Casapulla, F. De Cindio, O. Gentile
Civic Networking Lab. - Dept. of Computer Science - Univ. of Milan
Via Comelico 39/41, 20135
e-mail address: Administrator@rcm.dsi.unimi.it
The Milan Civic Network (Rete Civica di Milano, RCM for short) is a project of the Department of Computer Science of the University of Milan (hereafter DSI, which stands for Dipartimento di Scienze dell'Informazione), with the support of some sponsors, including Apple Computers and Zenith Data Systems, two Italian modem manufacturers, and some local computer service providers. To develop the project, a Civic Networking Lab was created in May 1994.
DSI has a long tradition in networking, thanks to its far-sighted founder who made it the first, and for a long time the only, such program in Italy to give all computer-science students free access to the Internet. As a result, DSI now enjoys the advantages of a Computing Center with a solid background of knowledge and experience. It is equipped with a 2MBit Internet link available to about 5000 students and 60 faculty and staff members. It is one of Italy's major nodes for distribution of Internet news, with overall traffic among the two highest in Italy; it is the Italy CERT (Computer Emergency Response Team) ,  site and member of FIRST (Forum of Incident Response and Security Teams). Moreover, on the application side, so to speak, within DSI there is a wide group of researchers who have belonged to the CSCW scientific community from the very beginning , , , , , .
These long-standing activities have two important side-effects:
- The faculty community is knowledgeable and well-disposed toward networking projects, so that the typical mechanisms of the academy, when they arise, find a good context for a speedy solution.
- Within the DSI student community the framework is sensitive and reactive to networking projects. Indeed, years ago, DSI students founded an association called MIners (MIlano NEtwork Researchers & Students) to enhance knowledge of networking.
- Unlike most of the Computer Science Departments within the science schools in Italy, DSI has always set strong relationships with computer companies, from the smallest software houses to the largest multinational computer manufacturers, where a large number of master's theses are developed. Therefore the student community extends beyond the Department, and one finds DSI graduates in almost all informatics and networking companies. This enables easy and good links with the industrial context of the city.
In this framework, the initiative of promoting a Civic Network intends to avail the local community of these skills developed at the department, giving the city - the second most populous in Italy, but the first in terms of economic importance - a vantage point on the technological communication environment of the twenty-first century.
The paper is organized as follows. After an Introduction which presents the context in which the initiative takes place, in section 2. we outline the technical details and some special choices we have done and sum up the evolution of the newtork. In section 3. we present RCM desktop and its major conferences. In section 4. we discuss the features which characterize RCM as a community network rooted in the town. A brief Conclusion and the Acknowelgments ends the paper.
RCM is strongly inspired by Internet values, such as being free and open, and by the principles and goals of community networks, as presented in  and .
RCM is a BBS based on the SoftArc First Class (hereafter FC) software , whose server runs on a Apple Macintosh Workgroup Server 95 made available by Apple Computers, while the client software is available both for Mac and Windows platforms.
This choice was due to a variety of factors, the major one being that the BBS technology, based on FC, guarantees the appropriate access facilities (functionality and menus) for those who a have a PC equipped with a window interface (both Apple and MS windows), where "appropriate" means that the FC client provides nothing less and nothing more than is necessary for those who are used to standard text editors. This is the major category of potential users we wanted to address, assuming that professionals would have been the major promoters of the initiative.
However, at the same time, FC supports, at least in principle (we had and still have serious problems with the CLUI interface) a character-based interface that allows those who have a poor technology (Amiga, Atari, MsDos PC, etc.) to connect. Here we find the "BBS people", often young computer buffs, already skilled in this kind of technology. In both cases, the FC protocol and other facilities of the software (such as background downloading of files) guarantee good performance even with low-speed modems. The fact that SoftArc allows the free distribution of the FC client and that license costs for educational institutions are acceptable, completes the picture.
