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Community informatics (CI), also known as community networking, electronic community networking, community-based technologies, community technology or grassroots computing refers to an emerging field of investigation and practice concerned with information and communication technology (ICT) in relation to communities and their social, cultural, service development, economic and other dimensions. It is formally located as an academic discipline within a variety of academic faculties including information science, information systems, computer science, planning, development studies, and library science among others and draws on insights on community development from a range of backgrounds and disciplines. It is an interdisciplinary approach interested in using ICTs for different forms of community action, as distinct from pure academic study about ICT effects. It is the application of information and communication technology to enable and empower community processes.
Most humans live in communities. In some urban areas, community and neighborhood are conflated but this may be a limited definition. Communities are defined as people coming together in pursuit of common aims or shared practices through any means, including physical, electronic, and social networks. They proliferate even while the ability to define them is amorphous.
Cultures ensure their growth and survival by continuing the norms and mores that are the bases of their way of life. Communities can use the infrastructure of ICTs as a method of continuing cultures within the context of the Internet and the World Wide Web. Once a cultural identity is defined within the context of these technologies, it can be replicated and disseminated through various means, including the sharing of information through websites, applications, databases, and file sharing. In this manner, a group that defines its cultural identity within the construct of technology infrastructure is empowered to hold valuable exchanges within the spheres of economics, political power, high and popular culture, education, and entertainment.
Since the inception of the Internet and the World Wide Web, we have seen the exponential growth of enterprises ranging from electronic commerce, social networking, entertainment and education, as well as a myriad of other contrivances and file exchanges that allow for an ongoing cultural enrichment through technology. However, there has been a general lag as to which populations can benefit through these services through impediments such as geographic location, a lack of funds, gaps in technology and the expertise and skills that are required to operate these systems.
To date there has been very considerable investment in supporting the electronic development of business communities, one-to-many social tools (for example, corporate intranets, or purpose-built exchange and social networking services such as eBay, or Myspace), or in developing applications for individual use. There is far less understanding, or investment in human-technical networks and processes that are intended to deliberately result in social change or community change, particularly in communities for whom electronic communication is secondary to having an adequate income or social survival.
The communal dimension (and focus of Community Informatics) results in a strong interest in studying and developing strategies for how ICTs can enable and empower those living in physical communities. This is particularly the case in those communities where ICT access is done communally, through Telecentres, information kiosks, community multimedia centres, and other technologies. This latter set of approaches has become of very considerable interest as Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D) has emerged as significant element in strategic (and funding) approaches to social and economic development in Less Developed Countries. ICT4D initiatives have been undertaken by public, NGO and private sector agencies concerned with development such as the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation; have emerged as a key element in the poverty alleviation component of the UN's Millennium Development Goals; and as important directions for private sector investment both from a market perspective (cf. the "Bottom of the Pyramid") and from companies concerned with finding a delivery channel for goods and services into rural and low income communities.
There is thus growing interest in Community Informatics as an approach to understanding of how different ICTs can enable and empower marginalized communities to achieve their collective goals.
As an academic discipline, CI can be seen as a field of practice in applied information and communications technology. Community informatics is a technique for looking at economic and social development within the construct of technology—online health communities, social networking websites, cultural awareness and enhancement through online connections and networks, electronic commerce, information exchanges, as well as a myriad of other aspects that contributes to creating a personal and group identity. The term was brought to prominence by Michael Gurstein. Michael Gurstein says that community informatics is a technology strategy or discipline that connects at the community level economic and social development with the emergence of community and civic networks, electronic commerce, online participation, self-help, virtual health communities, "Tele-centres", as well as other types of online institutions and corporations. He brought out the first representative collection of academic papers, although others, such as Brian Loader and his colleagues at the University of Teesside used the term in the mid-1990s.
CI brings together the practices of community development and organization, and insights from fields such as sociology, planning, computer science, critical theory, women's studies, library and information sciences, management information systems, and management studies. Its outcomes—community networks and community-based ICT-enabled service applications—are of increasing interest to grassroots organizations, NGOs and civil society, governments, the private sector, and multilateral agencies among others. Self-organized community initiatives of all varieties, from different countries, are concerned with ways to harness ICT for social capital, poverty alleviation and for the empowerment of the "local" in relation to its larger economic, political and social environments. Some claim it is potentially a form of 'radical practice'.
