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Connecting Canadians


Investigations in Community Informatics

Edited by | Andrew Clement | Michael Gurstein
Graham Longford
| Marita Moll | Leslie Regan Shade


List of Illustrations


1 Connecting Canadians? Community Informatics Perspectives on Community Networking Initiatives

| Graham Longford, Andrew Clement, Michael Gurstein, Leslie Regan Shade

PART I Context

2 Toward a Conceptual Framework for a Community Informatics

| Michael Gurstein

3 Keeping in Touch A Snapshot of Canadian Community Networks and Their Users—Report on the CRACIN Survey of Community Network Users

| Marita Moll, Melissa Fritz

4 Canadian and US Broadband Policies A Comparative Analysis

| Heather E. Hudson

PART II Conceptual Frameworks

5 Information Technology as Political Catalyst From Technological Innovation to the Promotion of Social Change

| Serge Proulx

6 “The Researcher Is a Girl” Tales of Bringing Feminist Labour Perspectives into Community Informatics Practice and Evaluation

| Katrina Peddle, Alison Powell, Leslie Regan Shade

7 What Are Community Networks an Example Of? A Response

| Christian Sandvig

PART III Community Innovation I: Participation and Inclusion

8 Systems Development in a Community-Based Organization Lessons from the St. Christopher House Community Learning Network

| Susan MacDonald, Andrew Clement

9 Vancouver Community Network as a Site of Digital and Social Inclusion

| Diane Dechief

PART IV Community Innovation II: Wireless Networking

10 Community and Municipal Wi-Fi Initiatives in Canada Evolutions in Community Participation

| Alison Powell, Leslie Regan Shade

11 Wi-Fi Publics Defining Community and Technology at Montréal’s Île Sans Fil

| Alison Powell

12 Wireless Broadband from Individual Backhaul to Community Service Co-operative Provision and Related Models of Local Signal Access

| Matthew Wong

PART V Rural and Remote Broadband

13 “We Were on the Outside Looking In” MyKnet.org—A First Nations Online Social Environment in Northern Ontario

| Brandi L. Bell, Philipp Budka, Adam Fiser

14 A Historical Account of the Kuh-ke-nah Network Broadband Deployment in a Remote Canadian Aboriginal Telecommunications Context

| Adam Fiser, Andrew Clement

15 Atlantic Canadian Community Informatics The Case of the WVDA and SmartLabrador

| Katrina Peddle

16 Reverse English Strategies of the Keewatin Career Development Corporation in Discourse Surrounding the Knowledge-Based Economy and Society

| Frank Winter

PART VI Libraries and Community Networks

17 Community Networks and Local Libraries Strengthening Ties with Communities

| Nadia Caidi, Susan MacDonald, Elise Chien

18 The Library Ideal and the Community Network Prospects for New Technologies in the Public Library

| Marco Adria

PART VII Public Policy

19 Community Networking Experiences with Government Funding Programs Service Delivery Model or Sustainable Social Innovation?

| Susan MacDonald, Graham Longford, Andrew Clement

20 Communautique Action and Advocacy for Universal Digital Access

| Nicolas Lecomte, Serge Proulx

21 There and Back to the Future Again Community Networks and Telecom Policy Reform in Canada, 1995–2010

| Graham Longford, Marita Moll, Leslie Regan Shade

Appendix A Community Partners and Case Study Sites

| Graham Longford

Appendix B A Brief History of the Community Access Program: From Community Economic Development to Social Cohesion to Digital Divide

| Marita Moll

Appendix C The Federal Connecting Canadians Initiative, 1995–2007: A Brief Overview

| Graham Longford, Marita Moll


Publication Credits

List of Contributors



3.1 Computer and internet activities: Frequency of use

3.2 Relative importance of community network sites for information needs

3.3 Role of staff and volunteers in effective use of community network resources

4.1 Universal broadband speed goals for selected countries

10.1 Municipal and community wireless networking projects

16.1 Principles articulated in Aboriginal discourse

17.1 Similarities between libraries and community networks

17.2 Divergences between libraries and community networks

18.1 Respondents by professional/community role and community

19.1 Federal programs in support of community networking, 1995–2007

19.2 CRACIN case study sites and federal funding received

21.1 TPRP submissions Round One (15 August 2005) and Round Two (15 September 2005)


1.1 CRACIN case study site map

3.1 Weekly use of community network sites by activity

3.2 Frequency of searches for community information

3.3 Use of community network sites to address specific personal needs and goals

3.4 Assistance provided by community network staff and volunteers

3.5 Use of community network sites to participate in online discussions

3.6 Use of community network sites to post information online

8.1 St. Chris House: Flipchart from the ASE needs assessment exercise

8.2 St. Chris House: Participants in the ASE needs assessment exercise

14.1 Map of Keewaytinook Okimakanak First Nations in Northwestern Ontario

14.2 Two K-Net Services staff members playfully demonstrate the inadequacy of public telephone infrastructure in KO First Nations, circa 2000.

16.1 Northern Administration District, Saskatchewan

16.2 The federal discourse of the KBES: 1999, 2000, 2003, and 2005.

18.1 Impact of technology adoption on library practices


This book represents the culmination of many years of work conducted under the auspices of the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN). Any major long-term research project inevitably accumulates a long list of debts of gratitude to those who have contributed to the endeavour, often in unseen ways. The fact that CRACIN is a research alliance means that the list is not only long but unusually broad in terms of the institutional affiliations of the many key players. We can’t thank by name every individual to whom we’re grateful, but let’s begin.

As with most research projects, much of the hard work was put in by graduate students. In this case, we had the pleasure of working with many fine young scholars in the making, spread across five universities: Brandi Bell, Chris Bodnar, Elise Chien, Stéphane Couture, Diane Dechief, Adam Fiser, Mel Hogan, Nicholas Lecomte, Robert Luke, Susan MacDonald, Ryan MacNeil, Rachel Miles, Catherine Parrish, Katrina Peddle, Alison Powell, Oriane Regus, Paula Romanow, John Stevenson, Craig Stewart, Ken Werbin, Frank Winter, and Matt Wong. We are also grateful to our research collaborators, Marco Adria, Nadia Caidi, Arthur Cordell, and Serge Proulx, for leading subprojects and supervising several of these graduate students.

We were fortunate to have as our official advisors Mark Surman and Heather Hudson, who generously made time in their busy schedules to share their extensive experience. We also appreciated the feedback given by other community informatics experts along the way: Anne Bishop, Jack Carroll, Peter Day, Bruce Dienes, Bill Dutton, Maurita Holland, Bill McIver, Susan O’Donnell, Ken Pigg, Christian Sandvig, Richard Smith, Sharon Strover, and Wal Taylor.

A novel, and vital, aspect of this project was the key role that community networking initiatives and their leaders played. We had the privilege of collaborating with extraordinarily committed and talented community innovators across Canada, who opened doors and gave liberally of their time. From west to east they were: Steve Chan and Peter Royce (Vancouver Community Network); Lucy Pana (The Alberta Library); Brian Beaton and Brian Walmark (K-Net); Rick Egan, Maureen Fair, Susan Piggott, and Randall Terada (St. Christopher House); Damien Fox and Steve Wilton (Wireless Nomad); Sandra Huntley (Sm@rtSites Ottawa); Michael Lenczner (Île Sans Fil), Monique Chartrand and Ariane Pelletier (Communautique), Janet Larkman (Western Valley Development Agency); and Sheila Downer (SmartLabrador).

Complementing the academic and community legs of the research project was our long-term relationship with the federal government departments most actively involved in the Connecting Canadians agenda. What made this relationship work was the openness and dedication of public officials who belied the stereotype of the uncaring faceless bureaucrat: Prabir Neogi (Industry Canada); Maureen Doody and Natalie Frank (Canadian Heritage); Rob Mastin and Michael Williamson (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada); and Heather Clemenson (Agriculture Canada). Prabir, in particular, saw the CRACIN project through from beginning to end, offering sage counsel and keen insights at every step along the way.

Keeping the research records straight, juggling expenses, maintaining the project website, organizing events, and quietly seeing to a myriad of other details were a succession of conscientious graduate students who took their turn as CRACIN coordinator: Diane Dechief, Christie Hurrell, Stephanie Hall, Susan MacDonald, and Alison Powell. They were succeeded by two more graduate students who worked as editorial assistants: Nicole Desaulnier and Yannet Lathrop. The administrative staff in the (then) Faculty of Information Studies were also invaluable in managing this large and sprawling project. We are especially grateful to Kathy Shyjak, whose rare but much appreciated combination of patience, attention to detail, extensive knowledge of financial arcania, and savvy sense of the doable saved us from imminent death by accounting entanglement on more than one occasion.

This project was primarily funded by an Initiative for the New Economy grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Our principal contact at SSHRC, Gordana Krcevinac, was a pleasure to work with. Three federal government departments also contributed financially, mainly for workshops: Canadian Heritage, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, and Industry Canada.

The final stage of the project was to produce the volume you are now reading. In this we were very fortunate to find the Athabasca University Press, with its open access policy and its highly professional, able, and personable staff. Walter Hildebrandt offered vital encouragement and guidance at key moments in the process. Pamela MacFarland Holway cheerfully went above and beyond in providing detailed editorial correction and advice. Three anonymous reviewers contributed bracing but invaluable comments and critiques.


Community Informatics Perspectives on Community Networking Initiatives

Graham Longford, Andrew Clement, Michael Gurstein, Leslie Regan Shade

This volume of essays addresses the question of how citizens and communities in Canada are responding to the opportunities as well as the challenges presented by rapid technological change, particularly in the areas of information and communication technologies (ICTs). Since the 1990s, many commentators have extolled the virtues of the information or knowledge-based society that has emerged in recent decades and of the technological developments—microcomputing, data-processing, software, the Internet, and so on—underpinning it (Drucker 1994; Negroponte 1995; Tapscott 1997). Corporations, entrepreneurs, and governments have embraced these technologies in their pursuit of growth, innovation, efficiency, and global competitiveness, a process typified by the US retailer Wal-Mart’s highly successful use of ICTs to rationalize and streamline its operations (Gurstein 2007; see also chapter 2 in this volume). In addition, citizens, consumers, and skilled workers have taken advantage of ICTs to enhance their own knowledge, skills, and communicative capacities, in the process developing new, more mobile, flexible, and collaborative patterns of work, consumption, learning, and communication (Jenkins 2006; Mitchell 2000; Tapscott 2008; Urry 2007).

