A visit to one of America’s small, rural communities that are called home by more than 60 million of us is sometimes like a step back in time. Cars downtown still park parallel to the curb, and not too far beyond downtown are fields and maybe even a factory or two still. Go to a town like Whiteville, N.C., on the right day — any Monday or Thursday — and you’ll see a woman standing in the middle of the road selling newspapers to cars lined up on either side of her.

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This is an America where people still read and trust the local newspaper, where print advertising hasn’t completely migrated online. But it’s also an America where reporters keep their crime database in a 300-page Word document. It’s a place where the inspections department doesn’t have a live XML feed, and where they may even be a little reluctant to give you paper copies if they don’t recognize your face. And it’s a place where a good Python developer is darn hard to find.

OpenBlock Rural is going to help these rural newspapers get ahead of the oncoming wave of digital interlopers by lowering the cost of deploying OpenBlock and using it as a tool to engage younger audiences, as well as increase advertising revenue.

Ultimately, we need to help figure out how to give rural North Carolinians — about a third of the state’s 9 million people — the news and information they need to take advantage of life’s opportunities and to participate fully in our system of self-government. This is but one of the ways that the project’s goals overlap nicely with the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.

For us and our focus on OpenBlock, that’s going to mean finding a way — or, more likely, many ways — to acquire, organize and produce relevant government data. While getting data into OpenBlock, and publishing it in a way that makes sense for rural areas, may have some unique technical hurdles, I don’t expect the technology of scraping a site in Washington, D.C., to be much different than scraping a site in Washington, N.C.

how to produce high-quality public records

The real challenge is going to be to open government data inexpensively. Small newspaper staffs do not have access to $100-per-hour programmers. Done well, our project will show both rural journalists and county governments a way to produce high-quality — more in a later post on what that means — public records. My expectation is that we’ll be able to recycle one or two efficient methods of getting data into the OpenBlock application. For example, just three vendors supply the record management systems to 95 percent of all police agencies in the state. So rather than finding 500 different ways to gather incident and arrest reports, we should be able to come up with three templates.

An inventory of digital public records will be one of the first things you will see from this project. Eliza Kern, a senior journalism major at the University of North Carolina and the student leader of ReeseNews.org, is already hard at work on a research project that will eventually yield a website with the locations and descriptions of local digital public records in North Carolina, as well as a report in which we’re going to put a dollar figure on what it will cost private publishers to acquire and convert records.

Whatever the cost of records management, it’s going to need to come in far below the amount of revenue we aim to help rural newspapers generate from this product. As I’ll describe later, OpenBlock is but one piece of a digital revenue strategy for rural newspapers that my colleague Penny Muse Abernathy, the Knight chair in Digital Media Economics here at UNC, has developed with the help of her undergraduate and graduate students. (Read more about it in the textbook and workbook.) As part of this Knight News Challenge grant, she will be training the ad sales staff at our partner newspapers on how to create and sell opportunities for local advertisers to sponsor this application.

With revenues outpacing the operational costs of each rural OpenBlock installation, profits will be available to produce analytical reporting that builds and sustains an informed community. The data we free up for use in this project should allow both journalists and their readers to ask themselves questions that are vital to economic and cultural development — how are we doing compared to other communities like us, and are we heading in the right direction?

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Using hard data to answer hard questions

And just like those communities, we’re going to use hard data to find the answers to difficult questions we’ll face throughout this project.

Questions such as:

  • How does OpenBlock deal with a rural county that has 17 local governments, including a tribal government?
  • What geographies are important in sparsely populated rural communities, and how do we display them in a meaningful way?
  • In communities where everyone knows everyone, does “public information” take on a different meaning when it gets published online?
  • Can a relevant dataset foster technical innovation and STEM education in rural communities?
  • What role will broadband penetration and mobile Internet play in the user experience of rural OpenBlock?
  • How can UNC’s Journalism & Mass Communication students continue to be cross-discliplinary leaders in editorial product development?

I’m looking forward to your questions as well. Send them my way at rtburg or openrural, and watch this space as we learn and share.