have tested ParTour in both contexts, and found that the structures of participation are quite different.  For example, different approaches were needed in training newcomers (15 minute versus 3 minute), giving feedback mid-route, and especially for follow-up toward social change.  Customizing the design for the particular context turns out to be more important than finding a “perfect” tool.

4. Research is part of design.  To be effective for social change, ParTour must be more than cool, but must use technological design based on collaborative community research goals.   With researchers as co-designers, the design can iterate and evolve to be a success over time, instead of demanding that the pilot either be a clear success or failure.  As ParTour shows, there are often multiple dimensions of harnessing mobile technology for research and social change, and the challenge is often how to create positive collaboration among different partners in the process in order to build healthy storytelling networks.

To learn more about ParTour and view the mobile community collage, visit www.partour.net

ParTour is also a collaboration of community partners CicLAvia, Hollywood Community Studio, and Sustainable Streets, and has received funding from the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab.

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