The Journal of Community Informatics, Vol. 1 No. 2 Special Issue:
Sustainabilty and Community ICTs
Sustainable Community Technology:
The symbiosis between community
technology and community research
School of Computing, University of Brighton, Brighton, UK < email@example.com >
The social sustainability of any community technology activity is dependent
on whether or not it forms an integral part of, and contributes to, the shared
experiences that constitute community life. Drawing from this premise the
paper presents a human-centred exploration of community informatics (CI)
by proposing that, as a field of study and practice, a central goal should be
to develop shared understandings of ways in which ICT contribute to
building and sustaining active and healthy communities. The diversity of
community ICT practices have the potential to contribute to a collective
knowledgebase that is not only of import as a resource for academic
investigation but also in terms of its broader social significance to
community life. With this in mind, the authors analyse and critically
evaluate the significance of the emerging symbiosis between community
technology and community research. Applying a human-centred
perspective of CI to a community technology research and development
project the paper concludes with a story about Black Elk, a Lakota shaman,
as a metaphor for the relationship between community technology and
The use of information communication technology (ICT) for and by local communities is
not a new social phenomenon. Community ICT initiatives have proliferated, with varying
degrees of success, since the emergence of community telecottages (teleservice centres)
and community networks during the 1980s (Day, 2001). The social contributions of many of
these community technology initiatives have grown in significance as their activities have
matured. However, such contributions have generally been confined to the micro level of
their parent local community and voluntary sector infrastructures. Until recently, the
existence of community technology as a macro-level social phenomenon has been masked
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by the pervasive power of the techno-economic, monochromatic and homogenising
worldview of the network society promulgated by commercial and public sectors (and, with
some notable exceptions, many academics). However, this top-down worldview is
increasingly exposed as an irrelevance to a culturally diverse global civil society (Schuler &
Day, 2004) across which an alternative, bottom-up approach to communication technology
at community level (Day & Schuler, 2004) is emerging across the globe.
As the use of ICT by social movements, civil society, international development initiatives
and other bottom-up social aggregations proliferates so a language to define, describe and
explain these activities will undoubtedly be developed by the academic research
community. It is worth noting however that such a language, if it is to have any social
resonance, must be understood by and acceptable to a diverse range of social
practitioners and policy makers as well as academics. In a community context, the
escalation and intensification of ICT utilisation to support community practices (community
technology) has been accompanied by the emergence of the term Community
Informatics or CI as a collective label to encompass the diversity of community
technology or networking activities. The adoption of this term (Gurstein, 2000; Keeble &
Loader, 2001) appears to be generally acceptable within the academic research community
however it remains to be seen whether community practitioners and policy will embrace the
term as enthusiastically. With this proviso in mind we take the opportunity of this paper to
present: 1) our perspective of the ethos that CI should embrace if it is to be welcomed by
community practice & policy, and 2) map out some ideas as to how community research
can contribute to sustainable partnerships between practice, policy and research in the
Community Informatics & sustainability
Definitions from two recent Community Informatics texts provide us with helpful insights into
the rationale and motivating spirit of CI as a field of practice. The first, describes
Community Informatics as the application of information and communications
technologies (ICTs) to enable community processes and the achievement of community
objectives (Gurstein, 2003, p. 77). The second asserts that Community Informatics
concerns itself with the application of ICT for local community benefit (Taylor, 2004, p.
2). Of course, both perspectives are normative statements that promote a view of how
Community Informatics should be linked to the lived experiences and needs of local
communities. But can academic researchers be responsive to such an approach? Or does
the hierarchical culture of academic institutions, many of which are increasingly influenced
by market mechanisms and driven by performance targets socialise them to operate in a
reality that is inhospitable to community-university partnerships of any worth? Similarly, can
community technology initiatives, many of which start off as academic projects, be
incorporated and sustained as significant components of the community infrastructure?
From economic sustainability.
The sustainability of community technology initiatives is problematic in that it is often
considered within an economic or funding framework. Even where initiatives have been
successful in 1) navigating through the tortuous bureaucratic demands of funding
programmes and agencies, and 2) competing against other initiatives to attract financial
support from the limited pots of money available to them, the short-term solutions
presented by most funding programmes all too frequently means that in the daily battle for
survival, community technology managers are never far from the treadmill of proposal
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writing. Even temporary financial sustainability is often only achieved as a result of heroic
efforts by initiative team members, who, sometimes at great personal sacrifice, find
innovative ways to exploit complex and obscure funding sources (Day, 2001).
