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.
Beamish (1999) uses community for introducing access to internet technology. Three models are used: community networks that provide low or no cost internet service to community members; community computing in which computer centers provide public access to the internet; and community content that uses the development of locally relevant online content in order to attract users. These approaches are technology-centered and focus on increasing access and use of the internet in a community setting.
Another familiar theme has been the role (potential and realized) of the internet in building community. Here, the focus is often on the discursive elements of the internet in facilitating new communication mechanisms for citizens. This dialogue is centered on those parts of the internet that allow for exchanges such as chat, e-mail or list serves, and is examined for its role in increasing citizen participation and dialogue.
Gimmler (2001) argues that key aspects of the internet such as equality of access to information, as a locality where citizens can discuss topics of interest, and its breadth of reach beyond geography, ideally suit the internet as an instrument in deliberative democracy. Similarly, Bakardjieva and Feenberg (2002) argue that the internet can provide for the democratization of technology in the building of virtual community. Taking a different tack, Wellman et al. (2001) examined the effect of the internet on individual social capital and found that there was no single effect. Instead, some components showed a positive role, supplementing existing networks and social ties, while others involved more asocial or solitary activities.
Another theme often centers around community access to a central network. Variously called community networks, community electronic networks, or community computer networks, common features include increasing computer and internet access in a specific spatial area such as a rural community. Kavanaugh and Patterson (2001), for instance, found that despite increasing use of the local community computer network, they found no concurrent increase in community involvement by individuals. Borgida et al. (2002), on the other hand, found that the civic culture in a community affected the approach to technology diffusion and the community network's role in increasing access to the internet and community involvement.
Using a different approach, Tonn et al. (2001) examined community website content for its potential role in the formation of local social capital through specific vehicles that would provide opportunities for citizen input, dialogue, and other interactional components. Although the websites examined provided varying amounts of local information, since "they [did] not attempt to become hubs of social interaction," their contribution to social capital is considered negligible (2001, p. 209).
Kirschenbaum and Kunamneni (2001) are critical of this access-based approach asking "technology access for what purpose?" By contrast, they argue, the next step is building the capacity of community based organizations to better utilize the internet and to create locally relevant content. Without taking this next step, access-centered approaches are at risk of "building digital bridges to nowhere" (2001, p. 25).
Joining both themes of access and community development, Pinkett (2003) takes a different approach. In this case, Pinkett argues that increasing access and the role of the computer technology can be concurrent community building tools. Specifically, Pinkett used Kretzman and McKnight's community asset mapping as a mechanism to both increase the ability of low income residents to use computers in a networked environment while at the same time conducting Asset-Based Community Development. The results indicated that increasing access to technology and community development can work hand in hand.
Increasing knowledge of socio-economic and demographic trends affecting communities and the implications for community decisions are included in many approaches to community development (e.g. Williams, 1990). Understanding the pace and nature of socio-economic and demographic change has important implications for program development, public services, infrastructure, and economic development. This component, often named situational analysis, usually calls for collecting and analyzing secondary socio-economic and demographic data on one's community. These data often include elements such as population change, job structure, income, and others, and they are usually drawn from secondary data sources such as the Census.
While approaches vary, these secondary data are examined in several ways. A profile can give a view into the current status of variables such as the most recent unemployment rate. Data can be treated comparatively such as comparing data on one's community to nearby places, the state, or even the nation. Trends over time are also often examined.
Once collected, these data are typically used in the community development process in several ways: (1) as background information about the community; (2) as a reality check on community participants' perceptions about their community; and (3) as information on which to base decisions. Underlying all of these uses is the goal to increase community knowledge, ultimately effecting informed and effective decision-making.
While a common element in community development, it is also not uncommon for an examination of secondary data to be treated as an activity separate from its participatory processes. More typically, data are collected, analyzed, and presented to community members. This approach reinforces a view of socio-economic and demographic data being seen as elusive, held by experts, or located in reference sections of libraries.
