May 29, 2011

Spaces of Connection

The Erasing Boundaries Project hosted a national symposium in April 2011 in New York City called “Educating at the Boundaries: Community Matters.” The project is a collaboration among landscape architecture, architecture and planning faculties, students and community partners. This was the second symposium; the first was held in 2008. The goals include examining the pedagogy of service-learning and supporting each other to make interactions as effective and as powerful as possible. The group has already assembled an edited volume due out in August 2011, Service-Learning in Design and Planning, edited by Tom Angotti, Cheryl Doble and Paula Horrigan (New Village Press). They also have three projects for which they are recruiting participants: the Case Study Framework, which aims to be a tool for developing and structuring service-learning courses; the Evaluation Project, which would provide a better understanding of impacts; and the Awards Program to raise visibility of excellent approaches.

With funding from the Youth Community Informatics grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services, I was able to attend Erasing Boundaries as part of a Community Informatics Initiative (CII) team to present a poster with Deven Gibbs, School of Architecture, and Debarah McFarland, Program Coordinator of the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club in Champaign. Martin Wolske, CII Senior Research Scientist, also contributed to the poster, “Spaces of Connection: Designing a High-Tech Active Learning Space for Youth.” A very brief summary of Deven’s design for the Club, in consultation with Ms. McFarland, is that she used research conducted during an independent study with me, and then in Martin’s Community Informatics Studio last summer to create a space at the Club for connectedness online and in person. Deven made a YouTube video to promote the idea. Martin’s class was able to realize one redesign in East St. Louis. The next steps for Champaign include working with Club youth to build several FlexiDesks that enable collaborative or individual work on computers, because the desks can be configured in a variety of ways. We need to find a contractor who can help with electrical and carpentry tasks; we may work with Parkland on some of the construction, and Martin’s class in Fall 2011 will probably work with the Club to identify tech needs. Ms. McFarland and Deven were fantastic presenters in New York, making a strong case for “community matters.” If the Club can become a hub for “everything high tech” in its neighborhood—it is near downtown Champaign–as Ms. McFarland said, it will draw in not only youth, but also adults and become an area center for community development. This would be a huge contribution because the area needs a “center.”

November 7, 2010

Reboot, Rebuild

We Are the People

We Are the People

On Saturday, October 30, about fifteen people who had gathered in Chicago for the Digital Excellence conference came together to brainstorm next steps for the community technology movement, with Michael Maranda doing the heavy lifting of organizing a space and guiding the discussion. Besides Michael, the group included Max Gail of, Antwuan Wallace of the Association for Community Networking, Boston activist Peter Miller , Pierre Clark of the Chicago Digital Access Alliance, Taran Rampersad of ThinkDrop, Marlene Archer, Stan Pokras from Philadelphia, Kami Griffiths from TechSoup in San Francisco, Sally Duros, a former Sun-Times reporter, now writing for various online publications, futurist Jim Lew, Gerry Gleason and myself. Thanks so much to Michael for introducing me to these folks and the correct spelling of their names!

After a morning of lively discussion, we ate a long and leisurely lunch, continuing the conversations and getting better acquainted. While some folks had to catch airplanes, others returned to discuss how to move forward. Michael suggested using until something else emerged. While I enjoyed meeting all these folks, they have been in the trenches and at the barricades for much longer than I, so I listened and asked elementary questions.

February 21, 2010

What’s at Stake for Community Informatics?

Walter Brown just posted on the ciresearchers listserv (for people working in community informatics), run by Michael Gurstein. He echoed a provocative question from Mike’s blog: “So What Do We Lose if We Don’t Have the Internet?” He continued,

The burning question for CI Researchers in my opinion is “How can policy makers, business and economic leaders, academic and related research institutions and organizations, and the whole development community, refocus their attention on finding solutions to providing high quality affordable information directly to individuals in marginalized communities?”  and “How can marginalized communities and individuals be made aware of the power of ICT4D and begin to demand affordable high quality information services?” And the emphasis on finding answers to these questions must focus on “doing” more than just knowing the underlying theories of how to or why it does not get done.

Brown recommended an article from a 2005 issue of The Information Society (1: 41-51) that I will try and locate: Govindan Parayil, “The Digital Divide and Increasing Returns: Contradictions of Information Capitalism.” I am in the midst of writing proposals to the state and feds for stimulus funding related to broadband access and find I am hobbled by similar questions to those posed by Walter Brown.

