Community powered understanding

We envision a country connected through more constructive and empathic public discourse.

Our Mission

Our mission is to foster conversation in communities and in the media that improves our understanding of one another.

Our Values

Authentic Voices, Diverse Perspectives, A Community-First Approach, Process Transparency, Measurable Impact

Who We Are

A non-profit 501(c)(3) in cooperation with the MIT Media Lab, Cortico builds systems that bring under-heard community voices, perspectives and stories to the center of a healthier public dialogue. Our unique cooperation with the Media Lab benefits from state-of-the-art machine learning research and world-class engineering talent, positioning Cortico to deploy innovation that is scaled for deep social impact.

Cortico Questions

What is Cortico?

Cortico is a nonprofit organization with the mission of fostering constructive public conversation in communities and the media that improves our understanding of one another. Working in cooperation with the Laboratory for Social Machines at MIT, Cortico builds listening systems designed to surface a community’s under-heard voices and channel their perspectives and stories into the public dialogue.

Why was Cortico founded?

Nationally, the country is politically polarized and culturally fragmented, with politics that reinforce divides and media that prioritize divergent perspectives. Locally, people share a lived community experience. But too many local voices go unheard as many newsrooms are losing the pulse of communities they can no longer afford to cover on the ground. Social media, designed to connect us, has also divided us into insular groups hostile toward outside views. We need to create new local spaces for constructive public conversation that helps rebuild understanding and trust among people.

What is Cortico building?

Cortico is building a unique physical-digital network – the Local Voices Network (LVN) – designed to foster conversations that help people in communities understand one another better. LVN’s system encompasses:

  • Hosting in-person community conversations that enable participants to listen, learn, speak and be heard
  • Building a digital network that connects hosts and conversations across political and cultural boundaries
  • Opening a new local listening channel for journalists, leaders and the community at large to hear new voices and perspectives

What is the relation between Cortico and MIT?

A cooperation agreement between Cortico and the MIT Media Lab allows the organizations to share resources in deploying state-of-the-art machine learning research and world-class engineering toward their socially driven missions.

Who is funding this?

Funding for LVN currently comes from foundations and individuals who seek to bring technology and human power together to improve our civic life. Specifically, funding comes from the Knight Foundation (dedicated to fostering "informed and engaged communities” through journalism and the arts), Ali Rowghani (Y Combinator Managing Partner), Reid Hoffman (Greylock Partner and founder of LinkedIn), Craig Newmark (Craig Newmark Philanthropies, and founder of Craigslist).

Does Cortico have a political agenda?

No, Cortico is not politically motivated, but rather focused on helping surface, connect, and amplify local voices from across the political and cultural spectrum that are not reflected in news and social media. We strive to reach all people and perspectives in order to successfully bridge divides and cultivate understanding. And we wish to include those who may sometimes not feel comfortable or welcome to be heard. We are a non-partisan organization. In fact, as a 501(c)3 we are prohibited by law from engaging directly in political activities.

Is this just an attempt to control the message being delivered to local communities?

To guard against any sort of bias, we are working with our local partners — conversation hosts, newsrooms, community organizations, etc. — to ensure that our Local Voices Network (LVN) activities reflect the full ideological, cultural and economic diversity of their communities. Cortico tech and field personnel collaborate closely with our local partners to co-design and customize a community’s LVN for its unique characteristics and needs.

Who are the founders/leaders of Cortico?

Cortico is led by co-founders Deb Roy, Eugene Yi, and Russell Stevens. The Cortico team has deep experience in using machine learning to understand and map media, while a deployment team includes experts in data journalism, local news, and community organizing. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Reid Hoffman, Joi Ito, Ali Rowghani, Craig Newmark, and co-founder James Kondo support and advise Cortico’s work.

What is the long-term plan for Cortico?

Cortico plans to roll out our first initiative – the Local Voices Network (LVN) – in at least 10 states throughout 2019 and 2020 as a prelude to future nationwide coverage.

LVN Questions

What is LVN?

Cortico’s Local Voices Network (LVN) is a unique physical-digital network designed to bring under-heard community voices, perspectives and stories to the center of a healthier public dialogue.

Launching in Wisconsin, New York, and Alabama in early 2019, LVN is being built as a scalable network of in-person conversations held in communities about locally relevant topics. Conversations are organized and led by volunteer hosts from the locale who have experience in group facilitation and who, as a group, reflect the diversity of the community. Each conversation takes place around a “Digital Hearth,” which records the discussion and enables hosts to play speech snippets from other groups in order to cross-pollinate voices and perspectives across community boundaries. The conversations are then transcribed to make them machine readable, and then analyzed with AI-based tools –– all with the goal of offering local community members, media and leaders a new window into the issues important to the community.

What is the purpose of LVN?

