In 1993, before BCN got started, the world was a very different place. If you wanted information on human services, or city council memos, or the humane society, etc. you typically had to write away or travel somewhere and get it on paper. Or perhaps you could get small amounts via an automated telephone interface, or, during the day, by tracking down someone to talk to. If you wanted info on many other topics now on BCN, you might not even know where to look. And the idea of getting a real-time graph of wind speed, temperature, etc. for a spot near you in Boulder was unreal.
Some information on specific topics was available via Bulletin Board Systems (BBS's), e.g. Sierra Club information on environmental bills before the legislature. But BBS's were scattered and hard to use, partly because there were no standards for how to use them, and they were poorly networked, so you had to dial each one up separately. And they used a variety of relatively obscure user interfaces.
But Boulder had some people that saw what was coming with Internet technology, and wanted to take advantage of it for the community. One of the defining aspects of BCN is that it started with participation from many groups, and continues to network people and organizations together as well as computers.
First, the university had done pioneering work in networking school districts and teacher training starting in 1990, and had been supporting a home-grown campus community network for years. Ken Klingenstein had championed that cause, and was also a board member of Colorado SuperNet (later to become Qwest), which was an early focal point for the local Internet community. Ken was also chair of the Federal Networking Council Advisory Committee.
Bruce Kirschner was running the Boulder County Civic Center from his home - a free BBS that supported information archives and discussions among people interested in local civic affairs.
The Boulder Public Library got connected to the Internet via an ISDN line at the beginning of 1993. They were considering providing access for patrons to the Internet and also had an arrangement with the Space BBS which made it available to patrons and via dial-up lines. Neal McBurnett had been active at Bell Labs on the Internet for years, and joined the Library Commission in 1993. The groundbreaking World Wide Web was very young, the lynx and Mosaic web browsers were newly hatched, and he had visions of the potential of the technology for serving the community.
There had been some early conversations about combining forces, but these threads really started to come together in the fall of '93 with the help of Steve Cisler at Apple. Finally the people, the technology, and the funding were all in place. The first meeting happened on Nov 4th at CU. In addition to Ken, Bruce, and Neal, there was Madeline Gonzalez and Oliver McBryan. Madeline had taken a leave of absence from Bell Labs in New Jersey to get involved with the InfoZone networking effort in Telluride CO. Oliver was on the computer science faculty at the university and had been working on other means of achieving the same basic goal.
It was Ken Klingenstein, director of Information Technology Services (ITS), who put the crucial logistics together. He worked with the Journalism Department and Academic Affairs who agreed to fund a job for Madeline. She became the director of what the group decided to call the Boulder Community Network. BCN would provide an ideal test-bed for journalism students to get hands-on experience in this exciting new on-line medium. Ken's team provided other crucial pieces: a computer, Internet connectivity and support. Neal and Oliver, soon joined by other stalwart volunteers like Jim Waterman, Steve Olshansky and Ken Fricklas, provided the technical vision. And Bruce provided the first big infusion of detailed local civic information.
The early focus among most community-minded organizations was on connectivity more than information - ISPs and organizations like Denver Freenet and OneNet who were using BBS technology with Internet add-ons. The BCN team saw that connectivity was a tall order for a mostly-volunteer organization (it is no fun to fix modem pools and constantly help people who have forgotten their passwords). Instead, BCN focussed on providing an organized body of detailed information from local governments, local non-profit organizations, and pointers to relevant national and international resources. BCN rejected the "gopher" system that was more mature in some ways but flawed both technically and via licensing restrictions. Instead the team picked the World Wide Web which was clearly going to be more interactive, more flexible, more multi-media, and more successful.
A prototype web site was running by the time of a VIP reception on December 15 1993.
The official launch of the web site was March 15 1994, the ides of March. It was perhaps the second www-based community network site in the world after the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV). Within two months it had been visited by over 2600 computers and at least 14 foreign countries. An article on June 15 1984 describes some early achievements.