Community informatics may in fact, not gel as a single field within the academy, but remain a convenient locale for interdisciplinary activity, drawing upon many fields of social practice and endeavour, as well as knowledge of community applications of technology. However, one can begin to see the emergence of a postmodern "trans-discipline" presenting a challenge to existing disciplinary "stove-pipes" from the perspectives of the rapidly evolving fields of technology practice, technology change, public policy and commercial interest. Whether or not such a "trans-discipline" can maintain its momentum remains to be seen given the incertitude about the boundaries of such disciplines as community development.
Furthermore, there is a continuing disconnect between those coming from an Information Science perspective for whom social theories, including general theories of organisation are unfamiliar or seemingly irrelevant to solving complex 'technical' problems, and those whose focus is upon the theoretical and practical issues around working with communities for democratic and social change 
Given that many of those most actively involved in early efforts were academics, it is only inevitable that a process of "sense-making" with respect to these efforts would follow from "tool-making" efforts. These academics, and some community activists connected globally through the medium.[clarification needed]
A first formal meeting of researchers with an academic interest in these initiatives was held in conjunction with the 1999 Global Community Networking Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This meeting began the process of linking community-based ICT initiatives in developed countries with initiatives undertaken in developing countries, which were often part of larger economic and social development programmes funded by agencies such as the UN Development Programme, World Bank, or the International Development Research Centre. Academics and researchers interested in ICT efforts in developed countries began to see common and overlapping interests with those interested in similar work in less developed countries. For example, the issue of sustainability as a technical, cultural, and economic problem for community informatics has resulted in a special issue of the Journal of Community Informatics  as well as the subject of ongoing conferences in Prato, Italy and other conferences in South Africa.
Social informatics beyond an immediate concern for a community
Social informatics refers to the body of research and study that examines social aspects of computerization—including the roles of information technology in social and organizational change, the uses of information technologies in social contexts, and the ways that the social organization of information technologies is influenced by social forces and social practices. Historically, social informatics research has been strong in the Scandinavian countries, the UK and Northern Europe. Within North America, the field is represented largely through independent research efforts at a number of diverse institutions. Social informatics research diverges from earlier, deterministic (both social and technological) models for measuring the social impacts of technology. Such technological deterministic models characterized information technologies as tools to be installed and used with a pre-determined set of impacts on society dictated by the technology's stated capabilities. Similarly, the socially deterministic theory represented by some proponents of the social construction of technology (SCOT) or social shaping of technology theory see technology as the product of human social forces.
There is a tension between the practice and research ends of the field. To some extent this reflects the gap, familiar from other disciplines such as community development, community organizing and community based research. In addition, the difficulty that Information Systems has in recognising the qualitative dimension of technology research means that the kind of approach taken by supporters of community informatics is difficult to justify to a positive field oriented towards solutions of technical, rather than social problems. This is a difficulty also seen in the relationship between strict technology research and management research. Problems in conceptualising and evaluating complex social interventions relying on a technical base are familiar from community health and community education. There are long-standing debates about the desire for accountable - especially quantifiable and outcome-focused social development, typically practised by government or supported by foundations, and the more participatory, qualitatively rich, process-driven priorities of grass-roots community activists, familiar from theorists such as Paulo Freire, or Deweyan pragmatism.
Some of the theoretical and practical tensions are also familiar from such disciplines as program evaluation and social policy, and perhaps paradoxically, Management Information Systems, where there is continual debate over the relative virtue and values of different forms of research and action, spread around different understandings of the virtues or otherwise of allegedly "scientific" or "value-free" activity (frequently associated with "responsible" and deterministic public policy philosophies), and contrasted with more interpretive and process driven viewpoints in bottom-up or practice driven activity. Community informatics would in fact probably benefit from closer knowledge of, and relationship to, theorists, practitioners, and evaluators of rigorous qualitative research and practice.
A further concern is the potential for practice to be "hijacked" by policy or academic agendas, rather than being driven by community goals, both in developed and developing countries. The ethics of technology intervention in indigenous or other communities has not been sufficiently explored, even though ICTs are increasingly looked upon as an important tool for social and economic development in such communities. Moreover, neither explicit theoretical positions nor ideological positioning has yet emerged. Many projects appear to have developed with no particular disciplinary affiliation, arising more directly from policy or practice imperatives to 'do something' with technology as funding opportunities arise or as those at the grassroots (or working with the grassroots) identify ICT as possible resources to respond to local issues, problems or opportunities. The papers and documented outcomes (as questions or issues for further research or elaboration) on the wiki of the October 2006 Prato conference demonstrate that many of the social, rather than technical issues are key questions of concern to any practitioner in community settings: how to bring about change; the nature of authentic or manufactured community; ethical frameworks; or the politics of community research.