Note that neither character-based BBSs (such as Free Port ) nor multimedia Internet-based applications (such as Mosaic and Netscape) meet all the above listed requirements at once. The former discourage professional users, who won't accept having to take a step backwards from icon-based to character-based UI. The latter are too costly because they require a PC equipped with good processing power and memory capabilities and speed connection, something not available to the vast majority of potential users, at least in Italy.
RCM can be accessed via normal telephone lines. Upon inauguration (September 22, 1994) we had just two lines, increased to four by October 17, 1994, which can be considered the network's actual start-up date. In December 1994 four more lines were connected, one of which is dedicated to the gateways (with other FC BBSs within the OneNet circuit). By Easter, we had eight more lines, one of which again was dedicated to gateways (to handle the connection to Internet).
Since February 1995, RCM has also been accessible via Internet (server: 188.8.131.52 3004) both in GUI (port 3000, if you are a network user) and CLUI (via telnet, port 3003, public log-in 'curioso', no psw) mode. Moreover we are developing a www site  and a way for mirroring all the RCM conferences in web pages. In that way the messages posted to the www site are mirrored, by a short delay, into the FC server, and viceversa.
The log-in growth is shown by the diagram in Fig. 1 (the distinction between self-registered users and members is presented in the following paragraph). Since the end of February 1995 we have been removing daily the log-ins of self-registered users who haven't connected for 3 months. The first pruning of inactive users erased about 582 users, while the total number of erased log-ins is, up to now, about 1,000. The overall number of possible log-ins (i.e., the number of FC licenses we bought) is: 3000 for telecom users (connection only via modem, much cheaper), and 1100 for network users (both via modem and via network, much more expensive). Thanks to an appropriate setting of the ports, users via Internet are telecom users, so that we have to buy the more expensive licenses only for DSI staff and students connected through a local network.
Fig. 1. RCM Development
In addition to the distinction between telecom and network users, built into the software, RCM introduces a further and more relevant distinction between self-registered and registered users. As the term "user" evokes a rather passive attitude, we prefer to call the registered users "RCM members".
The FC client allows self-registrations. On connecting for the first time, one enters a User ID (a fifteen-character string with no constraints, which is accepted if no one else has already entered the same) and a password. Both will be used during any subsequent connection. RCM offers to its self-registered users the following services:
- a private mailbox;
- access to two Conferences, managed by the RCM Administrators: RCM News, where one can find information, ask questions and discuss matters concerning RCM itself; and Supporto (for Support) which contains a subconference to download the FC client and the few free software items distributed by RCM, under the Administrators' responsibility, and a on-line Help subconference.
- chat facilities;
- visibility of the conferences present in RCM, without the right to read the messages they contain (Option summary in the Conference Permissions of FC).
To acquire that right one needs to become member of the network, i.e. part of the community, by following a simple three-step procedure which is explained in a message included in the RCM News conference:
a) Send a copy of proof of identification to the DSI Secretary's Office, according to a policy adopted by one of the oldest and most popular BBSs in Italy, Agorà .
b) Write a short 'self-portrait' and make it available on-line in order to introduce him/herself to the other networkers (Command Resume in the menu Edit of the FC client).
c) Read the RCM Principles&Etiquette, which is posted as a message in the RCM News conference, a message initially derived from the principles of the Seattle Community Network (see ) and then incrementally updated according to further specific needs. For instance, because of the uncertainity about the present italian laws in this field, and because of some questionable initiative by the italian Bench against BBSs and their Administrators no exchange of software is allowed in RCM. to state that no software exchange is allowed. We have to forbid software exchange both in users private mailbox and in public conferences, but for the one which provides the software whose distribution is certified by the Administrators. Acceptance of the Principles&Etiquette must be sent to the Administrator via a reply message.
The RCM staff consists of the authors of the paper, i.e.: an associate professor, in charge of the Civic Networking Lab, who started the project, and two administrators on grants, one full-time and one part-time, both initially supported by contracts not related to the project. Our background is in groupware , social impacts of computerization , ,  and one of us has a lot of experience in BBS technology and community. We also take advantage of our relationships in a large variety of social frameworks and communities in Milan set up along the years.
