Doing IT Better

The project is ending, but  in 2010 here’s some basic information.

The Doing IT Better project, a university-community IT capacity-building project is about to get going. A key guiding principle is that of ‘Open Knowledge’, as distinct from individualistic activity. The idea of Open Knowledge had appeared to me as one similar to that found in the Open Source movement, in that strength could only come about through collaboration, information sharing, and information distribution, in a sector that is used to this principle.

The great things about the project are that

*it is independently funded
* it is for 3-years
* it is intended as action research.

See the project site for updates.

In 2004, with Randy Stoecker, during thesis research, a small scale  project (stillmanstoecker) identified many of the information, training, and support needs of Neighbourhood Houses, the archetypical neighbourhood centre, in a deprived part of Melbourne. Knowledge and information links were weak between members of the service network, despite the availability of ICTs. Something else was missing—group understanding of the issues and a capacity to move forward. The centres, on the basis of a draft report prepared through an interactive, and participatory research methodology, were able to use it as an advocacy tool. We know that public servants and parliamentarians who saw the report were stunned to read peoples’ actual words, rather than the bland filtering that occurs in traditional consultants’ reports. Evidence was presented to parliamentary committees, and while it cannot proved that the project had a direct causal effect, in 2004, additional funds were provided by government for technology infrastructure and the May 2006 Victorian State budget greatly increased overall support for Neighbourhood Houses

Continuing interest in working with the community sector led to discussions in 2005-6 with the Victorian Council of Social Service , a lead service representative organisation with many hundreds of member organisations who work with the most disadvantaged people in the community, Australia’s diverse underclass.

What struck me about the VCOSS organisations was the depth of knowledge that they had about social-technological issues, and the fact that they felt that they had no voice or means of sharing their information and building capacity to improve the quality of interaction between themselves or for their clients’ benefit. They felt that the linkages between organisations were weak, despite on-the-surface familiarity with the potential linking and sharing effects of ICTs. While government was building large, centralized databases of information, these were of little help to local information and networking needs. Outside assistance—or at least an empathetic partnership—was required to help draw out their own knowledge, build independent capacity, and to help them locate funding for long-term sustainability of such a project. Another environmental effect on the project was research in which the Centre for Community Networking Research had been involved on behalf of the Commonwealth Government. The research similarly established a high degree of information, training and support needs across the country

The organisation of a large-scale and relatively long-term project also proved a major challenge to my own status as a university researcher and the funding environment strongly influenced the direction it took. Originally, the project was framed within a strictly academic framework in order to apply for highly competitive research grants, but several factors made this impossible. First, Australian Research Council (ARC) requires matching funding, and this is very difficult to obtain in the community environment. Second, philanthropic trusts who were approached for support were unable to make a decision within the ARC timelines, and the project concept was not something with which they were familiar. Third, it was forcing the issue to try to frame an action-research, community-based change project as a project for academic funding which would inevitability and primarily result in pure research findings rather than a combination of community practice and middle range theories. Despite these problems, further iterations of the project proposal were developed with VCOSS and eventually, a private foundation with a commitment to social justice agreed to fully-fund the project for 3 years for a university researcher and VCOSS assistant.

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