The financial sustainability of community ICT initiatives needs policy-makers and funders to
acknowledge their long-term responsibilities and involvement. The short-term approach
often found in policy development and funding mechanisms is detrimental to the viability of
community technology initiatives (Day & Harris, 1997; Shearman, 1999) Assuming that the
purpose of funding community technology initiatives is, in part at least, related to a desire
by the funders to make a beneficial contribution to the infrastructure of community life, then
it must be clearly understood that the 'project culture' and 'social experiment' approaches of
many public access ICT programmes are incompatible with meaningful attempts to build
and sustain active and healthy communities in the network society.
To social sustainability!
Funding considerations aside, the sustainability of community technology will ultimately be
determined by communities themselves. If a community technology initiative aims to form
an integral part of, and contribute to, the shared experiences of community life, then it
must be communities themselves that define and manage the fitness or applicability of that
initiative. Active participation of a local community, at every stage of a project s life cycle,
is essential if the community is to identify with, and develop a sense of ownership of, an
initiative. Active citizenship, human-centred design and communal participation from the
early planning stages are therefore prerequisites for sustainability and are, in our opinion,
issues that academics active in the field need to grapple with.
A human-centred approach to Community Informatics research
With these pre-requisites in mind, our contribution to the CI journal s consideration of
sustainability comprises three main elements:
· establishing a working framework of human-centred design for CI and
· synchronising the components of this framework to the key components of CI –
community, communication & technology
· illuminating issues that emerge from a consideration of the tensions between
community practice and community research in a CI context
A Human centred systems framework
In Europe, the human-centred systems tradition is best understood as a normative
framework that facilitates a multi-level approach to observation rather than a set of
scientific statements or principles (Qvortrup, 1996) that dictate best practice. Human-
centredness rejects the deterministic credo of scientific management (Taylor, 1998) often
found in traditional academic research, where quantifiability, calculability and predictability
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determine one best way interpretations of social conditions. Communities are diverse
social constructs, in which it is possible to identify and observe the complete spectrum of
the human condition. By definition therefore, communities are contested spaces in which
conflict, discord and disharmony can be found in juxtaposition to concord, accord and
harmony. A human-centred approach to Community Informatics recognises the realities of
community life by attempting to incorporate them into the design, implementation and
development of community technologies. At this point we present 4 core human-centred
concepts for consideration – human purpose, cultural diversity, technology as tool, and
1) Applying Rosenbrock s thesis of human purpose (1990) to Community
Informatics enables us to evaluate the tensions that exist between the competing
social agenda of funders, technologists, community and voluntary sector groups,
public sector agencies, researchers, and communities themselves. For
Rosenbrock, purpose is a human construct - a myth that 'mankind' imposes upon
nature in order to understand the world in which we live. The human-centred tradition
acknowledges that no single form of human purpose exists. Consequently, any
critical analysis of community purpose will uncover a number of inherent power
relationship issues arising from the interactions between the various, individuals,
families, groups and networks that constitute community and its social environment
(including technology experts, researchers, funding agencies, governments,
2) Cultural diversity is recognised as a significant contribution to the development of
any extensive human knowledgebase and diversity between cultures is valued and
celebrated. Within a community policy context this requires an understanding that no
two communities are alike. Each has different norms and cultural value systems
historically constructed as a result of social circumstances. Community information
society policies must acknowledge and reflect this diversity. Such an approach not
only extends our social understanding but also acts as a counter to the
homogenising processes of trans-corporate globalisation.
3) In the human-centred design process, technology is viewed as a tool to be
designed, used and shaped by humans for human purposes. (Cooley, 1996). The
human-centred approach argues that community communication systems should
integrate human judgement, tacit knowledge, intuition and imagination with scientific
or rule-based methods in a symbiotic totality (Cooley, 1987). In contrast to the
deterministic approach of some technologists, a human-centred perspective of
community technology enables communities to make their own qualitative,
subjective judgements. Technological systems are subordinated to human, or
community, needs across a broad spectrum of considerations – not just in terms of
service requirements and applications but in fundamental system designs as well.
4) Because communication is a central dynamic of active community life, social
cohesion – which focuses on the promotion of social dialogue, or communications,
with a view to improving the human condition (ACCORDE, 1995) – forms the final
component of this human-centred context. Social cohesion is inextricably linked to
the valorisation of diversity outlined above. Gill observes, social cohesion is about
promoting a culture of shared communication, values and knowledge, seeking
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coherence through valorisation of diversity (1997). Promoting social dialogue
through communication that valorises diversity is crucial to the human-centred
approach. Social cohesion requires management of difference through respect and
trust. Building a communication space in which knowledge can be exchanged within
and between diverse cultures is a central goal of a human-centred community
Understanding CI components
Establishing a working paradigm of human-centred Community Informatics requires us to
consider its constituent components – community, communication and technology – as
indivisible parts of a unique and interdependent whole. Much confusion has arisen in
treating these fundamental elements as self-evident categories that only require some
technical flourishes or naturally-occurring catalysts to make them inter-operate with one
another. By regarding these individual components as parts of a dynamic community-driven
system, we are in a better position to formulate some core normative features of
Community Informatics (Day, 2004).
