Why Create? A Critical Review of a Community Informatics Project
Address: Leigh Keeble, Community Informatics Research and Applications Unit (CIRA), University of Teesside, Middlesbrough, TS1 3BA, United Kingdom.
This article examines the effect of a project funded by New Opportunities Funding (NOF) that supports the UK government's policy to establish 700 Information and Communication Technology (ICT) centers in deprived rural and inner city areas based in England. By drawing on evidence from a case study funded by NOF, the paper argues that there remains an underpinning assumption by government that simply by introducing technology to disadvantaged communities, the digital divide will be removed and people will go online. This paper argues that this “top down” approach is limited in its success when it is not grounded in the realities of the day-to-day living of individuals and community groups and the social and economic climate in which they are located. Our evidence suggests that simply providing access and support in skills training does not lead individuals and community groups to making effective use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and that further consideration needs to be given as to why people and community groups should go online.
This paper examines the affect of a project funded through the UK government's online initiative and its attempts to “enable everyone in the UK to make the most of the Internet” (Office of the e-Envoy website). Since 2000, the UK government has invested some £252 million through New Opportunities Funding (NOF) to establish 700 ICT centers in deprived rural and inner city areas based in England (PAT 15, 2000). The aim of UK online is to help make the UK “one of the world's leading knowledge economies” (Office of the e-Envoy website). The focus of this article, the project e-create, is based in the North East of England and aims to increase ICT capacity in community groups, funded by the money allocated by government to the development of ICT learning centers.
The project is located in an area of high levels of economic and social deprivation. The UK government (Blair, 2000; Cabinet Office, 2000) argues that individuals living in such an area should exploit the technologies, first in terms of skills and their future employability and, second, as heavy users of government services such as welfare benefits, housing, health and social care. As more government services go online, access to this type of information and support online will have growing relevance. This article first examines the implications of the digital divide in relation to socially and economically deprived communities. It goes on to discuss the role of ICTs in potentially reducing this divide. The methodology for the study is outlined and finally, the article examines the role of e-create and critically reviews its potential to embed technologies and increase capacity in local areas. In conclusion, we are convinced that despite previous research and findings informing policy, there remains a fundamental flaw in the strategic objectives of the UK government's policy in relation to ICTs. Simply placing technology into disadvantaged communities will not remove the digital divide and people will not go online and “recognize what the internet has to offer them” (Office of the e-Envoy website). The article argues for the social context to remain fundamental to the design of projects aimed at enhancing community access to ICTs and encouraging democratic engagement.
The UK Government Policy - UK Online
Access and Skills
Until relatively recent developments in terms of UK government policy, access to technology was inherently unequal. This inequality of access meant that the potential power of these new technologies was not known by many people living in social and economically deprived neighborhoods (PAT 15, 2000). The development of UK government policy in relation to the introduction of new technologies is outlined elsewhere (see e.g., Day 2001). However, policy development in the UK (as in many other countries) demonstrates the view prevalent in many policy-making circles that society has entered a new era known as the ‘knowledge economy’ and the utilization of people as resources for this new economy are crucial components of the new age (Blair, 2000). Until 1999 the UK government's focus on public access to ICTs had been almost exclusively on the networking of public libraries and the creation of such places as public access points. The change in this focus was reflected in the establishment of PAT 15 by the Social Exclusion Unit and the commitment to make £252 million available to establish 700 ICT learning centers in deprived rural and inner city areas based in England (PAT 15, 2000). To date, some 6,000 UK online centers are operating across England, offering free or low cost access to the Internet, help and support (Office of the e-Envoy website).1
The stated mission of these new learning centers was that they should be developed, organized and operated according to local need, with community involvement in the planning and use of the centers. Day (2001) argued that the policy reflected the findings of past research (Day & Harris, 1997; Shearman, 1999) which argued that the learning centers should be flexible enough in their structure and organization to meet local needs and reflect local culture, should enrich the lives of local communities and should stimulate a sense of community ownership. These factors were regarded as being pivotal to their success. Thus, while ICTs have been heralded as the savior of national economies by such organizations as the National Training Organization for the Information Age (e-Skills NTO, 2001), so they are potentially part of the solution to the economically deprived areas of England. The e-Skills NTO (2001) and The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTa, 2001a), the UK government's lead agency for ICT in education, argue that the government is committed to developing a workforce with world-beating ICT skills. So, as Evans (2002, p. 8) suggests in rather a tongue-in-cheek manner, “if these neighborhoods could only learn to harness the power of this technology … they could be transformed into areas where technology was creatively applied to strengthen community ties and train a skilled workforce for the modern job market.”
