Groundsource Seeks to Bring Deeper Understanding of Community Needs Through Mobile Engagement

GroundsourceThese are transitive times.

Just like the turn of the 20th century when William Randolph Hearst, Joseph Pulitzer and Edward Willis Scripps revolutionized the newspaper business and pioneered the rise of mass communication in America, we are living history.

Only now, thanks to technology, what is possible today can be achieved faster and on a bigger scale. All it takes is an innovative idea and a pioneering entrepreneur.

So who are the modern-day Hearsts, Pulitzers and Scripps?

Meet Andrew Haeg. He is entrepreneur in residence at Mercer University and the founder of Groundsource.

Haeg took a few minutes to answer some questions and tell us about the work he is doing.

What is Groundsource?
Groundsource is a very lightweight, mobile, community engagement platform that allows organizations and individuals whose work depends on getting accurate on-the-ground, firsthand information to easily reach out to people across the full breadth of their community and get them engaged via text message or a phone call, so they can send them simple surveys, which then in turn help them get a deeper understanding of the day-to-day experiences of their community.

How would you describe the current state of journalism, what are the pressing needs, and how do you think Groundsource can help meet those needs?
There are some very positive trends in journalism, and there are also some very challenging ones. The challenging ones, of course, we all know about, which is many news organizations are in financial distress. But even organizations that appear to be viable and sustainable like National Public Radio are having to subsist on large grants, so there is a big question mark around the sustainability of public interest journalism.

At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of experimentation going on, trying to rethink what journalism is and how journalism is responsive to communities, and you see this in the explosion of interest and engagement, a term that means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If you do a search on community engagement or audience engagement or engagement specialist or engagement manager or community engagement director, there are news organizations that 10 years ago you would have thought were the most buttoned-up and conservative operations. Now they are embracing the idea of engaging their audiences in new ways.

That’s where Groundsource fits in. In a lot of cases, engagement starts and ends with social media, but social media is a very imperfect part of engagement. It allows people to become more aware of what you are doing, and it’s a very effective marketing distribution platform, and in some cases, it can promote conversation and commenting, but in my mind, social media are new forms of broadcast technology. In many ways, these organizations use them as broadcast tools. They build big followerings, and then they broadcast to them. That’s very effective, and it’s shown to be important to the business of journalism that they engage in that fashion. But I don’t think it’s true engagement – i.e., I don’t think it enables a back-and-forth conversation at scale or with a lot of people.

That’s the whole vision of Groundsource. You create a true conversational platform that allows people, news organizations and other types of organizations to reach out in a very targeted way to people on the ground to ask them what is going on, to ask them what their experience is, and then to engage in a conversation over time with them to get a better understanding of the context and experience behind the news.

And that’s always what I’ve been most interested in — not necessarily the day-to-day ups and downs of breaking news, but more the layer beneath that, the deeper structure behind the news, why things are happening, what is the culture and context behind issues. Those are the questions I have always been most interested in. That is the kind of platform I want Groundsource to be, a tool not just for sending out simple surveys or testing back and forth but one that leads to a deeper sense of understanding about the needs and experiences of our communities.

Where do you see mobile and citizen journalism fitting into the future of journalism?
When you talk to people in newsrooms and when they talk about mobile, I think what they mean are smartphones and apps. But that’s missing a really important opportunity with smartphones with very simple forms of communication in text messaging and phone calls. Even for people who own smartphones, a very dominant form of communication on smartphones is texting and phone calls. There is still a lot of experimentation and a lot of opportunity to create and use simple forms of communication to engage people via mobile.

That’s where I see Groundsource fitting in. That’s where I see an opportunity in the mobile landscape. If we can get it right, we can create a much simpler, more lightweight form of sharing that allows people who would be otherwise very hard to reach and hard to engage to communicate in a way that feels right to them and a way that allows them to communicate with some level of anonymity or feel like they are speaking to news organizations via a backchannel. That form of communication allows for a much more intimate understanding of what’s going on in a community.

Whereas what people are sharing on Facebook and Twitter tends to be more event-driven or event-based stuff, stuff that a lot of us are seeing and hearing and are sharing in the shared experience, or experiences that put us in a good light. I feel social media is more of a performance platform than a genuine engagement platform.

What will the journalism industry look like in five years?
I’m not great at prognosticating industry-wide. I think you’ll see the really successful news organizations become incredibly nimble and agile and be able to communicate with their audiences and communities through a range of channels. The organizations that can’t figure out how to truly engage their audiences will become less relevant to their core and less economically viable.

Some of the forces I see going forward that are interesting are playing off a multiplying in the channels that people are sharing and engaging. You see this in social media where there are a lot of different platforms. I think there’s a lot of room for more platforms for different kind of engagement and sharing. I think you are seeing fracturing from the dominance of Facebook and Twitter. I think you are seeing a lot of different kinds of platforms gaining traction. You’ll see much more. News organizations that are successful engaging those communities will figure out strategies for several different platforms.

