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Communities moving into the Information Age

Ideas and resources for using ICT in community development

It may not seem like it to revenue-starved services in the public sector, but the government and the European Union are pumping cash into ICT-based projects across the UK. The New Opportunities Fund alone has allocated 77 million to ICT-based community learning projects.

Examples of community-focused ICT development include:

  • the Wired Communities project - providing access and ICT-based services and opportunities to thousands of homes in disadvantaged communities

  • in Scotland, the Digital Communities initiative doing likewise

  • ICT learning centres - resourced through various funding streams

  • Community grids for learning

  • ICT enabled Healthy Living Centres

  • Pathfinder, New Deal and other projects developing community Internet access

  • Electronic Village Halls (variously described) funded by Rural Community Councils, local authorities and regeneration partnerships

  • UK online centres - branding and supporting all such centres that reach some minimum standards

In addition to this far from exhaustive list of special projects, bidding processes for more traditional funding frequently includes community-based ICT development - in fact, it may stand a better chance of success if it does. Services ranging from community arts to adult literacy to benefits advice to support for small businesses are all adding an online dimension or two.  European funds totalling millions of Euros are also being directed to ICT developments for disadvantaged communities and groups.

What for?

Is it just a fad? There may be an element of fashion and herd instinct. And there are many instances of new funding streams being used to support old programmes with a few cosmetic changes. But in essence there is developing a new range of opportunities and new expertise for supporting and developing communities in innovative ways.

Basically, initiatives tend to fall into 4 categories:

  • projects that are completely or almost completely online - e.g. delivering services online, creating local websites, or community networks and forums

  • the development of centres for people to visit, or access points, where people can develop new skills, participate in activities and access valuable information

  • infrastructure projects

  • projects supporting outreach or client-facing work, by providing online and IT resources to professionals.

Some, of course, like the Wired Communities and Digital Communities projects combine multiple activities. But this provision of ICT is only the means to a variety of ends. The technology and all the accompanying activities are primarily aimed at overcoming "social exclusion", and building new skills and capabilities in the communities concerned.

In particular, projects will be aimed at

  • providing access to employment - usually to advice and opportunities, but sometimes to online work

  • stimulating the development of local business both growth and start-up

  • providing opportunities for education, training, and skills development - mainly advice, information, and locally-based courses, but increasingly direct access to online distance learning as well

  • community building and participation - partly from the product of ICT activity (e.g. developing local websites), but perhaps mainly from the physical activities in bringing people together for a common purpose

  • promoting awareness - e.g. of health, housing, rights, benefits, etc

  • promoting the arts and artistic involvement (e.g. in theatre, music, media, crafts, etc) at community level

  • more efficient service delivery by local agencies (which may overlap with any of the above).

We cover in more detail a number of these in our articles on using ICT for regeneration purposes. But although funding is often specifically targeted at disadvantaged groups and communities, there is no reason why it should be limited to them. In fact, many of the early pioneering activities in using ICT for the benefit of communities were entirely voluntary self-help initiatives, often based on the initiative of a few enterprising individuals.

Top down or up from the grassroots?

It is usually seen as ideal that initiatives should be driven by the users - locally focused, with local citizens steering projects to meet their needs.

In practice, at least at the bidding stage, projects are mostly guided by professionals whose job it is to deliver the kind of services involved. It is they who will know how to work the system, and will have aims of improving the way their services are delivered.

Local "ownership" of projects is often limited by the varying agenda of the agencies involved. Publicly-funded projects tend to have fairly strict criteria about what should be achieved, so they are unlikely to change direction even if there is a strong steer from the community that they should. So, unless there is already an energy in the community and groups champing at the bit to get themselves online, the "bottom up" approach is more likely to occur in a follow-on project, when a community has already had a taste of the types of benefits ICT can bring - or where they have seen a "top down" approach not meeting their needs or expectations.

Understanding and analysing needs

One way to encourage grassroots involvement from the outset is to undertake surveys of needs and aspirations, though this may be hard to achieve with hard-to-reach groups.

But there are 2 other problems. Firstly, with innovation, people often don't understand what's possible until they see it. ("What do we need a website for? Wouldn't it be better to have some new chairs?") Some kind of prototyping, or quick-win pilot, is often needed not only to generate enthusiasm, but also to generate new ideas.

Secondly, telecoms providers and others may weigh in "communications needs analysis" tools which serve their needs, and not the needs of the communities. The worst of these involve a kind of "sausage machine" process which surveys local communities, and outputs their needs as being whatever service the provider happens to offer locally. If the provider doesn't provide broadband in that area, you can bet ISDN will be the recommended solution for local Internet access!

