Rethinking Community Information Needs

    by Paul Lamb
    May 5, 2009

    Following up on the Knight Commission’s work and musings on “community information needs in a democracy”, Mark glaser poses a much more targeted question which has yet to be fully addressed: “What is missing in terms of local community needs”?

    Most of the discussion in this area focuses on what you and might want in our own communities – things like crime reporting, new local ordinances, and hyper local happenings and events on your block. As David Sasaki points out Everyblock and Oakland Crimespotting are great tools to address these needs.

    But what about the folks that are not at and will likely never be at the table for such discussions on “democracy” and “information needs” of local communities. I’m talking low income and underserved communities. How can their issues be addressed in the frenzied and brave new world of media and information technology? Does it take more citizen journalists, more Google mapping projects, and other top down, technogeek solutions to bring everybody in? Or do we need a new bottom up approach that empowers local communities of every flavor and socioeconomic status to identify and develop their own tools and information needs?


    I’ll admit it. I am as guilty as the next talking head that attempts to speak on behalf of the so-called “voiceless”, even though I like to think that many of my ideas (like Locobeat) have been inspired by what I have learned living and working in and around low income communities.

    But that’s not good enough. If we are really serious about democracy for EVERYONE, each community must speak for itself, design (technology tools) for itself, and have relevant conversations about and among itself.

    So the questions then become…


    How can we support (and understand) community-based empowerment without a top down, “let me help you” approach? One that’s respectful and not condescending?

    And how can we get creative tools and resources in the hands of people who can and will use them to directly answer the question of local information needs?

    I don’t have any great answers, but lots of great projects are already happening in an attempt to address these challenges head on. Things like Global Voices. And this is just the beginning. IMHO the next step is to let go and have communities themselves decide what their information needs are, who and how they will addressed….as well as how they can be sustained without handouts. Frankly, this will take a lot more than blue ribbon panels. and and more “commission” reports.

    The tools and commitment are already here. The business and management models are not quite yet figured out. but the call to action has arrived and all of us – and I mean all of us – need to respond. So let’s figure it out, together!

    p.s. Some really cool mobile tools are emerging in the community empowerment space, many of which will be on display at this month’s Netsquared conference in San Jose, CA.

    Tagged: community democracy everyblock global voices information needs knight commission Locobeat NetSquared Oakland Crimespotting
    • Interesting points, Paul. U.S. local communities are suffering from a lack of engagement and a decline in social connections… people are not as involved locally as they used to be and they don’t know those around them as much. People move more, they work more, fewer stay-at-home moms, TV and internet wrestles people’s attention away from the neighborhood, suburban sprawl development leads to more hours a day in a car by yourself, etc.

      So, while access to information is critical, the more fundamental problem to address is to increase local social capital and civic engagement. And many new e-tools don’t really go there. People are anonymous and distant. They likely will never meet in person the others with whom they are interacting. Many tools encourage more screen time, which translates to less sidewalk and face-to-face time.

      Front Porch Forum is designed to pull people into neighborhood conversations, like a low-key, low-tech online block party. Once they get rolling, FPF members report increased connection and community involvement. Indeed, one study found 93% reporting increased civic engagement.

      Front Porch Forum hosts a network of 130 online neighborhood forums that blankets Chittenden County, VT. An AMAZING 50% of Burlington’s Old North End participates. This area has the state’s largest concentration of urban poverty and associated social ills. It’s wonderful to watch how this community chooses to develop it’s FPF neighborhood forums.

      For example, last year, a mother of young kids went out at 2 AM to the playground next to her apartment to ask basketball players to obey the signs and stop playing ball so her baby could sleep. She was beaten by one of the players. Awful.

      The neighborhood rallied through FPF, got the word out, organized several meetings, got the electric utility to upgrade lighting, the parks dept to improve signage, the police to seek the assailant and patrol the park more, and the city council, mayor and media to all get involved. Several months later, neighborhood leaders were able to keep the underlying issue (drug-trade violence) in front of everyone through FPF and a new community policing initiative is underway.

      This is <a href="http://frontporchforum.com/blog/category/front-porch-forum/stories"one of many FPF stories of low-income and other communities doing great work when given simple and effective ways to communicate… no fancy maps, video-streaming, avatars, wikis, etc. needed.

    • Michael: What a GREAT project. Love the idea and the fact that you have such a high penetration rate is amazing…hats off. I agree that screen time leading to decrease in F2F time is a real problem, and that is why most of the projects I am working on focus on mobile technologies that require human interactions. In fact, if you do a search on “interactive community spaces” on this site you can see some of the ideas myself and other colleagues are working on in this respect.

      You should also check out Village Soup in Maine (http://www.villagesoup.com/). they offer a successful, self sustaining community news resource similar to Front Porch.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Paul. And I do follow the various projects highlighted on this site, including your work… lots of wonderful innovation going on. Thanks for blogging about these important issues from the platform you have. Cheers!

      P.S. The last paragraph in my comment above has a broken link. It should read like this…

      This is one of many FPF stories of low-income and other communities doing great work when given simple and effective ways to communicate… no fancy maps, video-streaming, avatars, wikis, etc. needed.

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