The transition to the information age is, however, fraught with risk, for individuals, firms, communities, and entire regions of the globe. Globalization and rapid technological change pose enormous challenges, including wrenching economic restructuring and dislocation, growing imbalances of wealth and power, and the marginalization and exclusion of whole regions and populations that lack the infrastructure, resources, knowledge, and skills needed to participate and thrive in the information society. Manuel Castells, among others, calls attention to the threat of economic and social exclusion posed by the “digital divide,” that is, the inability of certain regions, communities, and populations to connect to and insert themselves within the vital networks of investment, production, consumption, education, and governance that serve as the central nervous system of contemporary global society (Castells 1998, 1999).

While Castells’s work focuses on the risks of marginalization and exclusion facing large parts of the developing world that find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide—the so-called “black holes” of the network society (see Castells 1998, chap. 2)—similar risks exist within developed countries as well, differing only in degree. In Canada, for example, recent studies and reports have found that a significant number of citizens and communities remain without access to broadband Internet infrastructure or supports and services, this despite the fact that the country began the millennium as a global leader in broadband availability (National Broadband Task Force 2001; National Selection Committee 2004; Telecommunications Policy Review Panel 2006; Howard, Busch, and Sheets 2010). Rural and remote regions of Canada, as well as marginalized communities and populations (such as Aboriginal Canadians and the urban poor), are in danger of being excluded as new, technology-enhanced economic, social, and educational opportunities pass them by. Recognizing the potential economic and social benefits of universal connectivity, many developed countries have over the past decade implemented national Internet and, more recently, broadband access strategies, including Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, and South Korea, to name a few. Many countries, including Estonia and Finland, have also proclaimed broadband connectivity to be a basic human right.1

However, as this book demonstrates, many communities at risk of being excluded from the information society are far from passive spectators to socio-technical transformation and are unwilling to leave their fate either to market forces or to government largesse. Connecting Canadians: Investigations in Community Informatics focuses on the active role that citizens, civic organizations, and communities can play in overcoming digital divides and connecting to the network society on their own terms, in ways designed to promote local economic and social development, community learning and innovation, civic participation, and social cohesion. This book reflects on and documents some of the findings of the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN), a research partnership funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) from 2003 to 2007. (Details of this partnership are presented below.) As this book highlights, and notwithstanding the risks outlined above, increasingly well-organized and self-conscious grassroots technology movements, or community networks (CNs), have emerged over the past couple of decades in North and South America, Europe, and Asia to work on behalf of and with communities to mitigate some of the dangers of economic and social exclusion accompanying the emergence of the network society.

The essays in this volume document how specific civil society groups are engaged in diverse socio-technical projects designed to enable local communities to develop on their own terms within the broader context of global economic, social, and technological transformation (see Schuler and Day 2004). This is accomplished through various “community informatics,” or community-based ICT initiatives,2 ranging from neighbourhood technology centres and public Internet access sites to community web portals, e-learning applications, and community-owned broadband and wireless networks. In Northwestern Ontario, for example, the Aboriginal-owned and -controlled Kuh-ke-nah Network, or K-Net, operates a terrestrial and satellite broadband network that, among other things, supports distance learning and Telehealth applications, thus enabling the members of their participating remote communities to receive educational and health services online. Along with other goals, these services are designed to stanch ongoing outflows of youth, the elderly, and their families who, until recently, were compelled to travel great distances to receive such services, at a heavy cost to the social integrity of their local communities.

Community networks in Vancouver and Toronto, meanwhile, recruit volunteers from among skilled new immigrants to conduct computer and Internet training workshops and to develop community web portals populated with information relevant to other new migrants, including settlement, employment, health, and legal information, while at the same time allowing new migrants to gain necessary Canadian work experience. As well, in downtown Montréal, Île Sans Fil, an all-volunteer group of “hacktivists,” students, and artists operates a network of some 150 Wi-Fi Internet “hotspots,” providing free Internet access to more than 50,000 users.

Such initiatives are not conducted in a vacuum, as we shall see. Important ingredients to the success of community informatics initiatives include community support and engagement; fruitful partnerships with local non-profit and community organizations, the private, and public sectors; well-designed and adequately funded government programs; and a broader public policy environment that is supportive of the goals of universal access and community-based technology development.

This book will be of interest to multiple audiences. It will appeal to the academic community, in furthering empirical community informatics studies and in detailing Canadian public policy initiatives designed to ameliorate the digital divide. It will also be of interest to the practitioner community, especially in its documentation of successes in empowering community members through ICTs as well as its analysis of how communities fostered technological innovation while dealing with difficulties engendered by the politics of both community and federal funding strictures.


Broadly speaking, as both a practice and an academic discipline, community informatics (CI) refers to the use of information and communication technologies to enable communities to reach their social, economic, cultural, and political goals (Gurstein 2007). Applications of CI include such activities and services as community Internet access provision, community information sharing, local online content development, online civic participation, online community service delivery, community economic development and e-commerce support, formal and informal learning networks, ICT training, and telework support.

Exemplifying the operational approach to CI is community networking, which historically has played a central role in the development of CI initiatives on the ground. Schuler (2000) defines community networks as enabling electronic environments that promote citizen participation in community affairs. Gurstein (2004, 231) describes a community network as “a locally-based, locally-driven communication and information system” designed to enable “community processes and [to achieve] community objectives.”

Community networks began to emerge in the 1970s and 1980s, initially as experiments in the use of computers and other networked digital technologies to support local communities. These included both grassroots efforts, such as the Community Memory project (Kubicek and Wagner 2002) and the online community The Well (Rheingold 2000) in California, and large-scale government initiatives to develop public information systems, such as France’s Minitel (Feenberg 1995) and Canada’s Telidon projects (Clement 1981). CNS often take the form of community-based ICT-enabled organizations supporting universal access to the Internet and the use of ICT systems to promote local economic and social development, civic participation, social inclusion, and community learning.

Ranging from basic public computing and Internet access sites to full-service community technology centres and interactive web-based community information systems, CNS share in common the broad ideals of promoting economic and social participation by using ICTs to enhance the communication and informational resources available to people living in cities, towns, and specific neighbourhoods, as well as in rural and remote communities (Gurstein 2007; Keeble and Loader 2001b). Best practices in community networking treat community members as active designers of their network and as producers of local content, while at the same time striving, through training and other forms of support, to transform community members into skilled agents in the use of ICTs so that they can pursue individual and collective goals (Gurstein 2004; Pinkett 2003; Ramírez et. al. 2002).

Among the thousands of community networking projects initiated worldwide, some of the better known, most thoroughly documented, and successful examples include the Digital City Amsterdam (De Digitale Stad) (Lovink 2004), the Seattle Community Network (Silver 2004), Blacksburg Electronic Village, in Virginia (Kavanaugh and Patterson 2002), the Milan Community Network (Rete Civica di Milano) (De Cindio 2004), and the Public Electronic Network (PEN) of Santa Monica, California (Dutton and Guthrie 1991). A rich CI literature has begun to emerge, covering a broad range of issues and focusing on the benefits of these and other CNS in North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Australia (Gurstein 2000; Keeble and Loader 2001a; Marshall, Taylor, and Yu 2004; McIver 2003; Schuler and Day 2004).

Alongside studies of CN practices, scholarship interrogating the implications of the Internet for community formation, identity, and social cohesion is voluminous. Indeed, the last decade of the twentieth century was rife with utopian and dystopian prognostications on the nature of virtual communities and debates over the problematic nature of the increasing incursion of commercial models onto public platforms (Shade 1998). Today, so-called Internet Community Studies is well entrenched in interdisciplinary scholarship, as is evident in the proclivity of researchers studying both the micro and macro dynamics wrought by the inherently collaborative nature of the Internet for individual empowerment and collective mobilization (Burnett, Consalvo, and Ess 2010; Wellman 2004). As Cavanagh (2009) also argues, Internet Community Studies has generated much methodological innovation, while lively debates on the politics of community within networks has opened up space for fresh interrogations of ongoing themes in community research, among other areas.


While the origins of CI in Canada can be traced back to a number of experiments in community networking in the early 1970s (Clement 1981), dramatic growth took place in the early 1990s as personal computers and modems became increasingly affordable. The early use of computer networking as a tool for social action and mobilization across constituent groups was recognized by women’s groups (Balka 1992) and by the labour movement (Mazepa 1997). While the development of commercial residential networking and Internet service was slow to take off, early adopters and technology enthusiasts formed grassroots CNS to provide dial-up Internet access and local information services (Shade 1999). One of the first and, initially, most successful CNS in Canada was Ottawa’s National Capital FreeNet (NCF), established in 1992 as a community-based, non-profit co-operative project by a group of enthusiastic volunteers, university professors, and private industry donors. In addition to providing free dial-up Internet access, NCF offered access to information posted by over 250 community organizations and government agencies and hosted listservs for dozens of specialized interest groups (Shade 1999; Weston 1997).

Modelled on this and other successful initiatives, dozens of other CNS were established in communities across Canada in the early 1990s. The first international conference on community networking was held at Ottawa’s Carleton University in August 1993, bringing together a range of community activists, policy makers, and early “free-net” entrepreneurs to discuss the technical, social, and policy aspects of this nascent movement. This was followed by a second conference in August 1994 that established Telecommunities Canada, an umbrella group for all CNS in Canada.3 Occurring during the early “information highway” policy debates that coalesced under the federal Information Highway Advisory Council (IHAC), the conference also brought together federal government policy makers, while generating a space for public interest activists to meet and organize.

The specific use of community-based ICTs as a basis for local and regional economic development was pioneered by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) / SSHRC Research Chair in the Management of Technological Change at the University College of Cape Breton (UCCB), which in turn provided the support for the Centre for Community and Enterprise Networking at UCCB. The research and other outputs of the chair and the centre contributed significantly to an understanding of the link between community ICTs, community innovation, and local economic development, on regional, national, and global scales (Graham 2005; Gurstein 1999, 2002).

By the mid-1990s, thirty-five CNS were flourishing across the country, located in major cities as well as a number of regional centres and smaller communities and serving as many as a half million users (Shade 1999). Early CNS took a variety of organizational forms but typically comprised a few paid staff members, a voluntary board of directors, and a larger group of volunteers responsible for activities such as training, technical support, fundraising, and content development. In addition, early CNS in Canada were often affiliated with public institutions such as universities and public libraries (see chapter 17), as well as with non-profit community organizations such as social service agencies. Funding and other forms of material support have typically been provided through a pastiche of membership fees, government programs, cash and in-kind donations, volunteer labour, and equipment donations from corporate benefactors (Moll and Shade 2001; Rideout and Reddick 2005). Typical services offered by these networks included free or low-cost dial-up Internet access, email accounts, bulletin boards and listservs, access to public computer terminals, ICT training sessions, content development, and, eventually, web hosting and online training and discussion forums.

