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Building local civic nets

Building Local Civic Nets

Date: Sun, 1 Mar 1992 19:21:10 CST
From: Public-Access Computer Systems Forum
Subject: Building Local Civic Networks

From: Steve Cisler
Subject: Report: Building Local Civic Networks, a CPSR Roundtable

Report: CPSR Public Policy Roundtable 2/20-21 1992 "Cyberspace Citizenship: Building Local Civic Networks" copyright 1992 Steve Cisler

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, Washington Office and the 21st Century Project

This was the fourth roundtable hosted by CPSR in less than a year. Sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, 53 people were invited to "explore new modes of democratic participation, various civic computer network projects, and multi-media innovations that could promote local civic networks."

The goals for day one was to talk about democratic participation, multi-media design, and existing network projects. After the self-introductions were finished we were aware of just how diverse a group we were. Librarians did not organize the meeting, but they represented more than 10% of the participants.

  • Pru Adler, ARL
  • Mary Chelton, Montgomery County (MD) Public Library
  • Steve Cisler, Apple Computer Library
  • Carol Henderson, ALA Washington
  • Merri Beth Lavagnino, University of Vermont
  • Sharon Rogers, George Mason University

A few of the other organizations present included:

  • Community Memory in Berkeley, CA
  • Electronic Cafe International, Santa Monica, CA
  • FCC
  • Prodigy Services, Inc.
  • Pacific Bell
  • IBM
  • PSI, Inc.
  • Consumers Union
  • State of Massachusetts
  • Big Sky Telegraph, Dillon, Montana
  • American Indian Telecommunications, Rapid City, SD
  • Center for Human Interface Technology, U. of Washington
  • Old Colorado City Communications
  • Channel 17/CCTV Burlington, VT
  • Davis (CA) Community Television
  • Metasystems Design Group
  • Taxpayer Assets Project

plus a variety of writers, consultants and think tank members from the Washington, DC area.

March Rotenberg of CPSR facilitated the first group: "Political participation and the Role of Small Groups" The thesis was that today's fragmented society makes small group meetings difficult to organize and participate in. "This places representative governance at risk by limiting direct governance at the local level. ...Can today's network technologies be adapted for the needs of small groups? How can social activists and civic leaders use public access cable, conference calls, fax machines, and advanced network technologies to encourage the formation of small groups and to broaden public policy debates?"

Dave Hughes described the use of his BBS to influence elections in his home town of Colorado Springs. Whereas most other participants agreed that technology was only a means to an end, Hughes said that "technology is politics, " and that the debate to consensus is an important process that can be easily done on a bulletin board or conferencing system. Judith Perolle of Northeastern University was interested in getting emotional content back into the small group interactions that used computer technology. Richard Sclove, a democratic theorist and activist from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, made six points about the use of technology in democratic action:

  • Remember least advantaged in plan.
  • If there is no opposition you should have to wonder what's wrong with plan.
  • Beware of technical solutions casting about for a problem. There may be non technical ways to solve problem
  • Disadvantaged need power more than they need information.
  • The new processes should enhance democracy not replace face to face involvement.
  • Proceed on a local trial basis. Share and consolidate means learned.

Charles Firestone of the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies recommended Electronic Commonwealth by Abramson and cautioned that equitable access in a pluralist society may give some groups familiar with the use of technology more power than their numbers would indicate. [Those groups would see this as a legitimate leverage to be used to gain or maintain power.]

Jim Warren described his use of voter records to begin a grass roots campaign against policies that affected the unincorporated community where he lives. He has also been posting important bills from the California Legislature on The WELL and taking the feedback to the staff in Sacramento. They have now joined the discussion and even made some suggested changes in the wording of the bill. This process has taken less than two weeks. [His success would seem to affirm the claims of Dave Hughes. I wonder if the novelty of the medium is part of the reason for success. How would it scale if every state, local, and federal bill were available at no cost to the user who could make comments and voice electronic opinions? Obviously, there would have to be more people in government to deal with this new flow of influential information--unless less time were spent on other activities (see the section later in the report on government ATM kiosks).] George Baldwin, a sociologist at Henderson State University in Arkansas, described his interests in dealing the American Indian networks. Baldwin's father is Osage, and he said that in the past Indian scouts were frequently half-breeds. As they ventured into new territory they served as a bridge between the two cultures.

