No. WP-98-03

Contributed Paper:

Web-based community networks:
A study of information organization and access

ASIS conference logo

Howard Rosenbaum
Phone: 812.855.3250
Fax: 812.855.6166

Center for Social Informaitcs
School of Library and Information Science
Indiana University

(C) 1997 Rosenbaum

Use this table to navigate through the paper:
Abstract Introduction Background Methodology Conclusions
Bibliography Appendix A: List of community networks Appendix B: Useful features of Community Networks Appendix C: Major categories of the coding scheme


This paper reports a subset of the results a research project designed to assess the current state of state-funded community networking in Indiana. It explores the organization of information resources and services provided by 24 web-based community networks, examines the core design principles that have been most useful in the development of these community network (CN) sites and assesses the strategies currently used to provide access to these information resources and services.

Using a variety of methods, including content analysis of web sites, interviews with CN board members, echnical staff, and users, and site visits, the study examined the 24 state-funded CNs and attempted to answer a set of research questions, a subset of which will be reported here. The study found that the CN sites have useful and usable technical infrastructures in place but are lacking the deep and meaningful local content and services that will allow them to become important nodes in their communities' digital information environments.

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This paper reports a subset of results from a larger research project designed to assess the current state of state-funded community networking in Indiana; in this paper, the focus is on the websites built and managed by 24 web-based community networks, all of which received start up grants from the state. It explores the organization of information resources and services provided by these networks, examines the core design principles that have been most useful in the development of these community network (CN) sites and assesses the strategies currently used to provide access to these information resources and services.

Using a variety of methods, including content analysis of web sites, interviews with CN board members and technical staff, and site visits, the study examined 24 state-funded CNs to answer the following research questions:

  • What is the range of information resources and service that CNs provide to their publics?
  • What types of organizational schemes used in these networks (structure, navigation)?
  • What does their content indicate about the extent to which these networks integrated into their communities?
  • After a brief and general discussion community networking, the specific context of the research is described. The method used to analyze the CN websites is described and the findings are presented. The paper concludes with a discussion of the implications of this work.

    Return to Contents


    With the spread of the Internet and information networking throughout society, the question arises about the types of structures for information production, provision, and access that will emerge in the networked digital environment. Because of the ease of use of the WWW, more people and organizations are coming online each day and, as they produce and deliver information resources and services, more information is made available in digital form than at any time in the history of networked communication. Among the information producers of this next decade will be ordinary citizens; their individual home pages are proliferating and a significant portion of the growth of the web is being fueled by their activities. Now that more people are gaining low-cost assess to the networked information environment, they are beginning to produce, seek out, and use information in ways which we do not yet clearly understand. How will people use the digital information environment for work, school and leisure? How will they judge the quality, authenticity, and value of the information resources they uncover? What are the social implications of global information access?

    One example of a digital information environment where the answers to these questions may be found is the community network which, according to Baxter (1997), is a:

