Simon Hall BSc (AES), GDURP
Planning Officer, Gold Coast City Council
Computers and information technology is increasingly being integrated into the everyday functioning of society. There are many opportunities and many problems associated with this integration. Unequal access to the technology due to economic, knowledge or other barriers has the potential to create an "information underclass". An approach adopted by many North American authorities is the "Community Network". Community networks have the potential to provide equal access to the information revolution, thus allowing individuals and communities to become more involved in the decision making processes that affect their lives. The challenge for local authorities in the adoption of Community Networks is in maximising the potentials while minimising the negatives.
This paper investigates the concept of community networks, their claimed benefits and problems, and suggests directions for policy development.
Over the past few years information and communications technology has accelerated in both its development and application. The power of computer processors has increased dramatically allowing the development of powerful, user-friendly software, thus expanding the appeal of computers and their application.
Accompanied by this increase in power has been a decrease in price. Relatively powerful desktop personal computers are within the price range of most people these days. This increase in affordability has resulted in higher proportions of households owning or having easy access to a personal computer than ever before.
The ability to network computers has also been increased. This has resulted in massive increases in interest and usage of world wide networks such as the Internet. Growth rates of 10% or more per month in the usage of these networks are standard figures.
Such increases in the usage of publicly accessible computer networks have resulted in the increased acceptance of computers as a means of communication, and gathering and transferring of information and knowledge.
However it is arguable that the expense of the hardware (computers, modems, printers etc.) would prohibit financially disadvantaged sectors of society from participation in the information revolution (a basic set up costs around two to three thousand dollars). In addition the perceived high level of skills required to operate the software would prevent most people from attempting to take part. Thus it is evident that the opportunities for such people to take part in the "Information Revolution" are severely limited.
When viewed in this light the "Information Revolution" and access to it is not very socially just. It excludes large parts of society and creates a further division between the "haves" and the "have-nots". Several local authorities around the world have considered this lack of social justice. A method adopted by many communities in Canada and North America to deal with such changes is the Community Network , where by the community has cheap and easy access to such technology and provision of information of use to them
2. Community Networks
A traditional community network consists of a network of computers with modems that allow users to connect to a central computer which provides community information and a means for the community to communicate electronically. Menu-driven software allows the user to access information or services that they would like from the range available.
Information can be provided by anybody; the local authority, local community groups, political parties, environmental associations, other users etc. Users can participate in electronic discussions about any subject, from the serious and meaningful to the inane and pointless, they can also send e-mail to other users and friends around the world.
Cisler (in Avis, 1995) defines a community network as:
"one or more computers providing services to people using computers and terminals to gain access to those services and to each other... The information contained in such networks as well as the relationships that form between the participants make up what I call an electronic greenbelt to reinforce and add value to the community".
Unlike "virtual communities" community networks are based in a physical place. Virtual communities are groups of people with common interests that communicate electronically. People in virtual communities can be dispersed all over the globe; what draws them together are their interests. The common element of users of community networks is their physical proximity and interest in local issues that effect them all.
2.1 Why Community Networks?
Community networks benefit many groups. They offer residents, community groups, schools, local businesses and many others, access to information and communication services. Such a system provides all members of the community with the opportunity to access this technology and goes part of the way to overcoming the injustice associated with it.
With the massive growth in the World Wide Web users no longer have to tolerate "user unfriendly" menu-driven systems. "Browser" programs provide a user-friendly interface with the Web, making community networks set up on the Web, easier and more friendly to use.
The following are the fundamental assumptions behind the concept of community networks (from Dutton et al. 1987 in Beamish,1995):
The following sections discuss the above assumptions.
Increased Reliance on Information Technology: Computers already play an important part in service delivery in todays society, however most of these services to date have been passive with little input required from the end user. However, the Internet is changing the types of services and products that are available. On-line interactive services ranging from multi-player virtual reality games to video conferencing, and home shopping and banking are all available today and rapidly increasing in number.
It is logical to assume that product and service providers will grasp the opportunity to make the most of the commercial opportunities of electronic networks that arise from direct access to peoples homes and low operating costs leading to higher profits. Thus, given the increase in services and commerce that will utilise communications technology, it follows that the economy and general functioning of society will become more dependant on communications technology.
Democratic and Decentralised Modes of Communication: Community networks can provide people with spaces where they can, by sending e-mail messages, have their say on whatever subject they wish. They can review discussions to date, provide their own thoughts about current topics, and start new topics of discussion. Essentially it is the same as any discussion, however anybody with access to the network can provide input into it.
Such places for discussion are not restricted by location, time, social status or any other limiting factors of traditional discussions. Communication no longer needs to be restricted to one locality or social "clique". As such, communication is decentralised both physically and socially. This provides individuals and groups that have traditionally been restricted or excluded from such discussions (whether purposefully or not) the ability to participate in the discussion. This in turn provides for more democratic communication.
