Community Networking Support Initiative
A Network of Networks
In 1994, it was determined at a national conference of community networks that there were approximately 55 community groups involved in organizing or operating a community network in Canada. Today, the numbers are growing exponentially. With the deployment of CAP sites, new community networks and community learning networks in both rural and urban areas, there are expected to be approximately 10,000 community-based electronic networking organizations and public access sites dotting the Canadian landscape by March 2001.
The potential of this extensive electronic infrastructure for improving communications and the quality of life of Canadians is impressive. For the public, the benefits of being “connected” are many and include being able to access communications tools, community information and resources on-line, instant access to government services and even the opportunity to learn about places and people elsewhere in the country. For governments, it’s a highly effective way to interact with constituents – from receiving and providing information, all the way to delivering a service. The new technologies hold the promise of great gains in terms of community capacity building, lifelong learning, e-commerce and e-democracy.
The very nature of community networks, grass roots and mostly volunteer driven, means that the quality of sites – content, usefulness and accessibility – will vary considerably across the country. The result will be that some Canadians may be well served by their community network and others may not. This mixed and possibly spotty electronic infrastructure could hamper government’s ability to deliver services fairly and effectively through the Internet.
Good intentions and a strong commitment by volunteers are essential to establishing and maintaining a community network. But the quality and performance of a community network depends entirely on the abilities and knowledge of the individuals who operate it. Operators need access to tools, information and training if they are going to deliver a network that is meaningful to their community and capable of being part of a greater whole.
Information on how to establish and operate a community network is readily available if you are prepared to search for it, take the time to sift through and find the knowledge you need and then challenge its veracity. Volunteers wishing to establish a community network, or improve an existing one, could also contact an established network with questions or for help. This takes time, and with so many new networks coming on-line, the same questions and information requests are being made repeatedly.
Since a central resource for credible information and help for community networking organizations does not exist, Telecommunities Canada proposes to establish one with the help of Human Resources Development Canada’s Office of Learning Technologies and several of our affiliates.
Under the Community Network Support Initiative (CNSI), Telecommunities Canada (TC) will establish a “Community Learning Network” among electronic communities to collect and deliver information, tools and training to community networkers across the country. Established in 1994, Telecommunities Canada is recognized as the national voice of community networking. Its credibility and longstanding partnerships within the networking community, as well as the outside world, make TC ideally suited for the CNSI project.
Community-based electronic networks are natural partners for the Office of Learning Technologies. Connected and deeply rooted in the communities that they serve, these organizations are ideally placed to raise awareness about the opportunities, challenges and benefits of technology-enhanced learning and to act as a catalyst for innovation.
Strengthening these networks will make them stronger allies in the national effort to bridge the digital divide by promoting and increasing access to lifelong learning opportunities through technology. This project will strengthen networks by establishing a model through which organizations can learn about the management of electronic networks, identify common problems or needs and develop creative solutions.
The Community Network Support initiative will be the most significant project that Telecommunities Canada has undertaken since it was founded in 1994. The concept of the CNSI evolved from expert observations by TC and its members as a means to address an ever-increasing need of community networking organizations across Canada.
Under the CNSI, TC will become a central point for electronic networks to first come to when they need information, software and access to expertise in a diverse range of knowledge areas. TC will actively research, review, verify and catalogue information to ensure that it reflects industry best practices appropriate to the Canadian community networking environment. The information will be organized into a Tool Kit and searchable database as an important feature of the TC Web site. The infobase will complement several outreach programs that include an electronic newsletter, conference seminars, training and discussion groups.
The objective of the CNSI is to strengthen community-based electronic networks across Canada by making information, tools and training available to networkers. This will be achieved by:
Creating and maintaining a comprehensive library of authoritative information and tools essential to the establishment of new community networking organizations and the improvement of existing ones
Actively encouraging community networks to adopt exemplary practices
Providing training and mentoring to community networkers
Facilitating communication and information sharing among electronic community networks
Enabling electronic networks jointly to access expert advice and help from outside the electronic networking community on issues of common concern
Establishing an on-line database as a national registry of community networking organizations including CAP networks, public access sites, community networks and community learning networks
The information and tool kit resources developed through the CNSI project will be publicly available for access by all community networks, free-nets, regional community networking associations, public access centres and CAP sites via the World Wide Web.
Potentially thousands of such organizations will benefit from the tool kit, online information resources, electronic newsletter, listserves/discussion forums, seminars and documented knowledge base developed through the project.
The proposed Community Network Support Initiative will establish a Community Learning Network among electronic communities under the umbrella of Telecommunities Canada.
This network of networks will feature multi-point access to learning opportunities involving community networks, free-nets, regional community networking associations, public access centres and CAP sites.
In keeping with the needs expressed by community networking organizations, the project will test new models and develop exemplary models for information-sharing and resource-sharing among electronic communities across Canada.
