Michael Gurstein on Mon, 20 Mar 2000 21:53:30 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Community Informatics in a Canadian Context

(This note was prepared for a Canadian Government Policy Quarterly, but may
be of interest in the Nettimes context as well...


Community Informatics

Michael Gurstein, Ph.D.
Associate Professor Management and Technology
Director: Centre for Community Informatics
The Technical University of British Columbia
10334-152A Street, Surrey, B.C. CANADA V3R 7P8
T 604-586-6046 F 604-586-5237

Canadians, pre-occupied as we are with the vigour and accomplishments of our
neighbours to the South, tend to overlook our own strengths and

Before the brouhaha about the "Digital Divide" in the US or the "Wiring the
Nation" ruckus in the UK, Canadians have been rather quietly, but
persistently, and with an immense measure of imagination and institutional
creativity, making huge advances in the area which is coming to be called
"Community Informatics".

Community Informatics is the application of information and communications
technologies to enable community processes and the achievement of community
objectives-overcoming "digital divides", "wiring (and ensuring connectivity
for) the farthest reaches of a far-flung nation"; but even more important,
working to find ways of making the enormous opportunities of Internet
connectivity of real value to local communities in achieving their economic,
social and cultural objectives.

Without a great deal of public fanfare, Canada through a variety of
initiatives and programs-Community Telecentres as in rural Newfoundland;
Freenets such as those in Ottawa and Winnipeg; Community Networks such as
Chebucto (Halifax), and Vancouver; SchoolNet, the Community Access Program
(CAP), and now Volnet and NetCorps; Community Learning Networks and the
Office of Learning Technology; the Centre for Community and Enterprise
Networking (C\CEN) in Cape Breton; Web Networks in Toronto; are all (or have
been) world standards and models for how the opportunities and advantages of
the new technologies (ICT's) can be made "universally" available, and not
just to those with the advantage of an urban location, a home computer, or
the funds to support the Internet "habit".

What has characterized the Canadian approach to public computing is what has
characterized the best of Canadian public policy in other areas-a commitment
to universality; a concern to understand and respond to the needs of the
disadvantaged; the desire to be producers of culture as well as consumers; a
quiet practicality and an absence of rhetoric; and public sector policy
leadership, entrepreneurship and creativity.  The dark-side as well is very
typically Canadian-Federal Provincial wrangling, intra-bureaucratic
rivalries, short sighted inattention from the private sector.

But overall, in the area of the Community Informatics, Canada has been and
remains a world leader.  Community Telecentres have been the model for
public Internet access throughout Africa; CAP has been a model adopted in
Australia and rural areas throughout South and Central America; Chebucto
Suite is the software of choice for Community Networks world-wide; C\CEN has
been reproduced in Virginia, Australia and Egypt.

If anything the overwhelming impact of the Internet has increased the
challenges for both the theory and practise of Community Informatics where
Canadian practitioners and researchers are leading the way forward:
? designing ways of using ICTs to enhance the quality and coverage of
electronically enabled public services http://cnbb.unb.ca
? building, rebuilding and re-rebuilding the bridges across the Digital
Divide as the multiple chasms of income, education, location, nationality
widen between the sides http://cap.ic.gc.ca/;
? developing sustainable models for a community public space on the Internet
? developing the strategies and techniques so that local E-Commerce can find
ways to co-exist/collaborate/compete with global E-Commerce
http://www.techbc.ca/~gurstein/cceng/cceng.html; http://sencen.ednet.ns.ca;
? creating local, national, and global democratic practices in a world of
Electronic Citizenship http://www.web.net
? using the Net to support development in the Third World
? supporting communities as they find ways of using the Net to be
contributors to as well as consumers of global culture and global
http://www.cbmusic.com; and
? applying the principles of open source to the practise of governance

A theory and a practise of Community Informatics is gradually developing
partly out of experiences such as those in Canada and partly out of a need
to develop systematic approaches to some of the challenges which ICTs are
surfacing with astonishing speed:
? the need to enable and reinforce community processes using ICT's
? the need for training and for technical usability
? the need (but difficulty) of local sustainability
? the recognition that access in itself is insufficient-it is what is and
can be done with the access that is the objective, and
? the extraordinary power at the interface of virtual and spatial

And some questions still remain: what role can Telecentres play in ensuring
access to the marginal and illiterate; how can the net be used to support
minority languages and cultures at risk; can the Net restore vigour to
flagging processes of democratic participation; can there be a local economy
in the midst of an Internet enabled global one?  These issues emerge out of
the reality of the transformation which is taking place and which underlie
the glitz and the buzz about IPO's and "click through" rates.

There is also an important research agenda for Community Informatics
including linking the variety of advanced ICT tools-GIS/GPS, CSCW (computer
supported collaborative work) and Artificial Intelligence software into
community processes and applications (including designing interfaces which
make them more broadly accessible and usable); understanding the
interrelationships between virtual and spatially determined social
processes; and designing usable public E-services in such areas as Health,
Life Long Learning, public information and so on.  Finally there is the need
to establish a firmer link between the theory and research of Community
Informatics and the practise, policies and programming so that these are
mutually informative and supportive.

Overall, there is the opportunity to take the experience which is being
gained in Canada in Community Informatics into the global "marketplace",
both by selling programs (software or bureaucratic) and by supporting those
with knowledge in translating that experience into the kinds of E-products
which can not only compete in, but create new markets and even new
marketplaces.  And equally, there is a role for Canada in ensuring that as a
"public/community space" on the Internet has been encouraged and supported
to develop within "Canadian cyberspace" so there must be provision globally
through financial support and policy development for the opportunities of a
Community Informatics dimension to develop in the global "cybersphere".

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