The purpose of LVN is to foster conversations that help people in communities understand one another better. We are recording these conversations so that the hopes and concerns of community members can be heard by other people in the community, local media and by people in government who are in a position to shape policy. If LVN succeeds, people will:

  • Know there is a new space in the community for them to engage constructively with other locals
  • Feel more heard, understood, valued – and connected – within the community
  • Try harder to hear, understand and value others across differences
  • Speak with more respect to each other – in person, digitally and within the media
  • See their perspectives better reflected by local journalists and policy makers
  • Consider LVN participation as a meaningful personal action to take in the community
  • Engage civically in pushing issues and solutions onto the community’s public agenda

How does LVN foster local conversations?

LVN is fueled by ordinary people sharing their voices in small-group, in-person discussions led by experienced conversation hosts in the community. LVN hosts organize these conversations in gathering spots such as libraries, community centers, and kitchen tables, where participants will have a unique opportunity to listen, learn, speak and be heard.

At the center of these conversations is LVN’s “Digital Hearth,” a specialized device that records the discussion as the host guides the group through questions about locally relevant topics. The hearth also has a speaker that enables hosts to play highlights from previous conversations to prompt discussion and cross-pollinate diverse perspectives across different groups.

LVN provides a new, grounded way for people to understand and engage with one another in their community. It also serves to amplify under-heard voices and perspectives for other local stakeholders (journalists, public officials, political candidates) who wish to tune into the community’s concerns. Along with hosts and participants themselves, participating stakeholders have access to a website to search the aggregated LVN conversations, listen to audio snippets and discover new perspectives in the community.

How does the Hearth work?

The Hearth is a wooden, internet-connected audio recording and playback device developed and manufactured by Cortico. Its diameter is roughly the same as a large pizza (14”) and comes with a remote control . The Hearth has eight mics capable of recording conversations in high quality. It also has an audio speaker, which enables hosts to play curated speech highlights from other groups’ conversations as prompts for the conversation at hand.

Why make custom hardware to record conversations instead of just using a smartphone and an app?

Cortico custom-designed the Hearth from the ground up to serve the unique purpose of LVN — to hold authentic conversations in gathering spots such as libraries, community centers, and kitchen tables about what it’s like to live in that community. Situating participants around a circular Hearth made of natural materials and capable of playing back rich, human sound from other groups in the community was an intentional choice in terms of aligning design with our values. Although today’s mobile phones have incredible processing power, they do not have the kind of alignment between design and values we require.

Why must conversations be recorded?

LVN was designed to contribute often under-heard voices, perspectives and stories to a public conversation. Recording them is the first step to making them accessible to others.

Are people paid to participate in these conversations?

No, as a practical matter it would be very difficult for Cortico as a non-profit to pay the number of people we hope will participate in LVN conversations in Madison and beyond. At a higher level, though, Cortico aspires to give participants, especially those who feel under-heard or disconnected in their community, a voice in the civic process — an opportunity through these conversations to listen, learn, speak and be heard in their community. Our goal is that everyone hosting and participating in conversations walks away with that sense of intrinsic value.

If someone says something they regret can it be deleted?

Participants can request a redaction if there was something they said that they don’t want to be part of the public record. At any time participants may email help@lvn.org to request a redaction, specifying what they like to remove (to the best of their memory) and provide details on which conversation they were in. While we will honor these requests at all times, we advise that participants make their request as soon as possible after the conversation has completed.

What are you doing with the data? Who will have access to my data and how will they use it?

The purpose of LVN is to foster conversations that help communities understand one another better. We are recording these conversations so that the hopes and concerns of community members can be heard by other people in the community, local media and by people in government who are in a position to shape policy.

We will not sell access to participant data, or in any other way profit from use of that data. Our purpose is to serve the public. Cortico will store the recordings, transcribe and analyze them, and share this information with hosts, people who participate in the conversations, journalists who work for a select number of local media outlets, and local government employees and candidates for local office.

How does someone access the conversations?

Cortico has created a web-based tool for accessing and exploring the LVN conversations. LVN’s system creates a transcript for each recorded conversation and uploads both the transcript and audio recording to the explorer tool. The system highlights keywords that emerge across the different conversations and allows users to search conversations, listen to audio snippets, and discover patterns across people.

Who will have access to LVN and be able to listen to recordings?

Cortico will store the recordings, transcribe and analyze them, and share this information with hosts, people who participate in the conversations, journalists who work for a select number of local media outlets, and local government employees and candidates for local office.

How will you measure impact on the communities? How will you know what you are doing is working?