Reinforcement of Face-to-Face Communications: Beamish (1995) states that community networks are not intended to replace face-to-face communication. Further, a community network can serve to reinforce face-to-face communications creating the opportunity for various groups and individuals to form alliances and arrange to meet for face-to-face discussions. Community networks have the potential to increase interaction which in turn can strengthen the community.
Publicly Owned Infrastructure: Assumption four is based on the ownership of the infrastructure being public. This is for a number reasons including the following:
Practicality of Developments in Communications Technology: Information technology has been developed to allow for more efficient use and management of information. It is likely that future developments in information technology will improve on what is already existing and probably make the existing systems easier to use, thus expanding the market. For this reason it is logical to assume that developments in information technology will remain practical and continue to rationalise the technological base.
4 Distinguishing Characteristics
There are three characteristics of community networks that distinguish them from other forms of computer based electronic communication.
Localism: Community networks focus on local issues, emphasising local culture, local relevance, local pride and community ownership. They provide all sorts of information about the local area, and also provide forums for community discussions and problem solving. Localism is also prevalent in the users of the services. Community networks that are set up on the Web, are able to be accessed by anybody with access to the Web, thus making their theoretical audience global rather than local. However, the issues discussed and information provided is essentially of interest to local people.
Access: The second most distinguishing characteristic of community networks is their concern and effort to ensure that the network is of relevance to, and includes all members of the community and not just traditional computer and telecommunications users. This means that community networks are frequently involved in placing computer equipment in publicly accessible places such as community centres and public libraries (Beamish, 1995).
Community networks also strive to include non-traditional users of information technology and minority groups. Many advancements in information technology have been made that make it easier to use, creating access opportunities for technologically disinclined people or those that suffer from restrictions to access (language, literacy, disability).
Democratic Participation/Community Development: The belief that community networks can build and strengthen community identity and ties is the third most distinguishing characteristic of community networks. This is considered to be a direct result of the communication and information aspects of community networks that allow communities to find and build solutions to local problems (Beamish, 1995).
These networks provide individuals and community groups with on-line access to information which would otherwise be unavailable, either due to cost, time factors, or other factors making it difficult or impossible to gather eg. disabilities, geographical location etc.
They also provide new levels of efficiency in providing information. Direct consumer searches of information stored in electronic databases can be a more comprehensive and less costly way of providing public information than via the traditional public administration bureaucracy (Ducatel & Halfpenny, 1993).
To effectively analyse community networks it is necessary to define the terms that we are using. The following section further defines the characteristics of community networks.
Community: The traditional definition of community conjures up a body of people living in the same locality and having something in common. With the advance of technology that precise connotation of the word, in the context of urban planning, has been lost. It is now being used very loosely and has become abstract, no longer clearly relating to life-style, dwelling, location or living situations.
Todays transitory lifestyles mean that we are no longer confined to clearly defined locations. For example we may move house, have more than one job, change jobs, and go on holidays, thus being present and involving ourselves in many different localities and communities (Nicholson and Schreiner, 1973).
If we extend the concepts of these definitions through our daily lives, it becomes evident that we all belong to various communities, each one usually being a subset of another, with only a few major groups. Communities may be any size and it is possible to be a member of large communities, particularly in relation to environmental issues, while some communities may even work globally (Nicholson and Schreiner, 1973).
For community networks, both of the above definitions are applicable. The traditional definition is applicable as the community network is for local people and raises local issues for discussion. However, an essential component of community networks is the many separate communities of interest and knowledge within them. The various interest and community groups are the second form of community; providing information and raising community issues (political, social, environmental, economic etc.). Such communities of interest are the driving force behind many community networks.
Community Development: The term community development is usually used as a general statement. However, the term means little on such a general level. It can involve many issues ranging from the development of the neighbourhood community through improved social services, protection and regeneration of natural and built environmental factors, through to the development of the economic and employment opportunities.
Democratic Participation: Much of the literature surrounding community networks lists democratic participation as one of the main points in favour of them. In order to assess whether there is any real advantage it is necessary to define what democracy is and how technology can improve involvement in governance.
The majority of western societies are based on a pluralistic system of democracy. According to Abramson et al (in Beamish 1996), pluralistic democracy is based on the principle of free competition among groups. Individuals can join a group according to their interests and these groups compete in the democratic process. This type of democracy gives every group an incentive to bargain and negotiate with the majority opinion, thereby taming the political power of the majority.
Avis (1995) argues that community networks create what he terms an "Information Democracy". Avis defines this as a socio-political system in which all people are guaranteed meaningful opportunities to benefit from access to information resources. The benefits of increased democratic participation stem from the empowering effect that increased access to information gives the local community thus allowing participation in the decision-making processes that affect their daily lives.