Do you think media organizations will begin meeting the information needs of the poor and closing the information inequality gap?
I am very optimistic about that. I have already seen in the last few weeks a change in the issues of inequality and poverty increasingly become top of mind for news organizations, whether it’s The New York Times’ in-depth story on Dasani or The Guardian doing more reporting on inequality or poverty. They’ve always been very focused on that, but I’ve seen a lot more from them, and I think it probably has to do with the Pope and just the dynamic with the Catholic Church and that agenda.

More and more people are becoming aware of the rampant inequality and the persistence of poverty in the wealthiest nation on the planet. When I talk to people in and around journalism, there is a lot more interest in addressing issues of information inequality and information poverty. Whether there is a business there or whether it’s only something nonprofits can approach is something else entirely. I tend to think that as a news organization, your job is not only to serve the entire community but it is incumbent upon you as a business to build a very broad base for your users and listeners across your community.

Increasingly, as we focus more and more on the high-value consumers, we have left behind a huge chunk of our community. Finding a way to engage those folks not only makes sense for the health of our community but also makes business sense. Just how any successful business model engages those communities is not 100 percent clear, but I am optimistic we will figure some things out, and I think texting and mobile engagement will probably be a big piece of that.

In five years, where would you like Groundsource to be?
In five years, I see Groundsource as a platform that is reliably and consistently helping organizations truly understand their communities and engage them in a very deep way. I see it as a platform that’s enabling more human-centered decision-making and storytelling across a range of sectors from journalism to the public sector (nonprofits) to urban planning, even to businesses that are very service-oriented and want to better and more deeply understand their customers.

So I see it as a platform that is powering a lot of rich and deep engagement across a number of sectors. It is a platform that has transformed, in many cases, the way people think about their community, from a kind of audience or customer base that is being held at arm’s length and always being marketed to, to one you can really enter into a deeper, more persistent conversation with, to understand the unmet needs of the people you are associated around.

It is really a platform which other experiences are built that enables a different kind of communication that is not available at scale right now.

As an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to others who interested in entrepreneurship and building a startup?
I am early into the process of starting a venture, so there is a lot I have yet to learn. The one thing I have learned more than anything is that you have to be completely in touch with what you are passionate about and what you care about. Every single day, you have to do a gut check when you wake up to figure out if you are up for it, if you are up for the challenge, the struggle and the uncertainty and ambiguity.

What form your business will take, your application will take, your software will take is going to change a lot (hopefully, it will change a lot) based on the feedback you get from your users and from your ideal customers. But what shouldn’t change is the central reason you got into it, and that should be the guiding light that keeps you focused and on track.

So it’s very easy to get caught up in the hype around startups — and technology startups, in particular — and the potential for exponential growth in your users and virality and Snapchat-like success. I think a lot of our culture celebrates the lottery-like startup landscape. I don’t think you personally can be motivated by that. You can’t be motivated by the potential for millions of dollars. Well, you can be. But I think you have to be motivated by something more intrinsic and more internal.

It can simply be the challenge of starting and running a business. It is an incredibly rewarding experience and one that has made me stronger as a person and as a professional. Having to deal with a great deal of ambiguity and to put some form to your idea such that other people understand and buy into your vision — I think it’s incredibly valuable to go through that process, and I really enjoy that part of it.

I also think there needs to be something deeper that guides your day-to-day decision-making and that guides your vision. I find myself contemplating, checking in with myself, to figure out where I’m at, why am I doing this, am I the right person to be building this thing in this space.

You are kind of constantly toggling between what is the world asking for, what is the market demanding, what am I here to provide, what am I really good at, what am I passionate about putting into the world. And seeing where there is some overlap.

For me, those circles are constantly changing a little bit. Or at least the overlap between those two. Trying to figure out what that ideal overlap is, where what the world is asking for is the thing that you are most passionate about building. That’s where you want to be.

With Groundsource, I feel like I am getting there. It is still taking a lot of tweaking and going back and forth with potential customers, and understanding if what I want to build is solving a really valuable problem for people.

If you don’t have a true understanding of what it is you care about, you are going to be bouncing from solution to solution and you’ll end up building something that’s not very focused and doesn’t really solve a really valuable problem for people.

What would you like to see change in the world?
I would like to see more community around people who are setting out to create new things in the world, especially in and around journalism.

It’s easy to get caught in your own world and focus on the problem you’re solving and not realize that maybe you have some valuable lessons others can learn from that will help you avoid similar pitfalls. But also you can can learn a lot from where other people are at. I don’t feel like there are a lot of opportunities to do this, unless you are in a city like New York or San Francisco, where there is a pretty good density of people who are in that similar position.

So that’s something I wish for, a way to connect with other early-stage entrepreneurs and share lessons across different startups to see where people are at, because I think one other thing we’ll start to see is a coalescing of more ecosystems where we connect with other people who are building startups and have a similar vision. I already have had this a little bit. I could see these opportunities with ecosystems so it’s not just you’re a little startup trying to make it in the world all by yourself, but you’re linking up with other startups and maybe creating some sort of collectives around certain kind of problems.

I think there’s some really interesting stuff that will happen around that in the next few years.

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