A Sidewalk Network on the Data Superhighway: Neighborhood Telephone

Roland Alton-Scheidl
Austrian Academy of Sciences

Der Rundfunk ist aus einem Distributionsapparat in einen Kommunikationsapparat zu verwandeln. Der Rundfunk ware der denkbar grossartigste Kommunikationsapparat des öffentlichen Lebens, ein ungeheures Kanalsystem, das heisst, er wäre es, wenn er es verstünde, nicht nur auszusenden, sondern auch zu empfangen, also den Zuhörer nicht zu isolieren, sondern ihn in Beziehung zu setzen.
--Bert Brecht (Radiotheorie, 1927)


Digital Cities, local online services, and the field test, Neighborhood Telephone, all give us grounds for hope that telecommunication media could play an integrating role in local political discussions. Interactive telephone services with acoustic information and discussion platforms can complement the local media mix in a socially compatible form. They promote local communication and make it more accessible to the public compared to an Internet solution. Plans for setting up an Audiotex [1] service have been put into practice with an interdisciplinary team and the result--a multipurpose Audio-bulletin board service (BBS) with conferencing, mail, fax, and rating facilities--is now being used in further spin-off projects. But when using interactive telephone services, one should not forget the connection to real politics; otherwise, this form of electronic democracy will just be so many words.


New telecommunication services such as online services, mailboxes, Internet, Audiotex, or fax-on-demand look promising for three areas: communication between citizens and city management, for citizen action groups, and democratic renewal. These services should provide such positive results as greater transparency in political decision making and a platform for citizens to get involved. Not to be overlooked are the numerous endeavors of city management, commercial, and nonprofit organizations to use this media to improve local communication. Prominent examples of this are the Digital Cities in Europe (Amsterdam, Bologna) or the Community Net movement in the United States.

In a Technology Assessment Research Project, we took a closer look at these projects. We compiled experiences and considered theoretical and political consequences. We carried out and evaluated a field test using an interactive telephone service as a socially compatible communication service. This research project was done by the Research Department of Socio-Economics in the Austrian Academy of Sciences, with support from the City Planning and Culture departments of the City of Vienna. The project ended in 1995; this report describes the important details and results.[2] Special attention is given to the field project done using Audiotex services.

In a sense, the project is still continuing. The commercially active sector of the spin-off company Public Voice is continuing city related services; the noncommercial Public Voice laboratories are adapting and expanding the software tools for further interactive telephone services. One result, at the end of 1995, was that the interactive telephone service "Vienna@Telephone 58930" was set up parallel to the Vienna Digital City on the Internet. This service used important elements taken from the model field test and tries to combine both media.[3]

Information systems for the local sector already have a long tradition. In the 70s goals were set for more competent public services by informing bureaucrats better. This information system was therefore directed towards the meeting point between public and public services, or towards the administrative officials in party matters. In the 80s, local information services were set up in many countries through national Videotex Systems[4]. But except for a few services in France, none of these projects got widely deployed.

In the second half of the 80s, new conditions came up, however, which would allow for a new kind of communal information system to develop. The rise in personal computer use and simple telecommunications software allowed for mailboxes, online services, and Audioboxes to be introduced. Parallel to this, citizen action and community committees had just reached a more active position in local politics. These committees are now testing new forms of technical communication in which there is no difference between those sending and those receiving.

In the mid 90s, local information was put onto the world's largest data network, the Internet. And again it is mostly the administrative officials who publish fundamental information about the community. Although here, the greatest use lies in internal administration, because the number of citizens who use the Internet still remains below two percent of the population (1995) in most European countries[5].

Other useful areas for telematic-based city information systems range from neighborhood assistance for children and senior citizens to car sharing. Newcomer integration in a city district could also be expedited by increasing first contact opportunities and obtaining local currency. Digital Cities are testing platforms for the establishment of new local communication structures on the data superhighway. We wanted to prove in our research project that the common telephone network could also be used for these purposes.

How do Audiotex services work?

The entry requirements for Audiotex Services are low technically (no computer or modem required), and socially (writing is not necessary). One of the main requirements for active citizen communication is to include as many people as possible. There are even public terminals already available for Audiotex (public telephones). There is, therefore, an accessibility comparable to common electronic media.

