In a recent article in The New York Times talking about research on water use in Rwanda, the author, after going through a fairly long recitation of why privatizing the water supply for the poorest of the poor in one of the poorest countries of the world hasn't been a stampeding success, writes: "In summary, providing drinking water to subsistence communities is much more than simply providing access."
Likewise, although the study of community informatics, which focuses on the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in communities, isn't about water systems, the same rather obvious observation holds true. Access (in this case ICT in the form of computers, Internet connections, data, etc.) is not enough -- especially if the folks getting the access can't pay for it, can't understand it, can't support it, or can't figure out how to use it in any way that is meaningful to them.
In response to a recent blog post of mine, Tim O'Reilly tweeted: "sobering account of how open data is used against the poor..."
My blog post pointed out that, in the absence of efforts to ensure that those outside the current loop of active digital users have the means to actually use data that is currently being made "open," the effect might be to further "enrich the (digital and otherwise) rich" and "immiserate the poor."
Several readers provided helpful examples of how "open data" or digitization has driven land fraud in Nova Scotia, Canada; the securing of unfair health service advantages in the US; and the general detachment of the middle class digerati from the poor and marginalized in India.
Community informatics started as a confluence of the following participants:
- academics concerned with how ICT was being used (or not used) at the grassroots level
- grassroots folks, particularly those working in locally based ICT networking, telecenters, and community technology centers looking to connect with others with similar interests and to gain some understanding and longer-term perspective on what they are doing
- public officials concerned with how ICT could be used to support economic and social development among the poor and marginalized
- those in the private sector with a sense of corporate social responsibility, or who are responding to the evident markets at the "bottom of the pyramid."
Out of this a new way of approaching ICT is emerging that includes an understanding and acknowledgment of the community as an owner as well as a user of the data and the technology, and of community processes as an integral part of how a system comes to be used and given value in practice. This approach recognizes that systems need to be usable (and not just accessible) by the community as the system owner.
As an academic discipline, community informatics has spawned a peer-reviewed journal, an annual conference, and various workshops; and most recently it has become a priority topic of interest within the "I School" movement. There is also an active and open email list.
Central to the community informatics approach is the concept of "effective use," which points directly to the range of preconditions that are necessary for communities (or individuals) to be able to turn "access" into something meaningful and useful in their daily lives.
Having water flowing by one's house but not being able to afford it for one's family must be as frustrating as, for example, seeing a computer or the Internet or a cell phone or a flood of data being made "open" and "accessible" but not having the financial, literacy, numeracy, interpretive, or other means to use these tools to make a difference in one's life circumstances.
Community informatics is about making sure that everyone everywhere has the opportunity to make effective use of the wondrous tools that we all now take for granted.
— Michael Gurstein is Executive Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development, and Training (CCIRDT) in Vancouver, British Columbia and the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Community Informatics.