In conversation: PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Josh Nesbit and Mark Rembert on finding the right communication channels

Taylor Stuckert, Josh Nesbit and Mark Rembert in Wilmington, OH

About a month ago, Josh Nesbit, Medic Mobile founder, made a visit to Wilmington, OH to spend some time with Energize Clinton County founders Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert and learn more about what they’re up to in the town they’ve committed to revitalizing. Since his visit, Nesbit had been mulling over some ideas about improving communication and transferring knowledge community-wide through existing technologies.  PopTech asked Nesbit and Rembert, both PopTech 2009 Social Innovation Fellows, to exchange a few words with one another to see what ideas might truly have legs.

Josh Nesbit: Hey Mark, how's it going? It was really great to visit you and Taylor in Wilmington. Thanks for being so welcoming.

Mark Rembert: The pleasure was ours. There is nothing we enjoy more than sharing our love for Wilmington with friends. I'm curious what your thoughts are after you've had some time to reflect.

JN: I definitely felt the community as soon as we parked downtown. And there's something about that hotel -- your meeting/gathering place where we got lunch -- that inspires conversation and makes you want to act. So, I wanted to follow up on a few ideas:

First, we talked about a community radio station, perhaps housed out of the local college. Bill Siemering, a close mentor who wrote the book for public radio (founded All Things Considered and NPR) is the best possible person to talk you through that. Think there's something there?

MR: There definitely could be. I think it points to a very clear need to develop new channels for the communication of information and ideas within the community. On one level, improving the quality of communication relates to a resource issue. As resources get tight--as they obviously are here--there is great pressure to squeeze more value out of every unit resource we have.

I think the challenge is constructing these communication channels to fit the context of a particular community.

JN: Can you give me an example of a specific community and their information interests / needs?

MR: In all honesty, Wilmington has never been a big radio town, and being within three metro areas, our airwaves are pretty saturated with sound.

JN: I wonder if that would change if they had their own station, the content was relevant to them and the challenges they face, and the content came from them as well.

Second idea: We talked about the 9,000 workers who lost their jobs when DHL pulled out and I asked what their status is. What I heard is that the data isn't good, and you're not able to really track the families through regular contact.

I don't know what the age breakdown or family unit breakdown is, but there's a good chance there's someone willing to text message in each household. If they trusted the system (e.g. it's ECC-branded, and they know you and Taylor), you could likely (a) gather longitudinal information via very simple surveys, and (b) provide useful information. A few ideas / systems that are being rolled out include http://www.souktel.org/ and http://www.jobrooster.com/corporate/

The questions you ask and info you provide would probably change quickly as you get feedback from people, but it could be as simple as, "Wilmington meeting today, at this location and time" to more complicated messaging, e.g. match groups and subgroups with job opportunities.

MR: I think that would be a fascinating way to pull out data. Ultimately, I think all of this eventually points back to a real need and opportunity to develop new models for community connectivity. Going back to something you said earlier, it's true that we don't have connection points to most people who have been laid off.

JN: And perhaps new models for public fora and feedback loops.

MR: But there are people in the community that do, whether it's the career training center, the food pantry, the churches, the schools.

JN: And these hubs can drive engagement with any system you set up (radio, text alerts / notifications, etc.) and contacts / messaging can then be segmented.

MR: The other model though, is connecting these hubs, which is something that we find very challenging.

JN: Can you give me an example of information you'd like passed between hubs? Gathering contacts in that network -- what I'd call a "closed network" -- is usually low-hanging fruit and improving communication flows there is pretty straightforward.

MR: I think the thing we want passed between hubs is "information" as opposed to just "data."

JN: I'm a big fan of transferring information / knowledge as opposed to data. 

MR: So here's an example: We know a pastor in town. His church offers various types of assistance to families in need. He told us a story recently about a person who came to ask for rent assistance, and since he didn't know the person he asked if he could visit their home. When he arrived, he found a pile of food stamp cards. Now this story brought forth a few pieces of information:

  1. There is an illegal black market for food stamp cards in the community. 
  2. There are people who are likely exploiting the network of basic needs assistance provided by public and non-profit organizations.

JN: Wow, that's troubling.

MR: Now, obviously that's a bad situation but it highlights a point. In this case, the pastor--who serves as a hub for his network--is able to synthesize a ton of data, and turn it into meaningful information.

JN: Information you want shared to other service providers, potentially, right?

MR: And he got that information not by collecting data by a survey or something like that, but in a very relational way, e.g. going to the person's house. We find that that is where the most valuable information lays within relationships.

JN: But is that information valuable to a wider group of people, i.e. past the pastor and the pastor's wife?

MR: Sure.

JN: That's where radio and mobile can be helpful. And how targeted / closed you make a communication system depends on the nature of the information.

MR: I think the reason I'm so inspired by Medic Mobile is the way you use mobile to extend those relationships and personal interactions.

JN: It's actually not too dissimilar to work we do with community health workers (CHW). We aren't always altering their very personal, tight-knit interactions and relationships with patients and families they're serving but we are giving them an extra link to clinicians, people with resources, and other CHWs.

MR: You're making it easier for the public health worker in the field to turn their interaction into valuable information that can easily be collected with other information.

JN: And perhaps most importantly, for that information to inspire action -- e.g. local emergency response, drug restocking.

As you dive deeper into the communication gaps, let me know how we can be helpful. There are good open source platforms like FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi which you can use out of the box, essentially.

I'm envisioning a "C3" initiative -- Connect Clinton County -- that harnesses mobile, radio, town halls with ECC as the hub, driver. But that's just me...

If you'd like intros to the Souktel, Jobrooster, FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi folks etc. let me know.

MR: For sure!

Image: Josh Nesbit

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