Michael Barndt

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Building A Structured Local Information
Resource On Line

A working local telecommunications system will depend upon a commitment to building significant information online. This paper will explore a framework that can form the core of a community information system. Options will be illustrated through a series of projects underway in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and references to local sites around the world. The paper will stress the value of a proactive plan to support information development.

Organizational home pages tend to appear incrementally and to reflect the resources of strong organizations. In Milwaukee, an information and referral database serves as a core access point that represents the resources of an entire community. Individual program web pages can be built around this core. The core is maintained as an easily managed database. The multiple entry point web pages are generated automatically.

Local policy and study documents represent key elements in a community knowledge base. In Milwaukee, a United Way environmental scan document with 500 references to other material serves as the core for building an extended hypertext system with substantial material from all levels of the community. Documents are broken into modules. Content, links, keywords and footnotes are maintained in easily created databases. Web pages are generated automatically.

Local nonprofit organizations are planning to use Internet for improving community and neighborhood services - not just as a site for more visible brochures. The work of a proactive nonprofit organization system can be imagined through a composite set of 100 links to local nonprofit organizations around the world. In Milwaukee, efforts are underway through an association of nonprofit organizations, Milwaukee Associates in Urban Development (M.A.U.D.), to promote the synergy of collaboration by nonprofits in various service sectors.

A community map and demographic data system is built around a "Neighborhood Atlas". Extensibility is permitted by use of templates to generate reports and maps for hundreds of variations. In Milwaukee, census, property, crime, school, health, business and community asset information become part of a comprehensive information grid being developed by a Neighborhood Data Center Geographic Information System program offered by M.A.U.D.

Local organizations have a strong stake in community education. In Milwaukee, local nonprofit organizations are beginning to explore with local universities how to tie the usual service and preventive education programs into Internet as a new vehicle. This requires harnessing the existing efforts by many local organizations to provide information and support to clients and constituencies.

Community activism is rooted in local networks. Participation and coalition activity can be fragile. An online "community memory" can support these systems and improve the capacity of individuals to participate and to recognize the common links with other organizations and with history. In Milwaukee, Community Development Block Grant and Enterprise Community planning is being supported by those with the technical skills and vision to translate the work of task forces to an online record.

Incremental, disorganized development of local Internet systems can re-enforce the disparity of resources and power within a community. Proactive development of a complex but easily maintained community information system can be a strong democratizing force.* Local community networks are not "virtual communities" but an extension of real, working communities. Local networks will not be significant until they reflect and strengthen the capacity of communities.

Fast forward another five years into the telecommunications era. High speed Internet links to homes and organizations will be the norm. Quality world wide web sites will be maintained around the world. The business and entertainment sectors will have developed substantial resources. Virtual communities will be thriving. But what of value will be available for the local community?

Advocates of community networking have been working hard to build the essential components of a telecommunications system. But once hardware, software, phone access, training, operational subsidies and other barriers are overcome, there may be little substance to serve local communities. Content has been growing exponentially at many global sites. But local content development has been sporadic and disorganized.

Communication networks may succeed in less structured, spontaneous environments. But information systems require a structured framework. Community networks should be clear about the purpose of local community information, should create a plan for building an information system, should coordinate systems developed by participating organizations and should apply advanced technology to organize the material in a flexible sustainable way.

Local information can be a critical resource for supporting local communities. It is important to set clear objectives for a fully realized information system. Community network collaboratives should be especially aware of their values and functional priorities as they begin.

Community networks make choices based upon a commitment to key values that differentiate their work from the many others who will be involved in telecommunications. A fully realized community network is comprehensive - serving a wide variety of community needs. The network is expected to be inclusive - with an emphasis upon improving access for those with the least capacity. A community network supports the creation of effective diversity on line - reflecting the plural values of the community.

Community networks envision an online environment rich in local information - current, accurate and easily accessible. As knowledge is power, individuals and organizations should be additionally empowered by such resources. A community knowledge base should become a growing legacy - strengthening organizations and communities and forging stronger links among them.

Information systems serve a variety of functions. The impact of an information system should be evaluated in the context of these functions. Of primary interest to community networks are functions that support community building at the local level.

Telecommunications can help to connect the community to events and activities and to create a record of the results of meetings, conferences and policy deliberations. Telecommunications can help to frame the dialogue as policy choices are debated. Telecommunications can enhance the efficiency of local and national coalitions and open up their process to others.

