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An Information Community Case Study: Washington, D.C. - Introduction

August 5, 2010 |

As the nation’s capital and as a vibrant local community, Washington, D.C., is diverse in every sense: Its residents are transient and long-established, American government officials and foreign nationals, affluent and impoverished, esteemed business leaders and innovative grassroots activists. Washington thrives on its variety, but also struggles with extreme socioeconomic stratification. The city has been called the “most educated” in the nation because of its high proportion of bachelor’s and post-graduate degree holders, but its illiteracy rates are also higher than the national average.1 Distributing information about the federal government to the entire nation is crucial, but it is equally important that Washington’s residents have information that serves their local needs, as well. While the information boundaries between the federal government and the national press are fluid, the metaphorical boundaries that separate the District’s urban poor from more advantaged neighborhoods are far more discrete.

Copious sources of information exist on Washington’s role in the national and international spotlight. Although many American news outlets have closed or contracted their Washington bureaus, American and foreign reporters still swarm the capital to report back to distant home audiences. Research centers on all subjects imaginable make D.C. their home, as do advocates of transparency in government and other arenas. Despite job opportunities in knowledge-based work, the unemployment rate in the District’s most disadvantaged region, Ward 8, has reached 25 percent, compared with an 11 percent average in Washington as a whole; that number climbs to 40 percent when counting the underemployed.2

Amidst its national and international attention, the District has a vibrant and growing sense of hyperlocalism. Neighborhood blogs and ethnic-centric media outlets indicate a desire for more news specific to local communities. With numerous special interest blogs and neighborhood papers alongside a thriving arts and entertainment scene, D.C. is well positioned to support a vibrant culture and encourage effective civic engagement among its citizens. In addition, the city’s efforts to provide an open government structure and support for public institutions all contribute to the city’s capacity for meeting the information needs of its community.


As the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., attracts workers, residents and visitors, creating a rich mix of citizens within the metropolitan region. Although the D.C. metro region is closely integrated with neighboring areas of Virginia and Maryland, this case study will focus on the population within the District’s borders. For city government purposes, D.C. is divided into eight wards, and geographically, the District’s neighborhoods are divided among four quadrants, delineated by axes that cross through the U.S. Capitol building: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast.

According to the 2009 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, the D.C. population is approximately 600,000 people. This represents an increase in total population of 4.8 percent since the 2000 Census.3 In a 2007 American Community Survey report issued by the U.S. Census Bureau, the population distribution of Washington, D.C., was 55.6 percent black or African American, 36.3 percent white, 3.1 percent Asian, and 0.2 percent American Indian.4 For over a decade, Arlington County and Alexandria, both in Northern Virginia, experienced an increase in population by over 3 percent, underscoring a trend of residents migrating to the suburbs.5 Since 1999, D.C. has experienced a revitalization of sorts. Gentrification efforts took hold of Washington, D.C., in early 2000--notably in the neighborhoods of Logan Circle, Shaw, Columbia Heights, the U Street Corridor, and the 14th Street Corridor.6  According to the State of Washington report issued by the Urban Institute, the metro area’s “renewed prosperity expands opportunities for residents, businesses, and investors and strengthens the city’s fiscal health.”7

Of those adults, 43 percent are age 25 and over with college degrees.8 Nearly 20 percent of adults age 25 and over hold post-graduate degrees.9 Moreover, more than half of employed D.C. adults are professionals or hold managerial jobs.10  Women who hold professional and/or managerial positions equal 55 percent of the population.11  Additionally, computer professionals account for almost seven percent of the District’s workforce.12

The median household income for first adults in multi-income households after-tax is approximately $78,926, which is 41 percent above the U.S. average. 13 In addition, 36 percent of D.C.’s black adults have household incomes of at least $100,000 per year.14 However, it should be noted that D.C. also continues to feel the effects of a national economic downturn. The unemployment rate for the area was 11 percent as of April 2009.15

Recent trends also highlight that although wages have risen in the city for almost every job category, the gap between rich and poor has widened substantially. Housing costs have also continued to climb. In 2007, an estimated 5,800 District residents (i.e., approximately 1 out of every 100) were homeless.16 This growing disparity can be readily identified in several individual neighborhoods around the city. While some neighborhoods reap the benefits of higher incomes and new shopping facilities, several continue to struggle with increased crime and poverty rates.

