A major literature review of community informatics projects - using technology to bring social and economic benefits to the disadvantaged - paints a pretty gloomy view of the effectiveness of 'official' programmes linked to schools, libraries, colleges and public sector venues. And while there is evidence of increased civic participation rising from community informatics projects, this is limited, mainly involving existing political activists, concludes the review carried out for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
I have been rather sniffy about some community informatics academics missing current realities, but in this review two of the UK's leading researchers in the field, Brian Loader and Leigh Keeble, have cut to the heart of the issues facing community technology centres, local online networks and other initiatives.
On my reading, they offer strong evidence to challenge the current government moves to push the £400 million UK online centres programme- now facing an end to funding - to focus almost entirely on just the type of formal course activities least likely to appeal to people who are not attracted by schools and colleges. As usual, it is the articulate, confident middle-class who benefit most. They flag up the problems of sustaining projects that do target those in greatest need.
The review's main conclusions are:
* The use of public access and support sites (such as UK Online centres) by those currently perceived as excluded from the benefits of ICTs is generally low.
* The location of many public access sites in libraries, schools, further education colleges and other public-sector venues may be a significant barrier for those who do not associate such institutions as being part of their lives.
* Similarly, ICT training and education which replicate earlier negative feelings of failure are unlikely to attract those who have been categorised as underachievers.
* The problem of sustainability is a common feature of almost all community informatics projects, with the role of public investment requiring clarification.
* Evidence of increased civic participation arising from community informatics initiatives was limited to a few cases, mainly involving existing political activists.
* Negotiations between the Government and commercial providers over pricing and regulation are likely to make a significant contribution to challenging differential patterns of access and usage.
* Good-quality research exists, but the extent and robustness of current empirical research in community informatics is not sufficient to help policy-makers and practitioners to design and implement effective strategies and actions.
* Both the barriers to low take-up and the cases of good practice identified could inform future development. However, these are not sufficient to support the contention that community informatics initiatives have yet made significant challenges to the social inequalities associated with adoption of ICTs
Brian and Leigh - who are based at the Community Informatics Research and Applications Unit, University of Teesside, use language that is appropriately cautious in a literature review, but I get a strong sense that their research is the latest deflation of the grander hopes some people (me included) had for the social benefits of the Net. Definitely reality check time.... although of course, it may be that research is lagging behind current practice and there is more good news out there..
They write: "Worldwide, many thousands of initiatives are experimenting with innovative ways of adopting ICTs for community development. However, the review's findings suggest that the general optimism of such approaches is not yet sufficiently matched by a similar scope of research providing systematic lessons to be learnt from these initiatives."
Dealing with community networking initiatives under the heading "Connecting community places to community spaces?" they write:
"Much work has been carried out on the use of websites, email lists (listservs), discussion groups (usenet groups) and chat groups that enable virtual communities to provide social support. Research has identified a broad consensus that social support can have a beneficial effect on health and well-being. A growing literature has demonstrated the potential benefits to those who access computer-mediated social support. But when the demographics of those taking part are examined, participants tend to be characterised by reasonably high levels of education and skills.
"Inequalities in accessing ICTs do not arise just as a result of income. A whole host of other reasons can contribute to individuals not being able to participate in these virtual communities and thus not gain the benefits in terms of support and information. As a result, the potential for such support to become dominated by middle-class, articulate individuals who are already more likely to make more effective use of and demands on welfare services becomes perpetuated.
"Significant barriers to the adoption of ICTs by those currently excluded often arise from the inappropriate location of public access sites and ICT training which is perceived as irrelevant to their life experiences.
"This would suggest that a key challenge for policy-makers might be to foster and sustain virtual community 'spaces', informal training opportunities, and appropriate access which is identified, developed and shaped by the perceived needs of excluded groups. These spaces for interaction, information sharing and social support would not be shaped by the e-government agenda or commercial markets. Instead, they would provide an intermediate virtual space between the two."
It is here that there is some comfort and support for those who are developing centres and other initiatives that don't just offer formal computer training and e-learning - and who aim to support activities relevant to people's day to day lives and their communities. As a member of the DirectSupport consortium , funded by Government to work with community-based initiatives, I'm a little biased. But recent research confirms that it is these - rather than the institutional centres - that are reaching those with greatest disadvantage.
The general lesson that I would take is that technology-led projects don't work... particularly when focussed on those least able or confident to use the technology. As one researcher said to me "we found that most of those using centres already had computers at home and wanted to improve their skills." Nothing wrong in that, but hardly social transformation.
The associated lesson is that technology doesn't work on its own. It offers another tool to add to the range of means we have to access information, communicate, collaborate, and learn. It does change the world.... but so far not from the bottom up.
Earlier items on community technology