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CPSR Newsletter Vol 19, Number 3
Volume 19, Number 3 The CPSR Newsletter Summer 2001

The Seattle Community Network -

Summer 1993 (Volume 11 No. 2)

by Douglas Schuler; CPSR/Seattle

The Seattle Community Network (SCN) is currently a project of CPSR/Seattle with over forty volunteers. SCN will ultimately be the project of a new non-profit organization now being conceptualized. Since the SCN project is a democratic project, the opinions offered below are not necessarily shared by the rest of the group.

Origins of the Seattle Community Network

The Seattle chapter of CPSR has been meeting for over ten years. Over that time we've been fortunate to have a committed and convivial group of volunteers that has made it possible to have a newsletter, monthly meetings, lively electronic (and face-to-face) discussions, as well as special events and projects. While in basic agreement with the role of CPSR as a critic of specific misuses of computing, there has been a growing desire on the part of chapter members over the years to develop ways in which computers could be used constructively in society. The SCN project is very much a manifestation of that desire.

The 1990 Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing (DIAC) symposium proceedings contained a paper, written by Paul Resnick and Mel King, entitled "The Rainbow Pages: Building Community with Voice Technology." This paper had exciting insights on using computers for community development and communication. I looked deeper and discovered a small but growing world of community-based computer projects including pioneer systems such as Berkeley's Community Memory and Montana's Big Sky Telegraph. These investigations developed into a presentation for a seminar on computer networks at the University of Washington, which became the basis for a presentation on community networks at the October 1990 CPSR/Seattle meeting. The meeting was well-attended and the idea of community computing was planted in our collective consciousness. After a couple of false starts on the community computing front we had a meeting to consider new projects. After watching the videotape "If it Plays in Peoria...," based on the Heartland Free-Net in Peoria, Illinois. we decided to establish a chapter project. Since then we've had a series of meetings which are drawing an increasing number of people. We've made many presentations to organizations. We've also sent out some proposals and had an opinion piece on community networks and SCN published in The Seattle Times.

The Seattle Community Network has been launched. We're hoping that the network will be used by thousands of Seattlites within a year.

What is a Community Network?

There have been two informative and exciting roundtable discussions in Washington, D.C., organized by former CPSR staff member Richard Civille, that have helped articulate the community computing vision and strengthen the community of innovators. The first, sponsored by CPSR with funding from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, was entitled "Cyberspace Citizenship: Creating Local Civic Networks," and was held in February of 1992. The second, entitled "From Town Halls to Local Civic Networks: Democratic Reform for the 21st Century," was held in April 1993 and was convened by the Center for Civic Networking and sponsored by Apple Computer and National Capital Area Public Access Network (CapAccess).

CPSR's DIAC-92 symposium in Berkeley provided another valuable forum. There were many good papers and workshops including "Inkeeping in Cyberspace" (John Coates), MUDs (Paver Curtis), Community Memory (Carl Farrington and Evelyn Pine), Virtual Communities (a panel organized by Mike Travers), and useful workshops convened by Larry Press, Richard Civille, Carl Farrington, Peter Miller, and Andrew Blau, among others. The 1993 CPSR Annual Meeting in Seattle, "Envisioning the Future: The National Information Infrastructure and Community Access" will extend this discussion. [see announcement of the 1993 CPSR Annual Meeting in this issue, page 13.Ñed.]

Electronic information is also available. The electronic discussion lists, "community-access" (send mail to that originated with DIAC-92 attendees, and "communet" (to subscribe, send an email message to with the following single line message: subscribe communet "Firstname Lastname") have on-going discussions on a variety of related topics including access to the Internet, funding issues, user interfaces, policy, network software, relevant legislation, and many others. Additionally, completed surveys describing over twenty-five community networks in the U.S. and Canada are available via anonymous File Transfer Protocol (ftp) from in the community networks subdirectory under pub/seattle-community-network.

SCN documentation including principles, needs to be addressed, the Seattle Times editorial, envisioned services, a call for participation, as well as SCN information such as names and addresses of elected officials and vegetarian restaurants are also available.

In summary, a community network is a computer-based electronic network that provides a wide range of free or low-cost community-based information and services to the people in a community. These systems are generally run by universities. non-profit organizations or governmental agencies. Special attention is paid to providing access to people who traditionally have little or no access to electronic information and services. Community networks are often activist-oriented they have been established primarily to meet social needs rather than financial goals. Additionally, community participation during development and feedback during use are vital to the success of such systems.

Meeting Community Needs

We articulated our vision on the needs SCN would address in a series of group meetings. These needs formed five mayor areas.

l. Community needs -- "Communities need to be more cohesive, safer, healthier, and more caring. Disadvantaged neighborhoods need improved economic opportunity."

2. Information needs -- "People need to be well-informed. They need high-quality, timely, and reliable information. They also are interested in a wide range of opinions from a variety of sources."

3. Educational and training needs -- "People need training to use technology effectively. People need to be able to learn independently over the course of their lifetimes.''

