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Community Volunteers Build Grass-Roots Network

In Meadville, Penn., citizens didn't let a lack of money and other resources keep them from becoming part of the Information Age.

by / February 28, 1995
The spirit of cooperation and the generosity of volunteers have gone a long way over the last year in the small community of Meadville, Penn. There, a group of people came together to build an interactive local area network designed to help their community grow and prosper. What they ended up with is one of the most advanced collaborative networks in the country.

The Greater Meadville Area Local Access Network (GREMLAN) is a cooperative project of the city of Meadville, the township of Vernon, and the township of West Mead. The cooperation between the three communities and - in turn - their cooperation with the private sector, is the first known collaborative effort of its kind. That, and the fact that the technical design and implementation of the system was accomplished solely with local volunteer services, is what makes this system so unique.

WHAT YOU CAN FIND

GREMLAN provides local government information, access to the resources of the Meadville Public Library, public health information from the Meadville Medical Center, information about locally available social services and information about goods and services available in the greater Meadville area. The system also offers local e-mail and provides a gateway to the Internet.

Throughout the planning stages, the GREMLAN committee continually focused their attention on making government information and services easier to locate and use.

"Our most important goal," explained Dan Minick, chairman of the West Mead Township Board of Supervisors and chairman of the joint committee formed to develop GREMLAN, "is to make government more accessible and interactive."

Currently, each participating municipality has its own database on the system, each of which includes information on local ordinances. Plans are underway to provide more specific information, such as how to fill out a building permit or how to obtain certain government forms. Ultimately, GREMLAN organizers would like citizens to have to ability to print out certain forms, fill them out and mail them in rather than make a visit to a government office.

GREMLAN is also linked to "Thomas" - the new Internet connection to the Library of Congress, and FedWorld, which provides access to an enormous amount of federal databases

John Brice, executive director of the Meadville Public Library and chairman of the GREMLAN technical support team, is responsible for databases on the GREMLAN system. "We are currently trying to form connections to the World Wide Web so we can then link up to additional databases from GREMLAN," he explained.

Brice said his search for information to add to GREMLAN is spurred by the community itself. "We are trying to develop things with the community in mind," he said. "Here 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 databases the same way - collecting companies and databases that are specifically needed by our community."

THE VOLUNTEER CONCEPT

The three participating municipalities separately approved GREMLAN in late 1993, allocating $10,000 each for initial funding. The system officially opened for use on Sept. 13, 1994, after 13 months of planning and work. The only expenses incurred during that time were for the purchase of the actual hardware and software. But even those 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 are 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 Joseph Furno, systems consultant for GREMLAN and a supervisor in Vernon Township. "[We] recognized very quickly that 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."

Community cooperation was also viewed as a way to keep financial liabilities under control. "By using all volunteer services, support and equipment, we were able to keep monetary obligations low. This in turn will make it possible to keep user's fees to a minimum, allow us to pay for the cost of operation and to repay the three communities that fronted the original $30,000 as soon as possible," Furno explained.

Currently, the annual fee to subscribe to the GREMLAN bulletin board is just $15 per year. Internet access can be obtained for an additional monthly fee of $10 for three hours of use, or $20 for 15 hours of use.

Furno also noted that bringing together a group of volunteers from all walks of life helped get the word out about the project. "Each person went back to their own organization and told everyone else what was happening. So when the system went online, we didn't need to do any advertising - the word was already out. Also, by bringing together people from all areas, we were able to learn from each other."

AIDING THE ECONOMY

Once a heavily industrialized and booming community, the Meadville area has suffered substantial economic distress upon the loss of many of its large, industrial employers. The community is now looking to GREMLAN as a key effort toward their economic revitalization. "I think we are going to see a dramatic increase in productivity and sales in the area. Eventually, we may even find that we have drawn new businesses to our area," said Furno.

An example of this effort is the new Industrial Park bulletin board. This BBS is a good source of information about what is happening in the tool and machining industry, for which the Meadville area has been well known since the turn of the century. The BBS provides in-depth information on specific companies, including what products and services they offer, prices and other general information. According to Furno, this information is helping to keep jobs in the local community. "Now, if a company hears of a job that they can't handle themselves, they can use the system to find another local company that can do it and subcontract it to them. That way, we keep it here in the community."

LOOKING AHEAD

According to Furno, GREMLAN attracted over 200 users during its first three months online. Several colleges, universities and businesses have recently shown interest in joining the network. GREMLAN coordinators are open to adding more participants to the system, and can sometimes even connect these groups at costs up to 50 percent less than what they might pay if they were to use a common service provider.

The GREMLAN volunteers hope to keep the system as self-sufficient as possible in the future. They are also concerned about building a system that is flexible enough to adjust to whatever sudden turns technology may take. "What we are concerned with doing here is gearing ourselves up for compatibility with any type of communications networking that emerges, " said Furno. "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."

Furno's advice to communities that may be interested in pursuing a similar system is to clearly define goals for the system and to then select a non-partisan leader to help work out problems that arise and to keep the project moving forward. "We have been lucky in that we have found a team that works well together and that has run into very few problems," he explained. "Most communities find it hard to get along with their fellow municipalities, so the first thing you have to do is get over thebarriers."

GREMLAN'S GOALS

The GREMLAN team found it helpful to clearly define the goals they wanted to reach with their system while they were designing it. Following is a list of the things they wanted to achieve:

+ Improved communication between citizens and local government.

+ A forum for access to community information related to local government, the arts, the library and literary and commercial activities.

+ A marketing tool for local businesses and industry.

+ Improved computer literacy among local citizens.

+ A presence for the Meadville area on the Internet as a resource for future educational, public service, commercial and industrial development.

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