It will establish a framework for learning about the management of networks, identifying common problems or needs and developing creative solutions.
A knowledge base will be created involving:
electronic communities sharing their expertise and experience with each other
electronic communities identifying issues and problems of common concern and sharing access to outside experts
electronic communities contributing to a research program to identify tools and information resources of interest to electronic communities
Creating the CNSI Knowledge Base Electronically
The CNSI will provide opportunities for electronic communities to share their operational expertise and experience. Fledgling community networks will benefit from the lessons learned by long-established organizations; older networks will benefit from innovative ideas and fresh approaches.
It will also facilitate shared access to outside experts and consultants in areas of common concern.
a listserve will be used to facilitate free-ranging discussion among community networks
a WW Discussion Board will be established on the TC Web site to encourage public discussion on a variety of topics. Topics raised in the listserve may be moved to the Discussion Board to permit a more focused examination of a particular issue and broader input. New topics may be introduced by community networks directly to the Discussion Board
Relationships will be established with teams of experts who will be called upon by TC (usually via e-mail) to answer questions, provide opinions or contribute insights into particular issues raised by community networks
An active program of research will be established to capture existing information and resources on the Internet relating to the issues and subject areas raised by community networks. Much of this research will be done by a national advisory committee consisting of representatives of electronic networking organizations drawn from TC’s Board of Directors and from the TC membership at large.
Formalizing the CNSI Knowledge Base
The knowledge base will be managed on the TC Web site. A CNSI Tool Kit will be established on the TC Web site to document Frequently Asked Questions, issues and solutions.
Resources in the Tool Kit will be distilled from the listserve and the Discussion Board, incorporating input from the CNSI teams of experts and fresh resources identified through the CNSI research program.
In addition to FAQs, issues and solutions, the Tool Kit will include a reference library of links to information resources and tools aimed at supporting the management of electronic networks such as financial management, funding, sustainability, governance, career development, legal information, communications, media relations, research methods, staffing, training and volunteers.
It will also feature examples of recommended programs and services that organizations may wish to deliver to their own memberships such as on-line training tutorials and links to useful employment tools that community networks can add to their sites.
Regular feedback and input will be sought from users to ensure that the Tool Kit serves the needs of electronic networks. The national advisory committee will provide direction and advice on the creation and maintenance of the Tool Kit in addition to contributing content.
Communicating and Promoting the CNSI Knowledge Base
An electronic news bulletin will be established for distribution to electronic networks and others by subscription. The e-bulletin will highlight the latest CNSI developments such as additions to the Tool Kit and TC-Infobase. It will draw attention to the TC Web site as well as other useful on-line resources. It will help to foster a sense of community among electronic networks by featuring news briefs and announcements from community networks across Canada and abroad.
Through the e-bulletin, electronic networks will be encouraged to register their organizations with the TC on-line database. The database will yield an on-line directory of community networks and regional associations including URLs and contact information.
The e-bulletin and the database, networks will be encouraged to participate in research and information-gathering activities undertaken by TC on behalf of the CNSI. Data collected will support the advocacy activities of TC in representing the interests of community networks.
Enhancing the CNSI Knowledge Base – Conferences
TC will enhance the CNSI’s national learning framework by sponsoring regional-level annual conferences in association with TC’s regional affiliates. Local organizing bodies, such as the BCCNA., will be responsible for organizing and regionally promoting a conference that meets the needs of their regional constituents.
TC will sponsor components that bring a national/international perspective to the conference and will promote the conference to community networks across Canada. In this way, TC can assist in strengthening regional associations and encouraging the development of regional “networks of networks” while maintaining a strong focus on its national commitment.
In addition to furthering the aims of the CNSI by presenting hands-on learning workshops for community networks, the conference will afford TC the opportunity to stimulate academic research and to present examples of exemplary practices.
Equally important, the conference will provide an opportunity for face-to-face interaction among CNSI participants as well as a convenient forum for the discussion and launch of CNSI activities.
Turning CNSI Knowledge into Action
Ongoing communication and exchange among electronic networks is the power source that will drive the CNSI. It is likely that through the CNSI, community networks will identify needs and problems that require joint action beyond the resources offered by the listserves, discussion boards, Tool Kit, annual conferences and other activities currently envisaged under the CNSI proposal. Appropriately, the CNSI will serve as an incubator for the development of new projects before they are “spun off” for execution by TC and its member organizations.
The CNSI will support TC’s role as an advocate, representing the common interests of community networks to government, media and industry. TC will promote improved awareness within government (policy makers and funders) of community networking needs and capabilities as well as an appreciation of the importance of community networking organizations in the future development of Internet (community economic development, e-commerce, distance learning, e-delivery of government services).
Under the CNSI, TC will undertake an information campaign to improve awareness of community networks with a view to increasing public use of community networks and increasing financial support of community networks as valuable community resources.