4. Democratic Needs -- 'People need an inclusive, effective, ethical and enlightened democracy.''

5. Process Needs -- "A process is needed that will address the needs on this list now and in the future."

Based on these needs we developed corresponding objectives, implementation procedures, evaluation measures, and budget items.

Some of the ways that needs can be addressed are discussed below.

Libraries -- Community networks and libraries could be closely linked. Libraries provide portals to information and communication and one such portal is the community network. Libraries can also make their information available or provide other on-line services.

Schools: -- In addition to providing access to information, networks make new educational forms possible. For example, high school students around the I United States have cooperated on a study of acid rain. They gathered cat.: in their local areas and disseminated the results to other researchers. In another program children describe their typical day at school. Elementary school children could communicate with each other and with other children around the world. Universities could also help by making specialized information available and by becoming more involved in the communities in which they are located.

City Hall and the Political Process -- Citizens could have greater access to public records. hearing dates. and other information as well as greater access to the mayor, to city agencies, and to city council members. Electronic networks could also promote participation in the political process. Electronic discussion groups on important topics could take place over time. Electronic "town meetings" with real- time participation are another possibility.

Citizen Groups -- Neighborhood groups, senior citizens, recreation groups, advocacy and public interest groups, persons with disabilities, ethnic groups, and many others could use networks to communicate with each other and promote discussions on important topics.

Planning for the Future --Computers could facilitate public forums on a variety of topics. Citizen input into land use, public transit, and education issues could help us better plan for the future. A 21st Century Electronic Forum could be established to elicit and address concerns of people across the state. region, country or planet as we move into the next century.

Carpool, Bus, Ferry and other Transportation -- Information Transportation agencies could provide on- line information on public transportation and traffic conditions (especially in the winter). Computer networks could also facilitate the creation of carpools and other energy saving projects.

Participatory Action Research -- Action research is a scientific methodology in which improving a situation is equal importance to learning an objective fact. Action research with strong participation from users, clients, or citizens is called participatory action research. A community network would provide an excellent platform for social scientists, social agencies, and citizens to develop action research programs in community health, economic development public affairs, and other areas.

International Connection -- Groups and individuals with international interests could use the system for a multitude of reasons: students could communicate with other students about common interests: travelers could find out about upcoming events; sister city activists could use the network to help plan Joint projects and aid agencies could coordinate famine relief or share health information with people in remote sites.

Building A Seattle Community Network

From our amorphous beginnings, we've organized ourselves into a coherent structure consisting of five committees (services: outreach; hardware and software; start and facilities: and policy) and a coordinating council. We've started to develop an advisory board with many community activists and representatives of varied constituencies. We've also developed principles, constructed an information policy and code of etiquette for the system, as well as informed and involved the public, including the Seattle Public Library and several University of Washington schools and departments. We've initiated a funding plan and developed a plan and a budget. Our greatest challenge was to develop a shared vision that can be readily conveyed to the community. We've attempted to capture this vision in our group documents which are available both electronically and in hardcopy. One such document, the "SCN Principles," a strong statement of our intent is reproduced here as a sidebar. By the time you read this we should have a pilot system running in which at least the outlines of our vision should be visible.

The SCN system will provide electronic mail, moderated and unmoderated forums, question and answer forums, and special electronic events. All access to the system will be free-of-charge and we hope to establish public access terminals at libraries, schools, and many other public locations. The SCN will host a wide variety of information and services. We will also be working with other network providers to ensure a common user interface whenever possible so that information and services residing on local community systems will look and behave similarly. We've been working with environmental, government, educational, and other organizations to better understand the needs of both information providers and citizens. While volunteers will undertake most of the work we feel that some paid staff will be necessary. In early phases we expect that most of the funding will come from foundation, corporate, and individual contributions. Over time we expect that individual users will help support SCN financially on a voluntary basis. We are planning to become affiliates of the National Public

Telecomputing Network (NPTN) and share information with NPTN affiliates and other information providers including local BBS's. We're planning to use FreePort software on a UNIX workstation.

The SCN vision is a confluence of ideas. We've borrowed key concepts from various sources in hopes of constructing a viable and eftective com;nunity computing resource. The community orientation was borrowed from many sources: public access terminals and a focus on the underserved from Community Memory; the nocharge policy is from Tom Grundner's Free-Net model; and a focus on social service is from "Heartland Free-Net." Many other concepts embodied in our principles were first introduced Richard Civille or through his two roundtables in Washington, D.C. These include the objective of continuing to develop innovative technological approaches and to look towards incorporation of other media such as cable television.

Community Involvement

Organizations and individuals are interested in connecting with the rich set of information sources on the network. They also want to communicate with other people and organizations with similar interests. Many organizations are attracted to the community network approach for two reasons. The first is that they don't have to support a network by themselves. In many cases this would mean one or more additional people on the staff. The second reason is that finding all or at least a good portion of community information "under one roof' is important. As a local transportation agency representative told me, ''People don't know whether an agency is county. city, or whatever. They just want their question answered!"

