Designing a Collaborative Community Information System

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Jim Zappen
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

By James P. Zappen, Teresa M. Harrison, Victoria Moore, and Ashley Williams.

The Troy Community Networking Project (, March 12, 2002) has undertaken the development of a youth-services information system in collaboration with city, county, and local youth-services organizations. The development of such a system presents unusual technical and social challenges: the technical challenge of developing a complex, multipurpose database and World Wide Web interface and the social challenge of building a community united by the shared purpose of serving our area’s young people. This pattern explains how participatory-design (PD) processes grounded in activity theory are helping us to conceive and build this complex technical/social system.


These challenges will present themselves in any local community but will be particularly daunting in a community characterized by a digital divide, and the wider the divide, the greater the challenges will be. Our own community of Troy, New York, is a typical decaying Northeastern city, with a substantial minority population, low income levels, low levels of educational achievement, all clustered in an aging urban central city. Home to two major colleges, the city nonetheless has a population of only 18.4% with bachelor's degrees, according to the 1990 census. It is a mirror image of the digital divide.


Our project, tentatively called Connected Kids (, March 12, 2002), embraces a diversity of participants within a complex "activity system" representing city, county, public and private schools, and youth-services organizations (see Figure 1). We brought these participants together in a series of focus groups in October 2000, to develop specifications for the youth-services information system, and in a series of PD sessions in November 2001, to confirm our understanding of these specifications and to invite participants to review mockups and get some hands-on experience with a prototype of one of the system components. The PD sessions renewed and revised our understanding of our shared purpose, expanded our understanding of our audiences and users, and identified system enhancements through hands-on activity and collaborative discussion. The sessions also revealed contradictions or tensions within the activity system and thus invited changes in the prototype and in the activity system itself.

Building a Shared Purpose. At the beginning of each PD session, we explained that we understood from the focus groups that the information system would have to provide a central location for Web-based information for youth-services organizations, parents, and kids, Web-site service for some (usually smaller) organizations, and general information, with links to existing Web sites, for other (usually larger) organizations. For the most part, participants simply confirmed these understandings, often without further comment, but they also revealed tensions within the activity system, such as doubts about the need for fiber-optic cable linking organizations within the city and about the reliability of our undergraduate students, given their relatively short-term (usually one-semester) commitments to our project. We realized that we needed to address these tensions, for example, by enlisting students to provide technical support for participating organizations over the longer term.

Defining Audiences and Users. Participants also expanded our understanding of our audiences and users by pointing out the needs of young people for legal services, such as alternative-sentencing opportunities, the needs of our area’s growing Hispanic population and the needs of neighborhood organizations, and the concerns of school administrators about the security of the system. We acknowledged these needs but noted the challenge of attracting graduate students or staff bilingual in English and Spanish or conversant with the special needs of students with disabilities or otherwise able to help us to meet the many and diverse needs of young people in our community. We have not yet been able to resolve all of these tensions in our activity system.

Identifying System Enhancements. We invited participants to advise us on data input and output functions, and they responded with a range of suggestions, from surface additions such as more complete instructions for data input to inside-the-box modifications such as preview, duplicate-page, and multiple-key-word functions. Although we had anticipated the need for a copy-and-paste function to permit easy transfer of electronic data, we had not anticipated the need to duplicate whole pages of input, a concern of organizations with numerous programs and services to enter into the system. In addition, we had not imagined the need for different key words to describe the same activity for different audiences, such as "recreation" for young people and "gang prevention" for parents.

Encouraging Hands-on Activity and Collaborative Discussion. We invited participants to engage in hands-on data input and share their experience with the system in collaborative group discussion. We suspected that a hands-on activity followed by group discussion might be productive of new possibilities that might not emerge in one-on-one discussions between participants and designers. For example, we had not anticipated the need to permit users to duplicate and revise whole pages of data. This possibility, though obvious enough in retrospect, emerged only when one participant from a large organization noted the difficulty of retyping the same data on numerous pages, and another participant with a technical background reminded us of the relative ease of duplicating pages of data already stored in the database.


We are aware that our complex "activity system" is replete with contradictions and tensions, and we do not yet have sufficient evidence to demonstrate that PD processes alone can resolve all of these difficulties. Nonetheless, we believe that bringing together a diversity of participants in hands-on activity and collaborative group discussion directed toward a shared purpose can help us to build both a better technical system and a stronger social community over the longer term.

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