Spring-Summer 2005

The Foundation of Community Information Technology: Community-Based Research

Learning Early Lessons

In 1995, the early days of the Internet, a group of us were planning a statewide project in Ohio to assess the computer and Internet capacity of community organizations. In preparation for the project we spoke with one of the early Internet gurus at the time, Terry Grunwald, now of Making the Net Work, who advised us “don't let the technology drive the project.” We heeded that advice and focused our efforts on understanding the information needs of those organizations along with assessing their technological capacity.

We also used a research methodology that, at the time, was not very well known in the U.S. That methodology was called "participatory research" or "participatory action research." It is now often called "community-based research" or "community-based participatory research." The idea was to involve the organizations themselves in the design of the research so that the results would be directly useful to them. It was an interesting process and helped build an organization called CATNeT—the Coalition to Access Technology and Networking in Toledo.

We started to learn a few lessons about community information technology back then: use the project to build face-to-face relationships; focus on people's information needs; use the research to guide the implementation. The lessons were also being learned in other places—most notably the participatory design conferences organized by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.


But then we got sidetracked. Programs like TIIAP—the Technology and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program—even when they talked about the community as the focus, nonetheless emphasized technology as the intervention. The availability of such funding encouraged organizations to look at problems as needing technology interventions rather than creating community development interventions that had technology components. The difference may seem subtle, but can be huge. For it encourages people to focus on developing the solution more than understanding the problem. Consider the example of the development of a high tech surveillance system for a sheep ranch to protect against predators, when the best intervention may be a couple of good herd dogs. Organizations like Techsoup, Making The Net Work, NPower, and others all started emphasizing the technology. Look up the tools offered by any of those organizations. You will find a lot to help you assess and maintain your software and hardware, but very little, with the possible exception of The Organizers' Collaborative, that helps you understand your information needs, and even less that helps you understand your community context. What these funders and technical assistance providers know about is technology. They do not know community development theory, or even information models in many cases.

In 2005, then, we not only haven't learned the lessons, but we keep repeating the same mistakes. And we are seeing the results: the demise of TIIAP and its offspring, the Technology Opportunities Program; the accumulating stories of failed community technology projects that became so numerous they motivated an international symposium on Sustainability and Community Technology in Prato, Italy last year.

Of course we have to lay blame on government policy for making it so hard to succeed. But we need to take the blame ourselves for allowing such a policy to prevail. And, maybe, we shouldn't even look with such fondness on those old programs. Because maybe they were flawed policy, too. The goal is not to get people access to computers. It is to get people access to power. Computers are very useful toward meeting that goal. But so are skilled community organizers, research and strategic planning facilitators, stable community organizations with meeting rooms, and daycare providers so people can attend the meetings in those meeting rooms.

Community First, Information Second, Technology Third

So when we talk about community information technology or CIT, we have to talk about community and information and technology —together. What does it mean to talk about community? Well, if you are doing a community information technology project in a neighborhood, it is more important to know how many doors you need to knock on and how many reminder phone calls you have to make to get 100 people to a planning meeting than it is to know how many megabytes of RAM you need in a lab computer. It is also a lot more difficult to get those people than it is to get the RAM. Yes, we can build it and they will come. But that's all they will do. They won't help us pay for it, or maintain it, or celebrate it, or defend it, if we haven't built the face-to-face relationships along the way.

To know how to get those people involved we need to understand their “community.” But first, we need to understand the word "community" to begin with. It may be the most abused word in our language. When I teach community organizing, or community informatics, and I ask my students what a “community” is, they default to “any group can be a community.” We have no standards to distinguish a healthy community from a bunch of people occupying the same space. A simple standard: a healthy community is one where people know and trust each other across multiple roles: their family roles, their work roles, their consumer roles, their service roles, their resident roles, and others. And yes, that excludes sports groups, special interest groups, and the “virtual community” (unless we really do take virtual to mean “not actual”). Those groups are all important, but they are not communities.

Once we understand the community, and bring people together toward the goal of strengthening the community, we begin to emphasize information . Because we start with the question—what do community members want to do to improve their community, and what information do they need to do it? Do they need databases, or census statistics, or pollution measures, or lead paint assessments, or crime stats, or community asset information, or any of a myriad of other pieces of information?

Then, and only then, does technology enter the picture. Maybe technology is needed to get the information, or to manage it once it is gotten. Maybe technology becomes part of the intervention, perhaps even to help build community relationships. It is a crucial component of any community change process, but it is the third component.

How do we know what the community wants, or what information it needs, or what technology infrastructure is appropriate? Here is where we invoke community-based research, or CBR. Think of it as a framework or foundation to answer all these questions. In a recent book that Kerry Strand, Sam Marullo, Nick Cutforth, Pat Donohue and I wrote, we said there were three principles to CBR. The first principle is that CBR is collaborative—it is about democratizing the research process so that the research questions, methods, analyses, and outcomes are directly influenced by the constituency they are designed to affect. The second principle is that CBR validates many forms of knowledge, from oral folk wisdom to scientific experiments, and thus requires new ways of integrating that knowledge. The third principle is that CBR's purpose is social change, both in changing the conditions that prevent the full realization of community and in changing the conditions of information control so that community members are able to take more and more control over defining, sorting, and producing information.

The CBR process then starts with asking the community “What do you want to do?” Then it asks “What information do you need to do it?” Now there are many cases where what the community wants to do, and the information it needs to do it, require little to no technology. In those cases, those of us whose only skills are in community information technology will find ourselves working in the background, at most. In other cases we may see technology interventions that community members do not, and it is not only appropriate but our obligation to offer those options.

