Monthly Archives: November 2004

Council website – way to go!!

I extensively used the online archives of council ruminations and deliberations available on the Wellington City Council website a few years ago when I was conducting research for my thesis. I’ve noticed the website’s design and navigation go through a few changes in recent years but I haven’t paid much attention to what is happening under its skin. As the website won the government category in the 2004 NetGuide Web Awards I thought it was about time to have another look.

The judges were right when they commented that navigation is easy, and there is loads of information. Maps, bylaws, council business and news are just a couple of clicks away. The developers have been very careful not to overload the website with extraneous material that users are forced to wade through.

Finding out how citizens can participate in the council’s business is given lots of visibility. You can’t miss the link to the “Have Your Say!” pages, and the link to the list of submissions open for consultation – called Public Input – is prominent on the homepage. Displaying the main switchboard number on every page emphasises the council is a just a phone call away.

Delving deeper you can find council committee details, and a searchable archive of documents stretching back several years. The archive is a treasure trove, but I have a couple of niggles with the search functionality. Documents go back before 2001, but a drop-down menu used to define search criteria suggests otherwise. And the descriptions for results are practically indecipherable. It is only after you’ve opened a document that you can find out what committee it relates to. As documents are only provided as PDF files, some people may have difficulty accessing them.

As well as all the earnest stuff I really like the picture gallery and quick facts, and the list of links associated with “Play”, which is now my default page for finding out how to find out what is happening around town.

From my perspective the website is very good at meeting the needs of me, as a visitor. The design has undergone a transition from being a plaything for designers to a citizen focused website.

Other winners

To get an idea of what online community can achieve, look no further than the winner of the youth category in the Webguide awards: IdolBlog. It’s the unofficial fan site of NZ Idol. In the dicussion forum there are hundreds of posts and loads of different people commenting on Ben’s fan club (2,446), rum ours that Ben and Seta are going out (130), and release of Michael’s phone number (733). The events list is packed with appearances by our idols at malls and events, and an up-to-date news page.

Other winners featuring a strong community element were overall winners TradeMe, the online auction website, and lifestyle category winner NZdating.com.

People in community groups sometimes grumble that there are limited opportunities online for interaction between people working in the sector. I don’t think it is the technology or marketing nous that are really the barriers – the above websites demonstrate it is available – but it is the will to participate online.

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Update

A recent Wide Area News column Russell Brown focused on IdolBlog and its creators. See: “Idol Hands” (Listener, 4-10 December 2004)

Smith Family community technology learning centre demonstration site

I didn’t manage to visit the Smith Family’s Community Technology Learning Centre (CTLC) in Collingwood when I was working in Melbourne earlier in the year, but I wish I had. The Centre has recently been declared Australia‚Äôs official demonstration site for the Microsoft Unlimited Potential (UP) Programme.

Microsoft are partnering with the Smith Family and other organisations, to set-up and support 150 community technology learning centres throughout Australia. The Australian Unlimited Potential programme – similar to its New Zealand cousin – provides direct funding, a clearing house, promotion, evaluation, software and cirricula. Crucially, support is also provided through the GreenPC recycled computer programme run by Infoxchange Australia.

To coincide with the announcement, the Smith Family released the “Connecting Communities with CTLCs” research report. Kirsty Muir, the report’s author, emphasised that the CTLC approach is about much more than just training people to use technology. Promoting IT literacy uses technology as a means of social inclusion and reintroduction to learning.

“If access to computers and the Internet is provided through a community technology learning centre – be it a youth centre, library, housing facility or other convenient location – it can have an extremely positive impact on the community, leading to increased tolerance, social interaction as well as greater cohesion and personal well being among participants,” Muir said.

The report also lists ingredients for successful and sustainable community technology projects. It’s a list familiar to those of us working who have been working in the community technology field. The key ingredients are:

  • Partnerships and Networks. The most successful CTLCs are those based on solid partnerships involving business, local community organisations and individuals.
  • Community engagement. Local champions in each centre who can interact with and create enthusiasm within the community by involving local residents through volunteering and ensuring centres are appropriate for local needs and conditions.
  • Positive learning environment that is self-paced, self-directed, interest based and interactive.
  • Well-trained and high quality staff and volunteers, who are engaged in the community. CTLCs need to build a support network of volunteers and staff with a wide variety of skills.
  • Appropriate physical location, appearance and setup. CTLCs should be visible in the community and in a location that is safe and accessible via car or public transport.
  • Ongoing evaluation to ensure the centre continues to be relevant and responsible to changing local needs.

There is no reference to open source software in the report. As I am among many who believe that community projects should look toward using open source software, the ommission is troubling. The most charitable way I can view Microsoft’s Unlimited Potential programme is that it contributes to the diversity of support and products available to communities. While I am definitely not advocating an open source dictatorship, I think it is important that NGOs and community organisations take some leadership promoting alternatives to the behemoth of Microsoft. This is particularly important as people on low-incomes can benefit using free products like OpenOffice. I guess this a tension of accepting corporate donations.

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Community IT in Rotorua

I was heartened to get some news from the Rotorua Community ICT Trust recently. Early last year I contributed to a workshop on Computers in the Community hosted by the Rotorua District Council and I’ve been watching developments with interest from a distance. It looks like some momentum is building.

The Trust, which was formally incorporated in November 2003 with a vision of raising the potential of computers and the Internet for Rotorua communities, meets monthly and regularly publishes news on its website.

A recent news item noted the establishment of a Rotorua ICT Strategy Steering Group. This is being set-up to plan for a community consultation process on an ICT strategy for early 2005. The Steering Group includes representatives of the Rotorua Community ICT Trust, Rotorua Social Services Council (ROSSCO) and Waiariki Institute of Technology.

PS. Thanks to the newsletter editors for promoting this blog.

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