CoERI, the Centre that Community Informatics Built (and now they are busy returning the favour).

Posted on February 4, 2010

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I recently had an opportunity to visit with the staff and students of the Centre of Excellence for Rural Informatics (CoERI) at the University of Malaysia, Kuching (they also hosted my travels to Long Lemai and Bario both of which I have discussed in earlier blog entries)

According to their self-description: http://www.rimc.unimas.my/centres-of-excellence/rural-informatics-coeri/rural-informatics.html

The Centre of Excellence for Rural Informatics was established in January 2007 and is anchored at the Faculty of Computer Science and Information Technology (FCSIT), Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). It is set up based on the success of the e-Bario project. The e-Bario has demonstrated the innovative and participatory approach in deploying ICTs in the remote communities at Bario, Sarawak. Among the key activities, CoERI sets out to generate and disseminate knowledge that transforms and empowers communities to harness technologies and become a knowledge-based society.

The research scope for CoERI covers:

  • Enabling technologies (includes telecommunication and alternative/renewable energy)
  • Information systems
  • Cohesiveness of communities and stakeholders
  • Individual and community transformation and empowerment
  • Knowledge-based value creation”

As I noted in the blog on eBario, the project there is a very interesting and highly successful community informatics implementation.

One of the most important impacts of the eBario project has been providing the basis for the creation of CoERI at UNIMAS.  As I understand it, the project was initially developed as a UNIMAS project by then faculty member Roger Harris with funding from the (Canadian) International Development Research Centre (IDRC).  As the project developed and evolved more and more faculty members from UNIMAS became actively involved including from a wide range of disciplines and not incidentally including a Ph.D. student (in Anthropology at the University of Cambridge), a native of Bario and a full-time lecturer at UNIMAS (Poline Bala).

The eBario project struck a deep chord in UNIMAS given its location in Kuching Sarawak, a State of Malaysia with a very large and diverse indigenous population both urban and rural and in some instances extremely remote. What the eBario (and the overall community informatics) approach did was to provide the faculty members involved and the broader university community with a means and methodology for effectively engaging with the rural indigenous population not only from a research perspective but also through the introduction of ICTs and the leveraging of the ICTs into enhanced services and locally driven economic activity – making a significant and highly visible developmental contribution as well.

And as well, it should be noted, eBario was being implemented in an environment where the external “developmental” pressures from resource industries (primarily forest products and land development) are almost overwhelming and the subject of considerable local conflict over the goals and benefits of these initiatives. In this context eBario was providing local people in Bario (and those other local indigenous people watching the developments there) with tools and strategies for responding to the external pressures and developing the capacity and means to initiate processes of internally driven self-development and overall management of the development processes.

As eBario became more widely known in the global context (winning a number of awards including a prestigious Commonwealth (CAPAM)) prize its visibility as a national model in Malaysia has increased (particularly as a way of supporting digital inclusion for indigenous peoples) and the interest of faculty members and ultimately the university itself has increased significantly as well. The current Vice Chancellor of UNIMAS Prof. Khairuddin and the current Dean of Applied Learning and Multimedia Prof. Peter Songan both have had long and highly supportive associations with eBario and were in succession the Directors of CoERI.

All of this while interesting is hardly surprising in the broad context of the institutionalization of successful research in a university environment. What is novel however, is the way in which having realized such a successful symbiosis with community informatics, CoERI is now in the process of making what seems to be a very substantial contribution to community informatics research (and not incidentally theory) but also is beginning a reframing of the manner in which community informatics becomes institutionalized in a university setting and even more significantly in reframing that university setting itself.

To explain… CoERI has received a substantial grant from the Malaysian government to replicate eBario in 5 other rural indigenous sites in very remote parts of Borneo.  In planning and executing this program CoERI has become highly conscious of the practical processes of community engagement and community development which underlay the eBario initiative. They are thus moving extremely deliberately and consciously (and with full attention to appropriate documentation) to reproduce the success of those processes–up to the point of hiring as a CoERI Research Associate, John Tarawe, who was the local champion and project manager for eBario), specifically to undertake the community engagement processes. I am not aware of any CI project of a similar scale to this one and certainly none that is proceeding as carefully and consciously from a research perspective.

But in addition–and this is where the innovation and real contribution begins to become visible—CoERI, as a result of a proposal initiated by the current Director: Dr. Alvin Yeo, is proceeding by setting up a range of research clusters including education, technology, community engagement, and so on; each of which includes a number of associated faculty members as researchers (and project contributors) and graduate students (both Masters and Ph.D.) as part of the project team.  What this process is doing is to push the core concerns of community informatics—community participation, bottom up development, participative approaches to ICT and so on—out and systematically into a range of research areas and academic disciplines where this has, to my knowledge, never occurred before.  Areas of technical research around networking and hardware development (for example systems to support rain forest dwellers who are still semi-nomadic); areas of linguistic and educational research (first contact with ICTs, impact of use of ICTs on languages with only limited written vocabularies cf. the note of blogging in Penan in my earlier blog on Long Lamai) and so on and so on.

Of course, the influence and benefits flow both ways—community informatics will benefit from an infusion of new subject areas and methodologies of research, and the other disciplines will benefit from having to deal with the practice (and theory) of community based ICTs. One final and very interesting example is the research which is in the process of being developed by Tariq Zaman a very capable recently arrived (from the tribal region of Pakistan) Ph.D. student who is looking at ICT-enabled indigenous knowledge management processes and from within a community informatics approach and methodology (please note his blog on eBario, CoERI and the second eBario Knowledge Fair) http://telecentrecommunity.ning.com/profiles/blogs/my-encounter-with-ebario-in

There are I know, places in the world where there are equally interesting community based-ICT projects as those currently being initiated by CoERI. As well, there are places in the world where equally interesting CI research is being done in an academic setting. However, I personally know of no place in the world where one can find both of these together in one institution and with the very real likelihood that the impact of the activities will be both highly significant as a direction for good practice for those working in CI on the ground while also at the same time providing rigorous research contributions fundamental to CI’s continued intellectual evolution.