Assessing Community Information Needs

Submitted by Donna Jean Fors... on November 13, 2012 - 3:47pm

Assessing Community Information Needs: A Practical Guide is a guide for adopting civic innovation strategies to spur the development of news and information environments that address real community needs.  Civic leaders, elected officials, motivated citizens, community-based organizations and others can use this guide to understand how to integrate useful practices for assessing and building engaged, informed communities—communities with the civic capacity necessary to deal successfully with today’s many economic, social, environmental and political challenges.

Author Richard C. Harwood sets forth a set of assessment strategies that go beyond merely counting the information assets that exist in the community. While high-speed broadband, news websites, social media and local online hubs are important for expanding opportunities to participate in public life, in order for these technologies to be truly transformative communities need to create a receptive environment where citizens engage more fully with the spectrum of information and knowledge providers that contribute to the health and stability of a community: schools, businesses, libraries, nonprofits, other organizations and each other.

Harwood proposes a set of nine strategies, governed by four guiding principles, to help people in a community take effective action toward improving their information ecology. The paper also includes a checklist for getting started.

Among the key elements of his nine step plan are the following:

  • Engage the community early on and focus on core community needs. Being in the community and hearing people talk about their community can yield valuable insights that lead to refocusing existing efforts, creating new types of content, developing new networks of partners, and building a more useful information infrastructure.
  • Actively cultivate boundary-spanning organizations and groups.  Public and commercial media, community foundations, public libraries, and local United Ways are among the groups that bring people together across dividing lines, incubate new ideas and spin them off and reflect the aspirations and concerns of the community. These intermediary organizations should play an essential role in assessing and building healthy information environments.
  • Tell the community’s story of change. Told well and over time, such stories can help a community create a “can-do narrative” about its ability to tackle change and invite people to step forward.
  • Ensure enough entry points for people to engage. There must be sufficient “on-ramps” for people to participate in the information environment and community life. Technological on-ramps like high-speed broadband are important, but so are a variety of cultural and social access points.

Together, Harwood’s nine strategies and four guideposts will allow communities to focus on building information environments, engaging the community and taking action on what matters most.

This paper is the eighth paper in a series of white papers focused on implementing the 15 recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. The white paper series is published by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program in partnership with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Richard Harwood is the founder of The Harwood Institute for Public Innovation