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Doors of Opportunity for Local Communities

An Overview and Framework
for the DIRECTORY OF PUBLIC ACCESS NETWORKS

1995, Morino Institute. All rights reserved.


Contents

A New Age of Human Communication
The Need for Ubiquitous Access
What Are Public Access Networks?
The Value for People and Communities
Growth of the Movement
Who Benefits from Public Access Networks?

The Directory of Public Access Networks
A Framework for Public Access
Community/Civic Networks
Special Focus Networks
Using the Directory
Proposed Future Plans
Doors of Opportunity for Local Communities

Notes


A New Age of Human Communication

We are in the midst of a revolution in human communications that is changing how we talk to each other, how we work together, how we create and share knowledge. This revolution is already fundamentally transforming society, and that transformation will only accelerate over time. The most important element of this revolution, and certainly the most powerful, is the new medium of interactive communications.

This new medium offers immense potential for helping people address many of the challenges to their individual success and the vitality of their communities. Those who have experienced the richness of interactive communications understand its ability to empower individuals, inspire collaboration, facilitate learning and enhance our patterns of access to people and information.

On the grand scale, interactive communications is already connecting millions of individuals around the world in unrestrained dialogue and helping them to reach vast resources of knowledge and information. Closer to home, it is helping local communities energize citizen participation, reinvent institutions, provide outreach services and spur economic development. Perhaps the greatest opportunity is that it may provide a vehicle for bringing together groups of people in collaborative efforts to solve the interconnected social problems afflicting those communities.

Interactive communications can be a powerful tool for helping people, but it is by no means the solution. In fact, it could exacerbate many of the social problems we already face by further fragmenting our communities and posing new risks to our privacy. It can lead to unemployment by facilitating downsizing and shifting the patterns of regional economies. What's more, interactive communications, like many technologies, is often billed as a panacea, leading to disappointment or disillusionment when overly broad or unrealistic promises are not realized.

The challenge is to develop the benefits of this potentially powerful tool and minimize its risks. The most significant question, of course, is "How?" How will people come to see the relevance to their everyday lives, in their neighborhoods and communities? And most importantly, how will people and institutions-particularly groups which might be under- served by commercial services-gain access to this new medium?

In the past several years we have begun to see one possible answer to that question in the phenomenon of public access networks.


The Need for Ubiquitous Access

The keys to unlocking the potential of interactive communications and the communications revolution are access, knowledge and opportunity.

Access-ubiquitous access at an affordable cost-is the starting point. Not necessarily for ideological or egalitarian reasons, but for very practical ones and for the common good. Unless every individual, organization, and community has access to interactive communications and the opportunity it offers, the new Communications Age will never realize its potential and society will be the poorer.

Interactive communications is made possible by a network, actually a myriad of interconnected networks. Ubiquitous access to these networks is essential in establishing the critical mass of users that is required to realize its value. This was similarly true of previous communications networks like the railroads, telephone, and interstate highways. Their value increased as the number of points or people they could reach increased, and this value grew exponentially.

The availability of interactive communications can and should be as common, affordable and essential as the availability of electricity was in the industrial growth of the United States in the 20th Century. As David Hughes, a pioneer in public access networks, has pointed out, "There's no reason in technology or economics that 100% of the population shouldn't be connected."1

Today, knowledge and education are the predominant indicators of individual success. As we progress more deeply into the Communications Age, the skills of network usage and information management will become increasingly essential-as important as the three R's are today. There are, even now, hundreds of journals and other information sources which are only available online. More importantly, some of the forms in which information can be presented on the networks, using interconnected links and multimedia for example, make these documents nearly irreproducible on paper. Without access to interactive communications, and without education in its use, groups of people will be cut off from this knowledge-rich world and from the ability to succeed and survive in the information economy. Consider the other side as well, that network users may never learn from the wealth of knowledge and experience held by those who lack access.

Despite legitimate cautions about creating an information underclass, it is to some degree the wrong way to frame the issue. We already have such divisions today. They have less to do with technological "haves" and "have nots" than with "Who can?" The question is: Will we use the potential of interactive communications to close the gaps in knowledge and opportunity, or to widen them?

Enabling every person to be a participant, creator, and producer rather than just a consumer of information is what interactive communications is all about: the creation of a more informed citizenry, the stimulation of business, the improvement of health care and education, and the reinvention of government functions and services. Public access networks are an important and growing component for stimulating growth in the number of people who are connected, and for providing the applications, education, resources and services that make being connected worthwhile.


What Are Public Access Networks?

Public access networks are a vital vehicle for delivering the power of interactive communications into the hands of individuals. They are systems of information bases and/or person-to-person communications, structured around certain public interest goals and focused on a particular community, geographic area or jurisdiction. The "information bases" could be anything from county real estate assessments, to AIDS prevention resources, to library card catalogs. Communications on these networks can be one-to-one, like simple electronic mail from a small-business entrepreneur to a mentor; one-to-many, such as broadcasting messages to parents about the next PTA meeting; or many-to-many, like an ongoing electronic meeting or discussion series on methods of keeping neighborhoods safe. Public access networks combine elements of both these systems to create a new type of resource for local communities.