RCM would never have gotten started without the support of its sponsors. All the computers in the Civic Neworking Lab were donated by Apple Computers, Zenith Data Systems, and a couple of Milanese computer shops, while modems come from two Italian manufacturers: Breand and Digicom. Thus, the department only had to pay for software licenses and the telephone lines. This makes it clear to everyone that RCM, although promoted by a public institution like the university, also has deep roots, perhaps especially, in Milan's industrial web.
However, it is worth recalling that behind each sponsor there is an individual. In no case was the decision to support our project taken by the company. Always, the key factor was the enthusiasm of someone working there, who trusted in the social value of the project.
Moreover, RCM relies heavily on the work of other people, including students preparing their master's theses in computer science, students in other degree programs who collaborate on a volunteer basis, professionals from a variety of backgrounds who have seen in RCM the opportunity to innovate their work and to experiment with a new dimension of communicating in the metropolis and local government officials or civil servants who are active within their organizations in promoting an understanding of the capabilities of civic networks to foster new ways of conceiving public services.
A lot of these volunteers are now moderators of a conference. In FC, messages posted in moderated conferences appear in italics and require the moderator's approval before they can be read. As a result, some have seen a risk in the potential power of censorship that a moderator might exercise. Lively discussions and experience have determined the tasks that are part of a moderator's role. The moderator:
- Checks that messages are in the proper form, that the subject line is not too long, that any attached file is in a standard format and accompanied by a message containing an abstract enabling users to understand whether they are interested in downloading it.
- Checks that the message and the attachments, if any, adhere to RCM Etiquette (no insults, no software, etc.).
- Checks that the message is relevant to the conference and, if not, suggests a more appropriate conference for the sender to post it in.
- Stimulates the debate, posting relevant documents, answering questions, creating local folders for grouping messages and asking the network administrators to create new subconferences (up to now, we prefer not to delegate such possibility to be sure about the appropriate setting of the conference parameters).
- Handles the conference's growth, preparing its FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), deleting "aged" messages, and so on.
Now moderators are no longer perceived as controllers or censors, rather as volunteers who offer a service to the community.
The user desktop is shown
in Fig. 2. It contains:
- the private mailbox;
- the RCM News and the Supporto conference (partly illustrated above);
- the public chats.
and a set of conferences, outlined below. Recall that only RCM members can read and contribute to them.
Fig. 2. RCM Desktop
Le Conferenze groups discussions according to topic. All the conferences are moderated, except for the political one, called Polis (after a very long debate among members). Telematica e Dintorni (Telematics and Environs) includes, among other things, a subconference on civic networks, one concerning telecommuting and a legal observatory that monitors the evolution of Italian legislation in the field. ConferenzAmbiente is devoted to the environmental problems. Hobby includes subconferences for those who love the mountains and those who like diving, an area for recommending and discussing restaurants (in Milan and elsewhere). Cerco/Offro (I'm seeking/offering) is the conference that groups (small) trade and includes subconferences about houses, motorcycles, musical instruments, computer modems, and even jobs.
It is worth mentioning that new conferences are not usually opened by the administrators, but proposed by members. To open a new conference one sends the proposal to Le Conferenze; if s/he gets enough positive replies, than the administrator creates the new conference which, for a while, is visible to the small set of promoters. When a minimum of material (such as a presentation and a couple of messages) is ready, the administrator makes it visible to everybody.
Il Tamburino (literally "the little drum" or "tom-tom") is a conference, moderated by the RCM staff, visible on the user desktop that lists events to be held in town (and nearby). A special message provides the general form to be filled in by members to inform others of all kinds of events. One of the fields on the form contains a set of keywords (culture, music, theater, politics, environment, children, etc.) to support searches using the FC search command.
