Justine Kavanaugh Staff Writer World Wide Web pages, community networks and Internet sites are popping up everywhere. These days, you can't even look for a movie or browse through advertisements in the newspaper without being directed to a Web site where you can find more information and even photographs on the topic. But how important is it for an organization to have its own Web site or network? How do you go about setting one up if you want one, and what do you need to know before you begin? Several state and local government agencies around the nation have set up their own community networks, and many have been successful in accomplishing various goals. Understanding their experiences may help you determine if a community network would benefit your organization.
Scoring Goals One item of common agreement among agencies that have developed networks is the importance of setting goals. People in your organization may want a network of their own - but do they know why? Is there a clear goal in mind as to what this will accomplish, or is it just a matter of doing it because the technology is available? Will it be of real value to people, and will anyone want to visit your network? The Davis Community Network, which offers citizens of Davis, Calif., e-mail, conferencing, public forums, a variety of city and community information bulletin boards, an online library reference desk and an inquiry service, began their venture by writing out a straightforward, clear goal: "To operate for the public benefit an education-information system which serves the Davis community with a model interactive electronic network." This clear, precise goal ensured that network administrators didn't wander too far off course because it provided them with a target. Dan Minick, chairman of the joint committee formed to develop the Greater Meadville Area Local Access Network (GREMLAN) - a community network located in Pennsylvania - said "Our most important goal is to make government more accessible and interactive." This is a common goal among municipalities interested in designing their own networks, but setting this general a goal is usually not enough. Goals must be specific, and they must include a plan for achieving them. Joseph Furno, systems consultant for GREMLAN, advises communities to clearly define goals for the system and to select a non-partisan leader who can help work out problems that arise and keep the project moving forward. Smart Valley, a network based in California's Silicon Valley, formed their goal based on what they saw forthcoming in the future - an increasingly electronic world - and worked to prepare their community for it. "Smart Valley grew out of a solid vision," said Seth Fearey, one of Smart Valley's directors. "It was created not because we thought the technology was nifty, but because we wanted to build the infrastructure for what we believe is going to be a new 21st century economy."
On a Mission Aside from setting specific goals, several people agreed that having a more general, overall mission for the network and the organization as a whole was important for maintaining a sense of purpose for the project. Virtual Valley Community Network's mission is to serve the entire south San Francisco Bay area. "You can't find region-specific information gathered in one place on a national network," said David Lea of Virtual Valley Inc. Therefore, the network - which links members of the educational community, government, media, business, television stations, schools, non-profit associations, art groups, child care services and community newspapers - was designed to fill this need. The GREMLAN network has an economically-centered mission - to aid the revitalization of the once-heavily industrialized and booming community of Meadville, Pa. The area has suffered substantial economic distress due to the loss of many of its large, industrial employers. "I think we are going to see a dramatic increase in