Tagged: Somerville
Sunshine Week offers lessons in government transparency
| March 25, 2017 | 2:23 pm | Events, M.P.P., Tufts, UEP | Comments closed

Photo by Tom Nash
Sunshine Week is a time to highlight the importance of open government.

The following post was written by UEP student Tom Nash.

Sunshine Week, a nationally celebrated government transparency event held around James Madison’s birthday, usually serves as a chance for journalists to lecture and offer deserved scolding to local, state and national governments that make obtaining public records unnecessarily difficult.

As a journalist turned Tufts Master of Public Policy student, I wanted my peers to know why government records are important to policy makers. We wanted to look at how government records can be used to examine and evaluate policy at the ground level, as well as to peak at some of the more bizarre items in the filing cabinet. So we invited MuckRock, a local nonprofit that helps people file public records requests, to share the dirt.

Held at Canopy City, a nonprofit and startup workspace operating in Somerville, about three dozen people joined some of us MPP students to hear from Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism founder Chris Faraone and a public records overview from MuckRock co-founder Michael Morisy.*

Morisy began with the basics: Any government document is essentially the property of us taxpayers, per the Freedom of Information Act put into place by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966, except for the ones that aren’t for a host of reasons ranging from national security to individual privacy.

The work of public records is in keeping governments, whether federal, state, or local, honest and efficient in releasing documents. MuckRock, founded in 2010* and at one point incubated at the Boston Globe, has now released more than a million pages of documents.

That’s not counting the millions that were just released following a CIA lawsuit, which has so far yielded dozens of factoids about a Cold War era agency obsessed with writing the perfect one liner and even the Soviet telepathy gap.  

What does that kind of Tom Clancy nightmare stuff have to do with UEP? A lot, actually. It may not be surprising that the CIA’s imagination ran wild, but at a local level we have police departments armed to the teeth with military equipment. And for every atomic bomb near-miss scenario, there’s the gas leaks that plague Massachusetts.

Photo by Tom Nash
Several MPP students and members of the public gathered for an event with MuckRock, a local nonprofit that helps people file public records requests.

Whether we’re talking about how police use taxpayer funds or whether local officials are turning a blind eye to public safety hazards, public records provide insight into the work government at all levels is, or isn’t, doing. As policy students, knowing how to file a public records request, and what to file for, is an essential skill to learn. Campaign finance records, traffic and parking studies, environmental impact reports — all of it is theoretically at our fingertips.

Because the laws around public records are so broad, government transparency policy has evolved into a world of shaming and advocating for those laws to be followed. Massachusetts, for example, has earned an “F” rating for dodging much of its responsibility to fulfill public records requests. It’s on us to hold officials accountable for following the law, which is one of the reasons MuckRock has become a mainstay in the realm media and transparency.

Our Sunshine Week session at Canopy City included more in-depth training from MuckRock staffers Beryl Lipton and JPat Brown, and finished with a FOIA Karaoke round of unsuspecting MPP students asked to give presentations based on government PowerPoint slides. Like public records in general, it was more fun that it might sound.

*I worked with Faraone on The Somerville Files, a series that ran in Dig Boston in 2013. I also became one of MuckRock’s first users in 2010, and served as its first news editor between 2012 and 2013. Writing about exploding toilets was among many highlights.
Mapping Stories of the City: Teaching Environmental Justice
| February 26, 2016 | 3:17 pm | Events, Tufts Environmental Studies Department | Comments closed

This week’s Lunch & Learn, hosted by the Tufts Environmental Studies department, featured the research of three Tufts students using maps and storytelling to create a broader understanding of environmental justice. The presentation, which can be found here, featured the work of English Department PhD student Lai Ying Yu, and undergraduates Morgan Griffiths and Savannah Christiansen. The project was sponsored by the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service and came out of a class called “Mapping Stories of the City,” taught by Lai Ying.

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 2.13.06 PM

The class produced a blog called Changing Somerville, intended to help Somerville residents understand the complex issues affecting them and better work toward community-led solutions. The project was largely inspired by the work of UEP professor Julian Agyeman and his concept of Just Sustainabilities, which focuses on community social and economic sustainability in addition to environmental sustainability.

As Lai Ying says early on in the presentation, storytelling has a long history in community organizing, which she knows well from her background as an organizer in Boston Chinatown. Mapping Stories of the City encourages community residents to ask themselves “Where do I enjoy going? Do my neighbors have the same access as I do? What accounts for that difference, and what could be improved?” The mapping component allows for a “neutral” medium for sharing experiences.

Screen Grab of a Somerville Interactive Mapping Activity

Screen Grab of a Somerville Interactive Mapping Activity in Union Square.

Undergraduate Morgan Griffiths’ research focused on the Somerville Community Path, and resulted in a short film on the topic. An interesting finding of his interviews is that the art and gardens found on the path were placed spontaneously by residents, with no regulation by the city. The fact that they remain in good condition and not vandalized is a testament to the importance the community path has for local people.

Savannah Christiansen produced a video on the disconnect between green space and the environmental justice community of Somerville’s Ward 7. An important question that came out of her work has been how to improve green space access without displacing low-income residents, a concept known as “just green enough.”

To experience more of the stories of Somerville, continue on to their blog with all of its interactive mapping!

Update on Union Square Development Plans
| January 29, 2015 | 4:14 pm | Uncategorized | Comments closed

UEP Professor Penn Loh is interviewed by Somerville Community Access Television (SCATV) regarding the particular situation unfolding with the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) between the City of Somerville and developers. The article and video (found here) also discuss the history and theory behind CBAs generally.

Union United and the Somerville Community Corporation, representing workers and community residents, are upset at being left out of negotiations. As Loh explains, it is important that community members are consulted before approvals are made, while they still have some leverage. Many city representatives and members of the Union Square Civic Advisory Committee have requested that the CBA be settled after plans are further developed, which would effectively exclude community approval as a regulating mechanism. Follow this link for more information.

Clara Feng: Ethnic Businesses in Somerville
| July 7, 2011 | 12:00 am | student papers | Comments closed

Clara Feng is a certificate student in the certificate program in Program Evaluation that UEP participates in along with the Department of Child Development, the School of Nutrition, and the School of Medicine For more information about program evaluation, you can talk to UEP faculty member Fran Jacobs.

In this paper for Justin Hollander’s Qualitative Skills class this spring, Clara studied a Brazilian grocery store in Union Square in Somerville. She was interested in the role of such businesses in multi-ethnic community of Somerville, including who their customers were, how customers perceived the store, and what sorts of goods are provided. Her paper was also part of Project PERIS, a community-university partnership in which UEP participates.

Daniel Nally ’11 and David Quinn ’12: Planning for the Bicycle in Davis Square
| June 16, 2011 | 12:00 am | student papers | Comments closed

Dan Nally ’11 and Dave Quinn ’12 did exhaustive work researching this final report for Mark Chase’s Transportation Planning class. The report presents a methodology for analyzing and prioritizing Somerville’s bicycling infrastructure needs over the next several years. It is intended to provide general recommendations for a phased approach to making physical improvements to the City of Somerville’s bicycle network based on priority zones, traffic patterns, and road dimensions. It also proposes methods to increase bicycle ridership through social marketing, education, and theft prevention strategies.