In addition to the development of UK online centers, the UK government has published “e-Government. A strategic framework for public services in the information age” (Cabinet Office, 2000) which sets its agenda in relation to the use of ICTs in welfare and government services generally. In addition to committing to ensuring universal access to the Internet by 2006 (HM Treasury, 2000), it also aims to put all government services online by 2005 and ensure all government records are held in electronic form by 2004. To facilitate and support the UK's e-government agenda, the Office of the e-Envoy was set up in 1999 as part of the Cabinet Office. The Office of the e-Envoy has responsibilities across the e-agenda, most notably e-commerce and e-government.
The commitment from the UK government seems quite clear. Tony Blair, the UK Prime Minister, has spoken of his belief in the potential of the new media to increase the competitiveness of Britain and reduce social exclusion (Blair, 2000). While such developments might be underpinned by economic efficiency and competitiveness (Day, 2001), there has been a considerable investment in the agenda with the government announcing a central funding stream to support selected priority services as plans are developed (HM Treasury, 2000).
The Digital Divide
Defining the Digital Divide
Universal access to computers and to the Internet is considered necessary to avoid social divisions and offer opportunities for all by ensuring that future ‘knowledge economies’ include everyone (HM Treasure, 2000). The term ‘digital divide’ may be taken at the broadest level to refer to the gap between those individuals and communities who own, access, and effectively use ICTs and those who do not. I am using this definition in the broadest sense and acknowledge the complexity and diverse nature of the digital divide and the recognition that there are now multiple divides. Failure to bridge the divide may result in powerful digital communication tools' exacerbating and entrenching social disparities (DfEE, 2000).
The Impact of the Digital Divide
BECTa (2001a) argue that the digital divide has implications for education and standards, economic competitiveness and employment and social inclusion: citizenship and participation. They argue (BECTa, 2001b: 13) that changes in education are likely to mean that ICT skills will become indispensable for modern life and will “change radically the nature of the education system, supporting all learners with new ways of learning throughout their lives.” [M1] The PAT 15 report (2000) suggests that social inclusion and economic development in the Information Age are mutually reinforcing, and for people in low-income neighborhoods, gaining and exploiting ICT skills lead to opportunities to participate fully in local and national economies (PAT 15, 2000).
According to the Department for Education and Employment (now Department for Education and Skills) (DfEE, 2000) 90 per cent of new jobs in the UK require some degree of computing ability. It is feared that demand for ICT skills will not be met by the adult population if ability levels do not increase significantly, particularly as the UK is currently the biggest e-commerce market in Europe (Booz-Allen & Hamilton, 2000). Booz-Allen and Hamilton (2000) argue that failure to tackle the digital divide and increase ICT skills could reduce the nation's ability to compete effectively in an increasingly technological global economy. Employers are increasingly considering ICT skills when recruiting staff and locating new businesses.
ICTs skills and the ability to access technology facilitates a range of benefits that can be gained as electronically-based products and services (including public services, leisure and other cultural resources) become accessible online. Equality of access, skills and aspirations are seen as essential to ensure the gap between the information rich and the information poor does not extend to gaps in access to electronically-based participatory mechanisms (BECTa, 2001a). Damarin (2000) argues that this form of exclusion threatens the whole notion of citizenship. Exclusion, it is argued, can be reduced by using ICTs to build and extend communication links and enabling improved access to information sources and services. Failure to tackle divides in the immediate future may entrench inequalities further with ICTs being most effectively used by the most advantaged groups (Shearman, 1999; PAT 15, 2000).
There is no doubt that there is an emergence of a ‘digital elite.’ A snap-shot of statistics show that:
- •Home internet access ranges from 53% among social grades AB down to as little as 12% in groups DE (OFTEL, 2001).