Overall, homicide rates in the District fell significantly in the 2009 from 186 to 160 reported instances of homicide.17  Specifically, Prince George's County, long considered one of the region's most violent jurisdictions, reported its lowest homicide totals in years in 2009, with D.C. hitting a 45-year-low.18

The District of Columbia has 129 public K-12 and additional program schools and enrolls approximately 45,772 students.19 The Washington Archdiocese serves 6,200 students at 21 schools within the immediate DC area.20 The District of Columbia Public Charter School Board monitors the 57 public charter schools in the city serving 28,000 students.21 The area is also the home to several higher-education institutions such as the University of the District of Columbia, a public four-year institution, and the National Defense Intelligence College. There are 9 four-year private universities within the area: American University; The Catholic University of America; Corcoran College of Art and Design; Gallaudet University; The George Washington University; Georgetown University; Howard University; and Trinity Washington University. Wesley Theological Seminary and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies are graduate-only programs. Four universities offer journalism degree programs: Georgetown University, American University, George Washington University and Howard University.

One of the oldest, Georgetown University, was founded in 1789 by the Jesuits and now serves over 15,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students. Howard University, founded in 1867, is a member school of the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund and is partially funded by the U.S. Government. The school is recognized for its role in landmark American history events such as the Civil Rights Movement. Also, Gallaudet University, founded in 1864 and located in the Northeast quadrant of D.C. is the world's only university in which all programs and services are specifically designed to accommodate deaf and hard of hearing students.

Education in digital and media literacy is not pervasive in D.C.; however, it is not neglected entirely. The Newseum, a museum located in Washington and devoted to the history and future of the news in the U.S. and around the world, features interactive exhibits that let visitors experiment with new multimedia technology. A recent initiative towards building digital literacy in the District is the Public Media Corps, a six-month fellowship program sponsored by the National Black Programming Consortium. Public Media Corps describes itself as a “national service that recruits and trains fellows to work in public media institutions, public schools, libraries, community centers and other hubs to drive broadband adoption and close the ‘opportunity divide’ by creating new access points and patterns of use in diverse communities using public media assets, content and social media tools.” The 15 fellows in the inaugural class began their work in the Columbia Heights and Anacostia neighborhoods of Washington in July 2010.22

Similar non-profits in D.C. also provide media literacy training. People’s Production House operates a program called Radio Rootz, which trains youth in digital media arts and literacy. Its mission is “to work with young people in communities historically excluded from the media and help them build the knowledge and tools to become the next generation of media makers and civically engaged leaders.” 23 The Latin American Youth Center in Columbia Heights provides art and media production classes to 12- to 18-year-olds and older students in high school or GED programs, with a self-described emphasis on “discover[ing] the power of their art as a means of self-expression and as a tool for exploring community issues.”24


Of the city’s 600,000 residents, 426,531of those are registered to vote in the District of Columbia, and those registered voters receive no voting representation in Congress.25 Consequently, the political information needs of the community may vary from other American communities. The D.C. government has a vibrant presence online. The city’s website, DC.gov, launched a redesign close to the publication of this report, at which time some pages of the website had not yet been converted to the new design. The site had not been redesigned since 2007, but the new design had already been implemented on some of the District’s agencies’ websites and will be applied to others in the future. New features include compliance with Section 508 accessibility requirements for residents with disabilities; standardized navigation across the site; text-resizing options; buttons to share content on social media; and a survey to solicit users’ feedback on the redesign. In August 2010 DC.gov will launch a mobile platform, as well.26