A normal telephone is good enough to dial for information, exchange private messages, or to take part in virtual discussions with Audiotex services. Almost all resources available on the Internet can be activated acoustically with controls such as telephone buttons or voice. These techniques have succeeded in this project.

There are, of course, also accessibility barriers in Audiotex media; for example the ability to speak clearly. Audiotex is especially suited for smaller, clearly-defined areas like local themes.

Neighborhood Telephone for Aspern

The goal in the field test "Neighborhood Telephone for Aspern" was to set up a telephone service that would allow every caller to pick from the local and specific information available. They should be able to call acoustically or by fax and be able to discuss their opinions on specific subjects. The first phase involved working out a service concept for an Audiotex service in which, above all, was easily accessible. A software development team worked together with media specialists. They were to develop a tool such that complex functions for a telephone service could be produced on various lines. In this respect, there were no limitations placed on technical possibilities. For example, technical answers were found for special wishes, such as a mechanism for assessing callers' contributions[6].

A city expansion project was chosen as the testing ground. Important decisions had already been made in this project before Audiotex was added. But in more detailed questions such as area planning, there was still much need for discussion. Because we could not predict the impact such a medium would have, we avoided more touchy subjects (such as traffic) since these subjects were already being considered by local work groups within citizen action committees.

We wanted, however, to deal with callers' specific questions when they came up; to bring in new discussion topics, or to allow citizen action groups to discuss and inform the public about their work and the results of their work.

We decided on the city expansion area, Langobardenstrasse, where 2,700 new apartments became available within a year. This test project had the advantage that we could count on existing structures, because in this area, a suburb of Vienna's city limits, efforts had already been made to integrate and design the place. An office had been set up (City Meeting Place, Aspern) and a newspaper was sent out ("There's Something Missing Here") to improve communication of the people involved. At the same time, the Neighborhood Telephone was set up under a local telephone number and displayed in a wandering exhibition of future building plans from November 1994 through February 1995. It had the following functions:

In designing the telephone service, special attention was given to ensure that communication procedures ran transparently. This was attempted by opening a virtual public place, called "The Faucet Gossip." This was not just a meeting place and discussion area. It was also a place where information could be spread, for example, about establishing a new platform in the telephone service.

Special attention was given to presentation by choosing a pleasant voice whose speech was related to the callers from this part of Vienna. Even colloquialisms were used in this process. An advertising expert was hired to arrange the texts. To increase its attractiveness, elements of entertainment and a service section were added. A competition was set up to tell and find "the best stories and the funniest sounds in the neighborhood." Here the active participants were the jurors themselves. Attempts were also made to find a place where local news could be displayed, car sharing possibilities for getting to and from work could be exchanged, and an advertising space set up for local businesses. On 8 November, 1994, the Neighborhood Telephone started with a capacity of four telephone lines. The group aimed at was the 50,000 residents of "Marchegger Asts," with special attention on the city district of Aspern (15,000 residents), where most of the building was happening.

Contents of the Neighborhood Telephone

The participants dialed the number 589-3022. This was a normal local call without any extra charges. After a musical introduction, the system tested the caller's telephone for the appropriate button controls. If it had none, speech recognition came on and gave the caller acoustic instructions with the following possibilities to choose from.

At the faucet

The first forum is the "Faucet."[7] Every participant can say what he or she finds important here. It could be the expression of daily problems, suggestions for improvements, or simply for letting out frustration. Maybe someone might come up with a good idea or suggestion.

Information on the new Langobarden quarter

At this point, a description of current activities in the Langobarden Quarter was given: what is being built, what new infrastructure is coming; and how to apply for an apartment. Those interested could speak their name and address to receive further information by mail.

"The City Meeting Place" was introduced to express one's point of view on planning and design. As the coordination center for all resident action groups in the district, they could give the dates for planning management meetings and workshops. Various topics of discussion such as traffic, area planning, or education were set up as desired on the Neighborhood Telephone.

Service hotline

This was the service and announcement section of the Neighborhood Telephone. It contained all important information for daily needs: business opening times, night druggists, outpatient times for the Social Medical Center East, times for the next farmers market, and the location of the nearest student counseling center. Other basic information was given here. But one could also record an announcement here. Furthermore, a car sharing system was set up so that the cars driving over the Danube bridge would be better occupied.

