Such an intensive networking environment has led to a model for a community network that acts at the convergence of networking in the community, providing centralized integration of distributed information. There are two demonstrable benefits to the Boulder Community Network (BCN): acting as a comprehensive information and communications service to Boulder citizens and serving as a catalyst for a number of valuable public sector collaborative efforts.
The Boulder Community Network primary goals are to develop a comprehensive information service, a distributed discussion mechanism, and specific training and access services for underrepresented groups. Supported in part as an NTIA demonstration site, BCN is building a large mass of community information, working with public and commercial information providers to insure production level services. Access is via the Internet and kiosks in public sites.
The information services are extensive, ranging from the timely (e.g. weather updates every five minutes) to the archival (such as a library image database of local historical photos), from social services (United Way, job training, etc.) to commercial information (complete restaurant and shopping guides, for example), with additional categories in education, government and current events. Several elements have emerged as critical to the success of a community information service. A culture of data maintenance must be cultivated across a distributed space of information providers. Intuitive indexing, a common nomenclature and topical organization, and a carefully designed search tool are essential to developing an effective service. Kiosks in libraries and public places increase awareness and utilization.
Target communities such as seniors, at-risk youth, and low-income families have been given personal access accounts, training, and the opportunity to mount their own information servers. It has been encouraging to note the eager and high utilization of networking in these populations, and the significance of providing the opportunity to mount their own servers.
The community network has also initiated online public forums. These discussions, built on a web-netnews bridge, permit wide-spread involvement in timely issues in the community. Such a service appears to be an important extension of traditional legal concepts.
Yet it is the relationships around the community network that are perhaps of greatest importance. These partnerships build on the common ground of the network to develop innovative K-12 curricula, reengineer social services, and bring new resources on-line.
One notable instance is the development of community curriculum, where the issues and the information of the community serves as the basic material for many K-12 activities. The curriculum builds on the data, and the people, of the area to add relevance, real data and collaborative mechanisms. Through links with government, senior centers, and scientific labs, subjects from mathematics and science to social studies and writing are being revitalized by using local material and engaging new community-based processes.
Other new collaborations have emerged as well. For example, the community network has provided considerable benefit to the United Way and its interactions with its clients. Traditional services, such as First Call for Help and the Red Book (consisting of critical agency reference material), have been repaired and enhanced through network connectivity. In the process, training and support relationships have been created between community social service groups and university student organizations.
This paper discusses the lessons learned during the development of the community network and focus on the role of the network in creating and supporting new collaborations. In addition, quantitative and qualitative studies done at the university on the use and impact of community networking will be presented.