InfoCommons, Episode 1

My very first column debuts this month in the AIRS Newsletter. Thanks to AIRS for letting me share my thoughts about technology and the world of I&R!

Introducing InfoCommons: The Column & The Concept
By Tricia Burmeister
Usability and Data Manager, PA 2-1-1 Southwest United Way of Allegheny County
Editor’s Note: This month we welcome Tricia Burmeister and the new InfoCommons feature that replaces the former User-Friendly column.

This new column in the AIRS newsletter is inspired by the concept of the “information commons” – an interactive space where people can share knowledge and resources. In the coming year, I will be sharing my thoughts on how I&Rs can use technology to facilitate collaboration and communication amongst ourselves and in our communities. The term “information commons” has become trendy in recent years, but what does it really mean? The World Wide Web is one giant information commons, with some sites like Wikipedia and the Internet Archive embodying the concept especially well. Many libraries have begun to use the term to describe physical spaces where users can collaborate and access online resources. Investigating the idea of the
information commons can provide an interesting perspective on how I&Rs interact with one another and with those we serve.
A 2008 article in the Annual Review of Information Science and Technology outlined the following characteristics of information commons:
•they benefit from participation: the greater the participation, the more valuable the resource
•they take advantage of the Internet to build information communities
•they are often free or low cost
•they are interactive, encouraging discourse and exchange among their members
•their participants often contribute new creations after they gain and benefit from access (1)

Each of these criteria can be applied to I&R services in some way. By serving as a one-stop resource for social services information, I&Rs function as information hubs for our communities. Our resource databases are valuable stores of knowledge about services, while the data we collect about those we serve provides a crucial perspective on community needs. When agencies
participate in the maintenance of information in an I&R database, everyone benefits from the improved quality of the resource. By providing searchable online databases and using our websites to guide people to services, I&Rs are taking advantage of the Internet, but are we doing as much as we can to build “information communities”, online or otherwise? How do we encourage
discourse between ourselves, service providers, and the people we serve?

There’s an important exchange of information that happens when we follow-up with callers to find out if they received services. Caller satisfaction surveys  provide feedback on how we’re doing, as does the number of people who contact us again after reaching out for help the first time. Follow-up plays a
role in the exchange of resource information when callers provide feedback about the help they received and their experiences accessing services. When inquirers receive information or referrals from you, do you provide easy
ways for them to contribute something back to the system, whether it be
positive feedback, complaints, success stories, or updated information about
services for your resource staff to investigate? How can we connect those in need of services with the help they need, but also encourage them to share
information with us – to engage in more of a discourse instead of information
flowing one direction? How do you capture feedback from callers so you can synthesize it and draw meaningful conclusions?

Similar questions apply to the interactions between I&Rs and service providers. Many resource databases offer comment features that allow anyone to submit feedback about the information in our records. There is always conversation going on between I&Rs and service providers to ensure that appropriate referrals are being made. Nevertheless, I’m sure many resource managers wish for higher levels of participation from agencies in keeping their information up to date. Generating interest doesn’t seem nearly as difficult as sustaining engagement over time, when, despite your gentle reminders, that agency still hasn’t reviewed their information. What methods do you use to encourage feedback from service providers? Are there ways that you use caller feedback to provide a sense of urgency that prompts an agency to update their
information?

The model of Wikipedia – the quintessential information commons – is difficult to apply to I&R because many people in need don’t want that fact to become public. This eliminates the motivation to contribute information in a public  forum where it  could benefit everyone. One of the values of I&R is that we can serve as more personalized, confidential Wikipedias for social services, comparing caller feedback with the information provided to us by agencies. By balancing these two information channels and promoting the flow of information, we provide a valuable shared resource and serve as information commons for our communities.

(1) Kranich, N., & Schement, J.R. (2008). Information Commons. In Annual
Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST), 42, 547-­‐590.

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