Community Focus

What makes public access networks unique in the landscape of interactive communications is their focus on local information and local users interacting with each other. It's what separates them from the larger networks such as the Internet or from national information or entertainment carriers like America Online or CompuServe. Public access networks can be, and often are, gateways or "on-ramps" to the larger networks, but their primary focus is on the needs of the local community.

These networks are public in that they are available to all members of the local community rather than being limited to members of individual groups or institutions. There are many models for how these networks are sustained-usage fees, subsidies, etc.-but they are secondary to the core question of whether the network is reasonably accessible to potential users. Many public access networks take the next step as well, providing for physical access through donated equipment, subsidized public kiosks or terminals and other proactive methods for people who lack the means to reach the networks otherwise.

People, Not Technology

In defining a public access network, it is important to note that we are using the term "network" in the more traditional sense of human networks, rather than the strict technological definition. The emphasis is on the human interaction and knowledge transfer that occurs through interactive communications, rather than on, as the technologists would say, "the uninterrupted stream of electronic traffic" that literally defines a computer network. Thus, the definition of a public access network includes what might otherwise be considered servers or bulletin boards (BBS) because the public interest goals which motivate them help to network the users in a community.

Origins of the Term

In May of 1994, the Morino Institute and Apple Computer co-sponsored the first annual Ties that Bind Conference for community and civic networkers. Papers from the 1994 conference can be found on Apple's gopher server; information on this year's meeting is available from their World Wide Web site. Of the many constructive results of this meeting, two issues came to the forefront: first, the need to increase discussion between and about public interest interactive communications and, second, the need to expand the focus of community engagement. The Directory of Public Access Networks is a step toward addressing the first issue by helping to identify current efforts across the United States.

To address the second, the Morino Institute began a research and discussion process which has led to a broader range of thinking about the role for interactive communications in community development. An ongoing discussion group of some 40 leaders in various fields-community/civic networking, educational networking, health information, philanthropy, public service, the media and the Internet-set out to craft a framework and inclusive set of definitions that would reflect the many grass roots efforts seeking to apply interactive communications for the benefit of individuals and communities. This group, with the assistance and input of dozens of others, considered the many models in current practice, coining the term public access networking as reflective of the broad range of efforts centered around the primary goals of local focus and affordable access.

Under the umbrella of public access networking, the framework identifies two primary types: community or civic networks, which represent variations on the "electronic village" model; and special focus networks which provide more targeted services of seven primary types: Economic Development Networks, Government Information Networks, Information and Referral Networks, Community Service Networks, Educational/Learning Networks, Health Information Networks and Library Networks.


The Value for People and Communities

As we've noted, the availability of interactive communications as a tool for empowerment and opportunity is broadly changing the world in the Communications Age. In this new world, public access networks can fill an essential niche in seeing that people and communities are prepared to succeed and survive. Four primary benefits stand out as rationale for supporting the growth and propagation of public access networks:

  • They help build the critical mass of users and services that will make interactive communications more valuable for everyone.


  • They focus uniquely on the needs of local people and local communities.


  • They have the potential to grow into a sophisticated, low-cost distribution system for the information and services of individuals, microenterprise and public service organizations.


  • They provide a complementary balance in reach and services to the larger providers.

For these reasons, it is important that leaders in all fields gain an understanding of the potential of public access networking and of initiatives in their area-not just elected officials and community service groups, but also public policy makers, grant makers, educational institutions and businesses, especially corporations in the telecommunications and new media industries. And it is commensurate upon public access networkers to reach out these leaders, to the residents of neighborhoods and communities, so that they can make the networks even more responsive to their constituents.

Building Critical Mass

As noted, the single greatest challenge in realizing the full benefit of interactive communications is building the critical mass of users that drives the value of the service. The propagation and expansion of public access networks increases the value of each local network, as well as the value of interactive communications as a worldwide medium.

Federal Express learned this lesson in a compelling and surprising way. As the company opened a new distribution center, logic said volume in existing hubs would ease. In fact, total traffic over the "network" increased and so did growth in all of the centers. It is not a zero sum game in which one sector grows at the expense of another, nor is the growth linear.

In this same way, interactive communications will take on even greater value and importance as the number of people connected increases. This is one of the reasons that the Internet has experienced such incredible growth as it reached a level of critical mass, and why almost all forms of on-ramps or access points to the Internet from America Online, to other Internet providers, to public access networks have flourished.

(The pace at which new users have accepted the Internet is nothing short of remarkable. According to Vinton Cerf, President of the Internet Society, "The Internet is growing faster than any telecommunications system ever built, including the telephone network."2 The Internet Society maintains a series of charts showing usage of the networks at http://www.isoc.org.)