- •Subscription rates for digital TV are also greater in the highest income groups (31%) than they are for those in the lowest (14%) (OFTEL, 2000).
- •Over twice as many employed people as unemployed people are ‘online’ (Booz-Allen & Hamilton, 2000).
- •71% of those employed compared to 32% of those not working were found to have a computer at home.
- •Those in rented property are less likely to have Internet access than owner-occupiers (OFTEL, 2001).
- •4% of council tenants compared to 22% of residents in high income areas were found to have Internet access (RSGB, 2001).
- •London (34%) and the South East (30%) have the highest regional rates of Internet access. The North East (22%), Wales (20%), Scotland (19%) and Northern Ireland (16%) have the lowest (ONS, 2000).
- •The majority of ICT-related economic and job opportunities are concentrated in London, the South East and in the regional capitals (Hepworth, 2001).
The Potential of ICTs for Disadvantaged Neighborhoods
Shearman (1999, p. 7) produced a report for ‘Communities Online’ that looks at the ways in which poorer neighborhoods can use ICTs to “get ahead of the game.” The report argues that ICTs can open the door to the future. However, Shearman notes that providing access and resources is not enough. Rather, there need to be well-thought-out ICT projects that can offer disadvantaged communities a way out, promote confidence and break down barriers. Shearman draws on evidence from projects in the Communities Online network (http://www.communities.org.uk/) that use ICTs to demonstrate how they can be used to regenerate, empower and foster networking by disadvantaged communities. In conclusion, Shearman (1999, p. 8) argues that: “ICTs open the door to the future. Poor neighborhoods can use ICTs to help them get ahead. ICT skills underpin the new knowledge economy, but for disadvantaged communities they offer a lot more in terms of opportunities to get back on track and have a real share in the future.”
The aim of this ongoing research is to explore whether government-funded policy initiatives to introduce ICTs to deprived communities impacts individual and community development. The data that informs this paper is derived from an action research project that is being conducted over an eighteen-month period. The evidence discussed here is from two waves of a three-wave research process. This paper focuses on the main question as to whether a project such as e-create can embed technologies and increase capacity in both organizations and individuals in a local area.
Action research is controversial as a research methodology in social sciences. Its findings risk being marginalized or rejected by academics as being merely partisan or sentimentally idealistic and as lacking the validity and reliability of ‘real research’ (Winter, 2002). While such concerns do have to be taken seriously, McNiff, Lomax and Whitehead (1996) argue that ‘good’ action research shares the basic characteristics of all good research and as such, is a legitimate methodology.
The aim of action research is to test ideas in practice (McTaggart, 1982) and from such testing, report on findings to improve and increase knowledge on an ongoing basis. Zuber-Skerritt (1996) advocates the potential of action research to transform and change action within existing boundaries and conditions. It can contribute to changing the system itself or those conditions which impede desired improvement. While action research is sometimes criticized for being descriptive (Bassey, 1995), it potentially offers the opportunity to describe, interpret and explain events while seeking to change them for the better.
Action research is traditionally associated with practitioners' reflecting on their own experience and action and, from reflection, improving practice. The present example of action research is somewhat different. The project which it examines is testing ways of engaging individuals and community organizations in using new technologies and the research is conducted to examine methods which could improve delivery. The problems with such an approach are discussed later. However, the aim is to extend knowledge not just internally to inform the development of the project, but also externally, to contribute more widely to the debates that inform policy and practice. The methods adopted are those associated with more traditional methods of research and are conducted with the same systematic and rigorous approach.
The first wave of data collection took place in February 2002 and involved an in-depth semi-structured interview with the project manager; the analysis of completed questionnaires by the original partners in the project (n=5); an analysis of completed output forms (n=119); and observation of steering committee meetings. Further data originates from the second wave of research that took place in July/August 2002 and includes the analysis of questionnaires completed by workshop participants over the summer of 2002 (n=46) and 17 semi-structured qualitative interviews conducted with the managers and staff of the partner projects.
The data collected thus far has mainly focused on the role of the partner projects in engaging their users in the project and the barriers that restrict engagement. The final wave of the research is due to take place in July 2003 and will focus on the users' experience of the project, the skills they have learned, and the impact of the project on their capacity to understand the potential of the new technologies as a tool for empowerment and democracy.
