News Leadership 3.0

Posts tagged with: Civic

January 05, 2010

Make key government documents easier to find, understand

“Who will cover city hall?” That’s a common (and valid) lament about the decline of the news business. If shrinking the void of local civic news is important to your news organization and local communities, there’s something you can do about it—even if you no longer have the resources to cover city hall the way you once did…

(This is part of 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

Some free online tools and a little editorial savvy can go a long way. They can’t replace the value of full-time reporters covering local government—but they can help citizens understand what’s happening, what’s important, and what their options are. image

The great wall between government and citizens is made out of paper. Most important government information is packaged in the form of print documents—either on actual paper, or digital versions thereof. This is especially true for local governments.

The Knight Commission report made this recommendation:

“Require government at all levels to operate transparently, facilitate easy and low-cost access to public records…”

Right now, the standard print-focused approach to government online publishing presents two major obstacles to citizen engagement:

  • Pretty hard to find. Governments almost always publish their documents online in the form of PDF files. If you’re lucky, these are generated from the word processing software in which they were written, so the text can be searched. However, often online government documents are scans of printouts so the content is not searchable. Most site search engines have trouble indexing PDF files, which means people searching a government site often miss the info they seek, even if it exists on the site. Even worse, files are often buried in confusing, complex navigation schemes—and it’s not unusual to see multiple versions of the same document. So: Digging for online government documents might be as frustrating as searching.
  • REALLY hard to read! Once you do find the government document you want, understanding what it means is a challenge. Bureaucratic language, unexplained acronyms, unclear references, and just plain awful writing quickly cause debilitating eye-glaze. Reporters are accustomed to decrypting bureaucratese—but most people outside of newsrooms, law offices, and government are flummoxed by it.

The reality is, governments are unlikely to significantly change anytime soon how they publish documents. This represents an opportunity for other players (especially news orgs) to both strengthen communities and benefit from community attention and goodwill by making key government documents easier to find and understand.

Free and low-cost online tools that allow the sharing and embedding of documents from within a web browser are the key to this strategy. Scribd and Docstoc are two of the most popular tools, but other options include Issuu, HubPages, and more.

These tools are the foundation of a new experiment by OaklandLocal.com, a newly launched community news and information hub serving Oakland, California. (Disclosure: I am a senior editor on this site.)

On Jan. 4, Oakland Local founder Susan Mernit published the first in a series of “City Translator” articles. This story offered a plain-language “translation” of the agenda for an Oakland City Council meeting. This article included the original agenda document, which Mernit posted to Scribd.com and then embedded in the Oakland Local story.

Mernit started her article with a summary of which issues were likely to be “hot” at the meeting, plus a quick summary of the more ordinarily procedural matters to be covered. As her series evolves, she’ll experiment with varying format and level of detail, to see what works best for her community.

Embedding a shared document is as easy as embedding a YouTube video. The document services provide embed HTML code for each document uploaded. You simply copy that and past it into the HTML view of your content management system. Here’s an example of how an embedded document looks and works:

1 5 2010 Concurrent Meeting of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency City Council 10-01-05 Meeting Agenda  

Why embed a document? A plain-language summary and context is a good starting point for engagement, but it’s not enough. Embedding the document through a service like Scribd is so easy and visually appealing that there’s no reason not to do it. Especially since government documents are free to use, and since government web sites are notoriously convoluted and changeable. It’s a far better service to simply hand the correct document to your site’s visitors, without making them click anywhere.

Furthermore, allowing people to see the original document right in the browser (without having to download a file, launch a different program, or open a separate browser tab), is especially helpful for online visitors who are not tech-savvy—which is probably most visitors to mainstream news sites, especially local news.

News organizations regularly peruse many government documents, simply to keep abreast of what’s happening locally. Most of these documents never get covered. In fact, the only value the news org (and the community) get from this ongoing research process is when a traditional story gets written.

Through her City Translator approach, Mernit was able to quickly share with the community her assessment of the council meeting agenda—and thus get publishing mileage out of a task she would have done anyway (reading the agenda).

What if news orgs started running more items formatted similar to the City Translator? These would be low-overhead resource pieces, not conventional “stories.” They would be assessments of selected documents that best indicate the “pulse” of local government, with the actual documents embedded. They’d be teaching tools, explaining some nuances of how to find, understand, and use these documents for civic participation. They could also link to (or embed) related key documents as warranted, such as staff or committee reports, audit reports, case filings, etc.