Some of the problems are: Traditional values are being changed. He described electronic information in colonial terms. GIS data is being refined and sold back to tribes in formats they can't access. The GPO WINDO would confound the problem of Indian access to information. There are 26 Indian colleges, but they are not connected to the Internet. In online discussion groups Indians find their comments censored by Anglo gatekeeper system operators. He also mentioned researchers' grants that include information carpetbagging where use of Indians in grant process won points and tipped the scale for an award, but in the end the Indians did not benefit.

Baldwin had positive comments on some developments: Fidonet BBS relays for Russell County Montana where American Indian artists are posting artwork using the NAPLPS graphics standards. ENAN, the Electronic Native Amercian Network, institutionally affiliated and funded by the BIA, is doing a pretty good job. He mention a one week old group, the Iowa Indian defense network, and handed out a draft paper "Networking the Nations: American Indians and Information Technology". Day two was supposed to culminate in the outline of a handbook that could be used by state and local policy makers, civic leaders and activists. Although this did not happen, there was a very positive feeling about the processes that began during the two day meeting.

Andrew Blau of the EFF had been with the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers. He said that the national communications policy is at odds with local civic involvement. There was a mention of the FCC's video dialtone proposal which, as formulated, would cut out local communities.There needs to be network architecture with network localism.

Frank Burns of Metasystems Design Group described the Santa Monica Public Electronic Network project which was heavily supported by HP and Burns' group. The computer conferencing system has remained very open within the existing community (i.e. no censorship of postings) but it has restricted use to city citizens and property owners. Its proximity to Los Angeles caused the planners to keep the system from hooking up with other localities, though they are experimenting with links to a sister city in Japan.

Carol Henderson of the ALA: How do we make information policy issues compelling? She described some of the services that come from public libraries Determine welfare eligibility online. Provide government services of various types in a more efficient, less labor-intensive manner. We later discussed the idea of dispensing tax forms automatically in order to free up the librarians from this sort of clerical work.

Michael Strait of the Annenberg CPB Project described some of the different mixes in various communities for a network to function. The Annenberg/CPB Project is involved in a number of ventures including Higher Education Within Reach aimed at older and part-time students, the new majority in higher education.

During Lunch Frank Odasz of Big Sky Telegraph in Dillon, Montana, described the growth of BST in 1988 from a multi-line BBS linking 114 one-room schools in Montana to the present system that still links schools but also womens centers, economic development workers and provides online courses, self-paced, computer conferencing, mail links to the Internet, and access to some local databases. Surprisingly, one room schools had less trouble getting telephone access than did teachers in larger schools. Other agencies are using BST as a teaching and information publishing media. A library media specialist for the Office of Public Instruction at the capitol has created and taught a course entitled "Information Access Skills for Rural Educators."

The first afternoon session was "The Community Network Drop: Access, Services, Costs and Benefits" Richard Civille, the conference organizer, led a discussion of the kinds of services people might want or use. John McMullen, a writer for Newsbytes, commented on the difficulty in getting his peers to understand why these network services are important to the average person. Tony Lewis of the National Federation of Local Cable Programmers, said that those pushing for public access had to be more proactive at a time when the country seemed to be moving away from a democracy. He urged technocrats to understand the implications of the products they come up with, and to remove as many barriers to use as they can.

Mehl Simmons of the National Association of Social Workers discussed the Tulare County (CA) project which set up 31 kiosks to electronically sign up welfare recipients. Of the 300,000 receiving Aid For Dependent Children, 20% use the touch screen system, and most seem to like it, partly because the social workers were overloaded with clerical work. Grant aid was received in 6 days instead of 45 days. Evelyn Pine of Berkeley, CA, Community Memory felt it was important to be able to discuss welfare as well as getting welfare checks.

However, Michelle Meier, Consumers Union. said that the cost savings are not as great as they had thought for some projects and that there may not be any, and that recipients needed protection when converting from paper-based to electronic forms.

In as sense there was a fuzzy dividing line between those who saw the networks as part of an infrastructure to cut costs, make transactions faster and more efficient, or get structured information from an online source and those who were using the networks for discourse, for trading tips, for social organization and collaboration.

Steve Miller, State of Massachusetts, made three points: In the commercialization cycle an online service enters the market as an experiment, perhaps in a playful way. Those who really get into it start getting a new vision. There is a destabilizing element as it is partly accepted and partly rejected. The status quo is restructured, and at some point people will realize that the service will only be generalized when it becomes commercial. At this point it becomes useful for many groups. They always kept in mind the need for goals. Serving the needs of member organizations in the state, as well as tourists, helped.

