Winter-Spring 2002

Community Informatics: Current Status and Future Prospects - Some Thoughts
by Michael Gurstein

Michael Gurstein

What is Community Informatics?

Community Informatics (CI) is the application of information and communications technologies (ICTs) to enable community processes and the achievement of community objectives including overcoming “digital divides” both within and among communities.  But CI also goes beyond discussions of the “Digital Divide” to examine how and under what conditions ICT access can be made usable and useful to the range of excluded populations and communities and particularly to support local economic development, social justice, and political empowerment using the Internet.

CI is emerging as the framework for systematically approaching Information Systems from a “community” perspective and parallels Management Information Systems (MIS) in the development of strategies and techniques for managing community use and application of information systems.  As well, it is closely linked with the variety of Community Networking research and applications.

CI is based on the assumption that geographically-based communities (also known as “physical” or “geo-local” communities) have characteristics, requirements, and opportunities that require different strategies for ICT intervention and development from the widely accepted implied models of individual or in-home computer/Internet access and use. Because of cost factors, of course, much of the world is unlikely to have in-home Internet access in the near future.  Also, CI addresses the questions of those with a concern for ICT use in Developing Countries as well as among the poor, the marginalized, the elderly, or those living in remote locations in Developed Countries.

CI represents an area of interest both to ICT practitioners and academic researchers and to all those with an interest in community-based information technologies.  CI addresses the connections between the academic theory and research, and the policy and pragmatic issues arising from the tens of thousands of Community Networks, Community Technology Centres, Telecentres, Community Communications Centres, and Telecottages currently in place globally.

Research Issues in CI

What characterizes a CI approach to public computing is a commitment to universality of technology-enabled opportunity including to the disadvantaged; a recognition that the “lived physical community” is at the very center of individual and family well-being-economic, political, and cultural-and a belief that this can be enhanced through the judicious use of ICTs; a sophisticated user-focussed understanding of Information technology; and applied social leadership, entrepreneurship and creativity.

The research issues of interest to CI include how communities can become the “subject” of technology applications and how technology in turn can enable communities to become more active, effective and secure as “subjects”; the differing strategies required for urban and rural, low and moderate income, digitally literate and non-literate communities to become technologically enabled; strategies for “re-engineering community processes” of environmental and land management, cultural production, and democratic participation/empowerment; appropriate and sustainable business models for community based e-commerce initiatives; and the most effective methods of scaling/linking these processes laterally between networks of similarly enabled communities. A further issue of considerable practical importance is the on-going economic/institutional "sustainability" of local access--how it will survive once initial funding sources and volunteer participation are exhausted. The issue of "sustainability," of course, raises issues of the on-going benefits that ICTs provide to community members.

A theory and a practice of Community Informatics is gradually developing.  Partly this is arising out of experiences with community access and community networks in the US and Canada and partly out of a need to develop systematic approaches to some of the challenges which ICTs are surfacing with astonishing speed, including the recognition that access in itself is insufficient—rather it is what is and can be done with the access that makes ICTs meaningful. CI is also developing out of a recognition that there is a need to ensure a local, civic and “public” presence in an increasingly commercialized Internet environment.

The use of ICTs as a basis for local economic development and as a way of enabling and supporting local innovation is of considerable interest as well, particularly in the context of communities having to adjust to the often dramatic changes in local circumstances and opportunities resulting from technology change and globalization of production and competition. ICTs are also emerging as a tool for enabling the development and enhancing the effectiveness of local leadership and providing the means to create collaborative networks of economic, social, and political initiatives particularly for local responses to externally imposed change.

These questions are not of purely academic interest.  Very considerable public (and private philanthropic as well as commercial) resources are being directed toward responding to the perceived Digital Divide as well as using ICTs as a platform for enabling economic and social development among marginalized populations and in Less Developed Countries.  Determining how these resources might most effectively be deployed, as, for example, through "community" institutions, and the most appropriate strategies and models, requires both formalized research and the systematization of the range of practical experience.

Community Informatics: “Discipline” and “Practice”

CI functions both as an academic discipline for study and research and as a practice for those working, implementing, or managing community-based technology initiatives.  In both areas it is still emerging, with a number of recent initiatives in universities and colleges and with attempts in various parts of the world to provide formalization and certification for community based technology practitioners.

