\ By Peter Day, Brighton University\
\ Over the last few years there has been a growth in the usage of terms such as the 'information society', the 'information superhighway', and the Internet. It seems that almost everyday at least one article can be found on these subjects in the popular press and lifestyle magazines. Television and radio too are allocating more and more programme time to the developing new technologies, and how they are likely to shape our lives in the future. Politicians and political parties are also keen to announce policies aimed at enabling Britain to play a leading role in what we are told is a 'technological revolution'.\ \ Much of this populist coverage engages in what is known as 'social forecasting'. That is to say that the predictions may be right but they might also be wrong. The simple truth of the matter is that the speed of current technological development is such that no-one can predict with any degree of certainty what the future holds for societal uses of technology.\ \ One thing that can safely be predicted however, is that information communication technologies (ICT) will have a profound impact in terms of societal development. It is imperative therefore that all sections of society are given the opportunity to engage in a dialogue that assists in the development of a socially inclusive 'information society'. This section aims to aid that process by suggesting some areas where the technology might prove useful in facilitating the development of local communities.
It is important to stress that no one community is entirely alike. Each has its own unique history and culture which impact on, and shape their sense of identity. They are diverse and dynamic entities, whose evolution are effected by their surrounding environments.\ \ Communities comprises of individuals, families, groups, organisations and institutions, all of which, both individually and collectively, contribute to and effect 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 community networks utilise networked computers interconnected via a telecommunication link to form a distributed system which provides both community information and a means of electronic communication within and between communities. In both commercial and social environments, ICTs are used to increase access to, and the availability of information; whilst adding to and improving upon traditional communication channels.\ \ As already indicated, communities consist of individuals, families, groups, organisations and institutions, to a certain extent they are a form of self-sustaining social and economic network. Community networks therefore are not a new phenomenon, what is new however, is the utilisation of ICT to underpin forms of socio-economic activity or community development.\ \ Before continuing it is worth noting that the term community development is viewed as something more than just economic development.\ \ There is a distinction which must be made between “development in” a community, and “development of” a community. The former is a reduced concept, defining a community as a place of development: i.e. markets; businesses and modernization, whilst the latter is more inclusive, recognizing a community as an organic social system that possess its own political and cultural identity; something more than an arena of ubiquitous trends. By using this approach as a basis for community development and regeneration, the participation of the local community can be successfully harnessed.
The information needs of each individual citizen within a community varies according to their personal, family and social circumstances.\ \ It is fair to assume that these needs are met to a varying degree by the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors of the local community. Hidden behind this assumption however, is a growing problem for citizens of today's society. 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.\ \ Often these organisations are situated in different locations throughout the community. It can be difficult, if not impossible for people with children, no transport, no money, mobility problems, etc. to get to these geographically dispersed locations. If transportation, etc. is not a problem then very often a lack of knowledge of the organisations and the services they provide can be.\ \ It is possible that exclusion from today's society can be created by ignorance of one's basic rights as a citizen. Access to requisite 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 is a harsh fact of life which can spell hardship and suffering for many.\ \ It is a term that can be used to describe many states of the human condition, ranging from the unemployed or the homeless; to 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.\ \ It is impossible to address the entire information needs of any community at one stroke. It is important therefore that this stage of an Internet-based community information resource is not seen as a one off. In the same way as communities evolve and develop, so to do their information needs. As such, community profiling must be viewed as a dynamic and ongoing process which is never entirely complete.\ \ 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 ICT skills are therefore also issues of access. As such they are also an important tool for addressing the problem of social exclusion.\ \ The pedagogical approach must be tailored to suit needs of users.\ \ For many people the rate of change brought on 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? Certainly we all know at least one person this applies to, if not ourselves. Those volunteers and workers involved with community networks must start by recognizing the reality of technophobia, especially among the older generation. Teaching methods must reflect this awareness and need to take the form of a hand holding exercise, allowing people to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the technology. A sense of honesty about what the ICT can and cannot do is essential in demystifying computers, et al.\ \ A common fault among those teaching basic IT skills, etc., even among the best intentioned, is to adopt the 'see, it's easy' approach. This generally entails the teacher flashing their hands over the keyboard with blinding speed and dexterity to achieve the required result. Of course the student has learnt nothing, except that the teacher knows how to do it. As education and training have been identified as issues of access, such teaching methods can be seen to prevent community access. This of course defeats the purpose of community networks, i.e. community access and participation.\ \ 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.\ \ This learning by doing approach makes learning both fun and interesting and encourages students to continue and progress, rather than give-up through frustration.\ \ Developing skills and expertise to improve employability\ \ Facilitating community access to the 'information society' in such a way allows individual and group utilisation of ICT 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 stimulate an improvement in local people's employability by developing much sought after skills.
Community networks are more than simple community information networks.\ \ By adopting a learner-centred approach to training and education and incorporating interactive links with the organisations providing information on the community information resource, community networks provide a platform for communication. Such a facility both encourages and enables citizens to participate by providing access to local groups and organisations and information about the services they provide.\ \ An example of the communications potential of community networks can be applied to local government. Electronic networks can be utilised as a tool for extending democracy and giving the local community access to local government at an additional level. This can be achieved by creating remote access facilities to local government service departments at the public access points. Such an initiative will enable both communication with local government and provide local people with information from the authorities.\ \ An extension of this provision could be the use of e-mail to provide 'virtual' councillor's surgeries. Councillors, as elected members of local government, have a heavy demand on their time. Accessibility to constituents has proven difficult in the past. The surgery has been an attempt by some councillors to guarantee a time and a place where constituents can meet elected representatives and discuss issues of local concern. The usefulness of the 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.\ \ Community networks therefore encourage communications between information providers and information users, but they fulfil another important social function in the 'information society'. By encouraging information and communication links both within and between communities, community networks enable information users to become information providers by sharing their experiences, knowledge and expertise with others. This can not only help reinforce a sense of community identity locally, but also raises the profile and cultural identity of the community to the outside world.
Community networks or virtual communities?\ \ It is important to note that community networks are about people and their communities, they are not simply electronic networks. ICT can underpin and aid the activities taking place within a community but they do not replace and are no substitute for them. Community networks are primarily social networks which harness ICT 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.