Embedding digital advantage in our communities
It’s strange but rewarding to revisit past work, more so to see that it didn’t just stand the test of time but that it’s actually a highly relevant contribution to the issue of digital communities today. When the Editors of the Journal of Community Informatics asked me to republish this paper ten years after its original publication* it was because a recent debate on the Community Informatics Research list had highlighted its usefulness. Though some of the language and context is now dated, the underlying concept and model seem not only relevant but significant today, as Michael Gurstein recently wrote, talking about his own problems with the concept of the ‘digital divide’.
The paper describes a five stage model for digitally-based community engagement and maturity. It’s an empirical, non-linear and temporal model that can be used as an audit of current community technology capability, for assessing maturity and for establishing clear milestones and mapping progress within a civictech framework within a wider community, city or regional setting. It’s limitation is that it describes the architectural and process elements of access and effective use – it’s not designed to be a holistic model for democratic renewal or engagement (have a look at my recent book for more on this).
If one takes the UK (where I am now based, though this paper is based primarily on New Zealand data), access to the internet has remained fairly consistent at around 85% for a number of years (depending on the source). More importantly, the (about) 15% who aren’t online, equally don’t want to be, can’t afford to be or can’t get access. There is a lot of research on this 15%. What is understood less well, particularly in policy circles, is what the remaining 85% looks like. The simple quantitative focus on those that do or don’t have access has led to a dearth of policy and research on “effective use” and the range of skills and abilities of those that are online. Clearly this is a continuum from expert to barely functioning, so to suggest that we have a digital nation simply because 85% of the population has internet access is naïve and dangerous. To design policy and develop public service based on this assumption is self-evidently problematic. Simply put: access is not equal to effective use. And this matters for both policy and practice.
I find it much more productive for us to position the network as a core public-asset infrastructure, to establish a right to access and then to focus on effective use once people are connected in terms of digital literacy etc. My friend and colleague, Aldo de Moor, in the ensuing conversation on the Community Informatics Research email list suggested the need for “usable monitoring and evaluation-frameworks and standards that capture the essence of socio-technical effective use-aspects”, he wants us to avoid these frameworks becoming “statistical straightjackets”. I agree, and republishing this paper is a modest initial contribution to that. Please read it in context: it was written in 2004, in a country on the edge of the world, before the onslaught of social media, when digital access was far less ubiquitous and mobile coverage limited and expensive. Yes, we have come a long way so that access, particularly mobile, is more ubiquitous and social and digital media are normative for many of us. But what hasn’t changed, and what this paper hopefully offers, is the underlying requirement for us to critically understand effective use.
* The original version of this paper was first published at the Australian Electronic Governance Conference. Centre for Public Policy, University of Melbourne, 2004.