Technical impediments: He said that technology should help people get something done, that it should be graduated and extensible, keeping in mind the users' desire and ability. "Unless we do top down policies carefully, we can squelch grass roots efforts."

David Reed of the FCC discussed his graduate school thesis, the engineering, economic and policy analysis of fiber in the subscriber loop. of a theoretical neighborhood. There are not a lot of applications, Start with POTS, plain old telephone service, and add distributed or switched video service. There are not economies of scope, so it's better to have separate networks: video and the copper pairs for voice. Integrated network is not cheaper. Telcos business future is not attractive for them to go into fiber service.

He explained how the common carrier model divides content from transport. Switched video might allow more flexibility in the common carrier approach. Transport people (the phone companies) want to provide content or it will be too costly to install the fiber, and the goal of Universal service becomes very expensive in this case. Strong incentive to commercialize content and this can threaten privacy protections.

What followed was a general discussion of the uses of civic networks and the different choices that some had made. Santa Monica PEN limits the user membership to members of the community and does not provide mail connectivity to the outside world (Los Angeles and beyond) in order to preserve a sense of place and the culture of Santa Monica. All groups in the city, including the homeless, are encouraged to use the system.

The last afternoon session was "Designing Network Products and Services for Citizen Participation" which summarizes the underlying dilemma for many of the participants: that it is hard to make the case for democracy in the market economy (Andrew Blau). Many seemed to accept the fact that the market economy, even during a recession/depression, is the guiding principle for many managers, planners, and developers. At the same time they felt that democratic ideas should prevail. As Richard Sclove said, "Economics should not be democracy's sovereign."

There was mention of a November 1992 CPSR conference in Cambridge on participatory design. Gary Chapman mentioned the success of Scandinavian models, and said that corporate decisions sometimes shut off debate about designs. Bob Jacobson urged people to read the forthcoming Byte magazine which contains an article on the ideal information system. He personally is interested in how virtual interfaces can be designed to strengthen democracy. Bruce Koball suggested that perhaps the groups needed some firm principles like the American Library Association, against which to measure new proposals and devices.

John Harris works with Alan Westin's Reference Point organization, dealing with the 'bright side of information' --how to help non-profit organizations publish their information electronically. Reference point is a central clearing house for 70,000 information referral systems. Public libraries and BBSs are key partners to these systems.

Kit Galloway of Electronic Cafe International in Santa Monica uses videophones and the public switched telephone network to link up artists, poets, politicians, and average citizens all around the world. With 60 affiliates ... Galloway brought a different perspective to this group because of his artist/techno-populist background. He showed a video of links between Nicaragua and the cafe, and it was evident that the inexpensive devices did contribute to a sense of shared community for the parties that were thousands of miles apart. Galloway realizes that some of his ideas are not commercial and refers to himself as an avantpreneur.

Discussions continued over dinner for the next few hours, and afterwards Dave Hughes spoke about his meeting that afternoon with the staff from "60 Minutes" who are planning to do a program on Information Rich--Information Poor and look at NREN network access issues, the NSFNET controversy (the House is scheduling hearings for March to look into NSFNET governance.)

Friday, February 21 a.m. State and local policy initiatives I had battery problems and lost my notes for this session where Pru Adler discussed the WINDO proposal and the activities of the Association of Research Libraries in pushing for more access to federal information. James Love of Taxpayers Assets Project is also involved in this effort and is pushing to open up access to the SEC's Edgar program as well legal and legislative databases generated by the federal government.

In the second morning session (Local civic networks in metro areas) Paul Resnick of Rainbow Pages (617 787 6809) demonstrated an audio bulletin board to announce Peace Events in the Boston area. Most of the callers were in the Peace movement, but it was also used by LaRouche followers (who eventually had to give a name and number for the group posting an announcement) and the Young Americans for Freedom.

Kari Peterson of Davis (CA) Public Access Cable Television discussed the role of local television in the community and mentioned the ambitious project starting in conjunction with U.C. Davis, Pacific Bell, and municipal agencies to provide ISDN service to campus and city residents.

Sharon Rogers of the Gelman Library, George Washington University, described the organization process under way for DC FreeNet. It began with a false start: social service agencies wanted to have a Free-Net that crossed jurisdictional lines. They were really not in that business, and they turned the whole process over to Rogers and her staff but still wanted to be part of it. The model they are following: financing is by the university; and 1300 agencies and organization have information available already; the target is to get one representative to manage that part. They are working with schools, homeless shelters, and other groups for outreach. "We are creeping toward visibility," said Rogers.

