Where Everyone Knows Your Name?

CommunityNet Aotearoa website case study

Stephen Blyth, Department of Internal Affairs

Presentation to “GOVIS 2001 – An E-Govt Odyssey” Conference, Duxton Hotel, Wellington, 2 May 2001 (Revised 5 May 2001)

Where everybody knows your name
and their always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name

Cheers theme song

Introduction

The atmosphere and relationships depicted in Cheers come close to evoking what is possibly one of the most attractive (and perhaps most difficult) features of the Internet: creating a comfortable setting which you want to return to day after day. Ideally this setting would create strong and supportive bonds, though not without some tension. This image captures something of what we wanted to achieve with the CommunityNet Aotearoa website.

The website was set up to provide an online resource that people working in community groups would consider their home on the Internet. Ideally, people would feel they were in a safe and familiar setting where they could open up, share ideas, experiences, doubts, problems and solutions, as they set about building stronger communities in New Zealand. Not only did we want to create community online, but we wanted this happen in person as well.

As we discovered, the world of information and communications technology (ICT), and the community and voluntary sector are both dynamic and rapidly changing areas. The Community Development Group (CDG) faced a complex environment in which to introduce a new initiative that brought the two together. We chose to involve the users in the design process because we thought this was the best way to not only ensure a well designed website, but involvement would also lead to community ownership.

In today’s presentation I will:

  • outline barriers that are faced by community organisations getting summarise the CDG Community Online Strategy
  • outline the website design process
  • share some of the lessons for working with communities developing an online resource
  • and cover other issues we need to be aware of when considering how to get communities online.

To begin with I will outline the context in which the CommunityNet Aotearoa website was developed.

The community and voluntary sector in New Zealand

In 1996 CDG began investigating the potential of ICT, and in particular the Internet, as a resource for community organisations. In 1996 levels of connectivity in NZ were relatively low in the wider population – about 17% of households had Internet access – and virtually non-existent in the community sector. There was a strong awareness that many groups relied on older computers (eg 486s with 14.4 K modems), and those in rural areas only had access to poor quality telecommunications infrastructure.

Even today the quality of access to ICT has not universally improved for community groups. Many organisations still rely on outdated computers and software. The Director of a Wellington based social justice group told me last month that they seldom used the Internet because they found it too frustrating. Long load times, and websites not loading properly meant it was not worth the trouble. Even email was problematic because people sent incompatible attachment files.

Research on levels of connectivity of Lottery Grants Board applicants last year showed that an average of 53% of groups had email and 52% had an Internet connection. Those applicants from well resourced professional organisations had very high levels of access, for instance 98% of Health Research Committee applicants were connected, whereas those in under-resourced grassroots organisations had lower levels of access, for example, of those applying for under $2,000 only 31% had email, and for organisations with a turnover of up to $15,000 this reduced to just 23%.

The barriers faced by groups are many, including:

  • lack of resources
  • lack of time – information and communications technology projects require additional effort, something which is difficult to fit within existing staff and volunteer workloads
  • lack of access to unbiased and community friendly technical advice
  • absence of widespread understanding of ICT – while one or two people within an organisation may recognise the benefits of electronic publishing, this is not widely shared therefore it is not resourced or given a high priority.

As well as being concerned about the level of access community groups had, CDG was particularly concerned about the inequality of access to ICT that socio-economically deprived communities experienced. Many of the organisations that CDG supports work with people who are experiencing the downside of what has now become known as the ‘digital divide’. Getting groups online is seen as having benefits for the wider community.

Why get communities connected?

The Internet has many advantages for community groups, which generally operate in an environment of resource scarcity and exclusion from meaningful input into policy making processes. It allows groups to not only receive information, but to cheaply and easily electronically publish it as well. As a tool for fast and economical communication, the Internet is unrivalled. We’re beginning to see the potential of this as citizens’ organisations use the Internet to organise themselves around global issues. For instance, virtual organising is credited with having a major influence in the decision not to proceed with the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) – indeed a public interest group in Canada made available the text of the Agreement, something the MAI secretariat refused to do.

CDG was, however, certainly under no illusion that ICT alone is a panacea that solves all problems. Not everyone is able to, or wants to, use the Internet. Research in Canada suggests that there is a significant group of non-users who are relatively far removed from online activities, and will remain so, particularly in the near future. Research published by Andrew Reddick in the “Dual Digital Divide” concluded that non-users “… are not likely to derive any personal benefit from access, and are not likely to have the resources or social skills and interests to benefit.” Although comparable research has not been conducted in NZ, what evidence is available suggests a similar picture is likely to be found.