Developing the Project
A key finding in the report by Shearman (1999) is the role of adopting a creative approach to community ICT projects. Shearman argues that nurturing the creative and imaginative potential of people through community arts and literacy projects helps create the confidence and the creative potential that is crucial to entrepreneurship.
A previous project run from the research unit, Tees Valley Communities Online (http://www.tvco.org.uk), drew on the creative potential of local communities and attempted to engage communities with online activities such as community challenges (http://www.community-challenge.com), the digitizing of local newsletters such as the Eston Phoenix, North Ormesby Newsletter and the Skinningrove News Bulletin, and video arts projects such as the ‘Long Rope’ (all available via http://www.tvco.org.uk).2 The experience of TVCO led to the development of e-create.
Background to the Project e-create
The project e-create (http://www.e-create.tv/) is a two year project that commenced in July 2001 that aims to build community creativity and learning through technology. Its key focus is to support disadvantaged people and communities to explore and learn about content creation and the media production/delivery aspects of ICTs. The project is intended to operate across an existing network of ICT centers in the Tees Valley where basic ICT training provision is already established. It encompasses a wide range of creative activities and projects aimed at capturing people's imagination and interests. It seeks to both further develop the basic skills of those already engaged with the technology and to engage people who have not yet participated in ICT learning. In addition, e-create can provide a range of non-accredited workshops and activities in partner centers.
The project, e-create, is funded by the New Opportunities Fund (NOF), a fund established by the National Lottery, a stream of which funds the UK Online strategy. In this respect, e-create is an unusual project in that it is not funded to establish a UK Online Center, which has been the main use of the NOF stream of funding; rather, it supports the creative adaptation of technology.
The original bid involved building on the work already undertaken with local community projects and involving these projects as partners in e-create. The original partner projects, South Bank Women's Centre, Ayresome Community Enterprise, Terminus at Saltburn, North Ormesby 2001 and Cleveland Arts had worked with the research unit over a number of years and all had regular users of their centers both accessing the technology and making use of other facilities, clubs and training.
The project was funded for two years (until July 2003). The outputs attached to e-create are ambitious. Over the course of the project, it has to deliver a range of workshops and courses to a total of 320 individuals together with digital skills workshops on a weekly basis to 5-10 people per session. In addition, the project has to run two events over its lifetime for 200 people.
While obviously the fulfilling of the outputs is important, from our perspective the far more interesting aspect of e-create is its potential to be an exciting and worthwhile experiment in building community creativity and learning through technology, and its potential to bring something fundamentally different and enhancing to the projects and the individuals who access them. The impact of e-create would be assessed by examining over the course of the project how it has affected individual and personal development, local image and identity with the shaping of content for Web sites, life long learning opportunities and value added to the partners' organizations.
The potential of the existence of a digital divide to exacerbate exclusion among already excluded communities was a key issue in the development of the project discussed here. Four of the partner projects in e-create are based in the Middlesbrough area. Middlesbrough is a town located in the North East of England which suffers from a depressed labor market. The Tees Valley Joint Strategy Unit (JSU) found that the ‘official’ unemployment rate is running at almost twice the British average (JSU, 2000a). An alternative measure of unemployment - the “job demand rate”3 - exposes Middlesbrough's weak labor market more sharply, putting the overall rate at almost 25 per cent, some ten percentage points higher than the British average (JSU, 2000a).
Middlesbrough also has a higher than average representation of young people among its unemployed. Moreover, while 12% of British sixteen year-olds are in full-time employment, only 4% of young people in Middlesbrough manage to get a job immediately upon leaving school (JSU, 2002). This reflects the fact that the national tendency towards the collapse of the youth labor market as a result of the restructuring of Britain's industrial base has hit Middlesbrough particularly hard (Jones, 2002). Discussions of the loss of the youth labor market tend to concentrate on the disappearance of traditional craft apprenticeships, and the implications for this for young men. Traditional sources of employment for young women, such as clerical and secretarial jobs, however, are also being eroded (Jones, 2002) and in Middlesbrough young women account for more than one-fifth of all unemployment, compared with an equivalent figure for young men of 10%.