    Recent innovation intended to help revitalize, strengthen, and expand existing people-based community networks in much the same way that previous civic innovations (like public libraries) have helped communities.
    Beamish (1995) describes a community network as "a network of computers with modems that are interconnected via telephone lines to a central computer which provides community information and a means for the community to communicate electronically." In an ideal sense, a CN is an electronic commons, created, maintained and used by community members. CNs should be driven by local needs and the information resources and services they develop and maintain should reflect the need of the community they exist to serve. They also serve as an entry point to the Internet for members of the community who might not otherwise be able to have access. London (1917) states that regional CNs are important to consider because they offer the:
    Opportunity to improve and magnify human communication and interaction. The region is the geographical unit where some of the nation's toughest economic, environmental and social problems are solved by the grass roots efforts of the people who have the most personal stake in their solution.
    Community networks have their origins in the late 1970s (Schuler, 1995) with projects that allowed community members to exchange digital information; the Freenet movement in the 1980? brought many more communities online and in the 1990s, they now number in the hundreds (Doctor and Akalaka, 1996). These networks attempt to extend their reach into all corners of the community. According to the Association For Community Networking (1998), CNs seek to
    bring local people together to discuss their community's issues and opportunities, learn about Internet technology, and decide upon and create services to address these community needs and opportunities. [A] CN is comprised of a wide variety of groups that make up a community [...] with special focus on including those who are traditionally left out of community decision making in general, and technology decision making in particular
    Community networks come into existence in a variety of ways; for the sake of simplicity their origins can be dichotomized into grassroots efforts and top-down initiatives. In Indiana, the latter best describes the context within which community networking has existed for the past three years. In 1997 the Indiana Rural Development Council (IRDC) announced that it had additional funding available for the establishment of community networks across the state through its Telecommunications Task Force; the director stated that (IRDC, 1997a):
    This funding support is one of Indiana? best kept secrets and we need to wake up rural Indiana to the possibilities...We are talking about a whole new level of infrastructure that is going to be essential for future community growth and development.
    This announcement marked the latest stage in the State's involvement in community networking, which had begun in 1995. The original impetus of this initiative had been to seed the development of CNs in order to begin development of what was to be a new locally based digital communications network in the state; the Access Indiana program was established to aid in the development of "electronic community networks that build and enrich community life" (Access Indiana, 1997a). In 1995, Access Indiana (1995) put out an RFP for ?Community Network Start Up Grants," with almost $1 million was made available, to be distributed in awards of $45-50,000. By 1996, $900,000 had been disbursed to assist in the development of CNs. In early, 1997, an additional $30,000 in CN grants was awarded, bringing the total to 24 community networks that Access Indiana had helped to fund (IRDC, 1997b). As a condition of receiving these grants, CNs had to be members of the Indiana Community Networking Association (ICNA), which held its first meeting in February, 1996, taking as its main charge the task of assisting in the development of CNs. One strong emphasis of this organization has been for CNs to become self-sustaining over time.

    By mid 1997, the question arose as to how the community networks had used their grants. By this time, most had been able to establish themselves in their regions, and there was a need to gather data about their operations to develop a set benchmarks for CN performance. When turning to the literature for assistance, it became apparent that "there is not enough data available on [CN] outcomes to say conclusively what constitute reasonable measures of success in terms of community outcomes" (Gygi, 1996). The main objective of the larger research project was to conduct an empirical assessment of the current state of state-funded community networks in Indiana. Because Access Indiana planned to assist in the startup of as many as 50 new CNs, the research was also intended to provide a basis for the development of a model that could be used by these networks. This paper reports on a subset of the project which focused on and critically examined the range of information resources and services provided by state-funded CNs on their websites, the structure of these web sites, and the public education and library components of community networking reflected in the sites. This research also explored some core design principles and services that have been most useful in the development of web-based CNs.

    The larger research project was motivated by four questions:

  • How have the grants been used in the development of CNs?
  • How are these networks organized and managed? What types of management structures and processes are in place?
  • 2a What types of challenges have network organizers faced and how have they been resolved?
    2b. What are these networks doing to move toward economic self-sufficiency?
  • What is the range of content, organizational schemes, and navigational strategies used in these web sites ?
  • 3a. Who is creating and maintaining this content?
  • In what ways are these networks integrated into their communities?
  • 4a What types of interactions and relationships have developed between CNs and K-12 schools and public libraries?
    4b. How are these relationships affecting public education and public libraries ?
    4c. Who is using these networks? How often and f or what purposes?
    This paper reports findings relevant to question #3; the complete report is being prepared for publication.

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    Three methods were used to collect and analyze data in this research. The primary method used to answer the research question discussed here was content analysis, which is described in this section. Some material has been extracted from the survey and site visits, which were useful in determining who was responsible for creating, marking up, and maintaining the content of the CN websites.

    Content analysis was used to examine the structure and content of the community network websites because it is a useful technique for organizing and analyzing textual and graphic data and for uncovering themes or patterns in the data (Holsti, 1968; Weber, 1990). In this phase of the project, one objective was to determine the extent to which the CNs had followed the ICNA guidelines in their web development efforts, additional objectives included the evaluation of each site against a standard and the evaluation of the structure, depth, currency, quality, design, and utility of each site? content.