While novel in terms of the adoption and use of networked computing technologies for community development and engagement, the emergence of CNS in Canada can be considered within a broader tradition of using communication technologies for community development, including Canada’s early leading role in the development of community-based media initiatives. While community media initiatives often are subsumed under the rubric of “alternative,” “activist,” or “independent” media (Skinner 2010), all with interrelated and sympathetic concerns for the use of non-corporate media for social change, one imperative of community media is their abiding concern with access to and participation in the means of communication for citizens (Rennie 2006). Beginning in the early 1940s, for example, adult educators, farmers’ groups, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) collaborated to create the Farm Radio Forum, a series of moderated, face-to-face discussion groups composed of rural Canadians who would meet to discuss important social and economic issues of the day, the proceedings of which were then broadcast across the country over the CBC radio network (Sim 1964). Perhaps the most widely known community media project, however, emanated from the National Film Board (NFB) of Canada’s Challenge for Change / Société nouvelle program. The program was launched in 1967 by the federal government, with the explicit goal of using documentary film to address the issue of increasing poverty in Canadian communities. According to Waugh, Baker, and Winton (2010, 4), Challenge for Change brought together an unlikely partnership of “government bureaucrats, documentary filmmakers, community activists and ‘ordinary’ citizens.” The objective was “to engender social change through media, and aspiring filmmakers of the New Left rose to the challenge…. Filmmakers working with citizens would take on many issues, from women’s rights to housing to First Nations struggles to agriculture.” The production and dissemination of 145 films and videos over fourteen years resulted from an evolving research process in which filmmakers went into the communities themselves to develop media in a form of participatory action research. Dubbed the “Fogo Island” process, this involved an iterative approach wherein a filmmaker worked with a community development officer to identify a low-income community, who in turn worked with community members in order to identify grassroots solutions to their local problems. During the production process, emphasis was given to involving community members in the final editing decisions. Another integral part of the process was the playback of the film to the community, with government participation, so as to encourage conversation and problem solving (Wiesner 2010).

Television is another communications technology that Canadians made pioneering use of in the field of community development, through the creation of community cable television stations during the 1970s. Community television in Canada was unique in that its inception and growth was mandated by a funding obligation imposed upon cable companies in 1975 as a condition of their licensing by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). As community television activist Kim Goldberg (1990) documented, however, despite the popularity and use of local community stations for community action and social change, government responses in the 1980s toward maintaining community television were tepid at best, influenced by the advent of nationwide cable companies. With enthusiasm for the use of traditional communications media and technology for social change waning in the 1980s, activists and community development practitioners began to turn to newer communication technologies to foster social change, including networked computers, thanks to their increasing affordability.

In the mid-1990s, community networking received a significant boost in support through the federal government’s Connecting Canadians initiative, a suite of programs designed to make Canada a global leader in Internet connectivity. A steady stream of progressively more elaborate programs such as SchoolNet, the Community Access Program (CAP), and the Smart Communities pilot program had the broad objective of providing primarily technical Internet access from locations such as community centres, public libraries, and schools. Other federal programs made available either through or in conjunction with the Connecting Canadians agenda pursued related goals, such as rural broadband connectivity, online training and education, and the development of Canadian online content. (For a brief overview of the Connecting Canadians initiative, see Appendix C.) Altogether, more than $900 million has been spent through these programs in support of over 10,000 community-based ICT initiatives (see chapter 19).

A number of community networking organizations were significant recipients of funding under the Connecting Canadians initiative and became lynchpins in the development and success of many projects. CNS were natural partners for community organizations such as libraries and community centres seeking to establish public Internet access sites under the CAP program, and, today, community networks manage hundreds of such sites across the country. Community networks also played a leading role in a number of federally funded Smart Communities demonstration projects, such as the Western Valley Development Agency (Nova Scotia) and the aforementioned K-Net (Northwestern Ontario), which resulted in the deployment of broadband infrastructure and applications in a number of rural and remote communities throughout Canada. In addition, CNS have been highly active in providing computer training, technical support, and content development for many CAP sites, as well as at community centres, libraries, and schools, particularly in rural, remote, and Aboriginal communities across the country (Moll and Shade 2001).

Well-known Canadian examples of successful community networks include, among others, the National Capital FreeNet (Ottawa), the Vancouver Community Network, the Chebucto Community Network (Halifax), Communautique (Montréal), the Victoria FreeNet, and the Aboriginal-owned K-Net. Working in partnership with these and other community organizations, along with the private sector and other levels of government, the federal government’s Connecting Canadians initiative succeeded in placing Canada as an early leader among those nations pursuing the goal of universal access to the Internet, the deployment of ubiquitous broadband connectivity for their citizens, and the design and development of citizen-oriented ICT-enabled services.

By the late 1990s, Canada was consistently among the top five countries in the world for Internet penetration, and the Connecting Canadians strategy was marketed as a template for bridging the digital divide in other countries, particularly in the developing world. During the early 2000s, meanwhile, a handful of researchers and practitioners endeavoured to document the achievements and benefits of and the challenges facing publicly supported CI initiatives in Canada. Work by Gurstein (1999, 2002, 2004), Moll and Shade (2001), Ramírez et al. (2002), and Rideout and Reddick (2005) highlights the many contributions of these initiatives to local civic participation, social inclusion, information sharing, community learning, local and regional economic development, and human and social capital development.

For all its success, however, the CI sector in Canada stands at a crossroads as of this writing. With household Internet access rates approaching 75 percent and commercial broadband availability covering over 90 percent of the country (Telecommunications Policy Review Panel 2006), the relevance and necessity of publicly funded, community-based technology initiatives have been called into question, jeopardizing the long-term sustainability and survival of CI organizations across the country. As several chapters (see, especially, chapters 3 and 21) as well as Appendix B in this book document, in 2004 the federal government announced major budget cuts and program closures affecting CI initiatives. This heralded a significant withdrawal of federal support for the sector over the next few years, despite a number of studies pointing to the continuing necessity of public funding for the sustainability of CI initiatives and the need for government support to ensure equitable access (and use) of the Internet by marginalized populations throughout Canada, particularly those in remote and rural regions, Aboriginal peoples, the elderly, and recent immigrants (Telecommunications Policy Review Panel 2004; Rideout and Reddick 2005).

Waning government interest in the sector has placed thousands of community-based ICT initiatives across Canada in jeopardy and threatens to undermine the significant progress recently made in closing the digital divide and enabling individuals and communities to access the benefits of new ICTs. This atmosphere of increasingly tenuous funding and public policy gave rise to the research presented in this volume.


The Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN) was established in 2003 as a research partnership between academics, practitioners, and public sector representatives, with the aim of investigating and documenting the status and achievements of CI initiatives in Canada. Based in the Faculty of Information Studies at the University of Toronto, CRACIN was funded through a four-year grant from the SSHRC under its Initiative on the New Economy (INE) Research Alliance program (File #538-2003-1012). Co-principal investigators for CRACIN included Andrew Clement (at the University of Toronto), Michael Gurstein (then at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark, and now at the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training, in Vancouver), Marita Moll (Telecommunities Canada), and Leslie Regan Shade (at Concordia University).

As a research alliance, CRACIN brought together CI researchers, practitioners, and government policy specialists from all across Canada, forming a network of expertise comprising some twenty academic researchers and graduate students, eleven community partner organizations, and representatives from three federal government departments.4 Case study sites and community partners for CRACIN included the following (listed roughly west to east across Canada):

• Vancouver Community Network (Vancouver, British Columbia)

• The Alberta Library (Edmonton, Alberta)

• The Keewatin Career Development Corporation (KCDC) (La Ronge, Saskatchewan)

• K-Net Services (Sioux Lookout, Ontario)

• St. Christopher House (Toronto, Ontario)

• Wireless Nomad Inc. (Toronto, Ontario)

• Communautique (Montréal, Québec)

• Île Sans Fil (Montréal, Québec)

• SmartLabrador (Forteau, Newfoundland and Labrador)

• Western Valley Development Agency (Cornwallis, Nova Scotia)

Case study sites were chosen based on, among other factors, a desire to reflect the geographic and demographic diversity of the country. Selected sites represented a broad range of organizational characteristics (e.g., paid versus volunteer staff), users/clients (e.g., Aboriginal, rural, and urban), and core missions (e.g., rural adjustment and development, Aboriginal connectivity, social inclusion, and civic participation).

CRACIN also included policy and program specialists from three federal government departments with a history of involvement in CI initiatives: Industry Canada, Human Resources and Social Development Canada,5 and Heritage Canada. Detailed community and government partner profiles are provided in Appendix A.

CRACIN researchers conducted three different kinds of research studies: (1) in-depth structured case studies of leading Canadian CI initiatives, (2) broad-based studies on themes or issues of relevance to CI generally, and (3) integrative studies addressing themes and issues that cut across two or more of the case study sites and provided a basis for undertaking systematic comparisons and drawing integrative conclusions. Overall, CRACIN was guided by the principles of participatory action research, and thus the researchers intended to co-design research questions, studies, and evaluation frameworks with community and government partners. In addition, the results were to be shared with and disseminated amongst CRACIN partners in order to maximize their potential benefits for both the CRACIN membership and the broader community of CI researchers and practitioners. Periodic CRACIN workshops over a three-year period served as venues for discussion and refinement of research studies and presentation of final results. Specifically, CRACIN case study research examined the role of CI initiatives in the following areas:

• Ameliorating Canada’s multi-faceted “digital divide”

• Fostering local civic participation, social inclusion, and the creation of social capital

• Facilitating both formal and informal community learning

• Promoting rural economic adjustment and development

• Enhancing economic, social, and cultural participation by Canada’s Aboriginal peoples

• Developing community-oriented informational resources and cultural content

• Encouraging local innovation in the development of ICT infrastructure, software, and applications tailored to meet local needs.

In addition, CRACIN researchers pursued broad-based and more integrative research on the following themes:

• The sustainability of community informatics initiatives

• Gender and youth perspectives on community networking

• Community networks and civic participation

• Community networking and the role of public libraries

• Community informatics theory

• Community networks as public goods

ICT policy and policy making in Canada

• Community networking and immigrants.

Finally, the founders of CRACIN pursued a broader set of research objectives that were focused on establishing the nascent field of community informatics, building research capacity within community organizations, and informing and influencing government policy. CRACIN researchers actively engaged in the development of case studies, conceptual frameworks, theoretical approaches, and curriculum materials for use within the field, both in Canada and internationally. CRACIN also supported the launch, in September 2004, of the Journal of Community Informatics (under the editorship of Michael Gurstein) as a venue for the publication of peer-reviewed research in the field. Furthermore, as directed by the grant supporting the project, the training and employability of graduate student researchers was enhanced through diverse opportunities to build knowledge and expertise through hands-on field research and related experience.

