Spring-Summer 2005

Community Networking: Movements in the Field and at the Radical Center

AFCN members and leadership have been actively surveying the field of Community Information and Communication Technology efforts, challenges, threats and prospects, and laying the groundwork for new relationships. There is some urgency in our learning how to work together in a more coordinated manner. This insight is not peculiar to Community Networking. More and more of the activists and practitioners in Community ICT are coming to this realization and have been taking strategic steps to build the movement.

It is important to recognize and respect the spontaneity and universality of community networking as a process. Parallel and independent visions unfold as people take up the tools of the information age and realize the potential of their application in diverse circumstances. There has been a recurrent tendency to identify the particular forms in which the community network is manifested as the extent of community networking. However, we face a moment of transition where breaking from form to an appreciation of that spontaneity and universality will facilitate the healthy and intelligent development of our field.

First stop, Vancouver: Visions of Convergence

The 2005 “Strategic Use of Information and Communication Technologies for Communities” Summit was convened in Vancouver, British Columbia at the end of February This was a deliberate convergence of several events for the Canadian Community ICT field and in scope extended to the hemispheric vision of the Telecentres of the Americas.

In this context designed to synergize across diverse experiences, conditions and sectors, the sizable contingent present from the AFCN met with friends and advisors to discuss the coordination of our efforts, and a vision to advance the strategic alignment of the positive social forces behind community ICT emerged: we would shamelessly borrow the best ideas of our friends across the Americas.

In the states, too, we can identify several fairly distinct sectors of community ICT. We have the shared ambition of improving conditions in society and globally, humanizing technology and democratizing or otherwise opening our political life. We're challenged to come up with new strategies that build our capacity to project our collective voice and coordinate efforts. Each sector of community ICT has something to learn from the others, but each also has its own history and practices. Different structures, patterns and interests prevail in community and independent media, community technology centers and programs, community networking and community wireless networks, community informatics and research, eRiders and others of the Nonprofit Technical Assistance Provider (NTAP) community, and the Free-Libre/Open Source Software (FL/OSS) & Social Source communities.

Among organizations such as AFCN, CTCNet, the Alliance for Community Media (ACM), Free Press, the Community Informatics Research Network (CIRN), and the NonProfit Open Source Initiative (NOSI), the need to forge sustained alliances and align strategies is clear. We must promote spaces for that dialogue.

Penguin Day Chicago: Open Source & Social Source

FL/OSS advocates offer a variant of the NTAP network that deserves a special place in our movement. Penguin Day has emerged as a tool for seeding and energizing local efforts and coordinating strategy and development.

Linus Torvalds, the founder of Linux, chose the penguin as the emblem of Linux, the flagship operating system of the open source movement, and now the penguin has been taken up as symbol for the free and open source movement in general, and for Penguin Day happenings in particular.

Penguin Day is a happening. It creates community and effects an efficient transfer of knowledge through exhausting but exciting techniques such as speed-geeking. Penguin Day activities exemplify the local-global perspective of the FL/OSS and Social Source community, promoting open source to the local non-profit community and deepening the network that advances the development and dissemination of FL/OSS and Social Source solutions.

My first exposure followed upon NTEN's national conference where national FL/OSS NTAP leaders such as Katrin Verclas and Allen Gunn of Aspiration, and John Stanton and Amanda Hickman of the NonProfit Open Source Initiative (NOSI) joined with Chicago area NTAPs Teaming for Technology and NPOTechs for Penguin Day Chicago.

Social Source and Movement as Network

You've probably heard of Open Source but may be asking what is “Social Source”? Jonathan Peizer of the Open Society Institute articulated the concept of social source as “marrying open source software development with social service and social change applications.” Excellent background materials and active development can be witnessed in the context of the environmental movement at the Movement as Network site, established as a project of ONE/Northwest, an NTAP to environmental organizations whose home is Seattle.

The Movement as Network project takes its name from a paper by Gideon Rosenblatt, Executive Director of ONE/Northwest, and provides a public space for re-imagining the environmental movement. There are many parallels as we advance the Community ICT movement, much to learn from their experience, and perhaps many reasons for strategic coordination. A quick run through Rosenblatt's paper provides us with an exceptional map and path forward: Movement as Network— although it's sometimes hard to identify an encompassing name, we're not a vague concept. We're part of an entity, a network, a movement comprised of people, organizations, and real connections. From within our movement we don't often see or feel our relations together as a movement and network: we're fragmented; we compete for resources and operate along institutional lines against our own common interest. We serve communities, organizations, and people in a field of fragmented power and find it difficult to assemble the resources needed to confront the tasks at hand or to coordinate a common voice on basic issues.

