Fall-Winter 2002-2003

Pattern Discussion: Collaborative Design of Community Information Systems
by James Zappen


Many cities in the United States, especially in the Northeast, are stagnant and decaying, with consequences both economic and social. Populations, especially minority populations with low levels of income and education, have limited access to new computer technologies and thus limited access to information about education and employment opportunities and social and recreational activities. These populations are mirror images of the digital divide.


The Troy Community Networking Project is developing a youth-services information system in an effort to improve the quality of life for young people in one of these communities, Troy, New York. This system, called Connected Kids , will provide information about recreational, educational, and cultural resources plus multimedia content developed by and for young people. System developers are using participatory-design (PD) processes to conceive and build this complex technical/social system. The project embraces a diversity of participants within a complex "activity system" representing city, county, public and private schools, and youth-services organizations. We brought these participants together in a series of PD sessions to test our understanding of the system specifications as realized in our initial prototype. The PD sessions renewed and revised our understanding of our shared purpose, expanded our understanding of our audiences and users, and identified system enhancements through hands-on activity and collaborative discussion. The sessions also revealed contradictions or tensions within the activity system and thus invited changes in the prototype and in the activity system itself. Currently we are extending this work to include PD sessions with parents and young people and computer reconstruction and training activities for young people in local after-school programs.


We believe that bringing together a diversity of participants in hands-on activity and collaborative group discussion directed toward a shared purpose can help communities to build both better technical systems and stronger social communities over the long term. PD processes help people find their own solutions to their problems, their own ways to help themselves, their organizations, their families, and their communities.

James P. Zappen, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Teresa M. Harrison, University at Albany, SUNY; Victoria Moore, Delmar Learning; and Ashley Williams, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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