Today, with the growth of the computer age and the internet, availability of secondary socio-economic and demographic data is unprecedented. This access at the click of a mouse opens new opportunities to use secondary data in community development processes in innovative ways.
Not only has the internet opened up public access to secondary data, but the numerous online sources of secondary data have continued to grow. Data are available through a wide array of websites. For example, the federal government has increased access to public data bases such as the decennial Census using the American Factfinder interface at the Census Bureau website (http://factfinder.census.gov) and the Regional Economic Information System at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis website (http://www.bea.gov/bea/regional/reis). Because the agencies generating the data are also providing online access, these sites can be called original source websites.
Data are also available through any number of compilation websites. These are websites that collect and provide access to selected data (often from original source websites) surrounding a particular theme or issue. The model is often one of a "one-stop-shop" for data on a particular topic or surrounding a specific use or theme. Kids Count (http://www.aecf.org/kidscount) or economic development websites are good examples. Others include the Labor Market Information system established through the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) (http://bls.gov/eag/home.htm), State Chambers of Commerce (http://www.uschamber.com/chambers/chamber_directory.asp), and State Data Centers through the Census Bureau (http://www.census.gov/sdc/www).
However, along with this unprecedented access, new challenges have emerged. While the internet has made information of all kinds more easily available than ever before, navigating online sources can still be daunting. As Chapa et al. (2002) points out, while the internet provides easy and immediate access to information of all kinds, its size, complexity, and abundance of information can also hinder its use. The same challenges are evident when it comes to accessing secondary data.
With the abundance of data on the internet, finding a single or particular piece of information can be challenging and time consuming. As DePaulo (1992) noted, large organizations have staff who are able to navigate complex databases. Small organizations, such as those found in rural communities, may be aware that information exists on the internet, but lack the staff, knowledge, or time to sift through the numerous websites and the detailed information found there.
The rapid nature of change on the internet can add to this complexity. A favorite website can disappear literally overnight. For example, the Government Information Sharing Project (also called GovInfo) was a user-friendly site for accessing commonly used data from multiple federal sources such as the Housing and Population Census, the Regional Economic Information System, the Economic Census, and others. All databases were set up using the same interface. Consequently, if you knew how to access data from one source, you knew how to access data from all of the sources.
Begun in 1995, the Government Information Sharing Project (GovInfo) had provided a central clearing house for accessing secondary federal data online. But, in 2002, GovInfo would end and it became called GovStats. The interface was changed and it provided access to only a few databases. The website explains that the change came in part because many more federal agencies had developed their own internet-based access to their data than was the case when GovInfo began. Then, in January 2004, GovStats was also ended. Unfortunately, without a "one-stop-shop" such as GovInfo, users now face the challenge of accessing data at each federal agency's individual website, each one with its own and different navigation interface.
BUILDING WEB-BASED ACCESS
In order to deal with the size, complexity, and large quantity of information on the internet, there are websites that seek to help facilitate access by sifting through and organizing information in the internet. For example, the Cooperative Extension system has done this in areas such as the Dairy Management Website (Chapa et al., 2002), AvianNet (Latour and Meunier, 1999), and the Small Farm/New Farm website (Polson and Gastier, 2001).
The same is the case for secondary data as is evidenced in the many compilation websites available. Many of these websites contain a statewide or narrow thematic focus, leaving communities seeking to increase their knowledge and understanding of local trends to sift through large amounts of data. Furthermore, maintaining state-level compilation websites can be time-intensive. As a result, these websites may not necessarily contain the most up-to-date data. They also may or may not contain longitudinal data or data specific to local needs and issues.
One way to address these limitations is for local communities to develop their own internet accessible compilation website specifically designed to meet local needs. In so doing, not only does the compilation provide easy access to customized secondary socio-economic and demographic data, but also it can be a service to others in the community. For example, it can provide easy access to data commonly used in locally developed grant proposals or by a local social justice group looking for community data to use in a living wage campaign.
