When people think about issues in their communities, they usually frame those issues through practical questions they would like to see addressed. Is the town budget too high or too low? Are teachers doing a good job? Are the streets safe? Do emergency responders have the right training? How can traffic congestion be eased? Does the library have the best technology for patrons? Do zoning rules work the best way? Are all the people in the community getting fair access to social services?
The way that people address questions like those is to gather, share, and act on information. Yet there is not much knowledge about how the parts of a community’s information system work and fit together. Believing it would be useful for communities to examine how well their own information systems were performing, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation asked the Monitor Institute to explore key components of local information systems in three communities with advisory help from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. This report is the fruit of an eight-month research effort pilot testing several research methods in Macon, Philadelphia, and San Jose to probe key parts of those systems. Some of findings, especially in surveys conducted in the communities, were notable and surprising:
- Those who think local government does well in sharing information are also more likely to be satisfied with other parts of civic life such as the overall quality of their community and the performance of government and other institutions, as well as the ability of the entire information environment in their community to give them the information that matters.
Broadband users are sometimes less satisfied than others with community life . That raises the possibility that upgrades in a local information system might produce more critical, activist citizens.
Social media like Facebook and Twitter are emerging as key parts of the civic landscape and mobile connectivity is beginning to affect people’s interactions with civic life . Some 32% of the internet users across the three communities get local news from social networking site; 19% from blogs; 7% from Twitter. And 32% post updates and local news on their social networking sites.
- If citizens feel empowered, communities get benefits in both directions. Those who believe they can impact their community are more likely to be engaged in civic activities and are more likely to be satisfied with their towns.
These surveys were part of an exploratory period of research by the Monitor Institute and the Pew Internet Project that used several methodologies to examine the components of local information systems that were highlighted by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, a joint project with the Aspen Institute. The Commission argued in October 2009 that a healthy democratic community depends on a strong information system and engaged citizens who take advantage of that information. The Commission maintained there are three dimensions of the system: a robust, diverse supply of information, a sophisticated communications infrastructure for delivering information, and residents with the skills needed to access that information and use it in effective ways to address their community’s needs. Further, Commission members said they believed there were several key indicators of information systems that performed well:
- Quality journalism through local newspapers, local television and radio stations, and online sources
- A local government with a committed policy on transparency
- Citizens with effective opportunities to have their voices heard and to affect public policy
- Ready access to information that enhances quality of life, including information provided by trusted intermediary organizations in the community on a variety of subjects
- High speed internet available to all citizens
- Local schools with computer and high-speed internet access, as well as curricula that support digital and media literacy
- A vibrant public library, or other public center for information that provides digital resources and professional assistance
- A majority of government information and services online, accessible through a central and easy to use portal
The aim of the Monitor Institute-Pew Internet work was to try to examine these different components of the information systems in three communities. The Monitor Institute was also asked to create an easy-to-use set of tools to help community leaders assess and improve their local information ecology. Version 1.0 of the Community Information Toolkit can be accessed at www.infotoolkit.org. In addition, there was an opportunity to probe more deeply with the data that was collected in the pilot sites, especially those from telephone surveys of 500 residents in each community. Those findings make up the core of this report. They sometimes highlight consistent patterns of adoption, impact, and interaction among the features of local information systems. At the same time, there are varying results depending on the community. What follows are some of the key findings: