The Greater University Circle Neighborhood Voice is a free monthly nonprofit print paper and website serving the mostly African-American, low-income neighborhoods surrounding Case Western Reserve University as well as several major hospitals and arts institutions on Cleveland's east side.
Neighborhood Voice launched in 2010 as a cooperative, and it later became a Neighborhood Connections project of the Cleveland Foundation. Currently it's a 12-page monthly tabloid of grassroots news. "Our goal is to tell the stories of everyday people doing extraordinary things everyday in these neighborhoods," said Mills, who's served as the paper's editor for a year now.
In September, Neighborhood Voice won a Knight Community Information Challenge grant, which matches a grant from the Cleveland Foundation, to engage community members via cell phones.
The original plan was to build a smartphone app that would not only distribute Neighborhood Voice's content, but also allow community members to contribute their own content and views to the site. However, after the Bootcamp orientation and education event for KCIC grantees and foundation partners held last month in Chicago, Mills realized that most of the project's goals could probably be met via the mobile web.
A web-centric mobile strategy is not only more cost-effective than building an app -- it also is accessible via any type of web-enabled mobile device, and it also can be complemented by existing popular mobile tools and services
Getting to mobile: Evolution of mindset, not just technology
"Back when I came on board, my first goal was to just meet as many people and tell them we exist, to get as many community members engaged as possible -- especially trying to get them to submit content to our website," said Mills. "But we found there were obstacles."
"Many people in these neighborhoods don't own a computer, so they were trying to submit stories from computers at the public library. Often they weren't familiar with how to use computers or the web, and sometimes they'd have to wait for a turn on the computer, and sometimes their sessions would time out."
Also: "We didn't want to keep publishing the same few voices on our site," said Mills. "So we started to consider that maybe people could submit content from their cell phones, too. We want to offer as many on-ramps as possible."
Mills began brainstorming with Walter Wright, director of the Cleveland Foundation's Greater University Circle Community Wealth Building Initiative -- an effort supported by Living Cities, a nationwide collaboration of 22 major foundations and banks dedicated to urban revitalization.
"Walter started talking about a mobile app," said Mills. "He used to work for a community development corporation which had an app built, so that's where our original idea came from."
Wright brought into the discussions Barb Cagley, a local web developer he'd worked with previously. She mentioned the KCIC matching grant program, and in just a few weeks the team submitted their proposal.
Immediately after Neighborhood Voice won the grant for its mobile project, the team began meeting to map our requirements. "We wanted to make it easy for people to contribute content, but I also needed to make it easier on myself. I'm drowning in e-mail," said Mills. "So I wanted to know: is there a way we could turn e-mail messages into draft posts or event listings? As we discussed various options, it was a huge learning experience."
Just before Bootcamp, as Mills began exploring what kinds of mobile devices were in use in her community, she realized many people have web-enabled phones that aren't fully featured smartphones -- they can access the web, but not download or run apps.
At that point, the team had already created a mock-up showing what the app would look like. But they were also planning how to make the Neighborhood Voices website more mobile friendly. Mills started pondering how to combine these projects.
"On the first day of Bootcamp, one of the speakers said that when we talk about mobile, we shouldn't call it an app, we should call it a service," said Mills. "That started to expand my mind. And then a session on the second day talked about a lot of mobile options, especially the mobile web and responsive design. It started sounding like there was a way to get everything we wanted." (Author's disclosure: I delivered the Monday presentation on mobile options at the KCIC bootcamp.)
Mills checked in with Bahia Ramos Synnott, Knight's Director for Community Foundations, about whether they could change their original plan. "She said that's typical, projects often change course."
Shifting focus from apps to the mobile web
"Our developers were totally into changing course. Especially on tech side, our developers' energy is around building stuff -- not just building apps. Right away developer Mark Mutch started sending me examples of responsive themes for our web design."
The developers also assured Mills they hadn't wasted much time; much of their previous app planning could be redirected to the mobile website.
What kinds of content might community members contribute from their phones? Mills thinks photos with short text captions are a good place to start, and she'd like people be able to view them as a slideshow via the mobile website. Also, simple web forms and integration with e-mail will probably be used to enable two-way interaction. And the team is exploring options to adapt the site's content management system to accept mobile contributions directly.
So now this project is proceeding. "I'm excited and kind of relieved," said Mills. "We're not going to build software that we have to update. I have no background in the software business. A web-based project is easier for me to manage and eventually hand off."
She's also studying the Mobile Voices community website in Los Angeles, which has created a robust content-contribution platform that people can access via feature phones. Although that site uses the Drupal content management system, and Neighborhood Voices uses WordPress, Mills feels there are many lessons they could learn from the California project.
"A year ago I didn't think about mobile at all. Last year at this time, I was trying to figure out how we'd manage this paper. I was totally focused on print" said Mills. "Now, for the first time I think I see a potentially sustainable future, because mobile is relatively inexpensive compared to what we've been doing.
"That's very encouraging. In my heart I know we've done a lot of good work -- it and would be a huge disappointment if in a year we didn't exist anymore. I'm excited about mobile."