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Title:Engaging Community: Methods and Values in Community Informatics
Author(s):Chu, Clara M.; Williams, Kate
community informatics
Abstract:Just as recently as October 2008 the 5th Prato Community Informatics & Development Informatics Conference 2008 focused on how 'social inclusion' or e-inclusion is understood as it applies to communities in their interaction with technology. Social inclusion and e-inclusion seem to be the terms of de rigueur as digital divide was in the 1990s when considering technology in communities/society or more specifically, communities sans information and communication technologies (ICTs). Metaphorically, previously we offered a bridge for those to cross over to the technology side and now perhaps an open door that allows communities/people to come into technology. If in i-Schools, Community Informatics (CI) is to be used to describe the academic discipline and practice for systematically approaching Information Systems from a “community” perspective (Gurstein); then, these dichotomous frameworks of in/out, haves/have-nots, rich/poor and now, include/exclude do not speak to the spirit of collaboration and openness which is vital in employing ICTs to carry out community processes to attain community objectives. It is not who we as information professional and scholars let in or out but it is about both information specialists and community engaging in a process to bring our respective tools, skills, knowledge, values and traditions as an act of community building in applying appropriate technologies. A process Clara M. Chu calls social engagement/participation or e-engagement/participation. Such reframing of CI is a propos the i-Conference 2009 theme: “What is ‘engagement’ in a research institution? Community informatics in the i-Schools needs to be about a practice and discipline grounded on eengagement where the research we practice respects communities, identifies how technologies can be tapped to produce results they want/need and can sustain. What have 15 years of research taught us about how to do that? An extra complexity for this emerging field of study is that today, new methods are in use, in part because computers are more ubiquitous, the increasing interdisciplinary training of our scholars and the recognition of multiplicity of voices in the intellectual project. Action research and participatory design got community informatics started in the 1990s, when information technology was new and less widespread. Today these methods are joined by surveys, interviews, and observation; GIS, text mining, and archives; and more. And new frameworks are applied: social network theory, asset based community development, social capital (from Bourdieu to Putnam), and many others. In the past we looked at projects carried out in communities, often with technology as an end in itself, often with universities as partners. As IT has evolved and diffused, ways of combining local concerns and new technology are myriad, and researchers have adopted new ways of studying this. Today researchers can find people and groups in communities carrying out their own projects, using technology simply as one useful tool in their environment. How do old and new methods work in these settings? We are proposing a wildcard submission under the conference theme of “What is ‘engagement’ in a research institution?,” with participants from diverse institutions involved in CI. Our wildcard session will comprise a 90-minute forum in which faculty and doctoral students—with varied academic and professional backgrounds—share the methods that we practice, explain, and promote (teach to future scholars and professionals), with a deliberate focus on communities over technologies. In the discussion of methods we expect theoretical, methodological, epistemological issues to be raised. The anticipated outcome of this session will be a better understanding of the challenges and lessons learned when working with communities, reproducible methods for CI, and a resource list of scholars, projects and publications associated with these methods, all of which can contribute to the teaching of CI. This wildcard session builds on the successful preconference community informatics workshop at the 2006 iSchools Conference at the University of Michigan, and the Agenda for Community Technologies and Networking wildcard session at the 2008 iSchools Conference at UCLA, which attracted more than 40 people. Our attempt this year is to focus the discussion on methods and values in order to discipline ourselves. Merriam-Webster provides two definitions of this word, each of them relevant: 1. “A field of study,” where the field is the local community in the digital age 2. “Training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character” where we are sharpening our research techniques and clarifying our values. Without reproducible methods, we are not practicing research. Without a focus on communities over technologies, we risk becoming technicians tinkering with social systems, which we may not understand. This is particularly important because the communities that interest most of us are disempowered and embattled.
Issue Date:2009-02-08
Genre:Conference Paper / Presentation
Date Available in IDEALS:2010-04-08

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