Ronald D. Doctor & Kalyani Ankem March 4, 1996




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An Information Needs & Services Taxonomy: for Evaluating Computerized Community Information Systems

Abstract Computerized Community Information Systems (CCISs, also known as Public Access Networks, Community Networks, and Free-Nets ) are becoming increasingly common in communities across the United States and Canada. In February 1996 there were more than 390 systems either operational or organizing. These systems focus on providing information that people in local communities need in their daily lives. To evaluate how well they accomplish their objectives, we must ask:
  1. Who do the systems serve?;
  2. What information needs do they try to meet?
  3. How effectively do they meet those needs?
To help answer these questions, we have developed a new taxonomy of information needs and services and have tested the taxonomy in a pilot study of four operational systems. The taxonomy consists of a three dimensional matrix, the axes of which are Situational (or Subject) Categories, Types of Help provided, and Socioeconomic Identifiers. The fourteen Situational Categories like education, governmental processes, and social services were further subdivided. Five Types of Help were identified: Advocacy, Counseling, Directional, Factual, and Interactive Communication. Socioeconomic Identifiers included variables like age group, educational level, gender and income. We tested the taxonomy by examining the several hundred services provided by four CCISs (Victoria Free-Net, Big Sky Telegraph, Blacksburg Electronic Village, and Mobile Free-Net), locating each service within the three-dimensional matrix. We found that :
  1. Directional and factual help dominate the service offerings, but the types of information provided varied considerably from one system to another
  2. Services based on interactive communications were significant and growing
  3. Counseling services were present but limited
  4. Advocacy was almost non-existent
  5. Information about social services was rare.

Services oriented to middle income and upper middle income patrons dominated the four systems. Very few services were specifically targeted to low-income patrons. The pilot study indicated that the taxonomy is useful for evaluating CCIS services. It is particularly useful for identifying areas in which service offerings are weak or non-existent, thus it can be used to help a CCIS improve its services to better meet its objectives. In the past six years we have witnessed a virtual explosion of information services available through a variety of grass-roots based computerized community information systems (CCISs). Doctor & Ankem (February 1996) have identified more than 390 CCISs either in existence or organizing. These systems provide a wide variety of communication and information services to people in their own homes and in public places in their communities. Through continuing, rapid expansion supported in part by federal development of a National Information Infrastructure (NII), they have the potential for significantly changing traditional power relationships in our society. The questions we must ask are:

This paper describes a taxonomy of information needs and services that we have developed and used to respond to the first two questions. The taxonomy builds upon a considerable body of previous studies about the information needs of ordinary people. (See especially, Childers, 1975; Chen & Hernon, 1982; Dervin & Fraser, 1985; and Dervin & Nilan, 1986.) The literature indicates that people typically seek information and services that fall into fourteen subject, or situational categories. In the taxonomy, each category is further subdivided and is classified according to the type of help it provides and according to socioeconomic identifiers indicating who the information is intended to help. Table 1 shows the three dimensions of the taxonomic schema.

Table 1 - CCIS Information Needs/Services Taxonomy
Type of Help Provided
Situational Category
Socioeconomic Identifiers

Advocacy
Community & Commerce
Age Group

Counseling)
Consumer Affairs
Educational Level

Directional
Education & Schooling
Ethnicity

Factual
Employment
Gender

Interactive Communication
Financial Matters
Income Level

Government & Politics
Rural/Urban/ etc.

Health & Medical

Home & Family

Housing

Legal Matters

Nature & Environment

Recreation & Culture

Social Services

Transportation

The resulting three dimensional matrix or profile provides a means for evaluating and comparing the information services offered by various CCISs. We can get an indication of the extent to which each system meets individual and community information needs by identifying whether the system provides information defined by the intersection of each situational category with a type of help provided by the system and with each socioeconomic identifier.

Types of Help The types of help provided vary considerably across the systems we have examined:
Advocacy involves personally assisting the help-seeking patron solve her/his problem through direct contact with a helping agency or an adversarial agent. There is evidence that people seeking information really are seeking help, or advocacy. Advocacy may be essential if an information service is to succeed (Bundy, 1972; Voos, 1969). This form of help may involve contacting helping agencies on behalf of, or with, the patron. Such contact may be electronic (e-mail, telephone), print (letters, fax), or in person.
Counseling involves helping the client to understand his/her problematic situation and to understand and use various means available to effectively resolve it. Counseling services usually are provided by professionals. In this taxonomy, counseling stops short of advocacy. Directional help answers where questions like, “where do I get this information?, or ”where is information about . . .?” It leads the patron to the information that she/he seeks, but it does not help the patron define what information is needed. Factual help answers what questions such as, “what jobs are available?”, “what are my legal rights?”, “what entertainment is available tonight?”. Interactive Communications may incorporate any of the other four “helps”. It requires at least two parties in direct or indirect communication. It usually takes place via e-mail, or electronic discussion lists, but it also may use the telephone or fax machine. It may involve an exchange of messages between two or more people, or it may involve requests for information or interaction with an organization by filling out and sending an on-line form. Other, more advanced forms of interactive communication also could involve electronic opinion polls or even voting. Interactive communication involving groups tends to foster a sense of community or shared interest. Both group and personal interactive communication can be effective in providing emotional or other psychological support, a help found to be very important to people seeking information (Dervin & Fraser, 1985; Chen & Hernon, 1982). On CCISs, this help typically is not professional help, but rather peer self-help or mutual aid.

