We discuss the vision, plan, and status of a research project investigating community-oriented services and applications, comprising a wireless community network, in State College, Pennsylvania, USA. Our project specifically investigates new possibilities afforded by mobile and location-sensitive wireless networking access with respect to community engagement and informal learning, as well as broader changes in community attitudes and behaviors associated with the deployment of this new infrastructure.
Introduction And Background
During the next several years, many American communities (cites, towns and other relatively populated areas) will consider investing in pervasive wireless networking infrastructures, with the intent of providing better broadband coverage for their citizens and also acting as an information technologies (IT) resource for municipal services. These infrastructures could broaden the currently-typical “Starbuck’s scenario” (accessing one’s email over a cup of coffee) to include ubiquitous interactions, that is, continuous and location-sensitive Internet access through personal devices. But why should municipalities and citizens do this? More specifically, what are there civic rationales for developing these infrastructures? Can these infrastructures serve as more than just a way to access the broader Internet, and additionally provide a means for civic engagement and civic action on a local scale? If so, what are examples of effective civic applications of public wireless infrastructures?
This area is rapidly gathering momentum both as research and as development. Much of the work in this area has focused on creating opportunities for interaction between friends (Burak & Sharon, 2004), classmates (Schilit, et. al,2003), distant strangers (Davis & Karahalios, 2005, Paay, 2005), game players (Chang & Goodman, 2004; Crabtree, et. al, 2005; Vogiazou et. al, 2005), and even dating partners (e.g. match.com offers mobile services) through matching and notification services. Other work focuses on providing users with information through mobile guides and the ability to provide users with information in educational settings such as museums (Kjeldskov, et. al, 2005; Sumi & Mase, 2000).
A few researchers have drafted scenarios that relate to community capacity building. Ananny et. al. (2003) describe a system used by residents of a housing complex who used a text messaging service to add captions to photos of their community as a way to deal with neighborhood change. Lane (2003) described a system in which users could access and add location-specific content to a place (museums, libraries, schools) providing a sense of community memory. Leimeister et. al, (2004) describe a scenario in which information is made available to virtual communities of cancer patients via web-based services. On a limited scale, systems such as Neighbornode (http://www.neighbornode.net/) have been created which allow for the creation of neighborhood hubs allowing news and information to be shared in a community.
Although some work has addressed community capacity building, most of it is policy discussion or envisionment (and not actual design, prototyping, and evaluation) and most of it has not focused on mobility and real-time interactions. For example, Gurstein (2002), in the research literature, as well as Intel’s (2005) whitepaper “Core Technologies for Developing a Digital Community Framework” and their 2006 “webinar” collaboration with the Knight Foundation and One Economy, emphasize wireless community applications but, in general, conflate applications specifically-enabled by wireless infrastructures (e.g., real-time, mobile interaction) with access to the Internet at all.
It is well known that people use technology to support and maintain existing social relationships in their homes, in the workplace, in their neighborhoods, and in community organizations (Center for the Digital Future, 2005; Horrigan, 2001; Wellman & Hampton, 1999; Wellman, et. al, 2001). However, the existing literature is quite desktop bound: It does not address how people might appropriate mobile/location-sensitive network services to maintain their connections to existing community organizations or to develop new connections. We are creating a test bed to explore this.