Economic activity and employment rate data confirm that it is in respect of the female labor market that Middlesbrough diverges most from the British average, with the female rate on both indicators of claimant unemployment rate and job demand rate lying more than eight percentage points behind the average for women, compared with a corresponding gap for men of one and four percentage points respectively. Moreover, a higher percentage of all employment in Middlesbrough is accounted for by women's part-time employment (29.1%) than is the case nationally (23.3%), and in the late 1990s women in Middlesbrough were slightly more likely to be employed part-time than full-time, a reversal of the national picture (JSU, 2000b).
Middlesbrough is a comparatively low-waged economy (JSU, 2000b) and there is evidence that rates of pay in Middlesbrough have been falling further behind the national average in the last couple of years.
Historical and contemporary labor market conditions can work to influence the ‘educational ethos,’ defined by Jones (2002, p. 2) as “the public belief in the value of education.” Historically in Middlesbrough, the bulk of employment opportunities for men outside the main industrial sectors have been for semi-skilled and unskilled work. The tradition for women was for non-waged work at home, and if they did do paid work, it was overwhelmingly low-skilled. One result is that there has been little tradition of [M2] education after the minimum statutory school-leaving age of 16 in Middlesbrough, and little incentive to the development of a training ethos among the population (JSU, 2000c). This tradition may be reinforced among the younger generation by parental values on the one hand (Jones, 2002) and poor labor market opportunities on the other hand (Bowman, Burden, & Konrad, 2000).
The existence of a poor educational ethos in Middlesbrough today is reflected in the comparatively low rates of educational attainment recorded for the area (JSU, 2002). Not only is performance at age sixteen lower than the national average, but fewer people than in Britain as a whole continue in full-time education beyond the compulsory school-leaving age. In addition, literacy and numeracy skills among the total working-age population are lower than is the case nationally (JSU, 2002).
Middlesbrough is a densely populated urban area characterized by high levels of economic and social deprivation, low rates of educational attainment and multi-generational unemployment. It is the recipient of a range of initiatives and schemes which attempt to address such problems. It receives European and UK government funding, and parts of the town are designated Health Action Zones, Education Action Zones and New Deal for Communities areas. Not surprisingly, therefore, a range of community and voluntary organizations across Middlesbrough received funding through the NOF UK online initiative and numerous UK Online centers have opened in the town providing free or cheap access to new technologies and the Internet.
The original partner projects in e-create provide a range of services to disadvantaged communities in the area. All of the partner projects are now UK Online Centers providing drop-in access to the new technologies to their local communities.
- •Terminus 2, based in Saltburn on the North East coast, has been established since June 1998 and provides a range of accredited and non-accredited ICT courses and advice to SMEs. Terminus has approximately 450 students at any one time. The project has three target groups: people over 55, the unemployed (particularly women wanting to return to work), and rural area dwellers.
- •North Ormesby 2001 has been established since 1998 and provides educational and social activities for North Ormesby residents to “promote a better quality of life.” The project is open to all local residents and provides a range of activities including a good grub club, youth club and career advice drop-in facility.
- •Cleveland Arts is a registered charity and was established in 1982 to promote and develop a wide variety of artistic activity throughout the Tees area. Cleveland Arts delivers arts projects in partnership with providers. These have included arts in education, commissioning art in the public domain, word fountain (creative reading and writing) and social inclusion.
- •Ayresome Community Enterprise (ACE) has been established for 8 years and was created to provide community-based activities and IT training and courses. The center provides accredited IT training with approximately 50 students attending computer courses at any one time. The center also attracts approximately 50 individuals per week for other activities including a bowls group and a job club.
- •South Bank Women's Centre has been established since 1991. The center runs a range of accredited and non-accredited courses for women and has a crèche and drop-in area. The center offers a range of activities including a reading group, a painting and drawing group, two groups for young girls and a ‘golden oldies’ group. In addition, South Bank Women's Centre runs support sessions for a range of issues including domestic violence and mental health problems.
The partner projects have been in existence for some time and are well established within their geographical communities. All of the projects are providing some form of access to ICTs with many offering both accredited and non-accredited courses in IT and ICTs.
