L L E T I N
Informatics: Integrating Action, Research and Learning
Ann Peterson Bishop and Bertram (Chip) Bruce
P. Bishop is associate professor in the GSLIS at the
C. Bruce is professor in the GSLIS at the
Note: This article concludes our two-issue look at social
informatics by focusing on the emerging subspecialty of community
and communication technologies (ICTs), from the Internet to the
latest personal computing devices, are often credited with improving
international understanding. They are also supposed to support
collaboration, creativity, learning and new forms of expression and
social action. Yet the world seems engulfed in divides – of age,
race, culture, language, beliefs, income, gender, knowledge and
nationality – which are creating classes and identities that
threaten the basic fabric of community life.
informatics (CI) is an emerging field of interdisciplinary
scholarship and practice devoted to enabling communities with
information and communications technologies (ICTs) (Gurstein, 2004).
In their seminal monograph, Keeble and Loader (2001, p. 3), describe
CI as a “multidisciplinary field for the investigation and
development of the social and cultural factors shaping the
development and diffusion of new ICTs and its effects upon community
development, regeneration and sustainability.” Inherent in CI is
the need to understand how knowledge is shaped and shared in
communities, to investigate the underlying information phenomena and
processes we find when we take “community” as our unit of
research is conducted internationally in settings that range from
inner-city neighborhoods to rural villages, exploring how
individuals and institutions such as schools, libraries, grassroots
groups and health agencies come together to develop capacity and
work on common problems. It addresses questions of community
development, learning, empowerment and sustainability in the context
of efforts to promote a positive role for computers and the Internet
shapers of the field argued for the need to establish “an
expansive mode of inquiry” in CI (Bieber, et. al., 2002, p. 3).
Rheingold (2001, p. xx), too,
noted the need to develop appropriate modes of study in CI that
placed research in practice:
would like to think that Community Informatics marks the beginning
of a new era, neither naively utopian nor paralytically critical,
based on actual findings by people who have tried to use online
media in service of community, then reported on their results. In
the absence of such systematic observation and reporting by serious
practitioners, public discussion will continue to oscillate between
ideological extremes, in a never-ending battle of anecdotal evidence
and theoretical rhetoric.”
is increasingly calling for research that recognizes the ability of
even the most impoverished communities to conduct inquiry and use
appropriate ICTs in ways that respect local meanings and goals (Eglash,
2004; Sugata, 2000; Vehviläinen, 2001; Warschauer, 2003).
Innovative action research projects unite community members with
university researchers and information professionals in blighted
urban neighborhoods in
the global diversity of approaches to CI is of great research and
practical significance. Commitment to community processes and the
roles of governmental and nongovernmental, corporate and grassroots
organizations vary greatly. Furthermore, specific needs of
communities, ranging from securing basic nutrients for children to
participation in complex aspects of industrialized civil life, also
vary. Not only do international scholars and practitioners have
their own perspectives, but their experience working with different
realizations can be enormously illuminating to settings here.
many have argued that CI is much more advanced in countries outside
the United States. Around the world, the following are among the
prominent academic and research institutions invested in CI:
of the most important international organizations in this area is
the Community Informatics Research Network – CIRN (www.ciresearch.net).
The Association for Community Networking (www.afcn.org)
also includes international members. While research relevant to CI
has been published in a number of academic and practitioner
journals, a strong new international publication appeared in 2004,
as the organ of CIRN: The
Journal of Community Informatics (www.ci-journal.net/).
Community Informatics in U.S. Library,
Information Science and Technology Programs
growing number of academic programs across the United States are
deeply engaged in CI work. Significant contributions, for example,
come from Murali Venkatesh (2003) at Syracuse University, Jeffrey
Huber at Texas Women’s University (Huber and Gillaspy, 1998) and
Kathleen de la Peña McCook at the University of South Florida (www.cas.usf.edu/lis/faculty/mccook.html).
Our colleagues are developing innovative approaches for integrating
research, learning and action that are helping to define the new
social and institutional relationships needed in CI. Nancy Kranich
and Taylor Willingham are leading a concerted effort through the
American Library Association and a number of sites across the United
States to introduce deliberative citizen forums into library
practice (www.nifi.org/). At the
University of Texas at Austin, Loriene Roy (www.ischool.utexas.edu/~loriene/)
conducts service-learning that involves students in exciting
projects with Native American communities. The Community Information
Corps at the University of Michigan represents a new approach to
nurturing and sustaining CI participation across academic and
research in CI also encompasses collaboration with community
organizations and residents. At Michigan and the University of
Washington, Joan Durrance and Karen Fisher have mounted a
large-scale research initiative devoted to exploring information
behavior in everyday contexts (http://ibec.ischool.washington.edu).