Community Online Strategy

When it became obvious that the brave new world of the Internet was not a fad, CDG explored the areas to which it could contribute. To do this we talked with groups in New Zealand and looked into models from overseas. Part of the inspiration for CommunityNet Aotearoa, and other initiatives, came from a legendary face-to-face conversation one of my colleagues had with an Australian pioneer in community applications of ICT. While on a five bus ride to a community internet conference in rural Victoria, Gary Hardy from Vicnet set out the origins of their work, what they were doing and how it could apply in New Zealand. Little did he know what a profound impact he would have.

The outcome of planning and research was the Community Online Strategy. This sought to bring about a shift in thinking which would be of benefit to CDG’s target audience, both directly through it’s own service delivery and by having an impact on government policy development. Enabling New Zealand organisations to benefit from the potential of information and communications technology lay behind the development of the Community Online Strategy. It was envisaged as providing a significant leap in terms of community empowerment.

The aims of the Community Online Strategy are:

  • encourage the forming of on-line communities of interest working together across New Zealand and linking to global networks
  • stimulate community organisations to become active in publishing their own information online and provide resources to assist in this
  • ensure community values and needs are reflected in the development of public access networks and services
  • actively encourage local and central government agencies to publish online information of relevance to community, and in a way that reflects community needs.

In developing the Community Online Strategy it was that clear getting community organisations connected required more than just providing hardware. The Strategy not only recognised the need to improve access to hardware but also recognised the need for delivery of training and advice, creation of relevant content, and advocating for the needs of community organisations within government. Implementation has occurred within existing budget and staff baselines, so the level of activity has been modest.

CDG was acutely aware that many groups were not online, and usage would take a while to grow. Underpinning the Strategy is continued provision of our services using existing communication channels (eg reading materials, phone, radio, television, etc).

CommunityNet Aotearoa development process

One of the first initiatives we embarked on was development of the CommunityNet Aotearoa website. As an internet resource supporting communities throughout New Zealand/Aotearoa we sought to provide a friendly gateway to the Internet for community groups. The aim was to create a site that is comfortable, familiar and inviting to our target audience. As well as information we wanted to provide a facility where people could interact with each other, whether it be good ideas or policy issues, or events they’re organising.

The design process hinged on recognition of the special characteristics of a sector reliant on older technology, and limited resources. Therefore the site was built to ensure fast load times, and compatibility with older browsers. Ensuring accessibility for all users was also incorporated into design specifications: ensuring that people with disabilities could easily use the site was an imperative.

Our starting point for the design process was the understanding that the people most qualified to ensure we developed an identifiably community website were members of the community organisations themselves. As well being the best way of meeting user needs, we wanted to work in a way that was consistent with our community development approach, that is promoting community ownership and empowerment.

The first step in the process was identifying organisations who we thought could contribute. We chose national organisations because they are in a position to take a national overview and speak on behalf their members needs. Sitting around the table we had representatives from: Citizen’s Advice Bureau, National Collective of Independent Women’s Refuges, YWCA, National Kohanga Reo Trust, Maori Women’s Welfare League, NZ Council of Social Services, Disabled Persons’ Assembly, Kupenga Maori, 20/20 Trust, and the Funding Information Service. This large group charged a smaller working party to contribute to the design process and to explore different options for community governance of the website. CDG played a critical role facilitating the process, and ensuring project milestones were achieved. It took six months to complete development of the website.

At the time of the launch recommendations were made to establish a charitable trust as the appropriate community ownership and governance structure. However, this did not eventuate as groups were not ready to make this a priority. Instead, CDG continues to maintain and technically anchor the website, with input from a community steering group. As well as keeping the website up-to-date, we are charged with monitoring use of the website and undertaking periodic upgrades.

What’s happening since we went online

CommunityNet Aotearoa was launched in November 1998. We’ve got a website that’s growing in response to community sector demand. Feedback we’ve received indicates the website successfully uses the language of the sector, and has as an appropriate look and feel. Graphics are used sparingly (if at all) so load times are quick. The coding is written to meet the needs of all users, particularly those with disabilities.

At the moment you will find the following online: links to websites and other sources of information relevant to the sector; a guide to getting online, covering the first steps and basic web design; resource kits on how to set-up and run community organisations; a noticeboard that features events, job notices and other advertisements; a discussion board open for interaction on any topic; and a facility to host pages on special events such as conferences. The most frequently visited sections are:

  • “Links to other sites”, with the most used sections being Maori, Community Networks, Employment, Mental Health, Social Research, Health, Alternative Health and Funding
  • the “Getting Online” section
  • the “Community Noticeboard” including job and event advertisements.

