Community networking in the UK 1995-1999 The development of this story was prompted by plans for a book on community networking in the UK. More here on the story–telling future-gazing process, and other stories. Where those stories relate to this one they are linked (S).
David Wilcox 's story
David was the main instigator of UK Communities Online, and acted as editor and director early 1998 when Michael Mulquin (S04, S06)- who had been chair - became executive director. David then set up Partnerships Online. He writes:
Communities Online was born and nurtured through chance meetings, the generosity of our American cousins, the support of major companies and Government Departments, help from an East London charity, and the effort of a lot of pioneers in community networking. Like the field in which we work, it is a tangled web we weave.
The first important chance meeting was at the first Annual Conference of the Urban Forum - then part of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) - in April 1995, when I ran a workshop about partnerships, networks and the possible benefits of using the Internet.
I had worked for many years in 'real world' partnerships and had been fired with enthusiasm for the potential of the Net to create 'Partnerships for Tomorrow' by virtual visits via the Net to community networks and bulletin boards operating in the US.
The following month I was due to attend 'The Ties That Bind' conference organised by the Morino Institute and Apple at the home of Apple Computers in Cupertino, California. I had spotted the conference on the Web. The trip was made possible by the first important act of generosity - Steve Cisler, community networking guru at Apple, and Kaye Gapen, of Morino, had responded to a flurry of my pleading emails by waiving fees and paying my fare and hotel. Fundraising on the Net had worked - I was hooked!
After my session at the Urban Forum conference the greatest co-enthusiast was Michael Mulquin, who was then working for the Community Involvement Unit of Aston Charities in Newham. He was to become the most ardent champion of local electronic networking in the UK, initially through his role on the Urban Forum steering group, then as chair of Communities Online and finally as executive director.
Cupertino was amazing - not only the home of the Macintosh but a conference filled for three days with several hundred people who weren't just talking about what the Net could for local communities, but doing it. At Cupertino and subsequent events I met people like Steve Snow, Terry Grunwald, Philippa Gamse, Amy Borgstrom, Frank Odasz, Steven Clift and Doug Schuler who provided inspiration and encouragement for our efforts in the UK.
Over the coming months I found out more about what was already happening in the UK. Many people were thinking the same way - and had already achieved a great deal. Community networking wasn't new in the UK - it just needed networking nationally as well as locally.
Chris Studman was starting a network in Coventry, Nick Plant (S32) and Morris Williams were working on Community Information Systems (S22) in Bristol, virtual towns were beginning in Manchester and also Brighton, where I lived.
David Fitzpatrick of Computer Access (now with BURA) had been there before us all, helping create Poptel to provide the voluntary sector with Internet access, and working with communities in East London. North of the border Craigmillar had its own network run by Andy McDonald and communities in the Highlands and Island had been using the Internet for direct-dial systems for years to conquer distance. John O'Hara had created the South Bristol Learning Network, (S02) later to foster the Cyberskills Association backed by ICL, where Chris Yapp was a key figure. In Warwickshire in 1994 Bob Jennings (S20) had set up Internet UK as an Internet Service Provider that would help create training opportunies and jobs for unemployed people.
Martin Read had started Capitalnet in Cardiff, and Peter Davis was using Open University facilities for a Milton Keynes network.
Crucially for Communities Online, as it turned out, Richard Stubbs was planning to create a conference for practitioners in community-based regeneration on Compuserve. He too lived in Newham and knew Michael through his 'real world' work. They didn't know they both had a passion for the potential of electronic networking. Later Richard was to develop Newham Online, with Michael as chair - in addition to their national work.
Richard decided to join forces, and with Michael and I formed Partnerships for Tomorrow (P4T). We worked to create a demonstration Community Regeneration Network on a FirstClass bulletin board system called pHreak, run by Intermedia Associates.
At this point another chance meeting, combined with our first corporate support, provided the resources to begin to turn dreams into reality.
The funds came from BT community affairs department, where Norman Howard was able to make the case to colleagues for supporting the emerging network and a seminar called Communities Online run jointly with Urban Forum at BT Centre in October 1995.
The chance meeting came in a Brighton bookshop, where my enquiries about publications on the Internet led owner Richard Cupidi to introduce me to BT strategist Dave Greenop who lived in Hove. Dave could see how the bottom-up vision of community networking could mesh with some of the commercial scenarios for telecommunications in the Information Age. He introduced me to fellow futurist at BT Labs, Ian Pearson (S11), and together they hosted a meeting of 30 key people in September 1995. With that and the seminar at BT Centre, we felt we were on the map.