The point is to make the most of the resources you’ve got, plus free simple tools and tasks you’re already doing, in order to better bridge the gap of local civic coverage. This strategy is one option for continuing to cover city hall in some meaningful way and help citizens stay informed and involved. It won’t replace traditional news stories, but it’s far better than de facto abdication of routine civic coverage.

As with most things in online media, if you’re not sure whether this approach would serve your news org or community well: Experiment! Pick just a few key documents, perhaps related to especially contentious local issues, and see what works.

Just make sure you highlight this new content on your home page, section pages, and e-mail/social media alerts. Don’t make the mistake of many local governments and expect people to hunt for it. The more you position civic content as a service, rather than a product, the more likely it will support your goals.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

January 12, 2010

Tips for seeking local news funding from community foundations

Launching a civic-minded community news enterprise costs real money. Increasingly, community foundations are helping these projects get up and running by making grants and making connections. So if you’d like to start a community news project, it can pay (literally) to get to know local community foundations.

(This is part of 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.)

Even more help is available for projects that would serve any of the 26 US cities where Knight-Ridder formerly operated newspapers. On Jan 7, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation unveiled a seven-year Community Foundation Initiative that will funnel $70 million through selected community foundations in the target cities. image

Knight Foundation VP of Communication Marc Fest explained, “The program’s goal is to support projects that promote informed engaged communities—and we’re pretty wide open about that. We try to have as few rules as possible for these programs to encourage innovation.”

Here are some tips for individuals (including journalists) and organizations (including news organizations) seeking community foundation support for local projects.

Recommendation 2 of the Knight Commission report was: “Increase support for public service media aimed at meeting community information needs.” The Knight Foundation sees community foundations as a key source of this support.

What are they? Community foundations are charities that focus on improving life in a geographic area. Typically, large donors make tax-exempt donations to fund their activities and grantmaking.

The Council on Foundations notes: “Community foundations go beyond simply making grants that advance charitable activities. They also identify current and emerging issues, channel resources to address their communities’ needs, and help their regions prepare for the future.”

Where are they? One starting point for finding local community foundations is the Council on Foundations’ community foundation locator. (Note: There may be additional community foundations beyond what’s listed there.)

ACTION STEP: Do any community foundations serve your community? Search at the local, county, and regional level. If you’re in one of the Knight Foundation’s target cities, check the Community Foundation Initiative page for links to specific foundations working with Knight to channel these grants. Fest said that information will be available in coming weeks.

Unique priorities. Each community foundation sets its own priorities and programs. For instance, the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, Colo., currently has funding programs focused on the arts, the environment, social justice, emergency housing for people with disabilities, and much more. Meanwhile, in Indiana, the Community Foundation of the Fox River Valley focuses on grants for education, healthcare, social services, and arts and humanities.

Although community foundations have existed for more a long time, their involvement in the local news landscape is a new trend—significantly spurred by the Knight Foundation’s efforts to enlist their support, such as the Community Information Challenge, launched in 2008.

It’s important to study the funding priorities and history of local community foundations before asking them to fund your project. Think creatively about what might make a good match. Roberta King, VP for public relations and marketing of the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Community Foundation, notes, “Community foundations are innovative in their funding. They tend to be good risk-takers.”

King added, “Not all community foundations are looking to fund journalism projects. But news and public engagement may fit in with their priorities. For instance, a community foundation focused heavily on the environment might be willing to fund a news-related project on that topic.”

ACTION STEP: Community foundations publish grant program guidelines or application procedures. These are generally available on their web sites, or by request. Once you have this information, read it over and pay close attention to deadlines. Usually there is an annual deadline for applications.

Plan for results. According to King, community foundations tend to focus strongly on community benefits. So it’s important to consider how, specifically, a project for community news, information, or engagement might benefit the community—and devise how you might measure those results.

ACTION STEP Check out previous grant winners—which of their efforts survived beyond the grant funding? How? This might give you an idea of locally viable revenue streams. Be willing to think unconventionally. The goal here is not to recreate the traditional news business model, but to offer a community service.

Previously:

Community info building blocks: What do you already have?

Teamwork: Collaborating to build a community dashboard

Civic topic pages: Boost local traffic, democracy

Government 2.0: What’s in it for local news?

Make key government documents easier to find, understand

January 18, 2010

How journos, news orgs can support civic engagement (Series index)

From December 2009 through April 2010, the News Leadership 3.0 blog published a special series of guest posts by Amy Gahran on civic engagement. This series explores 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 2009 report, “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.”