CRACIN investigators also sought to foster networks and the sharing of information, resources, and expertise with partners beyond academia, including community practitioners and government policy and program specialists. One goal of this effort was to enhance the capacity of community-based organizations to conduct research on their own and to engage in self-assessment as a means to reinforce the decision-making and problem-solving capacities of local organizations and communities. A final objective of the CRACIN project was to evaluate the impact and effectiveness of government programs in support of CI initiatives, with a view to informing future policy and program developments both in Canada and abroad.


The broad conceptual and methodological approach reflected in this volume is that of community informatics. As an emerging interdisciplinary research field, CI is concerned with the study of the enabling uses of information and communication technologies in communities—in short, how ICTs can help a community to achieve its social, economic, cultural, and political goals (Gurstein 2000). An emphasis on community is explicitly foregrounded: community informatics “combines an interest in the potentially transforming qualities of the new media with an analysis of the importance of community social relations for human interaction” (Keeble and Loader 2001b, 3). Although bridging the digital divide by assuring universal access to broadband networks is a central concern, CI encompasses a broader range of issues than mere technical connectedness to computer hardware and carriage facilities: CI explores how and under what conditions universal access to ICTs can be made as usable and useful as possible, particularly for the purposes of local economic and social development, social inclusion, civic participation, and political empowerment within marginalized populations and communities.

Two useful and complementary conceptual frameworks for understanding CI are Clement and Shade’s “access rainbow” (Clement and Shade 2000) and Gurstein’s concept of “effective use” (Gurstein 2004). Clement and Shade have argued that achieving mere technical connectedness to the Internet, as has been the goal of many government-sponsored connectivity programs and initiatives, is no guarantee that an individual or community will succeed in appropriating new ICTs in ways that promote their development, autonomy, or empowerment in a meaningful way. Achieving such empowerment calls for an approach that is attentive to a broader set of access issues affecting how ICTs can be effectively appropriated. Clement and Shade refer to this broader set of concerns as an access rainbow, which they envision as a multi-layered socio-technical model for universal access to ICTs. This access rainbow is modelled as seven layers, beginning with the underlying technical elements of connectedness and moving upward through layers that increasingly stress the requisite social infrastructure of access, such as training and public policy:

1. Carriage—the infrastructure for transporting the data

2. Devices—the computers and other devices used by individuals

3. Software tools—the browser, email program, and other software needed to use the Internet

4. Content/services—online databases and website repositories of information; email and e-commerce services

5. Service/access provision—local ISPs and community access points

6. Literacy / social facilitation—text and computer literacy; training and support services

7. Governance—public consultation on policy issues; social impact assessments.

Clement and Shade (2000) argue that their access rainbow model illustrates the multifaceted nature of the concept of access. Inspired by the layered models used for network protocols, the lower layers emphasize the conventional technical aspects. These have been complemented with additional upper layers emphasizing the more social dimensions. The main constitutive element is the service/content layer in the middle, since this is where the actual utility is most direct. However, all the other layers are necessary in order to accomplish proper content/service access.

As many of the case studies in this volume illustrate, mere technical connectedness to computer hardware and an Internet connection does not guarantee that users will become skilled users and/or active creators and producers of online information and services. Meaningful access to new ICTs calls for the development of a complementary social infrastructure of access to accompany the technical one. The community networks profiled in the following chapters, and others like them, lie at the heart of this social infrastructure.

Gurstein, meanwhile, defines effective use as “the capacity and opportunity to successfully integrate ICTs into the accomplishment of self or collaboratively identified goals” (Gurstein 2003). Gurstein’s concept of effective use makes a similar point about the limitations of conceiving of the digital divide as a problem of mere technical connectedness (Gurstein 2003). A preoccupation with the digital divide as a problem of technical connectedness more often than not serves the commercial interests of Internet service providers (ISPs), without necessarily empowering or addressing the critical needs of those one is striving to connect. Achieving the latter demands that attention be paid to how connectivity is used to empower and enable marginalized and disenfranchised populations and communities, to support local economic development, social justice, and political empowerment, to improve access to education and health services, and to enable local control of the production and distribution of information and cultural material. It is, Gurstein writes more recently, “what is and can be done with the access that makes ICT meaningful” (Gurstein 2007, 13).6

Community informatics research and practice are also informed, either directly or indirectly, by a certain theoretical understanding of the development of technology that recognizes the social shaping of technology. Theories of the social shaping or social construction of technology, as exemplified in the works of theorists such as Bijker and Latour, reject technological determinism, which tends to treat technology as an autonomous force acting on society in a one-way relationship, in favour of the view that society and technology are mutually conditioning (Bijker and Law 1992; Latour 1996; MacKenzie and Wajcman 1999). Thus, technological systems and artifacts are shaped by broad social forces such as class, race, and gender relations, as well as by more discrete factors such as the culture of the scientific and engineering professions. Accordingly, CI research and practice treat ICTs not as something that happens to communities—that is, something to which communities are forced to adapt—but rather as tools and resources that have the potential to be socially appropriated or democratically shaped to meet the self-defined needs and goals of communities themselves. CI research, including the contributions in this collection, bears witness to the ways in which, at times against heavy odds, civil society organizations and communities are “shaping the network society” (Schuler and Day 2004).

From a methodological standpoint, CI research is marked by a close relationship with the practice of enabling communities through ICTs (Gurstein 2007). CI researchers endeavour to conduct research with as opposed to on community networks and users and to produce research results that are valued by practitioners and communities, not simply by other researchers. As a result, partnership and collaboration with communities are central principles of CI research. CRACIN researchers adopted an explicit commitment to participatory action research (PAR) methods, in which community partners were enlisted as active agents in identifying research questions and designing appropriate instruments and evaluation methods so that the research carried out would yield outcomes that were valued by communities as well as by the research community.7 In a similar vein, they also enlisted the participation of government partners, with the goal of producing policy-relevant research findings. PAR provides a means to engage and integrate community participants and civil servants in the research process and is designed to ensure that recommendations arising from the research have both community and policy relevance. A PAR approach also helps to transfer knowledge and bridge the gaps between communities of practice, research institutions and academics, and government policy makers. The methods deployed by the researchers whose work is presented here was primarily qualitative in nature, relying on ethnographic approaches to participant observation, interviewing, group meetings, and document analysis.

Inevitably, the tripartite nature of CRACIN’s structure and the associated research activities revealed tensions and fault lines among the partners, with their disparate priorities, resources, clients, expectations, and organizational mandates, accountabilities, and timeframes. Inequality of resources (such as paid staff, person hours, overhead, and expense budgets), as between nonprofit community partners on the one hand and academic researchers and government partners on the other, became evident on occasions when requests for community partners to make interview subjects, data, or organizational reports, evaluations, or other documents available to researchers and/or government program administrators placed burdens on community networks’ human resources. A collaborative approach to identifying research questions and the deployment of research students to conduct fieldwork, gather data, and conduct interviews helped in part both to alleviate this burden on community partners and also to ensure that they valued research outcomes.

Fruitful tension also emerged within the alliance around issues of evaluation and the identification of project “success” or “failure.” The relationship between community partners and government funders is particularly complex and fraught in this regard, with researchers often caught in the middle. CRACIN provided an opportunity to observe interactions and to engage partners in discussions about the intricate dance between community organizations and their funders. For the past decade, community networking organizations in Canada have been heavily reliant on various government grants and other funding mechanisms in order to deliver their services and programs. At the same time, government funding agencies rely on community partners to deliver services and meet government policy objectives and are responsible for administering funding programs in a cost-effective manner. (For additional discussion, see chapter 19.)

There is little tolerance for project “failure” in such an environment, in which perceived project failures can jeopardize future funding for community partners and likewise have the potential to publicly embarrass government officials. Heightened sensitivity to the potential for scandal in the wake of recent high-profile cases of mismanagement in the Canadian public sector resulted in increased project reporting and evaluation burdens on funding recipients, burdens seldom offset by increased funding or administrative support.

Both parties often look to academic researchers as third-party observers who document and evaluate certain projects or programs. But academic evaluations can be a double-edged sword for community and government partners alike. Positive reports help to validate the community organization’s activities (thus helping to secure continued or additional funding) as well as the administration and outcomes of government programs. Community and government partners are increasingly invested in the production of so-called success stories about the projects that have received funding. For community partners, success means not only positive outcomes in the community but also meeting the funders’ requirements, thus enhancing the potential for new or continued funding for the organization and ongoing employment for staff and other community members. A successful project for government validates its public policies and offers proof of managerial competence on the part of program staff and government officials. In this context, academic and other third-party reports on project “failures” can do damage to community partner funding opportunities and to the future prospects of government funding programs and their associated administrative staff. CRACIN academic researchers were mindful of these issues and worked with care in order to “do no harm” to our partners, while trying at the same time to provide space for frank discussion of these sensitive topics, usually face to face and off the record.

CRACIN researchers set out explicitly to document the positive outcomes of community partners’ activities as well as the implementation of government connectivity policies. However, project outcomes that fell short of expectations were probed as well, on the principle that there is as much to be learned from what does not work as from what does. In this respect, the CRACIN approach was to try to recast the discussion of project failure or success in terms of innovation and learning. Indeed, many of the community initiatives and activities studied involved a considerable degree of social as well as technological innovation and experimentation. K-Net, for example, is trying to develop a sustainable, community-owned satellite broadband network in Northern Ontario and to develop broadband applications in the areas of education and health care that are shaped by the needs of community members. The all-volunteer Île Sans Fil (ISF) has developed and is expanding a large network of Wi-Fi Internet access hotspots in downtown Montréal. St. Christopher House, in downtown Toronto, recruits and trains skilled new immigrants to develop and maintain its own open-source online community portal and content management system to support the organization’s community outreach and social service programs. Given the experimental nature of these and other initiatives, it became clear to CRACIN researchers that evaluating outcomes solely on the basis of standard measures of success (cost/benefit analysis, number of network users trained, positive and measurable “impacts” on communities, and so on) risked obscuring some of the most important lessons to be learned from these activities.


While CRACIN research was primarily conducted as individual in-depth case studies of particular community networking initiatives, thematic issues were also pursued that cut across the various sites, including community innovation, civic participation, participatory design, open source development and community wireless networking, rural and remote community broadband, libraries and community networking, and public policy. It is around these themes that much of the present collection is organized. The themes are situated within wider research contexts and informed by a variety of conceptual approaches.