The process adopted in developing e-create has been to involve groups and centers with which the research unit has developed a good working relationship. This has resulted in a partnership whereby the centers and organizations gain from e-create both in terms of the introduction of new technology and software and new activities while the research unit gains by having in place a network of centers and projects through which it can deliver a range of creative and engaging activities to both improve individual skill levels and develop content for the Internet. The other advantage of the project is its potential ability to foster networks between the partners and other participating groups, thus harnessing a resource advantageous to all those taking part.
Engagement with the Project
By September 2002, project staff (project manager and development worker) had worked with a number of groups and organizations providing workshops in a range of subjects including Web design, digital manipulation and publishing on the Web. In addition, a local event, the Stockton Riverside Festival, was Web cast (http://www.radioriverside.co.uk). By the end of October 2002, 547 individuals had participated in workshops.
At the first phase of the research, concerns were identified as to the non-engagement with the project from the original partners. All of the center managers/workers who took part in the research expressed the opinion that this project had the potential to “add value” to their centers by enhancing the range of activities offered to their users. However, it was generally acknowledged that the time-lapse from the development of the project and the submission of the bid to the project being funded and starting (approximately 12 months) had resulted in considerable changes in each of the centers. Spare capacity to hold e-create events in the centers had often been filled. Staff involved in the original discussions about the project had moved, on resulting in many of the centers' not being clear as to what they had signed up for.
At the second wave of the research there continued to be a lack of engagement by some of the partners. There are limited or no e-create activities taking place at a number of the partner project centers and there is limited or no attendance at the steering committee meetings. When questioned as to this lack of participation one original partner discussed how the structure of his project did not allow for participation:
We have 602 people actively taking courses. We only have 3 staff and they are low-paid and work shifts. The staff are enrolling and supporting people on training. They just can't do anymore.
This issue of capacity in terms of staff was also cited for non-attendance at steering committee meetings. The manager felt he could not justify leaving his project for a couple of hours every month to discuss another project in which he was not directly involved. Another project manager who only sporadically attends steering committee meetings discussed how her own project and staff had to take priority. Fitting in meetings seen as not directly related to her project proved difficult.
Workshops and Courses
Where workshops and activities are taking place in the original partner projects, attendance is often low. Workshops/short courses held over a number of weeks have experienced declining numbers as the weeks progress, often leaving only one or two users attending the final sessions. In addition, when a range of courses have been held, attendance is generally by the same individuals.
There is no evidence of workshop participants' progressing on to more formal learning. A progression route has been established with the creation of a University Certificate in Professional Development (UCPD) in Digital Imaging. This course is currently running in one of the partner centers, Terminus. It has been made available in other centers, but to date, there has been no interest.
The Role of e-create in the Centers
There remains a lack of understanding as to how e-create activities “fit” with other activities in the centers. Generally, the original partners are still confused as to their role in the development and implementation of e-create and because of this lack of understanding, are reluctant to promote the project to their users. Despite agreement by all of the project managers and staff interviewed that the project is “worthwhile,” when questioned as to why this was the case, the response was generally that it added something to their projects in that it provided another activity for project users. It was seen as providing a “fun” activity and possibly a draw to attract new users to the projects. Only one worker identified the project as potentially being able to enhance other activities by providing an alternate way of exhibiting their work.
The evidence from our research suggests that the original aims and objectives of the centers affect the way in which center staff have engaged with e-create. In the majority of the centers there is a clear commitment to formal, accredited training (both in computing and in other areas). In at least three cases this has resulted in local training providers (including the University) running courses from early morning through to the evening. In these instances, e-create has become an “add on” which they struggle to find time for. Accordingly, workshops and such are scheduled only during academic year breaks such as over the summer. The core business of these centers (and some of their funding) is from these accredited courses and will therefore always take priority.
The conflict in terms of courses is also often compounded by the resource implication of e-create for the partner center staff. There was an expectation by e-create staff that the centers would generate the interest and demand in e-create activities. This has not happened and while most centers will advertise such activities, they do not have the capacity to work with center users generating interest (either in terms of time or in terms of knowledge of the activities available).
