Community information networks do not
have to be started by councils or even voluntary organisations. Chris
Studman explains how one Midlands network was started by grassroots
Coventry and Warwickshire Network (CWN) began life in the summer of 1995 as a project conceived by a group of environmentalists to network 'green' news and events in Coventry.
However, A public demonstration, supported by BT and a computer company, on a Saturday in the main local shopping centre attracted a lot of attention. Alas, for the environmentalists however, the interest was in the Internet and its networking capabilities rather than in the green content on display. The Coventry Environment Network quickly metamorphosed into the The Coventry Community Network.
A team of half a dozen net enthusiasts then began to learn the whys and wherefores of web publishing and put together a series of ad hoc pages about the City - local museums, MPs, sport, heritage etc.
Even this modest level of activity was enough to bring a personal visit from a chief officer of the local council. He was extremely enthusiastic and promised support of some kind. This inspired us to continue the development of the site. Increasing the volume of material, improving its graphic design and expanding our contacts.
However after several months no support came from the council who had by now begun to plan their own web site. The CWN continued to piggyback on the commercial web facilities of Ecosaurus, a local community computing company.
By November 1995, the site was beginning to receive significant numbers of email messages from around the world with a wide range of requests. A Guestbook was set up for these messages and very quickly we were getting feedback that visitors were making contact with others, particulary former school contemporaries through the guestbook.
Around this time Ecosaurus began work on a local European funded project to give Internet access to community organisations in the less favoured areas of the city. Participants in this project were given accredited training jointly by the University of Warwick and Ecosaurus. The final part of this training involved each organisation producing web pages that would form part of the CWN web site.
Early in 1996 it became apparent that
it was difficult to contain the Network boundaries and it was flowing
out into the surrounding towns of Warwickshire. The site was
therefore renamed to reflect this as The Coventry and Warwickshire
The site has continued to grow during 1996 until it has almost 200 pages. It is still compiled by a small team of 3 - 6 volunteers mostly working from home emailing pages into a central point for uploading.
By autumn 1996 the CWN web site had reached access figures of over 10,000 total accesses per month. Guestbook entries are still very buoyant, and the amount of material for putting on the site is rapidly ourstripping our capacity both in terms of html time and web space.
Just to keep existing pages up to date now takes the equivalent of a half time person. To expand the site with new information would take more.
It has become clear now that a
careful examination of the future resourcing of the site is needed.
There are no immediate signs of any significant funding. Options
a) continue as we can utilising the resources of Ecosaurus and the small band of volunteers on an 'as and when' basis
b) sell advertising on the site to local companies etc to at least part fund a staff person
c) seek external funding
d) leave the site to wither on the vine, and gradually get more and more out of date
e) shut down the site
As of January 97 no definite conclusion has been reached by those involved other than ruling out d) and e). We will probably proceed with some combination of the first three.
There are lots of developments now appearing rapidly on the horizon that excite us. Ecosaurus (and hence CWN) now has its own servers and permanent connection to the Net. This connection is a 10MB link that will allow us to experiment with the latest technologies such as sound and video - prospects for wider participation?
We have now been approached to join in the large Euro funded RegioNet telematics project in Coventry and Warwickshire. Our large amount of existing local content has presumably been the attraction - whether there will be any funding attached is still to be seen.
Our next big challenge will be Public Access Points. There is some potential funding for small scale pilots.
The Coventry and Warwickshire Network
is at http://www.ecosaurus.co.uk/coventry,
and will be moving to http://www.coventry.org.uk
early in 1997.