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Community Informatics

 

Community informatics refers to the appropriation and use of a diverse range of information technologies and digital solutions by community networks, co-operatives, and community organisations specifically to contribute towards expanding capacities, enabling agency, increasing empowerment, strengthening knowledge development and management and fostering digital applications in development. It is critically a needs based approach and based on the community playing a key role in defining needs, making decisions, operationalising projects and using technology for very specific local ends.

 

The Concept of a Public Good

 

At the core of CI is a commitment to social inclusion and the exploration of a number of digital interventions and solutions in areas as diverse as education, governance, cultural development and health and to complement such interventions with other ongoing offline interventions in development. So essentially access to, use and ownership of information and information infrastructures ought to be seen as a ‘public good’. A public good as opposed to a private good is available to all citizens as for example public broadcasting signals or the source code in open source software that is potentially available to all users. From economics, we understand that a public good is based on the principles of non-exclusivity (public goods are for everyone) and non-rivalrousness (your consumption and mine of this resource will not deplete it in any way or lessen its quality). There has been a global movement to ensure that education is a public good and not a private resource and that the global public sphere as a public good is expanded and no fettered by unnecessary IP enclosures. While a public good might suffer from negative externalities – for example the overuse of a park might result in a lessening of its public benefits, and the overuse of a road that has not been maintained may also result in negative consequences, in general when we refer to a public good we refer to ‘intangibles’ such as digital information that in theory can be available to all. There are theorists such as Karl Polyani who have argued that it is precisely because of the failure of markets to act in the public interest that governments have been forced to try and provide a level playing field in health, education, access to culture and the protection of the commons. Karl Polanyi’s assessments of market fundamentalism and counter movements directed towards curbing its excesses can also be drawn upon to make sense of the contested nature of informational capitalism. Polanyi in The Great Transformation (1944)[1] provides a strong critique of market fetishism and market fundamentalism, of a market that is often described as a stand-alone entity that is disembedded from the ‘social’ and social relationships. Polanyi also highlights what he refers to as a ‘double movement’, capitalism’s excesses that are met with counter-movements aimed at bringing back some equilibrium in the market-wage labour relationship and the place of the ‘social’. Polanyi famously described land, labour and money as fictitious commodities, the meanings of which have been socially constructed and manufactured and that is crucially based on a denial of Nature that we have inherited and that ought to be considered the patrimony of humankind. Polanyi engaged with the nature and consequences of ‘improvement’ and growth and the role played by an earlier generation of technologies in transforming the means and relations of production. “The Industrial revolution was merely the beginnings of a revolution as extreme and radical as ever inflamed the minds of sectarians, but the new creed was utterly materialistic and believed that all human problems could be resolved given an unlimited amount of material commodities”. Substitute the Information revolution in place of the Industrial revolution and what one sees is the very same belief in technologies resolving deep contradictions in society.

 

Arguably, Obamacare is one of the latest responses to market failure.  Governments have traditionally been involved in distributing public goods and the best example of this are welfare states, although most if not all welfare states have rolled back their commitment to public goods in the context of neo-liberalism and the pressures from private interests.  And rather famously knowledge is non-rivalrous:

 

“Your knowledge of a fact or idea does not block mine, and mine does not block yours.  Thomas Jefferson described this situation beautifully in an 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson:  “If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea….Its peculiar character…is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it.  He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening mine.”  (See H.A. Washington, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, printed by the United States Congress, 1853-54, vol. VI, p. 180.) – Peter Suber, Knowledge as a Public Good – http://sparc.arl.org/resources/articles/knowledge

 

 

