By Madeline Gonzalez,
With Contribution by Amy Borgstrom, ACENet
There is a powerful grassroots movement emerging in towns and cities across the U.S., called "Community Networking". The Association For Community Networking (AFCN) describes "community networking" as occuring when people and organizations collaborate locally to solve problems and create opportunities, supported by appropriate information and communication systems. A "community network" is a locally-based, locally-driven communication and information system. There are currently about 120 community networks in the U.S.
Although there are many various "community development" efforts, community networking projects are unique in the breadth of involvement, the diversity of participation, and their use of technology. Community networking projects involve people with a commitment to social service and community development. This includes local librarians who ensured and provided for public access to information long before there was ever mention of an 'information highway'. Additionally, community networks include technology experts who, unlike their corporate technological counterparts, are driven more by the desire to promote the social benefit of technology, than by personal monetary gain or by the desire to develop technology for its own sake. This unique group of people, with a unique set of skills and perspectives come together for these community networking projects. The result is a powerful synergy that helps to address their community's needs and creates new opportunities.
The Internet has become a new medium for mass communication. However, with the increasing commercialization of this medium, there exists the threat that the Internet will follow in the footsteps of its broadcasting cousin, television. It is more than ever critical that there continue to be a public voice on this new medium, and diversity of content to reflect the diversity in our communities.
Across the U.S., CN projects are making some very powerful contributions to their communities. The kinds of applications which are making the most impact on a given community vary with community. However some general trends can be observed. Larger, urban communities are finding the most powerful applications to be:
Smaller, rural communities are finding the most powerful applications to be:
Both urban and rural communities:
In Boulder, Colorado, the Boulder Community Network (BCN) collaborated with the Boulder County United Way and its agencies to create an online version of the United Way's "Red Book". Due to funding constraints and lack of use (the book was out of date and inaccurate as soon as it made it to the agencies), the UW was investigating having to curtail publication of the print version. BCN worked to not only develop the online resource, but also a process for ongoing maintenance & updating, and a process for distributing to those agencies that did not have Internet access. BCN introduced local businesses to the Internet, gave them one-on-one guidance and customized training on using the online medium for their specific businesses. Today, they each have their own successful Web presences (eg., the Boulder County Business Report, the Boulder County Visitor's Guide). People who volunteered with BCN acquired leading-edge technical skills, which they then applied to doing for-profit work in the commercial and government sectors (Web design, Web development, consulting, etc.)
BCN also helped bring the experts & expertise out of the University and corporate labs and into the community. This benefited the experts, by giving them more diverse community experience than they had ever had. This benefited the people who attended their training sessions and were recipients of their help, as they got top-notch technical expertise for free. This benefited both groups in that they were able to interact with people in their community they would normally not even acknowledge on the street.
In Telluride, Colorado, The InfoZone led to the creation of a whole new industry in the region, and new businesses include ZoneWorks and Telluride Multimedia. Local organizations and businesses received customized training and guidance, and are now maintaining their own successful Web sites: eg., the Daily Planet, the Times-Journal, Telluride Visitor Services. The services are being used & highly praised by residents, ex-residents who are now able to keep up with the town and the people, and by tourists in planning their vacations.
In Appalachia, Ohio, ACEnet's Public Webmarket features the Cooley family's gourmet vinegars. They had never touched a keyboard before, and now are downloading their own e-mailed orders. More important, they saw early on the power of the medium to break down stereotypes of Appalachian people and describe on the web the fact although they are indigenous Appalachians, they attended the Impressionist exhibit when they were at a trade show in Chicago, and also enjoy the ballet.
ACEnet runs a computer lease program supported by a revolving loan fund whereby very small manufacturing firms lease used, donated machines at an extremely low, negotiated rate. They are also provided with training and technical assistance. This has led, for example, to three women with home-based knitting businesses in extremely isolated locations in West Virginia now serving as coordination, shipping and distribution hubs for a network of about forty home-based knitters working with a non-profit, Appalachian by Design, to open up new markets. With the loaner computers, they are able to exchange CAD files and other business information with each other and their customers, filling orders for custom knitwear that's sold all over the world.
The specific applications are as diverse as the communities & individuals themselves. Indeed, a very salient point is that each community is deciding for itself just what the most important applications of the new medium are. Yet, all CN projects share the underlying goals of empowering of the individual, reviving a sense of community, and maintaining a flourishing and diverse public presence on a media being more and more predominated by commercial interests. These goals must be promoted, and these CN projects must be supported.
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