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Local Community Networks:

Dr. Madanmohan Rao
Internet Consultant & Writer
November 2000

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 (www.cnglobal2000.org).

"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 Technologies.”

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 global networking.

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 today.

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, Castells said.

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 areas.

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 employment tips.

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 Stewart.

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 Latin America.

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 Institute (www.oneworld.org).

“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.

About the author

Dr. Madanmohan Rao is an Internet consultant and writer based in India. He was formerly the communications director at the United Nations Inter Press Service bureau in New York, and vice president at IndiaWorld Communications in Bombay. Madan graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology at Bombay and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, with an M.S. in computer science and a Ph.D. in communications. He is a frequent speaker on the international conference circuit, and has given talks and lectures on Internet-related issues in about 35 countries. He has worked with online services in the U.S., Brazil, and India.

He is the editor of INOMY.com (a leading Webzine about the Internet economy in India), and is on the board of editors of the magazines Electronic Markets (www.electronicmarkets.org - published from Switzerland) and On The Internet (published by the Internet Society - www.isoc.org). Madan is also on the board of directors/advisors of yellow pages firm IndiaReference.com, steel portal SteelRX.com, investment bank CoolStartups.com, Web solutions company 4Cplus.com, content services provider FridayCorporation.com, and software development portal SoftwareDioxide.com.

The author can be reached at madanr@microland.net.

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