After lunch I hosted a session on rural community and American Indian networks. I began the discussion with some selections from Ithiel de Sola Pool's Forecasting the Telephone which described changes in rural communities because of the telephone as well as the grandiose predictions that never came to pass.

Lauren-Glenn Davitian of Burlington, VT, Cable TV was joined by Merri Beth Lavignano of the University of Vermont Library in a description of the state's political structure, the fiber infrastructure, and the fact that about one-third (70) of the rural libraries have no phone!

Randy Ross of American Indian Telecommunications runs a Fido BBS and has worked on the repatriation of Indian artifacts by the Smithsonian Institution. He believes that technology and cultural integrity of native peoples can co-exist. As part of an Indian leader thinktank interested in rural telecomms policy he is looking at the strategic agenda for Indian nations for the next 500 years to see how are they going to exist in a pluralistic society.

Frank Odasz of Big Sky Telegraph examined what rural communities could do with almost no budgets. Setting up 'tiny sky' bulletin board systems and creating 'info-scouts' for disseminating information in small communities was having positive effects in Montana. Odasz is also interested in a rural thinktank for telecomms options.

The final session brainstormed ideas for a document that would inform civic leaders of all types about what to expect from a civic network, different success stories, examples of hot issues that emerged during the organizing process, and cost studies for existing systems. The cost of doing these projects was not discussed very much prior to this session because many of the people there were not looking at the bottom line. They felt it was a necessity and should be done. Economic feasibility was not the primary issue; finding funds to underwrite the projects was an undercurrent at this meeting of primarily non-profit advocacy groups.

We spent the final hour going around the table giving each person a chance to sum up (most difficult) and tell what they learned or what affected them most of all.

The diversity of the lessons learned and the observations made was really quite astounding. Some saw the event as seditious; others thought it was a bit too tame. Some felt more useful acting rather than talking. Lee Felsenstein of Community Memory described his involvement the Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970's in Silicon Valley. They accomplished things by doing not by meetings and long deliberations. A few felt the anti-business undercurrent was not being realistic. As people expressed the desire to continue sharing by giving out their phone or BBS number, Frank Burns and Lee Felsenstein typed in a quick database of these numbers which reached most of us the next day.


Papers, books, and reports suggested by panelists. For further browsing telnet into and use the search by LC Call Number to see related titles in the same subject area.

Abramson, Jeffrey B. The electronic commonwealth : the impact of new media technologies on democratic politics. New York : Basic Books, c1988. HC110.I55 A27 1988

Baldwin, George D. "Networking the Nations: American Indians and Information Technology"

Barber, Benjamin R. Strong democracy : participatory politics for a new age Berkeley : University of California Press, c1984. LC Call Number JC423 .B243 1984

Empowering networks : computer conferencing in education Michael D. Waggoner, editor. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Educational Technology Publications, c1992. LC Call Number: LB1028.43 .E47 1992

Geller, Henry. Fiber Optics: An Opportunity For A New Policy? Annenberg Washington Program. 202 638 2745. (I'm trying to get an electronic version of this for posting.)

Pool, Ithiel de Sola. Forecasting the telephone : a retrospective technology assessment .Norwood, N.J. : ABLEX Pub., c1983. LC Call Number: T174.5 .P66 1983

Ronfeldt, David. Cyberocracy, Cyberspace, and Cyberology: Political Effects of the Information Revolution. Rand Corporation Paper P-7745. (

Tocqueville, Alexis de, 1805-1859. Democracy in America. New York : Vintage Books, 1990. LC Call Number: JK216 .T7 1990

Wired cities : shaping the future of communications / edited by William H. Dutton, Jay G. Blumler, Kenneth L. Kraemer. [Washington, D.C.] : Washington Program, Annenberg School of Communications ; Boston, Mass. : G.K. Hall, c1987.

Next posting will be for the 2d Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference which leads off a chain of meetings (CNI, Net '92). Comments, corrections, and suggestions are solicited. This report may be reproduced in whole or part by non-profit and educational groups on fileservers, BBSs, conferencing systems, or in newsletters and compilations.

Steve Cisler, Apple Computer Library
10381 Bandley Drive MS8C
Cupertino, CA 95014
408 974 3258
Fileserver: /ftp/alug

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