Ethics of Community Informatics Research and Practice

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Randy Stoecker
University of Wisconsin

Community informatics, which focuses on deploying information technology in support of community objectives, often imposes technology on communities without building the leadership and knowledge of community members to control the technology. Whether researchers or practitioners, community informaticians too often enter communities having already decided what the issues and solutions should be, reducing rather than enhancing community empowerment.


Any time that a professional is working with place-based, virtual or identity community attempting to improve its ability to gather, use, and communicate information, there is a risk that the professional


The developing field of community informatics occupies an intersection between information and communication technologies, community development, and community-based research. All three fields are attempting to improve community life, especially in communities excluded from normal access to power and wealth, and can inform a code of ethics for community informatics.

In the information and communication technology field corporate-driven design has been ethically bankrupt, but participants in the open-source software movement and related organizations such as Computer Professionals for social Responsibility and the Free Software Foundation have highly developed ethical principles. The focus of those ethics is that people have the right to not just information itself, but also to the means of producing information. Thus, people have the right to use software and to access the software source code to understand how the software works with information: This right carries the obligation to improve the software and to make your improvements public (Free Software Foundation, 2006).

Community development focuses more on the relationship between the practitioner and the community. The Community Development Society (2006) emphasizes that the practitioner should promote participation of all community members, work to enhance their understanding of the complex dynamics affecting their community and how those factors may impact options for community development, and build their leadership capacity to take charge of its own community development process.

The field of community-based research lacks a singular code of ethics, but past problems with the practice, particularly in First Nations contexts, have led the Canadian government (2006) to develop an ethical code that can apply to all research with communities. This code emphasizes that any research should be a partnership between the community and the researcher, with a research design that fits the community culture, where control over the research is shared by the community, and benefits from the research flow to the community.

The following principles for community informaticians flow from these sources:

• Build the community’s information power—this requires that the researcher/practitioner assists the community in knowing how to decide what information they need, how to make informed choices about how to get that information, and how to access and adapt the tools they need to achieve their information objectives.
• Build the community’s relational power—this requires that the researcher/practitioner assists the community in building its own democratic practices and develops leaders who can shepherd those practices, and in organizing interventions in ways that build relationships among community members.
• Build the community’s public power—this requires that the researcher/practitioner assists the community in knowing how to focus their information power and their relational power on impacting the broader external conditions imposed by corporations and governments that oppress and exploit communities, thus democratizing the broader society.

Under these principles, traditional research that extracts information from communities, processes it elsewhere, and only builds the careers of academics, or traditional practice that practices the same information extraction and then returns to sell the community on an externally-designed intervention, are no more acceptable than the multinational corporation that extracts raw materials and then tries to sell back finished products. Such purposeful underdevelopment is the antithesis of these ethical principles.

These principles can have uncomfortable implications particularly for researchers. Building a community’s information power and relational power means, minimally, that at the end of the project the community knows enough that it can do the next project on its own if it wishes. That requires a researcher who can help community members develop their research and program design skills. Researchers must also give up culturally rigid standards of what constitutes good research, and understand that the community may have its own research processes and its own standards of what constitutes good information, such as oral traditions and folk art, that require the same status as positivist science. Researchers or community members, then, must have special skills in community organizing that can direct the research process (Stoecker, 1999).

For practitioners, who may be used to applying a common toolkit to problems in communities flung far and wide, these principles can also require important changes. Following these ethics require that the practitioner work with community members to not just apply a tool, but to understand it, how it is created, and how it can be adapted to their unique circumstances.

As an example of these ethics, consider a project to help a group of nongovernmental organizations, where one organization has incompatible databases, and another wants to communicate more efficiently with its membership. You convert the first organization’s data to a common format, and set up an e-mail list for the second. But these interventions would violate the principles outlined above. Instead, the first thing step is bring all the organizations together to talk about their issues and trade ideas with each other, both to build relationships between the organizations and to empower the knowledge that people already bring to the table. This can also help identify knowledge gaps that the group can then collectively work to fill. Perhaps no one there really knows about databases and so they start a process to educate themselves in their options, perhaps to the point of developing enough expertise among the organizations that they can design and manage their own databases. As the other organization talks about its need to communicate with its members, they may discover that the more “efficient” mechanism of e-mail will actually be less efficient as fewer members pay any attention to the mass e-mails. Old fashioned phone calls may be, in the end, much more efficient because more people actually get the information even though they take more time.

The processes illustrated above require a much longer time frame to complete, and require much more time of community members and organizations. Importantly, however, they produce much greater and more sustained capacity in the community.


Within the field of community informatics, achieving lasting community empowerment requires that community informaticians practice the principles of building the community’s information power, and their relational power, to build their public power. Doing so means making sure that community members can find, use, and control information tools and build relationships among themselves in the process. The result will be stronger, more information self-sufficient communities that can build a stronger and better informed democratic society.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Community informatics combines information and communication technologies, community development, and community-based research to help improve community life, especially in excluded communities. A Community Informatics Ethics that ensures that community members can find, use, and control information tools while building relationships among themselves can result in stronger, more self-sufficient, and engaged communities.

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