Considered from the perspective of human-centred design, the major component of the
system – community – is quite clearly the most human-centred, comprising as it does of
relationships and interactions between people. It is community that should form the base
element of the CI approach. It is community – despite the contested nature of this space –
that should provide overall meaning and an essential departure point for any discussions
For a dynamic system to operate on the basis of human-centred design, all the elements of
the system have to share some critical common ground. The second component –
communication – is often viewed as ranging from the dispassionate technical transmission
of discrete packets of information to intensely elaborated strands of coded content with the
potential for multiple interpretations and meanings. The common ground here is in
recognising that community communication is a dynamic process, with various meanings
for the people involved, with varying attitudes toward privacy and published access, with
various motives behind the act of communication. Definitions of what constitutes the
personal, informal and dialogic in communication, as opposed to that which is public,
external and functional should come from the communities themselves. Equally, defining the
spectra along which these oppositions are located as well as their gateways of closure or
release is a matter for the communities themselves. As Koch once noted, all
communication, whether characterised as information, content or understanding, always
carries with it someone s wishes, lies and dreams (1980).
The third component – technology – is often assumed to be value-free, detached, and an
external factor supplied without interference or affect by well-intentioned specialists. From
the technical perspective, these assumptions, based as they are on a classical scientific
research model, are assumed to operate uniformly throughout the entire system. Often,
given the hard-wired nature of ICT and the top-down approach accompanying it,
technocratic values can sometimes invisibly and unintentionally saturate an entire
community technology initiative.
In order for the technical component to function as part of the CI system, and to create a
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unique whole which is greater than the sum of its parts, they have to be filtered through a
human-centred lens from the outset. Issues around cost, access and control, around
privacy and distribution, amongst many others, have to be considered at the design stage
from a human or community centred perspective.
The problem with technologists who concern themselves solely with the nuts and bolts of
technological development is that they often lack the capacity for social analysis.
Fundamental questions relating to the purpose or need of particular community
communication technology are often ignored. This incapacity for social analysis and its
application to the design, implementation and development processes often means that
imbalances in power relationships between those with the resources to finance and drive
technological developments, those with technical knowledge and expertise, and those in
social need are frequently overlooked.
Because our perspective is rooted in human-centredness, its overriding dynamic is driven
by human values rather than technological imperatives. Technological imperatives which
distort human or community actions are ultimately dysfunctional and form a dangerous
basis for determining community policy and practice.
This brings us to the other main drivers of the process: power, ownership, distribution, and
the disparate nature of communication. We mention these because despite the best
intentions of most CI researchers even those who acknowledge the significance of
reciprocity, mutuality, and participation, the fundamental questions of who benefits from
community technology, who owns it, who controls its distribution and applications, and who
defines the nature of communication are central to any consideration of the sustainability of
community technology. In traditional research such issues are often overlooked, with power
reserved to the research team in often invisible and ultimately dysfunctional ways. For the
human-centred notions of reciprocity, mutuality, and participation to be put into practice,
power has to be transparently addressed, democratically distributed, and, at least from the
researcher s perspective, partially surrendered.
Community research & practice: Whose reality is it anyway?
The scope and significance of the knowledgebase that can emerge from CI partnerships
between community technology and community research is enormous, both in terms of
academic investigation and as a dynamic, collaborative community resource (Day, 2003a &
Day & Schuler, 2004) However, for such a knowledgebase to be achieved a shared
understanding between practice and research is required so that common ground can be
Tensions between community technology practitioners and researchers are not uncommon
and honesty and respect are paramount if such partnerships are to be sustainable. Often,
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but not always, such tensions result from a distrust of academic researchers on the part of
local communities. Stories abound of researchers who sometimes give the impression that
the community exists solely for the convenience of their personal research. In such cases,
having convinced a community of the benefits of the research and having collected the
data, researchers then leave the community to their own devices once the research funding
has run out or the researcher s interest waned.
So who benefits from community research and can Community Informatics researchers
guarantee that they are different from the researchers above? The truth is that because
Community Informatics is still an emergent area of research – yet to arrive at a common
set of assumptions, definitions and practices – it might be too early to tell. Although this
condition of uncertainty can be frustrating, it can be regarded as a healthy sign of CI s
continuing evolution and development.
