How Internet searches impact on regional businesses for UMVRDC

The librarian in me loves the following story. It hits on so many important aspects of Internet as a great equalizer. The potential is there but in reality, the Internet is a great equalizer (for businesses) when you understand how to use it and when you live in an area where the maps are right. Every business has to worry about brand management – for example in terms of handling a bad review on Yelp – but what do you do when the Google Map is sending people to a location 15 miles away? Google is getting better but a few years ago that could be hours on phone calls and emails – and that assumed you know what to do to correct the problem. (Having made a few of those calls, I can tell you they weren’t always productive.)

Well, an AmeriCorps student at University of Minnesota, Morris is taking on this challenge for Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission (UMVRDC). It sounds like she may make a difference for businesses in that area – but more than that – that she will use the data she collects to make the case to the big search engines/maps (Google, MapQuest, and Bing) that improvements must be made. Here’s the full story…

University of Minnesota, Morris student Tara Greiman ’11 researches Internet searches impact on regional businesses for UMVRDC

Summary: Interning for the Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission, Greiman’s work explores the correlation between customers increasingly using Internet searches rather than telephone books for business information and inaccurate or missing business contact information and locations on the Internet.

Morris, Minn., May 5, 201—In fall 2010, a group of University of Minnesota, Morris students attended a statewide Blandin Foundation conference to present their research on broadband usage in rural America. The Upper Minnesota Valley Regional Development Commission (UMVRDC) was impressed with their research and contacted the Center for Small Towns (CST), located on the Morris campus, regarding the possibility of offering one of the students an internship through the Students In Service program. Tara Greiman ’11, Dayton, accepted the internship. Her project is to assess the accuracy of Internet business listings in the five counties UMVRDC covers: Swift, Big Stone, Yellow Medicine, Chippewa, and Lac qui Parle.

Why is this important? Increasingly, people are using the Internet to find plumbers, restaurants, furniture stores, and other services and businesses. Many are using smart phones to search, and as people increasingly forgo landline telephones, they no longer receive phonebooks. So, if businesses want to be “found,” their information on the Internet—listings and map location—needs to be accurate. If it isn’t, they will lose customers and business.

Greiman’s process has been to look up business names, addresses, and associated keywords in three main search engines—Google, MapQuest, and Bing—and check for accuracy. Ben Winchester ’95, research fellow at the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Community Vitality, whose research prompted the project, says that “rural areas have witnessed some difficulties with online mapping services. In some cases, community assets are not present on these maps. In others, they are present, but the locations are wrong. This is especially true for those located along state highways and on rural roads. If towns in rural Minnesota are going to compete, the digital infrastructure needs to be built much in the same way roads and electricity connect our rural areas to the rest of the state.”

Greiman has been exploring 37 different cities throughout the area and has found gaps in identification and location. In the city of Ortonville, for example, 33 percent of businesses are missing from at least one search engine. And the conservative estimate for mistakes is 1.3 per business, with the wrong location and/or wrong business name being the most common errors.

Once all the information has been gathered and assessed, Greiman and UMVRDC members plan to contact the underrepresented businesses to obtain correct information. Greiman says they’re working on stressing to businesses the importance of having an online presence, especially in the context of prospective residents who are looking to move into the area. University of Minnesota Extension, in partnership with UMVRDC, will be offering workshops to local businesses about the importance of a strong and accurate Internet presence.

The final step of the process will be to take all of the information they’ve collected from businesses and send it to the three major search engines. Greiman says that they feel that they’re “more likely to be taken seriously if we send in one big packet than if information trickles in one business at a time.”

UMVRDC’s efforts to correct the business information in their five counties are part of their overall efforts to promote economic development in the region and part of the Minnesota Intelligent Rural Communities program. The University of Minnesota Extension and UMVRDC are partnering to offer workshops and other business and technology assistance to area businesses in an effort to promote a stronger, more vibrant regional economy.

Students In Service is an AmeriCorps program that encourages college students to enroll as part-time AmeriCorps members. Coordinated by Minnesota Campus Compact, an organization that promotes civic engagement on college campuses in Minnesota, the program allows interested college students to work in a variety of positions to help better their communities. Qualifying activities include academic and co-curricular service learning, internships with nonprofit organizations, certain kinds of practicum hours, federal- or state-funded community service work study, and most kinds of volunteer work. Students commit to 300 hours of service throughout the year.

The Center for Small Towns is a community outreach program housed at the University of Minnesota, Morris and serves as a point-of-entry to the resources of the University. Small towns, local units of government, K–12 schools, nonprofit organizations, and other University units are able to utilize the Center’s resources as they work on rural issues or make contributions to rural society. Their mission is to focus the University’s attention and marshal its resources toward assisting Minnesota’s small towns with locally identified issues by creating applied learning opportunities for faculty and students.

