Last summer, the Knight Foundation co-hosted a Forum on Communications and Society (FOCAS) with the Aspen Institute. They recently posted a series of video interviews from the event, including one featuring OpenPlans’ director, Frank Hebbert.
John Bracken, the Knight Foundation’s director of media innovation describes in his video what he sees as the evolving role of the non-profit sector in open government and civic participation. As a journalism foundation, he explains, Knight cares about where people get their information, and the openness and availability of data from government is a key source of how citizens can find out what’s happening in their communities. Additionally, because the Knight Foundation is rooted in specific communities, they have the opportunity to connect media to what’s happening on the ground. Where there are successes, they can help transport whatever works and whatever doesn’t work to other communities.
One of the on-the-ground projects the Knight Foundation is supporting right now is LISC Chicago’s “Open Gov for the Rest of Us.” Like OpenPlans, LISC Chicago was a 2013 News Challenge winner. In her video, Taryn Roch from LISC talks about how they’re trying to bridge the gap between the current state of open data and applications and poorer neighborhoods that are being left out, by using older forms of civic engagement–figuring out what will literally bring people to the table, and make them feel they are part of the solution. They are also training high school youth in code development, in an effort to encourage relevant app development by communities for communities.
Frank dovetails Taryn’s thoughts when he says that what OpenPlans hopes to accomplish through its News Challenge work is to move the balance of power back into communities around planning projects. By taking our tools that allow citizens to be engaged in what’s going on in their neighborhood on a very small scale, and making those tools much simpler to use, Frank thinks we can expand engagement to many more municipalities. As much as tool makers need to do a lot to push the tools we’re developing, however, citizens can also be the ones to come to us to tell us what problems they’re working on and demand relevant solutions. We are a small team, Frank notes, working in a space of other small groups. “But there are a lot of citizens out there. We need them to be taking the tools that we’re building and taking them massively out to use in thousands of communities.”