Child Poverty, The Kardashians, and Information Diets

In most of the talks I’ve given about the Information Diet, I’ve asked two questions:

To date, about 40% of the audiences that come hear me talk know the answer to the first, and not a single audience member has ever yelled out anything close to the correct answer of the second.

I ask this question to illustrate the premise of the Information Diet. It’s not that knowing the name of Kim Kardashian’s ex-husband is a bad thing by itself, but rather that that information is likely not very useful for your day to day life. You’re not going to cause much change with it, nor would you ever want to. There’s nothing actionable about knowing Kim Kardashian’s ex-husband’s name.

Knowing the child poverty rate (or obesity rate, or unemployment rate, etc) in your county, however, is useful information. It’s something you can do something about. You can affect change with that knowledge – either by becoming an activist, talking with your community, or better knowing how to set your priorities in your community. You’re able to do something (anything) about it.

So if it’s so much more useful to know all this stuff, why do people know more about the Kardashians than they do about the statistics that are vital to their community?

I agree that most of the reason why is because the Kardashian’s are more “fun” to read about than poor children. But that can’t be all. Another reason why is that knowing all these vital stats about a community is too hard. Trying and find out the child poverty rate, the obesity rate, the unemployment rate, who your state and federal reps are (and who they’re financed by) can take all day.

The day the Information Diet came out, my wife Roz mentioned this to me: having a healthy food diet is at least possible because you can buy broccoli in the grocery store. With an information diet, all that’s available in the grocery store is potato chips. If you want brocolli, you have to farm it yourself.

So that’s why, over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on something that I hope will start to fix that, and yesterday I put in a Knight News Challenge application. The idea is that there’s story to be told in your local community that isn’t being told because it’s too hard to put a lot of the data about your community into context.

We talk about data like it’s some kind of fixed object but data alone doesn’t matter that much. It’s when it is put into context. Knowing your county’s unemployment rate is 7.5% matters, sure. But knowing that it’s a full percent lower than the national average and is decreasing more quickly? That’s more interesting.

Another reasons why the Kardashian’s consistently trounce poor children in your neighborhood is because of Google Trends. to meet traffic and revenue numbers, journalists turn to Google Trends to find out what people are interested in searching for and write to that. What I’m building will helpfully create a new way for journalists to figure out what to write about – based not on what people are searching for but on what’s actually happening in their community.

I find myself loving the app – every time I’m in a new place, even in a different neighborhood here in Washington, I fire up the app to see what’s going on. Because I tend to develop things out in the open, and have a hard time keeping secrets, I’ll let you know you can find a link to the prototype in my application.

So if this kind of thing is interesting to you, or you think it could be useful for your daily life – or even if you just care more about poor children than you do the Kardashians, go check out the full project description and click that little like button at the bottom.

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