Do CNs facilitate community building?
Certain economic theories suggest that electronic communication reduces the cost of starting and maintaining organizations. In principle this should lead to more interactions among civic or community minded groups, and ultimately an increased community awareness. This same opportunity - a communication channel that could cost-effectively distribute information and services, exists for local government. The more exciting possibility is to open a bi- directional channel for communication, presenting the opportunity for new channels of citizen participation, a new way of addressing complaints that government doesn't listen.
Regional Policy Opportunities:
Unfortunately, there is evidence to suggest that while some progressive governments recognize the tremendous opportunities inherent in these new channels of communication, the greater portion appear to be dazed, uncertain, or even hostile to these new avenues of interaction. This leaves an opening for policy generation and development at an alternative level - the community. On the other hand, while CNs offer unparalleled ability to deliver services to citizens, without provision for public access to information terminals, they also raise a specter of a society divided into information cognoscenti, and information "have-nots", the latter at risk being left further behind in the information society. One role for these regional networks, and a key theme of the PKW, is a focus on addressing issues of access. For without access to information, the ability to participate in policy development is absent. PKW's approach is not so much on creating physical access, but on facilitating access in its broadest sense-- cataloguing information sources, facilitating the cooperation of different types of community resources, and acting as a clearinghouse house for regional information--in short, access to information content, rather than "just" access.
Although it is generally thought of in terms of a "global" information infrastructure, the networked structure of the Internet allows for a local component, and therefore, the provision of local information content. Called variously civic networks, community networks, public information utilities, and public access networks, among others; these nodes (CNs) possess the same characteristics that drive the growth of the Internet -- rapid access to, and dissemination of information. This ease of access, coupled with the reduced transaction cost of publishing information, facilitates increased communication among participants.
Using this theme, this paper examines some of the challenges and opportunities that CNs present, drawing from the case of a Washington D.C. area intra-regional CN - The Potomac KnowledgeWay. To some extent the differences in terminology reflect variances in the underlying philosophical constructs of the systems. The most commonly used term "Community Network" is quite widespread, but may obscure an interesting but uneasy tension as to what constitutes the underlying philosophical focus of these networks. As a general rule, their focus seems to be geographic -- hence the term "community." However a rather substantial literature has also been built around the concept of a virtual or non- geographic community which is based on commonality of interests rather than physical location. (For background see: Beamish 1995, Morino 1994, Rand 1995, Rhinegold 1994, Finn and Strickland, 1995). In this regard, the Potomac KnowledgeWay (PKW) actually represents a hybrid of both of these types of systems. While physically based in Washington D.C. its collaborative efforts extend to include all of Maryland through participation of Maryland's Sailor Project , to the north and east, as far West as Winchester (about 90 miles) and South to Blacksburg and the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) project, and Washington, D.C. with CapAccess. Thus the objective of PKW is oriented more toward leveraging of existing resources and facilitation of interaction and awareness of other efforts rather than purely to encourage "access" per se.
But at the risk of offending proponents of these types of networks, advocacy and promotion of CNs, to some extent, begs the basic question of why these types of regional efforts are important. Proponents of CNs argue that they encourage civic participation, encourage economic development, build a sense of community and so forth. While these are anecdotally the case, researchers and practitioners in the field need to build a solid base of both theoretical as well as empirical research to demonstrate the value of these systems.
While theoretical underpinning are beginning to be constructed (see following section), results of empirical research on CNs are just beginning to appear (see Kanfer and Kolar, 1995, Molz 1994, and Rand 1995, among others), and is predominantly descriptive in nature. Still to be undertaken is work oriented toward evaluation. As more of these types of efforts become common, evaluation research and determination of "best practices" will help organizers and managers of these systems adapt them to best suit the needs of their communities. Let us now turn to consider some of the logic behind the formation and value of these systems.
