What would happen if the academics in the research-one class universities took a stroll through the neighborhoods that surrounded them? Would they be surprised by what they saw? Would they know anybody? Would their abstract concepts and theoretical models help the locals? Could they research with community members on real-life problems important to both of them? Would they even understand one another’s language? Would they care about one another?
At some point I realized that I didn’t want to be yet another rich kid from the suburbs taking a tour of Urbana-Champaign for a 4 or 6 year degree and then bouncing on out to work in some big corporation. It’s perhaps selfish, but I need to see and feel the impact of what I do through and with the University in the lives of people around me – not just at school but in the communities in my state (and someday beyond). We have such a vast and amazing array of resources here and yet do so little to directly benefit the people without them (even through many of them are taxpayers who fund our work!). I spent much of my time as an undergrad making websites and fixing computers for people who didn’t have the means to do so themselves – it’s about time I evolve that school of thought and see what I can do about empowering community groups. And so here we have it – technology and social services, so often in need of one another and so often separated. My scholarly perspective thus follows in stride, at heart I’m a social scientist and activist-minded youth but I also don the hat of an engineer or artist and like to solve problems of the sociotechnical variety.
This is the essence of Community Informatics (CI). I might crudely define it as social work meets computers, but it’s perhaps better explained as ICT’s (information communication technologies) applied to community needs. The field has roots in library science but as the internet and our ways of creating knowledge increasingly espouse an altered way of life we find ourselves in a (or yet another) critical moment of information revolution. We need to go beyond the university walls and library bookshelves to ensure every community and every person not only has access to information but the ability and opportunity to create knowledge, capture culture and make history in the name of a better future.
Our toolbox is one of pragmatism and progress – we believe in participatory action research, namely studies which are conducted with the community (collaboration), for the community (may they always see the insights and reap the rewards) and by the community (citizen scientists and community member-led projects). In effect it is multi-method and inherently critical, a diverse (multi-perspective) portfolio of what works, from ethnography to statistics to content analysis to interviews.
Though some in CI would not agree with me, I feel our effort is unique in its integration of technology into process. Tools are tools and we ought not to use them for the sake of using them but we stand at a time when critical and creative use of computers, the internet and collaborative production are vital to success. Not all of our endeavors are overtly technical in nature- we might network food banks together or help to digitize old documents to save a community’s history- but we do stand out from community development or community organizing in our focus on their importance. In many cases our work crucially involves these assets, such as community technology training sessions or the production of digital media by disadvantaged youth.