Last Saturday, I put up a post about ways that we might organize publishing to sustain investigative journalism, particularly at a local level. It noted in part:
"Rather than be a repository of (aging) articles, the local journalistic enterprise could be the trusted source for public information. Anyone with an interest in understanding history, trends and relationships could query the data set for a reasonable fee. "Subscribe now and get unlimited access for a year.""
On Twitter, Porter Anderson pointed me to a part of "Writing on the Ether" that talked about an Esther Dyson post, "The quantified community". Both had appeared a week or so before my own post, and Anderson saw some parallels.
I wasn't familiar with Dyson's work in this area, so I've been reading up over the last few days. Dyson is a proponent of what she calls "the Quantified Community movement, with communities measuring the state, health, and activities of their people and institutions, thereby improving them."
Interestingly, this effort focuses on giving people tools to collect and analyze data. Dyson notes:
"Many institutions are unlikely to provide the necessary data at first. But the data do exist, and most of it could be made available if it were demanded vigorously enough. One institution capable of leading the way is local newspapers, many of which are searching for a new business model and a new source of unique content. They have the connections, the resources, and the respect to play a key role.
"Indeed, I believe that local newspapers will often find that the Quantified Community offers them the business model that they need at a time when many advertisers are bypassing them for social marketing and running their own Web sites. Despite the pending demise of print journalism, local papers still generally reach more local citizens than any other single institution. They need a way to remain relevant; this could be it."
I think Dyson is spot-on here. As data sets become valuable and the tools to analyze them become cheap, even free, local newspapers have an opportunity to extend their relationships and grow product and service offerings.
Newspapers could capitalize on development work already underway at places like the Sunlight Foundation and the Knight Foundation, both of which are mentioned in Dyson's post. The investments wouldn't buy reporting; they'd grow capacity.
Palo Alto is one of a handful of communities that is starting an open-data initiative. There, the city's chief information officer (CIO), Jonathan Reichental is part of an effort to create a "city as a platform". Interestingly, Reichental came to Palo Alto after serving in a similar capacity at O'Reilly Media.
Coincidentally, Palo Alto is also home to Kepler's Books, which recently held a community summit to examine how the bookstore might remain relevant in an increasingly digital age. If the government makes good on its open data commitment, it might be time to stock up on the Hadoop manuals.