Information Seeking - How-to Get Started
THIS IS A DRAFT. Comments please or simply edit via this wiki.
An online Issues Forum (or local blog) is only relevant to local decision-making if information exchange and discussions relate to agenda items in front of area governments and community groups. While our forums are often used to surface new issues that should be on the local agenda, actual agenda items make great topics. The question is, who will help find those items and post them to the forum?
In a perfect world, elected officials and civil servants would post items they know would generate some useful input before a decision is made and journalists would also post links to key stories they've written. This happens sometimes when folks are pro-active, but building effective local democratic engagement never works on auto-pilot (online or off).
So here is where we as Issues Forum participants come in ... it is up to us to monitor key online (and offline) sources of community information, news, and events to make sure important items come to the attention of all.
We call this information seeking and seeding. Instead of expecting the volunteer Forum Manager to add this task to their primary list of duties, you can help by monitoring one or more specific sources. If something looks interesting, feed the forum links and highlights on a regular basis be that once a month or once a week.
- Google News Alerts - From http://news.google.com you can enter some key search terms about your community. Use the Advanced Search option to limit sources, etc. A simple search like "Bemidji City Council" can generate quite useful results (see the link to "Create an e-mail alert for ..." at the bottom of the search results. With news alerts (and other search alerts they support) you receive an e-mail when something new is discovered. Of course, then you need to scan the alert and see if anything rises to the level that you want to share it with the forum. With news from other sites we recommend pass along the title of the story, the direct link, and only the first paragraph or two. Forwarding the full-text from a news site without permission might violate their copyright.
- Government E-mail Newsletters - Some governments send out regular "what's new" e-mail newsletter and others provide personalized alerts on hundreds of new or updated documents like St. Paul. Also ask your local government to receive all public meeting notices and agendas via e-mail when/if the council members are sent the same information electronically. Sometimes this is automated from the government website and other times you need to find the right person to ask. If you government does not provide these essential communication services, ask them to start.
- Community Calendars - A mix of local websites often host community calendars. Find them, subscribe to them (if possible) and in particular forward anything "civic" be it a speaker coming to town to a meeting hosted by a community initiative. While we encourage community organizations to post items to our forums directly, they are often passive. Depending upon how big "C" community your forum is versus big "P" political, feel free to include a wide range of community announcements. The rule of thumb is that the smaller the population covered by the forum, the broader the scope for event announcements.
- Web Page Trackers - There are a number of browser and web-based web page trackers available. These tools automatically tell you when a web page has been updated. This tool is ideal to follow the release of meeting agendas on government websites as well as what's new and home pages which often link to new reports and the like. If you use Firefox, one add-on tool to use is Update Scanner. If you use Internet Explorer, a related tool is ????????. In short, find the page the changes frequently with links to new content - press releases, reports, meeting agendas and documents, webcasts, etc. - and set the scanner to update you when the page changes.
- Local Blogs - What makes the sound of one hand clapping? A blog with no comments. Instead of trying to drive comments to an external blog, instead we encourage you to think of each Issues Forum as a "roving book club" where you supply the participatory audience and everyone brings in the content for discussion. It is so much easier for people to simply press reply via e-mail than to go to website and try to post. This is why we have two or three times the participation rate of other similar forums. So either sign-up for e-mail alerts from blogs that offer them or use a tool like Google Reader to monitor the "web feed" (that little orange icon) from blogs and other feeds from around the community. A simple tool that sends you an e-mail when a web feed is updated is FeedMyInbox.