Last week I visited the MIT Media Lab. I sat with Deb Roy, director of the Laboratory for Social Machines and former chief media scientist of Twitter; Andrew Heyward, former President of CBS News; and Russell Stevens, head of Deployments at the Lab for Social Machines at the Media Lab, and co-founder of Cortico. I went to be briefed on an exciting Cortico venture, supported by research from MIT’s Laboratory for Social Machines, the Local Voices Network. I had met Roy in my service on the Knight Foundation task force on The Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America.

The Media Lab is launching a series of pilots in Madison, Wisconsin; the Bronx, New York; and Birmingham, Alabama. There will be hosted conversations at local institutions such as churches or libraries, using a new piece of technology called the Digital Hearth. This circular piece of electronics captures conversations of participants, then puts the discussion into the cloud. The goal is to surface voices for local media. Word clouds are created and patterns are discerned through key word search and topic clustering. Shortly thereafter, the technology will be implemented in rural communities, beginning in Wisconsin. According to Professor Roy, “This will be the new venue for constructive community-based conversation.”

The Local News Network aims to fill a gap left by the stunning cutbacks in editorial staff in local newspapers. It also wants to burst the self-imposed bubbles of content that simply reinforce the views of their readers. “It aims to reinvigorate the local news, to flip the newsroom,” Professor Roy said. “If you cannot afford a beat reporter to cover mass transit, then you get these community meetings as a means of ear-to-the-ground listening.”

This is a service available to any reporter and to all hosts of the conversations. The hosts are in the process of being trained by the Media Lab, not as focus group leaders but as conversation facilitators. “We need to ensure that participants understand that they are entering a public conversation,” Roy noted. “There must be value first and foremost for everyone that joins a conversation to listen and learn, and have an opportunity to speak and be heard. And as a by-product, we hope the network will create value for others in the community to access organized collections of past conversations.”

I was able to listen to five minutes of conversation about the bus service in Madison during a recent snowstorm. An African-American woman shared her story about a bus having passed her stop in an African American neighborhood – in her view intentionally – leaving her with her young child in the freezing cold and snow. Others added their own experiences with the bus drivers, making it clear that complaints made to the central office were ignored or just not answered. “This could prompt a reporter in Madison to check out the allegations,” said Roy.

This is a constructive response to the economic challenges of the local news industry. There are others, such as OhmyNews, founded in 2000 in South Korea, enlisting citizen journalists to cover breaking news, or Wikimedia, which crowdsources content from its volunteer members. The goal is an informed citizenry able to participate in the democratic process on the basis of facts and constructive dialogue.

In the coming mayoral contest in Madison, the candidates will be able to have access to the Local Voices Network, to propose policies and engender debate. The town common is reinvented through the Digital Hearth. Let’s root for the success of this initiative.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

Joshua Sortino