IBEC makes critical contributions to both CI theory and practice by
giving community members and institutions a strong voice and active
roles in its work. At Penn State, John Carroll leads the Learning in
Networked Communities project (http://linc.cs.vt.edu/overview.html).
LiNC provides a testbed for R&D that develops and evaluates
software tools and applications, as well as collaborative learning
processes, with schools and community organizations. A handful of
schools are now offering courses in CI. Doug Schuler and his
colleagues at The Evergreen State College take a particularly
innovative approach in their Global Citizenship: Civic Intelligence
for a Changing World program, where students work in teams with
organizations engaged in social change around the world to explore
issues and ideas, characterize knowledge and develop communication,
leadership and computer skills; the program culminates with
participation in the annual World Social Forum.
the University of Illinois, the newly launched Community Informatics
Initiative (CII) (http://ilabs.inquiry.uiuc.edu/ilab/cii/)
is working to identify and facilitate important CI activities, such
as those highlighted above. The CII provides a cross-campus home for
research, learning and action; a regional university/community base;
a locus for building a critical mass of CI work in the United
States; and an international hub for this growing field. It supports
collaborative activity in the form of creating knowledge and
technology that are connected to people's values, history and lived
experiences; developing models of engagement that are open-ended,
democratic, participatory and caring; and bringing theory and
practice together in an experimental and critical manner. We see the
challenge facing CI in the form of four key research questions:
work within our school is conducted by faculty (Wellman and
Haythornthwaite, 2002; Heidorn, 2002; Berlin and Schatz, 1999),
students (Brock, 2005; Hagar and Haythornthwaite, 2004; Lastra,
2004), and staff.
CII grounds its work in the philosophy of the American pragmatists,
which rose to prominence at the end of the 19th century and
introduced the theory and practice of community inquiry into a range
of fields, including aesthetics, education, social work, law and
public citizenship (Menand, 2001). Developed most fully in the work
of John Dewey (1956, 1966), community inquiry is based on the
premise that if individuals are to understand and create solutions
for problems in complex systems, they need opportunities to engage
with challenging problems; to learn through participative
investigations; to have supportive, situated experiences; to
articulate their ideas to others; and to make use of a variety of
resources in multiple media. The aim of community inquiry is to
develop a “critical, socially engaged intelligence, which enables
individuals to understand and participate effectively in the affairs
of their community in a collaborative effort to achieve a common
good” (John Dewey Project on Progressive Education, 2002).
a cornerstone of community inquiry is that it aims to respond to
human needs by democratic and equitable processes. A successful
community of inquiry is not one in which everyone is the same, but
instead one that accommodates plurality and makes productive use of
difference, accepting crisis as an often necessary aspect of true
learning and social transformation. In the establishment and
accomplishments of Hull-House,
Jane Addams most fully demonstrated community inquiry’s tenet that
democracy must extend beyond the political expression to permeate
the entire social organism (Addams, 1910, 1930; Elshtain, 2002). The
communities of inquiry centered in Hull-House
claimed enduring achievements in community research, action and
policy, including major reforms in child labor law and drastic
reductions in cholera deaths in Chicago’s tenements.
inquiry and informatics combine in the “pragmatic technology”
(Hickman, 1990) approach to community-based ICT creation and use.
Pragmatic technology encompasses the common language notion of how
to design tools to meet real human needs and accommodate users in
their lived situations. It also sees ICTs as developed within a
community of inquiry and embodying both means of action and forms of
understanding; ICTs are an end result of, as well as a means to
accomplish, community work. Day and Schuler (2004), in declaring the
“subordination of ICTs to building healthy, empowered, active
communities” (p. 15) and noting simply that “researchers are
part of the world in which they live” (p. 219) resonate clearly
with the ideas and practice of pragmatic technology. Two cornerstone
CI projects based in the CII demonstrate how pragmatic,
community-based technology initiatives respond to human needs
democratically and support participation and learning across
institutional and social boundaries.
