Winter-Spring 2004

The Next Wave: Community Information Hubs

Many Community Technology Centers serve as a drop-in place for groups of people in a particular neighborhood. As technology continues to grow smaller, cheaper, and faster, CTCs have an opportunity to take the lead in creating spaces where people gather to experience technology, information and community in previously unimaginable ways. This is the next wave: CTCs as community information hubs.

Hubs are places where people and information are gathered before spiraling outward. Most of us have flown on airlines that utilize the hub and spoke concept. Libraries are hubs of information, as is the Internet. But very few community centers, not to mention community technology centers, have made the leap to serve as the primary information hub for their community. Here are some examples of how CTCs can potentially redefine themselves as community information hubs in the not-too-distant future:

  • Exploradome: In the Exploradome you can play with and learn how to use almost any technology device, software, or tool, ranging from the pencil to nanoconstructor sets. Simply choose an exploration station, select a language and audio-visual-sensual service package, and begin asking questions. If you need a live tutor simply say, "tutor help," and a certified Technology Exploration Assistant from your neighborhood will be with you momentarily. Remember not to be afraid. There is nothing that you cannot learn or do - all you have to do is ask.
  • Living Classroom: In the living classroom you can choose a course of study in over 10,000 topics, from pre-school to post doctoral studies. Not only can you take on-site courses, you can interact with taped courses and holographic instructors, and sign up for and "live audit" classes that are in session right now, from anywhere in the world. You can also choose to "work study" next to a holographic co-worker to learn a specific profession or trade, or visit with a "world host" who can lead you through a real time audio-visual-sensual tour of a local destination in any of 150 countries around the globe. Simultaneous translations of all languages are also offered. If you think there is something that you can teach to others, we can help you design your own course and show you how to teach it.
  • Interactive Community Room: If you prefer to stay closer to home, you can enjoy a virtual-reality tour of your own neighborhood, including businesses, service organizations, churches, schools, park or recreational facilities. You can also see and meet and get instant advice from the people who work in these places. We call this the "Interactive Yellow Pages." If you want to comment about a business or service in your neighborhood, we can help you make your ideas and voice and face known to others by participating in our live community commentary forum.
  • Community News & Multimedia (CNM) Center: Why wait to hear the news from your local TV or radio station? In our CNM Center you can learn to broadcast local, on the spot, news from your wrist computer. Your commentary will be fed to a real time reporting studio with you and other reporters from your neighborhood doing the commentary as stories actually unfold. Here you can also publish your own, personalized community newspaper, broadcast a self-made audio, video, or Web film. Numerous multimedia, production, broadcast ethics, and responsible community reporting classes are also offered in the CNM center.
  • Political Communications and Democratic Participation Training Center. Here single individuals or groups can identify and interact directly with others interested in similar local, state, national or international political issues and participate in virtual political rallies that alert politicians to your cause once a critical mass of online participants is reached. The service offers holographic tours of any branch of government and allows you to meet and hear from public servants and public and private political organizations in virtual reality and real time seminars. Finally, the center includes a virtual voting booth that allows you to cast your ballot on past, current or future political races or referendums with full privacy protection and security verification. Not only can you cast your vote, you can also learn to initiate your own political discourse or movement on a local, national or international level with the latest technological innovations.
  • Community Technology R&D Center: Here we deploy a team of local research and technology experts who attempt to determine the practical short and long-term technology needs of you and your fellow citizens. In addition the team can design and build you an individually tailored product, software, or service for you to purchase or receive for free. We can even teach you how to do the research and development yourself or how to become a technology R&D professional. For new and innovative product developments that we develop in-house, the team will apply for patents and licenses that are held in the name of a local community trust.
These are examples of what happens inside the Community Information Hubs' walls. Maturing technologies such as wireless Internet and up-and-coming technologies such as location-based services for cellular networks will allow centers to reach many more people in the neighborhood easily and inexpensively. Utilizing these technologies, people could potentially participate in community activities outside of a physical hub by walking past beacons transmitting from multiple points in the neighborhood. Their personal device could exchange information with the beacon, offering a wide array of interactive information selections. This information could be social, educational or employment-related. As a result, people will be able to meet, get referrals and exchange information while out and about in their neighborhood. CTCs as community information hubs could also allow people to aggregate information and distribute it through a plethora of devices.

CTCs can serve more people inside and outside of their physical location because of these new technologies. This is important because many residents will never walk into CTCs. Although they can potentially benefit from center services, they may be unaware of those benefits, face physical limitations, or simply choose not to walk in. However, all people have information needs and are inherently technology adopters. When CTCs are structured as information hubs, exciting new opportunities become available to those who have fallen through the cracks. To do this, CTCs need to see what technology people in their communities have adopted, such as cell phones and handheld devices, and persuade the funding community and strategic partners to accept and support programs as part of an information hub model.

With the CIH model, the potential exists to reach people more dynamically, with greater relevance, in the places where they live and interact. In an age when people and the information they rely upon is increasingly mobile, it makes sense to move beyond the "if you build it they will come" mentality. Instead, we need to be thinking more clearly about what information communities need and want, how we can leverage technology to bring that information to people where they are, and how we can build better communities in the process.

Paul Lamb is Executive Director of Street Tech in San Pablo, CA, and a Zero Divide Fellow with the Community Technology Foundation of California. Vishant Shah is CTCNet's Project Coordinator for the "CTCs as Catalysts for Community Change"project.

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