Through personal and academic discovery, the University of Minnesota, Morris provides opportunities for students to grow intellectually, engage in community, experience environmental stewardship and celebrate diversity. A renewable and sustainable educational experience, Morris prepares graduates for careers, for advanced degrees, for lifelong learning, for work world flexibility in the future, and for global citizenship. Learn more about Morris at morris.umn.edu or call 888-866-3382.

Storytelling a key to success

If there are a thousand stories in the naked city – there must be a million on the Internet. Slowly but surely I feel as if I’ve just come to really understand what that means and how powerful those stories can be.

Once upon a time in 2005, Jane Leonard with Minnesota Rural Partners hosted a storytelling contest as part of the annual Minnesota Rural Summit. I was part of the Summit and worked closely with Jane attending preliminary rounds and posting information online. The stated focus on the storytelling was to build connections…

The contest’s goal is to celebrate, through storytelling, the connections between rural and urban people and communities. Many urban residents have strong ties to rural places. Some of those ties remain strong while others have been neglected or forgotten. If we are going to have healthy, vibrant rural communities, then we must find meaningful ways to connect urban and rural resources. Celebrating our rural roots through story is a great way to begin to reconnect and make new connections, too.

It was fun – but I forgot what a visionary Jane is – so I kind of cataloged the experience and moved on. Fast forward to last year and I find myself doing a webinar on Telling a Story with Social Media for the Blandin Foundation as a forerunner to the 2009 Broadband Conference. I’ve worked with businesses and have found that those who can tell their story online – and better yet engage their customers/communities to help tell the story – are most successful online. The Internet can be an amazing advertising tool, but that’s underselling it.

Flash forward again to this year and story is all I’m hearing about. At this year’s Blandin Broadband conference keynote Robert Stephens started out by talking about the importance of stories for communities. He focused on the growing accessibility to any story made available online with the prevalence of smart phones. He pointed out that with a smartphone he has information about any community at his fingertips. The smart (or to draw from a MIRC term, intelligent) communities will have a story and will promote it online if they want to promote themselves to potential visitors and transplants.

His advice was echoed when we heard from the students who spoke about what they look for in a community in which to reside after graduation. The students were clear that they needed jobs – but that money wasn’t the primary focus. They also wanted to live someplace that was interesting – and they research those places online. They are visiting city, county and local government sites for more information – but they are looking for more than stats – they are looking for the story that makes each given communities unique.

I’m sure I will hear many of the same stories this weekend at the Twin Cities Daily Planet Fall Forum: Story Telling and Beyond, New Tools for Participation. Speakers include people who use technology to tell their stories – and the event will be followed by a story slam (contest).

So what does all of this story stuff have to do with broadband? I have been collecting stories of broadband success, which I plan to start posting here this week. I have found that a lot of success has stemmed from the ability to tell your story online. The ability come in two parts – first you must be a skilled storyteller but many folks who are passionate about what they do can tell their story. The second part is having access to post the information – in video, audio, image and text. You can be the best storyteller in the world – but without broadband you’re silenced. You can’t sell your business, you can’t promote your community and you can’t tell your story to legislators.

Virtuwell – remote diagnosis from Health Partners

Today Health Partners unveils a remote diagnosis service, called Virtuwell, that’s available to Minnesotans. It’s an interactive web site that walks you through a series of questions – from general to specific. The couple of test ailments I tried took 5-10 minutes to get through the questions. Then apparently if you want to submit your responses to a nurse – they will get back to you within 30 minutes with a diagnosis. It costs $40 – but apparently comes with a money back guarantee.

Those of us who attended the Blandin Broadband conference earlier this month might recognize this scenario – Robert Stephens painted a similar picture. As he said, it’s an obvious extension of the Minute Clinic – a great Minnesota innovation.

As I said, I tried out the interactive tool (although I did not send my made up responses to a nurse). The questions are straight forward and include pictures, which is nice. So if you think you have the Chicken Pox, you can see what they look like to cross check your own suspicious marks. I like the tools as a busy mom – but the Minneapolis St Paul Business Journal found that corporations like it too…

In announcing the Virtuwell launch, HealthPartners quoted executives at major employers saying they, too, liked the service because it will help workers conveniently handle routine health issues.

“When an employee has a minor medical condition, they want to get better quickly with little inconvenience, the least down time and at the lowest cost,” said Kathy Prondzinski, corporate benefits design director at Andersen Corp.

Final Session: Wrap up – Is the Intelligent Community Framework a Valid Approach?

The day ended with  business leaders asking – Minnesota Intelligent Communities: Is this a Valid Approach? We had three business leaders ready to answer the question: Bill Blazar from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, Scott Marquardt from the Southwest Initiative Foundation and Joe Sertich from Northeast Minnesota Higher Education District.