Telecommunications can support the work of local organizations by creating accessible information about services and programs, by allowing for efficient transactions of all kinds and by serving as a tool for collaborative work across organizations.

Telecommunications can improve access to data and policy and procedural details by serving as the vehicle for distributed data bases. Data may be used to better understand community profiles and indicators of change. Specific data about properties, services, funding patterns and other subjects may support the ongoing efforts of organizations who need to work with information that other organizations maintain.

Local community information will only be built if residents and organizations commit to do the work. Without a clear commitment, information will be spotty, redundant, inconsistent, hard to locate and frequently out of date. Online information available today in many communities has been prepared by and for the most capable organizations and constituencies - increasing the disparities within a community.

Planning should begin with an assessment of local needs. This would include an analysis of critical community functions and their use of information. An inventory of working information systems can suggest the starting points. Additionally, an assessment should identify unmet community information opportunities. A plan should include a careful appraisal of the work required to organize and maintain key information.

Planning should be inclusive. Organizations able to contribute data and other information and organizations that depend upon such information should be involved. Information is already a key part of the work of a local community. Providers and users need to discuss how telecommunications can enhance and focus the value of existing information.

Planning should develop frameworks to define the way information can be organized, accessed and added to. Information may need to be framed and restructured to support effective access online Organizations adding information on an independent basis should be encouraged to use similar frameworks and to link to a core structure of information.

Many organizations are already in the information business. This is especially true of the local nonprofit organization. The file drawers of many community and human services nonprofit organizations are filled with fliers, workshop handouts, educational material and program support material. The challenge is not to create major new responsibilities for these organizations, but to help them to transform their information function to include the telecommunications. For many organizations, this should be an obvious benefit. Technology can reduce costs of preparation and distribution, broaden the reach of the organization and allow more current, immediate communication. Organizations can build upon opportunities for collaboration - through local and distant links to materials offered by other organizations. Specialized information clearinghouses can operate on an international basis. A local community may operate one or several of these clearinghouse sites.

Some organizations play a special role in the organization of information. In the local nonprofit community this includes information and referral hot lines, volunteer centers, development and training programs for other organizations, community education and prevention programs, advocacy research groups and support systems for coalition and collaborative activity. These organizations can substantially lower costs and extend their reach when production, duplication and distribution costs are replaced by electronic access to their work. There may be an issue of cost recovery for the work of staff if paper products were charged a fee. Free and open access to local community information seems an important prerequisite for a synergistic community online system. Foundation and other resources may need to agree to support information development costs up front to allow these efforts to enter the public domain.

The ongoing maintenance of information is more likely when redundancy is reduced by sharing responsibility for the work. Lead organizations should take responsibility for key tasks. Other organizations should be encouraged to contribute independently by extending and linking to the core frameworks.

When a framework is in place, independent activity can build upon it. Over time, independent contributions will substantively more important than the core. But the basic structure ensures that the more randomly contributed material can be located and placed in perspective by users.

A basic inclusive framework also assures a more balanced presentation of the community. Organizations and programs without the resources or commitment to the new technology can be represented within the general framework.

Strategies for the organization of data is the major theme of this presentation. A series of projects are described that can form the key framework for an organized community network information system.

Data and even qualitative information is best managed in a data base format. Information can be accessed a variety of ways from the data system. A data base can be more easily built and maintained. Tables, maps and web pages can be generated as one means of access. The generated pages can be quickly replaced when changes occur. Although this process may be awkward in the short term, the tools to manage network databases will rapidly improve.

Community programs
One of the first needs of a community framework is for an inventory of community resources. Information and referral systems are likely to be the best start. Telephone help lines often been building data bases that are thorough, current and easily accessed by staff and volunteers. These databases can easily serve the need for an inclusive catalog of community service resources. Information and referral organizations already have an process in place to evaluate and update information. They have also addressed the question of categorizing services and accessing the information from a variety of perspectives.

In some communities, information and referral resources may be less organized. Volunteer center programs, chambers of commerce and libraries are other sources for initial data sets. In all cases, the data set may be incomplete. Strategies may be needed to distribute responsibility for extending and updating the data. If different sources are merged, it will be useful to set a common standard for critical information. An actively used system can also be updated through submissions by users.

Information and referral data may be best maintained as an online data base. Search forms can be used to access such a database. But web pages in a static form can be generated and regenerated as needed to create a more usual series of web links. In that case, a series of access choices can be built in. For example, maps can lead to neighborhood-specific choices. Several category systems may all be used - to access services by type, affiliation, location or constituency.

