Past Issues of Government Technology

Tips from Those Who've Been There

Building your own network is a complicated process. Understanding other communities' experiences may help you determine whether or not a community network is right for you.

by / October 31, 1995 0
Nov 95

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 productivity and sales in the area [because of the network]," said Furno. "Eventually, we may even find that we have drawn new businesses to our area."

Paying the Price Developing a network is not cheap. Expensive hardware and software must be purchased and extra personnel must often be hired to configure or set up the system. Because money is a constant obstacle in state and local government, several organizations have come up with unique ways of financing their ventures onto the information highway. One way is through volunteer services and donations. Because online services and networks are a fairly new medium and a hot topic in the media, many people are enthusiastic about it, and volunteer services and support were not hard to come by for many organizations. For example, once the idea for Smart Valley was planted, Fearey said more than 100 people from local companies, schools and governments - as well as private citizens - volunteered to help turn the dream into reality. Smart Valley now operates with donated services and equipment worth approximately $450,000. The GREMLAN project also relied on volunteers to get started. The project's three participating municipalities allocated $10,000 each for initial funding, but hardware and software to run the network were obtained at a substantial discount as the result of volunteer efforts and corporate interest. In all, the donated time, services and products that went into the system were valued at over $300,000. "We all recognized that if you're going to be competitive in this world, you're going to have to grow forces together, you can't be independent," said Furno. "The project was too massive [for any one of us to do alone] and there wasn't much money in this area to support it, so it was up to the community as a team. By using all volunteer services, support and equipment, we were able to keep monetary obligations low," he explained. Some networks rely on partnerships to help ease financial strains. Virtual Valley coordinators asked public television station KTEH to help sponsor their network. When word got out, the cities of Los Gatos, San Jose, and Saratoga expressed interest in joining as well. The network has now formed a number of additional partnerships with organizations all over the southern San Francisco Bay area. Network organizers say this arrangement has several advantages. The network benefits because it can add more information and more services for users, while its partners benefit from wide exposure for their organization. But working together is not always as easy as it sounds. "We have been lucky in that we have found a team that works well together and that has run into very few problems," Furno explained. "Most communities find it hard to get along with their fellow municipalities, so the first thing you have to do is get over the barriers." The Davis Community Network partnered with the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans) to develop its network. CalTrans provided 80 percent of the initial network resources for an ongoing study into alternate modes of transportation. In exchange, network partners collect data on the transportation effects of residential telecenters. They are also involved in a distance learning feasibility study. The city of Merced, Calif., took a different approach and became one of the first cities to align itself with a national online service by partnering with Prodigy. Merced's network, which includes a bulletin board for messages, city news and a mailbox, cost roughly $20,000 to get online. Using a commercial service to go online eliminated the need for Merced to configure or set up the system and freed them from having to deal with other time-intensive and complicated matters. Several other online service providers are now offering this service. But the downside is that only subscribers to those particular services can access the networks.

Words to Build By One major key to success with community networks is providing what the community needs and/or wants. John Brice, chairman of the GREMLAN technical support team, said his search for information to add to GREMLAN is always spurred by the community itself. "We are trying to develop things with the community in mind," he said. "At the library we have 80,000 books in our collection, which we collected with an eye for what the community could use. We're thinking of [this] the same way - collecting companies and databases [for the network] that are specifically needed by our community." Furno emphasized the importance of studying the specifics of the volatile technology marketplace before setting up a network. "We were concerned with gearing ourselves up for compatibility with any type of communications networking that emerges," he said. "It would be a mistake to put money into a network that is not flexible. You have to be open for rapid change when it comes to technology." But despite the barriers, most people agreed that venturing into cyberspace - provided you have thought it out completely - has its advantages. "It's a complicated subject," said Fearey of Virtual Valley. "But [communities] really ought to be looking into it and trying to understand it because we think there are real benefits - not only to the business community and economic development, but also to government in building bridges to the citizens." Kathie Blankenship, director of Marketing and Communications for Smart Valley, advises communities to start with things that are achievable and then build on those successes. "I think the tendency is to want to do something really grand, but then you get bogged down in the bureaucracy and the cost and the time that it takes," she said. "A better idea is to go after things that are do-able, that can be demonstrated as successful, and that will capture people's imagination."