Le Associazioni gathers de jure and de facto citizens and non-profit organizations. A large variety of associations have joined RCM: amateurs (like motorcyclists, kite lovers, archers, etc.); volunteers (SOS, Caritas, etc.), thematic (e.g., an association of groupware technologies users and suppliers or ALCEI, the Italian chapter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation), professional and industrial associations. We offer two alternatives: either a public conference moderated by a member of the Association where all RCM members can post messages; or a conference where only the Association delegates post messages about association activities. However, because RCM wants to promote two-way communication versus broadcast, in the second case, we ask the Association to open and handle a public subconference as well, to allow everybody to ask questions, obtain information and the like. Moreover, RCM makes it possible to open one or more subconferences with access restricted to the association's members, i.e., to use RCM as the association's own BBS. As this is a kind of private service, RCM asks to be paid for it, on the basis of three criteria: the number of members in the association, the number of private conferences and the number of the privilege groups we have in the FC server for handling the private conferences. The costs are deliberately kept low for small associations requiring just one private conference (such as SNOP, the National Association of the Professionals in the field of preventive medicine, which pays 200.000 lit., i.e., about 125 US$ per year), while an association which includes computer companies as partners, pays (at least, it should !) about 3.200.000 lit, i.e., 2.000 US$ per year, which is still much cheaper than starting and managing a BBS.
It is worth mentioning that most of these conferences are barely visited (we have remarked this thanks to a functionality of FC which allows eachone to look at the history of any message s/he has the right to read). So now we suggest, whenever possible, to move the association conference into the appropriate thematic conference. For instance, the WWF (i.e., the Italian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature) conference is now inside ConferenzAmbiente and its audience has significantly increased.
Le Aziende (the companies) is a more recent conference, which however shows that RCM - we, as promoters, and the members too - believe it useful to find commercial information on the network. The first examples are conferences by two of the sponsors. Apple Computers PR department puts its press releases on RCM. Kernel is a small computer shop, a cooperative founded by some DSI students, which has, from the very beginning, distributed the FC client: you bring a floppy, you get the software, plus some information on modem settings. This has lightened the work-load of RCM staff and avoided the need to open a hot-line. Now Kernel puts its commercial offerings on the network. The same will be probably done by a couple of large computer retail chains in Milan, on the basis of a written contract.
In the relationships we are striking up with private companies (and with state-owned ones as well) we are finding that a civic network can be seen as a kind of workgroup technology linking all the citizen in town (and beyond). While groupware applications never actually succeeded in the Italian marketplace, maybe because of the prices and because they are usually conceived of as applications within a company, we perceive RCM as a kind of enabling technology for groupware and CSCW. This recalls Carl Hewitt's paper "Office are open systems" , in contrast with the opposite view that offices and organizations are closed systems, held, among others, by  and .
However, to avoid possible misuses of the network for private business purposes, we have included in the Etiquette a statement that advertisements must be posted in the appropriate conference (Le Aziende and Cerco/Offro) and may not be sent to users' private mailboxes without their explicit agreement.
Let us first give the reader an idea of the Local Authorities we have: in Italy there are about 8,000 Municipalities (the biggest are Roma and Milano with more than 2,000,000 inhabitants; the smallest have 200 inhabitants). Sets of Municipalities constitutes a "Provincia": there are about 100 provincie in the Country, one of them being the "Provincia di Milano". Sets of provincie are collected into Regions: there are 21 regions, the one which includes Milano is called Lombardia.
The Conference Pubblica Amministrazione (i.e., local authorities) includes two subconferences so far: the "Provincia di Milano", through the provincial PR office, and the "Regione Lombardia", through the regional culture and information service are experimenting with RCM to inform citizens of the events they promote and to answer questions coming from the public. The Milan city government is going to do the same in a short while. We will come back to the role of local government in RCM later on.
Since RCM is a project of one of the Milan's five universities, the conference Università is visible in the user desktop. Here again the opening of a subconference devoted to a specific school or degree program occurs on demand, either from faculty members or from students themselves. We would encourage the use of the network to enhance communication between professors and students, but, until now, there has not been time to promote this opportunity explicitly.
Other conferences on the user desktop are:
- Altri Media (other media).
- Una Finestra sul Mondo (A Window on the World), evokes, even in its icon, the fact that here one leaves the RCM community and Etiquette.
- Altre Reti Civiche (Other Civic Networks, in Italy).
