Measuring Informed Communities

We talk a lot about the digital divide and the lack of local news coverage in communities across the country, and how this absence of information affects civic participation, quality of life and our democracy. We are facing a growing information divide that is leaving more and more people with less and less access to the basic information that helps them make choices about their jobs, families and communities. We have to approach the challenge of meeting these information needs with a national effort, as it is fundamental to the health of our democracy and a just society.

But first we have to answer a few core questions: How do we define the information needs of communities, and how do we measure them? What metrics should we use and what tools do we need? Are communities receiving quality news and information? A panel at the Free Press Summit delved into these questions because understanding our communities information needs will shape the policies and solutions we fight for in our quest for a better media system.

We have a good foundation to build upon. The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy developed some overarching categories for what defines an informed community, but they admit, “No one has developed a system for measuring the quality of a local community’s information environment.” The Federal Communications Commission based their Future of Media & Information Needs of Communities in a Digital Age project on the Knight framework. As part of this project, the agency encouraged citizens to weigh in on the state of media in their communities. As of earlier this week, there were only about 100 communities represented in that forum. These projects are both important foundations, but we need to get much more granular data on how communities define their information needs as we seek to develop innovative solutions.

Measuring Media, Organizing Impact, and Driving Directions

At the Summit, media activist and author Jessica Clark, from the Center for Social Media at American University, set the stage by discussing a new report, “Investing in Impact,” which lays out “five needs and five tools” for measuring media’s impact on local communities and issues. They are:

  • Needs: Shared categories of impact assessment; the ability to track stories across platforms; methods for analyzing shifts in public awareness and behavior ; more sophisticated audience demographics; and, a new kind of metrics beyond eyeballs and clicks.
  • Tools: A unified social media dashboard; a social issue buzz tracker; model formats for communicating outcomes; common survey tools for audience assessment; and, a suite of tools that track the growth, health and effectiveness of networks.

Ellen Miller, the executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, suggested that trying to discern communities need and how to measure them from conference rooms in D.C. might be ineffective, and steered attendees to the Sunlight Foundation’s recently launched The project is a distributed citizen network designed to help foster local leaders and activists to fight for transparency and open data at all levels of government. Miller emphasized the incorporating government data as a core part of assessing a community’s larger information needs.

For Joaquin Alvarado, of American Public Media, the question was less about how we map the information needs of communities, and more about how we give people the driving directions they need to meet community information needs through locally rooted solutions, collaborations and public policy. He said that while we need to get the big picture of community information needs, we also should acknowledge that a lot of people already know there is a problem, they just don’t know how to respond. We need to give people clear directions, and simple actionable and achievable next steps to engage them in the day-to-day work of making big change. Alvarado pointed to recent efforts at American Public Media to prototype six different campaigns aimed at providing these kinds of “driving directions to people in Detroit, to engage them in covering their community.”

At this point, folks throughout the room chimed in, describing a litany of projects rooted in similar questions around identifying and responding to the information needs of communities. Here are some takeaways:

  1. EconomyStory is seeking to give people better information on our ever shifting economy;
  2. The Alliance for Community Media is trying to map the national network of public, educational and governmental TV stations around the country;
  3. The Aspen Institute and Knight Foundation are building on the Knight Commission report with an expanded site and updated blog;
  4. Native Public Media has mapped the media ion native lands and reservations;
  5. The National Center for Media Engagement is collecting a range of data on their master public media map; and,
  6. The New America Foundation is creating community media ecosystem profiles of targeted communities.

There was clearly a charged energy in the room as people shared their various projects and made connections around each other’s work.

Next Steps: Curate, Collaborate, and Create

There was a good deal of discussion about how we can better collect, collaborate and organize the distinct projects that are underway to combine all this data and better provide a holistic vision of the state of the media. However, as people described their projects, it was the differences between them, not their similarities, that really sparked the conversation and moved us more deeply into some of the vital questions about how we measure informed communities.

A number of people referred back to Ellen Miller’s earlier point about the need for communities to examine and articulate their own community’s needs, and argued that there are two distinct layers of context that we are grappling with:

  1. How do we manage and coordinate the work going on at the organizational level across organizations to respond to the crisis in community information needs? People agreed that we should create a central communications tool to track these different projects and create a clearing house for the findings.
  2. How do we create tools and help communities assess and address their own information needs? People were less sure about what the tools should be and how to undertake the organizing effort needed to foster these community assessments. One participant pointed out the difference between mapping the information infrastructure of a community (the number of schools, libraries, newsrooms, etc…) and actually measuring whether people are indeed informed, and employing information to make positive change.

Those in the room interested in working on these issues signed up to keep the conversation going, if you want to join the discussion and take part in future meetings, drop me an email.

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