Building Knowledge, Building Community: Integrating Internet Access to Secondary Data as Part of the Community Development Process

Article excerpt

Too often, the approach to secondary data collection and analysis in community development is to handle it as an activity separate from other participatory processes. Today, as the internet has grown, not only has easy access to online sources of secondary data increased, but the internet itself has opened up the ability of communities to engage in data collection and analysis in new and innovative ways. Engaging communities in building internet-based access to locally relevant data can result in the inter-related outcomes of increased knowledge about one's community and increased local access to community data, while doing it in a way that builds community relationships and local ownership of the results, as well as increased ease with internet technology. Included are suggestions for both the process and product in integrating internet-based data access into local community development.

Keywords: community development, Internet-based access, situational analysis

Understanding socio-economic and demographic change has important implications for community decisions such as program development, public services, infrastructure, and economic development. While a common element in community development processes, it is not uncommon for an examination of secondary socio-economic and demographic data to be treated as an activity separate from other, more participatory processes. When it comes to community development and internet technology, the role of secondary data is often treated as a separate section of an information clearinghouse approach to community websites. In this approach, providing access to secondary data is often one piece of a larger website that also provides information such as community activities and services.

This paper explores the incorporation of increasing internet access to secondary socio-economic and demographic data as part of participatory community development processes. Engaging community members, institutions, and organizations in building web-based access to locally relevant secondary data not only increases knowledge of and access to these data, but by integrating it into the larger participatory community development process, it can also be used to build community capacity and organizational relationships, be used as a tool to facilitate citizen engagement and increase a sense of local ownership of the data results.

THE INTERNET AND BUILDING COMMUNITY

As the internet has grown, it has become increasingly incorporated into our daily lives. At the same time, the role and potential in the internet for community development have been popular topics. Some common themes in the role of the internet in community building include increasing access to the internet (e.g. Beamish, 1999) and the relationship of its usage to community development principles such as building social and community capital (e.g. Wellman et al., 2001).

The "digital divide" is most often used to refer to differential access to the internet. For example, rates of computer ownership in low income households are much lower in rural areas compared to urban areas (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2002). Access to the internet remains difficult in places such as the sparsely populated West or the Appalachian Mountains (GAO, 2001).From an organizational perspective, a recent survey of local governments in the Northeast found a smaller proportion (56-67 percent) of town governments with computers having access to the internet compared to that reported for city governments (82-100 percent) (Kelsey et al., 2002).

Examining individual level access in North Carolina, after socioeconomic variables were controlled for, the digital divide for rural residents and by gender disappeared (Wilson et al., 2003). For African Americans, however, the divide remained. On the other hand, while African Americans were less likely to have home computers and therefore internet service at home, they were more likely to know of public computer/internet access sites. …