Cortico will use a variety of methods to measure LVN’s impact in the community, including surveying hosts and participants, analyzing the constructiveness of the conversations themselves and tracking stories published based on LVN information. Our success criteria include:

  • Broad engagement. Many people will know there is a new space in the community for them to engage in constructive and empathic conversation with other locals. Also, a wide range of people will be engaged as hosts and as conversation event participants.
  • Boundary crossing. Many people will feel more heard, understood, valued — and connected — within the community. Community members will be engaging with unfamiliar viewpoints through the cross- pollination of the highlights into the conversations.
  • Listening as well as debate. Participants will be listening to each other respectfully while not shying away from difficult issues.
  • Communication of which a community can be proud. Community members will try harder to hear, understand and value others across differences; speak in a more constructive, empathic way with each other— in person, digitally and within the media.
  • Topics discussed are relevant to participants’ lives. Participants will find the conversations meaningful, relevant and engaging, and will see their perspectives better reflected by local journalists and policy makers. Residents will consider LVN participation as a meaningful personal action to take in the community.
  • Interaction between leaders and members of the public. Local journalists and policy makers use LVN as a way to listen to the public, and participants will see their perspectives better reflected by local journalists and policy makers. Community members view LVN as a way of lifting up their voices to leaders. Participants in the conversations engage civically in pushing issues and solutions onto the community’s public agenda.

If successful, in what way might LVN impact the 2020 election?

The 2016 election shed light on the fact that many voices in many communities across America were not being heard. As we move toward the 2020 election, LVN aims to help people listen, learn, speak and be heard in their community — especially those who may sometimes not feel comfortable or welcome to be heard. If this is successful, LVN will elevate these diverse perspectives and stories into the public dialogue, and help reconnect people to a democratic process at the community level.

How is LVN different from social networks like Facebook, Twitter, or NextDoor?

In contrast to the digital interaction of social networks, LVN is grounded in face-to-face conversation. We believe a face-to-face environment — designed to let all voices be heard — results in more authentic, empathic and constructive conversation about issues that are most relevant to people’s lives. We also believe that “networking” these conversations digitally allows for just the sort of political and cultural boundary crossing that digital-only networks lack.

Madison Questions

Why was Madison chosen as an LVN site?

Madison is home to Katherine Cramer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor and author of a landmark study of life in rural Wisconsin entitled “The Politics of Resentment.” Kathy’s study was based on in-depth listening and analysis of small-group conversations, and became an inspiration for Cortico’s development of our deep, scalable LVN listening system. With Kathy onboard as a Cortico advisor and familiar with the Madison community, it made sense for her to help shape and lead an early LVN deployment in Madison.

What other markets have been chosen and why?

By the summer of 2019, Cortico will be operating LVN in three states (New York, Wisconsin, Alabama), with plans to deploy LVN to at least ten states leading into the 2020 election. As LVN’s deployments roll out more broadly, Cortico will select locales that are geographically and culturally diverse, ideally with local partnerships that allow us to quickly ramp up to identify and train LVN hosts, tap into existing networks to encourage community participation in conversations, and secure locations for conversations to take place.

Is Madison the first test of LVN?

Cortico began to pilot LVN in May 2018 with a deployment in Mott Haven, a neighborhood located in the South Bronx, NY. Cortico partnered with the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY and the local community newspaper (the Mott Haven Herald). Over four afternoons, LVN captured more than 50 narratives about life in the community. Community organizations invited LVN to attend local events and record the stories of people in the community. The New York Public Library is partnering with LVN to establish listening hubs at three neighborhood library branches in the Bronx in 2019.

Have Madison media or political figures agreed to use the database?

Several Madison media outlets, including the Cap Times and the Capital City Hues, plan to employ conversation content in their local reporting – with our goal being to fuel stories that are truer reflections of life on the ground throughout all Madison communities. Additionally, mayoral, Common Council and school board candidates may also have an opportunity to tune into LVN Madison and to incorporate (often under-heard) community voices and concerns into their campaigns – with our goal being to surface relevant new issues onto the public agenda.

Who are the LVN hosts and how do they get selected?

To date, more than 60 LVN-trained hosts — 29% of whom are people of color — are organizing and guiding small-group conversations throughout Madison. Hosts have had at least 40 hours of facilitation experience in settings like focus groups, meetings, dialogue sessions, or conflict resolutions. Hosts have volunteered to be trained on LVN, to recruit participants from their respective communities and to organize and host multiple group conversations. To encourage diverse participant backgrounds, Cortico strives for cultural, political, gender and ethnic diversity within the host network.

What is the job of a host?

Hosts guide the conversations, making sure that everyone in the group has a chance to be heard, and assist people in bringing their thoughts to the surface.

How are hosts trained?

Hosts receive a training manual supported by live training workshops and individual sessions hosted by Cortico on multiple dates throughout the city. Open house events and weekly online check ins are also organized to answer questions and onboard new hosts.

How do you engage the community and encourage people to participate?

