Social Media & Civic Authority

ScipionusOn Friday, Wired News covered the ongoing development of Scipionus – a ‘mapping wiki’ for those seeking information on the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina.

Scipionus underlines the confluence of recent trends in social software, citizen journalism, locative media and most notably a perceived disillusionment and mistrust in public services and institutions. Like the Asian Tsunami of 2004 and the London Bombings, the proliferation of cameraphones, blogs, amateur video and mobile+broadband connectivity has given rise to a torrent of useful local information, complimenting and sometimes eclipsing information provided by media organisations and public organisations.

Where FEMA, the federal government, local and national media have been struggling to disseminate information. Those with connectivity and local information are finding platforms and media to aggregate and disseminate local developments, in the case of Sciponoius, at street level.

Built on the Google Maps API, Sciponious is enabling people to annotate maps of the Katrina impact area, with notes on observations, requests, neighborhood status and many other granular, pieces of locative information…for example:

Looking for Dama Fountain & Royce Osborn 4014 Franklin Ave. e-mail Melissa @

Worried about friends, seeking information on Mere and Ron Picou’s please email

4727 Camelia St. Flooded to roof tops. Alexander family are OK!

Uncle Ernest, are you ok?

Dry Dock photo indicates \"survived\"–left half wall collapse inward

Golden Meadow – 2 shrimp boats sunk in bayou, other boats can’t get out

Individually, each annotation is poignant fragment of an unfolding human tragedy. Aggregated across the growing thousands of geographically-located notes, Sciponoius is becoming an essential resource for citizens in the impact area but also friends and family members outside the area. It isn’t clear yet, if the authorities are utilising the data to inform their own efforts – what is certain however, is that the nature of such data must be part of the information landscape utilised by authorities in the disaster zone.

Of course, like any grassroots media, Sciponius’ data may be far from accurate or free of malicious content. Indeed its contributors and operators lack essential quality, reputation and credibility metrics, though perhaps these elements can only be predicated on trust, goodwill and the civic responsibility of contributors.

What is clear – from the Tsunami, Katrina and the London Bombings – is that participatory media is approaching an inflection point that is fundamentally altering the civic, national and local relationships between authorities and citizens. Perhaps, these developments presage a new debate on shared public institutions, where citizens and authorities enter into new collaborative forms of public and civic service, where the institutions that serve us will necessitate and require our direct contributions in order to serve the greater good with the aggregate capabilities, knowledge and expertise of the communities which they serve….perhaps the Second Superpower is more likely a multi-polar array of local Nano-Powers?

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