    The initial version of the content analytic scheme was based on a document produced by ICNA, the state-wide organization to which all of the funded CNs belonged. The document contained a section which listed a set of content and types of links that were "strongly suggested" as elements of CN websites. From this section, a series of categories was generated which served as the first iteration of the scheme. Following this, three randomly selected CN web sites were examined and exhaustively described in terms of their resources, services, and organizational schemes. The resulting scheme was then used to begin coding the remaining CN web sites. A trained coder systematically studied each CN? web site, modified the coding scheme as needed, and drew site maps of each site. Each modification of the scheme required that all sites be recoded (Patton, 1990, Dey, 1993, Silverman, 1993). By the third iteration, the scheme had stabilized into a final version (Berg, 1989). See Appendix C: Major categories of the coding scheme.

    The coding scheme was checked for reliability by the researcher, who recoded three randomly selected web sites and compared the results to the work of the coder; the result of this exercise was intercoder reliability of 94% (Krippendorf, 1980). In addition, the codesheets were aggregated by the researcher, during which time they were checked for accuracy.

    Content analysis of CN web sites

    This analysis reflects the state of 24 CN web sites as of November, 1997; see Appendix A List of Community Networks included in the analysis.

    What is the range of content, organizational schemes, and navigational strategies used in these web sites? Almost all of the community networks have developed their web sites to the point at which they can serve as central nodes in their digital community information environments. Since the content analysis reported in this section was completed in November, 1997, many CNs have begun incorporating new developments into their web site design and operations, adding new layers of interactivity to their sites. Some CNs are experimenting with CGI and Perl scripting, Javascript, frames, and multimedia. As a consequence, the analysis, which examined 24 CN web sites, is one or two months behind the curve; this means that there will have been some advances in structural and design features not reported below. However, at the time of the writing of this paper, in February, 1998, an examination of these sites reveals that the findings about the need for the development of deep and meaningful local content and services still hold.


    On their home pages, all 24 CN web sites displayed a required graphic link to Access Indiana; although three buried the logo on the second or third levels of their sites. The ICNA logo was displayed on 15 sites and linked to the organization? website at In addition, 15 sites had graphic logos identifying their own web sites. Textual identifiers were used on all sites with nine using images to represent their communities. Required links to a map of state-funded CNs hosted at the Access Indiana site appeared on only four sites and three linked to ICNA? list of CNs. Only two sites linked to the ICNA? guidelines for web site accessibility by people with disabilities; this had been a strongly suggested guideline. There were links to the CN sites' designers on 21 sites that led either to the designers' sites or to an email link. All sites provided a table of contents on the home page, with ten using an imagemap. Four sites also had a link to a site map. Frames were used on seven sites, although four employed them at levels of the site below the home page; the four sites using frames at the top level provided a link to a textual alternative.

    The web sites make use of some advanced design features including tables, frames, imagemaps and some basic interactivity, including scripting, javascript, and forms-based submission of information. They range from three to nine levels in depth with 7 using frames and, at the time of the analysis, contained between 20 and ~75 pages; the average site had five levels, no frames, and ~40 pages. The most common navigational strategy was a listing of the site? major sections in a series of links, using either text or small images grouped into a block. Used on 18 sites, this navigation block typically appeared in a column on the left side of the page. This block typically appeared throughout the site. The second most common strategy, used on 15 sites, was to use text links in a horizontal array at the top or bottom of the page. Nine sites combined both strategies.

    All incorporate color and graphic elements, but tend to have limited interactivity. Background colors were used on 20 sites, 15 used background images, and all used .jpg and .gif images on their pages. Various forms of multimedia were used in nine sites, but this typically meant animated .gifs, although two sites included sound files. All of the sites used a <mailto> link to allow viewers to send email, but only six were explicitly designated as means by which comments, questions, and suggestions could be submitted. Forms were used on eight sites, the content of which ranged from the provision of demographic information for a 911 database, a registration form for the CN, a library feedback form, and a form through which members could submit items for an online community calendar. Links to web search engines were found on eight sites and seven had local search engines. Links to locally sponsored discussion groups and listservs were found on seven sites; six included instructions for subscribing to these services and three provided links to other discussion fora sponsored by other CNs. Counters were used on five sites, four were running CGI or Perl scripting with their forms and two sites used Javascript, one to animate a banner and the other for an interactive table of contents. Five sites had other interactive links including a resume database, a job bank, an email directory, and a site index. One CN had a password protected area for members, and none were experimenting with chat rooms or other web-based conferencing. See Table 1: Structure on the CN home pages and websites (for all tables, n=24).