The rationale for the networks is to help people connect with other people, institutions connect with their constituents, and individuals and organizations get the information and services they need. The success of interactive communications depends on how rapidly we achieve critical mass in the number of companies, organizations, institutions, and, most importantly, individual citizens that are connected to the resources these networks make available.

Local People, Local Needs

The greatest distinguishing aspect of public access networks, and arguably their greatest value, comes from their focus on local issues. Where commercial networks, like CompuServe, or larger public interest networks, like HandsNet or SeniorNet, do a good job of connecting people and distributing information on a national or international scale, public access networks are operated by local people, presenting local information and communications in response to locally determined needs.

After only 18 months of operation, Blacksburg, Virginia's Electronic Village is already linking a third of the population and a third of the local shops and businesses. The network provides access to healthcare information, job referrals, the ability to apply for municipal permits, local mail service, even movie schedules. "What we're recreating is the old village square where people get together with their neighbors," said project director Andrew M. Cohill. "Everyone else in the country is fixated on the concept of global connectivity. What people here are saying is: 'We don't care. We want to do Blacksburg stuff.'"3

Larger networks help to create so-called "virtual communities" in which people who are separated from each other by distance can come together around an issue or interest. These virtual communities are valuable, but they can't go far enough in supporting citizens in the very real community of Denver, Colorado, who are trying to solve the city's homelessness problem. That takes a communications system which provides access to the requisite local information and access to the right people. The Denver Free-Net is helping by placing terminals linked to their network in area homeless shelters through which people have access to job listings, social service agencies and other services.

The responsiveness of successful public access networks to the needs of their local constituents can help turn communication into community action. They can become a tool for community revitalization by bringing together local citizens, service groups, business and institutions in collaborative efforts. Moreover, they can serve a valuable role in educating their communities, as sponsors for outreach and inclusiveness programs, and as knowledge centers for community-based information.

A Public Distribution System

The reach of interactive communications is already being used by businesses to develop new, inexpensive marketing and distribution systems. Broad availability of interactive communications can provide the same benefit to individuals, institutions and non-profit organizations who have lacked the resources for mass distribution of their products and services.

Take Join Together for example. Situated at the Boston University School of Public Health, Join Together seeks to help individuals, groups and communities combat drug, alcohol and dependency problems. They have identified thousands of community-based coalitions who are trying to balance the need to work locally with the simultaneous need for expertise, information and an efficient way to identify partners, coordinate activities, and leverage resources.

Join Together Online was launched in 1993 to help strike this balance. The Online project provides access to over 6,500 documents, refreshed daily, distributing valuable information: daily news summaries, funding news, treatment and technical assistance. The result has been steadily increasing usage to the point that over 750 articles are accessed each day. Over 600 individuals working in community-based efforts access their documents or participate in group e-mail lists each month. Join Together has expanded its links with other access providers to ensure that there are a variety of low cost options, including America Online, Free-Nets and key substance abuse BBSs. To address access issues in rural areas, they have negotiated an agreement with the National Public Telcomputing Network to redistribute information services throughout the rural Free-Nets.4

This kind of distribution network was impossible for groups like Join Together before the availability of interactive communications, and especially without the public access networking component which allows them to reach much of their target audience. Although as a distribution mechanism, public access networking is still in the embryonic stages, it is quite easy to see the potential benefit for other national community service groups, such as the 4H, the League of Women Voters or the United Way. Groups that may be trying to forge an effective local/national coalition can develop, market and deliver knowledge-based products, at either the local or national level, more economically and for much more highly targeted audiences.

Public access networks offer the same potential for others as well. They may be the ideal way to stimulate local business and microenterprise by enabling them to use the network as a marketing and distribution tool for information products and even software. Public access networks were used as distribution hubs for campaign information in the last presidential campaign. Perhaps the most important effect is that it extends these possibilities to individuals as well as organizations. Therein lies its potential to empower people by enabling them to start businesses, projects or debates with limited resources.

A Balance to Commercial Services

In these and other ways, public access networks provide a complementary service and balance to the interests of commercial providers. In fact, many of these larger services would like a local presence, but small market size and a lack of local contacts for forming sponsorship alliances have prevented it. Prodigy has experimented in a few larger cities by contracting with local newspapers, but results have been mixed at best. Perhaps the closest thing is America Online's Chicago Online which is largely dependent upon the work of the Chicago Tribune and is likely a function of the Tribune's strategic partnership with and minority ownership position in America Online.

Public access networks provide balance to the national services by offering connections to targeted information and services of local interest, and, especially, by providing affordable access to new groups of people. Local people have the contacts, motivation and familiarity with local needs to build the right sorts of alliances.

Public access networks also can be an important on-ramp for many people to reach the information highway, people who might otherwise be under-served by commercial interests. As more and more of the world goes online, many people are at serious risk of being unable to participate. Not just the economically disadvantaged, but others as well, such as those who are elderly, physically or mentally challenged, educationally disadvantaged or who live in rural areas. These are in large part the very individuals who can most benefit from the medium's ability to extend knowledge, opportunity and the people's voice. We must not miss the chance to tap their wealth of knowledge, productive power, and innovation.