A different strain of critique has emerged from gender studies. Some theorists have argued that feminist contributions to the field have yet to be fully acknowledged and Community Informatics as a research area has yet to welcome feminist interventions. This exists despite the presence of several gender-oriented studies and leadership roles played by women in community informatics initiatives.
Research and practice interests
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Research and practice ranges from concerns with purely virtual communities; to situations in which virtual or online communication are used to enhance existing communities in urban, rural, or remote geographic locations in developed or developing countries; to applications of ICTs for the range of areas of interest for communities including social and economic development, environmental management, media and "content" production, public management and e-governance among others. A central concern, although one not always realized in practice is with "enabling" or "empowering" communities with ICT that is, ensuring that the technology is available for the community. This further implies an approach to development which is rather more "bottom up" than "top down".
Areas of concern range from small-scale projects in particular communities or organizations which might involve only a handful of people, such as telecentres; an on online community of disabled people; civic networks and to large national, government sponsored networking projects in countries such as Australia and Canada or local community projects such as working with Maori families in New Zealand. The Gates Foundation has been active in supporting public libraries in countries such as Chile. An area of rapidly developing interest is in the use of ICT as a means to enhance citizen engagement as an "e-Governance" counterpart (or counterweight) to transaction oriented initiatives.
A key conceptual element and framing concept for Community Informatics is that of "effective use" introduced initially by Michael Gurstein in a critique of a research pre-occupation with the Digital Divide as ICT "access". CI is concerned with how ICTs are used in practice and not simply facilitating "access" to them and the notion of "effective use" is a bridge between CI research (research and analysis of the constituent elements of effective use), CI policy (developing enabling structures and programmes supportive of "effective use") and practice (implementing applications and services in support of local communities).
Many practitioners would dispute any necessary connection to university research, regarding academic theorising and interventions as constraining or irrelevant to grassroots activity which should be beyond the control of traditional institutions, or simply irrelevant to practical local goals.
Some of the commonalities and differences may be in fact be due to national and cultural differences. For example, the capacity of many North American (and particularly US) universities to engage in service learning as part of progressive charters in communities large and small is part of a long-standing tradition absent elsewhere. The tradition of service learning is almost entirely absent in the UK, Australia, or New Zealand, (and of limited significance in Canada) where the State has traditionally played a much stronger role in the delivery of community services and information.
In some countries such as the UK, there is a tradition of locally based grassroots community technology, for example in Manchester, or in Hebden Bridge. In Italy and the Netherlands, there also appears to have been a strong connection between the development of local civic networks based around a tradition of civic oppositionism, connected into the work of progressive academics.
In Latin America, Africa and many parts of Asia these efforts have been driven by external funding agencies as part of larger programs and initiatives in support of broader economic and social development goals. However, these efforts have now become significantly "indigenized" (and particularly in Latin America) and "bottom-up" ICT efforts are increasingly playing a leading role in defining the future use of ICT within local communities.
There are emerging online and personal networks of researchers and practitioners in community informatics and community networking in many countries as well as international groupings. The past decade has also seen conferences in many countries, and there is an emerging literature for theoreticians and practitioners including the on-line Journal of Community Informatics.
It is surprising in fact, how much in common is found when people from developed and non-developed countries meet. A common theme is the struggle to convince policy makers of the legitimacy of this approach to developing electronically literate societies, instead of a top-down or trickle-down approach, or an approach dominated by technical, rather than social solutions which in the end, tend to help vendors rather than communities. A common criticism that is frequently raised amongst participants at events such as the Prato conferences is that a focus on technical solutions evades the social changes that communities need to achieve in their values, activities and other people-oriented outcomes in order to make better use of technology.
The field tends to have a progressive bent, being concerned about the use of technology for social and cultural development connected to a desire for capacity building or expanding social capital, and in a number of countries, governments and foundations have funded a variety of community informatics projects and initiatives, particularly from a more tightly controlled, though not well-articulated social planning perspective, though knowledge about long-term effects of such forms of social intervention on use of technology is still in its early stages.
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