Social media pioneer Nicco Mele joins CCLP as senior fellow

Author, social media pioneer and digital strategist Nicco Mele has been named a senior fellow of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, CCLP director Geoffrey Cowan announced today.

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At CCLP, Mele will focus on emerging business models for digital journalism and the challenges traditional media models face online. Mele, 37, joins a distinguished group of senior fellows that includes journalists and media executives such as Jessica YellinMatthew DowdCinny KennardAdam Clayton Powell III, and Narda Zacchino; authors and policymakers such as Dan GlickmanRichard ReevesOrville SchellKirk Johnson, and Morley Winograd; among others.

“The project of media revitalization and reinvention remains one of the great challenges of our era, and is essential to a healthy democracy. I am delighted to join the distinguished team at CCLP,” says Mele.

“Nicco Mele is a brilliant strategist who has been at the forefront of the intersection of media, politics and technological innovation for more than a decade,” says Cowan, who also holds the Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership at USC and is president of The Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands. “His invaluable experience will extend CCLP’s important work charting new models for news and examining the role of media in our democracy. We are extremely fortunate to have him join the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy.”

For the past year Mele served as senior vice president and deputy publisher of the Los Angeles Times, where he was responsible for product, content, revenue, and audience development for all of the Los Angeles Times Media Group’s brands, including growing existing digital products and services, identifying possible acquisitions, developing new business opportunities and launching new products.

Mele’s 2013 book, The End of Big: How the Internet Makes David the New Goliath, explores the consequences of living in a socially-connected society, drawing upon his experience as an innovator in politics and technology. Before moving to Southern California, Mele served on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School, where he taught graduate-level classes on the Internet and politics. In the spring of 2009, Mele was the Visiting Edward R. Murrow Lecturer at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and in the fall of 2008 he was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University. Prior to joining the Harvard Kennedy School, Mele taught at the Johns Hopkins Graduate School of Communication.

Mele is an active angel investor in technology startups, including Plympton (a publishing startup), UMS (mobile), Cignify (data analytics), and iDiet (health care). He is the co-founder of Echo & Co., a digital consulting firm with global clients and offices in Boston and Washington, DC. The firm aids clients facing overwhelming technological and social change, and has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies and other institutions on Internet strategy.

As webmaster for Governor Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, Mele and the campaign team popularized the use of technology and social media that revolutionized political fundraising and reshaped American politics. The campaign was “the first high-profile political contest to use the Internet to connect supporters through early forms of social media and to raise significant donations from small donors,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Mele also ran Internet strategy for Barack Obama’s successful 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate.

Born in Ghana to Foreign Service Officer parents, he spent his early years in Asia before graduating from the College of William and Mary in Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in government.

He was named by Esquire as one of the “Best and Brightest” in America and serves on a number of private and non-profit boards, including the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Mele is also co-founder of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival.

Mele is married to Morra Aarons-Mele and together they have three children. He recently moved from Boston to Los Angeles.

About the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy
Based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy is a policy center that conducts academic research and organizes programs to develop ways in which communication leadership, policy, technology and mobile innovation can contribute to a more informed electorate and a better world. For more information, visit communicationleadership.usc.edu.

Muslim reformer named CCLP senior fellow

On the 14th anniversary of 9/11, the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy is pleased to announce its new senior fellow for the 2015-16 year, the international bestselling author and Muslim reformer, Irshad Manji.

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The New York Times called Ms. Manji “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” A faithful Muslim who openly advocates equality for women and minorities, she practices “moral courage – doing the right thing in the face of one’s fears.” After publishing two seminal books about why and how to achieve liberal reform within Islam, Ms. Manji founded the Moral Courage Project at New York University. She will now build the West Coast presence of Moral Courage at USC Annenberg.

In particular, Ms. Manji will work with the CCLP team to engage audiences about her next book as well as a groundbreaking TV series that she is currently filming with the Los Angeles producer Entertainment One. “In the show,” she says, “we’re deploying the message of moral courage to de-radicalize sympathizers of ISIS and similar violent ideologies. Since their message is global, ours has to be, too. I can’t imagine a more cutting-edge place than USC Annenberg from which to develop savvy digital strategy for the greater good.”