The Story and Noise Competition

This was a competition intended to appeal especially to young people. The residents were challenged to record sounds found in their neighborhood and play them back into the Neighborhood Telephone.

The field test "Neighborhood Telephone for the Aspern Area" ran from November, 1994 until the end of February, 1995. In this time, 1,998 calls were registered.

Eighty callers attempted to leave a message on "Faucet Gossip." Of these, 37 were able to do so. The others hung up too quickly or the caller erased the message after creating it. That means that 20 percent of the total 394 visitors to "Faucet Gossip" started a message recording process, and 10 percent left a message that could then be listened to by other callers.

Faucet Gossip was a message forum for local matters as follows:

The callers had barely used the capabilities offered by the program. Therefore, the project facilitators regularly arranged the more relevant themes first, to provide a better presentation.

The public relations sector of the town council, which is responsible for the expansion program, considered the Neighborhood Telephone a useful medium for making contacts and introducing detailed information aimed at local groups. It was, however, not used by town management to make contact with the people concerned. Further agreements would have been needed to do so. The public servants would have to listen to new messages regularly and respond to the local political questions raised. This aspect of the project was repeatedly considered in planning the Neighborhood Telephone. One public servant and a member of the citizen action committee even offered to take over this part of the project. But this was later found to be unnecessary because the participants did not raise many or very troublesome local political questions.

District politicians were also interested in the contents of the program's discussions. They wanted to receive a statistical report of the project, but were themselves unwilling to participate or make any entries in the Neighborhood Telephone project. This unwillingness could have come from a wrong estimate of the time needed or a wrong understanding of how the Audiotex service worked.

A selection of most important contributions is now available for listening, where the project is over at the Vienna telephone number (+43-1) 589-3022. The Public Relations Department of the City of Vienna and the research team are discussing the continuation of this project for other Vienna districts.


Telematic media, such as the Internet, mailboxes, or Audiotex are "interactive" in two ways: They allow one to choose from information sectors, that is, they allow for direct interaction with the system; and they allow one to trade news with other persons, that is, interaction between subjects. These bi-directional mass-media are especially useful for political topics where the people are directly affected where they work and live. This opportunity to increase discussion over neighborhood planning through telecommunications should be taken advantage of when considering the crisis of traditional democracies today.

Combining with current citizen action groups

Telematic media should be a constituent part and means for greater social progress-not just its goal or content. This is overlooked by many enthusiastic supporters of new forms of communication technologies. These projects, born of technology, have therefore rightly become a target for criticism by people who are seriously concerned about democratic matters.

The media is therefore best used within the framework of a comprehensive participation endeavor. This was also the research team's consideration for the Neighborhood Telephone concept which was used in the citizen participation project in Aspern.

This kind of telephone service would also be useful in the forefront of a referendum or in community elections. It would offer an additional medium in which rational discussions could take place and anyone could participate.

The inclusion of as many social groups as possible is essential for a successful and binding discourse. All social groups should aim at the following groups: the responsible authorities in a town council, public action initiatives and clubs, established interest groups, individual citizens, and business/cultural groups.

Prospective circles open up through speech-based systems

The Aspern project was an important example of communication technologies in the market. With new media such as Audiotex systems, the field of prospective users for telematic information systems can be greatly increased. Social groups, who would otherwise have no access to bi-directional services, have easy access to this system. The Audiotex field test made within this project, showed good participation. This, despite the demanding topic of city planning and almost no advertising budget.

A wide range and functional variety through combined media

Every media has its own characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. But above all they appeal to different groups. One priority here is not to shut any of these groups out. An ideal media mix with various functions should be the goal. Modern city information systems should therefore be built on a technically broad base. A mix of systems can reach more people than systems using a single technology. They also offer greater functionality.

Observing journalistic organizational requirements

Many city information projects don't reach their intended targets or are basically irrelevant. This failure cannot be blamed on the lack of acceptance towards media technology alone. It depends more on what is made available to the public, its preparation, actualization, and availability. Journalistic preparation includes a selection of information and current preparations that fit with the targeted media. It requires an active journalistic role, in which topics are presented and media events are produced. It is not only that information should be prepared, but the potential for active communication and exchange should also be available. Telematic media should therefore be seen by their instigators as "journalistic media instruments." Otherwise, they will remain an exclusive field of interest for a small group of technology enthusiasts.