To set the stage for the community networking case studies to follow, this collection begins with an overview of three distinct areas relevant to research on recent CI initiatives in Canada. While they appear at the front of the collection, they were developed over the course of the research itself and thus represent summative views, rather than prior foundations.

In chapter 2, “Toward a Conceptual Framework for a Community Informatics,” Michael Gurstein anchors CI in a larger socio-technical context and critique, suggesting that CI is in fact an emergent alternative paradigm to existing practices (the default position) as understood and articulated by a broad range of information society commentators and commentaries. In chapter 3, “Keeping in Touch: A Snapshot of Canadian Community Networks and Their Users,” Marita Moll and Melissa Fritz report on the results of their survey of users of Canadian community networks, most of which were established under the federal program that has the widest community reach, the Community Access Program (CAP). In chapter 4, “Canadian and US Broadband Policies: A Comparative Analysis,” Heather Hudson provides a comparative analytic overview of Canadian and American broadband policies and strategies that are striving, in particular, to meet the needs of rural and remote communities. She describes funding programs and policies in the two countries, the definitional tensions around what constitutes high-speed broadband, and the National Broadband Plan announced by the US government in March 2010.

Conceptual Approaches

This volume demonstrates not only the current emergent character of CI but also the diversity and the energy that it manifests. While CI research and researchers forge critical perspectives on the received wisdom and approaches to Internet and information society research, the clear emphasis in this work is neither on theory development nor on displays of methodological dexterity and rigour for their own sake. Rather, in both intention and result, these studies are concerned with engaging with, reflecting on, and ultimately informing the practice of using ICTs for enabling and in many cases empowering communities as the ultimate ICT users.

As well, the research undertaken within the CRACIN framework can be seen as a most useful and evidence-based contribution to ongoing policy discussions in areas of continuing national interest, including ICT and social equity (the digital divide), the gender gap in technology, and the appropriate directions for innovation policy in Canada, as well as rapidly emerging issues such as extending and maintaining a sustainable national presence in rural and remote regions of the country. In exploring the questions concerning community and technology posed by studies carried out in rural Nova Scotia, low-income Toronto, rural and remote Northern Ontario, urban Montréal and Vancouver, mid-Northern Saskatchewan, and coastal Labrador, CRACIN researchers have not only carried on the traditions and concerns of the early “frontier,” “communications,” and “staple economy” researchers in Canada—Dawson, Innis, McLuhan, Smythe, Watkins—but have also begun the process of extending this into the information age.

The tensions in Canada as an “information society” are now often tensions between those who have access to and are able to use new technologies to pursue their economic and social ends and those who do not, rather than between those able to immediately direct or influence the exploitation, distribution, production, and pricing of commodities, goods, and services and those who, separated by divisions of class and geography, are able only to respond to the outcome of these directions. It is the task of CI and the objective of the CRACIN project to identify, document, and, where possible, intervene into those information gaps in an effort at least to understand the processes that are at work, if not to correct them.

But, in this, CRACIN is only a first step. Serge Proulx, in chapter 5, “Information Technology as Political Catalyst,” explores the manner in which technology, on the one hand, and social and political activism grounded in electronic communities, on the other, interact so as to mutually reinforce and provoke one another in heretofore unrealized directions, with potentially significant consequences that support broader social and political change. In chapter 6, “‘The Researcher Is a Girl’: Tales of Bringing Feminist Labour Perspectives into Community Informatics Practice and Evaluation,” Katrina Peddle, Alison Powell, and Leslie Regan Shade draw on two case studies to begin a process of examining the role of gender as an intervening variable in the sometimes very tentative initial programs that use ICTs for local development—economic development in the one case, and software development, in the other. In both instances, they bring to the surface underlying assumptions about women and technology, as well as the tensions and difficulties generated by the inclusion of female perspectives. In chapter 7, “What Are Community Networks an Example Of?” Christian Sandvig provocatively poses the question of what overarching (and meta-CI) framework we might fit community networks and networking into, pointing out that, while at this stage there are many possibilities, none are as yet fully realized.

Community Innovation I: Participatory Design, Open Source Development, Civic Engagement

Innovation is one of the most frequently and persistently proclaimed ideals of the so-called information age and, more specifically, of the knowledge-based economy and society and the overarching social imaginary of the Canadian government’s Connecting Canadians program. (On the vision of Canada as a knowledge-based economy and society, see chapter 16.) However, the dominant discourse generally treats innovation as occurring only in private enterprises that develop and sell new digitally enabled products and services. Largely absent from this discussion is the way that other actors, notably community-based organizations, also foster innovation. To redress this imbalance, the CRACIN project pursued community innovation, broadly construed, as one of its central themes, expanding use of the concept to include marginalized actors and social innovations tied more to new forms of practice than to new technologies per se.

As community-based organizations become more ambitious in their efforts to adopt and adapt ICTs to meet their various goals, they confront novel challenges. In chapter 8, “Systems Development in a Community-Based Organization,” Susan MacDonald and Andrew Clement examine how St. Christopher House, a well-established community and social services agency in downtown Toronto, tackled the building of a content management system (CMS) to support a range of community learning and internal administration activities.

While the study at St. Christopher House focused mainly on the internal staff dynamics around the development and use of a new ICT capacity, this is an intermediate concern. It is rather the question of whether the capacities and relationships among the wider community are strengthened that is of primary importance and that provides the ultimate basis for assessing the implications of CNs. A number of CRACIN researchers and community practitioners were particularly interested in the role played by CI initiatives in fostering civic participation, the growth of social capital, and a sense of belonging within local communities. The recent decline in civic participation and social capital visible across Western liberal democracies has provoked concern among social commentators, policy makers, and community leaders. The role played by ICTs in either hastening or combatting this decline has been debated. Concerns have also been raised about the impact of the digital divide, which threatens to widen existing power and participation gaps between information haves and have-nots.

Surveys, documentary research, participatory observation and qualitative interviews with CN staff, volunteers, and users were conducted at three CRACIN case study sites: Vancouver Community Network, St. Christopher House (Toronto), and Île Sans Fil (Montréal). CRACIN research has yielded some intriguing insights, particularly with regard to the civic participation and community-building activities of new immigrants and youth, two groups that are typically less engaged and involved in their local communities than many other Canadians. In chapter 9, “Vancouver Community Network as a Site of Digital and Social Inclusion,” Diane Dechief explores how both human and social capital are built within the Vancouver Community Network (VCN) and how participation in the network’s CI initiatives has contributed to the social inclusion and integration of its new immigrant volunteers. Later, in chapter 11, “Wi-Fi Publics: Defining Community and Technology at Montréal’s Île Sans Fil,” Alison Powell describes the findings of a participatory, ethnographic research project on the members and users of Île Sans Fil, a grassroots, community wireless network (CWN) in downtown Montréal dedicated to providing free wireless Internet access in public places and to the use of wireless networks to engage citizens with their local communities. Powell’s analysis of the achievements of CWNs in terms of civic participation provides a welcome tonic to some of the heady rhetoric of “community” and “digital inclusion” that has accompanied the emergence of CWNs as a self-conscious movement.

In summary, the essays by Dechief and Powell focus on the ways in which CI initiatives promote the civic participation and engagement of potentially marginalized groups: new immigrants and youth. By providing volunteer opportunities, job-related experience, and a sense of community for new immigrants, who are often technically skilled but under- or unemployed, VCN promotes their integration into the local community. Île Sans Fil, meanwhile, has succeeded in mobilizing technically skilled youth in Montréal around community Wi-Fi projects, encouraging civic participation within a demographic that is typically disengaged. Most noteworthy among the findings from this research, and one that is seldom explored or appreciated in existing research on community networking and civic participation, is the extent to which much of the civic participation and community building that CRACIN researchers observed was taking place in physical spaces dedicated to ICTs and their use, rather than through ICTs and the online communities to which they afford access. This suggests that the social affordances of community access sites as physical places, where community members encounter and engage with one another and develop social networks face to face, may be more consequential for developing social capital and fostering a sense of community among new immigrants and youth than merely providing access to ICT hardware and Internet connections (Dechief et al. 2008). Community informatics research on the social affordances of ICTs would do well to pay closer attention to this phenomenon, which has been obscured by recent fascination with the nature and impact of online community.

Community Innovation II: Community Wireless Networking

Notwithstanding the primacy of social engagement over technical connectedness, and not to divorce them into disjointed realms, the actual technologies of information and communication do matter greatly. In this respect, community-based ICT initiatives have a long history of innovation dating back to the 1970s (Clement 1981). In such cases as bulletin board systems and public access to the Internet and information services more generally, locally oriented, non-profit initiatives have preceded commercial offerings and have indeed paved the way for them by demonstrating their value to people. This has most recently been the case with community wireless networking. The development in the late 1980s and the 1990s of the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers) 802.11 standard and compliant equipment (better known as Wi-Fi, short for Wireless Fidelity) for intermediate range (10m to 100m) digital wireless communication over the 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum was aimed initially at creating local area networks (LANs) within households and enterprises. Community-oriented technology activists were among the first to exploit Wi-Fi’s potential for sharing network access outside the walls of individual establishments and into the surrounding neighbourhoods. These kinds of technologically innovative initiatives were still very much alive when the CRACIN research began. CRACIN researchers studied the patterns of community and municipal Wi-Fi developments across Canada, as well as examining in-depth two urban community Wi-Fi projects that pursued quite different approaches.

In chapter 10, “Community and Municipal Wi-Fi Initiatives in Canada: Evolutions in Community Participation,” Alison Powell and Leslie Regan Shade introduce community Wi-Fi projects as forms of community infrastructure, aiming to serve a variety of purposes. They begin by discussing various Wi-Fi networking models and the current state of Canadian spectrum policy. Their exploration of how Wi-Fi development and innovation is occurring within urban Canadian communities, in the context both of municipal government projects and of grassroots community technology initiatives, provides the basis for comparison with developments elsewhere, notably in the United States. As mentioned earlier, Alison Powell adopted an ethnographic, participant-observer approach to studying one of Canada’s most successful community wireless networking initiatives, Île Sans Fil (see chapter 11). Its development of the open-source WiFiDog “captive portal” software represented a critical ingredient in enabling the organization to convert existing business wireline Internet access points into free hotspots in over 150 locations across Montréal. (See https://dev.wifidog.org/wiki/Community.) In chapter 12, “Wireless Broadband from Individual Backhaul to Community Service,” Matt Wong looks at a small Toronto based co-operative, Wireless Nomad, that took a very different approach to turning existing broadband backhaul into a form of community infrastructure by having individuals share their signals on a mutual-benefit basis. Without a financially sustainable subscriber base, and beset by a variety of technical setbacks, the co-op folded in March 2009. However, it did succeed in showing that there are technically viable alternatives for providing universal access to Internet service in dense urban areas at a price substantially below that of present commercial offerings.

