Some issues to reason about Community Networks in a  PD and CSCW perspectives

Position paper of Fiorella De Cindio
Computer Science Dept., University of Milano (Italy)

The background: PD and CSCW

Professor of Programming Languages at the Computer Science Dept. of the Milano State University, in the '80 I was engaged in two main threads of research. 
On the one hand, my concern was about languages and methods for concurrent systems design and implementation: in this area. I devoted special attention to two (families of) languages which share the feature of being particularly effective, in the range of not skilled people too: they are Petri nets and object-oriented languages.
On the other hand, I paied attention to the impacts of computerization on people work and life. The approach was not limited to the study of organizational theories supporting IT introduction, but directly engaged in educating workers and in supporting Trade Unions,  to allow them to be actors of the change (cf. (De Cindio et al, 1983), (Nygaard, 1983)). A special attention (De Cindio and Simone, 1983), (De Cindio and Simone, 198?) was toward developing a gender perspective, stressing that women should exploit their diversity (in a very broad sense, including the approach to technology) in positive terms. In this context, realizing quite in advance that the applications developed in the EDP and IMS age cover just the repetitive part of the work, and recognizing the role that communication technologies would have plaied to overcome this limit, together with some collegues, we developed a prototype of a tool supporting conversations, influenced by (Winograd and Flores, 1985), (Petri,1977) and presented at the First CSCW conference (De Cindio et al, 1986).

The experience

I have shortly presented this background since it plays a role in the starting and in the development of the Milano Community Network (RCM, Rete Civica di Milano), and, more in general, in the activities of the Civic Networking Lab at the Computer Science Dept. of the Milano State Univ.

A presentation of RCM is out of the scope of this position paper. It is included in (Casapulla et al, 1998). Here I want to stress a couple of issues, some of which are related to those listed in the workshop invitation.

The issues

1) Participatory design borns as system designers realize the need of involving users in the development of (hopefully usable and succesful) CB systems. User participation is not an easy task in the age of EDP/IMS applications, but it is even more difficult when computer mediated communication is considered, i.e., when  computerization overcomes the borders of a single organization.  Community networks simply cannot be conceived and designed without citizen participation, so they become useful experiences to learn how participatory design is possible in the "new" field of the communication technologies. In (Casapulla et al, 1998) we have summarized our experience and some good consequences over the design of
public on-line services.

2) Groupware systems have been widely  deployed in and exploited by large organizations, while, in a country like Italy, the economy largely relies upon small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and, more and more, upon the so called "third sector" (volunteers initiatives which take in charge public services). To introduce groupware applications into these smaller and less structured organizations requires specific policies. A different, but somehow related problem, concerns the Public dministration sector. According to our experience, the process of introduction of groupware into SMEs and Public Institutions can be speed up when citizens have a chance to access a community network which makes them familiar with basis groupware functionalities. Moreover, also the scientific basis for groupware, i.e., CSCW disciplines, can get fruitful inputs from the experiences done developing and managing community networks (CNs), so enlarging their range of attention from the traditional corporate-based framework to open communities. Such an "extension" has already been suggested in (Schuler, 1997).

Notice that, in both the above cases, initially the CN profits of the know-how from PD and CSCW fields, but then gives back the service by providing them with new  experiences, stimula and insights. More in general, CNs provide help and suggestions to avoid the risk of reducing the (Inter)net to a new broadcasting medium: both for designing effective applications (web sites) with the existing networking technologies and for designing new tools to overcome the limits of the present web-based solutions.

3) CNs starts as initiatives located "around a town", but our experience confirm that they give their best in larger areas. Milano is not just a town but a metropolis, and the kind of services that net citizens appreciate more are strongly related to the problems and needs typical of a metropolis, including reducing distances and reducing the lack of smooth social relatioships. Other experiences in Lombardia, the region where Milano is located, confirm this claim. 
Moreover, in more than a couple of cases in Italy and Europe, we got the perception that, while the CN is seen as a competitor by the Municipality, it is appreciated and supported by the regional authority, as it enhances cooperation and service distribution over the regional area. This observation might be important for defining survival policies for CNs.

4) The proliferation of terms for denoting (different kind of) networking initiaves centered aroud a town, or a geographic area, generates confusion: community networks, civic networks, city nets, city web, digital cities, telecities, are just some of the acronyms: the last one I red is "municipal civic network".
In Italy  (and probably elsewhere) this confusion is partly due to the variety of the actor(s) who are promoter(s):  usually the initiative comes from the Civic Administration, but different Municipalities use the same term for projects with different goals and approaches. In some case a major role is played by the University (Milano), sometimes by citizens themeselves organized as no profit Association (San Donato, Bergamo) or even in small private companies  (Como).  "Comunità", for community, cannot be used as, in italian, its meaning is overloaded by the Catholic Church tradition, while "civico" comes from the latin civitas  which stands both for the citizen community itself and for the Institution (the Municipality)  which represents them. Therefore, "Rete (for  network) Civica" is the most popular term. However there are plenty of "rete civica" that are just web sites which broadcast information without any two-way communication and conceive citizens  as mere readers/users. 
So I believe that the first (in priority) theoretical need is to update the characterization of "community networks" given in  (Schuler, 1993), (Schuler, 1996), in such a way that the new one is useful to distinguish these different initiaves and approaches, while encouraging their evolution toward citizens participation. It should also guide membership to the various CNs organizations  (in the US, Canada, Europe, etc) and their mutual relationships.
Our contribution to this effort is the following.
A CNs cannot be conceived without a relevant participation of citizens. Participation means not only be active on the (local) net, but also have a chance of contributing to its development (citizens as designers and developers). Where a network of local and free Bbs (pre)exists, an effort should be made to involve these network communities into the CN.  This identifies a first "dimension" of a CN: I will call it  the "free net" dimension.
A CNs cannot disregard the Public Administrations. As it aims at reducing the distances between citizens and public officiers/administrators, it must make available different on-line services  provided by the PAs, including: (a) information services (such as news,  acts,  etc); (b) interactive services (such as certifications, registrations, payments, etc); (c) less structured services, to enhance free dialogue about ongoing decisions and participation on general policies. This identifies a second "dimension".
The third dimension concerns "the market". If I'm right, it was somehow excluded by the first free nets. However, in our experience, we do need to realize that citizens, especially the younger ones, live in the net with their multiple identities, included the fact that they use the CN to work (e.g., costituting kinds of virtual cooperatives) and to promote their professional skill: in RCM people find work, or improve it,  because of what they do on-line. Moreover, local commercial businesses see the CN as a partner to face with the powerful big (multi)national chains. And, finally, SMEs which have reduced  resources and skills, see in the CN a center of innovation which can support them to understand the technology evolution (e.g., for introducing communication and groupware technologies).

We do believe that a CN have to include all these three dimensions. Even more, we believe that the survival itself of a CN depends on a harmonious ed well-balanced development of the three dimensions. 
As CN are not static, but change over time, the evolution of each CN describes a line in the space the three dimensions draw. For instance, RCM initially lain in the free net dimension. Then we worked to include services provided by the major  local Institutions. Now, after a few experiences, RCM is undertaking a more systematic effort to offer commercial services.

5) Finally, we need to reason about analogies and differences bewteen different kinds of virtual communities, namely community networks and network communities (Vicky and al, 1998): sharing problems and needs, technologies and social policies, toward a crossfertilization, would be more fruitful then considering them are independent fields of investigation.


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