Zimmerman and Meyer (2003) conducted research examining how state-level Cooperative Extension services provided internet-based access to secondary socio-economic and demographic data. While this research focused on the extent to which Cooperative Extension used their state website to provide access to secondary data online and the modes of access utilized, the findings provide insights into internet-based data access provision and form the basis for the following discussion. Some of the lessons learned in this research include providing complete information on data sources, including the URL in the text as well as in hyperlinks, and providing hyperlinks to the webpages with the data instead of agency homepages, among many other lessons. Overall, Zimmerman and Meyer (2003) found, depending upon the amount, type, and organization of the information provided, that a simply designed website can be as useful (and sometimes more useful) than a complicated website.
Among the specific findings from this study, two major modes of data access were identified:" indirect access webpages" and "direct access websites." "Indirect access webpages" are those that provide hyperlinks to the websites containing the referenced data. Usually organized on a single page, these were also called "links only" webpages. "Direct access websites," on the other hand, contained data in a pre-selected format, often compiled from multiple sources. This information was then presented in a new format designed for a specific audience. In a few instances, these two interface formats were combined so that a "direct access website" would also contain a separate webpage with links to additional data sources.
These two interface formats, "indirect access webpages" and "direct access websites," are not unique to Cooperative Extension, but are instead commonly used formats in compilation websites. For instance, the State Data Center program through the Census Bureau has increased access to the Census and other data products at the state level. While these Centers have a web presence, the nature of that presence follows a similar format--ranging from hyperlinks to specific state data on the Census Bureau website, to sites that compile data from the Census and other sources and present them in a format specific for their state.
Common data sources used in these websites were also identified. The most common was the Census of Population and Housing. However, how these data were incorporated ranged from providing a hyperlink to the U.S. Census Bureau homepage (http://www.census.gov) to providing hyperlinks to the specific data navigation websites such as American Factfinder or Quick Facts. Other common data sources, regardless of the access mode used, were the Regional Economic Information System at the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Economic Census, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many websites also provided access to state level sources such as the State Data Center or state agencies such as the Department of Education or Economic Development.
More useful than the findings regarding the extent and frequency of specific access modes within Cooperative Extension, this research revealed several lessons about providing web access to secondary socio-economic and demographic data online. Perhaps foremost is that a complicated website was not required in order to provide access to secondary socio-economic and demographic data.
When it came to "indirect access webpages," the investigation revealed that a "links only" data access page could be constructed in such a way that assists the user in locating needed secondary data. With that said, how a "links only" page is constructed affects its potential usefulness for local clientele. For example, many "indirect access webpages" examined provided links to only an agency's homepage (e.g. http://www.census.gov). While somewhat useful, hyperlinks that linked to the actual page where the needed data could be accessed seemed more practical. For example, providing county data is only one function of the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) homepage. As a result, locating data from the homepage can be confusing. In this case, the link on the homepage for county-level data is called "local area personal income" and it is located under the category called "regional economic data." Moreover, in addition to data on personal income, through this link one can also access county data on employment, wages, and salaries. However, the ability to access this additional data is not clear from theinformation provided on the homepage.
Another feature of many "indirect access webpages" was that they simply provided a hyperlink with no additional information or explanation of the type of data available through it. Consequently, a brief summary of some of the data available at the external website would increase the usability of the webpage by helping the user decide which database to delve into. Moreover, if the annotations focus on the data commonly used locally, this information can also help a client navigate the external site for that specific data.
In some instances, "indirect access webpages" also provided the URL (web page address)to the external data source as part of the text. By supplying the URL as text on the webpage, not only can the hyperlink be used to access the external data site, but the list can also be printed for future reference or shared with others. In addition, for a more experienced user of the internet, should the webpage be moved, the URL provides information that could be potentially helpful in locating the moved webpage.