Here are the articles in this series, in chronological order:

More to come in this series. Stay tuned!

January 19, 2010

Volunteering widget: Basic gateway to civic engagement

Engaged citizens rarely pop out of thin air. Often, volunteering is the “gateway drug” that gets them hooked on learning about, and working to enhance, their community.

If your news organization wants to encourage local civic engagement, but lacks substantial time or resources for this effort, then enabling local volunteering (not just covering it) can be a key step along this path. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to use “widgets” to deliver the strength of existing volunteering services on your news site.

(This is part of 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.)

VolunteerMatch.org is a popular nonprofit online clearinghouse for all kinds of volunteer opportunities, both in-person and online. Just enter into their search engine your location and/or the type of volunteering that interests you (such as “environment” or “seniors”) and you will get a list of current opportunities, with details and contact information.

You can incorporate the power of the VolunteerMatch database on your news site, for free. VolunteerMatch offers a SearchLite widget. This bit of HTML code allows you to place a special search box on your web site, so that people can search for local VolunteerMatch.org opportunities directly from your site.

Other widgets that support volunteering are available. For instance, DoSomething.org (another clearinghouse) offers several. Also, the Volunteering in America widget from the federal Corporation for Community and Government Service presents and analyzes “the latest Census Bureau data on volunteer trends and demographics for all 50 states and more than 125 cities.” You can find many other volunteering widgets by searching Widgetbox.

Strategic positioning of volunteering widgets. Where you display a volunteering widget can help make the connection between volunteering and civic engagement. On web pages where you cover local civic news (such as school board meetings or city council meetings), experiment with placing a volunteering widget in the sidebar, or in a box positioned mid-story. It’s easy to treat it as a kind of public service ad, since widget code often comes in (or can be customized to fit) standard online ad dimensions.

Positioning a volunteering widget alongside your explicitly civic content (not just near stories about local volunteer efforts) implies the “you can take action” connection.

Use the widget information Some widgets provide reporting for the sites where they are embedded. If your widget tells you what kinds of volunteering opportunities people are searching for on your site, that might spur particularly attractive coverage.

...It’d be great if local governments would create matching services for local civic engagement opportunities. I haven’t seen this yet, but I can envision a VolunteerMatch-like widget where people could search for opportunities to help with (or join) a local school board, or city council, or planning committee. That might be a perfect fit for a civic-minded news site.

January 26, 2010

Future of Media Project: FCC Wants Your Views by March 8

It looks like the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, and its 2009 report “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” attracted close attention from the Federal Communications Commission—which is great, since one of the goals of the Knight report was to influence US media policy. On Jan. 21, the FCC announced its own remarkably similar initiative, the Future of Media Project.

This project seeks to “review the state of traditional sources of news and journalism, and new models for providing information to consumers and communities… The goal: to help ensure that all Americans have access to vibrant, diverse sources of news and information that will enable them to enrich their families, communities, and democracy.”

To start, the FCC has a lengthy list of questions concerning the role and future of media. Journalists, news organizations, and anyone with an interest in access to news and info for their community should take some time to peruse and respond promptly to this list. DEADLINE: The official comment period ends March 8.

Here’s what’s going on and how to get involved…

(This is part of 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 all posts in this series.”)

Here is FCC’s Jan. 21 public notice about this project. This document contains 42 questions on which FCC is seeking public comment, as well as procedures for officially submitting comments. FCC Future of Media Questions

It’s pretty long and complex, but it’s worth reading. For example, here is question no. 1:

“What are the information needs of citizens and communities?  Do citizens and communities have all the information they want and need?  How has the situation changed during the past few years?  In what ways has the situation improved?  Gotten worse?  Consider these categories:

  • media platforms (e.g., broadcast, cable, satellite, print, Internet, mobile, gaming);
  • media formats (e.g.,  video, audio, print, email, short message formats);
  • geographic focus (e.g., international, national, state, regional, local, neighborhood, personal);
  • media affiliation (e.g., independent, affiliated with an advocacy organization or movement, academic, governmental);
  • organization type (e.g., commercial media, non-profits, public broadcasting, cultural/educational institutions);
  • types of journalism (e.g., breaking news, investigative, analysis, commentary, beat reporting, objective reporting, advocacy, specialized, general interest, citizen generated, collaborative); and
  • topics (e.g., politics, crime, schools, health, disasters, national news, foreign news, children’s programming).”

