Apps for Communities – GroupServer with Inclusive Social Media Submission

The Federal Communication Commission with the Knight Foundation have put up a very interesting challenge called Apps for Communities.

  • Download GroupServer – We’ve put up as the “app” for this competition. It is designed for technology hosts. End-users engage the app via the web and e-mail.
  • With certain customizations that we use and most importantly a “human” outreach wrapper we call our Inclusive Social Media project, we hope to have a decent chance at recognition.

Below is the text of our submission:

About the submission

The Inclusive Social Media project strategically leverages the GPL open source tool (download) to work with lower income, highly diverse, high immigrant concentrated neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as the Leech Lake Indian Reservation area in northern Minnesota.

Local information exchange – including the direct participation of local elected officials, their staff, and civil servants with the public – is central to our model which attracts everyday people’s interest in broad “community life” information and exchange.

Our technology approach creatively combines e-mail, the web, web feeds, Facebook Pages, Twitter, a mobile friendly interface to reach the largest critical mass of local people possible.

We embrace access to government information via sharing among neighbors and community leaders as the real super computers rather than wait for non-existent unfunded local open data sets to become available that are highly relevant to the Somali community in Minneapolis or Hmong community in St. Paul for example.

From a technical perspective, GroupServer (developed with our partner OnlineGroups.Net), is an open source Google Groups like tool with a far better interface for public dissemination of information. Not only is information shared, a participatory audience is built in for true engagement and discussion.

For inclusion, we’ve created a technology that:

1. Strategically supports in-person outreach -  We allow the technology host to use paper sign-up sheets at community events and in the field via diverse community outreach leaders to fully register people from target communities based on their off-line permission. This is the cornerstone of our inclusion success. (Technically, we use a back-end CSV upload option based on paper sign-up forms that does not require any further action of the registrant to receive information or publish.)

You can give away 10,000 fliers and get 20 new participants and none will meet your “inclusion” target demographic or your can talk to 1,000 people in the community and get 500 or more to sign-up right then and there. Without technology that support grass roots inclusion techniques, no mass responsitory of local data will reach the target audiences of this competition.

2. Embraces lowest common denominator publishing – If we’ve signed you up for your local neighborhood exchange and you’ve never been to the website, you can still publish by simply pressing “reply-to-all” via e-mail. A geeks nightmare if you hate e-mail, however combined with paper sign-ups this means someone who only has access to the Internet via a local computer lab or the library is reached (we’ve built a bridge) only needs to know how to press reply to all to share information with the community.

Ironically, this serves the busy local elected official who fires up the Blackberry during idle moments and can share some information spontaneously (example). Of course folks can publish via the web, someday via a Facebook App, access full-text web feeds, and we deal with photo publishing on the fly and integrate YouTube and Vimeo video players.


3. Actionable technology – Use of our Neighbors Forums lead to real life action every week. Local proximity encourages such action as people are motivated to go offline and take action. This week for example residents in Cedar Riverside are using it to shape their anti-crime community safety plan. Last winter residents in Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis organized a rally with over 400 people on a cold cold night is response to a sexual assault in their park. We have many more examples in our Neighbors Forum presentation and on our raw list of example topics from our Inclusive Social Media effort from previous years.

4. Volunteer-friendly open source technology and approach reaching close to 20% of households in some areas – Key to our model is serving any neighborhood where a volunteer steps forward. Standish Ericsson, Seward, and Powderhorn Park are three of our most active neighborhoods among 16 across the Twin Cities that are open and 16 more in the pipeline. By combining easy to use web administration and minimal technology support funded by participant donations in part with peer to peer forum manager support, we have a high success rate. Nothing is worse than using technology in a vacuum and obscuring the fact that 90% of the job is going beyond the technology to reaching people.

5. Solves a real inclusion problem – Nationally according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project’s Neighbors Online study, adult Internet users in households making over the $75,000 a year are at least 5 times more likely to join their neighbors via online e-mail lists and forums (15%) than someone from a family making $50,000 (3%) or less or Latino (2%) for example. This is “of” Internet users. Our mix of technology and approach is demonstrating that all communities can benefit from dynamic two way community information exchange by developing and sharing lessons for how to effectively reach those communities being left behind online when it comes to raising community voices and sharing government information in a way that actually impacts people’s daily lives and hopes for their community.


Current develop efforts underway include leveraging the Facebook Registration plug-in to allow another easy route for online signing up, further mobile interface development, and developing ideas that complement our very public (open, accessible, accountable) online spaces with nearest neighbor private group communication.

Unlike many apps which have few roots and no path beyond a competition to sustain themselves, our Issues Forum approach has evolved since 1994 and has thousands of users. Also important is our open source approach to sharing our lessons so our approaches may be integrated with other technologies and projects.

We have a new forum manager training video that goes in-depth into our installation of the GroupServer tool from a “Forum Manager” or group administrator perspective. It is about 45 minutes in length.

Government data alone is boring and simply does not attract most people in isolation. The data sets available are not truly local enough to be relevant to a specific diverse communities in a unique way any more than than everyone is interested in road closures or crime data.

The government information that empowers people to shape their community, seek solutions and government spending that better serve their needs, etc. is often nuanced and available through people in the political process. As a civic engagement project, our Issues Forum model breaks through this problem by combining a diverse community audience with the ability to share of the local information desired of this competition. Indeed, such information is shared and crucially used by diverse communities everyday.

Additional Videos

Hmong Outreach Video

Cedar Riverside Outreach – Six Languages

Brief Video from Steven Clift

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