While working on this project we noticed an important side effect. Since individuals and organizations of all types are increasingly looking into computer-mediated communication and information retrieval, we have found ourselves increasingly involved in the community. Furthermore, the network must take its shape and direction from the community. Those issues should be discussed in public forums, both traditional and electronic.

Community Networks and Political Action

Community networks are becoming extremely popular. Community and civic electronic networks are in operation or are in the planning stage in over 100 locations in the United States and around the world. There is so much activity in this area that Apple Librarian Steve Cisler has referred to the "Community Network Movement." Furthermore, this topic is extremely important as a public interest component in national policy discussions related to the development of a "national information infrastructure."

Government agencies of all sizes and missions, telephone companies, entertainment/information providers, educational institutions, and libraries are all involved in the networking free-for-all, vaguely reminiscent of a land-grab. The large media and communication companies are mounting the most expensive public relations and lobbying campaign of all time to capture this vast and potentially lucrative market. Establishing and maintaining a public interest network with public access terminals and a rich set of free services. information, and communication channels will be challenging, to say the least.

Two important consensus viewpoints emerged from this year's roundtable on "From Town Halls to Local Civic Networks: Democratic Reform for the 21st Century." The first is that education and political action at all levels are critical in the near-term if there is to be decentralized, democratic, interactive, and affordable access to new electronic communication technologies. The second point is that no one organization can or should lead this effort. A coalition of organizations and individuals representing a wide range of public interest viewpoints is clearly called for and CPSR is expected to be a strong contributor. The effort will require a high degree of cooperation, coordination, and determination to be effective.

A Community of Communities

While SCN will focus on the Seattle community, we hope that SCN as both a network of information services and as an organization will become linked to other communities. Linking ourselves with other organizations around the U.S. and the world opens up new possibilities for strengthening the local, national, and world communities. What we can accomplish now will have important implications for the future. Fundamental issues involving democracy, education, and equity may be addressed directly or they may be ignored in the vague hope that they'll be attended to as side effects. The impacts that technological systems engender are often shaped in the early stages of design and development. Community networks may represent our best and last chance to influence the development of the information and communication infrastructure that our children will inherit.

Principles of the Seattle Community Network

The Seattle Community Network (SCN) is a free public-access computer network for exchanging and accessing information. Beyond that, however, it is a service conceived for community empowerment. Our principles are a series of commitments to help guide the ongoing development and management of the system for both the organizers and participating individuals and organizations.

COMMITMENT TO ACCESS: Access to the SCN will be free to all. We will strive to provide access to all groups of people particularly those without ready access to information technology. We will strive to provide access to people with diverse needs. This may include special-purpose interfaces. We will strive to make the SCN accessible from public places.

COMMITMENT TO SERVICE: The SON will offer reliable and responsive service. We will strive to provide information that is timely and useful to the community. We will provide access to databases and other services.

COMMITMENT TO DEMOCRACY: The SCN will promote participation in government and public dialogue. The community wild be actively involved in the ongoing development of the SCN. We will place high value in freedom of speech and expression and in the free exchange of ideas. We wild make every effort to ensure privacy of the system users. We will support democratic use of electronic technology.

COMMITMENT TO THE WORLD COMMUNITY: In addition to serving the local community, we will strive to become part of the regional, national and international community. We will strive to build a system that can serve as a model for other communities.

COMMITMENT TO THE FUTURE: We will continue to evolve and improve the SCN. We will explore the use of innovative applications such as electronic town halls for community governance, or electronic encyclopedias for enhanced access to information. We wild work with information providers and with groups involved in similar projects using other media. We wild solicit feedback on the technology as it is used, and strive to make it as accessible and humane as possible.

Summer 1993


Douglas Schuler, CPSR/Seattle, October 2001

CPSR and CPSR members have now been working on community networks and community networking for over a decade. Paul Resnick and Mel King's work on the "Rainbow Pages" and other innovative projects helped inspire CPSR/Seattle to launch the Seattle Community Network which was ultimately passed on to the newly-formed Seattle Community Network Association.

Over the years, CPSR continues to promote community network development. The topic was central in many of the DIAC symposia and a community networks working group was started with the idea "that public communication and information systems are critical to the maintenance of democratic societies." The working group list includes over 200 people from around the world, most of whom are working on intriguing and important projects. We're hoping that much of this work and the people on the list can be brought into the May 2002 "patterns" symposium to be held in Seattle and that CPSR's new Public Sphere Project can also help integrate these efforts.

Although nearly swamped by the explosive commercial growth of the web and the unraveling of the common thread that the Free-Net software platform provided, work on community networks continues throughout the world. The new CPSR/Africa chapter, for example, is launching the Nsawan Community Network in Ghana. In 2000, the first global community network conference was held in Barcelona, followed the next year in Buenos Aires. In 2002, community network advocates are planning to introduce community networks to the United Nations as a possible worldwide initiative in Montreal


Clearly the dream of universal, two-way access to information and communication resources and capabilities is a dream shared by millions of people. With the continued help of CPSR and CPSR members, the dream can become increasingly real.

"What's Inside"

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