...Yes, that whole thing really is just the first question. They’re not all so long, but the question list is compelling, and I’m very glad a key federal media policy agency is giving this topic a serious look.

I’m also glad to see that while the FCC initiative is examining media aimed at geographically defined communities and regions, it does not seem to focus exclusively on geography. There are many kinds of communities, defined by ethnicity, language, income, class, religion, age, interest, sexual/relationship orientation, and other characteristics. All of these community types matter—and it was perhaps a significant shortcoming that the Knight Commission report examined info needs solely for geographic communities.

ACTION STEP: HOW TO COMMENT

FCC has launched a Future of Media Project blog, run by William Freedman (Associate Bureau Chief, FCC Media Bureau). Having a blog that’s open to comment on a policy issue under consideration is a significant step forward for a high-profile federal agency.

Freedman has created a series of blog posts, all of which solicit public comment on the giant FCC question list. Apparently comments to this blog will be considered officially submitted comments. They will become part of the record, and will be considered in relevant FCC rulemakings, decisions, and actions.

Here are the blog posts:

You can leave public comments on these blog posts. It’s a good idea to address specific questions here by number, in order—and also to include in your blog post your name, affiliation, and some contact information.

If your comments are lengthy, or if you also wish to submit supporting documentation, it’s recommended that you submit comments via the FCC’s Electronic Comment Filing System. Or you can submit them by mail. Instructions for these options are at the end of the public notice document above. (Reference GN Docket No. 10-25)

ACTION STEP: TELL FCC ABOUT YOUR LOCAL MEDIA

The Future of Media project also is gathering information about local media landscapes. You can describe Media in Your Community. It’s pretty free-form, so response types vary.

If you respond to this—and I recommend it—it’ll probably be helpful to list as many different types of community news and info sources as possible. Don’t just list your local newspapers, magazines, and TV/radio stations. Consider relevant community sites, blogs, social media groups, e-mail lists, newsletters (print or pdf), bulletin boards, services like Craigslist, or other info sources. Include links to examples.

And if the “community” that matters most to you is not defined just by geography, say so—and describe what factors do define your core community.

Also, describe what each type of community media in your list contributes to your community. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each in terms of usefulness, timeliness, relevance, community-building, and civic engagement?

I realize this sounds like a lot of work. It is. The FCC is asking for a lot here, on a tight deadline—but it’s potentially a huge opportunity.

It’s important that the FCC hear not just from large media corporations in this effort, but from people who create, value, and use all kinds of community media. The comments to the FCC Future of Media Project can become a valuable foundation to influence all sorts of US media policymaking in coming years.

February 02, 2010

Civic App Contests: User-friendly local data complements journalism

The news isn’t just about stories anymore. Increasingly, people discover their own news by directly exploring local information—via software applications that make raw civic data easier to understand.

Civic data applications can be web-based (such as OaklandCrimespotting and other crime maps), mobile (such as SeeClickFix), or layered onto social media (such as the DC 311 Facebook app).

Most journalists and news orgs don’t have the technical skills to build civic data applications on their own. However, their insight into the news value of local civic data could make civic apps even more useful and engaging. If more journalists would team with programmers, the result could be a wealth of civic apps that are not only popular with (and useful to) communities, but that also help support news organizations and journalism.

Getting involved with—or even helping to organize—a local “Apps for Democracy” contest is one way to jump-start this process…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of 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 all posts in this series.)

Apps for Democracy is a Washington DC contest first held in 2008. It was created by iStrategy Labs at the request of Vivek Kundra (then-Chief Technology Officer for the District of Columbia, now U.S. Chief Information Officer) as a way to make DC.gov’s data catalog useful for citizens, visitors, businesses, and government agencies in D.C.

The Apps for Democracy concept is simple: Contestants compete for cash prizes by using “at least one data source from the D.C. data catalog to build an application of some kind.” The result: In its first year, the contest cost Washington D.C. $50,000 to run, and yielded 47 iPhone, Facebook, and web applications—the value of which is estimated at more than $2.3 million.

This success inspired emulation. There’s now a federal Apps for America contest (from the Sunlight Foundation), plus similar competitions in New York City and San Francisco.

Apps for Democracy recently published a guide, How to Run Your Own Apps for Democracy Innovation Contest, intended mainly for local government officials.

