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Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

INTRODUCTION

TOM DENISON, MAURO SARRICA AND LARRY STILLMAN

Community Informatics (CI) is the theory and practice of empowering commun­ities with information and communication technologies and this overlaps with many of the research concerns of Social Informatics. There is a widespread expectation that CI will cultivate civic intelligence, enhance democracy, develop social capital, build communities, spur economies, empower individuals and groups, and result in many different forms of positive social change.

CI, in bringing together communities and technologies, works across at least three dimensions, though there may be others which are relevant:

  • The Context and Values held by different stakeholders in CI
  • The Processes and Methodologies which are brought to bear in CI enterprises
  • The Systems (both technical and social) which influence CI and those which CI influences

Gurstein argues that the perspective of CI is unique, because the focus is upon community informatics rather than generic informatics as applied to communities or such fields as Social Informatics (Gurstein 2012, p. 44). However, the construct of “community” can be difficult to define and is sociologically well-problematised (Harvey 2000). Thus, the concept of “community” used within the framework of CI is fluid and highly contextualised, referring not just to local, geographic collectivities, but also more broadly to hybrid groups which form around shared beliefs, values, experiences, and interests and which have come to have a shared sense of identity or purpose in problem-solving. Such groups may have social, cultural, political, religious, class, gender, or racial dimensions, and are often in a situation of social, cultural, economic, or other disadvantage. They are usually not only the subjects of community-based CI initiatives but also partners. Communities may have long or short lives depending on their needs (Stillman & Stoecker 2008).

The focus on community ensures a strong practical focus and a con­centration on developing strategies for using ICTs in building capacity and empowerment, for instance through telecentres, Community Multimedia Centres, and the like. A key concept in this regard is that of “effective use” developed by Gurstein in a critique of a research pre-occupation with the Digital Divide as ICT “access”. Effective use is defined as “the capacity and opportunity to successfully integrate ICT into the accomplishment of self or collaboratively identified goals” (Gurstein 2007, p. 43).

“Effective use” emphasises the actual realisation of the potential benefits of ICTs and includes elements of practice, research and policy formulation. By and large, however, it is concerned with a combination of setting up the technical conditions for access to ICTs, and what Gurstien calls “social facilitation” or the provision of community and government support (Gurstein 2007, p. 43). A broad range of theory drawn from a variety of disciplines, such as sociology, planning, women’s studies and library and information science contributes to the development of CI and underpin the development of a more reflective practice which looks past short term goals by taking into account broader societal concerns and contexts.

Multidisciplinary by nature, there has been some discussion as to whether a more rigorous definition or adaptation of a distinctive theory can bring CI’s disparate elements together (see, for example, Stillman & Linger 2009), and provide a platform which will then be able to contribute to a more critically-oriented approach capable of better interacting with other disciplines. However, this view is contested by those who prefer to see it as a form of bricolage, where researchers and practitioners work together, drawing on specific theories and assembling methodologies from a wide array of available tools and approaches on a case-by-case basis. This volume is not intended to resolve that debate, but to reflect a range of approaches and research that contribute to the field – primarily from a European perspective. In particular, these studies do not represent the practitioner end of CI, but rather the theories which contribute to our understandings of ICTs and the meanings that people bring to socio-technical systems constructed using ICTs.

This book is thus intended to add some theoretical perspectives to the growing body of CI literature and as a supplement to some of the main sources (for example, The Journal of Community Informatics, or the annual Proceedings of the Community Informatics Research Network (CIRN) Prato Conference). Plans for the volume were first discussed late in 2011 at a workshop in Prato Italy, with participants drawn from two overlapping research communities: the first associated with COST research “Actions”, particularly on the theme of the Broadband Society, and the second associated with the CIRN Prato conferences. The chapters as presented here have all undergone further development in the intervening time up to the publication of this volume.

Most of the chapters demonstrate a strong sociological influence, focus­ing in particular on the use of ICTs as tools for communications in a variety of contexts and from a variety of perspectives. Most also deal with methodological concerns and stress the fact that the online world and mobile communications devices cannot be isolated from overall communications practices.

In their chapter “Internet use and informal help for surrounding com­munities in Finland”, Sakari Taipale, Tomi Oinas and Veli-Matti Salminen examine the question of sociability from a sociological perspective, and whether or not the adoption and use of ICTs weakens or strengthens the likelihood of a person providing help to others. Their primary interest in this is whether the use of ICTs, and social networking sites in particular, enhances or undermines social cohesion. The subject has previously drawn much attention (see, for example Zhao 2006) and could be seen as a core concern of those promoting the use of ICTs in a social setting. Their results support the argument that the Internet and social networking sites are not so much sources or generators for help, but tools that facilitate interaction.

Mauro Sarrica, Leopoldina Fortunati and Alberta Contarello continue the theme in their contribution “New technologies, ageing and social wellbeing in a southern Italian context”. They are also concerned with questions of social inclusion and the elderly, but their focus is on two assumptions which often shape thinking in programs involving the elderly and new technologies: that new technologies can enhance social inclusion for the elderly; and that the elderly lack both the interest and the capacity to adopt new technologies. In order to address these assumptions, they examine how elderly people socially construct the meaning of the Internet and mobile phones and how the social representations of ICTs related to perceived social wellbeing. Their findings show that although they find support for the purported lack of interest and capacity in ICTs with regard to the Internet, that is not the case with regard to mobile phones. That is, the elderly are quite capable of distinguishing between new technologies and their utility with regard to their needs and goals and as a consequence the common assumption that the role of new technologies is “positive by definition” should be critically revisited.

