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"Design thinking" helps close information gaps in Silicon Valley communities

by: Sally Duros |

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s Informed Communities project works with program officers and community leaders to design news and information solutions. The goal is to maximize the impact of everything the foundation does in its program areas and beyond.

Gone are the days when change-makers could count on getting ink in the paper or broadcast time to publicize resources for communities in need of information that could change their lives. In truth, news organizations were never a predictable delivery system for that kind of actionable information.

Instead of a story in a news outlet, today, obviously we have the Web, smart phones and other technologies that can put detailed interactive information directly in the hands of those who need it.  

“Journalism must be re-imagined for a networked world in which people use technology for themselves to do things they once relied on journalists to do for them,” said Mike Fancher, a member of the writing team for the 2009 Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy said in the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 2011.

Information reimagined

At its core, the Informed Communities project (as it is known inhouse) at Silicon Valley Community Foundation is an example of this reimagining. It’s an experiment in switching the orientation of the work by the foundation’s program officers and their working groups. Through strategic consulting, the Informed Communities staff encourages the foundation’s issue working groups to put themselves in the shoes of the communities they serve and understand what information they need and how to best deliver it. The end product will be customized user-centered news and information solutions. The solutions could be high tech – an app, a website a software program — or low tech — a meeting, a flier, a door hanger — whatever is appropriate

This applied design thinking provides an additional resource and an additional frame around news and information.

The innovation is two-fold. First, the project creates awareness that crafting an information solution oriented toward community needs is within the bailiwick of the foundation and its working groups. Second, the project provides expert consulting assistance to the program officers and their working groups to steer this awareness toward information solutions.

A $500,000 two-year Knight Community Information Challenge grant funds the Informed Communities initiative, which is the internal name for the project based within the Initiatives and Special Projects unit.

The question being asked is this: “How might we, as the community foundation, support our community partners in building infrastructure that allows communities to generate stories that impact the decision-making process in our region,” says Mauricio Palma, Director, Initiatives and Special Projects. “This initiative is …. also thinking about sustainability of organizations that might be the anchors in communities that help facilitate the generation of stories. The generation of news.”

The foundation’s end users are community and nonprofit leaders who provide specific community services or advocacy. Through their direct client work, these leaders can spot gaps in information that prevent a client from progressing from Step A to Step B to Step C in using services or achieving an important goal.

It is the work of Palma and Neha Singh Gohil, Senior Media Fellow who is based with him in the foundation’s Initiatives and Special Projects unit, to create an experimentation space to encourage a different kind of thinking that could produce news and information solutions to fill knowledge gaps around the foundation’s specific issues of concern, which are: 

  1. Economic security
  2. Education, particularly looking at math, algebra and Common Core.
  3. Immigrant integration
  4. Regional planning

But they are not limited to just those issues.

“We are the R&D division around here,” says Gohil. “We are tasked with experimenting with different projects, different strategies that are not necessarily part of our four main issue areas or part of the center for learning. Everything we do is smaller but more innovative.” 

Identifying the gaps

As an example, Gohil cites a group of community leaders who are gathering at the foundation to discuss the idea of forming a Bus Riders Union in the Bay Area similar to one in Los Angeles.

The purpose of the Bus Riders Union is to inform bus riders about their public transit system. In the Bay Area, the people riding the buses don't know who makes decisions about the buses, the routes, the schedules and the fares. That’s an information gap.

Meanwhile at the foundation, program officers are talking with Bus Rider Union activists to help them find a way to advocate for themselves in a more structured way.

“There’s definitely an information gap and there’s a needs gap,“ says Gohil. “The point is for me to walk in there and say,  “OK- the four of you have gotten together. Tell me about what you are already doing to inform people about your work. … Lets see if there is a space where all four of you can work together on something.”

That “something” could be a tech tool or it could be an app or it could be an upcoming community meeting. It could be telling individual stories about bus riders, using them in a PSA kind of way to amplify riders’ voices. 

In another example involving the foundations immigration programs and their working groups, Palma and Gohil asked a legal services working group to do some design thinking around their community — could the leaders help identify and quantify the information gaps. For instance, what do immigrants know about the immigration system? What do they not know about their rights?

 “What should (your community) know that would make your work more impactful with them? That is what we as a foundation are here to support,” says Gohil. “What kind of technological support could bridge the information gap in the community?“

Many people did not know the steps for applying for legal immigrant status and they didn’t know how to get started. The solution is a website that steps people through so they understand the process and important touch points, such as when they might need to engage an attorney.

Teaching the messengers about Common Core

In another example, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation had been funding 27 of the 54 school districts in the Bay Area for several years around Common Core implementation. In an Informed Community project that augmented this extensive work, Gohil designed three strategies to fill the news and information gaps that parents have around Common Core. Everything she created supports the audience she calls the “messengers.” These are the teachers, the principals, the desk people, the employees of a school who will have an opportunity to talk with the parents and help them understand Common Core 

The strategies were:

  1. A communications toolkit on the Common Core available for all to download.
  2. Embrace the Core, which is an information hub for practitioners built with a curation tool called Curata. The end user of the Hub is people who are communicating to the parent. Everything is curated along the question of “Will this help folks communicate around the Common Core?”
  3. Working with local ethnic media and New America Media, reinforce the need to have an education beat covered by reporters.

In curating the “Embrace the Core” hub, Gohil says she avoids politics and stays out of the weeds. “As far as we are concerned Common Core is a foregone conclusion. It is being implemented. Our goal is to help teachers explain it to parents. It's designed to be a space where they can stay abreast of the conversation and cut through the media noise a little a bit around Common Core, and find things that are easy to replicate or links,”  Gohil says.  “On the other hand, there is definitely a news side to it and the purpose of the news side is to really curate articles that are specific to our region, specific to our state and that are talking about how to talk about Common Core.”

Sally Duros

Sally Duros is an independent journalist and digital communications strategist. You can connect with her on Google+ and on Twitter at SaDuros. She also
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