(www.prairienet.org) is a
thriving 10-year-old community network. Through Karen Fletcher, it
has pioneered an innovative community-wide systems analysis process
in which inter-institutional consortia form to develop and implement
together Web-based CI applications, such as a set of health and
human services information and referral directories, a multi-county
volunteer matching system, a service to support the provision of
emergency drop-in childcare in local institutions and a system that
manages the process of sharing excess “stuff” (from computers to
couches to crayons) among community organizations. Prairienet also
runs an ongoing program of establishing community technology centers
in non-profit organizations and low-income neighborhoods. Through
Martin Wolske’s computer networking course (www.isrl.uiuc.edu/~mwolske/lis451/spring05/),
students work with homeless shelters, after-school clubs, churches,
community centers and other organizations in Champaign-Urbana and
East St. Louis to install computer labs.
Community Inquiry Lab collaborative develops software to support
community inquiry and provides extensive training and education,
consulting and action research in community inquiry and informatics
to non-profit organizations and individuals worldwide. The
collaborative has produced iLabs, a suite of free, open source,
Web-based software that is participatively developed in an open and
ongoing fashion by people of all ages and from different countries
and all walks of life. People use iLabs to create interactive
websites that support the communication and collaboration needed to
pursue their inquiries in classrooms, community centers, libraries,
professional associations, research groups and other settings
(Bishop, et. Al., 2004). iLabs includes software for library
catalogs, syllabi, document sharing, generating online inquiry
units, Web boards, blogs, calendars and image galleries.
Prairienet and iLabs represent experimentation in the integration of
community inquiry and informatics. Through collaborative practice in
the creation of content, contribution to interactive elements and
incorporation into practice, community members are not merely
recipients of these technologies, but they participate actively in
their ongoing development, yielding enhancements which are then
available to all users.
Paseo Boricua: A Scenario for Community
Inquiry and Informatics
CII’s Paseo Boricua Community Library Project (Bishop and Molina,
2004) provides one scenario of melding collaborative practice in
inquiry and informatics across university and community settings.
Paseo Boricua is a mile-long section of Division Street in
Chicago's Humboldt Park area. It is a vibrant neighborhood
characterized by strong, multi-generational, multi-institutional
community activism, where about 70% of residents are of Latino
origin, and 30% of families live below the federally defined poverty
level. Paseo Boricua embodies the development of an autonomous
cultural, political and economic space for Puerto Rican and
Latino/Latina residents that came into being as a response to
encroaching gentrification and displacement in nearby sections of
the city (Flores-González, 2001; Rinaldi, 2002). The Puerto Rican
Cultural Center (www.prcc-chgo.org)
has served as an institutional anchor in Paseo Boricua for 30 years,
galvanizing neighborhood residents around issues such as poverty,
gang violence, AIDS, destruction of cultural identity, lack of
educational resources and racism.
Paseo Boricua Community Library Project aims to create a distributed
community of inquiry whose participants come from all walks of life
and in which each participant has both something to learn and
something to contribute. Our goals are to learn how to mobilize
neighborhood information and cultural resources and technology and
connect them to the work of local activists; address the so-called
“digital divide”; and enrich library and information science
with the experiences and knowledge of Paseo Boricua residents.
Within the context of the project, we are creating a community
library in the Puerto Rican Cultural Center by cataloging its
collections of books, original liberation posters and human rights
network archives. We are also developing services, such as a
books-to-prisoners program and family reading nights. In the course
of this work we are pragmatically using (for general communication
and coordination) and creating (e.g., a Web-based library catalog)
iLab software, as well as creating forms of collaboration
appropriate to life in the neighborhood. These include a Saturday
street academy course in community librarianship for youth,
community cataloging work days, a community-curated exhibit of
artwork by political prisoners and a summer symposium led by
university and neighborhood participants that is devoted to the
concept of community as intellectual space.
this article, we offer a brief overview of the emerging
international field of community informatics and highlight important
work taking place in library, information science and technology
programs across the United States. We explore the connection between
community informatics and community inquiry that we are striving to
foster in the University of Illinois Community Informatics
Initiative. We invite your active participation in this growing
collaboration of people who are finding common cause in uniting
action, research and learning in pursuit of socially beneficial
transformations in their communities. In closing, we recall the
Kellogg Commission's (1999, p. 9) definition of engaged universities
as ones that have redesigned their research, teaching and service
functions to "become even more sympathetically and productively
involved with their communities." If indeed we can align our
inquiry in this way, we will greatly reduce the risk of creating, in
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