Sheffield's Open Information Project cannot claim to be a community network. Its aim is establish an electronic information network which will be cheap, easy to use and of direct benefit to the work of “third sector” - voluntary and social economy - organisations in Sheffield.\ \ It is thus a network of organisations who work in and for the communities of Sheffield rather than the communities themselves. This has arisen because the project is based on perceived needs of such organisations rather than on a desire to have a community IT project. This emphasis was essential if the project was to attract the necessary time, money and energy from a sector in which all these commodities are in inadequate supply. That said, the choice of IT as a tool to meet these needs to an extent selected the initial beneficiaries. It was organisations which already had computers and, in the main those with paid staff, who could both see the potential of the project and not find the barriers to participation too awesome.\ \ The project has been funded by the European Regional Development Fund and also received repeated help, both officially and voluntarily from staff, from the University of Sheffield and from Sheffield Hallam University.
The reason why the project has found support lies with the changes the sector has experienced in recent years. Sources of funds for work in the social economy and voluntary sectors have multiplied in recent years but their nature has also changed. They are often less transparent and accountable in their decision making, more focused on short term output rather than institutional development and may require the development of new partnerships - local or transnational - as a condition of funding.\ \ Such demands increase the importance of regular access to information in two distinct areas. At the same time, by reducing the funding available for core tasks, they actually lessen organisational capacity to get that information through traditional means such as attending conferences and meetings in order to learn and network. Thus organisations active in the sector need new means of gaining rapid access to information about funding sources and the ability to share experience and ideas in order to make appropriate responses.\ \ Secondly, at a time when services are increasingly delivered through a succession of time limited projects, there is a need for those who deliver services and for organisations which provide information about services to the public to have access to the most up to date information available.\ \ Although Sheffield does have a number of high quality paper based directories and newsletters there are a number of reasons why it was felt appropriate to develop an electronic network.
Previous efforts to create electronic information systems in Sheffield suffered for lack of high level supporters or from being so technically led that others had difficulty in comprehending let alone following.\ \ Open Information Project, by contrast, grew out of the experience of one organisation, Sheffield Co-operative Development Group (SCDG), of the difficulty of keeping up to date with all the potential changes affecting its area of work. Discussions with other organisations showed that this was a common feeling and this shared with a belief that there should be technology available to help us led to the start of this project. The first step was to send a questionairre to organisations in the sector. Of some forty positive responses:-
SCDG appointed its development worker Mike Powell, to work on the project. His job has been to develop options which have then been discussed at a series of five seminars, attended on average by representatives from ten different participating organisations, each of which have guided the next stage of the project.
The existence of the project on one directory will make it possible to download all the information contained to other systems, such as those operated by the local libraries and possibly cable television, which do not offer external Internet access. Training sessions introducing the World Wide Web and teaching basic HTML have also played a vital part in raising awareness and skills.
The project went on line in April. This represents only one stage in its development. So far only eleven of the project's members have put their pages up. More are likely to follow very soon but it is expected that it will take many months for the information posted to gradually build up into a useful resource. The aim is not just to have a simple list of organisations, what they do and opening hours as is traditionally provided by public information services. Members are encouraged to place research and statistics on their area of work on their pages so that the sector as a whole builds a far more complete picture of the city and its problems.\ \ It is also taking time to develop the communications potential of the project which is probably its most important single element. Early ideas to use Newsgroups or On Line Conferencing Software have proved too ambitious. Busy organisations taking their first steps into telematic communication are not going to look for messages in different places. Thus the project is starting with an internal mailing list which will enable members to post messages to the members as a whole. It is hoped that once this has built up, members will see the advantage of moving to more structured communication on Conferencing on the Web (COW) software, which allows messages to be posted under named topics.\ \ A third component of the project will involve regular monitoring of network usage and attempts to develop and use appropriate methodology to evaluate the impact the network has on the sector.\ \ The most important sign of progress is however in the project itself. Twenty five organisations participated in the early stages of the project and are receiving grants to help cover their modem and service provider costs. A further nine have joined the association of local, not for profit organisations which the Open Information Project has become. Many others are associate members or have asked to be kept on the project mailing list and the last progress meeting was the best attended of all. The lead role taken by SCDG has been subsumed by a democratically based steering committee. One task of this committee is to endorse new members and monitor compliance with the few rules the project has. The other more important role, which is already beginning, is to guide the further development of the project to maximise its potential for both the third sector organisations in the region and for the communities they exist to serve.\ \ The Open Information Project has met all its official targets but it is far too early to call it a success. The level of participation of its members does however offer encouragement both for the sustainability of the existing project and for its further development.\ \ Mike Powell\