However, it should be understood that any investigation in a community environment can
be perceived as an intrusion. Such research must be conducted sensitively and with
respect. It must be completely transparent and sanctioned by the community itself. Above
all, it must prioritise community need before research need. Linking community research
and community development in this way places a heavy ethical and social responsibility on
researchers but it also presents them with a number of exciting challenges.
The CNA project & Participatory Action Research
These fundamental perceptions of the nature, role and purpose of community research
were the prime conceptual motivators behind the Community Network Analysis (CNA) and
ICT: bridging & building community ties project. An Economic and Social Research
Council (ESRC) project funded through the People at the Centre of Communication and
Information Technology (PACCIT) research programme (Day, 2003b) this community
research project is grounded in the principles of participatory action research (PAR).
Founded on a partnership between a team of researchers from the University of
Brighton and the Sussex Community Internet Project (SCIP), CNA is grounded in a
participatory research philosophy. The project employs a range of participatory tools and
techniques to examine the use of ICT in local communities. CNA is investigating if, and
how, network technologies affect social network ties and facilitate social cohesion and
community building. In addition the project team is developing a contextualised approach to
ICT learning, that we call participatory learning workshops (PLW). These workshops site
community ICT training and learning within the needs and experiences of the local
communities themselves. Finally, using participatory design techniques, the project will
design, implement and develop a community communications space in partnership with
The adoption of a human-centred approach to community technology, grounded as it is in
the design of technologies to address social need, meant that an appropriate
methodological approach for the CNA project should reflect a
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process of systematic inquiry, in which those who are experiencing a problematic situation
in a community or workplace participate collaboratively with trained researchers as
subjects, in deciding the focus of knowledge generation, in collecting and analyzing
information, and in taking action to manage, improve, or solve their problem situation.
(Deshler & Ewert, 1995)
A Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach was selected to emphasise active
collaboration between the participating communities, the university researchers and SCIP.
Where community research is intertwined with community development, as is the case with
CNA, PAR methodologies are useful in facilitating the requisite conditions of mutual trust,
respect and reciprocity between community and researchers. Enabling community
participants to voice their needs and have these expressed needs contribute to shaping and
driving the project development, along with its contribution to the infrastructure of
community life is central to the CNA ethos and encourages the development of equitable
partnerships that draw from and share the knowledge, skills and expertise of all participants.
We believe that reciprocal relationships are founded on interdependence of knowledge
rather than isolated hierarchies of knowledge. Solutions to community problems should not
be reliant solely on the knowledge of external expertise (the researchers), which often
disappears as soon as the funding runs out, or when the subject under investigation (the
community) is deemed no longer worthy of academic interest.
On the one hand, PAR demands from researchers a lasting interest in and commitment to
the community and its needs; on the other hand, it requires an a priori commitment to the
development of knowledge. It further requires that this knowledge not be regarded solely as
an academic construct (although this is obviously of importance to the researchers) but as
a means to finding solutions to community problems and, equally as important, as a
communal resource to be accessed, drawn upon and updated whenever necessary.
In order to better sustain the principles of human-centeredness and support the technical
rigours of PAR, our CNA project hopes to develop, amongst other innovations, a Code of
Practice for community researchers - a variation on the Hippocratic Oath of bounded
responsibility based on ethical guidelines. We believe that such a charter could be
incorporated eventually into project briefs as a form of contract, thereby providing
participants and partners alike with a transparent code of research conduct.
Another important issue is ownership. The term whose reality is it anyway not only refers
to the problems of directing research, but also to the process whereby that
information/knowledge is distributed and presented. Researchers need to recognise that
issues of community control and ownership are fundamental: What is the difference
between formal and informal communication and explicit and tacit knowledge? Who does it
belong to? Who determines its authenticity? Who decides on rights to public access? Who
benefits? Finding solutions to such questions must ultimately rest with the community itself.
But by drawing on the skills, knowledge and expertise of researchers, communities can
decide which areas of knowledge generation are required to solve any problems they face.
By working with researchers to collect, collate, classify and analyse community information,
members of communities not only begin to expand their own capacity to undertake such
exercises in the future but also renew their acquaintance with and gain control over the
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assets, resources and agencies that exist in their own backyard.
PAR not only provides researchers with insights and data that more traditional
methodological approaches could never hope to elicit but also reacquaints community
members with, and enables them to develop an understanding of, the many facets of their
lived community experience .