The framework insures degrees of inclusiveness, ease of access and mechanisms for current information. It may be limited to a simple listing of organizations or contain more detail about the programs offered. Most detail, however, should be built and maintained by the organizations themselves. As individual organizations develop their own more complete web pages, the program inventory provides an access point which can link to their work.

A prototype Information and Referral system can be accessed at http://www.uwm.edu/People/mbarndt/mindex.htm

Nonprofit organizations at work
Local nonprofit organizations need to use Internet for improving community and neighborhood services - not just as a site for more visible brochures. Initial efforts by local nonprofit organizations to use Internet are not very visible to the global community. (Nor do they need to be.) The work of a proactive local nonprofit organization system can be imagined through a composite set of links to local nonprofit organizations around the world. This scenario is developed in the presentation "Local Nonprofit Organizations at Work on the Internet."

One strategy to hasten the process of organizational use may be to approach organizations sector by sector. When all organizations within a service system are a part of the network, the network can become an important part of that sector. For example, hospitals communicate routinely with nursing homes, programs serving the handicapped frequently refer clients to each other, housing programs depend upon other local organizations to identify home buyers and tenants, etc.

Documents Addressing Local Policy Issues
An ideal framework for community analysis material may be found in materials which summarize the work of others in a comprehensive way. In Milwaukee, a United Way "Environmental Scan" document reviews trends and problems for a broad range of categories. Over 500 endnotes refer to other reports. Access within the scan is organized through the table of contents and a thorough index. Charts and data tables are scattered throughout the report. Key community organizations addressing issues are identified as resources at the end of each section.

This material is ideally organized for a hypertext environment. More importantly, the endnotes are a natural start for linking to many other critical community reports. Additional charts and data can also be appended.

The Milwaukee United Way environmental scan was organized by creating a series of data bases from the document. The text was divided into short sections placed in memo fields within a content database. The table of contents and index were organized as separate data bases with ID links to the content database. The endnotes were similarly organized. In addition, repeated references to the same document and the same source were derived from the endnotes file. Brief descriptions of key source documents and of the source organizations were entered into memo fields in these subsidiary files. The references to organizational resources formed yet another database - cross referenced to the organizational matrix discussed in the previous section. These relational data bases may be used to generate a complex collection of web pages with many more links - often bi-directional. A static set of web pages can be regenerated when the underlying data bases are modified.

The endnote database from the scan was used to generate requests to the sources of referenced documents for permission to put them online as well. Such a system is extensible. As more documents are added and organized in the same way, a global index, cross links and links to program and data inventories can be made. Users can contribute analysis from their point of view including links which use the source documents in different ways. The original scan document can be revised on an incremental basis as additional reports and data are available.

Service funding, allocation patterns Community programs frequently depend upon multiple sources of funding. Government, United Way and foundations are all important resources. Organizations looking for new opportunities can benefit from access to a database of funding patterns. This can be done by organizing public information from funding sources regarding their annual pattern of allocations. To be more complete, a database constructed from agency budgets can capture unusual funding sources and the role of fees and general fund raising in the survival of organizations. In many cities a foundation council has already organized funding pattern reports.

The data can be organized online by funding source, by program category and by organization. Given the basic nature of the database, the most appropriate online format would be a multiple choice form that taps a database to present a selected list tailored to user interest.

An online funding pattern directory has been developed for Chicago, Illinois by the Donors Forum of Chicago.

Community demographics
In an effort to manage the volumes of information available about communities, a system of social indicator are often developed. This core set of variables are selected because of their relevance to policy issues and their availability on a reasonable and frequent basis. A number of communities are collaborating toward the development of neighborhood indicators. Links to these programs can be accessed through the Urban Institute home page.

Other social indicator programs addressing education, health and youth have begun at national and state levels and are beginning to develop local components.

Neighborhood data can be accompanied by historical and narrative profile information and linked to resource directories mentioned above.

Social service trends
The nonprofit and government human services system is now collecting information profiling their work with clients. This data can be brought together to provide aggregate data for additional social indicators. Often the source of data lacks the time or capacity to make the data useful to others. A key resource is the use of a GIS (Geographic Information System) to match address data to geographic areas. A third party data center may be able to process the data and to generate the aggregate data, while preserving the confidentiality of individual records.