Access: As explained above one of the fundamental requirements of a community network is ease of access to the local community. Beamish (1995) identified groups that have been traditionally disadvantaged and excluded from access to communications technology. The common characteristics of these groups are:
Therefore it is essential that any community network addresses these problems during the planning and implementation stages and actively involves members of the above groups to ensure their views are canvassed and incorporated.
6 Aims And Objectives Of Community Networks
The aims and objectives of community networks will vary with the community they are part of. Ideally, community networks are the result of grass roots organisations; developed, organised and managed by the local people. As a result the local people have a high degree of input into the content of the community network and its aims and objectives.
Some of the more common aims for community networks are as follows:
These aims centre around the development of communities and their local economy. This is a result of the inclusion of the local people in the development of the community network and its aims. As it is a tool for the local people, provided and designed for their best interests, it is only fair that the aims and goals reflect their wishes and desires. Therefore any community network, and specifically those provided by the local authority through taxes on the local community, requires the involvement of the community in the development of its aims and goals.
When reviewing the literature surrounding community networks, it is clear that the claims can be divided into three (3) main categories: education, democratic participation, and community development. These are discussed in the following sections.
Education: One of the most touted benefits of community networks is the provision of increased access to education and educational facilities. However, the actual educational benefits need to be defined and examined.
According to Avis (1995), access to education is aimed at promoting universal access rather than limited institutional access. He then briefly outlines the extent of educational opportunities available on-line.
"Education includes access to library and on-line teaching services, and is often cited as the primary reason for community networks." (Avis, 1995).
However these are not the only educational benefits. Community networks give people the opportunity to develop skills that will benefit their personal life in the future and provide the skills and knowledge that many employers will come to expect as standard.
Graham 1995, argues that community networks make it easier for inexperienced or first-time users to learn at their own pace due to the user being in a non-threatening atmosphere. They provide space for people to explore learning about information networks under conditions they can define for themselves.
Brown (1995) states that the highest degree of participation for on-line courses is among those with the lowest level of education (zero to eight years) located in urban (31.8%) and rural (24.3%) areas, and the lowest in the central cities (13.7%). These figures indicate that the on-line educational resources are being used by those that have had limited opportunity to access conventional educational resources. This may be because the environment in which users interact with the services is less threatening, or because of isolation, or a number of other reasons.
Democratic Participation: Democratic participation is increasingly being claimed as the major benefit of community networks. Avis (1995) argues that this increase is also due to a need to justify governmental involvement in the provision of both funding and information for community networks.
The development of the information superhighway and the shift toward an information society are both widening the gap between the information "haves" and "have-nots". This is because only those with the resources and the knowledge to access them are benefited.
However, Avis (1995) states that the provision of community networks lessens this gap, and that provision of public access terminals as part of the development of community networks goes further in closing this gap.
In this way people can see the process of decision making and where they fit and can make a difference. According to Graham (1995),
"Community networks help people see how processes of learning, thinking and knowing structure social and economic organisations in a Knowledge Society."
"When community networks act as gateways into networked government services they re-affirm our right to understand and talk about the basic purpose of services, not just the means of their delivery." (Graham, 1995, p16)
Community Development: According to Avis (1995), community development is perhaps the most often cited benefit of community networks, and it takes many forms. These range from encouragement of local non-profit organisations, improved delivery of social services, an enhanced "sense of community" through improved interpersonal communication, and a provision of a central source of information. Some of the specific benefits community networks can provide are:
Both Avis (1995) and Graham (1995) state that community networks provide equitable access to information which in turn facilitates community development. Access to information of relevance to the community facilitates the communitys ability to achieve things for itself and develop a sense of identity and community spirit.
The criticisms of community networks can be broken into two categories; those centring around the lack of relevance and public support for existing systems and those centring around the knowledge and skills required to use the systems and the barriers this creates for users. For this reason the following sections outline the criticisms in each of these areas.
Knowledge Barriers: Arguably the strongest criticism against the wide-spread use of community networks is the amount of knowledge required to partake in their use. Marx (1996), argues that it is necessary to be mindful of the degree of skills required to use the technology and its applicability for use in community development.
"Here we have a technology which is particularly demanding in its qualifications for access. That is to say, demanding about the amount of education, language, and other skills needed to use it. It is an intimidatingly technical and esoteric technology. Here we are thinking about it as an instrument for solving the problems of a population that has been particularly deprived in precisely those categories of skill...." (Marx, 1996)
Kapor and Mitchell (1996) argue that the effects of information networks, and specifically the Internet, are twofold but in opposite directions.
"But paradoxically the Internet really produces effects in opposite directions simultaneously... as a great leveller of opportunity at the same time being an amplifier of inequality." (Kapor & Mitchell, 1996).