I was a judge in the 2009 San Francisco contest, and that experience inspired me to write this article. Despite the best efforts of sponsors Spot.us and the California Center for Investigative Reporting, that contest attracted a fairly small number of contestant teams. The winning projects were definitely good, but the apps were few.

It occurred to me then: Had local news organizations, journalists, and bloggers been more engaged in the contest run-up, the results might have been more significant—especially considering that San Francisco has an strong community of civic app developers. (See the DataSF app showcase.)

ACTION STEPS: Here are some ways that journalists, news orgs, and other members of the local news ecosystem can support—and get mileage from—a local apps for democracy contest. This is easiest if you cover a major metro area, but it also can apply to smaller cities and suburbs, or to larger regions such as counties or states:

  1. Download and read the contest guide. Share it with local government officials and civic activists. Talk with them about whether and how such a contest might benefit your city.
  2. List local civic data resources. Many agencies at all levels of government are facing new transparency mandates. There may be more local civic data available now than before—and officials might be especially willing to publicize it. Ask your local government CIO or CTO for a dataset catalog or list. Publish that information online and elsewhere, as a starting point for public discussion of how to make that data more useful and engaging. Ask citizens to vote, comment, or otherwise join this discussion.
  3. Assess local developer interest. If there was a local civic app contest with prizes, might they participate? Most cities have developer groups for PHP, Ruby on Rails, MySQL, and other relevant types of programming. Find these and attend their meetings or discuss the contest idea on their forums. Show them the list of available local datasets. Getting influential developers to champion the contest can be the key to success.
  4. Find Government 2.0 advocates in your local government. These people are typically passionate about transparency and eager to help, and they can be valuable allies in finding government support (such as funding for prizes).
  5. Involve local journalists. Although much more government data is being published, most of it is pretty ugly and cryptic. Ask local beat reporters and civic-minded bloggers: Which ugly local government datasets are potentially the most valuable, useful, or interesting?
  6. Involve your community. Apps for Democracy offers a public forum where anyone can suggest an app need or idea for Washington D.C., and community members can vote for their favorite suggestions. This is powered by Uservoice, a voting-based forum service that offers free, cheap, and premium accounts. It’s one way to gauge community demand for civic info, and gain champions in the community.
  7. Sponsor and promote an apps contest. News organizations could either sponsor the contest directly, or encourage advertisers or partners to sponsor it. Prizes are key, and the prizes (whether cash, goods, or services) must come from somewhere. Also, publicizing the apps contest in the news venue at least a month or two before the event can help drum up public interest and support as well as attract more (and more qualified) contestants.
  8. If you’re independent, Consider volunteering to help organize or promote the contest, or to recruit sponsors.
  9. Involve journalist advisors. As contestants enter, they can opt to confidentially disclose to contest organizers the type of data their app will use. Contest organizers then could pair developer teams with journalists who cover related local topics to add news/storytelling insight to the process. Also, encourage developers to build in ways that users can share info from or via the apps, so that more people can see the value of accessing this data. Also, encourage developers to build apps that are easy to create widgets from, for wider distribution.
  10. Consider alternative approaches. If a local civic apps contest doesn’t seem like the best strategy, consider borrowing ideas from civic innovation and improvement services, such as ManorLabs and SeeClickFix, to spur local civic app development.

After the contest: Be sure to use and publicize those local civic apps! Name them and link to them. Where available, embed their widgets on your site. Use the data and graphics they provide in your news coverage. Create your own local civic app showcase.

Also, apps developers often seek local advertisers and sponsors. Whether or not your community has a civic apps contest, consider approaching local developers for sponsorship and advertising opportunities. Especially if you could syndicate to their app in real time your latest headlines on topics with a similar focus. This might prove far more effective than standard brand-only marketing.

February 16, 2010

Partnering with libraries, “natural sites of media literacy”

Libraries and news organizations have much in common. They both seek to keep people informed, and they both have a long history of providing civic information. Thus, they may be well positioned to support each others’ evolution—as well as healthier communities.

By Amy Gahran

Like news organizations, libraries have been challenged by the proliferation of digital media. Internet access, e-books, and online retailers are transforming how people get information. So the role of libraries is shifting, often as their funding shrinks.

Danah Boyd (social media researcher for Microsoft, fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a member of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities) observed recently in an e-mail interview: “Libraries serve as a place where people can go to get all sorts of information as well as learn how to make sense of that information. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about news from a journalist or the records of a town hall meeting. Being able to get that information, knowing how to get it, and knowing how to interpret it are all critical. Journalists don’t currently play all of those roles but librarians often do. This is why the library is a natural site of media literacy.”