Usage of the website has been steady: 2,500 to 4,000 user sessions or up to 100,000 hits per month. The usage is modest, and has hit a plateau, but we do know that it is being used by people working in or with community organisations. People using the website have provided feedback that it is valuable. Comments include:

“I find it an essential tool in my work with helping community organisations to develop structures and for keeping myself better informed about the latest issues facing community.”

“I am an (overworked/nonpaid/etc) advisor for the local community -and for three years have been providing information to local community groups re procedures, funding, accounting etc – This site is everything that we’ve needed – and more so! My overly business approach frequently needed translating – our site uses terms and procedures that are understandable by anyone on a community ‘mission’.”

This is backed up by a customer satisfaction survey that we conducted online.

A stream of inquiries are received about everything from legal structures, to community funding, and social and how to solve them. When people cannot find help anywhere else on the Internet they seem to find us and ask for help.

The website will continue to grow and change in response to changing times and user demands. At some point in the future, we envisage handing over the management to an appropriate organisation.

What have we learnt developing CommunityNet Aotearoa?

Many of the lessons that have emerged from the development and maintenance of the CommunityNet Aotearoa website are not only about the technology, although there are some important lessons about the IT side of things, but about community processes. Need to emphasis that there is a close relationship between the technological capacity of the sector and its use of the Internet. Until access is more widely available, then use of online services is likely to be constrained. Below I set out six key lessons we learnt developing CommunityNet Aotearoa.

1. Design process

Design by committee is not an easy process. You need more time and patience to get a final product than if just one or two people were doing this. We spent six months designing what is a relatively simple website, though there are many options explored that did not end up on the final version. The process also required adroit facilitation skills to manage demands for input while meeting deadlines, and accommodating different levels of commitment and knowledge.

2. Impact on publishing

Despite having a positive impact, the goal of having a flourishing community and voluntary sector publishing has not been fully realised – yet anyway. There are some excellent pioneering websites and projects. Examples of what is possible include: the Jobs Research Trust, which is using email and its website to published the Jobs Letter; the St Albans Neighbourhood Network website which features history, issues and services in a Christchurch suburb; and the Converge project, established in the mid 1990s, providing advice and free-hosting to over forty groups. Environment and other advocacy based public interest groups have developed extensive presences on the world wide web. However, in comparison with levels of publishing in the community and voluntary sector overseas what is happening in New Zealand is still relatively negligible. Even two-and-a-half years down the track many of the key community and voluntary sector organisations have yet to develop a web presence. This relatively low level of publishing is also reflected in usage of online resources.

When it comes to having an up-to-date website that is reliant on input from the sector we face some difficulties. A community driven site requires a critical mass of users willing and able to contribute material. This presents a catch-22: you can’t attract visitors who will contribute content until you can attract visitors contributing content. We’ve tried to speed up this process by investing in content development and encouraging key information providers to supply material. We are also looking into some new features on the website that will enable groups to more easily publish relevant information.

3. Local content

One area of demand that CommunityNet Aoteoroa faces is the need for providing local content. We get a lot of feedback from people wanting information relevant to their area. Our view is this is best left to people in their own communities. Community networks and other initiatives are emerging around the country to address this need. Examples include neighbourhood websites, such as Raglan.Net a website based in the coastal town or Eden Park Neighbours Association website from the Auckland suburb, and services offering hosting, training and support, such as the Wellington Community Network. What is important about the success of these initiatives is that they’re meeting locally defined needs and have high levels of community ownership. What we do see the CommunityNet Aotearoa as providing is a way to help join the dots, and promote local publishing.

4. Online interaction

Issues of critical mass also apply to interactivity. The discussion board on the website has low levels of usage. This is not unique to CommunityNet Aotearoa but is puzzling nonetheless. Providing an online forum for discussion of issues and sharing of information by community networks, such as youth workers working in isolation in different parts of the country, was predicted as being a key part of the website. What we’ve learnt is that you can provide facilities but these are not necessarily what people really want. There are lots of reasons for this, including lack of time, unfamiliarity with the technology, limited value derived from discussion, and a lack of trust in how the information may be used. What is working is an associated email group, which is facilitating discussion on community based technology issues. The familiarity and convenience of messages delivered directly to group members, and a restricted topic, seems to work.

We also need to be realistic about how quickly interest and use will build in new technologies. As virtual community guru Howard Rheingold recongnises “…it takes months, even years, to grow valuable and sustainable virtual communities”. Rheingold identifies several pre-requisites for successful online interaction: a social contract governing online behaviour and sanctions for transgression, skilled human facilitation, and a plan for bringing a continuing stream of newcomers into the community. This is something we need to invest more time and effort in.