The website sorts information according to audience use in the navigation bar, including tabs for residents, businesses, visitors, and media. The home page functions as a portal leading to a suite of city government sites and tools. Popular functions and search requests are noted on the homepage to provide visitors with links to pages on DMV renewals, trash collection, and using the District’s 311 service request system. A homepage slideshow highlights news, and other featured links on either side point users to job information, webcasts, traffic information, maps and other news. A slideshow at the bottom of the page highlights some of the website’s many subpages, including pages on the public school system, government transparency efforts, and ways to connect with the District government on social media. Drop-down menus at the top of the homepage direct visitors to other services and information available online. DC.gov also provides information on taxes, cash and medical assistance (via the Department of Health & Human Services), child protection, hospitals and clinics, elder care, services for those with disabilities, and transportation. Contact information is provided for each agency within the city government.27 The website has a built-in search tool, as well. A calendar, which can be personalized, offers a listing of upcoming city-sponsored events.

In addition to housing public information online, the city also offers 180 e-mail alert subscriptions on topics including the community broadband summit, home schooling, Asian affairs, library branches, and geographic information system (GIS) data, broken down by office within the city government.28 Before the redesign, DC.gov offered options to personalize the user’s website experience by adding links to five sites of the user’s choice to the homepage; given the many subpages to choose from, reviewing the entire list of available features was itself a daunting task and not without complications. However, signing up for an account to personalize the homepage required little identifying information (limited to first name and e-mail address). The redesign appears to have dropped this function, with no notification to users whether or not their personalized accounts remain active.

There are a number of website features and pages that support government accountability. First, through the District of Columbia Freedom of Information Act, visitors to the site can download the following documents: Complaint Procedure, Disability Rights Protection Act (Word Document), DC Commission on Persons with Disabilities (DCCPD) Member List and DCCPD Meeting Minutes, Olmstead Planning, and Disability Rights Laws Protecting DC Residents, Visitors and Employees.29 The D.C. government also operates two open data sites: Track DC and Data Catalog. Track DC compiles statistics on individual city agencies’ performance, budgets, and spending.30 Operating in tandem with Track DC is CapStat, a government accountability program modeled on Baltimore’s CitiStat that brings together agency officials in weekly one-hour sessions to examine performance data.31 Video of these meetings is later posted to the CapStat website. The Data Catalog provides 436 datasets and live data RSS feed, as well as links to external data visualization-creation websites and examples of visualizations created from DC datasets.32 Among the data visualizations the city has created are maps tracking snowplow activity and showing crime statistics by neighborhood.33 34

D.C.’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) is behind many recent projects surrounding open data. For example, OCTO created a custom mobile app, “Where’s My Bus?,” using city-owned Circulator bus data. Former DC CTO Vivek Kundra created the Apps for Democracy competition to allow the public to mash-up government data to create web, iPhone, and Facebook applications, but this was discontinued in the current OCTO administration.35 DC CTO Bryan Sivak emphasized in a June 2010 public appearance that his hope is that the public will utilize data released by the city government to improve upon the apps crafted by the government itself; to that end, OCTO will sponsor an “open data challenge” to create a public-facing application using Circulator data, a digital management console for Circulator bus drivers to track bus performance and efficiency, and data visualizations of the Circulator’s use in the city.36


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[1] Daniel de Vise, “Washington region ranks as the best-educated in the country,” The Washington Post, 15 July 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/14/AR201007..., Accessed 21 July 2010; Jenny Upton, “How Many DC Residents are Illiterate?: A Simple Question with a Complex Answer,” DC Learns, 15 July 2010, http://dclearns.org/blog/2010/07/how-many-dc-residents-are-illiterate-a-..., Accessed 22 July 2010.

[2] Dana Hedgpeth, “In District’s Ward 8, economic recovery is a world away,” The Washington Post, 13 June 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/12/AR201006..., 22 July 2010.

[3] “State & County QuickFacts: Census Quick Facts 2009”, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/11000.html, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[4] “2006-2008 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates: Demographics”, Census.gov, http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/NPTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=16000US115000..., Accessed 19 July 2010.

[5] “2006-2008 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates: Narrative”, Census.gov, http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/NPTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=16000US115000..., Accessed 19 July 2010.

