Researcher Peter Day, of Brighton University, identifies areas where electronic networks may help support human networks and combat social exclusion - provided there is sufficient access and support. He wrote this article in 1997.
While no-one can predict with much certainty what impact that the new information and communication technologies (ICTs) will have on our society and local communities, we can be confident that they will make a big difference. Here are some areas where there could be benefits.
Communities consist of individuals, families, groups, organisations and institutions, all of which contribute to and affect the development of the whole. Often they are sources of untapped skills, expertise and knowledge which, if encouraged and stimulated, can contribute not only to the development of an individual community itself, but to society in general.
Today's commercial organisations harness networked technology to improve business efficiency and effectiveness. Similarly, modern electronic community networks provide both community information and a means of electronic communication within and between communities.
The information needs of each individual citizen within a community varies according to their personal, family and social circumstances, and making and maintaining contact with the growing number of organisations, groups and agencies that impact on our daily lives is a complex and sometimes impossible task.
Access to the right information at the right time and in a user friendly and understandable format, together with the ability to communicate with appropriate organisations should be a basic right in today's Information Society. It is essential for those suffering from social exclusion.
Social exclusion can impact on the unemployed or the homeless, the disabled or the elderly. It can include single-parents, those on low-incomes. ethnic minorities. or members of other minority groups. However, the phrase social exclusion can equally be applied to those living in rural and peripheral communities who for whatever reason are deprived of essential support services.
A community-based information resource which provides local people with local information across the widest possible spectrum can go some way to addressing the problem of social exclusion through information deprivation.
Clearly the type of information provided is a central issue to the success of any community information resource, and community-based Internet initiatives are no different. The information needs of any community can only be ascertained by an exhaustive exercise of community analysis or profiling. In other words, it is essential that the community is given the fullest opportunity to participate in the process by being asked about their information needs.
For a community information resource to be relevant to a community, it must also be accessible.
Most people today still do not have computers in their homes, and even fewer have modems which enable access to online information resources. This means a mechanism must be found which enables people to 'drop-in' to sites located throughout the community.
Public access points which encourage the 'drop-in' visitor can be situated in locations such as community centres, libraries, schools, health centres. Even pubs and supermarkets might be considered suitable locations.
However, access is not simply an issue of public access points and their geographic location alone. Citizens must be able to use the technology and have the capability to use the information. Because these are skills that most people still do not possess, the issue of access should be linked to training, education and learning.
If community networks fail to encourage learning throughout the community through the provision of training and education courses then there is a risk of them reinforcing existing technological and information elitism.
Physical access alone is worth nothing if citizens can neither use nor exploit either the technology or the information. Education and training in developing information handling and technical skills are therefore also issues of access, and must be tailored to suit needs of users.
For many people the rate of change brought by technological convergence and development is frightening. How many people have had problems tuning in their new VCR? Or have had problems setting it up to record their favourite programme?
Training and education should be tailored to suit the needs of the learner and not the teacher. Students should be encouraged to adopt a hands on approach from day one. Learning resources and lesson handouts should utilise screenshots that show what each stage of the exercise should look like. Not only is this a useful reference source for students but it allows them to progress at their own speed and in their own time.
Facilitating community access to the Information Society through training allows individual and groups to use the technology for social purposes. However, it also creates a local skills-base which can be harnessed by public and private sector alike for economic development purposes.
Community networks therefore, by addressing educational and training needs, can improve local people's employability by developing much sought after skills.
Community networks are more than simple community information networks. If they provide training and support, and incorporate interactive links with the organisations providing information, community networks provide a platform for communication.
Not only can groups and individuals find and supply information, they can participate in the democractic process. Local government can provide information and perhaps go one step further by creating 'virtual' councillor's surgeries. Councillors, as elected members of local government, have a heavy demand on their time. The usefulness of the conventional surgery depends on constituents being able to attend the location, at a specified time. The use of e-mail can circumvent such problems and improve representation by allowing local citizens access to elected representatives that might otherwise be denied due to domestic, work or social commitments.
Community networks are not simply about creating an empowered citizenship through civic participation. They can also create an open space for social communications. E-mail, bulletin boards, discussion groups, etc. can all be used to create communities of interest both within and beyond the geographic boundaries of the local community.
Information and communication technologies can underpin and aid the activities taking place within a community, but they do not replace them and are no substitute for them. Community networks are primarily social networks which harness technology to provide an additional means of communication between individuals/groups/organisations, etc..
Community networks can facilitate the sharing of information between organisations, and thereby encourage co-operation and collaboration between them. This approach can be particularly useful to the voluntary sector, by pooling resources in this way, organisations can avoid duplication of effort; put clients in touch with other appropriate organisations and agencies; and meet the needs of their client groups more effectively and efficiently.
Community centres make ideal public access points, or nodes on the community network because they are often the hub of existing social networks. ICT can be used to reinforce these social networks by strengthening existing, and developing new relationships between community groups, organisations and individuals.
A community centre also provides the ideal setting for community run ICT training and education courses. Schools, public libraries, supermarkets and even pubs, in fact anywhere where people meet and communicate can be used to provide some form online access.