Balancing commercial and public interests will become more important than ever because we are moving into an age when economic growth and opportunity will increasingly depend upon knowledge and communication- based industry. Consider, for example, how we will strike the balance between the ongoing privatization of information, like the digital representation of works of art, with the need to keep public information accessible. As Armando Valdez, founder of LatinoNet, notes, "We need to be concerned about the extent to which a market- driven system advances the broader interests of society."5 In the case of interactive communications, there is opportunity for a balance, and there is fertile ground for the formation of mutually beneficial partnerships between public access networks and the larger carriers.


  • Free- Net6 community computing system. He then founded the National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN), a nonprofit corporation that serves as the parent organization for Free-Net public access networks. In April 1995, NPTN had 53 affiliated systems online, with 30 more fully- funded, and 118 groups in organizing stages. They expect to have well over 100 affiliates online by the end of 1995.


  • Montana-based Big Sky Telegraph was the first public access networking system providing a concerted effort to address and find solutions for the particular communications needs of rural communities. Founded in 1988, Big Sky and its Director, Frank Odasz, have developed models and processes that are being used in dozens of remote areas to bring the power of interactive communications to people, particularly for rural education.


  • In 1989, the Santa Monica Public Electronic Network (PEN), founded by Ken Phillips, became a leader in providing public access terminals throughout the community.


  • Canada's first Free-Net opened in Victoria, British Columbia, in December of 1992, followed soon in February of 1993 by the National Capital Free-Net in Ottawa, Ontario. Canada's active and organized efforts to apply interactive communications to community development has cultivated considerable innovation and outreach. According to Garth Graham of Telecommunities Canada, "...part of the success and rapid growth [of the National Capital Free-Net] lay in the wide open acceptance of participation by organizational content providers and volunteer 'builders.'"7


  • 1993 saw the creation of Americans Communicating Electronically (ACE), an unofficial association of public servants and citizens exploring alternatives for improving communications between the government and the public and for making government information more accessible. According to Tom Tate, of the US Department of Agriculture and one of ACE's leaders, "Early in the ACE experiment, several forward-thinking public servants began looking to public access networks as vehicles for that action. Since that time, more than 70 federal agencies have committed to making information and personnel accessible electronically. The same process is taking place at the state and local levels."8

When the Morino Institute began observing the growth of public access networking in 1993, there were no more that a few dozen efforts in the United States, nearly all based on the community/civic networking model. In early 1995, the Public Access Networks Directory had identified over 300 public access networks in various stages of development in the United States alone-with dozens more in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, the Philippines, Singapore and Russia. In the year following the first Ties That Bind conference, the growth curve of public access networking-and popular support for these systems-has been significant and impressive.

Growing Sources of Support

One of the most significant metrics of support for public access networking is the increased interest and support for development funding. We are beginning to see considerable attention on the part of foundations and other grant makers, among them the Benton, Rockefeller and MacArthur Foundations and the Pew Charitable Trust, who are recognizing the benefits public access networks can provide to people and communities.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has taken a strong interest in the future of public access networking as well. In partnership with telecommunications provider US WEST, the CPB Community- Wide Education and Information Service (CWEIS) grant program awarded $1.4 million to 12 public access networking projects across the nation, "launching an initiative designed to develop and encourage free public access to education and information on-line services, using local public radio and television stations as a nucleus."9 CPB received proposals from 90 local public stations in 38 states. The eventual goal of the CWEIS initiative is to ensure broad-based access in every local community.

The NTIA

Recently, the single most significant source of support for public access networking projects in the United States has come from the US Department of Commerce and its ambitious program under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). NTIA's Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Programs (TIIAP) "provide matching grants to state and local governments, healthcare providers, school districts, libraries, universities, social service organizations, public safety services and other non-profit entities to help them access and use new telecommunications technologies."10

In 1994, the first year for such programs, NTIA received more than 1,070 applications from 50 states, the District of Columbia and several territories, requesting more than 560 million in funding. The eventual grants awarded a total of 24.4 million to 92 projects in 45 states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands. Secretary Ron Brown characterized the response as "$1.3 billion worth of NII projects ready to happen in the public sector."11

Public/Private Partnerships

A key element of NTIA, CPB and other support programs has been the development of robust public/private partnerships in support of public access networking- both on a large scale, involving telecommunications companies such as US WEST, Ameritech, and NYNEX, as well as in the local communities. In the case of Blacksburg's Electronic Village, Bell Atlantic is spending some 7 million to provide high speed cabling. John W. Knapp Jr., director of partnership initiatives for Bell Atlantic, says, "It's a way for us to test what types of services people want and how we can economically deliver them."12

Proposals received by the NTIA in 1994 carried with them commitments of more than 800 million in matching funds from the various public/private/civic partnerships. Michael Strait, who manages the CWEIS program for CPB, describes the development of those partnerships on the local level: "I didn't talk to anyone who had a miserable time getting partnerships going," he says. "To the contrary, I got feedback from stations saying it was a great opportunity to meet a whole new group of people_"13

Taken together with the growing appreciation government and other funders have for public access networking, this increasingly diversified support speaks volumes for the role these networks can play in developing the new medium of interactive communications.