Ebbs (1996 (a)) has stated that although the information technologies associated with community networks provide for a range of new opportunities, the rate of adoption and uptake of these makes it particularly difficult to adjust to them.
Rennie (1995) and Beamish (1995) state that there is a concern that the creation of community networks will create a division between those who can participate in the discussion of community and governance and those who have no access to the system. They question whether the networks will disenfranchise parts of the population even further and whether the word "community" will only mean traditional computer users who are usually upper-income, male and young.
Community Relevance: Ducatel and Halfpenny (1993), argue that the primary barriers to the growth of information networks centre around the community s attitude toward them.
"The primary barriers to the growth of the consumption of information services are: the lack of interest of and demonstrable relevance to the majority of people; an absence of appropriate skills within the community which would make services accessible; and a poorly developed information infrastructure." (Ducatel & Halfpenny 1993:368).
Avis (1994), in assessing two community networks in the USA, came to a similar conclusion.
"These cases indicated that community networks were not, in general, living up to their vast potential. Many users viewed the service more or less on the same terms as other forms of entertainment rather than an essential service. Educational use seemed spotty, government information, what little of it there is, was heavily under subscribed, and experiments in participatory democracy were not outstanding successes. On the other hand there is no reason not to believe that one day there the reverse will be true. Both community networks examined were making concerted efforts to develop and promote these areas of use." (Avis, 1995).
Avis discovered through his case studies that community networks were not being used to their full potential, although this does not mean that there is a fundamental flaw in the concept. Rather, as Avis states, it is an indication of the freshness of the idea, and perhaps also the lack of support from government and industry.
In endeavouring to develop information networks in a community, it is necessary to not lose sight of traditional methods of communication with the community. As Rennie (1995) states, developing a place for community networks is necessary, but not to the determent of existing forms of communication. Bodies involved in speaking with a broad cross section of society (this is the responsibility of governments at all levels) must take care not to regard information technology as the answer to improving communications. He states that community networks, and the information superhighway (the Internet) in general, provide a solution to improving communications but not the solution.
Geographic Inequalities: The threat that such networks can present for less developed areas is that many people, organisations and businesses located in these areas have not traditionally had sufficient access to, or knowledge of these advanced services. Worsening this problem is the possibility that as the telecommunications field becomes more and more competitive, prices for access will be pushed closer to the costs of providing access. Therefore less lucrative markets would not be serviced as competing suppliers would tend to target the most profitable sectors of the market (Ebbs 1996 (b)).
The results of such decisions would mean that those located in major centres will have more opportunity for access to such services. The corresponding inequality of access would worsen the economic differences between major and minor centres creating a situation where an economy declines if it is not "on-line" (Ebbs 1996 (b)).
Avis (1995) extends this concept to whole communities. Smaller communities will not have the technical expertise nor the funds to support community networks and so will be left behind in the development of a technology that could benefit them greatly
9 Policy Implications
According to Ebbs (1996(b)), there are three major concerns for public policy dealing with development of community networks.
Firstly, policy should be concerned with maximising their potentials in peripheral areas. Such regulation could enhance the economic development of areas and facilitate development of economies suitable for investment in more advanced telecommunications infrastructure allowing more services to be provided.
Secondly, strengthening and increasing the involvement of government services in this area could indicate the potential contribution of community networks in making provision of government services more efficient and cost effective.
Thirdly, local level policy approaches to connecting minor centres to the network could be considered. Examples of ways to achieve this include pooling urban resources at a regional level, monitoring access to the network to determine where specific policies may need to be applied, or by supporting the computer networking of small and large businesses.
10 Further Research
An important area that needs to be assessed is how the educational aspects of community networks are used. For example, how do teachers use this technology in their teaching? How do students use the technology in their studies? Perhaps the most important question for educational considerations is how can community networks better serve the needs of teachers and students?
It is evident that when using the new technology there is a great deal of informal learning going on, particularly in computer related fields, and this might be a fruitful avenue of research. How effective is a community network in providing an area for learning about computer networks and information location and retrieval? Also, a needs assessment of users would be effective in determining what the community is interested in and what they would like to be able to access on the network.
If community development is the desired result of community networks it is necessary to determine how and if they bridge the gap between virtual and real communities. There are many questions that can be asked in exploring this field:
The benefits of community networks have yet to be proved one way or the other. This is due more to their newness rather than any lack of information. Government involvement (especially local government) in community networks is needed to ensure that as the technology is developed there is fair and equitable access to the benefits that it can deliver.
Community networks show the potential to develop communities through
provision of information and the ability to provide increased participation
in democratic processes. There is enough evidence available now to
suggest that community networks are a good solution for equity of
access to information and that they meet current and emerging needs.
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