2.0 Do CNs facilitate community building?
While community networks are assumed to be instrumental in facilitating community building activities, it might be more useful to develop a theoretical basis for this. Several different fields might be considered in a search for this type of theoretical basis, especially communications theory, economics and political science. Certain economic theories, for instance, suggest that electronic communication reduces the cost of starting and maintaining organizations (see Guthrie 1992, Rand 1995 and Boncheck 1995). Finally, one interpretation of regime theory assumes that governing capacity (in this sense political or community leadership) is created and achieved by bringing together coalition partners with appropriate resources, both non governmental and governmental. Community leadership is a creative exercise that involves the ability to craft arrangements through which the mobilization of resources allows a community to accomplish difficult and non-routine goals. (Stone 1993). The end-result is that these theories anticipate that community networks should lead to more interactions among civic or community minded groups, and ultimately an increased community awareness. This same opportunity - a communication channel that could cost- effectively distribute information and services, also provides an innovative and relatively low cost opportunity for local government and community policy making. The more exciting possibility is the potential to open a bi-directional channel for communication, presenting the opportunity for new venues of citizen participation, and new way of addressing complaints that government "doesn't listen".
3.0 Regional Policy Opportunities:
Again, to restate the theme in a positive light, there is evidence to suggest that while some progressive governments recognize the tremendous opportunities inherent in these new channels of communication, the greater portion appear unwilling (at best) or dazed, uncertain, or even hostile to these new avenues of interaction (at worst). Unfortunately rather than focusing on the possibilities inherent in increased citizen participation, much of the energy of local government in this area is focused on dealing with liability issues, and concern or management and control of information. Conversely, this provides an opportunity for community networks to "step into the leadership void" in addressing community issues. It has been said that the Internet views censorship as "damage" and routes around it. Following this metaphor, then, if local government does not embrace these avenues of citizen participation, it quite possibly faces the risk of becoming of minimal relevance in an information society. Babington (1995) provides an excellent example of citizen participation in information planning occurred in Orange County, Florida On the other hand, while CNs potentially offer the unparalleled ability to deliver services to citizens, without provision for public access to information terminals, they also raise a specter of a society divided into information cognoscenti, and information "have-nots", the latter at risk being left further behind in the information society.
One role for these community (or regional) networks, and a key theme of the Potomac KnowledgeWay (PKW), is a focus on addressing issues of access, both to hardware, and to the information itself. For without access to information, the ability to participate in policy development is diminished. PKW's approach is not so much on creating "physical access", but on facilitating access in its broadest sense--cataloguing information sources, facilitating the cooperation of different types of community resources, and acting as a clearinghouse house for regional information--in short, access to information content, rather than "just" access.
4.0 Potomac KnowledgeWay (PKW) - Background
The PKW was developed in response to the need for a vision for Northern Virginia and the Greater Washington area that would attempt to link and unify a region encompassing essentially three states (Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia) in a meaningful fashion. A number of community and business leaders determined that focusing on the information technology and networking expertise of the area would serve as a central orientation. Initially, the primary focus on economic development was expanded to consider how all sectors of the region can adapt to and succeed in the an information based economy. Since the PKW was initially planned, the scope of the project has grown to encompass the entire Potomac region, while still maintaining its initial focus on Metropolitan D.C. region.
PKW differs from many community network efforts in a variety of characteristics. Rather than a grassroots community effort (bottom-up), the origins of the project began with presentation made to a group of Northern Virginia business leaders (the Northern Virginia Roundtable) in September, 1994, by Mario Morino, Chairman of the Morino Institute, in the form of a proposal for the creation of a "Networked-based Information Products and Services Industry" in the region. The resulting product, however, comes from the work of the Northern Virginia Roundtable's Focal Industries Committee which is chartered to develop the long-term strategy for core industries in the region, particularly in the information technology and communications sectors.
The resulting partnership was a combination of public, private, and third sector (non-profit) efforts. Initial members included Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), George Mason University, Opportunity Virginia, and Morino Institute, with CIT committing a challenge investment of $150,000. Qualification for this challenge was that the project had to be industry-led and support from the business community must be forthcoming. CIT would match business contributions at a rate of one dollar for every two raised by the Project from regional businesses. More important still was the agreement by CIT and the Project to work as partners in developing the Project as one of CIT's major investments in Northern Virginia. With this milestone achieved, leaders of several organizations agreed to move forward on an ambitious plan to incorporate and further the vision. PKW's Board held its organizational meeting on June 3, 1995. Shortly thereafter, an effort was underway to secure the $300,000 in seed funding needed to match the CIT challenge investment. By October, 1995, a number of key developments were completed, including the decision to formally broaden the scope of the Project to include not just Northern Virginia but the entire Potomac region, and to reflect that inclusive view in an identity for the region and final name for the project, the Potomac KnowledgeWay. The projects' website - Crossroads, was named to reflect a "virtual place" where different organizations, individuals or groups to meet.