    Table 1: Structure on the CN home pages and websites

    Display Access Indiana logo  24  Levels of the site (5 average)  3 - 9
    Display ICNA logo  15  Number of pages (~40 average)  20 - ~75
    Display graphic logos for CN  12  Background colors  20
    Image representing community  Background images  15
    Link to map of state-funded CNs  Multimedia  9
    Link to ICNA's list of Cns  Forms  8
    Link to ICNA's accessibility guidelines  Links to web search engines  8
    Link to the CN sites' designers  21  Local search engines  7
    Table of contents  24  Counters  5
    Imagemap TOC  CGI Perl Javascript  6
    Frames  Link to a site map  4

    The content analysis of the CN web sites indicates that there is a range among the web sites from a small number that have breadth and depth of content, far surpassing the guidelines specified in the ICNA document outlining suggested content, a small number of sites that barely meet the most general of these requirements, and a larger number that have at least superficial coverage of these standards with pockets of content development on their sites that display depth and complexity. For example, Table 2: Suggested links and information about the CN lists a general set of suggested content and shows the extent of compliance.

    Table 2: Suggested CN links and information about the CN

    Display AI logo  24  Information about Board  17
    Display ICNA logo  15  Acceptable Use Policy  13
    Links to disability guidelines  Schedule of upcoming meetings  11
    Access to bylaws  13  Minutes/notes  12
    A pattern was found among the CNs with superficially developed or underdeveloped sites which is illustrated by the treatment of links to or information about local public schools, and school corporations. See Table 5: CN links to local public libraries and schools. According to the guidelines for the development of the CN web sites, the pages with information about schools were intended to be deep and rich with information and links. Often, however, there is a top level link that satisfies the guidelines for local content and then content development tails off dramatically. In many of the pages that appear at lower levels of these web sites, the content typically consists of lists of location information categorized by subject (e.g. type of school, school corporation headquarters) some of which is linked to pages off the server. Often, there is little information added to these entries, leaving the list looking somewhat like pages from a telephone book.

    This pattern was repeated for many of the major components of the guidelines (e.g.: businesses; places of worship; government offices). It can be seen, for example, in the treatments of pages about local public libraries, as is illustrated in Table 5: CN links to local public libraries and schools. While almost all of the sites had links to (or listings of) local public libraries, eight had listings of library events in a textual calendar, only six sites provided street addresses and six linked to their library? OPACs. Little additional information was available; there were no descriptions of library programming and little indication that libraries were involved in the CN, although a stipulation of the original grant was that library personnel must be included on all state-funded CN Boards of Directors.

    Almost all of the CNs had the suggested links to content about the community networks, although they varied in the depth of coverage. Eighteen had information about themselves and 17 had a mission statement online, but only 13 included their bylaws. The Boards of Directors were identified on 17 sites and 16 had pages detailing their histories. Acceptable Use Policies appeared on 12 sites. Current financial statements were provided on 10 sites and six had past statements. Meeting schedules and minutes of past meetings were posted on 11 sites. A "What's New" link to a page of announcements was used by nine sites. Each of the following was found on two sites: articles of incorporation, business plans, FAQ pages about the CN, information for parents about keeping the net safe for their kids. Individual membership information was provided on 15 sites and 12 had information about corporate membership. Information about the costs of individual membership was posted on 11 sites; 9 described the benefits of becoming a member while 1 0 did the same for corporate membership. Three sites had information about hosting web pages and about their ISPs. A range of other services were offered on eight sites, ranging from computer and internet/ web training, to web page design, to locations of local public access terminals. See Table 3: Links to content about the CN.

