We took San Jose’s pulse to better serve its information needs. What did we learn?

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A guest post from our partners at Groundsource.

We all have an idea of what “news” is: weather, traffic, sports, politics, business, crime, etc. That’s the news which permeates our daily lives. But that doesn’t mean it’s the news we need to become better citizens, better parents, better consumers, more civically engaged; the news that makes us less anxious, more aware.

It was to discover the news that people need that we set out with the KQED Lab to launch Pulse — a project developed by Outlier Media and GroundSource (with support from the Jim Bettinger Fund for News Innovation at Stanford University) to better understand the information needs of communities. In this case, we focused on San Jose to help the station with the planning for its Silicon Valley bureau.

To achieve this we gathered a group of ~50 San Jose residents and sent them four text messages a day with simple questions about their information and news habits, and questions they have that they’d like answers to. The Pulse model builds off of decades of social science research and a framework implemented by Google and others.

We recruited San Jose residents via SMS using a list we acquired from a marketing firm and offered a $5/day incentive to respondents if they finished the day’s texts. We quickly identified a diverse group of close to 50 people who were interested in participating.


The first three pulses of the day asked the following questions:

  1. What information did you need most recently? Share as many details as you can.
  2. Did you get the information?
  3. Would or did this info help you:
    1. Make a decision
    2. Answer a question
    3. Make sense of something
    4. More than one of these
  4. On a scale of 1-3, how badly did you need this info?
    1. Really needed it
    2. It would've helped
    3. Just curious

The final pulse of the day asked people to sum up their day of information needs:

  1. Were you able to get the information you needed today?
    1. I wasn’t able to look or ask
    2. I looked or asked but couldn’t find an answer
    3. Yes
  2. If you had your own personal journalist working for you what would you have them look into?
  3. If you had your own personal journalist what community issue would you want them to look into?

The Results

The top themes, perhaps unsurprisingly, had to do with traffic, weather and other information people need to manage their day-to-day comings and goings. Local, logistical needs were  followed closely by “other” and “national current events” which had a decidedly political bent, including curiosity about the Alabama senate race (which was in high gear at this point), the tax law changes, and other national political news.  

Pulse participants feel, by and large, that their day-to-day information needs are being met — yet they still report needing more context and depth to help them understand how national issues (net neutrality, tax law changes, etc) will affect their day-to-day lives; and they want a much better understanding of the context around local issues, prime among them homelessness and affordable housing.  

For example, one participant wondered: “Mentally ill homeless who is advocating for them? Helping the underserved in our community, working together as a community to make policymakers listen to our communities needs?”

Regarding this last issue, it’s important to note that there is already a great deal of coverage of homelessness by local media, Pulse findings suggest that people still hunger for even more context and more understanding of not just why homelessness is a problem, but what — truly — can be done to address it, and how they can help.

Another participant shared this reflection: “I may be missing your concept of need. I accomplished my errands including a physical therapy appointment. My needs are met for this day. I can only think of things that I would like to know. And most of that really comes from living in rather uncertain times and wondering what is the best way to navigate it all. How to solve those problems as they appear. How to understand what may have led to this problem—this unbalanced state of anxiety that seems to have escalated over this last year. How militant will the masses need to be to counter the imbalance of wealth vs. poverty in the world?”

It’s useful, in the context of this response and others, to think of news as helping people “navigate” their day — both literally (traffic and weather) and figuratively (finding a path to less anxiety and more control given the chaotic state of the political and social scene).

The results of the Pulse project suggest that there is an important role for KQED to play in providing context for more “common” information needs -- which help people navigate through the world and remove anxiety from their day-to-day lives caused by gaps in information about pressing national and local concerns.

Moving forward

This was the first pilot of the Pulse model in the context of understanding a community’s information needs. The good news is that it shows promise as a manageable, efficient way to reach out to any community and within a few days, to develop a rich sense of its information needs. We plan on launching more pilots and using what we learned here to shape them. The more we refine it, the more KQED can ensure that the news and information it disseminates is truly serving the public.  

-- Andrew Haeg, CEO, Groundsource