They will be presented in the following section.
Various choices reveal the above claimed inspirational link with original Internet values, such as being free and open, and with the principles and goals of community networks, as presented in  and .
RCM is free. We believe that two centuries after the French revolution a new right of citizenship must be affirmed: the right of telematic citizenship, which will shape the twenty-first century. However, we believe that this does not necessarily mean that everybody must have access, for free, to full Internet facilities, as some city governments are doing in Italy. Only rich administrations in rich countries can implement such a right in this way. We have chosen a cheaper technology to provide a model which can be adopted by small and mid-sized towns, and indeed this is happening, as the number of start-up projects for civic networks shows (Desenzano, Cremona, Bergamo, Reggio Calabria, Siracusa, Varese, Verona and Monza is a partial list). RCM aims to be an incubator for these projects, as it has already done in Desenzano, a small town near Garda Lake. ONDE (DEsenzano ON line) was at first a conference within RCM. Now Desenzano has an independent FC server linked through a gateway to RCM which makes ONDE visible (in RCM in the Conference Altre Reti Civiche) and vice versa.
We are now working to allow RCM exchanges with the citizens of the other civic networks in Italy, first of all Iperbole, the civic network sponsored by the Bologna City Government, which already has more than 1000 users .
Besides these links within Italy, we believe it is essential to provide connection with the networks world wide, namely Internet and OneNet, the network of FC-based BBSs.
RCM has been linked to OneNet. The conferences of OneNet and of ONI (One Net Italy) are visible in the Conference Una Finestra sul Mondo (A Window on the World). All RCM members can post messages in these conferences.
Moreover, RCM members can read some of the Internet News Group. They are grouped in a subconference within the conference Una Finestra sul Mondo and some of them are replicated under an alias in the appropriate conference (e.g., talk.environment and sci.environment in ConferenzAmbiente).
We have also established good relationships with the major Internet Providers in Italy, pointing out the fact that RCM in particular and civic networks in general are not competitors but potential partners because civic networks create market for them. Through one of them, we are going to give all RCM members the ability to send messages to Internet addresses and all conference moderators the right to contribute to the visible Internet News Groups and to subscribe to Internet mailing lists.
The slogan of RCM, which is the headline of the Principles&Etiquette message that every member must undersign, is "La rete siete voi" ("You are the network") to compel everyone who joins the network to become an active member and promoter. In this perspective, we now believe it lucky that at the beginning no government body, except for Milan State University, supported the project. Their absence led networkers to rely upon themselves to produce network content, and this positive attitude seems likely to survive now that local government is joining the network. Therefore, we are now able to pressure government bodies to furnish interactive services rather than more traditional broadcast ones.
In fact, we are firmly pursuing the idea that telematics and civic networking must promote services that exploit two-way communication rather than passive one-way communication. We believe that if telematics is reduced to offering citizens a new media that brings into the home information that the institutions have decided to distribute, with limited choice available to users, there will be no actual innovation compared to traditional media. Telematics and civic networking can be much more, supporting new relationships between citizens and their representatives and government, where the former have a chance to bring their needs to the attention of the latter.
This is a major difference with respect to other experiences of civic networking in Italy, namely with respect to the above mentioned Bologna Iperbole  which is the leader of other projects (in Venice, Livorno and all the towns in Bologna's Emilia-Romagna region). Iperbole was sponsored by the Bologna city government and probably due to that and to its choice of a basis in www technology, it looks more like a civic server than a community network. Discussion areas are available but so far only a few messages are posted in each one.
In order to promote RCM, we have devoted special attention to creating links with other media operating in town, namely a local radio station, local and technical newspapers and a TV station especially aimed at young people. Let us briefly sketch some of these collaborations which are flagships of our project.
