Supporting community-based regeneration


This group was formed at the Inventing the Future seminar held on 23rd 'February 1999. Our task was to identify the online activities most likely to support community based regeneration. We focused on infrastructure (being connectivity, computers and software), content, people and organisations looking at key issues and resources in each area. We brainstormed each area, Ian Couch typed up the results and Richard Stubbs produced the first draft for comment by group members.

Group members

Ian Couch (Huddersfield University), Sarah Denvir (Home Office), Robin Hamman (Hypermedia Research Centre, University of Westminster), Nicky Edmonds (Community Media Association), Debbie Ellen (researcher), Marion Scott (Women Connect), Claire Shearman (consultant), Richard Stubbs (Newham Online), Anna Tan (Community.web)


Infrastructure

Gateways or portals are a key element and help to organise content so as to make it more accessible. An example of a sector based gateway project is at http://www.oneworld.org/community.web/index.html. There are also gateways based on location, interest and identity. For example a gateway site for women's organisations can be found at www.womenconnect.org.uk

A key element of a gateway is a search engine that indexes the content of sites that are linked to through the gateway. An example of a free search engine that can be used for this purpose is at http://www.htdig.org/ Most gateways also carry an index of relevant links and resources. In any large gateway it will be necessary to have a web enabled database that can manage the information about links and resources that are relevant to the gateway including the ability for new links and resources to be added by users.

Software that supports communication is just as important as that which supports information retrieval. Examples of such software include mailing lists, chat, web conferencing and message board. A list of free sources of such tools and guidance on developing online communities is provided in the "virtual community building toolkit that can be found at www.cybersoc.com. Another resource is the ability to create advanced web based discussion forums such as provided free by www.delphi.com

The infrastructure that underpins the Net consists mainly of fibre based networks owned by telecommunications companies such as BT. There are cheaper alternatives available at the local level. Newham Online is connecting organisations using infrared, microwave and DSL, all of which provide cheaper methods of providing broadband connectivity than leased lines. As a result of this activity Newham Online will probably require a licence as a regional telecommunications provider.

A recent development has been the establishment of "Free" Internet access, this is not really free as it is in fact paid for by BT out of the price of the local phone call thanks to Oftel regulations. However genuinely free access can sometimes be found for instance two libraries in Newham now have networks of computers that provide free access.

Finally there is also considerable infrastructure required in the development of content and here close links with community based TV and radio broadcasters are desirable.

Content

Increasingly the online experience is targeted so as to provide content that is relevant to the needs of a particular class of users. One approach to doing this is a portal such as Community.web which highlights, headlines, summarises and links to information provided by its partners. Another approach is to create an interactive database driven site that tailors content to a user's expressed preferences.

However content is presented there are issues that need to be considered these include validating content, managing content, copyright, quality standards, legality, suitability and free speech.

Content can be generated through partnerships of organisations. A partnership-based site focused on community regeneration can be found at www.crisp.org.uk. Another initiative focusing on this issue is the Community Channel http://www.communitychannel.org.uk, which aims to provide a link between policy makers and practitioners.

Content can also be generated through online communities. A good example of this is provided by Newham Young People Online www.youth.newham.org.uk which showcases web sites by members of a local online community. A useful book that is relevant is Hosting Web Communities, by Cliff Figallo (1998)

There is an issue about how content is presented online. One problem is that multimedia content that includes audio and video will not be accessible to people with poor connectivity or older computers. It should be possible to design sites where people are not automatically excluded on this basis and if you wish to check how good a site is at meeting this criteria you can test it using http://www.cast.org/bobby/index.html. There is a contradiction between developing leading edge applications using Shockwave and Java and giving access to everyone and choices have to be made. In the case of service delivery access is obviously the priority but in the case of commercial entertainment and creative use Shockwave and similar enhanced material may be essential.

People

Training is a key issue but there are many alternatives to institutional training courses. Distance learning is becoming useful especially if supported by group and social activities to compensate for the isolating effect. However distance learning materials and environment is not suitable for all people or subjects and in addition the infrastructure is often not able to deliver access where required.

Open Access courses provide a useful and flexible alternative to formal courses that start and end at a fixed time.

Learning does not have to happen at home or in a traditional educational institution, alternatives include community cyber cafes that give free access and are supported by volunteers. Such venues will attract people that would not go to a College. Learning can often occur through working on something that is really interesting to you and by picking up skills along the way (Incidental learning).

Another structured but non institutional approach is Peer-Peer Training where individuals in the community are trained in a skill on the basis that they agree to train others.

It is possible to develop an Action Plan for supporting Internet Use in an organisation through

There is often a lack of diversity in groups, such as ours, discussing Information Society issues. This is particularly true in terms of age and ethnicity and should be addressed.

Organisations

CRISP is a small body that is registered as a charity (since it is simpler that way), therefore it is potentially exclusive but in practice it works in an inclusive way with a wide range of partners.

The Newham Online Partnership www.newham.org.uk is unregistered and anyone can join if they agree with the statement of vision, aims and principles that is the nearest thing that the group has to a constitution. All activities carried out by the partnership are lead by particular partners with appropriate expertise. There is an agreement that a formal body will be constituted to own infrastructure but Newham Online itself will continue as more of a campaign than an organisation.

The marketing strategy adopted by Newham Online to extend its partnership is first to establish a relationship with the main person in an organisation responsible for IT and then to approach the Chief policy maker with a request for formal involvement. Finally once agreement is achieved suitable information should be given to the policy officer for distribution to the staff in general. Information for these three targets needs to be different.

The Association of Progressive Communicators www.apc.org is a Global Internet Community for Environment, Human Rights, Development & Peace. It is a not for profit association with 25 member networks and serves a community of over 50,000 individuals and organisations. The UK member network of this Association is GreenNet http://www.gn.apc.org/