Testing the Taxonomy
To test the taxonomy, we scanned the services offered by more than 150 operational CCISs and selected four systems (Big Sky Telegraph, Blacksburg Electronic Village, Mobile Free-Net, and Victoria Free-Net) for detailed analysis. Selection criteria included geographical diversity, level of maturity, and type of system.

Although we have assigned each CCIS service to a situational category and type of help, the actual services are not so neatly arranged or identified on the CCISs we have examined. Services typically are scattered across each system’s menus, often making it difficult for patrons to locate a particular kind of information. We have not addressed issues relating to ease of access or ease of use in this paper. In addition, some services properly fall into more than one category. We have reflected this in our analyses by counting a multi-category service wherever it appears even though this means that the total service counts will be somewhat inflated. We examined the 600 services provided by the four CCISs, locating each service within the three-dimensional matrix. For this paper, however, we have reported on only two dimensions of the matrix, situational categories and types of help. Socioeconomic identifiers are discussed in a forthcoming article. Table 2 and Table 3 show the services offered by situational category and by type of help, respectively, for each of the four systems. Tabulations of the results for each system are shown in Table 4 through Table 7.

We found that: (1) Directional and factual help dominate the service offerings but the types of information provided varied considerably from one system to another. Directional help was present in 65% and factual help in 85% of the 600 services offered;(2) Services based on interactive communications were significant and from other work we’ve done, appear to be growing, but they were highly variable from one system to another. They ranged from 20% to 67% of total service offerings on the four systems, averaging 42% of the 600 services; (3) Counseling services were present but limited, averaging 4.8% over all services; (4) Advocacy was involved in only 1.8% of the 600 services, ranging from zero to 3% of each system’s services. One system (Blacksburg) offered no discernible advocacy services at all; (5) Information about housing, legal matters, social services, and transportation was rare; and (6) Services oriented to middle income and upper middle income patrons dominated the four systems. Very few services were specifically targeted to low-income patrons.

Table 2 - Services Offered, by Situational Categories

Big Sky Telegraph
Blacksburg Electronic Village
Mobile Area Free- Net
Victoria Free-Net

Community & Commerce
14
20
23
31

Consumer Affairs
3
1
2
17

Education & Schooling
28
20
31
31

Employment 5
6
2
10

Financial Matters
1
4
5
6

Government & Politics
2
19
22
26

Health & Medical
5
8
13
29

Home & Family
5
5
5
5

Housing
2
6
1
8

Legal Matters
3
2
2
7

Nature & Environment
4
5
7
20

Recreation & Culture
15
18
39
31

Social Services
3
0
7
2

Transportation
2
4
5
3

TOTALS
92
118
164
226

Table 3 - Services Offered, by Type of Help
Total
Advocacy
Counseling
Directional
Factual
Interactive
Communication

Big Sky Telegraph
92
1
4
60
79
18

Percent of Total

1.1%
4.3%
65.2%
85.9%
19.6%

Blacksburg Electronic Village

118
0
5
85
94
38

Percent of Total

0.0%
4.2%
72.0%
79.7%
32.2%
Mobile Area Free-Net

164
5
10
106
140
110

Percent of Total

3.0%
6.1%
64.6%
85.4%
67.1%

Victoria Free-Net

226
5
10
140
198
89

Percent of Total

2.2%
4.4%
61.9%
87.6%
39.4%

Although it is risky to generalize from examination of only four systems, it does appear that the taxonomy will be useful for evaluating and improving the services offered by CCISs. The pilot project now is being extended to cover systems with greater geographical and socioeconomic diversity. The taxonomy also is being used as an aid in developing the services offered by the West Alabama Free-Net (Tuscaloosa, Alabama).

- END -
SUMMARY OF SERVICES
Table 4 - Big Sky Telegraph
June 15, 1995

2 Number of Services by Situational Category & Type of Help
Total
Advocacy
Counseling
Directional
Factual
Interactive
Communication

Community & Commerce
14
0
2
11
12
3

Consumer Affairs
3
0
0
1
2
0

Education & Schooling

28
0
0
18
25
10
Employment

5
0
0
4
4
1

Financial Matters

1
0
0
1
1
0

Government & Politics

2
0
0
1
2
0

Health & Medical

5
0
1
5
3
1

Home & Family

5
0
0
3
5
0

Housing

2
0
0
2
1
0

Legal Matters

3
0
0
0
3
0

Nature & Environment

4
0
0
1
4
0

Recreation & Culture

15
0
0
10
13
3

Social Services

3
1
1
2
3
0

Transportation

2
0
0
1
1
0

TOTALS

92
1
4
60
79
18

Percent of Total

1.1%
4.3%
65.2%
85.9%
19.6%

Table 5 - Blacksburg Electronic Village
November 5, 1995
Number of Services by Situational Category & Type of Help
Total
Advocacy
Counseling
Directional
Factual
Interactive
Communication