Online work, the forgotten dimension

By far the greatest amount of funding for new ICT activities is going into education or skills development projects. In itself, this is a good thing. But what many communities need is more work opportunities.

As public sector agencies are reluctant to provide jobs directly, the issues are to some extent sidestepped. Initiatives provide employability, not employment. Or they provide online advice and information about job-seeking. Or they provide access to jobs vacancies - usually somewhere else, and mostly not involving ICT.

What then, of the opportunities for online work? Work, that is, located in the community but, in principle, dealing with employers or contracts anywhere in the country, if not the world?

Great things were hoped for from this kind of "location independent" work carried over the networks. Numerous initiatives failed or underachieved in the 1990s. There are several notable exceptions - for example the "work-global" company in the Western Isles of Scotland, that has created over 600 teleworking jobs, or Kuusamo Town in Finland which has created around 120 new remote working jobs serving customers elsewhere.

A problem is, of course, that these kinds of schemes are more risky, and require considerable entrepreneurial flair to succeed. But that doesn't mean they should not be attempted.

There are also less risky routes to developing job opportunities based in the community. People working for local public sector agencies could work closer to the communities they live in or that serve - teleworking from their homes or from one of the online centres being set up. Unfortunately, the online centres being set up mostly do not accommodate this kind of flexible working.

Maximising flexibility

Predictably, perhaps, we advocate maximising flexibility in approaches to developing ICT initiatives in communities. This is, however, not only in terms of work flexibility. Having a flexible and open approach is vital for success:

  • Developments should strive to be future-friendly. What we develop now will be the source of merriment in 5 years time. It has to be adaptable, and capable of evolution. This is not only in terms of ICT equipment and infrastructure, or premises, or content. It also applies to the purposes and structure of projects. They will probably have to mutate and diversify to survive. But most have no idea how they will be funded in 3 years time, let alone 5.

  • Multi-purpose premises have advantages. The infrastructure that enables online access to services can also provide access for remote workers to their office systems and to clients. There will be a need for income generation, and the ability to rent space (whether to individuals or organisations) can bring advantages. It is often the case that local authorities have cramped headquarters, and under-utilised property elsewhere. Worth talking to their property department!

  • Avoid proprietary technologies. Most projects that have invested in kiosk systems for access to information regard them as expensive mistakes. If they don't now, they probably will do in 2 years time. Some are more adaptable than others - but generally they will restrict future initiatives in ways that other IT investment should not.

  • Get the balance right between revenue and capital. Special funding streams usually over-egg the capital while creating challenges for revenue. If the project is successful, or encounters unforeseen problems (e.g. in maintenance), revenue budgets are likely to be strained. Partners in projects need to be ready to keep funding worthwhile projects that succeed.

And finally, what does happen at the end of the project? By then, it may have undergone some shift in emphasis. Ideally, in many cases, it's time for handover to the community. But they will almost certainly need grants to continue. If a project fails, stakeholders need to have the courage to call it a day. Learn from the experience. And try something else.

Resources on ICT and Community Development.

Beyond Access - ICT and Social Exclusion by Samantha Hellawell, (Fabian Society, 2001, ISBN 0 7163 30547), and

Putting IT into Practice: New Technology and the Modernising Agenda, by Samantha Hellawell and Michael Mulquin (IS COmmunications, 2000)

These 2 reports contain many case studies of initiatives.

Using ICT to Achieve Regeneration Objectives is a good practice guide developed by the DTLR, to which Flexibility writers contributed.  It is available in printed form from the DTLR, and is also online at www.regeneration.dtlr.gov.uk/info/gp/ict/index.htm

Other useful websites are:

www.pat15.org.uk
Reports and case studies from the the "Policy Action Team 15"

www.communities.org.uk
Communities Online is a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to "promote the information society on a human scale". Its website has a number of resources including links to related sites.

www.partnerships.org.uk
Another organisation run by some of the pioneers of community networking. The website has numerous helpful ideas and links

www.dfes.gov.uk/ukonlinecentres/default.cfm
UK Online Centres website - what they are, how to become one, and some case studies.

 

Millions of are being channelled into projects developing ICT access, facilities and services for communities.

We ask "What for?", look at different ways of going about this, make some suggestions for achieving value for money, and highlight some resources for further information.

We also highlight the missed opportunities for job creation using ICT.

 

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