Organizational and commercial planning in running media businesses

A good number of ambitious city information projects became useless after only a few months or remained available under a greatly reduced functionality, despite good feedback in the beginning. The reason for this can often be found in the failure to plan and above all in the lack of ongoing budget. Investment costs are only a fraction of the costs required by these systems. A greater amount is needed later on, to run the business and pay salaries of those who perform maintenance, moderation, and supply data and information.

Active political participation is necessary

This media cannot exist without active participation on the part of political representatives. Politicians can also gain from participation if they pay attention to the needs of the people with direct action (such as speaking on their behalf or through concrete measures). If this reaction or participation by politicians does not occur, then the media and politics looses credibility.

No false hopes

Despite the many opportunities that telecommunication can offer, it remains merely a means or a media. It is only useful in a political field where the desire to participate is there and the needed framework is available. Entry into the political arena can be eased by providing a smooth exchange of information or by making it more attractive. But still, the framework must be there. The willingness of politicians and administration to cooperate, and the openness of all parties to discussion must be there for it to work. The media can offer structures such as topic platforms or regular online meetings that design and support this communication.

In this way, telematic media have their role in this new level of the democratic process. They offer more people the opportunity to articulate their opinion than mass media have provided up to now. It is, however, based and dependent on other levels of political discussion. This connection is the prerequisite for its social and political relevance. The quasi-autistic discussions, proceeding in many areas of the Internet, remain meaningless for the outside world.

Summing up

People believe that the interactive media is leading the way to electronic democracy. Decision makers use this metaphor to demonstrate advancement or to justify investment in and promotion of high-tech sectors. But just as the metaphor, "Data Superhighway" creates a wrong analogy in consideration of the diversity of telecommunication networks, democratic processes could also never be replaced by electronically arranged communication processes.

The use of new media in democratic renewal requires the willingness of politics and administration to make changes in processes such as planning, decision making, and administrating in order to adapt them to the new media. In this way they will benefit from the directness and breadth that these media offer. The solution is definitely not in the introduction of technology, but in the promotion of the organic growth of new media. Audiotex services can especially support local political discussion. It can be used for integration as long as design requirements are observed. This was well portrayed in the project presented in this report, which used an interdisciplinary and integrative base.


[1] An Audiotex service is a telephone service that connects two participants using a common connection such as the telephone. This includes the ability to receive information by the press of a button or acoustic command. Another ability is to leave a message for a specific person or a message that can be heard by all callers, or even to order a fax. The Neighborhood Telephone is one such Audiotex service.

[2] The study, "Political participation per telephone" (in German) by Roland Alton-Scheidl and Gerhard Lukawetz is available at the Research Unit for Socio-Economics, Kegelgasse 27, A-1030 Vienna, e-mail: Alton-Scheidl@public.co.at.

[3] Further information is in the World Wide Web at Public Voice.

[4] Monitor oriented telecommunication services with national networking are Videotex services. In Austria, the monitor screen service is PAN, and in France, the teletel-service with minitel as receiver, are Vidiotex services.

[5] The number of Internet participants in Austria at the beginning of 1995 was approximately 100,000. Most of these were either students or people employed by universities. Comparison: Seidel / Hacker / Alton-Scheidl: Austria Online: An Interactive Handbook. Public Voice Publishers, pg. 16.

[6] The concept of a local currency system promises stronger local business transactions. It should remove some of the disadvantages that come about in convertible monetary currency systems (accumulation, not evaluating environmental resources, or from conservation work, and so on). In the Public Voice laboratories, their work uses the flower as a metaphor for the measure of online competence. They intend to expand this to Internet services as well in the Web4Groups project. See also the LETS concept (Local Economic Trade System).

[7] Faucet Gossip: Discussion (gossip) at the water faucet in the hall of an apartment building. These faucets can still be found in many Viennese apartment buildings.


Thanks to Gregory E. Wolfe (100130.454@compuserve.com) for translation support.