When RCM was still in the planning stage, we sought the cooperation of the largest local radio in Milan, Radio Popolare (RP). At the beginning, the main goal for us was to get information on the "small events" occurring in town (for the conference Il Tamburino ) which RP collects by receiving faxes from the entire metropolitan region. Time has broadened the areas of cooperation: let us briefly sketch two of them. A weekly radio program devoted to "virtual realities" has a corresponding conference in RCM where the issues to be discussed on the radio are presented in advance. The messages collected on line are used to organize the program and the authors of the most interesting ones are often asked to contribute to the program, either from the studio or via a chat in real time during the program. Sometimes, if the matter is not worked out during the program, the discussion continues in the conference. This shows the rich opportunities for synergy between the two media, the radio and the network, taking advantage of the best features of both of them. Another fruitful cooperation is with the daily program for students, namely of high schools and universities. After a while, although RCM is rooted in the state university, we asked the host of the program to moderate the general conference about universities.
Since inauguration, we have been careful to establish good relationships with the press. The key idea has been to reduce the number of interviews we give as much as possible. When reporters ask about our project, we help them connect to the network, so that they can then follow RCM's evolution. Often, they become active members, encouraging debate and working on conferences of interest to them. Their presence encourages the PR and press offices of companies and public institutions to use RCM to distribute their press releases. An example worth mentioning is that the local editorial office of one of the biggest Italian newspapers, La Repubblica, now publishes a column on 'The city on-line' every Friday in its Milan metropolitan section. Here, discussions carried over from RCM conferences are often lively summarized.
Finally, let us recall a funny but effective relationship. Beppe Grillo, one of Italy's most famous satirical actors, is becoming a kind of civic defender (given the absence, in Italy, of such a public position). His performances draw thousands of people. As he is starting to discuss Internet and networking in general, when he started his 1995 tour he asked us to open a conference, and of course we accepted. Now at the end of each performance his e-mail address at RCM appears on a giant screen, soliciting messages from the audience and increasing the popularity of RCM all over the country.
Thanks in part to these links, we believe it fair to say that we are succeeding in creating a community of active citizens.
The terms "community" has a variety of roots. Among the other it is worth mentioning that Adriano Olivetti, owner of the omonymous computer manifacturer, founded in the 1948 a community movement  which forged the first pioneers of the computer industry. By chance, one of them is now President of the Italian Computer Scientistis Association, providing a positive disposition toward civic networking.
In addition to examples of mutual assistance on line, the particular mix of users we have described in II. C gave rise to an interesting phenomenon: young university students met older professionals, obtaining suggestions and help. In some cases we might say that young people can and have found the right mentor on the network.
The desire to meet people met on the network face-to-face led to a happening we were asked to organize around Christmas time, i.e. just two months after the actual starting of RCM. The event was naturally organized via RCM, and its program included games for children, bingo, and awards for sponsors, volunteers and the most active members. On this occasion, a game took place on RCM to find different phrases our acronym might stand for. They give a good picture of the various facets of RCM, but unfortunately the proposals would lose, in translation, the imagination, wit and irony which make sense in our specific cultural, political and historical context.
One remark is fundamental here. The development of such a community of active users is possible only using the native language. Technological frameworks, such as www, which induce the use of foreign languages, typically English, reduce opportunities to create deep human links between networkers.
In this paper we have briefly presented RCM, summarizing its main characteristics and the main factors behind its well-rooted success in our town.
For a while, at the beginning, we said that RCM was "a declaration of possibility", i.e., according to , the opening of a new domain of possibilities. Now RCM exists, the "possibility" has been demonstrated and more besides. Now people want RCM to run twenty-four hours a day, twelve months a year. This cannot be done on the mere basis of enthusiasm and volunteer work, even though these characteristics must be preserved. This need for an evolutionary leap is not new, as many civic networks overseas have faced the same growth problem. Once again, we will try to learn from them, adapting their experiences to the specific situation in our country.
It is impossible to explicitly recall all who have contributed to this papers, because all RCM members have done so indirectly. Special thanks, however, are due Beppe Caravita, Alfredo Chizzoni and Leonardo Sonnante who contributed to the paper itself, by helping us with fruitful comments, suggestions and editing support. Moreover we are indebted to Philip Grew for his precious help in checking the English, and to Mario Seghetti who was able to find the complete reference .
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