Let's consider a CBR-CIT process, then, as:

…building community relationships by focusing research on the community's information needs, combining appropriate technologies with other interventions to maximize the community's information power and aid in the accomplishment of community goals.

What does this mean in practice?

…building community relationships…

One of the things we did right when we organized CATNeT out of two CBR projects almost a decade ago was to use the CBR process as a lengthy planning process, bringing together residents of publicly-supported housing with professionals and resource providers in the community. We quickly noticed that one of the best outcomes of the project was the relationships that grew among the couple of dozen people who were involved in that planning process. In some cases those relationships led to residents and outsiders getting new jobs and learning new skills. In other cases they led to enduring friendships. And when the going got rough and CATNeT's funding declined, it was those relationships, and the commitment they engendered, that brought the organization through the tough times.

…by focusing research on the community's information needs…

I recently worked with another community information technology project in Toledo to help community organizations assess their computer needs and assets, which was followed by a training series focusing on information technology. It was a nice project, but I noticed that what the organizations really needed to do was assess their information needs and assets so they could figure out what they would use information technology for. So last year we brought together a group of organizations to coordinate just such an assessment, which opened our and their eyes to the amazing contradiction of just how many organizations are both information overloaded and information poor at the same time.

...combining appropriate technologies with other interventions…

I have had the good fortune to be invited to learn about and help with a number of community information technology projects in Australia, which is a world leader in the field. In one recent project working with neighborhood organizations, we tried to take to heart the importance of looking at information needs rather than just technology needs. It was enlightening. Many of these organizations run community education classes in everything from knitting to computers. And they need to get the word out to thousands of neighborhood residents. One of our first impulses was to think of databases and e-mail lists and fancy web pages. But instead we continued listening, and heard the staff's message that such electronic interventions would be both impractical and unsuccessful in places where very few people had Internet access. The appropriate technology many of these organizations needed was good shoe leather, and volunteers to fill the shoes made from that leather, to drop flyers off door to door in the neighborhood, along with halfway decent software to produce the flyers, of course.

…to maximize the community's information power…

The community organization information needs assessment mentioned above, which found that the organizations were both information poor and overloaded with information, led us to consider the power dimension of information. What we learned was that many organizations were collecting information because funders were telling them to, not because they were ever going to use it. At the same time, they lacked the power to collect information they would use because they lacked the skills and time. So we are now in the process of designing a training series to help organization staff decide what information they need, how to gather it, and how to use it to their advantage. And among the things the organizations said they wanted as part of that series is training in spreadsheet software. We are also working to develop a set of easy to use databases for neighborhood organizations, such as building census tables that follow neighborhood boundaries rather than census tract boundaries so the organizations don't have to estimate or add up all those block group statistics by hand.

…and aid in the accomplishment of community goals.

A couple of years ago I facilitated an evaluation of one neighborhood's community development and crime prevention program. We used a CBR process, asking them what questions they wanted to answer and what they thought the best methods were for answering them. We also brought data back to them to get their interpretations to include in the report. The goal of the evaluation, of course, was to help them determine what changes they may want to make to do the best job possible of reducing crime, building housing, and filling commercial storefronts. One of their concerns was whether crime was associated with clusters of rental housing, which would allow them to concentrate community policing resources more effectively. So we did some computer mapping, using geographic information systems (GIS) software, and discovered that rental housing was spread throughout the neighborhood, and thus community policing would have to be spread out, too. We did find, however, that there were crime clusters on a number of corners, which confirmed residents' perceptions and could allow for more targeted policing. That required high end hardware, software, databases, and skills. But the most important thing we did required, once again, the technology of good shoe leather, as we walked surveys to every house in the neighborhood. And the single most important thing we learned from those surveys was that residents saw crime as staying the same or even getting worse in the neighborhood, contrary to the actual statistics that showed crime decreasing by 25% or even more. The goal of the program was not just to reduce crime but also to increase pride, and the survey results led them to redouble their efforts toward the pride goal.

Ten Years From Now

What will happen in the next ten years? Will we have learned the lesson that the technology is third? Will we have learned the community organizing skills that are essential to the long-term success of any community information technology project? Will we have developed tools to help communities assess their information needs rather than only their technology needs?

If I have anything to say about it, we will. My recent book, Research Methods for Community Change, tries to set the stage for making CBR an integral part of any community change process. [Editors note: Research Methods for Community Change is reviewed elsewhere in this issue.] Its lessons apply equally well to community information technology or any other issue because it emphasizes community change as the most important goal. Any community change process starts with diagnosing some condition, which often requires some kind of needs or assets assessment. That leads to a prescription, which often requires policy research or comparative research on different kinds of interventions. You then implement the prescription, and evaluate it, again requiring research.

In a community information technology project, perhaps some community members want a community technology center. The diagnostic stage involves finding out how many people would use a center and what nearby centers already exist. The prescription stage, if it is clear a need exists, then might involve researching various options for establishing a center, and researching the feasibility of various locations. The implementation stage involves actually creating and opening the center. The evaluation stage involves collecting data to find out the extent to which the center is meeting the goals set for it. If done with a community-based approach, all of these research tasks present opportunities to bring together a wide range of people to build relationships, develop skills, create a sense of community ownership, and consequently contribute to the ultimate success of the project. Because the research doesn't just inform the process. It also builds the community. And it focuses community information technology on building the community, too.

Randy Stoecker Randy Stoecker, is Professor of Sociology and Research Associate in Urban Affairs at the University of Toledo and the moderator/editor of comm-org, the online conference on community organizing and development. Randy has been providing research training and support to nonprofit organizations for nearly 20 years in the United States, and more recently in Australia and Canada, and is the author or co-author of numerous books and articles on community-based research and community information technology.


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