Since 2002, some colleagues and I have been working slowly to create an “information commons” for Prince George’s County, MD. A real information commons would be a voluntary association devoted to creating public goods and putting them online. These goods might include maps, oral histories, historical archives, news articles, discussion forums, research reports, calendars, and directories. If community groups preferred to maintain separate websites, they could link to features on the commons site and thus “distribute” the commons across the web. The association would also lobby locally on issues like the “digital divide” and broadband access; and would provide training and support. Information commons in various communities would form networks and share software.
We decided not to start by creating an association, because we were afraid that community people wouldn’t see the need for such a body or the advantages of joining. Instead, we hoped to create enough exciting and useful content on one site that it would draw traffic and interest. We would then ask participants if they wanted to “own” the site formally by creating a non-profit governing board.
Progress has been slow for two main reasons.
First, we have chosen to work with high school students, and for the most part ones who are not currently on the college track. This has been extremely rewarding work, but it’s also a relatively slow way to generate exciting content. For instance, students spent a whole summer gathering excellent audio recordings that documented immigration into the County, but we haven’t figured out how to use that material online. It sits on a CD. Likewise, the kids took a very long time collecting information for “asset maps,” and the result was a relatively small set of incomplete (and now dated) maps.
Despite the slowness of this approach, I intend to continue to invest the majority of my discretionary time in the high school, because I find it extremely satisfying to work directly with kids.
The second obstacle is financial. We have had great difficulty raising money for the core concept of an “information commons.” Instead, we have raised funds from foundations with specific interests in, for example, history or geography. As a result, we haven’t had money or time to develop the commons itself. Instead, we have lurched from one project to another.
Ideally, we would always be busy with three tasks: 1) teaching high school (or middle-school) students to create digital products for the website; 2) working with college classes, churches, and other adult groups to help them to create content; and 3) installing and managing interactive features for the website itself, such as an open blog, a “wiki,” or a map that visitors could annotate. These features would have to be carefully monitored or else they would be vulnerable to spammers and cyber-vandals.
To date, we have only had sufficient resources to do the first of these tasks, and that only on a small scale. Recently, I’ve been thinking hard about the second job: recruiting independent groups to produce their own content. Based on some recent conversations, I am optimistic that by the spring we will have three groups feeding content into the commons site: the high school class, a college class, and possibly a group of teachers.