    Table 3: Links to content about the CN

    Info about the CN  18  Past financial statements  6
    Mission statement  17  Costs of individual membership  15
    Current Bylaws  13  Benefits of individual membership  9
    Board of Directors info 17  Costs of corporate membership  11
    History of the CN  16  Benefits of corp. membership  10
    Acceptable Use Policies  12  Business plan  2
    Current financial statement  10  FAQ about the CN  2
    "What's New"  Info for parents  2
    Meeting schedules and minutes  11  Articles of incorporation  2
    Links to local community information appeared on 20 sites; 17 sites had a community map, 16 had pages about local history, ten provided demographic information, and nine had photographic images of community landmarks. Nineteen had some form of a community calendar, with six using a cgi-bin based interactive calendar where community members could post events. Links to pages with sightseeing information, announcements of festivals and events, and business information were found on three sites. At least one link to pages about local government was found on 19 sites. Directories of elected officials were found on 15 sites with varying degrees of completeness, for example, nine sites had a calendar of government events, eight had announcements of upcoming meetings of government bodies and seven had at least some address information for some local elected officials. Pages about local election information appeared on five sites, voter registration information on three, the location of polling places on three, and background information about local political issues was found on two sites. On five sites, a range of pages were found with the tax code, a link to a sex offender repository, a most wanted list, and a listing of fire districts. Only three sites had links to local military pages, but this is probably an artifact of geography. See Table 4: Local community and government information.

    Links to local public libraries were found on 20 sites, with a list of hours of operation provided on nine sites and a calendar of events on eight. Links to local libraries?OPACs were found in six sites and six provided only location information for their libraries. Local library board meeting dates appeared on two sites and none had meeting agendas or minutes of past meetings. On four sites a variety of links could be found to off site genealogy, children?, reference service, inter-library loan, census information, and Friends of the Library pages. Two sites provided schedules for their libraries' meeting rooms.

    Table 4: Local community and government information

    Links to local community info.  20  Calendar of government events  9
    Community map  17  Announcements of meetings  8
    Local community history  17  Addresses for some local elected officials  7
    Demographic information  10  Local election information  5
    Photographs of local landmarks  Voter registration information  3
    Links to sightseeing info.  Location of polling places  3
    Announcements of festivals and events  Background about local political issues  2
    Link to local government info  19  Links to local military pages  3
    Directories of elected officials  15  Community calendar  19
    All sites had links to or pages about local K-12 schools and school corporations, with address or other locator information on 11 sites and some information about School Boards on seven, with four having local Board meeting dates and two archiving meeting minutes. Only one site had a School Board policy manual. Links to or pages about individual schools were found on nine sites, with calendars and locator information. One or two sites had archived copies of school newspapers, student handbooks and teachers?web pages. There were links to information about educational alternatives (home schooling, trade schools, correspondence courses) found on six sites, links to IDEANET/ISTEP on two sites, and links to school cancellation numbers, scholarship information, local SAT scores, and school enrollment figures were found on one or two sites. See Table 5: CN links to local public libraries and schools.

    Table 5: CN links to local Public Libraries

    Links to local public libraries  20  Archives of Board minutes  0
    Street addresses for libraries  Library calendars  8
    Library Board information  Copy of policy manuals  0
    Links to library's OPAC  Copy of budget  0
    Agendas for upcoming mtgs.  Link to State Library page  1
    Links to K12/school corps.  24  Links to local schools  9
    Street addresses for corps  12  School calendars  9
    School Board information  Teachers' web pages  2
    School Board meeting dates  Current lunch menus  2
    Most sites had extensive top level links to local cultural, service, religious, and health care organizations. All sites had links to or information about local cultural and recreational organizations; five sites had information for organizations without web sites. Information about or links to the local parks and recreation office were found on five sites. Pages describing special projects and events appeared on ten sites, eight sites listed the hours of operation of local facilities, seven had schedules, and five had reservation information. Among the other links found on six sites were links to local clubs, museums, and historical societies, and information for seniors, pet owners, and gardeners. All sites provided some links to local service organizations; five sites provided location and contact information for organizations without a web site and on five sites, the links were not accompanied by any explanatory information. There were links and information about local volunteer opportunities on seven sites, four had information about special projects and how members could contribute to them, and three provided local events calendars. Linked to local extension services were found on nine sites, although little further information about these services was provided.

    Links to or information about local places of worship appeared on 21 sites, with ten listing times and dates of services. Three sites had images of these places and among the other types of links found on eight sites were listings of revivals, descriptions of church social programs, links to religion sites elsewhere, and a directory of the local clergy. Links to or information about local health care facilities and providers were found on 19 sites, with local hosting of pages on two sites and off-site links on five sites; some of the off-site links were dead. Four sites had pages containing information about local providers?medical specialties. Among the links found on five sites were lists of medical staff at different facilities, hospital menus, flu vaccination information, psychiatric services, and a directory of local physicians. See Table 6: Links to local cultural and recreational organizations.