October 6, 2009

Community Informatics as “Activist” Social Informatics

Larry Stillman

Larry Stillman

Larry Stillman of Monash University wrote the original drafts on community informatics for Wikipedia. He just posted this comment to the “ciresearchers” listserv:

“From my perspective, SI [social informatics] is more the academic study of social uses of technology, but CI [community informatics] is much more an activist approach of ICTs for social change and development.  CI puts much more emphasis on integrating understandings from social change related fields: SI is coming much more out of academic IS and sociology, psychology, librarianship, archives etc.  SI of itself isn’t about social engagement though it may be assumed that it is; but CI has been developing explicit theory and practice (for better or worse). The two are different, though in part overlapping.”
Stillman and Henry Linger explored the relationships among SI-CI and information systems in a recent (2009) article:
Abstract – The Information Society 25(4)
Community Informatics and Information Systems: Can they be Better Connected?
Larry Stillman and Henry Linger
There is an ongoing debate in Community Informatics about the need for a stronger conceptual and theoretical base in order to give the field disciplinary cohesion and direction. By investigating the body of reflective thinking in Information Systems, researchers in Community Informatics can develop a more rigorous theoretical context for their work. Information Systems can be considered as a fragmented adhocracy that allows many intellectual communities to co-exist under its umbrella. A sympathetic reading of Information Systems offers an opportunity to Community Informatics, in spite of its different orientation, to address both social and technological issues in its theoretical framework. This framework would be based on a common language that expresses a shared ontology and epistemology with Information Systems. Such a framework then allows Community Informatics to fully address its information systems problem solving agenda as well as its community problem solving activities. Strengthening this dual agenda will allow Community Informatics to work effectively with both the technical and social design and implementation problems. But it also provides Community Informatics with an opportunity to contribute to a discourse within Information Systems in order to broaden the traditional Information Systems concept of organisation and social action.
August 16, 2009

The Big Neighborhood Supper

Chickens, chard, plums and cabbage

Chickens, chard, plums and cabbage

About 25 of us gathered on a fairly warm and humid August evening to enjoy The Big Neighborhood Supper. Artist Maggie Taylor worked hard all summer to collaboratively organize workshops , conceptualize a group gathering around local food and drink, and produce a meal in a lovely setting. She pulled it off, and then some! In Maggie’s back yard, we sat around home-made tables from discarded lumber found in an alley; set with 60-year-old china, vases of flowers from Rachel’s garden; placemats made from photos of local fruits, vegetables, and chickens (see photo); decorated with fabric and candles hanging in trees; and sprigs of herbs on each place setting. We all pitched in to prepare the food, and what food! Pesto and bread (thanks, Pekara!), chilled cucumber soup, salad greens with sweetpea currant tomatoes, grilled veggies, vegetable frittata, and half cantalopes filled with mint ice cream and warm plums. WOW. Almost everything was local, grown by the people who came to the meal. The four children, three dogs, and many adults were quite content when I left at 9:30 last night. We shared memories of food production and I met many new people, or got better acquainted with people who have been around as long as I have, but I haven’t talked to much. (Three of us were 56!) Thanks SO much, Maggie and all BNS participants!

September 20, 2008

Continuous City

The Builders Association performed their show, “Continuous City” last night here in Champaign-Urbana. I was intrigued by the publicity, since it was supposed to be about cities, social networking, and theatre all at once, and how cool is that? The funders also touted the “boundary-pushing” and “cross-cultural” understanding of interdisciplinary art productions like this one. First of all, I’m glad that Marianne Weems, director, Harry Sinclair, writer, et al., brought this to our campus. Weems has been and is in a position to really think about arts in a globalizing world, having directed some other interesting pieces here before–Alladeen and Super Vision–and co-edited, with Brian Wallis and Philip Yenawine, a book I’ve used, Art Matters: how the culture wars changed America. In the program notes, Weems cites Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums as contributing to the development of this work. So, the bar is set pretty high.

On the plus side, the video work was pretty nifty and at times stunningly beautiful. I’d like to know more about how it was done. Peter Flaherty did the video design and you can learn more about him at The ideas behind the production were wonderful: video contributions from Shanghai, Mexico, Toronto, and KCPA, with an amusing “vlog” by Moe Angelos. Harry Sinclair as Mike was good as a globe-trotting, clueless father who, in his exhausted, unshaven way, was trying to sell a video-networking product he didn’t believe in, to people who already had satisfying in-the-flesh relationships. And his daughter, Sam, was great as a sullen, precocious, and cute kid.

But–of course there is a “but”–with all this techno-savvy and on-stage skill, the performance was ultimately about the lead character J.V.’s inability to have intimate relationships. That theme is treated much more profoundly and richly by many other playwrights. Rizwan Mirza’s J.V. didn’t convince me that he was a stressed out Internet entrepreneur. He seemed way too relaxed for that. And the metaphor of cutting off possibilities by going into a tunnel was really unsatisfying as an ending. I’m usually disappointed by endings, but this one seemed a cop-out.

Perhaps it comes down to “social architecture,” what Richard Farson in 1970 recognized as something we need to build in order to match (or compensate for, I’m not sure) the level of the technology we have set up. It seems like the technology on stage last night was flashy, sophisticated, funny, and capable of subtlety, but the dramatic storyline was too thin, too undeveloped, to support all that computer wizardry.

There were some inklings of social complexity, with food security, immigrants, and sprawl having brief mentions. It was thought-provoking as the family members were fuzzy and static-y, the images of Mike kept breaking up, and Sam kept hiding from her dad. But the evidence of resource-intensive, upper/middle-class ownership and production juxtaposed with a seeming lip service to papadum sellers in Mumbai or Vietnamese living in U.S. trailer parks rankled. Am I ungrateful that at least these folks are trying? No. Do I want more? Yes.