The Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy is Friday morning debuting its final report, Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age.
The report marks the first time in the digital age that an independent, bipartisan, blue-ribbon panel has sought to explain what exactly are the information needs of America's communities and to determine if those needs are being well served.
The Commission, led by Co-Chairs Marissa Mayer and Theodore B. Olson, argues that effective information systems are as important to healthy communities as other fundamental infrastructures, such as roads and electric grids.
It warns that, for a variety of economic, social, and technological reasons, many Americans will fall into or remain in a kind of second-class citizenship if they lack access to or skills to use the new information and communication technologies that are now central to community information flow.
The Commission hopes its report will attract attention, in part, because of its identification of three key objectives that healthy community information systems must serve, and its articulation of 15 specific recommendations for improving the fulfillment of community information needs. Perhaps paramount among them is the push for universal broadband access as a national imperative.
As executive director to the Commission, I also believe that the report is an exciting step forward because of three critical aspects of the Commission's approach.
First, the Commission sought to look at information needs truly through the eyes of the individual citizen, not through the lens of any media or other institution. Thus, although Informing Communities will be relevant to a variety of hot current debates on public policy and the future of media, it is not a report about "saving" the local newspaper. It embeds its discussion of journalism in an analysis of what citizens and communities need - information - and makes recommendations with those needs taken as paramount.
Second, the report weaves together three discussions that currently occur often in largely siloed venues that take little account of one another. These are discussions about maximizing the availability of reliable news and information, achieving universal access to significant information technologies and the skills necessary to use them effectively, and promoting public engagement among everyday citizens, both with information and with each other. The Commission recognizes these as three strands of what ought to be a united, integrated approach to producing better informed communities.
Finally, the report focuses on geographically defined local communities. Although the word "community" is properly used to describe any network of information and support with which people identify, such as "the community of science fiction fans" or "the African-American community," our democracy is organized along geographic lines. Where we live still determines much of our quality of life and the resources over which we share authority with our fellow citizens. Inadequacies in information systems related to the communities in which we live, work and vote thus necessarily limit the quality of our democratic life, to the detriment also of our social and economic welfare.
The October 2 launch event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., will feature prominent national leaders, including Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, Chief Technology Officer of the United States Aneesh Chopra, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Telecommunications and Information Lawrence E. Strickling, and Chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Board of Directors Dr. Ernest J. Wilson III.
The program starts at 9:30 AM EDT, and will run until 1:00 PM, including three short panels on different aspects of the Knight Commission report. The event may be viewed live (or watched afterward) at the Commission's web site, http://www.knightcomm.org.
The web site provides links also to copies of the report in either English or Spanish.
The Commission ultimately seeks to foster a nationwide dialogue on the issues it raises. Anyone may join the discussion at the Commission web site, and twitter users can tweet at hash tag #knightcomm. Informing Communities also is available free on Amazon's Kindle through December 2009.
A key message of the report is that "the information issue is everyone's issue." The report's launch gives Americans a new and important opportunity to assess the information health of their communities and take meaningful action to maximize the benefits of the information age for all Americans.
Follow Peter M. Shane on Twitter: www.twitter.com/petermshane