Community & Commerce

20
0
1
11
16
11

Consumer Affairs

1
0
0
1
0
1

Education & Schooling

20
0
0
12
16
11

Employment

6
0
1
4
6
1

Financial Matters

4
0
0
4
4
3

Government & Politics

19
0
0
14
15
2
Health & Medical

8
0
3
7
5
0

Home & Family

5
0
0
5
5
1

Housing

6
0
0
5
5
1

Legal Matters

2
0
0
2
1
0

Nature & Environment

5
0
0
2
4
2

Recreation & Culture

18
0
0
15
13
5

Social Services

0
0
0
0
0
0

Transportation

4
0
0
3
4
0

TOTALS

118
0
5
85
94
38

Percent of Total

0.0%
4.2%
72.0%
79.7%
32.2%

Table 6 - Mobile Area Free-Net

July 30, 1995

Number of Services by Situational Category & Type of Help

Total
Advocacy
Counseling
Directional
Factual
Interactive
Communication

Community & Commerce

23
1
2
14
19
17

Consumer Affairs

2
0
0
1
2
1

Education & Schooling

31
0
1
20
29
20

Employment

2
0
0
2
2
1

Financial Matters

5
0
1
2
5
5

Government & Politics

22
0
0
18
17
6

Health & Medical

13
2
2
10
13
7

Home & Family

5
0
0
4
5
5

Housing

1
1
1
1
1
1

Legal Matters

2
0
0
2
2
1

Nature & Environment

7
0
0
2
6
4

Recreation & Culture

39
0
1
23
30
36

Social Services

7
1
2
5
5
5

Transportation

5
0
0
2
4
1

TOTALS

164
5
10
106
140
110

Percent of Total

3.0%
6.1%
64.6%
85.4%
67.1%

Table 7 - Victoria (Canada) Free-Net August 28, 1995

Number of Services by Situational Category & Type of Help

Total
Advocacy
Counseling
Directional
Factual
Interactive
Communication

Community & Commerce

31
1
0
25
25
16

Consumer Affairs

17
2
0
15
17
3

Education & Schooling

31
0
4
12
24
19

Employment

10
0
1
9
10
1

Financial Matters

6
0
0
2
6
1

Government & Politics

26
1
0
17
25
5

Health & Medical

29
0
3
12
27
9

Home & Family

5
0
0
4
4
4

Housing

8
0
0
8
8
2

Legal Matters

7
1
1
5
6
3

Nature & Environment

20
0
0
9
19
4

Recreation & Culture

31
0
0
18
22
20

Social Services

2
0
1
2
2
1

Transportation

3
0
0
2
3
1

TOTALS

226
5
10
140
198
89

Percent of Total

2.2%
4.4%
61.9%
87.6%
39.4%

REFERENCES

About the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV). Available on the WWW at URL: http://crusher.bev.net/project/index.html.
Bundy, M.L. (1972). Urban information in public libraries. Library Journal, 97:161-69, 1972.
Chen, C., & Hernon, P. (1982). Information seeking: Assessing and anticipating user needs. New York: Neal-Schuman.
Childers, T. (1975). The information-poor in America. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
Dervin, B., & Fraser, B. (1985). How libraries help. Sacramento: California State Library.
Dervin, B., & Nilan, M. (1986). Information needs and uses. In M. Williams (Ed.), Annual Review of Information Science and Technology (ARIST), 21, 3-33.
Doctor, R. D., & Ankem, K. (February 1996). A Directory of computerized community information systems (CCISs). Unpublished. Available from the authors by sending e-mail to rdoctor@ua1vm.ua.edu.
Voos, H. (1969). Information needs in urban areas: A summary of research in methodology. New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Ronald D. Doctor & Kalyani Ankem
(rdoctor@ua1vm.ua.edu & kankem1@ua1vm.ua.edu)
School of Library and Information Studies
The University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487

fs22 . The term Free-Net is a registered servicemark of the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN).
. Big Sky Telegraph is available by modem at (406) 683-7680, or on the Internet by telnetting to bigsky.bigsky.dillon.mt.us (or 192.231.192.1). Login as bbs.
ftn . Blacksburg Electronic Village is available at the following URLs: gopher://gopher.bev.net, and on the WWW at http://www.bev.net/.
.bMobile Area Free-Net is available via modem (334) 405-4636, settings 8N1 and on the Internet at the following URLs: telnet://ns1.maf.mobile.al.us (199.78.232.2). Login as visitor; http://www.maf.mobile.al.us/.
. Victoria Free-Net is available via modem, (604) 595-2300, and on the Internet at the following URLs: telnet://freenet.victoria.bc.ca (134.87.16.100), login as guest; gopher://gopher.freenet.victoria.bc.ca; and http://www.freenet.victoria.bc.ca/freenets.html.