Rural and Remote Community Broadband

One of the most enduring preoccupations of Canadian telecommunications policy is ensuring that high-quality communications services reach Canadians in rural and remote areas. This emphasis on equity has deep historical roots in Canada, perhaps dating back to concerns with communications along immensely long trade routes into the poorly known central region of the continent, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, equity continues to be a concern with contemporary high-speed Internet access. As noted above, the CRACIN project included several case studies across Canada that looked into the challenges of providing broadband services to communities where “market forces” would not, and what such services meant for members of those communities.

In chapter 13, “‘We Were on the Outside Looking In,’” Brandi Bell, Philipp Budka, and Adam Fiser explore the development of MyKnet.org, a loosely structured system of personal home pages, blogs, and other web-based devices. Established as a major component of K-Net Services, Canada’s most prominent rural/remote community network, MyKnet.org is youth based and built around the communities’ need to maintain social ties across great distances and intractable wilderness. The remarkable rise of K-Net is the subject of chapter 14, “A Historical Account of the Kuh-ke-nah Network,” by Adam Fiser and Andrew Clement. The chapter presents a history and institutional analysis of the broadband network, which currently comprises over one hundred points of presence (POPs) in Aboriginal communities and organizations across Ontario, Québec, and Manitoba. Of interest to proponents of community networking, the K-Net broadband deployment model institutes a decentralized ownership structure that accommodates a community-owned local loop, “last-mile” infrastructure within a co-operatively controlled gateway to wide area networking and broadband e-service delivery over terrestrial and satellite carriers. In chapter 15, “Atlantic Canadian Community Informatics,” Katrina Peddle takes up two rural/remote community networking initiatives in Atlantic Canada, that, as with K-Net, received major funding from the federal Smart Communities program but were not as fortunate in their partnerships and did not survive as viable, sustainable networks. In chapter 16, “Reverse English,” Frank Winter engages with another project that received major federal funding for rural/remote community networking, this time in Saskatchewan: the Keewatin Career Development Corporation (KCDC). Again the focus is on the complexities of multi-stakeholder relationships, but in this case Winter explores the way that the community networking organization resisted and reshaped the dominant federal discourse of the so-called knowledge-based economy and society.

Libraries and Community Networking

The relationship between community networking initiatives and public libraries is another of the integrative themes that CRACIN researchers pursued. While some clear distinctions can be drawn between community networks (CNs) and public libraries, an appreciation for the overlaps and interplay between these two organizational forms is important not only for understanding the emergence of CNS in recent decades but also for the future prospects of both CNS and public libraries.

In chapter 17, “Community Networks and Libraries,” Nadia Caidi, Susan MacDonald and Elise Chien examine the larger issues at stake. Their guiding questions focus on how public libraries and CNS compare in terms of their ideals and practices, on whether there are identifiable dimensions along which to compare synergies and tensions, and on what the prospects are for various forms of collaboration between libraries and CNs. They draw upon their extensive involvement in the CRACIN project to review many of the individual case sites, looking for illustrations of how the CN initiatives did or did not interact with the libraries in their locales.

One example of an explicit joint library and community networking initiative is reported on by Marco Adria in chapter 18, “The Library Ideal and the Community Network.” Echoing the recurring calls for using ICTs, and broadband networking in particular, to better connect rural and remote communities with each other (see also chapters 13, 14, and 16), Adria’s research team partnered with the Alberta Library to experiment with video conferencing in public libraries in four rural communities participating in the province-wide Alberta SuperNet project.

Public Policy

The public policy and regulatory environment in which community informatics organizations operate is extremely important, as it creates policy and regulatory conditions that can both nurture and undermine their work. Policy research in areas such as telecommunications and community development shed light on the changing fortunes of the CI sector and help to identify policy and regulatory changes and administrative reforms to government programs that can create more fertile conditions for the growth of the sector. In keeping with its participatory and action-oriented approach, CRACIN sought to pursue policy research that was relevant to both community and government partners in terms of the policy environment in which CI organizations and projects in Canada were situated. Comparative and international perspectives were also explored. Common themes that emerged from the research included the precarious situation of community networks in the current policy environment of deregulation and increasing reliance on market forces to roll out advanced telecommunications services, the negative implications of cuts to major government connectivity programs (such as CAP), and the active, if not always effective, role that community networks and other public interest and civil society groups have played in trying to intervene in and influence the policy agenda.

In chapter 19, “Community Networking Experiences with Government Funding Programs,” Susan MacDonald, Graham Longford, and Andrew Clement delve more deeply into the CI sector’s experience in partnering with the federal government to deliver connectivity programs and services as part of the Connecting Canadians initiative (1997–2004). In chapter 20, “Communautique: Action and Advocacy for Universal Digital Access,” Nicolas Lecomte and Serge Proulx explore the experiences of people involved with the Québec-based community networking organization Communautique as it emerged both as a key agent in the delivery of provincial government programs and as a vocal advocate on behalf of universal access and digital rights for all citizens and communities. In chapter 21, “There and Back to the Future Again,” Graham Longford, Marita Moll, and Leslie Regan Shade provide an historical overview of a decade and a half of ICT policy making and reform in Canada, with a focus on the changing fortunes of the CI sector.


The CRACIN project was inaugurated at a critical juncture in the history and development of CN and CI in Canada. The past decade and a half has been marked by laudable government efforts to close the digital divide and explosive growth in community-based ICT initiatives as a result. Together, these have led to many benefits for communities across the country.

FIGURE 1.1 CRACIN case study site map


However, the realization of increasingly affordable and widespread technical access has provoked doubts about the continuing need for public access initiatives, and government ICT policies and programs seem increasingly shifting and uncertain. In addition, the sustainability of thousands of community-based ICT initiatives has been called into question. Thus, the need to systematically document and assess the accomplishments, unique contributions, and challenges of CNS in Canada has seldom been more compelling. With the narrowing (but not closing) of digital divides in Canada and elsewhere, a shift in focus from access in the technical sense to access in a richer, socio-technical sense, such as that developed in Clement and Shade’s access rainbow model or Gurstein’s concept of effective use, is called for on the part of CN researchers, policy makers, and practitioners alike. Mere access is not the end in itself for community networking; rather, it is the beginning of the pursuit of real ends, enabling the accomplishment of communally identified goals in economic, social, and cultural life. How are CNS using ICTs to meet the economic, learning, civic, and cultural needs of communities? What successes have been achieved, and what challenges do they face? What policy and program changes at the governmental level will best support the effective use of ICTs to build community in Canada? CRACIN began the work of generating both practical and theoretical responses to questions such as these and, by feeding into other research networks and bodies of CN and CI literature that are emerging internationally (for example, from CIRN, the Community Informatics Research Network), helped to share research and practical experiences with CN and CI academics as well as practitioners in other jurisdictions who face similar challenges.

The research reported here was conducted as the major federal government funding programs in Canada were winding down. However, the renewed attention in North America to issues of national broadband policy and the digital economy (see chapter 4), prompted by the election of President Obama and by the growing recognition that Canada and the United States are “falling behind” other advanced economies in terms of Internet performance and adoption, makes the CRACIN research approach and findings especially pertinent for current community practitioners and policy makers.


1 See Oana Lungescu, “Tiny Estonia Leads Internet Revolution,” BBC News, 7 April 2004, https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/3603943.stm; and Nick Higham, “Delivering Finland’s Web ‘Human Right,’” BBC News, 24 January 2010, https://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8477572.stm.

2 For a definition and more detailed explanation of this emerging field of practice and research, see Gurstein 2007.

3 The conference agendas are available at https://www.ncf.ca/ip/freenet/conferences/com-net93/agenda.txt and at https://www.ncf.ca/ip/freenet/conferences/com-net94/agenda.

4 During the course of the project, as additional community groups saw the benefit in developing an affiliation, the number of community partners increased from the original group of seven to include Île Sans Fil, the Keewatin Career Development Corporation (KCDC), Wireless Nomad, and SmartLabrador. One original community partner, Sm@rtSites Ottawa, was dismantled just prior to the beginning of the project owing to the elimination of its funding.

5 This department is now called Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. It has been renamed several times over the years: see the Glossary.

6 This insistence on looking past “technical connectedness” to focus as well on the social dimensions of access may seem obvious, even banal, but it is remarkable how technological imaginaries and funding programs often concentrate almost exclusively on the technical aspects.

7 For a description and examples of PAR, see, for example: Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury, eds., Handbook of Action Research: Participative Inquiry and Practice (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000); and Yoland Wadsworth, “What Is Participatory Action Research?” Action Research International Paper no. 2 (1998), https://www.scu.edu.au/schools/gcm/ar/ari/p-ywadsworth98.html.


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Michael Gurstein

Much of what is unique in Canadian social science can be traced to attempts to make sense of the country’s history as a “staple economy,” one reliant on natural resources spread across a vast territory on the periphery of empire.1 Harold Innis (1950) and others wrestled with the larger questions of understanding the nature of commodity production and distribution in a vast hinterland, as well as the practical and localized (that is, physically contextualized) community responses to such an economy within a context of externally imposed and coordinated conditions of power and economic exploitation.

It should not be surprising that those who have systematically attempted to understand the social and economic interactions of Canadians have historically been preoccupied with communications and transportation—that is, with the management and deployment of distribution systems. The concern has been with supply and delivery networks over vast distances under frequently harsh physical and commercial conditions and with the technology that provided their underpinnings. Of equal significance on the human side of the equation have been questions concerning the development and maintenance of the communities that populated and were the provisioners of the commodity and other contents of these networks in the midst of often unforgiving climates, both physical and economic.

But we are no longer in the era of traditional staples that Innis describes. With the advent of computerization, particularly the Internet, we are now in an era of a new form of staple, information, which stands as the primary resource in an information society. And, equally, we are now concerned with understanding the manner in which information as a new form of productive resource is created, packaged, and distributed via the electronic trade routes of the Internet. As well, we ask questions concerning the implications of this new trade for those communities that are thus interconnected and the new (but perhaps old) structures of power and control that are manifest and played out in this new information-as-a-resource economy (Schiller 1988).

My intention here is to look forward rather than backward in order to discern the underlying structures and tensions in the dynamics of these relationships—relationships between centre and periphery and between those who control the technology-based means of information production and distribution and those who have privileged access to opportunities for the development and deployment of information and communications technologies (ICTs). In these dynamics, there are also those who must either find a place within the resulting structures and patterns of dominance and resistance or else create alternative structures more in keeping with their goals and requirements. This chapter provides a set of concepts to make explicit the dynamics that underlie what I consider to be the very “traditional” and very distinctively “Canadian” approach to the development, deployment, and use of ICTs for local benefit, which is the central concern of community informatics (CI).

