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Discourse Without the Dis 

"Well, it has been an interesting blog week here for sure, and I have kept a promise to myself to stay out of blog-topic #1, as funny or sad as it is. I am sure I will have more thoughts on public transit soon."

-- post by Chris Briem on his blog Null Space, Feb. 2

Rising above the fray in order to dive into the details of civic life, academic bloggers like Chris Briem and Mike Madison have made a name for themselves among local poli-blog readers. The two are authors of fresh data analysis and thoughtful opinion on re-building our "civic shape," as Madison puts it.

Both are University of Pittsburgh professors -- Briem in the University Center for Social and Urban Research, Madison in the School of Law. Briem's Null Space (nullspace2.blogspot.com) begun in May, uses the latest mapping techniques and old-fashioned essaying to show us the current reality of segregation in the city, for instance, or the effect of fewer Port Authority bus routes in our future. "The blogs are one way of getting data out here ... that was locked up in some paper vault," says Briem. "There's ever-more data all the time to comment on. You almost need this parallel processing of data" in the blogs and other Internet sites to make meaning out of the daily news.

Madison, who opened Pittsblog (pittsblog.blogspot.com) for business three years ago, says "we're close" to the moment when local bloggers will be recognized as equal participants in civic discourse with academics and politicians. "Judging from the brouhaha over the last few days, you can see that there's a lot of sensitivity over the appropriate role for blog-based public discussion."

Recently, at the instigation of a Carnegie Mellon University dean, Madison held a first meeting with a Pittsburgh-focused blogger to discuss ways to improve the city. Jim Russell, author of the Burgh Diaspora (burghdiaspora.blogspot.com) blog, flew from Longmont, Colo., to be part of it. He had created Diaspora in June because "our homeland was struggling," he says. "There's all this talent connected to this region by the Steelers. I wonder if that can be networked in a way that can be helpful. Mike and I share a similar vision of how economic development should be addressed in Pittsburgh. Mike said he would work on the manifesto. ... [A]t the very least, we can network various writers and blogs and see how productive we can be."

Where once the industrialists and city fathers spurred a local renaissance, this will be a bottom-up effort.

"Blogs can bring people into the discussion who have energy and expertise but who are not plugged into the traditional institutions and players who usually lead the dialogue," Madison concludes.

And where will this dialogue take place, beginning in a month or so? Why, in a new blog, of course.

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