Texting Innovation Shows Promise for Engaging Communities

Photo credit: Jesse Hardman.

Texting Innovation Shows Promise for Engaging Communities

Texting-based ‘listening posts’ in New Orleans, Macon, drawing participation from unlikely neighbourhoods

A new community engagement platform intended to make it easier for community members to share their ideas, passions and concerns is experiencing early success in New Orleans, one of its pilot cities.

Large signs, mobile recording installations and radio call-outs invite residents to answer posted questions by texting in to a number. Launched nearly two years ago, 1,200 people are participating. This is especially noteworthy given that the signs have been set up in communities with traditionally high levels of distrust of the media and low levels of public engagement.

The New Orleans Listening Post project is run by reporter, and media developer Jesse Hardman, and it’s based off of his work with the international NGO, Internews, in countries such as Sri Lanka, Tunisia, and Pakistan. “Treating information access as an essential resource, like housing, employment, and education, is at the center of the project design,” Jesse says.

A First Attempt at Creating Community-connecting Technology

Andrew Haeg is the inventor of GroundSource, the platform powering the Listening Post project. A former business and economics reporter, the Macon, Georgia resident has long been committed to answering the question of how media can reflect a broader and more authentic story of a community. His first attempt to answer that question was in the form of the Public Insight Network, which he cofounded in 2003.

“The Public Insight Network was a pioneering crowd-sourcing effort that, in my mind, came from a need to better connect journalists to communities that they cover, so that their storytelling was more reflective of the reality of that community instead of being reflective of whoever gets paid to manage their attention,” Andrew says.

“I felt like technology could help us do that by connecting us to people who are directly experiencing something and giving us an opportunity to reach out to them.”

About 70 newsrooms around the U.S. are now linked into and making use of the Public Insight Network

Discovering the Boundaries of the Model

Andrew’s experience in several U.S. inner-city neighbourhoods illuminated to him the boundaries of the model.

“I started to see that the whole framework we were using to invite people into conversation with the newsroom through the Public Insight Network was unintentionally exclusive because of the technologies, the words, the framing we were using,” Andrew says.  The system was and is great at reaching people already engaged in journalism, but not as effective for reaching out beyond our audiences.

“But if our job, especially in public media, is to cover the whole community and this model isn’t allowing us to reach the whole community, then we’re missing a huge swathe of the experience of the place that we live in,” Andrew says. “I felt like that was a problem that needed to be solved.”

Groundsource

In 2012, Andrew left the network to launch what he envisions as an answer to this question of how one engages more of the community, especially those typically un- or less engaged in the broader public discourse. The software platform, called Groundsource, he created has been put through an alpha test, private beta test and is currently in a public beta test, including in New Orleans, Macon and other cities.

While the innovation springs out of Andrew’s experience with the news industry and his desire to see a shift there, he also sees applications for any organization committed to community engagement.

“Basically the idea is to create a way for anyone in your community to have an opportunity to share their story and to be very inclusive about how you do our outreach, and then to create a space where the stories of the communities roll up into some sort of public conversation that may also influence news coverage and decision making at the city level,” Andrew says.

Why Is It Working in New Orleans?

While formal research on success factors of the New Orleans project is required, Andrew has a few hypotheses.

“It’s very lightweight; it’s not very intrusive. It feels like a conversation,” he says of the initiative.

“There are the editorial values behind it, which (centre on) inclusiveness.

“The questions that (are) asked week in and week out are interesting and fun to respond to.

“And it feels very community-driven, (which) it is and I think people respond to that -- whereas the mainstream media in New Orleans tends to be seen as these fortresses that don’t really have any understanding of what’s happening in the community. They go into a community when there is crime or something else horrible happening, but not as a practice of being involved and engaged in the life of the community.”

What if Text-based ‘Listening Posts’ Are the New First Step in Building Community?

Though any texting initiative, no matter how innovative, will not by itself carve out a resilient, thriving community, the Groundsource project does seem to offer a new, promising “in” to engaging especially parts of a community that are otherwise less present in public or community conversations.

“At the simplest level, it’s the easiest way to initiate a conversation and engage a group of people,” says Andrew.

As people respond to the basic texting invitations and questions, the opportunity to deepen connection and communication with them is cultivated.

Andrew has also described the innovation as a virtual town hall, “where all those voices, all those perspectives can be reflected back to the community.”

The Best that Could Happen

“The values at the heart of this are (about) helping organizations become more responsive to their communities and seeing that current ways of doing that, whether it’s social media or surveys or polls are inferior because they’re leaving a lot of people out ,” Andrew says.

“So to really spread this both as a platform but also as a set of values around the importance of listening to communities, that’s the big overall vision.”

To learn more about Groundsource, you can read more here or request public beta access here.