However, by making the shift to the network perspective, we can begin to assess and establish a differentiation of roles which will allow for more effective connections within the network. This in turn will lead to a stronger, healthier network; building that network out of the fragments of a movement. This is an application and exemplification of Civic Intelligence as theorized by Doug Schuler.

Freedom to Connect

Media ownership continues to consolidate and ICT and Telecom firms have been rewriting the rules of infrastructure ownership and obligation, state-by-state. In the not-too-distant future this will be in full swing before Congress. It is time to reflect upon the values inherent in the original design of the Internet, and for the community sector to indicate what we want the future ownership of our ICT infrastructure to look like.

F2C: Freedom to Connect, organized by David Isenberg, a telecommunications expert and author of the seminal essay “The Rise of the Stupid Network,” began the public discourse just outside the District of Columbia at the end of March, assembling leading thinkers in community Internet policy. Vinton Cerf, part of the team that designed the TCP/IP protocols, the basic architecture of the Internet, spoke eloquently on the importance of maintaining the integrity of the layers of the TCP model. Susan Crawford, Policy fellow at the Center for Democracy & Technology and now teaching at the Cardozo Law School, challenged the premise of F2C with the view that we don't need to assert our freedom to connect legislatively, as that assumes the state can grant or take it away, and that our collective need to regulate reflects more upon our inner demons. Might we be better off with no regulation?

But “regulation,” and, for that matter, "politics" aren't bad words or concepts. Understanding our communications networks from a political framework is as important as the prevailing discourse which presents most everything in an economic one. As we contemplate the communication freedoms we think necessary to democratic society, the progressive democratic capitalism advocated by Mark Cooper of the Consumers Union, we'll be more to the point in framing the issues from the perspective of our roles as citizens rather than as consumers. We need to proceed from the framework appropriate to the community perspective, otherwise we will lose the best of our heritage.

Jim Baller, attorney at Baller & Herbst and advocate for municipal rights, broadcasts a daily email with links to news from communities like yours that are engaged in battles over regulation that would limit their rights to deploy communications infrastructure. Many of these battles are concentrated in our state legislatures. Soon it will be taking place at the federal level.

The Community Informatics Initiative

How do we help communities work from their own perspective? How can the tools of ICT be made to serve community interest? How do we involve the Academy in community in a meaningful and respectful manner? Chip Bruce and Ann Bishop (AFCN Advisor and former board member) of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences (GSLIS)— home of PrairieNet— have launched the Community Informatics Initiative (CII) in the spirit of Jane Addams and John Dewey to address these questions.

Community informatics is “the application of information and communication technologies to help communities achieve their goals,” and the Community Informatics Initiative at UIUC establishes the first formal hub for the community informatics movement in the US, creating a space for this emerging field of research, learning and action activities. An introduction to the new Journal of Community Informatics and its importance to our work was published in the last issue of the ComTechReview, and UIUC will be helping develop that resource.

U of Illinois' GSLIS is a fitting location for this “hub." Libraries and Library and Information Science schools have long been part of the infrastructure of the Commons and stalwarts of the community networking movement. Along with the University of Michigan, the professional training in the organization and navigation of knowledge provided at these schools should be accorded great esteem in the community ICT field.

TOP Legacy Project

The story of the Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) is not over. Let us thank the cadre of leaders in community networking and informatics who stepped forward to preserve our heritage. The Community Informatics Initiative at UIUC and the University of Michigan will archive the riches of the TOP legacy. This resource will be of great value to scholarly communities such as the global Community Informatics Research Network (CIRN) and may yet be leveraged to wider benefit through dissemination and replication of these innovative models. You can be sure the AFCN will do its best to support and promote this endeavor. Incurable optimists, we think this will justify a successor to TOP.

Open Space Austin and Beyond

We are witnessing many movements in the field. We are each active in one or more of them, and can grasp to various degrees the great diversity of efforts and how they reflect related issues. Much remains to be strengthened, built, and connected to our daily community lives as we approach the radical center that roots us.

Open Space Austin was convened as the 7th annual community networking conference at the end of April in this spirit, to reach beyond community networks as specific formal entities, to widen and exemplify the process of community networking. The accompanying notes by Frank Odasz and Jon Lebkowsky offer a glimpse of what took place and what we will build upon in expanding our networks as movement.


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