Geek Corps: Answering the call (and changing the name!)

Far too many reports are issued only to collect dust on a shelf.  Fortunately, this is not the case with the Knight Commission report, "Informing Communities:  Sustaining Democracy in a Digital Age", which was issued a year ago and has been the source of ongoing converation about the role of media and information flows in 21st century democractic life.  Just this week I tuned into a symposium the Knight Commission held to mark the one year anniversary of the report, prompting me to share some thoughts on the report.

This week's symposium focused largely on the evolving role of media in public life along with recommendations for expanding broadband access.  Very important subjects, to be sure, but some of the Informing Communities recommendations most relevant to our civic engagement work here at SCI could use greater attention in the follow-up conversation.  For instance, report recommendation #15 is to "Ensure that every local community has at least one high-quality online hub."  We're now providing such hubs in 9 Massachusetts communities, so certainly appreciate the importance of this one!  I do understand some plans are in the works to focus more on some of these civic engagement in the fall, meanwhile I will add my two cents.

Perhaps the idea in the report that I found most compelling in the report was the proposal to create a "Geek Corps", a major program to engage young people in helping communities address some of the information challenges outlined in the report.  We're now in the our 4th year of deploying a team of Outreach & Technology AmeriCorps members in a role very similar to that envisioned in the Commission's Geek Corps idea.  Our experience validates the important role such a corps can play, and also offers some lessons that could be incorporated into the program's design.

Before launching into our lessons, I should note that I am not a fan of the Geek Corps name, for it suggests a narrower role focused on IT work when what we really need is corps members to play a broader role creating, organizing and connecting citizens to civic information.  Thus, I support the "Civic Information Corps" name suggested by CIRCLE's Peter Levine in his paper presented at this summer's Aspen Institute gathering.

WHY WE NEED A CIVIC INFORMATION CORPS

  • Despite the abundance of information available today, "lack of information" is commonly cited as a barrier to civic engagement. We've found this in our own community surveys, and have also seen it raised in reports such as the Social Capital in Boston study.  Quality local civic information gets crowded out by commercially-driven messaging and/or is simply missing in some instances. 

  • There is great value to be created by corps members playing a "civic connector" role.  More than just IT helpers, they can help vet, aggregate and communicate local information through a variety of channels.  Part of their training would entail understanding social networks and cultural compentency, so that they are able to effectively reach diverse community members.

  • Civic Information Corps members can also bridge online content and offline relationships.  We have found that issues may be surfaced online, but take follow-up offline with community members with whom we've built solid relationships.

  • Our Outreach & Technology group provides a glimpse as what a national Civic Information Corps might accomplish.

    • 75% of our IT tool users say they are more civically active because of this resource, and 1/2 say they have met someone new in the community because of their SCI connection.

    • In the 4 communities served by Outreach & Technology members & an SCI community portal, over 7,300 residents use the portal tool per month.  This marks a 27% increase from the previous year's traffic.

    • Our team has been able to leverage technology to address a wide range of pressing needs:  organizing information about resources available to local Haitian families after the earthquake, helping connect neighbors to help each other through difficult situations, increasing participation at public meetings and much more.

       

RECOMMENDATIONS

  • The need is much broader than helping nonprofits with IT issues.  The Civic Information Corps needs to be about improving the civic information ecosystem, to use the report's phrase.  As a result, communication, networking and community building skills must be sought and developed among corps members as well as IT skills.

  • Civic Information Corps members also should be seen as trainers and capacity builders, to help nonprofits and citizens alike develop the skills needed to understand and use information for civic purposes.

  • The report implies that the Geek Corps should be separate new program "on par with" Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.  I'd suggest that it could be integrated into the AmeriCorps program, or perhaps throughout the Corporation for National & Community Service portfolio, as Levine suggests.

  • There are a number of programs in addition to SCI that can serve as early models for this program.  An early first step would be to convene such groups to help craft a strategy for moving the Civic Information Corps forward in a way that leverages the experience of those of us who have begun experimenting in this space.

  • While engaging young people on this issues makes a lot of sense, we should also consider ways to incorpoate the Experience Corps and Encore Career initiatives that seek to engage older adults in public interest work.