Who Benefits from Public Access Networks?

Clearly, the entire community benefits. Even those who currently lack awareness of or access to interactive communications can be helped by initiatives to educate, inform and provide community access points. Communities also benefit from the service programs and organizations which become more effective through the use of interactive communications.

Much of the value of public access networking springs from its currency and relevance to specific objectives of the user. Because public access networking is an enabling mechanism, rather than an end in itself, it should inspire action by facilitating communication, coordination and collaboration among those who wish to better themselves or their communities. These include some particular groups who can find mutual benefit by supporting public access networking initiatives.

Foundations and Other Funders

Public access networks can dramatically enhance the types of activities already supported by such organizations, like the delivery of health information, educational development or support for the arts. In many cases, the benefit and effectiveness of these programs could be substantially improved with appropriate use of public access networks. A foundation concerned with HIV/AIDS, for example, might not immediately see the application of public access networks to their work, but a local clinic working in concert with a health information network could give a dramatic multiplier effect to efforts in education, prevention, options for treatment, as well as the equally important human communications that become so critical in times of crisis.

Government Grant Makers

Federal, state and local government agencies will find that public access networks can play a important supporting role in community revitalization efforts, integrating various groups into efforts that promote outreach, inclusiveness, civic interaction and economic development. Many government services can be streamlined and made more effective with the help of interactive communications and public access networks. State economic development authorities, for example, might look to the example of the Texas-One economic development network, which received seed funding from federal grants, matched by the state of Texas. The network "collaborates with Texas state government, education and private organizations interested in reaching their customers through on-line information delivery."14

Government Officials and Policy Makers

Interactive communications is being used widely as a means for energizing citizen action, not only by the advocacy communities, but by average voters who feel a new sense of connectedness through the communication process. Public access networks can provide the means for elected and appointed officials to invigorate their contact with constituents through vehicles like electronic town halls. Officials should also be prepared for the development of the growing power bases arising out of interactive communications' ability to let groups and individuals reach out quickly and easily to millions of people around the globe. For example, Internet communications from a small group of people were credited in part for the defeat of former Speaker of the House Tom Foley in 1994. Local activists in Foley's Washington district were able to organize and communicate with others across the United States who shared their views.

Telecommunications Carriers

For many of the businesses competing to build the information highway- telephone companies, cable companies, etc.-public access networks can be an effective enabler for building a critical mass of users. They can help such companies develop fair and reasonable pricing models and effective development plans that meet the needs of individual communities. Such public/private partnering models help integrate these businesses with the community and cultivate a customer base for the carrier. NYNEX for example, has structured an agreement with Albany, New York's Capital Region Information Service under which the telephone company will provide the physical network and technical support for the service, while information providers such as local media outlets, social service agencies, libraries and professional organizations will develop the content.

Content Providers

For newspapers, magazines, public and private television and radio, other entertainment and information providers, even national online services, public access networks will often be the most effective inroad to local communities and consumers. Local providers, such as community newspapers, can develop the same kind of partnering relationships with public access networks that the larger online services do with national magazines. As the different models of interactive media proliferate and the old guard of publishing and broadcast companies struggle to define their place in the digital world, an increasing number are finding that creative partnerships with public access networks can help them manage that process of change and better understand their role. Newspapers such as Raleigh, North Carolina's News and Observer, San Jose, California's Mercury News and Norfolk, Virginia's Virginian-Pilot have developed such models. It is also extremely important not to overlook public access networks as important sources and contacts for journalists and other content creators.

Businesses and Corporations

Small businesses and larger corporations will find that referral and economic development networks provide a fertile ground for recruiting personnel, prospecting, traditional business networking, building cross- industry alliances and partnership opportunities. Public access networks can also provide a platform for new models of work, such as individuals "telecommuting" from their homes, and new forms of collaboration and resource-sharing. Restaurants and retail stores are using community networks as an inexpensive promotional outlet, announcing sales and distributing online coupons. Businesses will find a valuable source of goodwill and positive public relations, as well as greater community integration by working with public access networks.

Public Service Organizations

National and local non-profit service groups can use public access networks as a local "commons" in which to engage their constituencies and collaborate with colleagues on interdisciplinary solutions or fundraising. These networks can provide a strong promotions vehicle for events and activities and a distribution outlet for information and service products. The American Red Cross, for example, is developing an impressive national presence on the Internet, including a locator service for branch offices across the country and World Wide Web "home pages" for each branch. How much more effective could those individual branch pages be if they incorporated local discussion group capabilities, as well as information dissemination provided through public access networks?