(This is part of 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.” See all posts in this series.)

The following examples of how some North American libraries are working to build civic engagement may indicate opportunities for innovative news-library partnerships:

Events and announcements. The Douglas County, Colorado library system offers a Civic Engagement page on its web site. This includes events such as a Feb. 24 talk on Human Trafficking, upcoming blood drives at libraries, and more.

The Programming Librarian blog also wrote about civic events at libraries in Nashua NH, and Telluride and Boulder, CO.

ACTION STEP: Local news organizations might want to consider not just publicizing such events, but using their venue as a platform to extend discussion on these topics before, during and after the event. Also, news organizations might want to attend these events not just to cover them, but to participate in order to explore with community members how the news organization can support civic engagement.

Resources. The American Library Association’s Civic Engagement blog posts occasional items about how libraries are working on local civic engagement, and there’s a free ALA guide: Civic Engagement: A Success Model for Libraries Serving Older Adults.

Also, Widener University’s Wolfram Memorial Library offers a good resource list for research on civic engagement and service learning.

ACTION STEP: News staff can explore these and similar resources to discover what might be most locally applicable. Also, check out the member directory and state project list of the National Alliance for Civic Education for useful local sources and stories.

Visual Arts. Civic engagement can involve many kinds of information, including art. In January the the ALA received $104,000 in grants to develop “Picturing America through Civic Engagement”—a pilot program to engage young audiences in citizenship and the American electoral process through the visual arts. The program will target young adult audiences in Chicago region public libraries through partnerships between public libraries and local high schools. (Note: Perhaps like maybe Chicago-area news venues and bloggers might be able to support or participate in this project, too.)

ACTION STEP: Libraries often host arts events or performances that highlight local culture, issues, or community members. When covering these, consider and highlight the civic (not just the artistic) relevance.

Using library data on other sites. Libraries are civic institutions, so library information is civic information. One way to spur civic engagement is to make library data available beyond the library’s own web site—perhaps on a local news site.

In 2008 the Toronto Public Library began sharing its data via an API (application programming interface). This allows other web sites (for local schools, organizations, etc.) to display current library information on branch locations, events, and more. There are many other library-related APIs, too—North Carolina State University publishes its catalog via API.

ACTION STEP: Does your local public or college library system publish any of its data via API? Ask their IT director what is, or could be, published via API. If it’s something that’s interesting to your community (such as an events calendar, or availability of public meeting rooms), then an API could be the key to automatically giving that information wider reach via a news site.

Finally, talk to local librarians about their civic engagement efforts, needs, and goals. Offer to help. Be proactive. Often news organizations only approach local librarians when they need information, not to offer to help (beyond publishing news stories). Go to their meetings, and consider participating on their boards or committees. Librarians aren’t just resources—they’re potential partners.

February 23, 2010

Google’s “Gig” fiber network: Could it help your town?

On Feb. 10, Google announced the initial, experimental roll out of their own high-speed broadband fiber network—initially to “a small number of trial locations” across the US. According to Google’s blog: “We’ll deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today with 1 gigabit per second, fiber-to-the-home connections. We plan to offer service at a competitive price to at least 50,000 and potentially up to 500,000 people.”
What might such internet access mean for local civic engagement and the health of communities?

(This is part of 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.” See all posts in this series.)

By Amy Gahran

Being able to send and receive data at a gigabit per second primarily means that two-way, real-time use of video, games and simulations, medical scans, remote monitoring and control, databases, and other kinds of large or complex files or communications would suddenly become easy and reliable.

For example: What if any community member could easily attend a local meeting without having to find a babysitter or make a special trip—simply by using by reliable, real-time, two-way video conferencing? What if local hospitals or clinics could instantly share high-resolution MRI images with leading medical experts around the world for instant consultation? What kinds of job and education opportunities might arise? What could it mean for local news, information, and education?

Of course, gigabit-speed broadband also would allow more mundane types of internet use. If some or all of your community previously had little or no access to broadband, simply allowing everyone to do better than dial up would be a huge step forward.

Marissa Mayer, Google’s VP of search products and user experience—and co-chair of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy—noted in a recent interview that Google’s Gig project supports Recommendation 8 of the Knight Commission report, which says:

“Set ambitious standards for nationwide broadband availability and adopt public policies encouraging consumer demand for broadband services.”

