While much Internet research and activity focuses on the role of the
individual, corporations, governments and other organisations, the Internet
can also play a vital role in supporting local communities in social,
educational, cultural and economic development.
400 delegates from 35 countries gathered recently in Barcelona, Spain, for
the first annual Global Summit on Community Networking
"There has been much talk of the New Economy in the last decade. This
decade, we will see a wide expansion of the New Society," said Artur Serra,
conference chair and computer science professor at the Polytechnic
University of Catalonia in Barcelona.
Barcelona is emerging as one of the promising new centres of new media
innovation in Europe, and has over 40 community centres with Internet
access, such as RavalNet (www.ravalnet.org). “Online community centres are
the local and human manifestation of the global information society. Social
entrepreneurship will play a key role in creating social capital in the
Information Age,” said Serra.
Community informatics ensures that there is an ongoing place for 'physical'
communities within the context of the 'virtual' cyber-spatial world of
electronic commerce, virtual communities, and virtual service delivery,
according to Canadian media analyst Michael Gurstein, author of “Community
Informatics: Enabling Communities with Information and Communications
From the early BBSs (bulletin board systems) and Freenets of the 1970s and
1980s (eg. in Ottawa, Cleveland and Seattle), social informatics models have
undergone rapid evolution, with names like community access programs,
telecottages, community resources centres, telecentres, virtual
metropolises, telecities, and community information networks.
Local community networks can provide not just local Internet access but also
lifelong learning, economic incubation, local employment, health services,
coordinated volunteerism, civic decision support, and knowledge-based
sustainable local development, said Richard Lowenberg, executive director of
the Davis Community Network (www.dcn.org) in California.
“Community networks are living laboratories and testbeds for the
techno-social applications and implications of becoming an information-based
society,” said Lowenberg.
For community networking initiatives to succeed, they must be integrative,
participatory and sustainable; build local knowledge bases; serve
educational functions; and support local decision making in a context of
Civicnets (created by local public institutions), freenets (created by
citizens and non-profits), and commercenets (created by corporations and
SMEs) can together provide online access to government services, expertise
of professionals, and citizen participation in democratic processes,
according to Fiorella de Cindio of the University of Milan.
Internet services at community centres can be combined with informational
services and market data, agricultural consultancy services, and email
services for expatriates, according to Morten Falch of the Technical
University of Denmark. Telecentres have been successfully used by mink
farmers in Denmark, backpackers in Australia, food exporters in Hungary, and
entrepreneurs in Ghana.
U.K. minister for e-commerce Patricia Hewitt -- who spoke recently at the
BangaloreIT.com conference in India – has launched a major initiative to
increase the number of infotech access centres in Britain from 600 today to
over 6,000 by year 2002.
The “Comm.Unity” initiative in Manchester aims at local “e-inclusion” by
bridging the digital divide via widespread Internet access and training,
said Bernard Leach of the Manchester Community Information Network
(www.mcin.net). Volunteers from 50 companies and 100 community groups have
signed up for this joint project.
In North America, corporate initiatives for community networking include
Intel´s Computer Clubhouses, Nortel´s Integrated Community Networks, and
various other projects launched by MCI WorldCom, 3Com, AOL, Qualcomm, and
the Kellogg Foundation.
In Ecuadorian towns like Pastocalle, telecentres are being used to market
local handicrafts, promote eco-tourism, and boost education in Spanish and
indigenous languages like Quechua, said Quito-based Karin Delgadillo of the
Telecentros Project (www.tele-centros.org).
Appropriate social modeling and culturally appropriate informatics have
helped some Australian indigenous communities protect sacred information and
preserve their heritage in rich digital formats, according to Andrew Turk
and Kathryn Trees of Murdoch University in Australia.
“Unfortunately, there seems to be an impression among some people that
plugging in to the Net means you have to give up something of your culture.
Actually, you can creatively use the Net to preserve and extend community
and culture,” said Antonia Stone, who founded the Community Technology
Centre Network (www.ctcnet.org) in the U.S. in 1989; it has over 500 members
It is therefore vital for community centres to focus on self-produced
content and provide tools and accessible design interfaces for managing and
accessing relevant local content in local languages, said Stone.
It is also important to imbibe younger generations with a sense of
“e-humanism,” said Josep Casanovas, dean of the computer science department
at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.
Controversies can arise, however, for governments when activist movements
tap into local and global electronic networks, said Manuel Castells,
professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of the
three-volume “Information Society.” He cited the Zapatista movement in
Mexico, Falun Gong sect in China, and anti-globalisation protests in Seattle
as examples in this regard.
E-structuring is emerging as an important part of citizen networking,
With clever planning and local capacity building, information age
communities can become more intelligent and creative, more powerful, and
more effective in local and global circles, according to Doug Shuler, author
of "New Community Networks." Through a new "web of unity," the world can
find new approaches to community problem-solving.
