Building Local Capacity via Scaleable Web-Based Services

Building Local Capacity via Scaleable Web-Based Services

Helen Thompson (University of Ballarat, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch069
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Abstract

Information communications technology (ICT) has been identified as a key enabler in the achievement of regional and rural success, particularly in terms of economic and business development. The potential of achieving equity of service through improved communications infrastructure and enhanced access to government, health, education, and other services has been identified. ICT has also been linked to the aspiration of community empowerment, where dimensions include revitalizing a sense of community, building regional capacity, enhancing democracy, and increasing social capital. In Australia, there has been a vision for online services to be used to open up regional communities to the rest of the world. Government support has been seen “as enhancing the competence levels of local economies and communities so they become strong enough to deal equitably in an increasingly open marketplace” (McGrath & More, 2002, p. 40). In a regional and rural context, the availability of practical assistance is often limited. Identification of the most appropriate online services for a particular community is sometimes difficult (Ashford, 1999; Papandrea & Wade, 2000; Pattulock & Albury Wodonga Area Consultative Committee, 2000). Calls, however, continue for regional communities to join the globalized, online world. These are supported by the view that success today is based less and less on natural resource wealth, labor costs, and relative exchange rates, and more and more on individual knowledge, skills, and innovation. But how can regional communities “grab their share of this wealth” and use it to strengthen local communities (Simpson 1999, p. 6)? Should communities be moving, as Porter (2001, p. 18) recommends (for business), away from the rhetoric about “Internet industries,” “e-business strategies,” and the “new economy,” to see the Internet as “an enabling technology—a powerful set of tools that can be used, wisely or unwisely, in almost any industry and as part of almost any strategy?” Recent Australian literature (particularly government literature) does indeed demonstrate somewhat of a shift in terms of the expectations of ICT and e-commerce (National Office for the Information Economy, 2001; Multimedia Victoria, 2002; National Office for the Information Economy, 2002). Consistent with reflections on international industry experience, there is now a greater emphasis on identifying locally appropriate initiatives, exploring opportunities for improving existing communication and service quality, and for using the Internet and ICT to support more efficient community processes and relationships (Hunter, 1999; Municipal Association of Victoria and ETC Electronic Trading Concepts Pty Ltd., 2000; National Office for the Information Economy, 2002). The objective of this article is to explore whether welldeveloped and well-implemented online services can make a positive contribution to the future of regional and rural communities. This will be achieved by disseminating some of the learning from the implementation of the MainStreet Regional Portal project (www.mainstreet.net.au). To provide a context for this case study, the next section introduces some theory relevant to virtual communities and portals. The concept of online communities is introduced and then literature is reviewed to identify factors that have been acknowledged as important in the success of online community and portal initiatives.
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Introduction

Information communications technology (ICT) has been identified as a key enabler in the achievement of regional and rural success, particularly in terms of economic and business development. The potential of achieving equity of service through improved communications infrastructure and enhanced access to government, health, education, and other services has been identified. ICT has also been linked to the aspiration of community empowerment, where dimensions include revitalizing a sense of community, building regional capacity, enhancing democracy, and increasing social capital.

In Australia, there has been a vision for online services to be used to open up regional communities to the rest of the world. Government support has been seen “as enhancing the competence levels of local economies and communities so they become strong enough to deal equitably in an increasingly open marketplace” (McGrath & More, 2002, p. 40). In a regional and rural context, the availability of practical assistance is often limited. Identification of the most appropriate online services for a particular community is sometimes difficult (Ashford, 1999; Papandrea & Wade, 2000; Pattulock & Albury Wodonga Area Consultative Committee, 2000). Calls, however, continue for regional communities to join the globalized, online world. These are supported by the view that success today is based less and less on natural resource wealth, labor costs, and relative exchange rates, and more and more on individual knowledge, skills, and innovation. But how can regional communities “grab their share of this wealth” and use it to strengthen local communities (Simpson 1999, p. 6)? Should communities be moving, as Porter (2001, p. 18) recommends (for business), away from the rhetoric about “Internet industries,” “e-business strategies,” and the “new economy,” to see the Internet as “an enabling technology—a powerful set of tools that can be used, wisely or unwisely, in almost any industry and as part of almost any strategy?”

Recent Australian literature (particularly government literature) does indeed demonstrate somewhat of a shift in terms of the expectations of ICT and e-commerce (National Office for the Information Economy, 2001; Multimedia Victoria, 2002; National Office for the Information Economy, 2002). Consistent with reflections on international industry experience, there is now a greater emphasis on identifying locally appropriate initiatives, exploring opportunities for improving existing communication and service quality, and for using the Internet and ICT to support more efficient community processes and relationships (Hunter, 1999; Municipal Association of Victoria and ETC Electronic Trading Concepts Pty Ltd., 2000; National Office for the Information Economy, 2002).

The objective of this article is to explore whether well-developed and well-implemented online services can make a positive contribution to the future of regional and rural communities. This will be achieved by disseminating some of the learning from the implementation of the MainStreet Regional Portal project (www.mainstreet.net.au). To provide a context for this case study, the next section introduces some theory relevant to virtual communities and portals. The concept of online communities is introduced and then literature is reviewed to identify factors that have been acknowledged as important in the success of online community and portal initiatives.

Key Terms in this Chapter

‘Bottom-Up’ Approach: Development approach founded upon the principle that communities are better placed to coordinate and integrate efforts at the local level.

Community Informatics: A multidisciplinary field for the investigation of the social and cultural factors shaping the development and diffusion of new ICT and its effects upon community development, regeneration, and sustainability.

Community Portal: Online initiative often developed through participative processes which aims to achieve better coordination of relevant Web-based information and provide communication services for community members.

Regional Development: The act, process, or result of actions to grow, expand, or bring a regional place to a more advanced or effective state.

Web Portal: Focal points on the Web which provide a place to start. Web portals facilitate the location of information by incorporating the strengths of search engines and additionally provide more efficient access to information by categorizing it into easily recognizable subcategories or channels.

Study: The intensive examination of a single instance of a phenomenon or where one or just a few cases are intensively examined using a variety of data-gathering techniques.

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