MN Broadband Story of Success: Cook County Online Community

I am a longtime volunteer with E-Democracy. They do an amazing job of building online community space at a very local level – down to neighborhood email lists. Recently there was a discussion of E-Democracy volunteers on how to build and sustain online discussion – I spotted a great post from Danna MacKenzie in Cook County and asked if we could use it to share some advice here. Danna wears a lot of hats – here she is talking about her experience as cofounder of Boreal Access

How have you developed online discussion in your community?

In Grand Marais, we have been working on an online distributed input model since 1995, and I think we have learned quite a bit along the way. The standout lessons that might be useful to those trying to do something similar include: the value of a sponsoring organization, moderation/curation skills, diversity of tools, time/longevity, and branding/ownership.

Sponsoring organization – We have found that sponsorship by a locally trusted organization accomplishes many things. It is easiest if the organization is perceived as politically neutral as possible. We have found that this type of sponsorship allows community members to feel a higher level of comfort in posting and participating in the online layer of their community. One of the benefits of having neutral organizational sponsorship has been that representatives from our on-line community have been invited to the planning table for emergency communications, community events, and other activities that produce information streams that are of high interest value to our participants and readers. In our case, the organization is a member-owned community cooperative. This gives users a say in the rules regarding moderation and curation of the content, which gets to my next point.

Moderation/curation skills –  It has taken 15 years to train ourselves as a community to live by a shared set of rules, which allows everyone to get more out of the system. We have developed the rules together; things like “no business ads on the community news list”, “no personal dialog on any of the information lists”, and “no political advocacy posts”. We have other places for each of those types of posts. These rules have developed over time as we continue to experiment to find the right ecosystem of lists and other tools to serve our community’s needs and wants. Our sponsoring organization, Boreal Access, works behind the scenes, with decorum, to help those who don’t understand the rules and to get their messages posted in the right spot.

Diversity of tools – This gets to the diversity of tools item on my list. We have found that one single method of access or posting does not work for everyone; just as all content is not of interest to everyone. We have developed a set of email lists, each with different rules about what can be posted, that community members can choose to participate in individually. One example of the lists is simply news@boreal.org, which is anything that would be considered generally newsworthy for the entire community. We see things like meeting notices, band concert announcements, funeral notices, fund-raising events, etc. We also see wacky things like the recent query: “Does anyone know what kind of critter just wrecked the trees in my yard by scratching all the bark off? I can send pictures.” An hour later we get another post that says “Thanks Boreal for all of the helpful answers!” We have lists for personal for-sale items and business ads, as well as specialty lists, like the one for the residents of the Gunflint Trail. This list was originally created to help distribute urgent information about the 1999 Blowdown event and has since been used by residents to share important information during subsequent forest fires.

We mimic many of these tools on the website for those who do not want to receive all of the emails. We also aggregate community blogs and twitter feeds for those who prefer to use that method to communicate. We pull together videos by and about our community. We have buy-in from the local media organizations who contribute headline articles each week. We host a community calendar and work with institutions and individuals to learn how to post their own events. We let the community members put the pressure on these organizations to get their news on-line, because this is where they are checking for what is happening on a daily basis. You would not know it to look at the web page, because it is not very fancy (It was designed to work for dial-up users); but for a community of just 5000 people, our website gets 60,000 page-views a week.

Time/longevity – Just a quick mention on time and longevity because I have already referred to it a few times. We have been at this for 15 years. It did not happen over-night. Providing a consistent, dependable, high-quality experience over the long-haul is what will bring more people into the on-line portion of your community.

Branding/ownership – This dovetails into my final item on the list of components of our success, and that is branding and community ownership. We have spent these many years building up the trusted brand of “Boreal”. It is a household word around here. It is also understood that “Boreal is Us” We are all part of the community that makes Boreal a shared success.

How have you financed the online community?

Boreal has benefited from some start-up funds that have come from federal and regional grants at different periods during its growth, but it is financially sustained through fees that are charged for services such as internet connectivity, web-hosting, technical support, and custom web app development. The online Boreal community grew out of an initial effort on the part of the cooperative to serve its membership’s communication needs. It has since become a valuable information source for everyone in the community, regardless of their coop membership status.

Ceiling lights enhance broadband in St Cloud MN

Minnesota Public Radio recently ran a story on LVX, based in St Cloud MN, has developed a system that will use lights in the ceiling to relieve network congestion. The lights help transport data for short-range communications. MPR provides a brief description of how this will work…

The LVX system puts clusters of its light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, in a standard-sized light fixture. The LEDs transmit coded messages – as a series of 1s and 0s in computer speak – to special modems attached to computers.

A light on the modem talks back to the fixture overhead, where there is sensor to receive the return signal and transmit the data over the Internet. Those computers on the desks aren’t connected to the Internet, except through these light signals, much as Wi-Fi allows people to connect wirelessly.

About two years ago, the St Cloud Times ran a story about a local investor who found a way to transmit data short distances using light. The article is no longer accessible – and I didn’t take terrific notes on the specifics in my post at the time – but the similarities are striking. It’s fun to see an great idea turn into a viable product/service.

AMC Broadband Policy Position

The Association of Minnesota Counties recently unveiled their 2011-2012 Policy Positions.

Here are their positions on broadband:

Vital Communities

AMC supports state assistance to communities in reaching their workforce and economic development potential in order to enhance the quality of life for all Minnesotans.