With LVN, Cortico aims to engage a wide range of people in a broad public conversation network, including people who are not normally a part of public conversations about our local affairs. We also strive to encourage participation from a diverse range of local community members from different political and socio-economic spectrums representative of the region where they live. Cortico is working in partnership with local media and civic organizations in each locale, to broaden awareness of the program and provide information on how local community members can become involved in conversations. Hosts are reaching out within their networks directly to possible participants and also build awareness through their own social media channels. Participants who live in an LVN community can sign up to be involved through the website www.lvn.org.

What will be discussed in LVN conversations?

LVN conversations are focused on making use of the power of local stories to connect community members to each other, and to also convey information about the challenges and joys they face in daily lives. The conversations are meant to focus on the lived experience of the people in the group. While people have concerns at the national, international, and global level, the purpose of the conversations is to talk about things that relate to the experience of people in this community. When people start discussing national level issues, hosts are encouraged to guide the conversation back toward how those issues are related to their daily lives in Madison.

How will LVN ensure that participants represent a cross section of the community?

Participants are encouraged to fill out a post-conversation survey in order to assess our coverage of locale and help us ensure that LVN reflects the full diversity of the community.

How can other towns and cities participate?

LVN will be piloting in select towns and cities over the course of the next year, with the goal of rolling out into every state.

How can community members get involved?

Madison community members can visit www.lvn.org for more information.

How do you build trust and get buy-in from communities who are distrusting of the press, politicians, etc.?

Cortico is relying upon the deep community roots of its hosts in order to inspire trust within their own networks and community groups. Over the long term, trust in LVN will be built when underheard voices and community concerns are elevated into community discussions in a constructive manner, participants are able to see their perspectives better reflected by local journalists and policy makers or under heard issues and solutions are pushed into the community’s public agenda.

Who is eligible to participate?

All residents living in selected LVN communities aged 18 and over who are not currently running for office are welcome to participate. We recognize that when dealing with minors, there ought to be an extra level of sensitivity to dealing with personal information.

Can non-English speakers participate?

It is not necessary that participants speak English. LVN will try to match non-English speakers with hosts who are fluent in the language participants are most comfortable speaking in. Scripts and other materials will be translated for non-English speakers into their native language. For all non-English conversations, there may be a substantial delay in the transcription being available on LVN.org. Some of our software features will not work with non-English languages in the near term, but Cortico is committed to adding languages to the system over time.

Will participant identities be kept confidential or be made public?

Although Cortico will not collect and publish detailed personal information about LVN participants, similar to calling in to a local talk radio show, participants should understand that their identity could later be recognized by others who were not part of the conversation.

LVN is a public conversation network. Recordings of conversations will be made available for public access and we expect excerpts of conversations to occasionally be quoted in newspapers, included in radio and television broadcasts, and included in podcasts.

For these reasons, participants should understand that they may later be identified by some people who listen to recordings of the conversations or read transcribed excerpts. This could happen because the participant has a distinctive name (participants will be asked to state their first name in the introductions section of the conversation), a distinctive voice or accent, or because they choose to share specific personal details that naturally reveal their identity.

Cortico will store the recordings, transcribe and analyze them, and share this information with hosts, people who participate in the conversations, journalists who work for a select number of local media outlets, and local government employees and candidates for local office.

How are participants recruited for these conversations?

Hosts are asked to reach out to potential participants in their communities, either through their networks, community leaders, or by engaging in social media. Cortico is also working with local media to build awareness for LVN and increase interest in participating in a conversation. Community members can also visit www.lvn.org and LVN staff will then connect interested participants to conversation hosts. LVN aims to engage a wide range of people in a broad public conversation network, including people who are not normally a part of public conversations about our local affairs. It will be most successful in engaging a wide range of perspectives if hosts put special emphasis on reaching out to members of the community who do not normally attend civic events, and who may sometimes not feel comfortable or welcome to be heard.

What is the size of the conversation groups?

LVN is aiming for groups between 4 to 6 people, plus the host.

What about accommodating people with accessibility issues?

The Digital Hearth is portable, and conversations are being scheduled in locations that can accomodate access for everyone, such as public libraries and private homes.

Can someone participate in more than one conversation?

Yes. Each conversation will likely end up having a different tone based on the people in the room and the news of the week. If someone is willing to take the time to continue participation in the conversations, they are welcome to.

How do you handle someone bent on negative, politically charged discourse?

Hosts are trained by Cortico before they begin with LVN to manage the group toward constructive, empathic conversation.

Will the compilation of the conversations just be Madison conversations?

Over time Cortico will integrate and share highlights from other locations where LVN is taking root.

Will recordings be made available to participants prior to being made accessible?

The recordings will be made available to participants and the broader LVN community at the same time.

How will journalists quote or reference comments made during conversations?

We are working with our news partners to design policies that encourage journalists to include LVN voices in their reporting while protecting participants from being quoted without consent.