As community informatics researchers, the members of the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN) began their examination at the grassroots, looking to see how those at the economic and geographic peripheries are responding to the risks and opportunities presented by the new information economy. As documented in this volume, CRACIN researchers have undertaken studies in rural Nova Scotia, in low-income sections of downtown Toronto, among First Nations peoples in rural and remote areas of northern Ontario, in the small towns of rural Alberta, among low-income and recent immigrant residents of urban Montréal and Vancouver, among the Métis in mid-northern Saskatchewan, and in the tiny and very isolated communities of coastal Labrador. In this they have built on the recognition that in Canada, as an “information society,” tensions are prominent between those who have access to and are able to use the new technologies to pursue their economic and social ends and those who do not have such access and ability. It is the task of community informatics and a primary objective of the CRACIN project to identify, document, and, where possible, to intervene in those information gaps, in order at least to understand those processes if not necessaily to correct them.

What follows is a framework for situating community informatics within this broader Canadian context. It should be seen as an attempt to develop a theoretical basis for a community informatics, while at the same time providing a very broad framework for understanding and situating the individual research papers that follow in this collection.

Community informatics is by no means unique to Canada; rather, it is an overall approach to the research and practice of the design, implementation, and operation of ICTs in a global variety of local and national contexts. However, it was in Canada that the Community Access Program (CAP) was developed (Gurstein 2003), and this achieved a particular resonance within the broad periphery of Canada’s vast rural and remote areas and their populations and communities, including First Nations, as well as among the marginalized poor and some ethnic populations of Canada’s cities. This in turn has stimulated some of the research and thinking that prompted the development of community informatics in Canada.


As elsewhere, considerable attention has been addressed to the so-called digital divide in Canada. Statistics Canada has published a series of useful documents providing statistical insight into the division that exists between those who have access to the Internet (and other communications technologies) and those who do not. In these studies, issues of cost and location have been particularly identified as barriers to ICT access (Birdsall 2000; Middleton and Sorenson 2005; Sciadas 2002).

However, from a community informatics perspective, the issues surrounding the digital divide are only background to the larger question as to whether there is a systematic exclusion of certain economically, socially, or locationally identifiable groups who are, for whatever reason, unable to make “effective use” (Gurstein 2003) of information and communication infrastructures—that is, to go beyond simple access to ensure that the ICTs are useable, useful, and being used—in support of personal and community-based objectives. By shifting the ground from matters of access to matters of effective use, CI research adds a design, an education and training, and a social or organizational support component to discussions of ICTs in society, as well as providing the kind of background for policy and programmatic intervention that the more general digital divide studies are unable to do (Reddick, Boucher, and Groseilliers 2000).

The research undertaken by CRACIN has not specifically focused on the issues of access or the digital divide in Canada. Rather, it has for the most part addressed the central concern that many in Canada’s physical peripheries and among the economically and socially marginalized have been addressing: how to manage and control the tools and opportunities presented by ICTs to realize meaningful benefits for those individuals and communities both distant geographically and culturally from the central, dominant drivers of the primary networks of which the information society in Canada is constituted.

In an information society, technology globalization (Leavitt 1993) acts not simply as a metaphor but as a defining condition of both the dominant structures of the emerging economy and their associated social structures (Giddens 1984). Globalization in this context refers to the creation of ICT-enabled, centrally coordinated networks of producers and consumers, of supply chains and distribution networks. The very rapid rise to national and increasingly global dominance of a select number of comprehensively electronically enabled corporations and organizations is perhaps the defining example of these processes (Ross 1998). In the retail sector, Wal-Mart is one of the most visible and successful of these corporations and serves as the poster child for this trend.

I argue in this chapter that CI provides the conceptual framing (or perhaps even “theory”) to support the use of ICT as resistance, offering an alternative approach to understanding the current environment of ICT-driven and -enabled economic totalization and engulfment. As well, CI may form the basis of an alternative strategy for incorporating and using ICTs in modern society, where the exercise of mediated power and control might only be resisted (and possibly overcome) through the development of equally powerful, technology-mediated forces anchored in communities both physical and increasingly virtual.

In this context, Wal-Mart and similar organizations are less companies than they are electronic infrastructures for managing the flow of goods from producers in low-cost countries to consumers in higher-cost countries while extracting profit from the “arbitrage” between these two sides of the equation.2 Thus, the defining characteristic of Wal-Mart is the efficiency, scope, and depth of its IT infrastructure, integrated with its material logistics and distribution infrastructure, and the continuous internal drive within its IT processes to enhance these efficiencies and the market power that results. By creating a relatively seamless supply chain internally and a low overhead relationship between producers and consumers, the company has mastered the central elements of a consumer economy (Kalakota and Robinson 2001).

Since, in important respects, community informatics is positioned as offering a critique of and alternative to the globalized ICT-based production and distribution model exemplified by Wal-Mart, and the closely related sociological phenomenon of “networked individualism,” we examine these in turn before outlining the core concepts and principles of community informatics.


What is characteristic of Wal-Mart, and all of the organizations strategically linked into similar webs of electronic and business alliances of suppliers and subsuppliers, is the very high degree of centralization and centralized control that they exert even through their highly dispersed operations.3 It is this control as exerted through the direct use of ICTs that is characteristic of the information age and of the role of ICT in the current globalizing world economy.

A notable characteristic of these organizations is that they are not only “globalized” enterprises but also “globalizing” and “totalizing” enterprises—actively proselytizing and reorganizing systems and businesses in support of these initiatives and approaches and totally incorporating economic and even social processes that are captured within their technology net(work). The very fact of this integration, coupled with the intensive centralization and overwhelming drive toward expansion, has meant that these organizations (and similar integrated structures in a variety of other industrial sectors, such as the automotive, electronic, and financial) have integrated their suppliers into their “value chains” (Kalakota and Robinson 2001). This also puts significant pressure on their suppliers to integrate their own suppliers into these ever-expanding information networks/value chains, similarly using common electronic platforms and integrated information systems. The overall effect of this is that a very significant and increasingly large component of the US economy, as well as substantial elements of the global economy, are becoming integrated into a single, ever-expanding, technologically driven and efficiency-seeking electronic infrastructure with attendant processes of highly aggressive cost-reduction and profit maximization, all cascading into these electronically enabled behemoths. As well, these technology drivers have their ideological, organizational, management, and human resource counterparts.

Contrary to earlier industrial production processes, however, the actual physical production of goods can now be highly dispersed and decentralized, with the centre maintaining simply a coordinating role, less through specific direction and more through the establishment of targets (production, cost, quality) and standards. Local or dispersed nodes—suppliers, producers, retail outlets—have considerable autonomy in how they achieve their results, as long as the results are achieved.

Equally, the employee relationships and work activities related to these goods production and distribution processes are not necessarily externally coordinated or framed in an aggregated fashion, as in a context such as an assembly line, where all employees are treated alike and are equally subject to external coordination. Rather, in this circumstance, the managerial practice and ideology is of “individuation”—of employee supervision and of the relationship of the employee to the employer more generally. Employees in value-chain enterprises are not called workers, or even employees; they are identified as “associates,” which suggests independent contractors negotiating terms with the employer on a one-to-one basis.4

In this way, at least nominally, an illusion (and to some degree the reality) is presented of employee autonomy within a larger, centrally coordinated framework. In the modern iteration, of course, this coordination takes an increasingly technological form, as opposed to, for example, management coordination through direct oversight.5 In the Wal-Mart-style formulation, each employee (“associate”) has his or her separate contract, including output quotas, with the employer maintaining the right to monitor the employee’s performance against these quotas (with technology giving the employer an increased opportunity for such monitoring). This individualized arrangement stands in contrast to the more traditional collective output requirements leading to collective labour agreements (Tsui and Wu 2005).


How then are we to understand the status and mode of “being in the world” of these associates? In the earlier classical formulations, notions of individualism and the creation of individualized identities and individualized methods of participating in the various activities and realities of daily and communal life were formulated by, among others, John Locke and David Hume (Macpherson 1962). In these earlier formulations, the origin of such individualism can be seen as deriving from the breakdown of feudal modes of production and social relationships and the rise of individualized, contract-based relationships through industrial production, as well as the end of legal and religious ties to the land and to central religious value systems.

We can perhaps see a direct parallel here with the evident rise of individualized relations between employer and employee as characterized by Wal-Mart’s associates’ status, but we can also see it in the formulation presented by sociologist Barry Wellman and his colleagues (Stalder 2010; Wellman et al. 2003) concerning the nature of the status of and relationships among individuals within electronic networks per Wellman’s notion of “networked individualism.” 6 The Wal-Mart employee is compelled to a form of individualism quite unknown in earlier management-employee relationships. The development of this new individualism has been made possible by the fact that, rather than managers and management organizations, it is the electronic infrastructure, the “network,” that provides the basis for the coordination and organization of labour activities.7

Wellman’s notion of networked individualism as the way in which identity manifests itself in the networked society is useful in that it highlights both the manner in which the network links into the individual in an unmediated fashion and the manner in which the individual both experiences and interacts with the dispersed and (from his/her perspective) centreless network directly, rather than through the mediation of social groupings or other social constructs. This is becoming increasingly prominent in the context of the widespread integration of social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter as central elements in inter-individual communication and social group mediation.