5. Community governance

The design process may have elicited a positive response but there was not sufficient support for people to agree to set-up an appropriate community ownership and governance structure to run the website. It was clear that while people were interested and supportive not everyone was ready to get heavily involved. The proposal to establish a trust did not come to fruition. Part of the reason for this was the lack of buy-in into a website that serves the needs of the whole sector, rather than just a single organisation. While people directly involved in the design process were willing to set up a trust, those who were not directly involved did not share the same view of this being a priority. Concerns about cost, training, inappropriate content were raised over and over again. There were also legitimate concerns about the sustainability of an organisation reliant on external funding sources, and largely volunteer input. What this told us, in short, is that it is necessary to walk before you can run.

6. Face-to-face communication

A somewhat pricklier issue revolves around how we can form on-line communities of interest. One of the things we’re interested in is ensuring that CommunityNet Aotearoa is not only about the technology but bringing people together. In his paper on “The Titanic, Pizza Delivery, Community Development and the Internet” US academic and community activist Randy Stoecker comments that:

“the most important uses of the Internet are, interestingly, not about the Internet at all or at least cause the technology of the Internet to fade into the background. When we consider what it means to help people become information providers and build face to face relationships, we really are not talking about getting people “on the Internet.” We are talking about getting them into the community.”

This is a challenge for a national project, rather than a neighbourhood, city or regionally based project. Establishing communication channels and trust so that people are willing to share information, jointly strategise, and be open to learning from each other’s mistakes is difficult when people are so widely dispersed geographically. However, it is possible to facilitate this as demonstrated by the “Flaxroots Technology: Claiming the Internet for Community” conference co-hosted by CDG in April 2001. People want to get out from behind their screens to strengthen their ability to develop effective projects.

What’s next?

Turning to the wider theme of today’s conference, E-government and the Citizen, there are two other topics I will briefly cover. Working with community organisations the Community Development Group receives a lot of feedback about what the sector considers priorities for action. The areas I will address are:

  1. The ‘digital divide’
  2. E-government and democracy.

1. The ‘digital divide’

If we step back from the focus on community organisations and take a look at individuals’ access to ICT, we find an emerging ‘digital divide’. Although this term, which refers to the gap between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and those who cannot, is of very recent coinage it has been recognised as the Achilles heel of the knowledge economy.

In New Zealand, the government is developing policy on how to tackle the ‘digital divide’, local government is beginning to become active in this area and a range of community based initiatives are being developed. There are many options available, including: community technology centres, enhanced library services, “computers in homes”, access at schools, and training initiatives.

Finding a remedy for the lack of access to information and communications technology alone is not enough. Bringing Internet access to communities is not a magic wand that will sweep away socio-economic disadvantage, which is at the core of the ‘digital divide’. The Digital Divide Network, a US non-governmental network, have recognised that the multi-dimensional nature of the ‘digital divide’ is about more than just IT. Alongside access, content and literacy and learning, the Network argues that a key to tackling the ‘digital divide’ is ensuring the economic development of communities. It is argued that “…an infrastructure of telecommunications facilities and cultivating a well-trained workforce [is required] so that communities can remain competitive in attracting and retaining businesses.” Many community organisations we work with argue that if you ensure people have a sufficient income then the divide will disappear.

We need to be careful about the definition of the ‘digital divide’, but also need to think about the best way to design programmes which meet the needs of communities. From a community development perspective what we are interested in seeing is the Internet and other ICT projects being owned and controlled by communities. The most inclusive, durable and effective projects are those which communities choose what to do and how to do it.

Expertise is essential, but this should be “on tap, not on top”. To facilitate a community development approach requires skilled facilitation, adequate resources and patience. The ability to overcome these challenges requires perseverance by a community, and a sophisticated approach by community development workers, particularly if they work within government. The typical top-down, government-led approach is not appropriate in a community development setting. Government is important but as Randy Stoecker challenges us, “…we also need government to truly reinvent itself as a facilitator of community-based initiative rather than corporate initiative”.

Evidence suggests that the ‘digital divide’ is deepening so involving communities is critical if we are to bridge the divide.

2. E-government and democracy

One of the messages we hear regularly from community groups is a high degree of dissatisfaction with government policy making processes. There is a feeling that organisations are excluded from having input in any meaningful way. You don’t have to look too far to find expressions of this. For instance, an initiative of the current government is to look into the development of a framework for an agreement between, and to strengthen the relationship with, the Government and the community and voluntary sector. The Community and Voluntary Sector Working Party lead this process and was told that the way government policy is made could be improved. Commenting on participation in policy setting Working Party chair Dorothy Wilson said that “People expressed a strong desire to have proper input into policy before it is written – not always having to react, and not feeling that even when they do send in submissions their voices are ignored. This raises significant challenges around how a better process might work.”

