Community Outreach, Providing Access, Marketing Community Networks

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Patrick Finn, Catherine Weldon, and Ken Komoski

May 15, 1996
Reported by Alison Atkins

Catherine Weldon and Ken Komoski

Catherine Weldon, of the Boulder Community Network, discussed different methods BCN uses to reach out to community members, to encourage volunteer support, and to form healthy collaborations with community information providers.

1. BCN as a community server.
BCN provides non-profit organizations, schools, churches, human service agencies, etc. with the training to become information providers and provides space for this information on the BCN server. Currently, Weldon and her staff of 30 core volunteers are working to ensure content-rich and accurate pages for the 300 human service agencies with information on BCN. To help this process along, BCN trains page maintainers, provides email accounts and a team of volunteers to configure the hardware. These departments, often in the midst of budget cuts, are streamlining their services and focusing on sustainability. As supporters in this capacity, Weldon sees community networks as becoming information technology consultants.

2. Public Orientation Sessions
BCN holds one public orientation session per week which gives folks a brief introduction to the Internet. BCN suggests further training through independent agencies, and by doing so creates strategic relationships with private businesses. Weldon emphasized the importance of these reciprocal relationships. For example, orientation sessions are advertised for free in the local papers, and in exchange, BCN helps put the papers online.

3. Focus on Target Populations
At BCN, the target populations are a local senior citizen center and low-income families from Project Self-Sufficiency, a program to help people to get off welfare. Weldon commented on the differences between these two groups. The Seniors' group, made up of many retired engineers, are very enthusiastic learners and volunteers who want to stay up-to-date technologically. The PSS group, Weldon noted, was much harder to interest, because they face challenges to survival on a daily basis. However, once they began to understand what is a useful tool this can be to help them find jobs, etc., they became much more enthusiastic about the resource.

4. Public Access Computers
BCN currently has Macs set up for public use at 12 sites through out the county, including the libraries, civic and recreational centers, and coffee shops. Some of the issues BCN has faced in providing this service include: the importance of providing a consistent look and feel to the sites, security issues, and the necessity of contracting for site maintenance.

Weldon often stressed the importance of achieving healthy relationships with information providers. When BCN contracts with agencies, they ask that the information provider attend 3 short training sessions to ensure that these free resources are put to the best use. Less than half the providers show up for these sessions, and Weldon believes it is because they have no financial incentive to participate. Community networks need to find an financial incentive for agencies to make the best use of the resources they receive.

Patrick Finn, of the La Plaza Telecommunity, discussed some of the community outreach mechanisms that have succeeded here in Taos. As a marketer, one cannot begin with a set agenda. Finn emphasized the necessity of finding out what people's information needs are and then showing them how networking can provide the answers. People must come first, technology second.

La Plaza Community Outreach - Things That Work:

Community outreach must happen in several places, on community, state, and national levels. The hardest place to market is within your own community. The tools needed for this work are forgiveness, patience, and a willingness to try again. As a marketer, you must have a concise, simple message that works on all levels.

Ken Komoski, founding director of the LINCT coalition, has been working with community networks for 12 years. He advocates using the public library as a model for community networks which also strive to provide free information to their communities.

As an educator, Komoski has seen constant innovation and no change. Throughout history, people have thought new technologies, radio and television for example, would engage citizens in democratic change. Komoski hopes that new media may contain enough real information to bring about social change.

Komoski believes that human networking is what sustains our communities. Therefore, if electronic networking can enhance these efforts, the marketing and sustainability of community networks will be guaranteed. Currently, Komoski is working with community networks in the Long Island area, focusing on creating equal opportunities for access among poorer populations. The LINCT-East model, a web-enhanced BBS, operates with very little funding ($15,000) but provides access to a five-town area through the library system and other civic centers.

LINCT-East operates on the Time Dollar system, a program which allows citizens to earn credit hours by performing community service or attending a 13 week computer training sessions. These hours may then be used to "purchase" other community services or even to buy their own computer. Time Dollar is a tax-exempt currency in which there is a voluntary exchange of human goods without reference to any person's hourly value. An hour's worth of work is of equal valuable to everyone.

Komoski suggests that there are enough used computers for every poverty level household in this country. His program purchases computers and modems then sets them up in community learning centers. Last year 10 women earned their own computers; this year 50 women are involved in the program. Komoski hopes that by putting this commerce system online, they are enhancing the good human networking and community building projects already present in the community.