News of hero reports caused a stir around the Worldchanging office yesterday. The creator, MIT doctoral candidate Alyssa Wright, hopes that her project can help build public confidence, raise property values in areas where goodwill is prevalent, and just plain improve the collective world view, by collecting and mapping citizens' reports of courageous acts performed by regular folks in New York City.
Wright says she was inspired by the See Something, Say Something campaign, New York Metro Transit's effort to inspire citizen vigilance in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001 (the campaign, officially titled the "Eyes of New York," first launched in 2003). As the Hero Reports site proclaims:
To keep us safe, the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority told us to look for signs of danger, and report them. We think we should also look for signs of courage. We call them hero reports.
Wright hopes to collect at least 1,944 reports of citizen courage, to echo the number of responses reported to See Something, Say Something. Her project makes a searchable database out of the resulting reports (currently they've attracted 259), where viewers can even see the random acts of courage located on a map. It's the polar opposite of sites like SpotCrime.com, and it produces a completely different view of the world beyond your front door.
Crime mapping has important non-layperson uses, such as helping law enforcement professionals identify patterns and target dangerous criminals. But it's not hard to see how SpotCrime's maps -- crowded with cartoon images of guns, masked robbers, stalking thieves and arson flames -- could shift anyone's imagination into paranoid overdrive.
Hero reporting is a simple concept, but a powerful reminder that by choosing what to look for, we in some ways create the world we live in and the limit or increase our options. And as often-brilliant MIT professor Henry Jenkins writes on his blog, too often we choose to create a mean world:
In the research on media effects, one of the most fully developed findings is what is known as the "mean world syndrome." Research finds that the average citizen grossly over-estimates how dangerous her neighborhood is because she reads the newspaper and assumes that the crime reports are actually a sample of the whole and thus amplifies them accordingly. In practice, a higher portion of violent crimes get reported than most people assume, although there are statistical biases as a result of the under-representation of crimes based on the race and class of the victims.
Describing her project to Jenkins, Wright wrote that she hopes recording and mapping acts of heroism will make human kindness into a similar kind of generalization, but one that colors our perception in a positive way:
Typically an heroic moment, particularly an everyday heroism, has a very narrow frame. These moments are not connected to each other, but appear as disconnected blips on the radar. When they do appear, the attention is on the self and the individual. What did it take for said person to take that risk? Would I do the same? It does not reflect other cultural factors like race, gender, and class. This focus on the individual stops any possibility of these moments gaining a larger perspective, and cultural impact. By aggregating them, and mapping them, we give the heroic moment weight. This weight can be placed back onto a community, a cultural bias, and a neighborhood.
Hero reporting isn't far off from the founding principle of Worldchanging. We're bringing solutions for global sustainability to the foreground in the hopes of connecting the dots to inspire a positive outlook. It isn't because we prefer to pretend that all is right in the world. Rather, it's because we believe that when we view the world optimistically, we are better equipped to fix what is broken, and to build the world we wish to live in.
Image credit: Hero Reports
Beautiful. By mapping these random acts of courage and kindness, we might find that they are not so random after all!
To Alyssa Wright,
I applaud your thinking regarding the hero reports. A wonderful initiative.
A bit of irony.
From the mid '80s to the mid 90's, our advertising agency, Korey Kay & Partners, was doing the New York Pride campaign – for the City and ABNY (The Association for a Better New York). The theme was, "Congratulations! You're a New Yorker."
In one of the programs we created, the Mayor recognized courageous New Yorkers. Ordinary people who without hesitation did something extraordinary. Each of them was awarded a certificate with the inscription "To (name), a New Yorker who risked his/her life to save someone else's... and was caught in the act."
The irony: Korey Kay is the same agency that inspired. We came up with the "If you see something, say something" campaign for the MTA.
Happy to have contributed. (Please give me a call when you get your doctorate.)
Chairman & CEO
Korey Kay & Partners
Here's hoping the final tally of do-gooders exceeds 1,944!