“We are thrilled that the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy will serve as a home for Irshad Manji’s work,” said CCLP Director and University Professor Geoffrey Cowan. “She continues to produce books and films of international importance, and her Moral Courage Project will be a terrific learning lab for USC Annenberg students.”

Social change media is Ms. Manji’s passion and pedigree. In 1998, as a host at Toronto’s most popular broadcaster, Citytv, she launched QueerTelevision, the world’s first program on commercial airwaves to explore LGBT cultures. PlanetOut.com also streamed it, making QueerTelevision among the first Web shows in history. Ms. Manji’s latest media venture is Moral Courage TV, the YouTube channel that features individuals who are risking personal and professional backlash so they can improve their societies. Last year, Moral Courage TV won the Ron Kovic Peace Prize, in honor of the Vietnam vet who became an anti-war activist and inspired the Oliver Stone movie, Born on the Fourth of July.

In-between these media initiatives, Ms. Manji created the Emmy-nominated PBS documentary, Faith Without Fear. It chronicles her journey to convince fellow Muslims that questioning religious authorities is necessary – and possible. She has scaled this effort through her charitable foundation, “Project Ijtihad” (pronounced ij-tee-had), named for Islam’s own tradition of independent thinking, dissent, debate and re-interpretation. Its main initiative, the Guidance Team, is an online network of advisors who mentor young people to speak their truths out loud. Being digital, the Guidance Team has international reach, empowering vulnerable youth in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Irshad Manji came to the digital world through the printed word. Her books are banned in some countries and are bestsellers in more. She has written The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) and Allah, Liberty and Love: The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom (Simon & Schuster, 2011). They are translated into a total of 34 languages. Her next book will guide readers of every religion (and none) to become “gutsy global citizens,” equipping them with the moral courage to turn conflict into opportunities for honest conversation and diversity of thought. She believes that “diversity of thought is the key to becoming truly innovative, yet it’s the hardest thing to accomplish in an era of hyper-polarization. That’s because the human ego is afraid to be wrong – or, more accurately, to be judged wrong. Developing moral courage in ourselves is the way forward.”

An educator at heart, Ms. Manji teaches moral courage at New York University, Human Condition Labs and other arenas worldwide. She also brings her message of moral courage to the airwaves, frequently appearing on networks such as Al Jazeera, CNN, MSNBC and HBO. When not formally teaching, mentoring, writing, or filming, she is speaking with audiences as varied as Amnesty International and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

African by birth, Canadian by citizenship and American by immersion, Ms. Manji recently moved from New York to Los Angeles to be with her fiancée. “I’m still figuring out how to have a personal and social life,” she notes of her schedule. “But now I have a powerful incentive: the bliss of living in beautiful Southern California with the love of my life.”

Ms. Manji confesses to being on a mission – one that lives up to the public recognition she has already earned. Oprah Winfrey gave her the first annual Chutzpah Award for “audacity, nerve, boldness and conviction.” The World Economic Forum has selected her a Young Global Leader. And later this year, she will visit Capitol Hill to accept the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize, named for the late U.S. Congressman who worked tirelessly to raise genocide awareness. As Irshad Manji writes in Allah, Liberty and Love, “When my family stepped onto the precious soil of Canada, we were gifted freedom. I’m obliged to use this gift for the dignity of those who don’t yet enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, or expression.”

 Empowering the Public Through Open Data: Findings & Recommendations for City Leaders in Los Angeles County

Over the past year the Civic Tech USC research team here at the Center on Communication Leadership & Policy (CCLP) has been investigating what cities in Los Angeles County are doing to make their government data easily accessible to the public. Cities already collect vast troves of information, such as crime stats, budgets/financial expenditures, code violations, transportation stats, property information, campaign contributions, and more. Open data is a movement that has grown over the past few years to make all that information freely accessible in digital, machine-readable formats so that it can be used, modified, reused, and shared by anyone for any purpose. This, in turn, has the potential to increase transparency, encourage citizen participation, attract new business, and improve government efficiency.
We are pleased to present our comprehensive new report, Empowering the Public Through Open Data: Findings & Recommendations for City Leaders in Los Angeles County. The report contains findings and recommendations for city leaders and other open data advocates based on survey responses from 51 of the county’s 88 cities; in-depth interviews with officials from 10 local jurisdictions; a review of existing research about open data from academic, public, and private sectors; and criteria from the U.S. City Open Data Census.