5.0 Potomac KnowledgeWay - Facilitation and Integration
The Washington D.C. region is unusual in several ways, and thus PKW has a slightly different focus that achieving pure connectivity to information. Internet access while not ubiquitous is readily available in the area, aside from more than 90 different (as of March 1996, though this number is changing rapidly) private ISP (Internet Service Providers) operate in the area, there are also alternative access nodes including CapAccess, and Maryland's Sailor Project, among others. Organizationally, the Potomac KnowledgeWay Project helps the region capitalize on its potential with four strategic programs:
This latter program provides the central organizing on-line network effort of Potomac KnowledgeWay (as opposed to outreach efforts). "The Crossroads" -- is PKW's Web site, and the centerpiece of the Regional Networking program. It is designed to help people throughout the region find new ways to communicate, collaborate and spark innovation. At the Crossroads, a Road map (an additional indexing metaphor) helps individuals and groups locate others in the region with whom they wish to communicate or team. By participating, organizations can promote awareness and understanding of their efforts within the region; receive inquiries that may turn into partnerships, sales, funding or volunteer support; and connect with regional partnerships, research projects and initiatives.
While all of these programs are important to the success of the PKW endeavor the balance of this paper discusses the operation of one of the operational efforts of the PKW -- the Public Access Action Team, part of the community awareness program, and focuses on public access related issues.
6.0 Action Teams
As part of the community awareness and education program, four Action Teams - individuals with a common focus that come together to learn about the impact of interactive communications and to help discern how these technological innovations can be applied to further the goals and missions of their issue areas. In general, the goal of the Action Teams is to stimulate grassroots involvement in specific causes, spark progressive action, and generate innovation.
At present, Action Teams include:
The process for setting up the Teams is as follows:
7.0 Development of the Action Plan
After the initial Public Access Action Team (PAAT) meeting the group agreed to undertake several actions including, development of access "success stories", to logon and register organizational resources with the Crossroads website, and to think again about specific tasks to undertake. Following the initial enthusiasm, a resounding silence occurred as members waited for direction and leadership to emerge. The PKW staff realized that it might be necessary to take a more proactive approach given the demands on individuals' time and resources.
After about sic weeks, a group member was approached about acting as facilitator for the larger group. Following this a working group of six individuals was assembled who undertook the task of drafting a Team mission, statement of goals and proposed set of tasks to achieve. After several meetings and the addition of a co-chair to help handle the management load (which ran about 20 hours a week), another was held to ratify the draft document. The process of developing the action plan was accelerated by the ongoing discussion which took place via email. All in all, approximately 80% of the activity and communication took place on-line, and several drafts and modifications were produced in this manner. In early march the full PAAT of about 26 members met to discuss and ratify the plan. A facilitated group process, similar to a focus group was used to generate additional ideas and goals for the team. By the end of the meeting, the plan had been agreed to, several task groups had been structured, and the team was considering what additional tasks should be undertaken. Presently, task groups have been established for mentoring and training, outreach, programmatic access (that is, actually helping target groups achieve connectivity both in terms of equipment and training in the use of information technology), and the development of baseline measurements of access. In addition, subsequent to meetings, requests for assistance or information were met with referrals from other members that resulted in several sets of computers donations being recycled, and a nonprofit group that wished to learn about the Internet being assisted with obtaining computers and support.
Does it make sense to make use of community networks to develop policy or community activity? PKW's experience with the Public Access Action Team indicates that the use of CNs (in this case, especially for electronic communication) can be a significant aid in the development of group and community activity. Increased awareness of information, and pooling of resources is vastly improved by taking advantage of information technologies. However, it must be noted that while these networks facilitate interaction, they do not serve as a replacement for face to face relationships, or human interaction. While the CNs were of help in obtaining information, and identifying interested actors, in fact it was only after some degree of relationship was established did the electronically facilitated communication prove to be a change agent.