[6] Margery Austin Turner & Christopher Snow, p. 1, “Leading Indicators of Gentrification in D.C. Neighborhoods”, Urban Institute, http://www.urban.org/publications/900461.html, Accessed 17 July 2010

[7] Ibid (p 5)

[8] Ibid (p 5)

[9] Ibid (p 6)

[10] Ibid (p 7)

[11] Ibid (p 7)

[12] Ibid (7)

[13] Washington Post Media, Market Book, p. 5, http://www.washingtonpostads.com/adsite/_res/files/managed/2010%20Market..., Accessed 19 July 2010.

[14] Ibid (p 6)

[15] "Economic News Release”, Bureau of Labor & Statistics, http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/metro_03192010.htm, Accessed 19 July 2010

[16] Margery Austin Turner & Christopher Snow, p. 5, “Leading Indicators of Gentrification in D.C. Neighborhoods”, Urban Institute, http://www.urban.org/publications/900461.html, Accessed 17 July 2010

[17] Paul Duggan, “Lanier pleased with DC's improvement in homicide cases“, The Washington Post http://voices.washingtonpost.com/crime-scene/chief-cathy-l-lanier/lanier..., Accessed 19 July 2010.

[18] Ibid

[19] “Fast Facts: General Data about DCPS: Schools, Demographics and Performance”, DC Public Schools, http://dcps.dc.gov/DCPS/About+DCPS/Who+We+Are/Facts+and+Statistics, Accessed 18 July 2010.

[20] “Who We Are: Archdiocese of Washington”, Archdiocese of Washington, http://www.adw.org/education/edu_whoweare.asp, Accessed 21 July 2010.

[21] “District of Columbia Public Charter School Board - Data and 2010 Stats”, DC Public Charter, http://www.dcpubliccharter.com/Enrollment-and-Demographics/SY2009-to-201..., Accessed 21 July 2010.

[22] See http://publicmediacorps.org/, Accessed 21 July 201.

[23] See http://www.peoplesproductionhouse.org/programs/radio-rootz, Accessed 3 Aug. 2010.

[24] See http://www.layc-dc.org/index.php/programs/art-media-house.html, Accessed 3 Aug. 2010.

[25] “Monthly Report for the Period Ending April 30, 2010”, District of Columbia Board of Elections and Ethics, http://www.dcboee.org/voter_stats/voter_reg/2010.asp, Accessed 25 July 2010.

[26] “DC.Gov Redesign: New Look and Features,” http://dc.gov/DC/About+DC.Gov/DC.Gov+Redesign, Accesed 3 Aug. 2010.

[27] See http://dhs.dc.gov/dhs/site/default.asp?dhsNav_GID=, http://dhs.dc.gov/dhs/cwp/view,a,3,q,640587.asp, http://citizenatlas.dc.gov/atlasapps/findit.aspx?QString=, http://grc.dc.gov/grc/cwp/view,a,1206,q,447541,grcNav_GID,1421,.asp, Accessed 20 July 2010.

[28] Some of those listed, such as the community broadband summit, are repeated under different subheadings in the list of 180 subscription options.

[29] See “Frequently Asked Freedom of Information Act Materials,” D.C. Office of Disability Rights, http://odr.dc.gov/odr/cwp/view,A,1387,Q,575788.asp, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[30] See http://track.dc.gov/, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[31] See http://capstat.oca.dc.gov/WhatIsCapStat.aspx, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[32] See http://data.dc.gov/, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[33] See http://snowmap.dc.gov/, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[34] See http://crimemap.dc.gov/presentation/query.asp, Accessed 19 July 2010.

[35] Gautham Nagesh, “New D.C. CTO scraps ‘Apps for Democracy,’“ “Hillicon Valley,” The Hill, 7 June 2010, http://thehill.com/blogs/hillicon-valley/technology/101779-new-dc-cto-sc..., Accessed 21 July 2010.

[36] Bryan Sivak, “Online Engagement for Sustainable Urban Mobility” panel at World Resources Institute, Washington; Digital Capital Week, 15 June 2010.

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