How do we move from a "give-em the boxes and wires" approach to social uses of technology to something driven by understanding the information and communication tools and content people need? What's the "something" if it isn't access and computers?
Three years ago the UK Government invested £10 million in giving 12,000 homes in seven communities computers and support "to test how making ICT accessible by putting it straight into people's homes can help overcome the digital divide". The Wired up Communities project was unashamedly tech-driven, and is providing useful lessons through the evaluation process. But we won't see the model rolled-out more widely. Yesterday I revisited SCIP, a project in Brighton and Hove, that is pioneering a different approach. Our conversation led to ideas of "civic knowledge management" as the "something".
SCIP, which started as modest community technology volunteer-based project some eight years ago, has grown substantially in recent years, helping nonprofits and running an impressive Virtual Festival.
A couple of years ago broadcaster and writer Simon Fanshawe led a campaign called The Place to Be aimed in part at gaining City status for Brighton and Hove. That succeeded, B&H became a City, and Simon and others proposed a web portal as a follow through, initially thinking of it as a major private-sector ad-supported venture. I can understand that idea would be a problem, given the many existing commercial interests in B&H, including the long-standing Virtual Brighton and Hove, and thisisbrightonandhove associated with the evening paper The Argus. Brighton is indeed a great place to be, but hasn't always been a great place to do anything because of sectional interests and (in the past) lack of civic leadership.
Perhaps fortunately the dotcom crash helped precipitate a rethink, and SCIP took up the challenge of relaunching the idea as a nonprofit local search engine. Potential partners stopped worrying about keeping their cyberspace territories and started thinking about how a new search engine would drive traffic to their sites, and also provide people with easier access to information not always easily found through their 'front doors'.
The project now has £400,000 of public funding through "invest to Save", and as partners the council, two universities, The Argus, the Primary Health Care Trust, and Virtual Brighton and Hove. The council and partners have agreed to set up the venture as an independent nonprofit company, and tenders for the search engine are due in next week.
In addition to the search engine, the project is developing a community server for local community and voluntary sector organisations, a Geographical Information Services pilot, a comprehensive Internet usage servey, and health information mapping. Project details can be found here. There will be a city-wide Information Providers Forum.
I'm a little biased about SCIP, because I helped get it started back in the mid-90s and remember our (then failed) attempts then to get together an active digital partnership and European project. You can still see some "It for All by the Sea" pages we put together then. What's amazing now is that an initially volunteer-led organisation has managed to pull together a top-level strategic partnership, secure £400,000, and still stay in touch with its grass-roots beginnings. It is a great tribute to the efforts of SCIP workers led throughout by Mark Walker and Peter Mason, and board members David Greenop, and the partners who have united behind the vision.
But what is it? Talking to Mark and David yesterday we wondered whether what's developing is civic knowledge management. The initial focus on the search engine and information management can expand through the community server and other initiatives to provide a platform for communition, collaboration and DIY publishing.