In writing this paper for the Sustainability issue of the Journal of Community Informatics it
has been our purpose to present a thought-provoking contribution intended to identify and
discuss, albeit briefly, a number of issues of relevance to sustainability and community
technology. For the purpose of orientation and contextualisation, we believe that the
Community Informatics Research Network (CIRN) should consider the conceptual meaning
of Community Informatics. We accept that any such orientation will be, by definition, an
exercise in shared normative thinking and see this as mutually beneficial and reinforcing. We
understand that a consequence of any such discourse may well result in a diversity of
interpretations and perceptions of the field. However, if our paper results in such differences
and commonalities being discussed then we will consider our contribution successful.
We finish with a story – or rather a metaphor which encapsulates many of the concepts,
practices and dangers which have been touched on throughout this paper. It is the story of
a Native American called Black Elk, a Lakota shaman and warrior, co-author of the most
celebrated Native autobiography ever written, Black Elk Speaks. Born on the Great Plains
in the mid-19th century, Black Elk lived through the tumultuous era of the Western Wars,
fought against General Custer, survived the Massacre at Wounded Knee, only to suffer the
continuing hardships of reservation life. Black Elk s visionary powers and mastery of
Lakota culture soon became legendary, so much so that in the 1920s John Neihardt, a
non-Native writer and poet, sought out the elderly Black Elk to record his memoirs. For over
18 months, John Neihardt interviewed Black Elk, working with Black Elk s son and his own
daughter as translator and stenographer respectively.
However, they were not alone - there were some significant others involved, yet almost
invisible in the final published text. Through word of mouth and invitation, a chorus of Black
Elk s friends and companions appeared at the interviews, surrounding him in a kind of
Greek chorus. They would comment on his words during the interviews, add elements,
gently chide or jest with him, expound for the record that which they collectively knew to be
significant or noteworthy. For all the Lakota present, any single individual, no matter how
accomplished at Lakota culture and history, could never exist or be considered apart from
the Lakota community, could never create an its own autobiography, or could never
compile a history without there being an exercise in collective memory.
We have described Black Elk Speaks as the most celebrated Native autobiography ever
written, and yet Native American cultures were exclusively oral - indigenous written histories
simply did not exist. This explains the title, but who decided to publish in book form, and
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with all the diversity of contributing voices, who decided on the final version? Why John
Neihardt, of course! He had the tape recorder, he had the transcripts, he edited the
documents, he constructed the narrative, he had the publisher, and in the final analysis he
was white – that is, he had the cultural cachet to power his choices. Published in 1931,
Black Elk Speaks has been in print ever since.
It took almost 60 years, aided by an escalating word-of-mouth reputation, for the whole
story of Black Elk Speaks to emerge, for the unedited transcripts to be published. It also
took a significant shift in the dominant culture to allow the authentic voices of Black Elk and
his Lakota chorus to be heard, with their distinctive cadences, repetitions and collective
anarchy, and for the Lakota process of self to be revealed.
Not simply a collection of personal statements, or a single narrative, or a poetic vision,
Black Elk s books make us realise how, at least for the Lakota people, communal identity
and personal identity were inseparable, that group history and personal transformation were
one and the same. For us, with our specific focus on collaborative community research,
these documents serve as a powerful testimony to the intimacy between Black Elk and his
tribal compatriots, and to the social and ethical dynamics at work between Black Elk and the
researcher/writer John Neihardt.
Despite its hybrid nature, Black Elk Speaks is now universally acclaimed as a literary
classic, a great cultural document and deeply resonant metaphor. However, we can still
wonder at what cost and, had the full transcripts never been published, at what loss?
We therefore offer up Black Elk s model of testimony as an aid to reflection and
engagement with our own community research, both in development and in practice, and as
an incitement to better creative collaborations. We suggest, of course, that you read the
books as well - as information, as communication, as knowledge, as process, and as
Or, as Black Elk might have put it, I ve told you our story, now you tell us yours .
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 As community technology is viewed as an integral part of community infrastructure in the
network society, the authors use initiative as opposed to project . The short-term
nature of the project mentality is considered detrimental to the aim of social sustainability.
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 The use of the word shared relates to negative as well as positive social experiences.
Recognising community as a contested space where conflict often exists, the authors
suggest that such conflict is as much part of the shared experience of community life as are
more harmonious conditions. For example, a loud and violent argument between
neighbours late at night is as much part of the shared experience of community life as is the
same neighbours organising a Christmas Party for marginalised children during the festive
 These include profiling and mapping the information and communication assets
(Kretzmann & McKnight, 1997) and needs of both geographic communities and
communities of practice, and synthesising this data with a social network analysis of local
communication patterns and behaviour.
See http://wiki.cna.org.uk/index.php?Community%20Networkers%20Oath for a
preliminary consideration of the oath.
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