Community informatics: Integrating action, research and learning†
Editor's Note: This article concludes our two-issue look at social informatics by focusing on the emerging subspecialty of community informatics.
Information and communication technologies (ICTs), from the Internet to the latest personal computing devices, are often credited with improving international understanding. They are also supposed to support collaboration, creativity, learning and new forms of expression and social action. Yet the world seems engulfed in divides — of age, race, culture, language, beliefs, income, gender, knowledge and nationality — which are creating classes and identities that threaten the basic fabric of community life.
Community informatics (CI) is an emerging field of interdisciplinary scholarship and practice devoted to enabling communities with information and communications technologies (ICTs) (Gurstein, 2004). In their seminal monograph, Keeble and Loader (2001, p. 3), describe CI as a “multidisciplinary field for the investigation and development of the social and cultural factors shaping the development and diffusion of new ICTs and its effects upon community development, regeneration and sustainability.” Inherent in CI is the need to understand how knowledge is shaped and shared in communities, to investigate the underlying information phenomena and processes we find when we take “community” as our unit of analysis.
CI research is conducted internationally in settings that range from inner-city neighborhoods to rural villages, exploring how individuals and institutions such as schools, libraries, grassroots groups and health agencies come together to develop capacity and work on common problems. It addresses questions of community development, learning, empowerment and sustainability in the context of efforts to promote a positive role for computers and the Internet in society.
Early shapers of the field argued for the need to establish “an expansive mode of inquiry” in CI (Bieber, et. al., 2002, p. 3). Rheingold (2001, p. xx), too, noted the need to develop appropriate modes of study in CI that placed research in practice:
“I would like to think that Community Informatics marks the beginning of a new era, neither naively utopian nor paralytically critical, based on actual findings by people who have tried to use online media in service of community, then reported on their results. In the absence of such systematic observation and reporting by serious practitioners, public discussion will continue to oscillate between ideological extremes, in a never-ending battle of anecdotal evidence and theoretical rhetoric.”
CI is increasingly calling for research that recognizes the ability of even the most impoverished communities to conduct inquiry and use appropriate ICTs in ways that respect local meanings and goals (Eglash, 2004; Sugata, 2000; Vehviläinen, 2001; Warschauer, 2003). Innovative action research projects unite community members with university researchers and information professionals in blighted urban neighborhoods in Toledo (Alkalimat & Williams, 2001), across First Nations in Canada (Beaton, 2004), in small town libraries (see www.anna-callahan.com/encyclopedia.htm) and as part of national information policymaking in El Salvador (Courtright, 2004). Such projects seek to improve educational outcomes, support economic development, address local health issues, document and express indigenous knowledge and contribute to theories of social capital and community development. When we look around the world, we find many examples of community empowerment, places where people with limited resources are developing creative, liberating and collective means of meeting challenges and goals in daily life.
Understanding the global diversity of approaches to CI is of great research and practical significance. Commitment to community processes and the roles of governmental and non-governmental, corporate and grassroots organizations vary greatly. Furthermore, specific needs of communities, ranging from securing basic nutrients for children to participation in complex aspects of industrialized civil life, also vary. Not only do international scholars and practitioners have their own perspectives, but their experience working with different realizations can be enormously illuminating to settings here.
Indeed, many have argued that CI is much more advanced in countries outside the United States. Around the world, the following are among the prominent academic and research institutions invested in CI:
One of the most important international organizations in this area is the Community Informatics Research Network — CIRN (www.ciresearch.net). The Association for Community Networking (www.afcn.org) also includes international members. While research relevant to CI has been published in a number of academic and practitioner journals, a strong new international publication appeared in 2004, as the organ of CIRN: The Journal of Community Informatics (www.ci-journal.net/).
Community Informatics in U.S. Library, Information Science and Technology Programs
A growing number of academic programs across the United States are deeply engaged in CI work. Significant contributions, for example, come from Murali Venkatesh (2003) at Syracuse University, Jeffrey Huber at Texas Women's University (Huber and Gillaspy, 1998) and Kathleen de la Peña McCook at the University of South Florida (www.cas.usf.edu/lis/faculty/mccook.html). Our colleagues are developing innovative approaches for integrating research, learning and action that are helping to define the new social and institutional relationships needed in CI. Nancy Kranich and Taylor Willingham are leading a concerted effort through the American Library Association and a number of sites across the United States to introduce deliberative citizen forums into library practice (www.nifi.org/). At the University of Texas at Austin, Loriene Roy (www.ischool.utexas.edu/˜loriene/) conducts service-learning that involves students in exciting projects with Native American communities. The Community Information Corps at the University of Michigan represents a new approach to nurturing and sustaining CI participation across academic and community organizations.