There are, of course, some excellent examples where e-create has produced work with partner centers and projects. Working with interest groups in the centers has produced Web sites related to those interests and the users now regularly update these. An excellent example of this is the Painting and Drawing group based at South Bank Women's Centre (http://www.cira.org.uk/ecreate/watercolours/page2.html, http://www.cira.org.uk/ecreate/watercolours/gallery/index.htm). Project staff worked with the users to digitize their images and put them on the Internet. Users from some of the centers participated in the Webcast of the Riverside Festival. In addition, users of Cleveland Arts with mental health problems have participated in workshops that have given them the skills to create and digitize their art (http://www.tvco.org.uk/board/messages/122/123.html?1026395966).
The engagement of the partner projects with e-create relates to their own use of the technology and the impact it has had on organizational capacity. In 2000 the UK government commissioned Hall Aitken (2000) to examine use of ICTs by voluntary and community organizations. From the review of research into access and use of ICTs by this sector, Hall Aitken concluded that there is a low take-up and adoption of technology by small voluntary and community organizations. As such, they agree with earlier studies (e.g., Burt & Taylor, 2001; Future Foundation, 2000; Wilkinsons, 2000) that the potential benefits available to the voluntary and community sector are not being realized.
In the case of the partners in e-create, at the time of writing, none of the original partner projects had an up-to-date Website representing their group or organization. One group, South Bank Women's Centre, had contracted an external organization in early 2001 to create their Web site. This site has never been completed with “site under construction” posted on each page (http://www.tvco.org.uk/sbwc/main.htm). The management and staff of the project cannot access the site to make changes or complete it.
In a similar way to the organizations' Web sites, the staff and management of the original partner projects are not taking full advantage of e-mail (despite all having e-mail addresses). At the commencement of e-create, minutes of steering committee meetings and general announcements about the project were distributed by e-mail. It became apparent that the recipients were not checking their e-mail and so this process stopped and documentation is now sent by post. When questioned as to their use of e-mail, the managers and project staff interviewed almost universally discussed how accessing their e-mail generally meant having to use the computers provided for center users as these were often the only ones with a connection to the Internet. They found this time-consuming and were concerned about privacy. Again, however, the potential of e-mail was acknowledged by most of the managers and staff interviewed. As one manager noted:
I mean you know one of my own things is that I want to contact some international projects because I'd like to see an international exchange at the … center so that is going to be quite exciting for me. Just loads and loads of people that I network with are on e-mail and they seem to think its loads faster than a letter or a fax some of them can't be asked with the telephone. I actually quite like the telephone but um so I was quite looking forward to it.
Nevertheless, this lack of engagement with the project staff and managers contributes to our understanding as to why e-create is proving not to be successful in the original projects. If project staff do not understand the benefits of ICTs and their potential to be harnessed by the community organizations and their individual members for their benefit, then why should they encourage their users to take part in e-create activities other than as fun and diverting distractions?
Hall Aitken (2001) identified barriers that need to be overcome before ICTs can be exploited by the voluntary and community sector. These barriers include a lack of understanding that computers and connectivity should be core to organizational functions and development. There remains staff resistance due to their already being under pressure to fulfill their roles. Technology will need to be seen as making life easier, not more difficult. There are few overt champions and models (or, at least, they are not publicized). There continue to be few examples of community organizations making innovative use of ICTs. Finally, there continues to remain an under-appreciation of the benefits of online networking. All of these barriers are prevalent in the community organizations that form the partners of e-create.
As stated earlier, the aim of action research is to test ideas in practice and inform the development and progression of projects. When such research is not conducted by those directly involved in the development of the project, that is, the practitioners, its impact can be limited. This is particularly so when project staff are under pressure to deliver on project outputs which directly impact funding. While the problem of the lack of participation and understanding by the partner projects has been identified and methods to improve participation recommended in terms of more direct work with the partners and exploring the way that ICTs can enhance their organizations, to fulfill the target numbers required by NOF, project staff have instead worked to engage different groups to fulfill their outputs. Accordingly, the role of e-create to increase capacity in the original partner projects will remain limited.