Community Leaders and Activists

The essence of grass-roots action, political or otherwise, is coordinated communication. Public access networks provide a natural platform for such work-as well as for the collection and dissemination of information that directly supports community issues. Members of a distressed housing community, for example, might avail themselves of a terminal in the nearby public library which connects them to a local public access network. They can collect information relevant to their case-from government, legal, or environmental sources-and connect with advocates and other sympathetic ears whom they might never encounter otherwise.


The Directory of Public Access Networks

Helping all of these groups find and benefit from public access networks is one primary goal of the Directory of Public Access Networks. Because public access networking is a grass-roots movement, there has been little awareness of its breadth beyond anecdotal stories. Moreover, until it was possible to see the full scope and types of initiatives available, discussion tended to be centered largely around particular kinds of public access networks: community networks, for example, or library networks. Within the larger framework of public access networking, a fuller range of community services becomes more apparent, as do the opportunities for collaboration between various efforts.

Potential collaboration, certainly communication, is a second major goal of the Directory. As expressed by attendees at the first Ties That Bind Conference, current and prospective public access networkers were looking for ways to enhance contact between colleagues. In a movement so young, people sought to compare best practices and learn from others who have gone before.

Developing the Directory

The Morino Institute has followed a very deliberate process in building the Directory of Public Access Networks. As noted, some 40 people, leaders from a variety of fields, participated in a moderated electronic discussion group which crafted the initial information to be included in the Directory, as well as suggested formats for hardcopy and online versions of the service. They helped gather the agreed-upon information on 25 public access networks for a "proof of concept" version of the Directory. The Institute is now in the ongoing process of populating the Directory and maintaining its currency. Our deep thanks go to the members of the discussion group who assisted in developing the framework and the Directory; a listing of the participants, as well as summary proceedings of these discussions, are available at http://www.morino.org/discgrps.htm.


A Framework for Public Access

The framework developed through the discussion group identifies and characterizes the primary types of public access networking initiatives, community/civic networks and special focus networks. Special focus networks are further delineated into various groups.

This framework is intended to help people and organizations, especially those new to interactive communications and its application in public service, understand the available resources. It is not an attempt to institutionalize or prescribe models. Indeed, these definitions are intended as a snapshot of the current landscape. The hope is to clarify and elevate the debate and, in so doing, propagate the various forms of public access networking, promote experimentation and spur innovation in how these networks serve their communities. As the movement matures, these definitions will, of necessity, be revised and updated to reflect the latest thinking. What will not change, we certainly hope, is that there will always be people working to apply the power of information and the potential of interactive communications toward bringing opportunity to individuals and communities.


Tallahassee Free-Net is a good example of the community/civic network concept. Serving the Tallahassee and Leon County, Florida, area, it is a non-profit corporation whose charter is:

...to provide, free of charge, a local repository of community information, public forums and electronic interactions, and connectivity into the worldwide network of computers known as the Internet. Its emphasis is on providing local information and Internet access in an easy and intuitive manner to the general community.15

Sponsors and information providers include the local media outlets (TV, radio, newspaper); state and local government; two local hospitals; civic organizations and social service agencies; as well as libraries, universities, and major businesses in the area.

There are dozens of community/civic networks across the world. They are proliferating so rapidly that by the time you read this there may very well be hundreds.


Special Focus Networks

Unlike community/civic networks, special focus networks are identified by a more specific issue, audience, service or charter. They may sometimes be areas within a community/civic network and may be as simple as bulletin boards that exchange important, public- oriented information. We have identified seven primary types of special focus networks.

Economic Development Networks

These are electronic extensions or supplements to traditional economic development information and communication activities which are already frequently referred to as "networks." Like other special focus networks, an economic development network can be a service of the local government (e.g. the regional economic development authority), a collaboration among local businesses, or a combination. Economic development networks can serve both individuals-through such offerings as training and retraining services and other tools-as well as potential employers, from large corporations to microenterprise. While many of these emerging networks promote network-based opportunities as a major engine for economic growth, they can also facilitate traditional economic development in manufacturing, tourism, and other industries.

Economic development networks are emerging all around the US in a variety of forms. Philadelphia's LibertyNet offers local, regional and national economic development resources, and is supported by a combination of corporate underwriters and user fees. The statewide Texas-One supports small and medium-sized businesses in Texas with links to high-quality business information. It is a 5 million, three year, public/private partnership funded, in part, by federal grants and matching funds from the state of Texas.

Government Information Networks

These networks specialize in the organization and dissemination of local or regional government information; they can be privately owned and operated or maintained by the relevant government entities themselves. Most government information networks in the United States also provide access to the ever- increasing amount of federal information available online-although there must be a local focus to the network in order to meet the definition of a public access network. Toll-free federal clearinghouse bulletin boards, for example, would not meet this local/regional requirement.

