Addressing organisational needs in the 'third sector'

Mike Powell, wrote this article in 1997.

Sheffield's Open Information Project doesn't claim to be a community network. Its aim is establish an electronic information network which will be cheap, easy to use and of direct benefit to the work of "third sector" - voluntary and social economy - organisations in Sheffield.
From the start the project has set out to meet the defined needs of participating organisations. One need has come from changes in the nature and sources of funds for work in the voluntary and social economy sector in recent years. These have multiplied in recent years but their nature has also changed.

They are often less transparent and accountable in their decision making, more focused on short term output rather than institutional development and may require the development of new partnerships - local or transnational - as a condition of funding.

Such demands increase the importance of regular access to up to date information but also - because funds for core staff are cut - lessen organisational capacity to get that information through traditional means such as attending conferences and meetings.

Organisations need rapid access to information about funding sources and the ability to share experience and ideas in order to make appropriate responses.

Although Sheffield does have a number of high quality paper based directories and newsletters there are a number of reasons why it was felt appropriate to develop an electronic network.

Development of the project

Previous efforts to create electronic information systems in Sheffield suffered for lack of high level supporters or from being so technically led that others had difficulty in comprehending let alone following.

Open Information Project, by contrast, grew out of the experience of one organisation, Sheffield Co-operative Development Group (SCDG), of the difficulty of keeping up to date with all the potential changes affecting its area of work. Discussions with other organisations showed that this was a common feeling and this shared with a belief that there should be technology available to help us led to the start of this project. The first step was to send a questionairre to organisations in the sector. Of some forty positive responses:-

SCDG appointed its development worker Mike Powell, to work on the project. His job has been to develop options which have then been discussed at a series of five seminars, attended on average by representatives from ten different participating organisations, each of which have guided the next stage of the project.

The project has been funded by the European Regional Development Fund and also received repeated help, both officially and voluntarily from staff, from the University of Sheffield and from Sheffield Hallam University.

Key discussions have included

The existence of the project on one directory will make it possible to download all the information contained to other systems, such as those operated by the local libraries and possibly cable television, which do not offer external Internet access. Training sessions introducing the World Wide Web and teaching basic HTML have also played a vital part in raising awareness and skills.

The present

The project went on line in April 1996. This represents only one stage in its development. During early months only eleven of the project's members have put their pages up. More are likely to follow very soon but it is expected that it will take many months for the information posted to gradually build up into a useful resource.

It is also taking time to develop the communications potential of the project which is probably its most important single element. Early ideas to use Newsgroups or On Line Conferencing Software have proved too ambitious. Busy organisations taking their first steps into telematic communication are not going to look for messages in different places. Thus the project is starting with an internal mailing list which will enable members to post messages to the members as a whole.

A third component of the project will involve regular monitoring of network usage and attempts to develop and use appropriate methodology to evaluate the impact the network has on the sector.

The most important sign of progress is however in the project itself. Twenty five organisations participated in the early stages of the project and are receiving grants to help cover their modem and service provider costs. A further nine have joined the association of local, not for profit organisations which the Open Information Project has become. Many others are associate members or have asked to be kept on the project mailing list and the last progress meeting was the best attended of all. The lead role taken by SCDG has been subsumed by a democratically based steering committee.

The Open Information Project has met all its official targets but it is far too early to call it a success. The level of participation of its members does however offer encouragement both for the sustainability of the existing project and for its further development.
Open Information Project Web site

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