Craigmillar Community Information Service


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Introduction

Rousseau, in his CONFESSIONS, sardonically mused that, "it is never any good foreseeing the future," for he had, "never known how to avoid it." Yet, in a world of rapid techno change, where the telematic possibility curve is ever upwards, and where today's fictions are tomorrow's realities, it would be unwise to sleepwalk blindly past the opportunities presented by the Information Society.

Such recognition informed the thinking behind the creation of Craigmillar Community Information (Society) Service (CCIS) in Feb 1994, under the auspices of the Scottish Office's Urban Programme in conjunction with support from Edinburgh City Council. The project has 3 full time members of staff and is managed by an independently constituted management committee comprised of local politicians, council officials, and reps from community groups.

Craigmillar itself, is an unlikely setting for a global communications project. The area is a conurbation of council housing estates which are blighted by poverty, social ills and economic decline. Indeed, Craigmillar is by official recognition, one of the poorest parts of Edinburgh.

The CCIS, which has charitable status in Scotland, seeks to encourage community groups and agencies to migrate to, and through, the so called super digital highways. CCIS believes in the concept of civic networking and subscribes to a low cost/high value approach to info communication technology applications, services and networks, Further to this, CCIS provides access to the following telematic services: Additionally, CCIS is he European Super Hub (there are only 5 such hubs in the world) for a freenet of 3 million users worldwide called OneNet. Here, CCIS feeds 640 computer sites throughout Europe.

Signposts

CCIS can reasonably claim to have established itself as an imaginative benchmark for those voluntary sector groups, public agencies & community activists who seek to exploit the benefits of infomatics for community advantage. Signposts of success to date include:

Commentary

As suggested above, CCIS was created to develop access to telematic services for the 'IT poor', or 'info have nots'. The core idea was that 'ordinary' folk could do 'extraordinary' things with computers and electronic networks and the like, if given ACCESS, training and support.

CCIS was established to develop a stretch of the digital highway for local use and application and so harness the potential of the information society as a 'public' good.
At the outset, the project team recognised that most community groups and agencies already have ample IT kit. Certainly, in Craigmillar, where there are at least 80 local groups straddling every functional typology one can imagine, from the cradle to the grave', most groups already have computers, telephone lines and fax machines. The trick was, from the earliest, to convince projects that their pc should be deployed as something more than a glorified type writer i.e it could be transformed with a modem into a vehicle for surfing the info sphere and cruising the dataverse. Likewise, we found that part of the 'battle of ideas' in getting people to accept electronic networking lay in explaining to people that modems and fax machines are essentially of the same genus and that the fax is an extremely inefficient mode for sending large amounts of data (in contrast to FTP). Here, CCIS has registered some success, with the local housing project indicating that they are saving £30 per month by sending email rather than faxes.

Agencies in Craigmillar are increasingly communicating across a growing digital community. Indeed, more and more Craigmillar groups are using the Net to their advantage and making the most of a wide range of info benefits. By way of illustration, we currently have Craigmillar Community Housing Development Project on line, along with the Council's local housing office, Edinburgh Tenants Federation, and TPAS ( a national tenants advisory group). This not only means that these housing bodies can share ideas, experiences and info over the Craignet, it means that their client group can have a mixed economy of choice over who they have a dialogue with.

CCIS has linked together over 150 community agencies in Edinburgh. We have a range of newsgroups moderated by local people. For instance, Christian Net is overseen by an activist in Wester Hailes (another urban, peripheral area in Edinburgh), while a local T&G official administrates a trades union site. Most recently, Children in Crisis have set up a 'clearing house' network where groups can find out about equipment that is up for grabs. Finally, the Craigmillar Out of School Project is using the Net to maintain & develop contact between children in Craigmillar and South Africa.

One clear issue that has become evident over the past two years plus, has been the need for training in cyberskills. Here, CCIS teams up with the local community high school and the Craigmillar Festival's Community Development Project, to deliver training classes every 2 months or so. We have found that, not surprisingly, people will not use the Craignet unless they are confident and comfortarble with the basic skills to use it. Even then, we have discovered that individuals prefer to write privately to one another as opposed to sending messages to public areas of the board where they may be exposed to challenges.

Another problematic is that some genuinely suffer impotence of the imagination. Those that are afflicted with blunted senses simply refuse to accept the case for harnessing of ICT's for community advantage. The 'unconvinced' are, in my experience, a hard nut to crack. Such people tend to be partisans of the past, locked into the paper based paradigm (in contrast to the cyber paradigm of bits & bytes) and stubbornly refuse to open their imagination to the unfolding future.

Conclusions

The Net has taken hold in Craigmillar and will continue to expand from there in the coming years. CCIS subscribed to the view, perhaps sooner than most, that the Net will increasingly shed its elitist and mystical garb to become part of all our heritage.
In the meantime, CCIS will continue to promote computer networking as a tool for community problem solving, economic development, info sharing, democratic dialogue and discourse, and as a publishing tool with a potential audience of 40 million cybercitizens.

In short, CCIS pledges to continue making the Net and its associated technologies such as video conferencing accessible to everyone, not just the technically literate. Ultimately, few things are more challenging.

Wordsmith@ccis.org.uk (Andy McDonald)
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