Broadband Development

  • AMC supports identifying and implementing actions to achieve by 2015 the goal of state wide deployment of advanced broadband networks and symmetrical high-speed capacity.
  • AMC supports initiatives to make it easier for cities, municipal utilities, schools, libraries, and other public sector entities to collaborate and deploy broadband infrastructure and services at the local and regional level.
  • AMC supports public/private collaboration to achieve state broadband goals, including partnerships and cooperation in providing last-mile connections.
  • AMC supports removing barriers to the exercise of local authority to provide such services, including repeal of Minn. Stat. § 237.19, that requires a supermajority voter approval for the provision of local phone service by a local unit of government.
  • AMC supports offering incentives to private sector service providers to respond to local or regional needs and to collaborate with cities and other public entities to deploy broadband infrastructure capable of delivering sufficient bandwidth and capacity to meet immediate and future local needs.
  • AMC supports completely and continuously updating comprehensive statewide maps of broadband services to identify underserved areas and connectivity issues.

You can see a push towards public-private partnerships. You can also see the push to get rid of the super majority requirement for municipalities looking to provide telecommunications services.

New Economy education in Windom

Just yesterday I was bemoaning Minnesota’s lackluster results on the ITIF New Economy ranking. (We came in 13th.) Today I’m feeling better about our prospects after reading about a fun class at Windom High School. For class, the kids broadcast school sporting activities. The Daily Globe describes the class…

At the beginning of the year, Kray taught students how to use the camera and sound equipment — setting it up, troubleshooting it and taking it down again afterward. Then students got hands-on training by actually producing finished live broadcasts on television.

The academic component of the class includes writing a journal, learning about advertising techniques and picking out different styles in media. They learn camera technique — wide angles, close-ups, extreme close-ups and tight-angle shots.

Not directly related to broadband – except that they will be broadcasting live from their web site soon – but directly related to bolstering skills that make better broadband users. And a reminder that tomorrow’s generation is going to be even less happy with asymmetrical connectivity. We want to be producers of information – not just consumers.

Minnesota #13 in New Economy Ranking

Last month the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation released The 2010 State New Economy Index. It tracks the states readiness for the new economy, or as they say…

The State New Economy Index uses 26 indicators to assess states’ fundamental capacity to successfully navigate the shoals of economic change. It measures the extent to which state economies are knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-driven and innovation-based – in other words, to what degree state economies’ structures and operations match the ideal structure of the New Economy.

Minnesota ranks 13. It’s not dismal, but it’s not good. I guess to put it in Minnesotan terms, we’re above average. What is a little disconcerting is that “18 of the 20 lowest-ranking states are in the Midwest, Great Plains and the South”. So we’re actually the top state listed from the Midwest (or Great Plains) but that’s sort of damning with faint praise.

Here are the top runners:

1. Massachusetts
2. Washington
3. Maryland
4. New Jersey
5. Connecticut
6. Delaware
7. California
8. Virginia
9. Colorado
10. New York
11. New Hampshire
12. Utah
13. Minnesota

The New Economy is supposed to tear down barriers of geography – but I still see a heavy focus on the coasts. With the healthcare businesses and higher education institutes, I’d like to see Minnesota dong better.

Here’s how Minnesota stacks up with individual indicators. (I’ve listed Indication, then ranking and highlighted our best areas. Although maybe I should have highlighted the areas when we need improvement!)

IT professionals #6
Managerial, Professional, Technical Jobs #8
Workforce Education #8
Immigration of Knowledge Workers #28
Migration of Knowledge Workers #14
Manufacturing Value-Added #22
High-Wage Traded Services #5
Export Focus of Manufacturing and Services #24
Foreign Direct Investment #29
Job Churning #23
Fastest-Growing Firms #21
IPOs #20
Entrepreneurial Activity #42
Inventor Patents #9
Online Population #7
E-Government #12
Online Agriculture #14
Broadband Telecommunications #25
Health IT #4
High-Tech Jobs #13
Scientists & Engineers #8
Patents #12
Industry Investment in R&D #7
Non-Industry Investment in R&D #39
Alternative Energy Use #31
Venture Capital #11

One quick question – how can we be #7 for online population and #25 for broadband telecommunications? I know it all comes down to definition of broadband, whether we look at speed or ubiquity – but the report didn’t really answer that. They did report that population density helped and that their top five broadband states were all covered by Verizon.

Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group Update

The Jackson County Pilot recently ran an update from the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Group. As you may recall the SWMBG received an ARRA award to serve eight communities in SW Minnesota. Their project appears to be progressing nicely. According to the Jackson County Pilot…

With staking of the fiber network completed and plans and specifications currently being drawn up, the Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services Board turned its attention to marketing during a meeting last Thursday.

John Schultz, who is working with the SWMBG, provided me with a few more details on the latest meeting

  1. There was a long discussion on what community events and groups we should be targeting
  2. We spoke about both traditional media and on-line media to reach our perspective customer base; SMBS will be utilizing a combination of both
  3. We are on the time to go directly to the customer base-we need to alert them that the incumbents will be starting (and are already) starting to run the typical multiple year contract campaigns to lock customers into their service.
  4. Everything is on target, looking at beginning of spring construction build.

Hancock going for ebooks

According to the Morris Sun Tribune, the Hancock City Council approved a move forward with ebooks at the Hancock Public Library. It will be a way to add titles, not shelf space, to the library – but it’s an effort that required a few backers, as the Sun Tribune pointed out…

The problem was that the library budget is very tight and has already been determined for next year. The cost to build the system in the library will be $1,096 each year for the next four years. {Librarian Phyllis} Joos added that she recently applied for a grant for a laptop computer that would cost $700 and was awarded $1,000 from the Blandin Foundation’s Broadband Technical Opportunities Program. She could use this extra $300 to defray some of the cost. She suggested that the remainder be taken from the amount budgeted for purchasing books.

After some discussion, the council decided to approve adding the new system to the library in an effort to keep up with the latest in technology. The extra expense can then be worked into future budgets as needed.