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By interviewing officials from 10 local jurisdictions and surveying 51 cities in LA County, we found that the Los Angeles area has quickly become a national leader in open data. Thirteen cities have already launched an open data initiative in some form, and new open data portals are constantly being launched. A majority of the cities they surveyed reported that open data was at least a moderate priority – if not a top priority – going forward. The City of Los Angeles ranks second (as of August 10, 2015) on the U.S. City Open Data Census, which ranks cities across 19 categories based on nine criteria such as whether they are available digitally, in bulk, and free of cost. Five other cities in LA County rank in the top 50. The City of Los Angeles also received platinum status for its open data from the World Council on City Data (WCCD), the certification body responsible for implementing the first international open data standards for cities (known as ISO 37120).

However, while significant progress has been made, cities can do more to expand the scope and usefulness their open data initiatives. For example, meaningful datasets related to important areas like criminal justice, health, and education have been mostly absent from discussions of open data. Police and court records that include demographic data could illuminate how certain groups are targeted with tougher enforcement and sentencing, and ultimately lead to policy changes that promote a fairer justice system. Cities like Ferguson and Baltimore (and Los Angeles) could greatly benefit from more transparency and accountability in this area.

Our report also found that city officials cite public trust and transparency as key motivators for creating open data initiatives, but cite the lack of funding as the biggest barrier to establishing or expanding their initiatives. Our report recommends that cities should pursue outside grants and other opportunities for funding, or get started with open data for minimal cost. Our report cites a number of examples and suggestions, such as Bloomberg grants and open source software.

City officials also reported that they do see benefits to open data initiatives, but in most cases there is still no clear measure of return on investment (ROI). Our report therefore recommends that cities should track and highlight open data success stories on the homepages of their open data portals in order to engage citizens to use the data. New York City’s portal features 20 different uses of the city’s portal to solve problems, but no LA area open data portals or city websites highlight apps that have been built, problems that have been solved, or other positive outcomes that have resulted from open data in those cities. Open data can increase transparency and improve accountability, but cities should also focus their open data initiatives on how data can be used to solve entrenched problems.

One of the biggest concerns about releasing government data is the privacy of individuals. City officials should treat the privacy of citizens as a top priority from the beginning of any open data initiative, and personal information should be removed from most city datasets before being released. The report tells the story of Chris Whong, a data analyst and civic hacker who in 2013 legally obtained a large dataset of every cab ride in New York City–over 173 million individual trips–through a request under New York State’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL). Whong made a series of engaging and interactive maps using the data, and released the raw data so that other technologists and academics could use it to make their own visualizations and tools. The problem came because personal information had not been properly anonymized by the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission before they released the dataset, which led to other users finding ways to reveal not only who the driver was for each trip, but also who the passenger was, how long their ride lasted, how much they paid, and where they were picked up and dropped off. The story resulted in criticism and negative press for New York City, and the lesson for cities is that they should ensure they are following best practices to effectively anonymize datasets before they are released.

Finally, our report recommends that a network of city officials across LA County who are advocates for open data in their cities and across the county should be established in order to share best practices and connect city officials, technologists, and civic hackers who have expertise in open data with those who are interested in launching an open data initiative but do not know where to start.

While open data initiatives are not a solution to all of the issues that impact modern cities, opening up government data can provide meaningful benefits to both city governments and the residents they serve. New apps and websites powered by open data continue to improve governments and the lives of citizens. Open data portals and initiatives help foster a culture of transparency and trust, and can provide new avenues to improve government efficiency, generate revenue, and create new jobs in the private sector.

Our report finds that cities across Los Angeles County are making progress on their open data efforts, and even those who haven’t made progress express substantial interest in pursuing open data initiatives. At the same time, city officials say that there are significant barriers to launching or expanding their open data efforts, including funding, expertise, and getting buy-in from city departments. By listening to their constituents and following the recommendations in our report, city officials and other open data advocates have the potential to overcome these challenges and create open data initiatives that make a difference in their communities.

In the coming months we hope to organize a summit for city officials from across the county to share best practices related to open data, and launch new investigations into areas like criminal justice to explore how such data might be collected and shared in more useful and impactful ways.

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