Last year I was asked by the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to author a study on models for local online hubs or community web portals. This paper was one of several commissioned by the Knight Foundation to implement the 15 recommendations found in the Knight Commission report on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy. The specific Knight Commission recommendation I focused on in my white paper read as follows: “Ensure that every local community has at least one high-quality online hub.” More specifically, it said: “Communities should have at least one well-publicized portal that points to the full array of local information resources. These include government data feeds, local forums, community e-mail listservs, local blogs, local media, events calendars, and civic information. [The entire three paragraph recommendation can be read here.]
My resulting white paper is entitled, Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action, and it was released by the Aspen Inst. & Knight Foundation at an event this morning. (Another Aspen/Knight white paper was simultaneously released on Government Transparency: Six Strategies for More Open and Participatory Government. It was written by Jon Gant and Nicol Turner-Lee.) A short summary of my report follows down below, and you can find the entire report online here. I’ve also embedded the video of this morning’s launch event for both reports.
Creating Local Online Hubs: Three Models for Action
by Adam Thierer
— EXECUTIVE SUMMARY —
The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy (Knight Commission) recommended that every local community have at least one high-quality online hub to help meet community information needs. While the Commission recognized that “it is not possible for any one Web site to aggregate all of the online information local residents want and need,” it believed that “communities should have at least one well-publicized portal that points to the full array of local information resources.” This paper outlines how local online hubs currently work, what their core ingredients are, and what it will take to bring more of them to communities across America.
This analysis makes three simplifying assumptions. First, while newer developments have supplanted the “portal” concept—namely, online search and social media—there is still something to be said for websites that can help to aggregate attention, highlight important civic information and activities and map public information resources. Second, it continues to make sense to focus on geographic communities for the reasons the Informing Communities report made clear: they are the physical places where people live and work and also elect their leaders. Third, the government’s role in creating high-quality online hubs will likely be quite limited and primarily focused on (a) opening up its own data and processes and (b) some limited funding at the margins for other local initiatives.
Luckily, there are many excellent, high-quality online hubs already in place in many communities. Unsurprisingly, however, those hubs tend to be found mostly in large and mid-sized cities. They can serve as models for online hubs in other communities; the question is how to get them built.
As we look to do so, we should keep in mind the great diversity of local communities and realize that there is no one-size-fits-all, best approach to designing high-quality local online hubs. We should not assume that a hub model that works well in one community will automatically work for another. The more experimentation, the better at this point. Some communities may be served by multiple hubs that specialize in serving various informational needs, while other communities might get all those needs served by one site.
The primary concern going forward should be underserved communities. More thought needs to be put into how to deal with those communities who have nothing in place today. That can be facilitated by the close collaboration of various players. Building effective local hubs will require coordination among local governments and universities, libraries and other community organizations, local businesses, local media outlets and other patrons and supporters. It is particularly important to find community champions who can help lead these efforts. Many of the examples discussed in this paper began with the efforts of a small handful of inspired, active, civic-minded citizens who were looking to make a difference in their communities using digital technologies.
It is important, however, that we do not set the benchmark for success too high. The effectiveness of online community hubs should not necessarily be measured solely by the number of people visiting those sites on a regular basis. Availability and usability should trump actual site time in terms of effectiveness measures.
To advance the goal of a high-quality online hub in every community, there are certain tasks that various stakeholders will need to undertake. Among these are the following:
- Governments at all levels should ensure that these hubs are given access to all relevant data about the government and other community affairs organized by it.
- Local libraries and other community organizations can help to develop content and resources for local hubs. In fact, local libraries may be one of the best places to start discussions about local information needs and identify stakeholders who can help facilitate local hub creation or improvement.
- Local businesses can support online hubs through direct financial sponsorship; in-kind donations of services, support and technology; or advertising support (in much the same way as they do for local newspapers and broadcast outlets.)
- Local media outlets could partner with one another or others in the community to foster or assist local hubs, or to improve the local information resources offered on their own websites.
- Colleges and universities offer a wealth of capital, human and other resources to map and develop local information resources. Higher education stakeholders could develop a toolbox of technologies and templates for ready-made hubs or a “code toolbox” to make local hub creation easier, incubate successful models or host local hubs.
- Foundations and venture capitalists should support best-of-class programs and applications through matching grants, support efforts such as the Knight News Challenge or directly invest in innovative local community online hubs and programs.
- Governments can provide seed money, targeted grants and access to public facilities to spur the creation of local online hubs where they do not currently exist, taking care not to impose a particular hub vision from outside the community receiving support.