Keeping people in touch and up to date

Linda Doyle wrote this article in 1997

Manchester Community Information Network provides public access points with constantly updated local information - including one in the Asda Superstore. They do this, says project manager Linda Doyle, by ensuring information providers are responsible for their content and answering public enquiries.
The view that 'those closest to the sources of information are best placed to maintain and share it' is fundamental to the Manchester model of community information sharing. Manchester Community Information Network (MCIN) boast the most comprehensive sources of local information residing on their web-site or linked to it. The model enables a range of information holders to publish their services collectively and speedily but with the burden of updating being dispersed to the source organisations.

The site provides details of local job vacancies, training courses, health, welfare and leisure services through a mixture of text and databases which are either searchable or scrollable. Email links enable the public to communicate with information providers, one of whom, the Citizens Advice Bureaux, (who offer sound from their pages) promise to answer queries from local people who submit their name and address.

MCIN was formed in 1993 against a background of 'public information frustration', incompatible databases, duplication and poor coordination. With the aim of generating support for a community information system a cross-sector partnership was formed. Grant-aid was then secured through North Manchester Regeneration Limited an SRB funded Company to fund a pilot project.

The project launched its first public system in Crumpsall public library in November 1995 and now has a dozen computer terminals based in a variety of public settings, including Asda superstore. Web space and technical support have been provided by Poptel/HOST (Internet Providers) and equipment donated by KPMG (Accountants/Management Consultants). KPMG also cleverly designed a 'mask' which hides the internet browser from the public and keeps them in the domain of MCIN and its links - a necessary step because of online costs and to prevent novices getting lost in cyberspace.

MCIN has adopted a unique approach by prioritising information for the disadvantaged/vulnerable (what MCIN term 'really useful information') and in not being information holders who amass data which rapidly becomes out of date. Instead MCIN are facilitators providing a complementary information channel and assisting organisations who do not have resources to web publish. Interestingly the most ephemeral information on MCIN has also proved the most popular - some users are visiting Manchester City Council 'Job Vacancies' pages on the morning they are updated - another advantage of direct transfer from source.

There are clearly advantages and disadvantages to the model MCIN adopts and this collaborative approach is certainly not the easiest option. Nevertheless it could be one that is increasingly emulated as web site information explodes and as the public become more discerning about up to date and really useful information.

Manchester Community Information Network

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