Local site detail
For a variety of users, specific data relevant to property may be useful. Cities maintain inventories of property - usually public. In some cases, city governments have taken the responsibility for supporting online access to these files. In other cases, the structuring of the data to fit community access needs may need to be done by a community or university group.

A variety of information can be added to a property file base. Government information may include land use, assessment, sales, building condition, fire records and others. Data sets such as the Toxic Release Inventory can be integrated into this system. The location of services, businesses, schools, parks, historic homes and many others can also be added to this framework.

Property based data is extensive and must remain a database with a sophisticated search and report engine. It is also possible to provide summary data from the database or to link to files based upon summary data - such as the U.S. Census.

An excellent example of a property based information system has been developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, Illinois"

Visualizing community trends through maps
Social indicators can be the core of an online "Urban Atlas". Printed atlases have been rare because of production and distribution costs.

General data and map profiles on a city and regional level can be supplemented by data and block level maps for neighborhoods. A map series can be more efficiently produced by "scripting" the design of a specific content map and repeating the process for each of many neighborhood map frames. Prototypes have also been created that allow building new maps online. The GeoWeb site at the State University of New York - Buffalo links to many of these efforts.

An online map series is being developed by the Neighborhood Data Center Program at Milwaukee Associates in Urban Development in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Extensibility is permitted by use of templates to generate reports and maps for hundreds of variations. In Milwaukee, census, property, crime, school, health, business and community asset information become part of a comprehensive information grid.

Community Education
Local service organizations have a strong stake in community education. Organizations are beginning to explore with local universities how to use Internet to enhance the usual service and preventive education programs. This requires harnessing the existing efforts by many local organizations to provide information and support to clients and constituencies. And it also requires that universities be encouraged to develop materials that are organized to serve the information needs of the general public. These should be distinguished from sites focused on the latest in research.

Community calendar
Community calendars are a simple example of the value of coordination within community networks. A central site is required as an access point. Individual organizations must be committed to regularly contributing information. An incomplete site will not attract interest. A well organized and frequently referenced site can be a critical way for many organizations to call attention to events and other material at their own web sites.

Community Memory
Community activism is rooted in local networks. Participation and coalition activity can be fragile. An online "community memory" can support these systems and improve the capacity of individuals to participate. References allow recognition of common links with other organizations and with history. Minutes, position papers, analysis and program descriptions can become part of a growing archive.

In Milwaukee, Community Development Block Grant sponsored planning and Enterprise Community program development is being echoed online. The process is supported by those with the technical skills and vision to translate the work of task forces to an online record.

Positions taken by political and other leadership
A community network can be a critical arena for enhancing local political issue-oriented debate. Many communities have begun the process by sponsoring voter information or issue focused sites. These sites are substantially different than those developed by individual political campaigns.

In Cambridge, Massachusetts a community conference sponsored by the Cambridge Civic Network is now being followed up on-line. Key priorities are summarized in position statements. Local political candidates have been asked to state their positions. And residents continue the dialogue through a message system. See the Cambridge Civic Forum.

Political issues and candidate information is organized for several cities using a system called Project Vote Smart. The local sites are linked through a national page.

Archives from online communication forums
Online community forums are an important part of the community support process. The spontaneous nature of e-mail communications enriches the democratic process. But such communication can often be too temporary. Discussions are usually lost as new messages take their place. Communication is often circular - with little advancement of the issues raised.

Current communication software is not well structured to support productive dialogue. To learn more about the systems being developed to support community dialogue visit sites that discuss the software and point to other examples of on-line dialogue. The Meta Network is one of several sites exploring this evolving field.

Solutions are required which allow capturing and retrieving the essence of past discussions. Perhaps much of the solution is less in the development of software, but through the assignment of new roles to moderators and "weavers" who support and structure the threads of communication forums.

All of the content framework examples discussed have several common elements. A core set of information of interest to many is transformed from print and data file sources to fit into a web framework. A structure is imposed to make sense of the specific basic set and to make access a more transparent process. Databases are either tapped directly or transformed through programming into web pages - bypassing more extensive editing. Other organizations are encouraged to use the appropriate framework to add and link their own contributions to the growing system.

Incremental, disorganized development of local Internet systems can re-enforce the disparity of resources and power within a community. Proactive development of a complex but easily maintained community information system can be a strong democratizing force. Local community networks are not "virtual communities" but an extension of real, working communities. Local networks will not be significant until they reflect and strengthen the capacity of communities.

Planning and building significant community knowledge bases is the next great challenge facing community networks.