It was a great program to end the day as the connection between education and business had come up several times. Some people asked if we are preparing students adequately for jobs today and tomorrow. Some people ask if we have jobs available for students once they graduate. It’s a challenging dichotomy that’s been highlighted as broadband has allowed both businesses and education to take advantage of remote possibilities.

Bernadine Joselyn provides a nice summary of the final session and the conference in the following video…

Addressing the Broadband Gap: What Works?

Jack Geller led the session by outlining his recent research on Minnesota rural broadband adoption rates, which put a nice lens on the expertise of the following speakers.

Sam Drong at PCs for People

  • PCs for People is a great program and MIRC partner. We have talked about them before – but I took a few “new”notes.
  • You need a computer to find a job. You need a computer to apply. Chances are you’ll need computer skills to get the job.
  • Recently tried a PCs for Kids program where we worked through the school and ended up getting every family a computer.

Mark Scott, Age for Action & Vital Aging Network

  • There are several aging initiatives but they’re trying to connect local communities with the national resources for folks over 50. They are mobilizing people who are 50 years and older to work, serve, learn and lead.
  • Older folks (65+) are not online. And it’s where we are with the generations. What are the barriers to getting them online? They don’t see the need so education is a key. They have started having regular “surf days” to help introduce folks to the technology.
  • There are some motivators, For example, to sign up for most health programs (such as Medicare) you must sign up online. Another motivator is access to healthcare services online.

Tom Lehmann, Minnesota State Commission on Deaf, Deafblind and Hard of Hearing

  • The online world has been a ubiquitous facet of life. Most of us only notice it when we don’t have it.
  • Addressing the needs of folks with disabilities include appreciating the potential barriers (on your site or other online communication).
  • Addressing education and training.
  • Getting people to comply with regulations – such as closed captioning for campaign ads.
  • Need funding and assistive technologies.

Steven Renderos – Main Street Project

  • We have written on Steven’s work before too. They do a terrific job working to build media justice skills and drawing attention to topics that important – but can be tough to understand.
  • They work with the Rural Voters League. Work with social justice and media justice associations and others. Work to get under represented folks online.
  • Access – it’s a factor of success
  • Knowledge – it’s still new and there are gaps. We find easy technology to get folks started.
  • Empowerment – broadcasting the stories of folks on the margins, such as digital storytelling
  • Cost of access is the biggest barriers – that includes all costs, monthly fees, equipment, hidden fees, repair.
  • Held a public FCC listening session in Minneapolis.

Students want to live in Intelligent Communities

Back by popular demand, the University of Minnesota-Morris students gave a presentation called – We want to live in Intelligent Communities! They did a great job.

We tried something new with the students’ presentation – we broadcast it live (well live streamed it anyways). I wrote earlier about how we set up the streaming using Ustream – but I’m pleased to report that it worked well and we have an archive.

I think I will soon be able to add the students’ PPT here too. (I want to get everything up from the conference in a timely manner, which means photos and other materials may follow.)

Robert Bell from the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell was kind enough to share his presentation with us – so I didn’t want to take too many notes – but just wanted to draw out a few things that struck me and capture the questions from attendees.

I grabbed one image from the presentation that  outlines the 5 points of the Intelligent Community Forum Framework. We’ve used it in various MIRC presentations. I like it because it’s instructive and simple in nature, yet can encompass a lot of customization and as much complexity as is needed at the community level. Just hearing about the successful communities – you can see that the framework allows of the local personality to shine.

Why do we strive to me intelligent? For our children.

Cleveland Ohio’s recipe: Create a co-op, give them the power to create a telecom and move forward. Provide access and training – especially to low income areas.

Moncton Canada’s recipe: Look at what still works and build on it.

Bristol Virginia’s recipe: Built a FTTH network, lawsuits ensued, but Bristol prevailed. Citizens saved money.

In each community:

  • We know we need to change
  • We’re going to find a few things to change
  • We’re going to focus on the ICF-5-Points

We need to move forward to remain world leaders and it needs to happen at the very local level.

Questions:

How does the edu-bus network work outside technology?

In New Brunswick local businesses developed around the University where students could become graduates with jobs at the local businesses.

How does the ICF work with these communities?

We are not consultants. We feel that work must come from within the community. We are a knowledge resource. We started the Intelligent Community Association.

Can we start saying knowledge citizens instead of knowledge workers? Yes!

What kind of engagement has there been between K12 and programs? We hear from folks that students aren’t ready for higher ed.

In Eindhoven they have used technology and game playing for curriculum. If you can keep it real for kids, they will learn and businesses are glad to help. South Korea provides online tutoring, lectures and more.