The next two papers, by Francesca Comunello and by Manuela Farinosi and Emiliano Treré examine not just the use of Social Networking applications in disaster or crisis management, but also related methodological issues. Francesca Comunello, in her chapter “Studying crisis communications on social media”, is particularly interested in developing a conceptual framework with which to analyse the role of social media in major crises. Her primary foci are on citizens’ activities and on information spread and the dynamics of information diffusion from the perspective of emergency services and institutions. Starting from the methodological approaches and concerns developed in the field of Internet Studies, she emphasises that the whole media environment forms an ecosystem that cannot be understood in terms of individual applications, because each application offers different affordances which are best suited to a specific communications needs. Like all the authors in this volume, she also argues for stronger integration between practical and theoretical work, and between the online and offline worlds, adding a word of caution not to focus solely on the analysis of readily available large datasets of social media postings which, although offering unprecedented access, are difficult to analyse when divorced from their original context.

The need to study the whole communications ecosystem – both online and offline – is further developed in the subsequent chapter by Manuela Farinosi and Emiliano Treré: “Social movements, social media and post-disaster resilience”. Using the events following the tragic 2009 earthquake in L’Aquila, a small city in the centre of Italy, they examine the interplay between a rapid increase in the use of the Internet technologies and social media by local citizens, and local activism. They argue that, unlike the dominant role that is frequently attributed to social media, what they call an “Integrated System of Local Protest” (ISoLP), based on crossovers between traditional media and multiple digital technologies, provides a more accurate portrayal of the complex communication ecology that arose. They further argue that while digital media creates new possibilities for mobilisation and organisation, “events, assemblies and informal meetings are still identified by the activists as crucial arenas where the bottom-up participation and the empowerment of citizens find their more complete realisation” (see this volume p. 81).

The final three chapters are more exploratory in nature. Aldo de Moor continues the theme of social networking / Web 2.0 applications in his chapter: “Expanding the academic research community”. However, he turns the discussion away from academia and in a new direction by examining the growth of crowd sourcing and citizen science. He asks whether or not such practices might be harnessed in improving the quality and relevance of academic research. Placing academic research in the context of a range of current problems, he discusses the potential for a more collaborative and democratic form of research based on the use of social media tools and the development of new forms of collaboration between academia and other stakeholders in society. A variation of this approach is often required by the very nature of working within CI, and he argues that academia can generally benefit from this approach, the result being that research becomes more accountable, more sustainable, and more relevant to society’s needs.

The final two papers, “What’s so special about the mobile phone” by Jane Vincent and “Understanding the use of mobile phones in difficult circumstances” by Larry Stillman examine the phenomenon of the mobile phone, paying particular attention to the interplay between the meanings invested in them, emotional attachments to them, and their use. Using the UK as an example, Jane Vincent outlines developments in everyday communications over time before drawing on concepts of domestication (Silverstone & Hirsch 1992) and electronic emotion (Vincent & Fortunati 2009) to examine how issues such as emotional attachment have not only contributed to the ubiquitous presence of mobile phones in everyday life but have influenced the design of new products and services – a finding that should resonate with those designing socio-technical systems within the CI space.

Larry Stillman follows up on some of the themes raised in Jane Vincent’s chapter, but in the context of a South African township where overwhelming disadvantage is compounded by isolation. He agrees that people form emotional attachments to mobile phones, but questions whether or not the mobile phone is the panacea it is often interpreted as in these settings, and whether or not it brings with it the same benefits as it does in more developed societies or countries. Using insights from critical and geographic theory, he argues that the utility of the mobile phone is contextualised by pervasive disruption in the lives of low-income people. He suggests that the mobile phone cannot bring the same benefits as they do to people in more advanced economies. Despite that, it still has a role to play, and his chapter serves to re-emphasise one of the main tenets of CI – that technological determinism and evangelism “devoid of social critique and social context” has no place in the theory and practice of CI.

References

Gurstein, M. (2007). What is Community Informatics (and Why Does It Matter)? Milan, Italy: Polimetrica.

Gurstein, M. (2012). Toward a conceptual framework for community informatics. In A. Clement, M. Gurstein, G. Longford, M. Moll & L. R. Shade (Eds.), Connecting Canadians: Investigations in Community Informatics (pp. 35–61). Edmonton: Athabasca University Press.

Harvey, D. (2000). Possible Urban Worlds. The Fourth Megacities Lecture. Amersfoort, The Netherlands: Twynstra Gudde Management Consultants.

Murdock, G., Hartmann, P., & Gray, P. (1992). Contextualizing home computing, resources and practices. In R. Silverstone & E. Hirsch (Eds.), Consuming Technologies: Media and Information in Domestic Spaces (pp. 146–160). London: Routledge.

Stillman, L., & Linger, H. (2009). Community informatics and information systems: How can they be better connected? The Information Society, 25(4), 1–10.

Stillman, L., & Stoecker, R. (2008). Community informatics. In G. D. Garson & M. Khosrow-Pour (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Public Information Technology (pp. 50–60). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.

Vincent, J., & Fortunati, L. (Eds.) (2009). Electronic Emotion. The Mediation of Emotion via Information and Communication Technologies. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Zhao, S. (2006). Do Internet users have more social ties? A call for differentiated analyses of Internet use. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(3), 844–862.

Theories, Practices and Examples for Community and Social Informatics

   by Tom Denison, Mauro Sarrica and Larry Stillman