With ongoing promotion of informatics and new information technologies there are continued pressures on the community sector to change their working practices and thus to keep up with the changing social, economic and political context in which the sector is operating (Hall Aitken, 2001; PAT 15, 2000). Burt and Taylor (2000) identify how the UK government is seeking to increase its use of electronic media in its relationship with ‘business’ and citizens. Voluntary organizations may need to give more prominence to developing electronic flows of information for their users. The partner projects of e-create offer a host of services and support to the disadvantaged communities in which they are located. In many instances, they are providing valuable welfare services in terms of job seeking support, credit unions and support to careers. As the government e-agenda moves apace, these groups will have to make greater use of the technology to access government services and support their users to ensure continued inclusion in social and economic developments.
Despite the issues and problems identified at the end of the first year of e-create, it does remain an exciting concept. It offers opportunities to test ways in which ICTs can help the development and support of a range of community groups that are disparate in terms of their aims and objectives. However, at the present time its effectiveness in terms of community groups harnessing technology and using it to challenge government and service providers remains limited. In addition, there is no evidence of the community centers or the center users making use of the networking potential of the technology.
Access to the new technologies and skill levels have improved in the UK over the last few years. However, such change does not necessarily translate to a greater understanding of the way the technology can be used as an empowering tool both for voluntary and community organizations and for their individual users. With regards to the centers, the evidence from this research suggests that there continues to remain a huge development potential in the use of ICTs for the small voluntary and community sector organizations. The research suggests that the capacity of the organizations, both in terms of resources and understanding of the potential of the technology, has a direct impact on the potential of a project such as e-create to harness the technologies and offer opportunities to support and encourage center users into further training and/or using the technology as a tool for empowerment and community development and regeneration. As the UK government continues to strive towards its targets outlined as part of its e-government agenda, the role of the voluntary and community sector is crucial in ensuring that center users can access government services and be familiar enough with the technology to exploit it to its full potential. However, to achieve such aims it seems that projects like e-create will need to work to overcome some of the barriers that exist in the small community organizations with which it is trying to work.
The project e-create has undoubtedly offered a number of people opportunities to be more creative with the technology and to have fun while learning. The impact on the center users will be the focus of the next phase of the research. As for the funders aims, e-create is fulfilling its targets, thus helping to achieve the governments' targets of providing access to the technology and the Internet for those who want it. However, the reaching of the full potential of e-create as a more effective tool for empowerment and regeneration might just not be possible with the high numbers of outputs to complete and only two workers trying to fulfill those outputs. At the same time, while the centers and individuals continue to place an emphasis on accredited training and the potential of such training to lead to work, the value of e-create might not be recognized.
The research also raises questions with regards to policy and the ongoing strategy to ensure involvement in the ‘knowledge economy,’ empower citizens and stimulate social capital through the adoption of ICTs. These competing objectives are impacting on the range of services and provision available. At the present time, there is not much evidence in our research to suggest that community and voluntary organizations are embracing the new technologies and using them as tools for regeneration or empowerment. However, it is clear that there is more training available in these new skills but how these skills are then used to transform communities or indeed, lead to new employment, remains unclear, particularly in areas of high levels of unemployment such as Middlesbrough. While the regional strategy advocates the increase in ICT skills as a tool to attract new business to the area, the arrival of such business is yet to materialize to any great extent. The UK government (like many other European governments) has invested considerably in establishing local community based ICT centers, the effectiveness of these centers as training for work centers is dependant upon local employment conditions and the local education ethos.
The role of ICTs in community empowerment and regeneration requires continued research. While much has been written about the potential of these new technologies, consideration needs to be given as to how such potential is realized in local areas, particularly those that are marginalized and deprived. Continued research is needed on how local communities deal with the competing objectives underpinning policy and the priorities given to those objectives.
While there are a large number of branded UK Online Centers, it should be noted that the majority of these have not been created as a result of NOF funding. Rather, centers have applied to the government to become centers to facilitate more training opportunities.
The Community Informatics Research and Applications Unit (http://www.cira.org.uk) was established by the University of Teesside to investigate and analyze critically the social and economic factors shaping the development and application of new information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as the Internet and their consequences for community development, economic restructuring and social exclusion. It is a multidisciplinary unit where social scientists, computer scientists, software engineers, project managers and designers are encouraged to combine their respective talents on particular research projects.”
This is an estimate of ‘real’ unemployment. It comprises claimant unemployment, people on government schemes, part-time workers who wish to work full-time and people classed as economically inactive but who want to work.