The Knight report focused on government leadership for nationwide broadband access. The FCC is currently formulating its National Broadband Plan, and many companies and organizations (including Google) have submitted ideas and comments to FCC for this plan. But in the meantime, companies can push ahead with their own broadband access projects.

Said Mayer, “Here at Google, there’s been a return to focus on access issues. Especially community wifi and broadband access to communities. We had a debate on the Commission about what does ‘high quality access’ really mean for local communities? The Commission decided that it had to mean broadband. Google’s Gig project pushes the boundaries around the issue of broadband access.”

Access to the internet remains a crucial issue throughout the US. A February 2010 report from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration notes:

“Despite the growing importance of the Internet in American life, over 30% of households and 35% of persons do not use the Internet at home, and 30% of all persons do not use the Internet anywhere. Those with no broadband access at home amount to more than 35% of all households and approximately 40% of all persons, with a larger proportion in rural areas in both categories. Overall, the two most important reasons given by survey respondents for not having broadband access at home are ‘don’t need’ and ‘too expensive.’ Inadequate or no computer is also a major reason given for no home broadband adoption. In rural America, lack of availability is a much more important reason for non-adoption than in urban areas.”

ACTION STEP If you’re interested in bring Google’s gigabit fiber network to your community, you can nominate your community through Google’s request for information (RFI). Deadline for nominations: March 26.

Google apparently is giving strongest consideration to nominations from eager, willing, and capable local governments. So before you nominate your community for Google’s fiber network, it’s a good idea to meet with local government officials to get their buy-in. Ideally the nomination to Google should be made by local officials—but if you’re the one making the nomination to Google, make sure to clearly demonstrate active local government interest and involvement.

News organizations in towns vying to get fiber broadband from Google can support this effort through journalistic investigation and coverage. What’s the current status of broadband access in your community, really? Double-check local broadband provider’s claims of geographic availability and upstream/downstream.

Paint a picture of a possible local future. Talk to local technologists, government officials, and civic groups: If your whole community had access everywhere to a gigabit fiber network, how might that affect the local economic development, jobs, education, health and welfare, and civic engagement?

Embrace debate. Obviously, a ubiquitous gigabit-speed fiber network wouldn’t have pros and cons for any community. Some points for public discussion:

  • Cost. Google is not offering to do this for free. Communities will have to pay for the service. Google says this cost will be “competitive,” but can your town really afford even that? For more far-flung rural communities, roll out costs might be even higher.
  • Commitment. Google’s current project is just an initial experiment. It’s unclear what kinds of long-term commitments Google is willing to make to communities. Could your community come to rely on its fiber network, only to be abandoned by Google, or to have it taken over by a more costly owner?
  • Local government readiness, attitude. What kind of shape are your civic data systems and processes in currently? If they’re currently a mess, faster internet access won’t fix that. Also, if this project doesn’t have any influential champions in local government, or if local officials or agencies generally resist transparency or change, civic benefits might be few.
  • Local values and culture. The fiber network can carry any kind of content—including violent video games, offensive music, religious and political extremism, and porn. Is your community willing and able to manage such challenges?
  • What about mobile phones? Gigabit-speed fiber networks are geared mainly toward computers. Yet mobile phone proliferation is much higher than computer use in almost every US community. If a Google Gig might not be the bets approach to connectivity in your community, consider what more you could do with cell networks, especially cellular broadband.

March 19, 2010

National Broadband Plan: What it actually says about civic engagement

On March 17, the FCC finally presented to Congress the National Broadband Plan—a 360-page proposed policy to encourage the development of a robust, ubiquitous broadband infrastructure throughout the US. Last week I discussed why news orgs and journalists should pay attention to this plan.

Enhancing civic engagement is a key theme of the published plan. In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to this topic.

Here are some civic engagement highlights of the plan—and some possible implications for community-level news and information…

By Amy Gahran

(This is part of 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.” See all posts in this series.)

Right at the top of Chapter 15, Civic Engagement, the National Broadband Plan highlights the connection between broadband access and the faltering traditional news business:

“The transition to new information technologies and services can open new doors to enhance America’s media environment—but with traditional sources of news and information journalism under severe stress in the current media and economic environments, we confront serious challenges to ensure that broadband is put to work to strengthen our democracy. Civic engagement starts with an informed public, and broadband can help by strengthening the reach and relevance of mediated and unmediated information.”