As an academic discipline CI draws resources and participants from a wide range of backgrounds including Computer Science, Management, Information and Library Science, Planning, Sociology, Education, Social Policy and Rural, Regional, and Development Studies.  As a practice, CI is of interest to those concerned with Community and Local Economic Development both in Developing and Developed Countries and has close connections with those working in such areas as Community Development, Community Economic Development, Community Based Health Informatics, Adult and Continuing Education, and Agricultural Extension.

There are a number of university-based courses in Community Informatics emerging across a range of disciplines but particularly in Schools of Information (Library) Sciences and of Management.  Currently there are CI academic programs and research being undertaken in a number of universities world-wide including in Australia (Central Queensland University), the UK (University of Brighton and the University of the West of England), the University of Buenos Aires, the University of Milan, and Evergreen College in the USA and there are a number of recent Ph.D.’s—from the University of Brighton, Aarlborg University in Denmark, Georgia Tech and UCLA and several in the University of Michigan, School of Library and Information Science.

Recent collections of papers in CI include:

  • L. Keeble & B, Loader (Eds.) Community Informatics: Shaping Computer-Mediated Social Networks, Routledge, 2001
  • M. Gurstein (Ed.) Community Informatics: Enabling Communities with Information and Communications Technologies, Idea Group, 2000, and
  • he Proceedings of the IT in Regional Areas Conference: Using Informatics to Transform Regions (Eds. S. Marshall, Wal Taylor and Xinghou Yu).

Several more are either in planning or in press.

Community Informatics currently functions as a loose network focussed around the electronic discussion list,  To subscribe send a message to: with a blank subject line and in the body write:  subscribe communityinformatics.  Archives are available.


If anything, the overwhelming impact of the Internet has increased the challenges for both the theory and practise of Community Informatics where CI practitioners and researchers are leading the way forward as in the following Canadian examples, including

  • Designing ways of using ICTs to enhance the quality and coverage of electronically enabled public services such as the Conservation Council of New Brunswick;
  • Building, rebuilding and re-rebuilding the bridges across the Digital Divide as the multiple chasms of income, education, location, nationality widen between the sides such as through the Canadian Community Access Program (CAP), or Community Learning Networks;
  • Developing sustainable models for a community public space on the Internet such as the Vancouver Community Network;
  • Developing strategies and techniques so that local E-Commerce can find ways to co-exist/collaborate/compete with global E-Commerce such as the Strait East Nova Scotia Community Enterprise Network, or Keewaytinook Okimakanak ;
  • Creating local, national, and global democratic practices in a world of Electronic Citizenship such as WebNet;
  • Using the Net to support development in the Third World (such as the Acacia Network;
  • Supporting communities as they find ways of using the Net to be contributors to as well as consumers of global culture and global (See Cape Breton Music Online; and
  • Applying the principles of open source to the practise of civic governance such as Citizens for Local Democracy.

Community Informatics continues to provide a place where academics and practitioners can meet and discuss issues of common interest—assess strategies, develop models, explore controversies. As the area of community based technology applications grows, one can expect an increasing interest in and formal institutional attention to Community Informatics as a discipline.

The development of strategies to enable management use of ICTs to accomplish corporate ends is a well-recognized and widely supported component of business research, education and training. Community Informatics provides a parallel set of opportunities for those with an interest in enabling community objectives with ICTs.

ICTs are transforming the terms and conditions through which large scale enterprise activity is being conducted. To date, the opportunities for the generation of wealth, the achievement of operating efficiencies and scope, the extension of political and social influence and control have by-passed many as the technologies and their implementation have been geographically and socially focussed. It is proposed through the development of community focussed ICT concepts, strategies, applications and cases to provide opportunities for those outside of the narrow band of current participants/beneficiaries and particularly those most at risk from the aggravation of continuing social inequalities to have the opportunity to participate and gain benefit from this current transformation.

Michael Gurstein, Ph.D. is Visiting Professor with the School of Management at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, NJ. He was formerly on the Board of the Vancouver Community Network, the British Columbia Community Networking Association, and Telecommunities Canada and a charter member of the Global Community Networking Partnership.

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