    Table 6: Links to local cultural and recreational organizations

    Links to local cult./ rec. Organizations  24  Schedules  7
    Links to local service organizations  24  Reservation information  5
    Info. for organizations without web sites  5 Info. about local volunteer opportunities  7
    Links to local parks/rec offices  Info. about special projects  4
    Info about special projects/ events  10  Local events calendars  3
    Hours of local facilities  Links to local extension services  9
    Links to local places of worship  21  Links to/info. about local health care facilities/providers  19
    Lists of times/dates of services  10  Info. about local medical specialties  4
    Images of these places 
    There were links to or information about local businesses on 21 sites, with 13 linking to their local chambers of commerce, eight linking to the local Economic Development Council, and three linking to local Rural Development Councils.; six hosted pages for these chambers on their sites and five listed the members. Location information about the chambers which had no web presence was provided on three sites. There were links to local businesses' pages or banner ads and logos for these businesses on five sites. Links to local realtors were found on nine sites with three linking to local Boards of Realtors. Links to local media were found on 22 sites. There were links to or pages about newspapers on 5 sites, eleven had links to radio stations, and eight to television stations; typically there was no further information about media outlets that did not have web pages. Links to local and/or regional weather were found on 14 sites. See Table 7: Links to local business.

    Table 7: Links to local business

    Links to or pages about local business  24  Links to local media  22
    Links to local Chamber of Commerce  13  Links to local newspapers  5
    Banner ads for local business  Links to local radio stations  11
    Links to Rural Development Councils  Links to local television stations  8
    Links to local realtors  Links to local weather  14
    Links to local Boards of Realtors  Links to local television stations  8
    There were a range of links to regional, state, and national web sites. There were links to federal government web pages on 17 sites; ten linked to federal agencies and departments, eight had linked to the homepages of national politicians, and six linked to national military web sites. There were links to state government website on 16 sites, with 11 having links to the homepages of elected officials. Links to other prominent and relevant state information available through AIIN appeared on 8 sites with six linking to regional and state Workforce Development pages and five linking to the Indiana Department of Education? IDEANet or Department of Education pages. Links to state library and education pages were found on 12 sites; nine had links to some university and college homepages in Indiana, eight linked to some university libraries in Indiana, seven had links to the Indiana State Library homepage, and four linked to the Indiana Higher Education Commission.

    There were links to state and national media web pages on 12 sites. Links to other CNs were found on 12 sites; five had the AI list of CNs in Indiana, and two sites had links to CNs in other states. Links to pages about state recreation facilities were found on eight sites and three linked to national parks and facilities pages. Links to businesses outside of the CN? region were found on five sites; on four sites, there were links to national business organizations and on three, there were links to regional and state boards of Realtors. Other types of links found on four sites included stock, relocation, and statistical information, business article abstracts, and links to FedEx, UPS, the Post Office, and auto companies. See Table 8: Regional and national links.

    Table 8: Regional and national links

    Links to Federal government pages  17  Links to State Department of Education  5
    Links to federal agencies and departments  10  Links to State library and education pages  12
    Links to national politicians' pages  Links to State universities and colleges  9
    Links to national military sites  Links to university/college libraries  8
    Links to State government pages  16  Links to Higher Education Commission  4
    Links to state politicians' pages  11  Links to state and national media  12
    Links to other CNs  12  Links to state recreation facilities  8
    Link to the Access Indiana list of CNs  Links to national parks and facilities  3
    Links to state and national businesses  Links to state/national Boards of Realtors  4
    Who is creating and maintaining this content? The most prevalent pattern is that content on many sites is developed by members of the CN Boards. Only three CNs had unpaid webmasters; all use non-Board volunteers to develop content. However, since a main goal for many CNs during 1998 is to put up more content, having Board members do it all may become a bottle neck. Board members are unpaid volunteers who work for and on the CN on their own time; many reported that the demands of maintaining and continuing to develop their sites were increasing, and they foresaw a time when they would have difficulties in meeting the demand for new and updated pages.