The plan’s civic engagement chapter makes 14 specific recommendations to create a broadband infrastructure that actively supports civic engagement at all levels of US society and government. The chapter’s second recommendation (15.2) specifically echoes and cites Recommendation 4 of the Knight Commission’s “Informing Communities” report:

Recommendation 15.2: Government should make its processes more transparent and conducive to participation by the American people:
  • For the Executive Branch, independent agencies, Congress and state and local government, all government meetings, public hearings and town hall meetings should be broadcast online.  
  • Congress should consider allowing the American public to track and comment on proposed legislation online.


“...As a guiding principle, the Knight Commission has declared, ‘the public’s business should be done in public.’ Public hearings and town hall meetings are among the most direct and frequent opportunities for the public to engage in their democracy. Video streaming of government meetings expands access to the government by eliminating geographic limitations and allowing for ‘time shifting,’ so that a person who is unable to watch a meeting in real time (because they are at work, for example) can still watch the proceedings and provide feedback. That is why federal, state and local governments should require that all public agency meetings and hearings be streamed over the Internet. Additionally, these events should offer closed-captioning services to increase accessibility for persons with disabilities and, to the extent practical, enable individuals to ask questions online.”

POSSIBLE OPPORTUNITIES: Coordinating video streaming is not necessarily a strength of government, especially local government. If Congress provides funding for universal video streaming of meetings and hearings at all levels of government, there might be outsourcing opportunities for CSPAN-like businesses. News organizations and news professionals could be players here.

However, an even more crucial role for journalism and journalists in this kind of service would be offering context. Anyone who’s attended government meetings and hearings knows that it’s pretty hard to figure out what’s going on unless you’re already very familiar with the process, issues, history, players, interests, and jargon. News professionals could use broadband to provide easy real-time access to relevant context—news stories, backgrounders, documents, links, live text or audio commentary, etc.—that would help viewers understand what they’re watching.

Similarly, the language and formatting of legislation is generally excruciating to read—so mere availability would not necessarily encourage engagement. Furthermore, our state and federal legislative process is such that multiple “live” copies of the same bill often are available simultaneously, confusing people who are not government insiders. Where exactly should one leave a comment?

Journalists and others who are accustomed to following and explaining legislation might find business opportunities to layer context on proposed legislation—making it easier to understand what’s going on, what happens next, optimum timing for comments, and also getting citizens’ questions answered (since often people have questions before they can formulate comments). This is an example of applying journalism skills as a direct service, rather than simply as a means to create content that’s supported by ads or subscriptions.

Other aspects of Chapter 15 of the National Broadband plan may provide additional journalistic opportunities related to civic engagement. For instance:

“Recommendation 15.6: Congress should consider increasing funding to public media for broadband-based distribution and content.”

...This is followed by other recommendations to revise the Copyright Act to make it easier for public broadcasing organizations to use copyrighted material, and also to create a “federated national digital archive to house public interest digital content.” And further:

“Congress should consider amending the Copyright Act to enable public and broadcast media to more easily contribute their archival content to a digital national archive and grant reasonable noncommercial downstream usage rights for this content to the American people.”

...which could prove to have interesting implications for mashup culture—included journalistically minded uses of content.

WHAT’S NEXT: Macworld recently published a pretty good overview of what happens with the National Broadband Plan now that Congress is considering it. Of special interest to broadcasters is this point: “The FCC will also ask Congress to give it new authority to sell spectrum now controlled by incumbents including U.S. television stations.”

FOLLOW THE ACTION: On Twitter, the hashtag #BBplan provides lots of news and view on the plan. As I mentioned last week, the BroadbandBreakfast blog and state broadband commissions also are key sources as this policy debate unfolds.

March 21, 2010

Community Information Challenge Boot Camp: Liveblog, video stream

This week, the Knight Digital Media Center @ USC Annenberg is hosting a boot camp for local news and information projects funded via Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge. Representatives of several place-based foundations will be learning and brainstorming on how to launch and run local projects under this initiative.

KDMC will be liveblogging this event today through March 25. Here’s the liveblog, and also information on our live video stream of some bootcamp events…

WATCH LIVE VIDEO STREAM

We’ll live stream most of the conference. That includes these segments, and much of the rest of the program (times are Pacific):

Monday, March 22

For participants who cannot download/use MS Word or Xcel spreadsheet documents, they are available on Google docs. But PLEASE FIRST watch this short video tutorial to learn how to make your own copy of these documents, so other people have clean originals to work from.

Tuesday, March 23

Wednesday, March 24

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

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