We need universities smart enough to fix the potholes

First, thanks to Dave Cohn for reviving the Carnival of Journalism. We haven’t put up the big tent in a long while.

For this carnival, a number of journalism bloggers have been asked by Cohn to write about one topic: The changing role of Universities for the information needs of a community: One of the Knight Commission’s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education … as hubs of journalistic activity.”

Knight CommissionYou can find links to all of the pieces here in a couple days.

This is one of those topics where I can smugly tell others how they ought to do it. I’ve always found it is easier to figure out what others should do than what I should do myself.

With that caveat, I do believe there is a lot in this idea for educational institutions and I’m not talking about just journalism or communications schools/departments.

I think institutions of higher learning, particularly those that are publicly owned, should be doing a lot more to leverage their skills and expertise and computer infrastructure to create tools and data repositories that allow citizens to be more informed or mine data.

Let’s take something simple: Street problems.

Tech experts, for example, could create a tool to visually show potholes, maybe using an application like the Ushahidi Platform

Journalism departments could use their students armed with cell phones to crowd source street problems, prming an effort that encouraged others to participate.

The tool could be hosted on the school computer network. Most of which have very robust networks.

This is but a simple example. I’m sure if you thought about it for a bit, you could think of something even more useful or with more impact.

In fact, I invite you riff off this idea with our own ideas in the comments.

It would not be a new thing for universities to do; they just aren’t doing it consistently enough.

Here’s a real world example:

Early in the days of the public Internet, a group at the University of Tennessee led by Greg Cole created the idea of a freenet-type or community portal service for the Knoxville, Tennessee, region. In large part due to Cole’s infectious enthusiasm for the project,  KORRnet, short for Knoxville-Oak Ridge Regional Network, launched in March 1994. It’s called DiscoverET.org today.

It allowed groups to create their own Internet presence from a central hub. It was groundbreaking, forward thinking in 1994.

Without the efforts by this University of Tennessee employee and his team, it wouldn’t have happened.

(KORRnet certainly isn’t the only innovative project Cole has been a leader of.)

I think the spirit of the Knight Commission recommendation is for there to be many stories like Greg Cole and his crazy idea for a community directory open to every group.

It’s a challenge colleges and universities should be taking on regularly to enrich their communities.

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