Many access points went live at the Boulder Public Library in the summer of 1994. The fanciest was a Macintosh donated by the Apple Library of Tomorrow. But all of the library terminals were able to access the web via the text-based "lynx" browser. Other Macintoshes from Steve went to Senior Centers, Project Self-Sufficiency, etc.
From the start, Madeline ramped up the incredible volunteer program. One of the unusual things about this volunteer program is that many of the volunteers donate hundreds of hours "virtually". That is, work space doesn't have to be provided for them and they can do it from anywhere in the world via the Internet. They set up web sites for community groups, provide software installations and training to the community, etc. Peggy Rueda, Mary Virnoche, and Catherine Weldon got involved early on and each went on to direct BCN during subsequent years. They helped forge relationships with partners like KGNU, the Boulder Valley School District, United Way, Longmont and Broomfield Senior Centers, the Employment & Training Coalition, Boulder County Business Report, etc. Other early volunteers were Wally Wedel (first "volunteer of the month" in 1994), Diane Fells and Art Rifkin.
The team spent long hours writing grant applications. One of the first big grant applications was to the newly established TIIAP program (Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program) of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. BCN got a huge boost when that was funded in the fall of 1994 with $250,000 of NTIA funds matched by $500,000 of local matching funds. In December of 1994 demos of BCN were featured at the Colorado National Information Infrastructure Summit at CU.
One early example of the advantages of BCN was its use by people responding to calls for social services. The official guide to local social services was the "Red Book" published by the United Way. It was available to agencies like the police department and the library which received most of the calls for assistance. But everyone knew that the book was always out-of-date, and the definitive information was really the circular file on the Enid's desk at United Way. BCN, again with the help of the great people at ITS, was able to inexpensively put this information on-line, so everyone could easily get the up-to-date data. And due to some perseverance, local agencies now have the ability to update their own records as needed, thus providing a greater community service called LINC, Local INformation Network.
Another early win for BCN was putting Boulder City Council information on-line. The city had (and still has) a practice of sending the agenda for the bi-monthly council meetings out via email, with a supporting cover memo attachment for each of the main agenda items. This is all in WordPerfect format. In the beginning, these were converted by hand into HTML for posting to BCN. But within a year Jim Waterman had written a system named DIPP (Distributed Information Processing Protocol). In combination with various freely available software packages, DIPP could completely automate the process all the way from receiving the normal email message from the city clerk to converting it to HTML and linking all the pages together. This required no changes to the existing city processes. DIPP now serves many BCN customers.
Using the NTIA grant, BCN established a network of public access kiosks at places like markets, bookstores, housing projects, retirement homes, and government buildings. Even after the grant money dried up, several of these locations are still providing this service on their own, and we continue to provide access to some local housing projects.
Organizationally, BCN took a big step in mid 1997 when we formally incorporated as a Colorado non-profit corporation. Eric Gertler became President of the Board in 1998 and he and Karen Halgren brought in new energy and ideas that resulted in BCN' TekMatch volunteer matching program, modeled on the work at CompuMentor.org in San Francisco.
The University still plays a major role as one of BCN's supportive partners. Other local businesses and individuals are also stepping up to allow BCN to continue to serve the community. We only wish we had the time and knowledge to acknowledge all of the people who have contributed time, energy and funds to BCN. But the BCN site itself is the real tribute to them - please explore it to learn more.
Since the early years, BCN has continued to innovate. From teaching free classes on the Internet, to sending volunteers out to non-profits to help them with all sorts of computer-related projects, to the One Stop Career Network for employment information, the team keeps finding new ways to serve the community via technology.
Access to local community information has come a long way since 1993. We all look forward to the exciting times ahead, as it becomes easier for organizations to publish information, as more interactive capabilities are added, and as the community is provided even more opportunities for enrichment.
Last Update: , by BCN Board Secretary
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