It was about this time that we discovered that in South Yorkshire Dave Miller, Sheila Pantry (S23) and Graham Bagshaw were developing a regional forum for community networkers that would lead to the first community information networks conference at Sheffield University in 1996. Dave created the first UK Web pages about community networking and Graham is working on HECNet in Sheffield.
The September meeting of P4T provided the basis for a steering group led by Michael, and a strategy hacked out in flurry of presentations and post-it notes. We decided that the role of P4T was to be a network and an information system to promote debate on the impact of new media technologies on communities, and to explore benefits. P4T would also act as a referral point to existing projects and networks, and help set up new projects. We agreed that we would set up a communications system incorporating a mailing list, bulletin board system and a web site, run events and work on producing a Guide for publication.
Looking back at the notes of that meeting, many of the ideas still hold good, and many of the proposals are being implemented through different routes and organisations. P4T fulfilled its role as catalyst. Communities Online became the focus for local networking, Richard became the first chair of UK Citizens Online Democracy, set up by Irving Rappaport (S05), I'm now running Partnerships Online and Making the Net Work with emphasis on national networks.
In parallel with these nascent non-profit initiatives in 1995/96, Dave Greenop (S28) and colleagues in BT began serious research into the commercial potential for local community networking. This work at BT Labs was to be led by Colin Millar and Doug Williams, who became powerful allies in the years ahead and would later extend their work to Europe. In the long term, it may be that the most important influence on telecommunications development came through these early informal contacts with BT and later with GPT/Marconi Communications.
After the October event - where we had gathered more support from practitioners - Stephen Serpell at BT invited us to make a more substantial proposal to them. Mainly through the diligent business planning work of Richard Stubbs we were able to make the case for £18,000 to develop the Community Regeneration Network. Again NCVO were able to help through a letter of endorsement, organised by Jonathan Brown in the rural team, and provide us with the opportunity to launch a booklet called Inventing the Future at their February conference. Again BT were a sponsor.
The Network was to be a bulletin board system covering the development, management and funding of community-based projects for social, environmental and economic renewal.
We made great strides early in 1996 in using the FirstClass system to learn what would work and what wouldn't - but hit several snags. The main one was that we were ahead of the game - there weren't enough people involved in community-based regeneration online to get a critical mass of users. Planning Exchange already operated a similar system for local authorities so we couldn't go for that more lucrative market. (Later Planning Exchange would move Regen.net to the Web, and provide assistance to community groups S31). We didn't have the resources to train new users. In addition, the World Wide Web was becoming the big attraction, and we didn't have the funds to research and create a major Web site as well as run a bulletin board system. Nor could we find anyone to provide us with low-cost facilities for email lists.
Our technical needs were modest - and indeed must have seemed trivial to those we were talking to in companies, universities and local authorities. Yet however much they sympathised, they couldn't offer us the facilities we needed while maintaining the essential security of their own systems. We were discovering that to innovate on the Net - even in modest ways - you need to control your own bit of cyberspace.
In Spring 1996 it was again the US connection which provided a way forward. I decided to take the plunge and finance a trip to the next community networking conference in the US. Doug Williams of BT Labs also made the trip. Steve Snow, director of Charlotte's Web, had floated the idea of an International Association for Community Networking on the Communet mailing list, and a core group of us spent several months working the idea up online. I had to be there for real - virtual wasn't enough.
In the wonderful atmosphere of Taos, New Mexico, hosted this time by the local community network - La Plaza Telecommunity - we hammered out plans for the association, and I was co-opted onto the working group (perhaps because 'International' required a token non-American!) I was able to come back to the UK with the idea that we set up the first national association for Community Networking - so steering Communities Online towards the promotion of local projects, rather than just a national community of interest for regeneration practitioners.
Michael and the steering group endorsed the idea, and Dave Miller at Sheffield University started the IACN mailing list as an aid both to his pioneering academic research in the field, and as an essential communication tool for community networkers around the country.
(The International Association was never created. In practice we found that, despite the global reach of the Net, we needed to start within the country conventions of the 'real world'. The Americans later set up their Association For Community Networking. Michael and I played a part in setting up the European Association for Community Networking with Artur Serra from Barcelona (S07), Fiorella de Cindio from Milan (S08), and others)
Dave Miller also provided Richard and I with an opportunity to fly the flag for Communities Online at the June conference with an official announcement. We now had a real constituency of support.
Later in the month a further meeting of the steering group endorsed the decision to set up a charitable company and create a shadow board chaired by Michael. His employers, Aston Charities, agreed to hold the money until the company was formally set up - a vitally important function.
