Who's who in providing community information

David Miller, d.miller@sheffield.ac.uk wrote this article in 1997.

David Miller of the Department of Information Studies, Sheffield University, developed the first Web site listing UK community information networks (http://panizzi.shef.ac.uk/community/). Here he distinguishes the different types of site under development.

In the last few years development of the Internet has led to a massive expansion of interest in the provision and use of electronic community based information networks. The Internet provides a method whereby information providers (i.e. local voluntary groups etc.) can take control of the content and form of the information they wish to provide.

The Internet also allows access to a wide range of information that is not specific to the local area but which also may be of interest, and allows for the information provided locally to be accessed by users outside the specific geographical location.

In the early days, before widespread use of the Internet, Community Information Networks (CINs) were usually based on video-text or stand-alone PCs with the information content collated and updated in some central location. Publicly accessible sites were made available from which users could access this information. The information provided covered topics from the opening times of local council offices, contact points for various services to a detailed analysis of the performance indicators of the local Health Authority.

A small scale example of this type of system which we are all likely to be familiar is the touch-screen systems developed by many local tourist boards. These screens could be accessed from the local tourist board office and would provide details on local hotels, sites of interest, local entertainment etc.

These systems were in the control of some local centralised authority, and the decisions as to the information content, the frequency of updating, the points of access etc. were made by the owners of the system not by information providers or the user population.

In my view the information provided in good CIN systems:-

We have now seen an expansion in the number of CINs available internationally and nationally and can begin to offer a typology of such systems. They may be initiated and developed by different interests:

The local authority.

These can be seen as a development of the earlier video-text type systems, where the information is provided and controlled by a central administration and the user is perceived as a `passive recipient'of the information provided. This type of system aims to provide information on the services provided by the authority, as an extension of information also made available in `dead tree' format. Funding for these CINs usually comes from the local authority central budget.

Private sector initiatives.

Small local internet companies which see a commercial advantage in developing CINs and seek to provide such information as a way of attracting visitors to their web site. These system are usually funded by advertising revenue. Also in this category are the systems initiated by the economic regeneration agencies (City Challenge etc.) which aim to provide such systems as a way of assisting in the economic regeneration of the region.

The user population.

These are a new and exciting development. These systems are characterised by a user-led, `bottom up', development, with an initial `technology led' drive. A group of enthusiasts from various sectors of the local community who perceive the benefits of a CIN, and understand the potential of the use of the Internet as a delivery mechanism, join together to form partnerships with other local information providers and users with the aim of providing a local information service. One of the many challenges facing CINs of this type is the securing of long-term funding to ensure a sustainable and developing future.

It is in this third type of CIN that the most innovative and exciting developments are taking place. Cross sector partnerships are being developed which bring benefits, both economic and social, and allow for the active participation of the total user population. The information content available on such systems is owned and controlled by the providers themselves, as opposed to being mediated through a third party and the providers are responsive to the requirements of the user population.

All of the CINs of this third type are in the early stages of development. Different CINs have different sets of partners and different forms of `ownership', some charitable based and some as public limited companies. There are many models of development of CINs of this type, but they can be seen to have a similar set of `core values' around the issues of `openness', `access' and `participation'.

Many of the more forward-looking local authorities and regeneration agencies are actively supporting the development of CINs of this type as a way of servicing their own information provision requirements and ensuring community participation.

Developments of this type form the basis of the Information Society. They allow and encourage the active participation of individuals as part of the local community and thus as part of the wider community. They provide a vehicle for the provision of training and support in the skills required to operate successfully in this new society. They aim to be inclusive and thus address the issues of `information rich vs information poor'.

They give a concrete reality to the oft expressed need to ensure that individuals from all levels of society are the beneficiaries of the development of the Information Society.

email:- d.miller@sheffield.ac.uk

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