    Many of the CNs have used some of their Access Indiana grant money to help fund content development. They have either contracted for design and development work or, in one imaginative case, sponsored an ongoing call for proposals for the development of content that has local interest by members of the community. Winning proposals receive small development grants which fund research, preparation, and markup of pages that are hosted on the CN website.

    There is a mix in the types of services that CNs offer through their web sites. Some host personal web pages; others do not, either because they believe that they would be responsible for regulating the content of these pages or because they choose not to compete with local ISPs, which offer that service. Among those that host pages, most offer server space to local non-profit organizations; a few host business pages, but this typically occurs on the CNs that are the communities?ISPs so they do not face competition from commercial service providers. One feature that is becoming more popular is the community calendar set up so that community groups can enter their events. One CN found a particularly good one and did some customization; other CNs are beginning to use this same one. A few CNs are beginning to develop community focused listservs and discussion forums. Because many do not have easy ways to communicate with their users and do not conduct any evaluations or user surveys, they were not able to say how satisfied their customers are with these features.

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    The analysis of state-funded CNs indicates that they have reached a stage in their development where their technical infrastructures (for those running their own servers) or web sites (for those hosted on commercial service providers) are sufficiently well-developed to support useful network-based digital community information systems. It also shows that many of these networks have not yet begun to develop the local content or services that will allow them to move to the next stage of their evolution, which begins when the state funding runs out in mid 1998. There are two critical challenges which must be faced in order to make this transition; one is social and cultural and the second is economic. The former is of primary interest in this analysis; the latter will be explored in subsequent publications. To remain successful once the state-funding runs out, CNs have to create the kinds of social and cultural content and services that will enable them to integrate their systems into the routine lives of their communities, something which many have not yet accomplished. This will involve the development of deep and meaningful local information resources and interactive services that will encourage ongoing and regular social interaction among CN members. CN Boards have to learn more about their communities and user populations in order to accomplish this.

    These CNs have used their grant money effectively to create sophisticated frameworks for community-based digital information environments. By and large, they have done a remarkable job creating, organizing, mounting, and maintaining their CNs and websites, especially considering the fact that it has been largely through the efforts of volunteers, many of whom have had to teach themselves about the Internet, the web and the technologies that allow access to the Internet. Now they must fill their frameworks with content and provide interactive services that will draw community members into the CN. One Board member said in an interview that her CN Board had decided that the CN? "role as the community network partner is to help develop current and news worthy information about the communities serviced by the network." This is a theme which cuts across many CN Boards, as they struggle with the problem of how to increase community involvement in their CNs. One practical suggestion is that they make a concerted effort to work with their local public libraries and schools. The current analysis revealed that this relationship is only superficially represented on many CN websites.

    CN Boards have to learn from each other. For example, the set of best practices that has been used successfully as these CNs have developed remains largely invisible. Development in isolation greatly increases the risk of failure and duplicated effort. Information sharing can save time and effort, both of which, according to many Board members, are in short supply. A good example of the way in which information sharing can assist development efforts is the development and spread of the interactive community calendar. Appendix B: Useful features of community networks contains a highly selective list of features derived from the content analysis and found on one or two sites that could be very useful if adapted to local needs on CN websites.

    CNs should make a concerted effort to find out what their members and communities want in their CN and begin developing appropriate local content and services. They should be looking to do more than provide pages with lists of links; CNs must redefine themselves as digital community information centers, online places where community members can regularly and routinely interact with each other. Networks are composed of people; content draws them in, communication makes them stay. A CN that resembles an online yellow pages is not useful to community members. London (1997) points out that CNs:

    Can play a role in strengthening communities if they are used to augment social networks that are already in place. In addition to their obvious benefits as text-based information systems, networks can serve as public spaces for informal citizen-to-citizen interaction, they can support rational dialogue and, in some cases, deliberation, and they can promote the social connectedness, trust, and cooperation that constitute social capital
    In relation to their websites, CNs should consider
  • Developing an ongoing evaluation strategy as a way of setting benchmarks and measuring progress. This would allow CNs to monitor their progress on an ongoing basis. Some of these data can be gathered easily with server transaction logs, others can be gathered by periodic focus groups (perhaps at membership meetings) and informal conversations
  • Continually improving the design, layout, and usability of their web sites. An interesting exercise is to have different types of people try to navigate through the web site, perhaps in response to questions (what are the hours of the ibrary?). Is the site easily handled by children? Senior citizens? Community networks are at a critical stage in their development. According to Schuler (1996), they "may continue their rise in community importance or they may fade into obscurity;" tilting the balance towards the latter are the rise of such metaphors as CN as public utilities, supported by paying a bill, provided by government without need for direct citizen involvement. However, if they succeed, they can become an important element of a digital community information environment allowing community members to create, disseminate, seek out, and use the information resources and services they need for work, school and leisure.
  • Return to Contents