University-based research in CI also encompasses collaboration with community organizations and residents. At Michigan and the University of Washington, Joan Durrance and Karen Fisher have mounted a large-scale research initiative devoted to exploring information behavior in everyday contexts (http://ibec.ischool.washington.edu). IBEC makes critical contributions to both CI theory and practice by giving community members and institutions a strong voice and active roles in its work. At Penn State, John Carroll leads the Learning in Networked Communities project (http://linc.cs.vt.edu/overview.html). LiNC provides a testbed for R&D that develops and evaluates software tools and applications, as well as collaborative learning processes, with schools and community organizations. A handful of schools are now offering courses in CI. Doug Schuler and his colleagues at The Evergreen State College take a particularly innovative approach in their Global Citizenship: Civic Intelligence for a Changing World program, where students work in teams with organizations engaged in social change around the world to explore issues and ideas, characterize knowledge and develop communication, leadership and computer skills; the program culminates with participation in the annual World Social Forum.
At the University of Illinois, the newly launched Community Informatics Initiative (CII) (http://ilabs.inquiry.uiuc.edu/ilab/cii/) is working to identify and facilitate important CI activities, such as those highlighted above. The CII provides a cross-campus home for research, learning and action; a regional university/community base; a locus for building a critical mass of CI work in the United States; and an international hub for this growing field. It supports collaborative activity in the form of creating knowledge and technology that are connected to people's values, history and lived experiences;, developing models of engagement that are open-ended, democratic, participatory and caring; and bringing theory and practice together in an experimental and critical manner. We see the challenge facing CI in the form of four key research questions:
How do actual communities work to address their problems?
What theory adequately accounts for the complexity and diversity of distributed, collective practice?
What tools are needed to mediate work on concrete tasks within communities
What is the most effective process for developing shared capacity in the form of knowledge, skills and tools?
CI work within our school is conducted by faculty (Wellman and Haythornthwaite, 2002; Heidorn, 2002; Berlin and Schatz, 1999), students (Brock, 2005; Hagar and Hay-thornthwaite, 2004; Lastra, 2004), and staff.
The CII grounds its work in the philosophy of the American pragmatists, which rose to prominence at the end of the 19th century and introduced the theory and practice of community inquiry into a range of fields, including aesthetics, education, social work, law and public citizenship (Menand, 2001). Developed most fully in the work of John Dewey (1956. 1966), community inquiry is based on the premise that if individuals are to understand and create solutions for problems in complex systems, they need opportunities to engage with challenging problems; to learn through participative investigations; to have supportive, situated experiences; to articulate their ideas to others; and to make use of a variety of resources in multiple media. The aim of community inquiry is to develop a “critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common good” (John Dewey Project on Progressive Education, 2002).
Thus, a cornerstone of community inquiry is that it aims to respond to human needs by democratic and equitable processes. A successful community of inquiry is not one in which everyone is the same, but instead one that accommodates plurality and makes productive use of difference, accepting crisis as an often necessary aspect of true learning and social transformation. In the establishment and accomplishments of Hull-House, Jane Addams most fully demonstrated community inquiry's tenet that democracy must extend beyond the political expression to permeate the entire social organism (Addams, 1910, 1930; Elshtain, 2002). The communities of inquiry centered in Hull-House claimed enduring achievements in community research, action and policy, including major reforms in child labor law and drastic reductions in cholera deaths in Chicago's tenements.
Community inquiry and informatics combine in the “pragmatic technology” (Hickman, 1990) approach to community-based ICT creation and use. Pragmatic technology encompasses the common language notion of how to design tools to meet real human needs and accommodate users in their lived situations. It also sees ICTs as developed within a community of inquiry and embodying both means of action and forms of understanding; ICTs are an end result of, as well as a means to accomplish, community work. Day and Schuler (2004), in declaring the “subordination of ICTs to building healthy, empowered, active communities” (p. 15) and noting simply that “researchers are part of the world in which they live” (p. 219) resonate clearly with the ideas and practice of pragmatic technology. Two cornerstone CI projects based in the CII demonstrate how pragmatic, community-based technology initiatives respond to human needs democratically and support participation and learning across institutional and social boundaries.
