Desktop Town Halls

Community networks can provide citizens with a wealth of information about the area around them -- as long as local governments dont get too involved.

by / July 17, 2001
For all the talk about how the Internet will transform the world into one global community, little has changed for most people. In general, they still shop, eat out and go to the movies within their local communities. Sure, they use the Internet to read national news, e-mail a relative or spend time in a chat room with strangers, but their local activities remain largely in the "real world."

Thats something Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore hopes to change. Last March, Gilmore rolled out a set of "guiding principles" for the creation of electronic communities statewide. "We firmly believe that this e-communities initiative has the potential to spur economic development and deliver enhanced service to citizens and business," Gilmore said in a press release announcing the principles laid out by the states Task Force on E-Communities.

These principles, which include leadership coming from local government and e-communities being open to all, may strike the Net savvy as simplistic. But Andrew M. Cohill, co-chair of the Task Force on E-Communities and director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village, suggests that many local officials need this kind of guidance. "By having the task force say this, we help show elected officials where to start," he said.

The Task Force on E-Communities, which Gov. Gilmore founded last August, is also developing a guidebook that will suggest ways for communities and their associated governments to create and maintain community networks that incorporate these principles.

Even with the guidebook, communities will still be free to do as much -- or as little -- as they want online. "The feeling of the task force is that its very important the state doesnt dictate a one-size-fits-all solution," said Cohill. "Communities have their own identity and history, and the Web sites content should reflect that."

As Meredith Richards, a task force member and city councilor from Charlottesville, describes the situation, the community network requires the cooperation of four groups: government, business, education and community service/nonprofit organizations. "They all need to be brought together to create a new community," she said. "Government cant do it alone."

In fact, some task force members would prefer that government doesnt do it at all. "We didnt want the local government to decide what would and would not be in an electronic village," said John Thillman, chairman of the Reston eVillage. Instead, Thillman, an urban planner by profession, hoped to duplicate the feel of an old New England village in which all the information a citizen needed was posted on a central kiosk downtown that was open to everyone.

Minimizing Intervention

The problems with government running community network sites are twofold. First, theres the thorny issue of free speech. For example, a discussion board must typically be moderated or require that visitors use passwords to access it. If it doesnt, it risks a flood of spam, rants and insulting posts. Any attempt to moderate the board would be viewed as an invasion of free speech. Even worse, a posting system based on passwords would theoretically allow the government to monitor an individual users posts, which is a privacy issue most officials wouldnt dare approach. "Local government does not want to get involved in mediating free speech issues," said Cohill. "Thats never going to work."

Thillman explained that Reston has solved the discussion board problem by allowing only residents of the community to post their opinions. "If you want to communicate, you have to register. But if you live in Reston and are a member of the Homeowners Association [the closest thing Reston has to a local government], then youre automatically allowed to register," he said.

And unlike most discussion boards, individuals cannot use aliases when they post, which makes Restons citizens much more responsible about what they say. "Its like going to a public hearing," said Thillman. "If you want to make comments for the record, you have to stand up, give your name and address and show youre a member of the community."

No Favoritism

The second problem that arises involves the business and organization directories that form a big chunk of these community networks. How does the local government ensure that every organization is treated without favoritism, and how does it deal with posting contact information for unsavory but legal businesses? Most citizens would be outraged if a government-run site gave directions to, say, an adult bookstore, but the only alternative would be to post no directions for any business.

In addition, Cohill said not all of the 500 businesses listed on the Blacksburg Electronic Village are located within town. "Some are nearby and of interest to the townspeople, so we list them anyway," he said. "The town wants to promote Blacksburg businesses only, while were trying to serve the community at large."

Cohill and Thillman feel that the ideal community network would be run by a nonprofit organization.

In this arrangement, governments role is limited to a few peripheral yet vital areas, one being the funding of the sites themselves. "[Government] regularly supports public parks and community halls, facilities which are supported by the citizens through taxes. If community networks provide some of those same services, the government should play a [financial] role," said Cohill.

Publicly funded access to the community network is another way that government can help finance this network, suggested Richards. "This portal should be equally accessible to all," she said.

Cohill said that government should create all of its own pages and develop e-government as it sees fit. If a town wants to sell parking permits online or let citizens renew their drivers licenses electronically, it needs to take responsibility for those areas of e-commerce.

The only area of governmental crossover should come in what Cohill refers to as e-governance, or using technology to improve decision-making in the community. "If [government] wants to discuss a zoning issue or make decisions about water and sewer rights, then a community network can help sponsor and mediate those discussions as a neutral third party," he said.

Cohill said that an e-mail list run by one of the local school officials is a modest but effective use of e-governance. "Its a simple, low-tech way that people are able to interact with government officials."

"Because this is a new idea, were still working out the services, vision and goals of community networks and dealing with ever-changing technology," said Cohill. But by setting up outside the shifting winds of ever-changing governmental parties, he and other network directors expect to build electronic communities that will be able to change and grow with their real-world counterparts forever.