The culture of humankind can not be separated from its tools or from its
technology; stereotypes of technology as being "cold and unyielding" need to
be overcome, says Shuler.
Although community informatics has been studied as well as implemented in
industrialised countries for more than a decade, it is still a novelty in
emerging economies where there is a stark digital divide, observed Susana
Finquelievich of the University of Buenos Aires.
Affordable access will continue to be a major roadblock in many emerging
economies, but solutions like wireless Internet have enabled online access
even in remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon basin, said Alberto Pascual
of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
Countries like the U.S. and Canada have launched national initiatives for
community informatics, but community networking as a concept and
practice has not formally taken off in a big way in Asia, said Izumi Aizu of
the Institute for HyperNetworked Society in Japan.
Unlike the West, Asian academics have played only a very small role in local
community networks, he said. Aizu called for more South-South cooperation in
Asia and other developing regions in this regard.
In Asia, Japan has modest community networking initiatives, such as Coara
Net (www.coara.or.jp). Singapore has a few community clubs started by
government initiatives, and the mushrooming PC Plazas in South Korea are
becoming popular as neighbourhood social places, especially among youth.
Other examples in Asia include the Grameen experiments in Bangladesh, and
Malaysia's “cyber-bus” project to bring periodic Internet access to remote
In India, the Centre for Education and Documentation (www.doc-centre.org) in
Bangalore and Mumbai provides online media access and Intranet-based process
documentation training to local activists and researchers. The M.S.
Swaminathan Foundation (www.mssrf.org) runs telecentres in Pondicherry with
local weather alerts, agricultural resources, educational offerings, and
Cybercafes with Web, email, fax gateways and Internet telephony services are
extremely popular in Asia and Latin America. “They are creating instant
communities of tourists on backpacking trips, and are also being used by
local residents,” said Garth Graham, director of the Vietnam-Canada
Information Technology Project in Hanoi.
A recent Gartner Group survey in India reported that as many as 60 per cent
of Internet users in India get online access via cybercafes. Some cybercafes
in Bangalore are offering infotech training courses for senior citizens, and
the newly-formed cybercafe owners association in the city is helping members
offer exam-testing services and IT-promotional activities for users.
Initiatives like the Simputer project (www.simputer.org) and iStation
(www.inablers.net) have also been launched to lower the cost of Internet
access devices in India.
There are close to 5,000 cybercafes around the world who provide a "human
face" to cyberspace by providing technical access as well as public,
community and cultural spaces, according to James Stewart of the University
of Edinburgh in Scotland.
"The cybercafe takes computers and the Internet outside the mainstream
paradigm of individual use and ownership. The cybercafe is a social portal.
Cybercafes are community centres for the 21st century," according to
Local libraries can also play a big role as local Interet centres, said
Steve Cisler of the Association for Community Networking (www.afcn.net).
Private sector entrepreneurship can play a more prominent role in financial
planning for telecentres in developing countries, as well as initiatives
like IDRC's Acacia and PanAsia projects, USAID's Leyland Initiative for
Africa, World Bank's InfoDev program, and the Peruvian Scientific Network in
It is also important for emerging economies to find a way of blending the
Internet with other local media channels like FM radio, said Bruce Girard, a
media activist from the Netherlands.
Broadcasters can act as gateways to the Internet for their listeners, and
form alliances with telecentres. Sites like InterWorldRadio.org provide
radio features for download and re-broadcast by radio stations.
The International Telecommunications Union will be launching a major
conference in the year 2003, called the World Summit on the Information
Society, which will include community networking as a focus issue.
Pockets of excellence in community networking have emerged in Antwerp
(Belgium), Amsterdam (Netherlands), Manchester (U.K.), Bologna (Italy), Nova
Scotia (Canada), Belfast (Northern Ireland), Aotearoa (New Zealand), St.
Petersburg (Russia), Saxony (Germany), Ieramugadu (Australia), Goteburg
(Sweden), Dakar (Senegal), and Valencia (Spain).
Useful online resources for community networkers can be found at the sites
of the Journal of Information Technology Impact (www.jiti.com), CapAccess
System (www.capaccess.org), European Alliance for Community Networking
(www.EACN.org), VICNET (www.vicnet.net.au), FunRedes Network and
Development Foundation (www.funredes.org), Communities Online
(www.communities.org.uk), Bytes For All (www.bytesforall.org), and Panos
“Commerce and culture are inextricably mixed. Community networking as
community development online is so close to the heart of socio-economic and
political transition to a global knowledge society that it will ultimately
prevail,” said Garth Graham of the VCIT.
A strong partnership culture will be needed between government, private,
academic and social sectors for community nets to thrive. “We are very lucky
to be alive in this historic era and design new ways of organising society,”
concluded Betrand de la Chapelle of the French ministry of foreign affairs.