We agreed that I should set up a Communities Online Forum Web site, hosted initially on BT servers, commission a logo from designer Chris Lord and write a prospectus as the first official publicity for the new organisation. The funds for this were to come from BT Labs - thanks to Colin Millar and Doug Williams - and the Government's new IT for All initiative. We had been delighted that Nick Trent from THE Department of Trade and Industry had come to our meetings and shown a keen interest.
At this time we had three possible areas of activity. First was the development of special interest networks - like the community regeneration initiative that we had started earlier. Secondly there were local community networks, and thirdly there was networking existing non-profit organisations whose members, it was felt, would play major roles in both special interest networks and local networks.
Later these different activities were to be promoted and supported through different organisations, with Communities Online focussing on local communities, and developing lists of local network and resources to help them on the Web site.
Before that happened we were able to do some work with another of the key figures in the development of community networking - Kevin Harris (S24) of the Community Development Foundation. Kevin had researched and reported on the use of information and communication technologies in community and voluntary organisations for several years, and was able to secure funds from the Voluntary Services Unit at Home Office for a 'Getting Connected' project. We ran demonstration days, a seminar, and created advisory material on the Web.
In addition, Kevin was secretary to the IBM-supported working party on social inclusion in the Information Society. The INSINC report, published in June 1997 as The Net Result, provided strong endorsement for community resource centres and networks, and became recognised as the key policy document in the field. Kevin was also later able to open the door for IBM support for Communities Online.
When New Labour became the Government on May 1 1997, we were well prepared with new ideas - and found a receptive audience at the Department of Trade and Industry. We didn't quite make it for May 2 - but we were through the door for a meeting on May 8!
On May 9 we proposed: “Communities Online can help develop 'local IT for All' - a new dimension to the campaign will show the social and economic benefits of information and communication technologies in towns, cities and rural areas, and its relevance to people's day to day lives.
“Communities Online will do this by developing a 'learning network' of the many innovative initiatives now under way - Digital Cities, Virtual Towns and community networks.”
In August the DTI were able to confirm that we had £87,000 to carry out our proposals - with many helpful hints beforehand to keep our spirits up. As I recall, all correspondence was by email supplemented by a few meetings - we had fortunately hit a bit of Whitehall that was well wired and sympathetic, in the form of DTI civil servants Paul Bernstein and later Tim Goodship and Mairi Thomson.
By that time we had set up new Web-archived mailing lists initially through Loud 'n Clear and then with the help of David Fitzpatrick at Computer Access, and the technical wizardry of Manar Hussain of Internet Vision. We had built our Web site, contacted a wide range of local projects, and consolidated our national partnerships.
In June IBM launched its report on Social Inclusion in the Information Society, invited us to join in the presentations and also to put forward funding proposals. As well as a cash and equipment, IBM seconded Samantha Hellawell, their Community Programmes Manager, for two days a week. Samantha had worked in the voluntary sector as well as IBM. She began to make a contribution in Autumn 1997 and became a core member of the Communities Online team from January 1998. IBM funds, facilities and expertise were to be crucial during the next phase of development.
The second Sheffield Conference for Community Information Networks in July 1997 provided the opportunity to launch Communities Online formally, and also brought another key contact. Nigel Worthington of the international communications company GPT (now Marconi Communications) was researching community networks (S09), and when some 40 conference participants decided they needed a venue for a further event Nigel was able to offer the excellent facilities of a training centre in Dunchurch.
I remember he asked rather tentatively whether 'community' networkers would take up such an offer from a commercial company. He received strong reassurance that cross-partnerships were at the heart of our thinking. Later Nigel's boss, Paul Leidecker, was to become another strong supporter of Communities Online both morally and financially. It helped that he already knew the BT Labs team professionally…. corporate philanthropy was working in parallel with commercial research and development, with the prospect of genuine community-commercial benefit. Marconi Communications were to become strong champions of community network development, with teams working on research and development around the country, and funders of Communities Online.
By autumn 1997 we felt we were on a roll, with a good team of part-time professionals and volunteer helpers drawn from Brighton, Newham and other projects. Peter Mason and Mark Walker from Sussex Community Internet Project - which I had founded - were managing lists and upgrading the Web site on server space by Pavilion Internet. My wife Ann Holmes mapped out and managed a comprehensive programme of events starting with a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference… conveniently located just down the road on the Brighton seafront, and supported by GPT.
It helped enormously that we had made contact with Trimdon Digital Village, created by Peter Brookes and friends in Tony Blair's constituency, and they agreed to become partners in the fringe event.
We were to find that the seminars on strategy and on specific topics were essential in developing the network. It could not be done just online - face to face was essential to build relationships and spark new ideas. Fortunately this time the furthest trip was to York rather than America.