An increasing number of these networks are now growing from their roots as non-interactive repositories of static government information (similar to the videotext channels on most cable TV systems), to communications links between government officials and the citizens they serve. The City of Palo Alto, California, for example, offers a wealth of public information, including demographics, city council information, and public transportation schedules. One interactive option allows citizens to select any two stops on the CalTrain route, the day of the week they wish to ride and generate a personal train schedule at the touch of a button.

Information and Referral Networks

These information "matching" services connect citizens with specific needs to practitioners who can help them. Like other services described here, local information and referral services (I&R) have existed for years; adding interactive communications capability to such providers gives a multiplier effect to their efforts. Many I&R networks provide mentoring services, a further extension of the matching of needs-to-practitioners, whereby a more permanent learning relationship can exist electronically between the parties brought together by the network. The River Project, for example, is a partnership of nonprofit agencies, public broadcasting entities and Internet providers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area that includes I&R services from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

Tom Battin, an expert on Information and Referral agencies, notes that I&Rs "have often been called the doorways to human services. In that role, they help people navigate the at times confusing world of service providers and connect people with the services they need. Over the last four years, I&Rs have begun integrating computer technology into their operations in order to manage the information they have and improve the services they offer. In this new age of Internet connections and integrated services, I&Rs can play a key role in bringing providers together to share information."16

Community Service Networks

Community service networks are systems which distribute information about community service institutions and provide communication between staff, volunteers and constituents. Local chapters of organizations such as the United Way or a bulletin board providing help for battered women are examples of community service networks. In one project, Leadership, Education and Athletics in Partnership (LEAP) of New Haven, Connecticut, other child welfare organizations and the Morino Institute are building systems to improve the delivery of youth services and engage inner-city children through interactive communications. In another, the Institute is helping the Northern Virginia Association of Retarded Citizens develop an electronic bulletin board service for local people with disabilities, their families and service providers.

Educational/Learning Networks

These networks serve community needs for life-long learning, whether it be K- 12, higher education, distance learning, adult education, retraining or other means. To qualify as a public access network, however, an educational/learning network must allow access outside of its defined constituency. For example, an individual high school's network would be considered a public access network if services were offered to community members beyond the students and faculty. Big Sky Telegraph, in Dillon, Montana, which facilitates electronically-delivered classes to rural one-room schoolhouses, as well as adult education, is a prominent example of an educational/learning network. Students and teachers interact via an inexpensive bulletin-board system that is accessible across the state, and which also provides access to educational resources on the Internet. Many colleges and universities have become leaders and valuable partners in providing network services to local communities.

Health Information Networks

Systems which provide informal information and/or consultative services to satisfy citizens' health and wellness needs make up the broad category of health information networks. These are, however, distinguished from private, intra- institutional services which facilitate the actual delivery of care and are therefore much more tightly controlled and regulated. According to Patricia Brennan, Associate Professor of Nursing at Case Western Reserve University, "As early as 1988, the only online health support services were some 30 bulletin boards addressing issues of AIDS care in the CompuServe Health section. Now there are over 200 health and social service agencies with their own World Wide Web pages. No one can count the number of electronic services in existence because so many of them have grown up from the grass-roots."17

Health information networks are among the most diverse group of public access networks. In Cleveland, Brennan and Dr. Kathy Smyth have created support networks for AIDS patients and the families of Alzheimer's sufferers through Case Western. The West Virginia Rural Health Partnership is a cooperative effort among three local healthcare education institutions and several rural clinics and hospitals in the state. Its goals are to improve the quality of rural health education and delivery, as well as to help retain health education graduates. Group Health Cooperative, an HMO based in Puget Sound, Washington, recently unveiled a suite of World Wide Web pages to offer healthcare information.

Library Networks

These services provide electronic access to the resources and services of local libraries, whether public, college or university research libraries, etc. Like the educational/learning networks, library networks must meet the public openness standard to qualify as true public access networks. One that does is the Southeast Florida Library Information Network (SEFLIN) which provides online public access to libraries in Broward, Dade, Martin, and Palm Beach Counties, including card catalogs, special collections, and other reference items. Libraries are increasingly becoming recognized as logical points of public access to the networks and they have been important partners in dozens of such efforts.


Using the Directory

At this writing, the Directory of Public Access Networks presents over 300 public access networks and related organizations. Updating the Directory is an ongoing process, so new listings will appear as the Institute learns of additional public access initiatives or information about a network changes. While the Institute cannot guarantee that the listings at any particular time are complete or accurate, we make every attempt to stay current. For that reason, the Directory is provided "as is" without warranties of any kind.

The Directory organizes public access networks by state. Users with a graphical browser can click anywhere on the map of the United States that appears. Others, or those who prefer to turn off graphics, can select from a list of states. Known public access networks in that state and for nearby regions will appear. Selecting from that list will then display basic information about a particular network.

In addition to the geographical organization, the Directory also supports searches by key words or phrases so that users can create a list of records that mention, for example, "newspaper" or "health."