These observations suggest several avenues for further research. For instance, what efforts might be undertaken to accelerate and strengthen community wide relationships, with an objective to utilization of community network augmented communication? How can these systems be most effectively structured to promote citizen-government interaction? And most importantly, over the long-term, do these types of networks facilitate the establishment of, or add value to region-wide, or cross community communication?
Babington, Tom. 1995. "Becoming Well-Connected Means Putting Citizens First." Public Management (November 1995) 8-11.
Beamish, Anne. 1995. Communities On-Line: A study of community-based computer networks. Unpublished master's thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. [On-line]. Thesis at: http://alberti.mit.edu/arch/4.207/anneb/thesis/toc.html.
Boncheck, Mark S. 1995. Working paper, "Grassroots in Cyberspace" Political Participation Project, Cambridge, MA.
Finn, Patrick J. and Cyd Strickland. 1995. "Community Networking: Bringing Communities On-line." Taos, NM: Paper published by La Plaza Telecommunities Foundation, Inc.
Guthrie, K.K., & Dutton, W.H. (1992). The Politics of Citizen Access Technology: "The Development of Public Information Utilities in Four Cities." _Policy Studies Journal_, 20 (4). 574-597.
Kanfer, Alaina, and Christopher Kolar. 1995. "What are Communities Doing On-Line?" Presented at Supercomputing '95, December 7, 1995, San Diego CA. (http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/People/alaina/com_online)
Molz R., Kathleen. 1994. "Civic Networking in the United States: A Report by Columbia University Students" _Internet Research_, 4(4) pp. 52-62.
Morino, Mario. 1994. Assessment and Evolution of Community Networking. Ties That Bind Conference, May 4- 6, Apple Computer, Cupertino CA
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Rheingold, Howard. 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
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Schuler, Doug. 1994. "Community Networks: Building a New Participatory Medium." Communication of the ACM 37(1):39-51.
Stone, Clarence N. 1993. "Urban Regimes and the Capacity to Govern: A political Economy Approach." Journal of Urban Affairs. 15(1)1-28
POTOMAC KNOWLEDGEWAY: PUBLIC ACCESS ACTION TEAM
VISION STATEMENT: Every citizen will have access to electronic information and communication.
MISSION: To facilitate broad-based public access to electronic information and communication in the region.
Definitions for key words or phrases in the vision and mission statements:
COMMUNICATION: Electronic messaging, in which a person has access to a unique electronic (mail) address that allows for sending and receiving private Internet messages, and for participating in public discussion forums. That address may be available temporarily when provided through a school, library or other public institution.
ELECTRONIC INFORMATION: Generally: information in digital (computer-created) formats that is commonly available through public electronic channels (networks). Specifically: publicly available information provided by government and non-profit agencies, as well as information created by other citizens in discussion forums designed for and open to public participation.
PUBLIC ACCESS: Citizen access to electronic information through access devices that are:
a. available at home or in business, or b. available in public settings such as libraries, schools, community centers, neighborhood centers, and public service agencies.
Public access must also include: c. awareness in the community of the importance of becoming information technology capable d. The availability of tutors, guides, coaches, etc., who will make the utilization of the "devices" possible and worthwhile.
POTOMAC KNOWLEDGEWAY "BASELINE MEASURES" TASK
Proposed actions to generate baseline measures for access in the PKW region:
Possible elements of basic inventory/directory information could include:
NOTE: This information may already be available on the Internet. Instead of creating the inventory, we could link to it. See: http://knowledgeway.org (Crossroads site): Living in a Network World.
NOTE: Much of this information is available through the ACE Government Guide for state and federal agencies at: http://www.sbaonline.sba.gov/ace.
Timeframe: April or May 1996
The inventory report/directory for each measure will be posted/linked to the Potomac KnowledgeWay Website. Text and map formats are recommended.
Timeframe: Inventories completed July 31, 1996
Timeframe: Findings completed August 31, 1996
Timeframe: Conference held October 1996