To add an additional creative spark, I recruited long-time friend and colleague Drew Mackie to develop a community networking 'game' by which groups could play through the mix of technologies needed to support the social, economic and environmental development of a community. It made the point that local electronic network development should be designed for 'real world' outcomes - and worked all the better for being a simple set of cards rather than a onscreen.
Claire Shearman (S29) began to contribute policy material, informed by her academic and consultancy experience in the field, and her time in Brussels working on the People First Green Paper about the Information Society. Researchers like Peter Day at Brighton University, Debbie Ellen in Manchester, Alessandro Aurigi in Newcastle, Ankie Hoogveld in Sheffield were adding intellectual substance to our ideas and complementing that of Dave Miller and his colleagues.
Around the country community networkers like Geoff Walker in Newcastle (S10), Linda Doyle in Manchester (S19), Tim Fletcher in Powys (S01), Malcom Forbes in Brixton (S15), Christine Fraser in the West Country (S03) and Trevor Locke in the Midlands (S17) lent their support and expertise through the many months when we wondered if we were on the right track. Geoff started development of a map to chart the growth of networking projects throughout the country. We began to explore possible links with community radio and TV through Steve Buckley at the Community Media Association, and with work in schools and colleges through Eta de Cicco at the (then) National Council for Educational Technology, now BECTA.
We were also drawing on the experience of Jane and Simon Berry who had created the WREN telecottage (S12) near Coventry. Simon had been a key figure in the Telework, Telecottage and Telecentre Association and was also director of the National Rural Enterprise Centre (NREC) (S14). He was eager to network rural communities and organisations - a dream realised when part of the IBM equipment donation provided a server for Ruralnet.
As Communities Online developed, our excitement over the new possibilities was only slightly tempered by the realisation that others had been there before us. Fortunately the old hands were prepared to help the new kids on the block. Horace Mitchell - who later became chair of Communities Online - was programme director of European Telework Development with unparalleled knowledge of European programmes and contacts and a rare genius for combining wit and wisdom in contributions to mailing lists.
Adrian Norman (S16)had worked in the Cabinet Office in the early 1980s during the first round of enthusiasm for community and educational computing. In the late 1990s he was developing a model for Internet gateway sites and databases that could carry both community information and the commercial content needed for sustainability. He even knew - and could explain - how e-commerce would work.
By the end of 1997 we had re-presented Communities Online as a campaign for community networking with three elements: advocacy, networking practitioners, and the development of innovative partnerships and projects. We had begun to develop contacts in Scotland through Laurie Bidwell, where he and colleagues in Northern College - Dundee Campus were interested in collaborating on the development of a course in community networking.
Michael's greatest interest was in advocacy and networking practitioners. I wanted to concentrate on new developments. It was time to re-assess our roles - and for me to recognise that I have more enthusiasm for starting initiatives than running organisations.
We agreed that Michael should become full time Executive Director from January 1998, and that I should work for a few months on a consultancy basis while setting up Partnerships Online. This would provide some of the detailed 'how to' knowledge and tools for community networking, and also develop other initiatives outside the remit of Communities Online.
Communities Online would continue to develop as a learning network of practitioners through the conet mailing list, events, and by listing local initiatives, and would also concentrate on raising awareness among policy makers of the importance of a locally based, socially inclusive information society. It would operate as a company.
Over the coming year - 1998 - I developed Partnerships Online as a loose network of individuals and organisations who wanted to 'mix and match' work on a number of projects. These included:
As we entered 1999 the prospects for further major developments are good. OneWorld Online, who have an internationally renowned 'super site' of partners concerned with the environment, development and social justice, have support from BT for a gateway site for community and voluntary organisations in the UK. Anna Tan - who used to work with Peter Chauncey for Newtel in Newham - is editor of Community.web, working with Olly Willans.
Youthnet have created a superb information resource at The Site, which although designed for young people, contains information on health, housing, education, employment, money and other topics of use to anyone with problems or queries on 'how to survive and enjoy life in the 1990s'.
The 1990 Trust - which to aims to articulate the needs of the Black community from a grassroots Black perspective - have created the Black Information Link with National Lottery funding to use email, the Web and a network of access points to promote good race relation and combat racism through information, advice and reports on key issues.
CDF, Community Channel and Partnerships Online - now a formal partnership with NREC - are working with OneWorld and others to ensure that non-profit organisations and local projects have the facilities and training they need to use the Internet effectively. We are planning funding bids and discussing close collaboration with Business in the Community, whose Comm.Unity campaign, developed by Amanda Bowman and led by Stephen Farrell, will work in harness with the Government IT for All campaign.
Writing this history has reminded me how many people have been involved in developing community networking in the UK, how messy it has been, how dependent on chance connection, and how difficult to organise. Just like the Internet.