News Leadership 3.0

December 15, 2009

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Driving is much easier—and safer—when you can see the dashboard. It helps to know how fast you’re going, whether your engine is overheating, and how much gas you have left. Plus, if you’re driving a newer car, your dashboard may show where you are, how to get where you want to go, and whether you’re using gas efficiently.

No driver ever watches the dashboard constantly. However, if those indicators weren’t there, you’d probably get pretty anxious behind the wheel.

Similarly, communities seeking to steer toward a healthy future need ongoing, easy access to relevant, structured, local information—a “community dashboard”...

(This is the second in a series of guest posts by Amy Gahran. Amy is looking how news organizations and other institutions can implement the findings of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, This joint project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute Communications and Society program produced the report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age”. Read more articles in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Last week I wrote about how news organizations could help strengthen communities by presenting more structured information about vital community issues, as a complement to traditional news stories.

Structured information is organized consistently to make it easier to manipulate or reuse in a database, computer program, or web application. This, in turn, makes it easier for people to sort, search, trend, and compare that information. image

...In contrast, unstructured text (like most news stories) can be searched but not easily reused, analyzed, trended, or otherwise manipulated.

News organizations already publish many kinds of structured information: weather forecasts, sports scores, election results, stock prices, and more. They also publish many kinds of vital community information, such as local economic indicators—but typically in story format, such as: Denver home resales up 23% in November from 2008

News venues are an ideal place to display a community dashboard of local economic, civic, or quality-of-life indicators. The catch is: Developing indicators and compiling that data continuously is a big job—and not always a core strength of news organizations.

Fortunately, other community players are already doing a lot of this work. Finding and collaborating with them can help:

Researchers and officials: Academic researchers, government agencies, nonprofits, and social service organizations often are skilled at compiling structured community information—which is why the Knight Commission report listed some of them as vital community information intermediaries.

However, often these players’ efforts to share their information are not easy for community members to find, understand, and use.

For example, Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project has compiled and analyzed a wealth of information benchmarks to gauge the status of community issues such as civic participation, transportation, the regional economy, housing, education, and more in the 353 municipalities in and around Philadelphia. This information is gathered through rigorous surveys and analysis, but presented mainly via complex reports in pdf format on a web site that probably is not well known among community members.

A search of, the leading metro daily news organization for the region, revealed only one story mentioning this project. More collaboration between the university and the news organization might go a long way toward helping people in the Philadelphia area understand their communities.

Librarians: These information professionals are skilled at sharing information (including structured information) with community members. Also, public libraries typically have a strong local focus and commitment to community service. Most importantly, librarians usually know what kinds of information community members seek or need.

The American Library Association’s Civic Engagement blog is a great resource for understanding what libraries have to offer on this front.

Other news organizations: It’s possible—and perhaps increasingly desirable—for local news organizations that once considered themselves competitors (or serving different audiences, like local ethnic, college, or business media) to collaborate to create community resources based on structured information.

Web application developers: These programmers (rather than web site designers) are skilled at making structured information user-friendly and engaging. However, few web application developers focus on local communities. The Knight News Challenge-funded startup Everyblock, recently acquired by MSNBC, is one example of how web applications can support community-level democracy and quality of life.


Identify willing and able local information partners. Partnering is first and foremost about relationships—which means talking to (and collaborating with) people.

Look over the list of potential partners above. Your news organization probably already has many contacts in each category—probably as sources, but perhaps as partners in various community or publishing projects. List your best contacts in each category: Cooperative people who tend to know a lot of about who’s doing what in their organizations or fields.

Call some potential partners with whom your news organization has existing relationships. Tell them you’re considering publishing a community dashboard of important local indicators. Suggest weekly or biweekly to start. Ask them: What kind of indicators do you think should be on that community dashboard? And: Could you help supply information for our dashboard?

If people have trouble grasping the community dashboard concept, show them Temple University’s Metropolitan Philadelphia Metro Indicators Project. Then say: “We’re thinking of packaging a small-scale version of something like this in a format similar our weather forecast box. We’re not exactly sure what the final product would look like, but it would be more like an infographic than a story. And it would come out regularly, so people could track it easily.”

The web application developers represent a different type of partner. Ask them for their ideas about presentation and delivery of a community dashboard. But they may also have content ideas, too.

Once you’ve identified at least a few potential partners who are willing and able to help, get them together for a brainstorming session with the people on your staff most skilled at working with structured information. (Last week I suggested how to identify these valuable staffers). The goals of the brainstorming session would be:

  1. What kind of a community dashboard would we like to see? (Creativity)
  2. How could we start to create that dashboard? (Prioritize options)
  3. What are the first tasks to get started? (Commit to action)

If you can only get through the first two goals, that’s significant progress. It’s most important to build momentum and relationships, and to create opportunities for action (not just abstract discussions). Having such an action-focused base of collaboration can help move forward many of the Knight Commission report’s recommendations.

Also, from here, you can design small-scale pilot projects to introduce your community to the idea of a community dashboard.


Having done this a couple years ago at my paper, a couple hard learnings:
—Spend time to figure out the key indicators for your community, those that are part of the core issues or hopes for your community. Many outside sources may offer information, but a lot will be irrelevant to the core issues.
—Many outside organizations have trouble with accuracy and context. Do not take their information or data into your dashboard without careful scrutiny.
—When the excitement of building the dashboard fades, have a plan for updating and developing.
—Online, think of engaging ways to display data, and ways for users to manipulate and interact with the data.

Good points. But what the best ways to engage and interact with data

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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