Examples of CI can include but is not limited to farmers belonging to a telecom coop receiving agricultural pricing in real time over their mobiles and/or their access to online agricultural knowledge during the various stages in the agricultural season. It could also be an app developed by an NGO for migrants trying to get into the USA through Mexico that has information on where drinking water can be found in the desert. It could be a community’s online repository of knowledge of indigenous medicinal practices or a functioning telecom cooperative in a remote part of Mexico. Or providing ‘civic bandwidth’ through Wi-Fi solutions in public areas such as parks and urban centres. The solutions in other words are expansive and extensive – from collective solutions such as telecentres along with e-commerce and e-trade solutions at a local level to help artisans and women’s organisations sell handicrafts  to effective use of targeted health messaging for individuals – for expectant mothers and new mothers and information on the availability of seed and best practices in organic farming. In other words CI is based on an understanding that access to digital information and knowledge is of primary importance in a world in which such access has begun to define one’s quality of life. Information has become a primary resource that is key to the fulfilment of social, economic, political and cultural objectives. CI is concerned with bridging the digital divide that exists everywhere.  At the core of CI is the enabling of communities to control knowledge and networks to their advantage through disintermediation. Cutting out the middle man thereby increasing the transparency of information and possibilities for independence and inclusivity. The solutions typically strengthen both weak and strong community. Strong communities are characterised by shared frameworks of understanding of a given intervention, community involvement in the planning and implementation of a given project and characterised by collective belief in the worth of its impact on the local community. Weak community is normally the outcome of informatics in development that is of a top-down nature.

 

While it is relatively straightforward to argue that a community-owned enterprise has better prospects for service delivery and sustainability over time – whether in the provision of information or for that matter agricultural products, it is by no means easy to set up or for that matter fund community owned solutions. However and in the context of CI, there have been developments that have spurred innovation in CI. These include the availability of new wireless and other technologies ( WiFi, WiMax based on open standards) open source software solutions, opportunities for VoiP, the availability of spectrum and regulatory policy that upholds such provisioning and examples from around the world of the successful provisioning of CI. We sometimes forget the fact that telecom coops in the USA were responsible for connectivity in large parts of the USA from the 1920s onwards. There are still close to a 1000 telecom coops servicing remote areas and farming communities in the USA. One of the reasons for the strength of such coops has been their ability to control ‘last mile’ options meaning cabling from the local exchange to individual households One of the major obstacles is the role played by both commercial and public telecom monopolies who have traditionally been unable to extend connectivity to remote areas or to communities who have not had the resources to pay for such services. The role that they have played in obstructing community access has been problematic to say the least although over the last few years, from Poland to Argentina, Mexico and Papua, telecom coops have been established. The fact remains that community-based approaches have not been given due consideration by authorities simply because in the context of neo-liberal growth models, the accent was on the private sector delivering such services. This position was supported by supra-national institutions such as the ITU and basically became the global norm for the delivery of telecom services. These examples along with many others highlight the fact that a community does have the ability to mobilise resources at low cost or no cost, are ready to share labour, the use of community facilities, are non-profit in orientation, take a needs-based approach and can plough back any surplus into the development of the network that is in line with local needs.

 

The issue of ownership is central to CI. It is generally agreed that direct and ongoing involvement and influence by the community helps service delivery. In the context of CI ownership services can be 1) implemented by local government on behalf of the community, 2) can be delivered by NGOs on behalf of the community, 3) can be based on user coops owned and run by the community in which each member is a share-holder with equal power, 4) based on community coops where all members of a village whether users or not have a share and voting power, 5) Worker coops, 6) public-private initiatives that have a community element.

 

