Towards An Urban Community Informatics

Posted on August 28, 2010

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Much of Community Informatics research and writing either explicitly or implicitly is based on rural notions and models of community. This is for many reasons: partly because rural populations tend to be the least served in many parts of the world, partly because many models of “community’” are based on the kind of small self-contained communities that are found in rural areas. However, there is in practice a flourishing “urban community informatics” and one moreover which is inking into and to some degree driving applications and uses of ICTs in urban areas and particularly in Developed Countries.

These urban community informatics applications differ from urban informatics applications.  The design and implementation of urban informatics applications and processes are based on the specific attributes of modern urban environments—mobility, spectacle, anonymity, speed of change, among others.

Urban community informatics applications on the other hand are based on the recognition of the deep and continuing role of community interactions and aspirations by urban dwellers even amidst the most urban of environments.  These aspirations include for urban dwellers as for others, the desire for deep interpersonal connection, for trusted relationships, for collaborative action in response to commonly identified issues, for continuity in the form and substance of social relationships. These attributes in turn provide an on-going social and collaborative platform within and upon which much urban behaviour takes place as for example, through neighborhood and local area identification and through the formation of communities of interest that have both virtual (interest)-based and physical (place)-based dimensions among others.

Steve Clift’s work in Minneapolis and elsewhere with urban neighbourhoods as foundations for political engagement  ; Peter Day’s work using ICTs to support local environmental activism , Fiorella de Cindio’s remarkable on-going practice and research in managing multiple on-line discourses  as a basis for urban “civic intelligence” are all examples of these types of applications, most done within an explicitly CI conceptual framework.

An urban community informatics is thus the process of using ICTs to enable and empower communities in urban environments towards collaborative action.  These communities may be location i.e. neighborhood based; or interest and electronically based;  or, as is most likely, a mix of location and interest where the locational base allows for direct physical interaction while the interest base is structured more in terms of interaction by means of a virtual or electronic platform. In both instances the physical and the virtual provide parallel and mutually reinforcing elements for building and maintaining community and developing the capacity for collaboration.

This differs from an urban informatics which is the use of ICT tools within an urban context to enable “urban” processes–shopping, meeting up, advertising, casual social interaction and so on.

A very interesting example of an urban community informatics application in the area of security management can be seen in the work of Fujii and his colleagues . Their application is the development of a community-based ICT and video enabled local security system in Kiryu, Japan.  In this instance, they are perhaps building on similar processes in the well known (in the North American context) Neighbourhood Watch program where neighbours have some responsibility for “watching out” for activities particularly of children in their local neighbourhood. Fujii and his  colleagues enhance these neighbourly processes with the use of community monitored and controlled local video surveillance.  In this Japanese case, rather than the video feed flowing into an anonymous centralized video monitoring centre, the community itself provides the video monitoring on a voluntary basis.  Linking this into the neighbourhood’s overall knowledge of it’s own members can in this way lead to a much more locally sensitive and responsive monitoring than what could be done by anonymous third parties or contract employees.

In this latter instance it is precisely the lack of anonymity, restricted local mobility, and the mundane repetition of daily life in local neighbourhoods which allows for this type of community operated security system even in the midst of major urban environments. One could imagine similar such processes being developed on a neighbourhood basis for energy and waste management, for supporting locally based resource allocation and management such as automobile or food cooperatives, and under some circumstances in crisis and emergency response.

Of course, the process of implementing an ICT-enabled neighbourhood security system in an urban area raises a number of significant questions related to “spying on one’s neighbours” and overall issues of privacy and anonymity (one of the reasons many people choose to live in urban areas). But these questions of trade offs between privacy and security aren’t specific to community-based initiatives, rather they are of a piece with the broader issues of the use of closed circuit television for security monitoring and the “panopticon society” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon.

In fact, linking this type of security to community-based processes may enhance the opportunity both for more flexible and responsive security arrangements and for less intrusive-privacy destroying processes as well.  Community-based processes are, at least in principle, open to local control and the design of rules of conduct and norms for response that reflect local considerations and local values rather than more abstract and “alienated” generalized third party rules and conditions.  There is considerable value in having security monitoring and response linked to “locally situated knowledge”—watching for the wandering off of a forgetful senior, recognizing the sometimes peculiar behaviours of a mentally challenged adult, allowing for a parental intervention into potentially damaging drug experimentation by teenagers, noting the presence of a “stranger” as he or she enters the area.  The types of responses required for each of these may, in a community context with access to local knowledge, be more finely modulated.  That is the response undertaken may be varied depending on local circumstances, expectations and determinations without the need to call in outside agencies and agents whose interventions might not be as sensitive to the specifics of the particular incident and the circumstances of those involved.

Following from this one can see some more general rules (and potential concerns) arising from urban community informatics implementations but also see how such implementations may form the basis for responding to the emerging needs in urban environments for fine tuning and localizing broader initiatives for practical intervention and change. An urban community informatics can be the necessary underpinnings for the kind of transformation which would be required for the achievement of environmentally sustainable cities.  That is, only by linking notions of “sustainability” and environmental self and civic management into actions that are physically and locationally anchored and socially constructed will the required behaviours, behavioural change, collaborative action and social monitoring and enforcement be possible.

Making these types of interventions in the highly dispersed and mobile environments of major cities can only be achieved through the use of ICTs as a supportive platform for collaborative action among those who are not necessarily in close proximity or close communications space with each other but who are looking to achieve certain forms of interaction and collaboration. Examples of this can be found in the development of local car co-ops or in the emerging area of farmer-urban dweller collaboration and the local food movement .

It should be noted however, that these types of developments are based on, but go beyond urban informatics applications such as for example bicycle community mashups ; civic government open data visualizations and mashups , or applications for supporting desirable social behaviour in an urban context as for example around trash management An urban community informatics application is not only concerned with how or what information is made available but also with enabling and empowering those with the information to make effective use of it either to support local development or to achieve collaboratively determined social benefit. (I will discuss the issue of effective use of open data in a later blogpost.)

In the longer (actually likely more medium or even shorter) term, the need to bring about significant change in patterns of energy consumption, management of solid waste, water management, and so on is already beginning to engage both civic authorities and civil society activists in many parts of the world. The gap between broad scale movements for normatively (values) based behavioural change, legally sanctioned change and actual change of behaviour on the ground is likely to be a major issue.  The gap however, is one that can and will likely be filled by linking these kinds of desirable changes into locally based social (community) behaviours and processes.  Given the earlier noted urban context of significant mobility, anonymity from one’s neighbours, and interest rather than proximity based community affiliations, the use of media and particularly social media as the basis for precipitating, motivating and ultimately managing these kinds of developments is almost inevitable.

Processes of both embodied and electronically enabled mutual support, collaborative norm setting, reciprocity, trust building and so on will need to be put to the service of activities associated with creating sustainable environments in cities. There is thus a very considerable scope, even a requirement for concerted efforts towards the development of an urban community informatics movement.