Improving Community Network Practice

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Richard Civille
Center for Civic Networking

What have community networking (CN) practitioners—community development professionals with special expertise in the use of information and communication technology—learned to do well that can now be taught to other practitioners? Community networking is a work in progress. As it grows, there is a great need to transform tacit knowledge embedded in the field experience of practitioners into formal knowledge that can inform evaluation research, curriculum development, and funding priorities that support these efforts.


Over the last year, the Ars Portalis project, funded by the Technology Opportunity Program and conducted by the Center for Civic Networking, has developed and demonstrated a practitioner-driven community-based research methodology designed to produce useful, ongoing


The project produced two basic categories of findings and lessons about community networks and how to better understand them – both from the individual studies themselves, as well as from the project overall. The first category deals with findings and lessons that can directly improve the practice of community networking. In addition to these specific lessons, the Ars Portalis project developed and tested a new research method for community networkers to learn from their field experience in concert with colleagues worldwide; that is, their larger community of practice. Thus, the second category addresses process improvements of the Ars Portalis community-based research methodology itself.

The project used a five step approach designed to produced practitioner-driven studies aimed at improved practice and sustainability. The steps were:

1. A Fall 2000 planning retreat which produced a white paper on current and emerging trends used to prepare a request for proposals;
2. The development of a request for proposals (RFPs) and its electronic distribution, the selection of a peer review panel of practitioner-researchers, panel review and final awards;
3. The undertaking of five awarded studies featuring online request for comments (RFCs) and other forms of input and critique;
4. An interim report and presentation published in the Summer-Fall 2001 Community Technology Review along with a simultaneous workshop presentation at the annual conference of the Community Technology Centers' Network (CTCNet) and Association for Community Networking (AFCN) in San Diego in June 2001; and
5. The preparation of a final report.

The five awarded studies examined issues involved with:

· The importance of understanding the loyalty and demographics of those who use community networks;

· The needs and opportunities for developing communications resources for in-hospital patients, their family, friends and associated medical staff;

· The possibilities for creating social enterprise business models for community networks;

· The potential of building stronger neighborhood associations through municipal-private partnerships; and

· The promise of community building through online systems among residents of a newly-reconstructed and resident-owned subsidized housing development in the Roxbury section of Boston.


These studies and the methodology used to generate them, represent a cross section of expertise and inquiry relating to the current state-of-the-art of community networking and have produced a rich body of material now available to practitioners, researchers, and funders. Overall, the studies begin to suggest a new direction to improve the overall practice of community networking in the future. A strategic framework, or "pattern" suggested by the overall findings of these studies might combine:

· Designs of potentially important and emerging community networking services;
· Far more focused market and customer research and relationship management than has been previously the norm;
· Well-crafted co-branding agreements with commercial providers that ensure control of the social mission community networks are intended to address, and;
· Methods of organizing effective local use of these services by borrowing from the techniques found in the field of community economic development.

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