A critical approach to CI eschews a celebratory account of the digital and opts for a contextually grounded approach in which technology is one important driver, among many others in social change. There are a number of popular writers such as Alvin Toffler and scholars such as Nicholas Negroponte and Henry Jenkins who are technology optimists and who believe that digital solutions are the answer to the world’s many intractable problems. However, as the history of previous generations of technologies reveal, it pays to invest in contextual understandings of technology and to learn from the history of such interventions. At the same time, it makes sense to not take the attitude of a Luddite given the real opportunities that CI offers to community development. However, we need to also take note of the fact that there are those who find solace in solutions that are off the grid as it were. In other words just as there is a right to remain silent, people also have the right to opt for other than technology-based solutions. It is important that we give some consideration to the possibility of the grid failing and its consequences for the majority of humankind who are now dependent on multiple information-based mediations for their survival on a day to day basis.  CI needs to be seen as an essential aspect of community development particularly in the extension of capacities, education, mobilisation and organisation skills at the level of community. The nature of agency in a CI project is bound to differ from project to project. Arguably, most CI projects are oriented towards maximising the efficiencies of employing digital technologies in social change. While the community may learn how to use social media and computing, it is not often not the case that communities learn about understanding hardware and software – so that these can be appropriated for local uses. Curry (1995) makes the point that “It is helpful….to distinguish between knowing how and knowing that. Knowing how refers to the ability to do something, the ability of the average person, say, to use a computer, to enter data, or to do analysis using simple, perhaps menu-driven routines. Knowing that refers to knowledge about how something works”. However, one cannot argue against knowing how given that digital literacy is important in a world that has become digital. The digital divide in other words needs to be seen as one aspect of other divides – economic, social, cultural and political and is also about the lack of capacity and understanding that can make a difference. CI in a real sense offers possibilities to educate and upskill people on how to tackle the divides facing them although the quality of that education and the learning and use of skills is bound to vary from project to project.

 

There are two sides to community informatics – the community that can be geographically bound or dispersed and informatics that refers to digital programming, social networking, content production and management and so on by the community. Like a number of other words used in the social sciences, community is a multi-accentual term that lends itself to multiple meanings. It denotes a group of people bound by common interests and who collectively acknowledge and contribute towards solutions that make a difference in their lives. While dealing with community, we need to acknowledge the force of networked individualism that characterises the predominant relationship between new technologies and its users. CI however is characterised by its intentionality – the intentional uses of information technologies to make a difference in people’s lives.  It makes sense to understand Community to specifically refer to any people who are equally deprived and who are equally interested in solutions that offer them opportunities to use information, to network and create possibilities for change. In any collective that is characterised by diversity in status and socio-economic positioning, community is bound to be a lot more difficult to invoke and operationalize via projects. Critical CI acknowledges the fact that all technologies are shaped by human interests, and that, as such, artefacts such as social media platforms and mobile phones are shaped by political economic and other factors that are deeply embedded in these technologies. The uses of these technologies by communities will involve both following its prescribed, mainstream uses as well as its appropriations – through the sharing, creating and use of code, embracing the principle of openness, contributions towards its design and engineering solutions that increase access and affordable uses of technologies. Critical CI is based on an understanding that digital divides are an aspect of other divides in society and that solutions can be based on community informatics rather than the networked individualism that is a hallmark of technology-mediated relationships in our contemporary world. So in a sense the objective of a critical CI is to strengthen collaborative identities as opposed to individual identity that is the very basis for identity in the transactional environments that we are in. Critical CI attempts to displace the controlling power of networks to define the nature of interactivity and participation through their control of algorithms and to replace it with a network that is shaped by a community and their use of open technologies – both hardware and software, thus strengthening their autonomy and independence.

 

While community is of course an important factor in CI, so are legal structures supportive of CI, co-partnerships with civil society, the state and the private sector and regulations that are supportive of spectrum sharing, license-exempt spectrum, favourable interconnection pricing, tax exemptions, supportive political environments,  open access solutions, access to favourable financing and investments in local capacity building. CI in other words is based on a meshing of a variety of networks that need to act together from the same page to make long term difference that is sustainable.

 

Michael Gurstein (2012:43), in an edited volume on CI and its uses among indigenous communities in Canada makes the following observations – “It is thus not surprising that the resistance and alternatives to this totalization comes from opportunities and frameworks that enable the individual to overcome the fragmentation and to integrate their identity and, more importantly, find the means for entering into collaborative relationships. This process of reintegration is necessarily theoretically, and practically the discovery or rediscovery of a community and of organic and integrated inter-individual relationships, rather than purely contractual an electronically fragmented internetworked connections”.


[1] Polanyi, K. (1944), The Great Transformation: The Political and economic origins of our time, Beacon Press Books, Boston

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