The Internet is a tool that could be used to address perceived problems in policy making. Indeed, the “E-government Vision” talks about enhancing participation in our democracy, though at this stage is not a priority for investment. To date little effort has been put into addressing e-democracy, but we do need to ask what steps should be taken to ensure that e-government enhances democracy?

The Internet offers many opportunities to enhance democratic participation, and is considered to be particularly useful at promoting deliberation. Discussion boards, online voting, publication of official information, polling and a range of other tools are available. However, the use of electronic networks to engage citizens is perceived with suspicion and wariness by many public servants. The use of the Internet is expected to open the flood gates of input which will take additional time and money to process. There is also the question of the representativeness of input – special interests are expected to have too much influence. However difficult these challenges may be, it is important not to shy away from considering them. It’s unlikely we will have any choice about using the technology for policy making as we move toward the information society.

Whatever direction we do head in the role of communities is critical. Douglas Schuler, one of the founders of the Seattle Community Network, notes “…it would be unwise to count on government to develop a democratic medium without strong community involvement”. He proposes developing an “ecology of democratic technology” consisting of: community (computer) access centres, community networks, community research projects, citizen’s technology panels, alternative media, internet cafes, community media centres, public access TV and radio, and community workshops and conferences.

Exploring governance in a networked world will present many challenges – rest assured, the community and voluntary sector have a lot to offer in this area.

Conclusion

Designing and running the CommunityNet Aotearoa website has been a source of valuable knowledge for the Community Development Group. As I have set out above, many of the lessons setting up the website relate to community processes. There are no quick and easy answers when dealing with these. The need to work on relationships and communication is paramount.

A key lesson that I want to stress is that a website alone cannot overcome barriers of poor access. Although we identified this at the outset, it has been reinforced through involvement in CommunityNet Aotearoa. Content needs to developed in tandem with training delivery, provision of access and encouragement for people to get online. In this instance, the CommunityNet Aotearoa website fits within the wider Community Online Strategy that is taking a multi-dimensional approach to getting groups online.

Although we haven’t got as far was we would like, we’re heading in the right direction. For instance:

  • there are an increasing number of people in the community and voluntary sector discussing the implications of the information age, and getting online
  • online activity in the community sector is blossoming, as witnessed by the Flaxroots Technology conference.

CDG wants to build on this, and sees a role for other government departments supporting community connectivity. Building up a critical mass of users is a key task. This will be assisted as departments increasingly use the Internet to publish relevant information for community organisations. However, it is important that websites consciously attempt to meet the needs of all users, including those on old technology and connecting with poor telecommunications infrastructure. Groups we work with say that government needs to demonstrate its commitment to meeting the needs of all users not just those using the latest technology.

The last thought I want to leave you with is to encourage consideration of user involvement in design processes. The model CDG used for the development of CommunityNet Aotearoa had many advantages including tailoring of the language, look and feel and content to meet user needs. It is not only an effective way of designing a webiste, but it also has benefits in terms of support and buy-in. The approach could apply to projects beyond the community sector, and to a variety of projects, whether they be websites or other ICT initiatives.

I have not shared anything particularly new or novel with you today. What I have been talking about are tried and tested development strategies that aim to empower communities to control their own destinies. It is too early to say whether this will eventually lead to the type of interactions evoked in the Cheers theme song. It is something we will continue to work toward none-the-less.

References

Victoria Bernal, 2000, “Building Online Communities: Transforming Assumptions into Practice”, www.benton.org/practice/community/assumptions.html

Andrew Reddick, 2000, “The Dual Digital Divide: the Information Highway in Canada”, http://olt-bta.hrdc-drhc.gc.ca/download/oltdualdivide_e.pdf

Howard Rheingold, “Community Development in the Cybersociety of the Future”, http://www.partnerships.org.uk/bol/howard.htm

_______, 1999, “Technology, Community, Humanity and the Net”, www.intellectualcapital.com/issues/issue225/item4242.asp

Douglas Schuler, 1997, “What Kind of Platform for Change? Democracy, Community Work, and the Internet”, www.scn.org/ip/commnet/munich-97.html

Randy Stoecker, 1998, “The Titanic, Pizza Delivery, Community Development, and the Internet”, http://sasweb.utoledo.edu/drafts/titanic.html

Kade Twist, 2000, “Content and the Digital Divide: What Do People Want?”, www.digitaldividenetwork.org/contentbeat.adp

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