Networked individualism also gives a sense that the individual, in the context of an environment in which she is engaged in multiple electronically enabled networks such as Facebook or YouTube, is in turn a construct linking fragmented identities/individualisms that are structured, created, or responsive to and within networks, each of which is only partially, if at all, overlapping. Thus the creation of the self in this context may (and can be generally understood) as an act of individual will, which may take different forms for different individuals or even on different occasions (Wellman and Hampton 1999). Within this context individual action also takes place within and through the individual networks in which the self is able (or available) to act (or interact) with others but this action is simultaneously circumscribed by and within the very limited areas of linkage/interconnection that are available in individual networks. For example, an individual buying or selling on eBay performs their respective actions within the parameters defined by the interaction between the individuals as per their “profile” within eBay and within eBay’s prescribed and technologically enforced rules of interaction, or policies.8

The notion of identity vis-à-vis individual action as a “networked individual” is thus peculiar because, while the individual may define their specific “identity” within the context of a specific network (the definition of the individual’s “profile” within that network), the manner in which that identity may in turn execute or perform actions within that network is directly a function of the centrally determined and prescribed standards or regulations—or “code”—of that network (Lessig 1999). The individual may control their profile (that is, their identity), but they can do so only within rules over which they have no direct influence and which they can resist or ignore only at the risk of being de-networked. If they were to be “de-networked,” they would be completely erased from participating in the network, which, in network terms, is tantamount to being obliterated—not simply killed or destroyed, in which cases traces may be allowed to remain within the network, but obliterated, that is, utterly removed, including all historical traces or fragments.9

In the case of Facebook, for example, the individual’s relationship to the network is a result of the conditions that govern their participation in the network. Once the company has determined that those conditions are no longer being met, the participation by the individual in the network may be terminated, and the individual (or, in case of an employment contract with, say, Wal-Mart, the “associate”) has no residual connection or involvement with the other party and no residual responsibility or contractual, paternalistic, or other linkages. This example is perhaps equally striking with respect to Wal-Mart, Facebook, and eBay, where, the individual having ceased to be a member of the network, the act of termination immediately triggers a series of electronically (and network-) enabled actions, particularly the changing of passwords. This has the immediate effect of denying individuals access to previously accessible information networks (including both physical and, increasingly, electronic networks, along with the information resources stored in such networks, including information created by the individual), as well as work premises, email accounts, data files, and so on. The effect, of course, is to forcibly and irrevocably expunge all of the related elements of identity (and selfhood) in a networked and electronic environment.10

Resistance and Building Alternatives

In this context, the individual is truly powerless to resist this more or less complete (network) obliteration, since the network itself is centrally controlled, and this capacity to block or delete or suspend is a centrally managed function or feature of such networks. Even prior to such a measure, the capacity to resist or to organize within the network is in itself a feature determined and circumscribed by the network’s code. This code in turn determines in what manner individuals are allowed to individually interact and coordinate their behaviour outside of the centrally prescribed coordination as determined by the rules and standards of the networks.

It is only by stepping outside of these networks and drawing upon or creating a unique individualism or a non-networked identity that the type of interaction through which non-(centrally) networked inter-individual interaction, and thus collaboration or non-network subordinated organizing can begin to take place. For individuals whose identities are largely structured in relation to these externally driven networks—those for whom employment, gaming, socializing, or purchasing networks are the sum of their individualism—little may be left as a residual base of identity on which to form such non-externally coordinated interrelationships (that is, non-externally dependent networks). Thus there is little or no basis from which can arise “resistance,” or alternatives, to arbitrary, abusive, or exploitative actions from the centre or, more simply, to enhance employee opportunities for financial or social well-being.11

And yet we are seeing manifestations of coordinated resistance to these networks and their impacts on individuals as well as physical communities where their presence is most evident. Notably, the only effective resistance to the Wal-Mart juggernaut, including competitive resistance in the market place, has come initially from place-based communities and, in general, integrated, relatively small communities that have mounted active resistance to the location of a Wal-Mart store within their immediate environment. It is at these local, face-to-face community levels that the most successful resistance to these organizations as global intensively networked behemoths has been possible,12 although it should be noted that this success has been extremely limited in scope and volume (Porter and Mirsky 2003). Furthermore, it is through the building of and involvement in communities that individuals are able to conceive of and tentatively create alternatives to the fragmentation that comes through a total involvement in the networked individualism that is characteristic of the information society (Castells 1994).

From Resistance to Theory

The electronically enabled, centrally controlled networks that underpin contemporary advanced economies and cultures are, at their very core, totalizing systems whose inner life is one of extreme and even cancerous and explosive growth. Through such growth, networks absorb and transform ever-wider circles of production and consumption into extensions of these ever-expanding network chains. It is thus not surprising that the resistance and alternatives to this totalization comes from opportunities and frameworks that enable the individual to overcome this fragmentation and to integrate their identity and, more importantly, find the means for entering into collaborative relationships with others. This process of reintegration is necessarily, theoretically, and practically the discovery or rediscovery of community and of organic and integrated inter-individual relationships, rather than purely contractual and electronically fragmented internetworked connections.13 This, of course, has the effect of overcoming contractually structured and fragmented networked relations in favour of organic and network-enabled production and distribution. These relationships of networked community response can be seen not simply as reactions but as dialectically produced and structured responses to the invasive electronic networks engendered as part of the production and distribution process of electronically enabled enterprises.


Networked communities may take either of two forms. They may be virtual communities that exist only in and through the communications networks that enable them, or they may be physical communities that are enabled both internally and in their relationship with the outside world via ICTs.14 The terms virtual and electronic point to these communities’ origins in the act of networking and of interindividual communication as between peers. In many cases, these communities reflect a repurposing of top-down, centrally driven e-networks in which individuals as network end-users/participants begin to bypass the central authority and enter into direct peer-to-peer communication. This occurs even though centrally driven networks are almost universally structured so as to preclude the possibility of peer-to-peer connections, recognizing that this type of organizing would be of little advantage and could potentially present threats to the networks themselves.15

In the second case, physical communities are enabled in a variety of ways and for a variety of purposes through the use of ICTs. In these instances, the community, as a series of ongoing peer-to-peer connections, may exist over a long period of time. However, the application or introduction of ICTs to support these processes, and particularly to support the various outcome-oriented activities of such communities, may be relatively new (Gurstein 2000).

Furthermore, as the use of ICTs to support electronically enabled communities becomes commonplace, and as experience in enabling physical communities with ICTs is acquired, there is emerging a convergence or overlap between these. In these instances, electronically enabled communities begin to seek out ways of becoming linked more directly via physical interactions and physical processes. As well, ICT-enabled physical communities begin to enhance and extend their activities and reach by incorporating elements of virtual relationships as aspects of their ongoing physical and face-to-face relationships.

Thus the basis for a community informatics is not simply that communities along with groups and organizations come to use ICTs as tools for their development, but rather that communities have a different status or ontology from other entities, and as such, both enable and require a unique perspective and approach to ICT design and development, namely, a community informatics rather than a generic informatics as applied to communities. Networked communities thus can provide the basis for resistance or an alternative to the centrally controlled networks and a means through which individuals can develop their capacities for effective action in a networked society.


Ontology has to do with the nature of fundamental being (Strawson 1990) that is the base from which other phenomena derive or which provides the basis for the continued persistence of other phenomena or activities. In this context, the question is: What are the ontological foundations for an understanding of the current structure of action/reaction, extension (propagation), and resistance within the domain?

Within Wellman’s and Castells’s models of networked individualism, and Manuel Castells’s model of the networked society, the primary ontological mover, whether independent agent or source of independent action/agency, is the network itself, as it is the network that underlies the construction of all other relations. The individual in Wellman’s formulation is simply the sum of the fragments of an individual’s participation in the various externally driven networks (of production, consumption, and even socialization) of which he or she is a member, or with which s/he has contractually or digitally mediated relations. In this world, the network is everything.

Beyond the world of social analysis, however, externally driven networked relationships are only one element of a complex interconnection of social forces. In addition to such networked relationships, there are self-initiated (or self-organized) and participatory networks that interlink individuals not on the basis of fragments of identity but on the basis of self-initiated and self-realized identities. These networks function as communities through which action may be undertaken, projects realized, and reality confronted and modified, and thus they provide an alternative and collaborative social construction in contrast to the individualism of conventional network-driven social relations.

These communities, both physical and electronically enabled, represent an additional and structurally oppositional ontology to the network ontology as described, for example, by Wellman et al., and as such, seem to flow, at least potentially, alongside and in partial opposition to a Facebook/YouTube set of socially networked interindividual relationships. These communities provide the basis for the construction of an alternative reality—a set of organizational, economic, and social structures operating independently of the centrally controlled networks (such as Wal-Mart) or the technologically facilitated fragmentation of “socially networked software” (such as Facebook).

The assertion here is that communities can and should be seen as primary and autonomous. That is, they do not depend on any other social formation and are thus capable of acting as the platform or conceptual agent on the basis of which one could (and should) undertake technical design vis-à-vis hardware and software. In this way, one can specifically develop information, communications, and networking systems that provide the means for communities being enabled and empowered to effect collaborative action in the world, and this is the conceptual foundation for a community informatics. This directly parallels and provides an alternative to the way in which ICTs are designed to enable and empower corporations and individuals, while also integrating as a design element the differences in the presuppositions of the different platforms (Gurstein and Horan 2005).


Networked communities, as well as community networks, have a variety of essential or ideal typical characteristics that differentiate them from other networks, centrally determined networks, and networked individuals. In fact, several of the case studies provided in this volume provide useful illustrations.


Networked communities are “bottom-up,” which is to say they are derived and developed by the users or participants themselves rather than being centrally initiated or externally driven. What this means is that users or participants are actors in the networks and these networks in turn are community-based, developing through pre-existing or self-presented individualism rather than with the interindividual connections being externally defined and elicited. In this way, participation in a community is rather more rounded and integrated from the participant’s perspective than the fragmented and largely contractual or rule-based relationships of the individualism-based networks, as defined by Wellman and others. This in turn gives the nature of the community participation a stronger and fuller grounding in the lived context. The communities and individuals within K-Net, for example (see chapters 13 and 14), are concerned with using ICTs as a basis for expressing and maintaining their local culture and language and for the economic survival of their communities. In these contexts, the use of the ICT platform is as a means for people to assert themselves and the elements of their communities in the context of overwhelming environments where these differences are not understood or easily assimilated from administrative and other perspectives.


Participation in networked communities is voluntary and self-initiated; that is, individuals choose to participate in these communities (in the case of physical communities it is often in the form of choosing not to not participate), and participation is based on individual decision and volition rather than through entering into contractual relationships. While there may be an exchange of value through a networked community, in the form of cash, goods, or services, in fact there is very often a considerable such exchange, but it is not the basis of the participation in the community, and the relationships are with the community as a whole rather than on a bilateral basis, where there may be an enforced or enforceable structured value exchange relationship. The role of the Vancouver Community Network (VCN) of providing an electronic platform and including volunteers to support broader community use of ICTs, as Diane Dechief demonstrates in chapter 9, is a useful example of this as is the small and medium sized communities described in Adria’s discussion of applications of the Alberta SuperNet (see chapter 18).


In communities, goals and the methods for achieving them are the result of collaborative decision-making processes, recognizing of course, that even within communities there may be significant differences in power and position. These processes may differ significantly from context to context, but in each case there is an element of participation by those involved, and of responsiveness to the decisions made. In practice, such processes for the most part reflect some form of consensus position on the part of the participants, although the achievement of formal consensus may or may not occur, and in many communities there are a variety of more or less formalized structures for decision-making. Katrina Peddle’s discussion of the Labrador community (see chapter 15)

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