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    Weber, R.P. (1990). Basic content analysis 2nd ed. Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage Publications.

    Return to Contents

    Appendix A: List of Community Networks included in the analysis
    Access Bartholomew County
    Access Bartholomew County
    Access LaPorte County
    Access Perry County
    Access Spencer County
    Boone County Community Network
    Crawford County Community Network
    DeKalb County Community Network
    East Central Indiana Community Net
    Falls Cites Community Network
    Fort Wayne Area InfoNet
    Huntington County Community Network
    Indianapolis OnLine
    Johnson County Community Network
    Michiana Free-Net Society
    Midwest Prairie Net
    Noble Community Access Network
    South Central Indiana Community Access Network
    Sheridan Community Network
    SouthLake Net
    Waynet (not online yet)
    West Central Indiana Community Net

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    Appendix B: Useful features of Community Networks

    Note - many CNs also have similar features and including a feature from one CN is in no way intended to slight another.

    A short and selective list might include:

    Access Laporte County: Business and Technology Plans

    Access Perry County: Annual Report

    Boone County Community Network: Information about BCC

    Communinet: Acceptable Uses Policy

    Crawford County Community Network: Help Pages for New Users

    Dekalb County Community Network: Child Safety Tips

    East Central Indiana Community Net: Resume Database and Job Bank

    Falls Cities Community Network: Tiered Annual Sponsorship levels

    Fort Wayne Infonet: How to Submit Pages

    Greenet Public Opinion Poll

    HoosierNet: Local Community Calendar (interactive)

    Huntington County Community Network: Key services of our network

    Indianapolis Online: FAQ and Comment Center

    Michiana FreeNet: User Home Pages and FAQ

    Midwest PrarieNet: Community calendar and How to get your business a page

    NobleCan: Community Calendar Festivals and Events

    South Central Indiana Community Access Network: Tax Center and Troubleshooting page and Community Information Development Grant Application

    WCICnet: Virtual Community Mailing List

    Return to Contents

    Appendix C: Major categories of the coding scheme


    10 Home Page:

    __100 Display the ACCESS INDIANA logo with a direct link to
    __101 Textual identification of the community the CN represents
    __102 Graphical identification of the community the CN represents
    __103 Link to the design company/authors
    __104 Table of contents
    __105 Link to site map

    __200 Graphics
    __201 Multimedia
    __202 Frames
    __203 Interactive features
    __204 Local search engine


    30 Local CN Content

    __300 Info about the CN
    __302 Acceptable use Policy
    __303 Financial Statement
    __304 A schedule of upcoming meetings
    __305 Individual membership information
    __306 Corporate membership information
    __307 Other services
    40 Local links
    __400 Links to Community information
    __401 Links to local government
    __402 Links to local K-12 schools and school corporations
    __403 Links to local public libraries (website, if available)
    __404 Links to local service organizations (website, if available)
    __405 Links to local businesses and professional services (website, if available)
    __406 Links to local places of worship (website, if available)
    __407 Links to local health care facilities (website, if available)
    __408 Links to local public and utility service/organizations (arts/cultural, parks, recreational facilities)
    __409 Links to local media
    __410 Links to Local Realtors (website, if available)
    __411 Links to local extension services (website, if available)
    __412 Links to local military (website, if available)
    __413 Links to local job/employment opportunities (website, if available)
    __414 A current community calendar
    50 Regional, State & National Links
    __501 Other CNs
    __502 State government
    __503 Business
    __504 Media
    __505 Health care
    __506 Recreation
    __507 Libraries and education
    __508 National government
    Return to Contents

    This page prepared by Howard Rosenbaum
    Last update: 12.1.98
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