Prairienet (www.prairienet.org) is a thriving 10-year-old community network. Through Karen Fletcher, it has pioneered an innovative community-wide systems analysis process in which inter-institutional consortia form to develop and implement together Web-based CI applications, such as a set of health and human services information and referral directories, a multi-county volunteer matching system, a service to support the provision of emergency drop-in childcare in local institutions and a system that manages the process of sharing excess “stuff” (from computers to couches to crayons) among community organizations. Prairienet also runs an ongoing program of establishing community technology centers in non-profit organizations and low-income neighborhoods. Through Martin Wolske's computer networking course (www.isrl.uiuc.edu/∼mwolske/lis451/spring05/), students work with homeless shelters, after-school clubs, churches, community centers and other organizations in Champaign-Urbana and East St. Louis to install computer labs.
Community Inquiry Lab
The Community Inquiry Lab collaborative develops software to support community inquiry and provides extensive training and education, consulting and action research in community inquiry and informatics to non-profit organizations and individuals worldwide. The collaborative has produced iLabs, a suite of free, open source, Web-based software that is participatively developed in an open and ongoing fashion by people of all ages and from different countries and all walks of life. People use iLabs to create interactive websites that support the communication and collaboration needed to pursue their inquiries in classrooms, community centers, libraries, professional associations, research groups and other settings (Bishop, et. Al., 2004). iLabs includes software for library catalogs, syllabi, document sharing, generating online inquiry units, Web boards, blogs, calendars and image galleries.
Both Prairienet and iLabs represent experimentation in the integration of community inquiry and informatics. Through collaborative practice in the creation of content, contribution to interactive elements and incorporation into practice, community members are not merely recipients of these technologies, but they participate actively in their ongoing development, yielding enhancements which are then available to all users.
Paseo Boricua: A Scenario for Community Inquiry and Informatics
The CII's Paseo Boricua Community Library Project (Bishop and Molina, 2004) provides one scenario of melding collaborative practice in inquiry and informatics across university and community settings. Paseo Boricua is a mile-long section of Division Street in Chicago's Humboldt Park area. It is a vibrant neighborhood characterized by strong, multi-generational, multi-institutional community activism, where about 70% of residents are of Latino origin, and 30% of families live below the federally defined poverty level. Paseo Boricua embodies the development of an autonomous cultural, political and economic space for Puerto Rican and Latino/Latina residents that came into being as a response to encroaching gentrification and displacement in nearby sections of the city (Flores-González, 2001; Rinaldi, 2002). The Puerto Rican Cultural Center (www.prccchgo.org) has served as an institutional anchor in Paseo Boricua for 30 years, galvanizing neighborhood residents around issues such as poverty, gang violence, AIDS, destruction of cultural identity, lack of educational resources and racism.
The Paseo Boricua Community Library Project aims to create a distributed community of inquiry whose participants come from all walks of life and in which each participant has both something to learn and something to contribute. Our goals are to learn how to mobilize neighborhood information and cultural resources and technology and connect them to the work of local activists; address the so-called “digital divide”; and enrich library and information science with the experiences and knowledge of Paseo Boricua residents. Within the context of the project, we are creating a community library in the Puerto Rican Cultural Center by cataloging its collections of books, original liberation posters and human rights network archives. We are also developing services, such as a books-to-prisoners program and family reading nights. In the course of this work we are pragmatically using (for general communication and coordination) and creating (e.g., a Web-based library catalog) iLab software, as well as creating forms of collaboration appropriate to life in the neighborhood. These include a Saturday street academy course in community librarianship for youth, community cataloging work days, a community-curated exhibit of artwork by political prisoners and a summer symposium led by university and neighborhood participants that is devoted to the concept of community as intellectual space.
With this article, we offer a brief overview of the emerging international field of community informatics and highlight important work taking place in library, information science and technology programs across the United States. We explore the connection between community informatics and community inquiry that we are striving to foster in the University of Illinois Community Informatics Initiative. We invite your active participation in this growing collaboration of people who are finding common cause in uniting action, research and learning in pursuit of socially beneficial transformations in their communities. In closing, we recall the Kellogg Commission's (1999, p. 9) definition of engaged universities as ones that have redesigned their research, teaching and service functions to “become even more sympathetically and productively involved with their communities.” If indeed we can align our inquiry in this way, we will greatly reduce the risk of creating, in the words of John Dewey, technologies that bring “new modes of unloveliness and suffering” to the world (Ratner, 1939, p. 458).