The growing academic field of community informatics could helps us use new technologies locally, for social benefit, drawing on the latest public and private sector developments in knowledge management, social software, mobile devices, home digital hubs, and other stuff new, cool and potentially useful. Or it could help trap community activists wanting to explore the potential of new technology in models of the 1990s that have limited life or application.
Phew. That's a bit heavy for Saturday morning, but I need to get it out for a community technology conference in Brighton, UK, I'm contributing to on just these issues next week. My idea is to try and start some conversation before and during the event, instead of turning up with the Powerpoints and promising to post them up afterwards. Not a new approach, I'm sure, but it may be a bit different because we'll also add in a game and a wiki. It happened sort of by accident, as many good things do. More below on what's planned, and how you may be able to join in, plus more links.
The conference is part of a fascinating new project Community Network Analysis and ICTs: Bridging and Building Community Ties which is a joint venture between the University of Brighton and the Sussex Community Internet Project, headed by Peter Day (disclaimer: I used to live in Brighton and helped get SCIP started.)
The project aims to do some of the things I tried to capture in my opening statement:
* To investigate the potential, for adoption by geographic communities and communities of practice/interest, of network technologies (including mobile telephony) as tools for building and sustaining social capital. [inclusion & participation]
* To test, through social network analysis, the impact of ICTs on the social ties and cohesion of community groups and networks through active communications and information flows.
From Wednesday to Friday next week the project will be hosting a conference for academics and practitioners to discuss these and others themes. Peter and friends in SCIP have used some of the workshop games that I developed with Drew Mackie as practical planning tools - so they took up the idea of using one as an ice-breaker. More later on that.
Talking to Peter last week (by the way, he's using Skype for free telephone conferencing with his organising committee around the world) I said I hoped that we could get beyond the focus on 1990s-style local community networks and community technology centres that seems to dominate list discussions among community informatics academics. It is all too easy to stuck in a self-created community technology ghetto, while the mainstream passes by - to mix metaphors. Interesting, said Peter, why don't you do me some notes and I'll see if we can find a slot to discuss. So I sent some bullet points, and suddenly find Peter has turned them into a pdf to link to the conference programme.
Well, this could be embarrassing I thought. There'll be people there with well-researched positions on this stuff (it started out as one of those 'call for papers' conferences but thankfully seems also to have space for the chaotically creative.) Then I thought, best learning at conferences usually comes from conversations, so throw it in as a conversation starter. There is an email list, and there will be a wiki at the conference to record discussion and open up to a wider audience.
Anyway, below is my very top-of-the-head set of bullet points. Rather than embed links in this post I've provided some below, and will add to them.
The project: Community Network Analysis and ICTs: Bridging and Building Community Ties
Sussex Community Internet Project
Community Informatics Research Network
Examples of the sort of game we'll be playing at the conference on this useful games blog
On this blog
- Goodbye Wired Up Communities, hello civic KM
- Designing for Civil Society from the personal up
- Centres funding problems in the news
- Blog clusters to the rescue - maybe
- Gathering stuff about blogging
- This item URL http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2004/03/how_academics_c.html
My conversation-starter notes for the conference
The challenge for CI researchers, practitioners and policy makers: get out of the community ghetto
* we all want to use technology to do good stuff for individuals, groups, nonprofits etc
* to make that work, the technology has to be appropriate, the people interested, the organisations able/interested to adopt
* early CI initiatives in the 1980s and 1990s mapped technology models on to local areas (driven initially by access concerns), and focussed on centres to provide access, and a collective learning environment. Also on helping community groups and nonprofits use computers and the Net
* the prevailing CI ethos/values was/is about focussing on the underserved, promoting community development, empowering groups
* many of us want to use technology to lever change in the pursuit of social justice, empowerment
* but it is proving tough!
The emerging challenge
* the early models of community networks are not flourishing. There is no clear 'business' model
* the hope that technology would itself build bridges between the many interests and institutions in a community was over optimistic. It can be a spark, a neutral ground, a tool and an infrastructure - but only on the back of enormous amounts to non-tech work with people and institutions. It changes the world - but not everything, and not as quickly as we hoped.
* centres are also going to have a tough time keeping going, if their main focus is technology. Grants are ending. In order to trade, centres end up doing a lot formal training which doesn't in itself serve wider community development objectives
* meanwhile the trends among (consumer) users are towards personal devices and connectivity on the move
* community activists, groups and nonprofits are (mostly) struggling to get beyond basics
* consequently it is difficult to get key community interests to use the full potential of the technology for networking, eparticipation and other new applications
* most civil institutions that do have resources (local government, public agencies, housing associations) are concentrating on putting existing services online, rather than supporting more bottom-up initiatives.
The difficulty for researchers is that
* they want to stay with the collectivist, community-based ethos of the 1990s initiatives
* but they end up researching models (community networks, centres) that are not going to grow - and will probably fade - in the developed world
* there is an issue of whether the developed world exports to developing countries their failing models, or whether we think again
A different approach
* go with the flow of people's enthusiasm for personal devices, mobility - think people-centred
* also go with the flow of technology adoption in communities of interest and practice, where it really adds value by connecting across boundaries and distance
* recognise that a) everyone has different communication preferences (face to face, textual, visual, phone, online) and b) it is horses for courses on which technology is appropriate in different circumstance so c) we need to think mixed communication ecologies
* don't marginalise underserved communities (and individuals) by offering them solutions that people who have more resources are not using
* look at what people are doing for themselves with digital cameras, video, music. How can that creativity be supported and used to spark community and civic innovation
* at the same time recognise that people learn a lot by doing things together - particular when it is new territory. So places to get together will still be important
Where to look for new models
* knowledge management based on distributed, bottom up approaches using blogs and wikis rather than one-size-fits-all content management systems
* individuals drawing ideas across public, private, commercial sectors - get out of the community ghetto
* social network analysis
* deeper understanding of individuals' personality types and learning and communication preferences
* social entrepreneurial initiatives that mix resources - volunteers, help in kind, grants, trading
* also look carefully at what is really working in existing models for underserved groups, and keep that going
CI researchers have to drive by the headlights as well as the rear mirror - help us understand where we should be going, as well as where we have been
I'll draw in part from thinking Dave Greenop and I have been doing on 'Designing for Civil Society from the personal up'. See item at http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2004/02/designing_for_c.html including some slides. ... and also other stuff on my blog