Looking for ways to help Columbia envision the future

Saturday, July 21, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:41 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Tom Warhover is the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation.

Dear Reader:

My shoes are still drying as I write to you. The storm that passed through Thursday afternoon was an all-out gully washer, wasn’t it? It’s been some time since I’ve been in one like that.

I wanted to take my shoes off and dance around in the rain. But I’m 44, so I’m not supposed to.

That rule is a good thing, too, I suppose — there’s a story on top of the home page that a lightning strike hit Creative Photo and started a fire.

The story I continue to follow most, though, is Imagine Columbia’s Future.

On Wednesday, according to my newspaper, 13 citizen topic groups hit their deadline for turning in their ideas for what needs to happen to improve our town. The consulting firm shepherding the process now has those plans. Look for another eight weeks or so before the next big phase, when all those plans and ideas get prioritized.

I’m betting there will be interesting results. After all, about 200 of our neighbors have been chewing on topics such as growth, the environment and education for a while now.

I wonder what the newspaper could have done to help. Oops. That suggests I have a position on this whole visioning thing. I’m not supposed to.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’m in favor of public participation. I’m for a community grappling together on its problems. That’s success. It’s your job to figure out what needs to be done in Columbia. It’s my job to give you whatever tools you need to get there.

So what could the Missourian do?

It has kept you up to date on each stage through news stories. But what if it created data sets for each topic in a way that you could easily search for the information you need? What if the newspaper found ways to enable each group to talk with a wider audience — Columbia — directly?

Those are two legs of expertise the staff is developing in this new Web-centric world: developing community knowledge through the power of databases, and helping facilitate the conversations going on around town. The ideas came out of a week-long retreat last month. I talked about the first two legs — enterprise and immediacy — in an earlier letter.

I challenge the topic groups to tell me how the Missourian could help make the deliberation go better.

The newspaper isn’t an agency of the city. It is an agent for its citizens. Put it to work.

Meanwhile, I think I may dance in the rain, whether I’m supposed to or not.

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