Features of the Directory

The Directory of Public Access Networks is the most complete catalogue of local public interest networking resources available. Among its most prominent features are:

  • a logical and meaningful framework for understanding the nature and role of various networking resources


  • an in-depth level of information about each network


  • clickable maps to aid in navigation


  • key word search capabilities that allow users to identify networks that have a certain characteristic


  • live links to most of the listed networks


  • listings of organizations that support or are related to public access networks, often with live links to their Internet sites

Visitors to the Directory are also encouraged to send comments and suggestions, as well as new listings or updated information.


Proposed Future Plans

Keeping the Directory complete and current is an ongoing project at the Morino Institute. The Institute will periodically update the information, as well as maintain contact through discussion groups and review of user comments to see that the Directory continues to meet the needs of its intended audiences.

The Institute also intends to periodically enhance the features of the Directory. Since the project is still young, no commitments can be made for certain delivery, but initial plans include:

  • expansion of the Directory to include Canadian listings and, later, international listings on a country-by-country basis


  • greater depth and breadth of information to better describe the networks in terms of demographics, applications, benefits, and so forth


  • a hardcopy version of the Directory


  • technical improvements, including access to Directory listings via automated email searches

Doors of Opportunity for Local Communities

The revolution in human communications is spurring economic and social revolutions. Individuals, large and small businesses, institutions, government agencies and non-profit organizations, with the help of interactive communications are learning to do more on their own, to create new kinds of jobs and new ways to work, to reach more people and to find new ways to cooperate. Interactive communications is helping children expand their horizons, adults learn new skills and communities find new ways to solve problems.

Avoiding participation in this revolution is not an option for most people. It is upon us, and few are untouched by it. Unlike other social and economic revolutions that were the result of technological change-the development of the railroad system or the introduction of the computer, for example-this revolution does not seem to have a similarly slow start-up period. It is no overstatement to say that the pace of change is explosive.

Public access networks can play, and are playing, a vital role in helping individuals and communities adapt to this revolution. Through development of knowledge resources, communications services and outreach programs, they are bringing the power of information and the potential of interactive communications to more people. They are helping neighbors communicate, collaborate and learn, and providing the opportunity for people to become more involved citizens, find new economic possibilities and renew their sense of community.

For all of this opportunity, public access networking is still a young movement, and many challenges lay ahead. There is still much to be learned about integrating with the broad range of community members, methods for developing responsive services, technological implementations and, especially, for developing the base of financial support which will assure that these initiatives are sustainable. There is no promise of success, but there is enormous potential.

Fortunately, the variety of grass-roots initiatives has been a fertile ground for innovation and experimentation. By sharing the lessons learned, both through success and failure, the concept of public access networking is maturing and so is its execution. We hope that the Directory of Public Access Networks will encourage and facilitate that evolution. The opportunity for public access networkers is to become integral and valued participants in the communities of the Communications Age. The proof will come with broad- based acceptance by local individuals and institutions. As more and more people begin to use interactive communications, we see encouraging signs of that acceptance.

This growing acceptance and boundless potential are the best arguments for encouraging and supporting public access networks, by government officials and policy makers, by foundations, schools, public service groups, businesses, and by the people of local communities.


Notes

1. "The High Tech Future of Social Change," Who Cares, Winter 1994. Back

2. "Boom Time on the New Frontier," Fortune Information Technology Special Report, Autumn 1993. Source for graph information is M. Lottor ftp://ftp.nw.com/zone. copyright 1995 A.M Rutkowski and Internet Society. Back

3. "In Virginia, a Virtual Community Tries Plugging Into Itself," The Washington Post, Tuesday, April 11, 1995. Back

4. Summarized from Join Together descriptive materials, 1995. Back

5. "The High Tech Future of Social Change," Who Cares, Winter 1994. Back

6. Free-Net is a registered service mark of NPTN, the National Public Telecomputing Network. Back

7. Garth Graham, 1995: personal communication. Back

8. Tom Tate, 1995: personal communication. Back

9. From the Corporation for Public Broadcasting home page, April 17, 1995, http://www.cpb.org/cweis/CWEIS.HTM. Back

10. From the National Telecommunications and Information Administration home page, April 13, 1995, http://www.ntia.doc.gov/tiiap/. Back

11. Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown spoke at the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program grant announcements, Washington, DC, October 12, 1994. Back

12. "In Virginia, a Virtual Community Tries Plugging Into Itself," The Washington Post, Tuesday, April 11, 1995. Back

13. "Partnerships Key to Successful Community Networking Projects," Transition, vol. 1, no. 3, Autumn 1994. Published by the Association of America's Public Television Stations. Back

14. From the Texas-One home page, April 3, 1995, http://www.texas-one.org/ Back

15. Morino Institute: Directory of Public Access Networks (Reston, VA: Morino Institute, 1995). Back

16. Tom Battin, 1995: personal communication. Back

17. Dr. Patricia Brennan, 1995: personal communication. Back

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