For the last year, with generous support from the National Geographic Foundation, my colleagues and I have been working with high school kids to study the environmental causes of obesity in their community and display the results on public maps on the Prince George’s Information Commons website. It has been a tortuous process, frequently derailed by changes in the school’s administration and rules, flawed ideas and plans on my part, turnover among the University of Maryland team, attrition of students, and technical problems. In the latest phase, the kids have been trying to present their ideas in the form of audio segments, mixing voice and music. But the talented graduate student who was helping them had to quit this week for health reasons.
Despite all these problems, various groups of high school and college students with whom I have been working should have produced more than 30 separate research projects on various aspects of their community by the end of this summer. I am starting to envision the Commons website as a kind of magazine about Prince George’s County, with “articles” in various formats (including audio and video) and lots of opportunities for readers to post comments. Blogging software like MovableType could underlie the whole site, although it wouldn’t look or “feel” like a blog. After all, blogging software is essentially a database that displays selected entries on a website. So the Prince George’s Information Commons could consist of a database of research products created by a wide range of students and adult volunteers. The homepage would present short summaries of some recent products, with links to the full results. Each summary could be accompanied by an enticing picture to draw visitors’ interest.
Prince George’s County is a large jurisdiction (pop. 838,000) without its own news media. It receives generally disparaging treatment from the Washington press corps, probably because it’s the suburban county with the lowest income and the largest African American population (62.7%). I didn’t get involved in these projects to try to create a news organ for the community, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing.