Communities Online development report

A report for BT Community Affairs and other partners about development of the Community Regeneration Network and Communities Online.
Discussion draft October 8 1996.

Communities Online has achieved in a short time a national and international role in promoting the use of new technologies for community benefit. It has a Web site, mailing lists, widespread support among practitioners, and further funding to play a leading part in the UK Government's IT Partnership Initiative.

This report describes the development process, the lessons learned, the benefits achieved for its sponsors BT Community Affairs, and partners, and the potential for the future. It is a draft for discussion, in the first instance, by the Communities Online Board and BT.

The development process
How ideas developed in the UK and US in 1995 gained momentum through conferences, BT funding and support, and a new Government initiative.
Partnerships for Tomorrow and the Community Regeneration Network
Key events for Communities Online
Development plans for Communities Online Web site and publications
Observations on the process
Lessons learned during the development process - for discussion.
The technology
The sociology
What we achieved
Outcomes to date and in prospect through association with the IT Partnership Initiative.
Next steps
Current projects and opportunities for discussion with BT and other partners

The development process

The project which is now UK Communities Online started through two linked strands:

In the event we found that the most productive route into this field was through the first of those strands - local community networking. There wasn't a big enough market to support a paid-for community regeneration network early in 1996, and we didn't have the budget or facilities we expected to demonstrate the potential. On the other hand local community networks became the focus of great interest during 1996 - not least within BT Labs.

The process of developing the two strands began in spring 1995 when David Wilcox ran a workshop on Community Networking at the Urban Forum annual meeting. Contacts made there led to a conference called Communities Online at BT Centre in October 1995 run jointly by Urban Forum and Partnerships for Tomorrow (P4T).

David Wilcox had formed P4T with Michael Mulquin and Richard Stubbs following a visit he made to a US conference on community networking 'The Ties That Bind' in Cupertino in May 1995, with funding provided by the
Morino Institute.

Following the successful October 1995 conference BT Community Affairs invited a development proposal from Partnerships for Tomorrow. This proposal was finally agreed in March 1996 and formed the basis for developments which led to Communities Online.

Key events for Communities Online

The proposals of March 1996 envisaged developing a closed electronic community regeneration network using FirstClass conferencing software linked to a 'shop window' Web site. We had demonstrated a FirstClass system at the October 1995 conference, and maintained it on pHreak, a server run by Intermedia Associates as a low cost facility for enthusiasts.

Initially we - and BT - hoped that it would be possible to accommodate both conferencing and publishing on Internet servers provided by BT Labs. As explained below in the technology section, that was not feasible, and we instead had the option of developing on the BT WebWorld servers without any conferencing facilities.

The lack of any means to develop interactive facilities for the community regeneration network made this path less attractive. Practitioners wanted to be able to publish their own material, transfer files and develop conferences to support their existing human networking activities. We did not have the budgets needed to upgrade the pHreak system. In the event - as discussed below - it was probably fortunate that we did not go down the FirstClass route, although the functional requirements still hold for any system.

At the same time as we faced these technical difficulties interest was growing in the possibilities of local community networking, and BT Labs had created a team to research the field. We met Colin Millar and Doug Williams in April 1996 through an introduction from BT Community Affairs, and also a personal contact of David Wilcox, Dave Greenop, who was developing BT strategy.

David and Doug attended a US community networking conference in Taos, New Mexico, in May 1996 - the successor to the Cupertino conference the year before. For several months beforehand David had been involved in email conferencing about the scope for an International Association for Community Networking. IACN was launched at Taos, with David one of the core team charged with development work.

In June 1996 BT Labs hosted a meeting at BT Centre to bring together contacts made so far, promote IACN in the UK, and to make a link with developments at Sheffield University, where Dave Miller and colleagues in the South Yorkshire Community Network were organising the first conference for UK networkers and creating a Web site about community networking.

That June meeting decided to create Communities Online as a UK branch of IACN. Those attending had heard from Nick Trent, of the Department of Trade and Industry, about Government plans for a major promotional campaign, provisionally known as 'IT for All'. The meeting was attended by Steve Cull, as a representative of BT Community Affairs.

Colin Millar and Doug Williams made a presentation to the Sheffield conference and David Wilcox and Richard Stubbs reported on plans for Communities Online. Dave Miller created an 'IACN' mailing list and invited participants to join. There was overwhelming support for Communities Online.

Green light for Communities Online

With strong practitioner support for Communities Online and the prospect of Government backing, a further meeting hosted by BT Labs on July decided to set up a charitable company, launch a Web site, and collaborate with 'IT for All'.

Doug Williams and David Wilcox started development of the Web site, which was in operation on a BT server by August. Meanwhile Richard Stubbs was investigating the feasibility of complementary conferencing facilities, and also working voluntarily with UK Citizens Online Democracy. UK COD had assembled an impressive range of technical talent and sponsors to create a system of linked mailing lists and Web pages to promote electronic debate in the run up to the General Election. Irving Rappaport joined the Communities Online core group to share ideas.

In September 1996 a third meeting hosted by BT Labs brought together people interested in developing the Communities Online Web site.

Nick Trent confirmed £10,000 of DTI funding for an introductory booklet linked to the 'IT for All' initiative, and BT Labs later offered a further contribution of £5000. Together this made it possible to plan linked Web and publication to the target audiences of Communities Online.

UK COD offered us the use of mailing list facilities for a technical group and the editorial group. In September Richard Stubbs also negotiated use of a top range server with Computer Access, which will provide a test bed for a wide range of applications not available on the BT WebWorld server.

The aim is to use the BT server as a 'shop window' with the Computer Access server providing conferencing, databases and a place for the technical team to experiment.

Development plans

In October 1996 we are planning:

The sustainability of Communities Online will depend upon:


Observations on the process

The project has been an exercise in trying to get started - rather than formal research. However, it is possible to make some observations which may have wider relevance. Some are expanded later - they are offered here for discussion.

We started the process with the dual interests mentioned above - the scope for developing local electronic networks, drawing on US experience, and the scope for networking communities of interest or organisations in the non profit sector.

We (David Wilcox, Richard Stubbs and Michael Mulquin) focused on community regeneration practitioners as a community of interest initially because:

We gained support for the proposals from a range of partner organisations in the community and voluntary sectors, and a range of practitioners at the October 1995 conference. Individuals in these organisations, together with our technical partners Intermedia Associates, contributed substantially to proposals for the Community Regeneration Network (CRN) put to BT Community Affairs in December 1995.

The proposals were relatively modest - to develop CRN using a FirstClass bulletin board system already demonstrated at the October 1995 conference, and continuing in operation subsequently. All concerned strongly favoured a system which would allow users to publish their own content easily, to exchange files and messages. We were concerned with communication, not simply information.

In the event we were unable to deliver that system.

The technology

Our original proposal to BT would have enabled us to use a FirstClass server provided by Intermedia Associates, who had allowed us to use their system pHreak for demonstration purposes. To run CRN we needed a dedicated server.

However, BT could not meet our full budget proposals, and instead offered us server space at BT Labs, where initially we hoped we would have FirstClass conferencing facilities as well as a Web site. In discussion with the Labs it became clear that this would not be feasible - it would be too difficult to arrange the necessary security clearances and off-site management of servers.

Instead BT were able to offer space on servers being piloted for the public BT Web World service due for launch in October 1996. We started operating on these servers in August 1996.

While the BT Web World offer was welcome, it did mean that we could only provide information - we could not offer potential CRN members the conferencing and communication facilities they required. The technology was suitable for publishing, not for networking.

We later addressed these problems by developing mailing lists, and negotiating space on a top range server to be operated by Computer Access from November 1996.

In retrospect it was probably fortunate that we did not follow the FirstClass route. During the early months of 1996 the popularity of the Web continuity to grow, and despite the advantages of systems like FirstClass, users were clearly anticipating that conferencing would soon be available on the Web. By August the pHreak FirstClass system had closed.

In spring 1996 we found that we were caught between the decline of bulletin board systems like FirstClass and still-awaited development of easy to use Web conferencing systems and mailing lists.

Practitioners wanted a combination of:

Technically this was possible, but only on offer in part-packages or less-than-easy to use systems. Service providers like GreenNet and Poptel could provide much of the package, but the conferencing systems were text based and available only to subscribers to GreenNet or Poptel. BT could offer connections and Web publishing, but no conferencing.

The sociology

Throughout the process it became clear that the drive for change and development would come from largely from enthusiastic individuals, rather than the commitment of organisations - or put another way, organisations needed internal champions if they were to become involved.

This was the case for large as well as small bodies. While organisations would assent to the principle of networking, follow through was impossible unless a key person was using the technology.

We had continuing support from all our partner organisations, but active involvement was impossible unless someone was online, for two reasons:

In our experience few non-profit organisations in the field are fully integrating electronic publishing and networking into their operations. At the same, enthusiasts within these organisations are making contact with each other through email, crossing boundaries, and finding information sources outside normal organisational channels. This will start to throw up 'have and have not' communication issues for organisations in two ways:

These are merely observations - not hard findings. However, we do suggest that in such a fast moving field they are worth consideration.

We also noted that there is a potential gap between head office enthusiasms for 'getting on the Web' by essentially publishing a few brochures, and the day to day needs of practitioners in conferencing and file transfer.

One of our aims is to create demonstrations of what is possible so that the enthusiasts have some live and relevant examples to show to the uncertain. This peer group learning is more likely to be relevant than presentations of 'off the shelf' packages.


What we achieved

As we develop the Web site and IT Partnership Initiative publication, I think it is fair to say we have achieved - or will shortly achieve - the following:

For BT

For other partners


Next steps

Over the next three months Communities Online will concentrate on:

We suggest a meeting with BT and other partners to discuss this draft report and consider:


David Wilcox
Editor, Communities Online
October 8 1996

Prepared by David Wilcox October 8 1996