While it may seem obvious, it is important that all hyperlinks and URLs are up-to-date. Several data websites examined in the analysis contained numerous broken links. Others contained out of date resources such as the Government Information Sharing Project. In their examination of community information clearinghouse websites, Tonn et al. also found broken or out-of-date hyperlinks to be an issue (2001).
"Indirect access webpages" were found to provide links to a large variety of external data sources, including a range of socio-economic and demographic data as well as a variety of websites from which to access it. For example, compilation websites can be easier for some clients to navigate, but they may be lacking where the timeliness of the data available are concerned. On the other hand, original source websites may be the most up-to-date, but they can be more challenging to navigate. Providing hyperlinks to both types of external sources can increase a webpage's usability. Finally, "links only" webpages provide an easy way to highlight secondary data websites already serving the state (i.e. State Data Centers, state government, etc.) and through these provide access to local/state data not available through federal websites.
Similar lessons were learned by examining "direct access websites." For these websites, as with the "indirect access webpages," it became clear that it was not necessary to have a complex website design in order to provide access. Well organized static websites with PDF files appeared just as useful as complex dynamic websites with drop boxes and other complicated features.
One critical lesson learned was that some "direct access websites" examined seemed to run the risk of replicating a sense of "data overload" often found in original source websites. In order to serve a multitude of clients, these state-level websites provided data for many variables and for many geographies, only some of which were at the local level. Consequently, "direct access websites" that focused on specific data and geography needs of local clientele looked to increase the usability of the website. Likewise, those websites that provided some way to compare the resulting data seemed likely to help clients' ability to put the data for their community into some context. This was done by providing access to comparison data for other counties, the state, or through accompanying text.
Another feature that stood out in "direct access websites" was the variety of citation methods used for citing data sources. Because they varied greatly, the source for the data was not always clear. For example, some data citations referenced the originating data source (i.e. Census of Population and Housing) while others referenced compilation sources such as Kids Count. In addition, in some instances citations were located next to the referenced data, making it clear which number came from which source, while others provided a separate list with all of the data sources combined. Citation methods that referenced the original data source and were clearly identified with the specific data item seemed likely to reduce confusion and increase the ability of clients to use the resource in locating more recent data or additional data, especially if the pre-selected data did not meet client's immediate needs. In some instances, direct hyperlinks or providing a URL to the data source were also used. This could be particularly useful as it increases the ability of a client to access additional data directly online.
Finally, general principles for good website design should always be followed. For example, in the data websites examined, hyperlinks were found which were not highlighted or underlined. As a result, it was not evident where a client should click to locate the hyperlink. In other data websites, information on how to access any needed plug-ins (e.g. Adobe Reader) was not clear. In other instances, directions on how to navigate the website were not always easily understandable or in some instances were not even provided. The lack of instructions is particularly important for dynamic websites. Checklists and advice for overall website designate widely available such as "10 Guidelines for Web Design" in Terry's Toolbox (http://www.makingthenetwork.org/tools/webguide.htm)
In addition, since all areas and all people and organizations do not have equal access to the internet, Samson (1998) raised some important issues regarding websites designed for rural clients which are also relevant here. Two issues predominate and remain important today: the reliability of telephone service when using dial-up modems and access to the newest computer hardware and software. As a result, Samson recommends designing websites so that download time is shorter (i.e., choosing to not use complex graphics) or that do not need system requirements that may not be available (e.g., Java) (1998). More recent developments in computing technology that need consideration include: designing websites for smaller screens and in a way that ensure sprinting on standard size paper (i.e., 560 pixels); (2) remembering the impact of using FLASH, multimedia, video, and audio for clients relying upon older computers, software, or low speed dial-up modems; (3) limiting overall page file size; and (4) choosing adequate text size and high contrast color schemes to increase accessibility for all clients (Gaworksi, 2003).
IT'S NOT JUST THE NUMBERS
Building community capacity is a central tenet of community development. Community capacity focuses on the skills and abilities of people within communities to build their own common future. In building community capacity, the key focus of community development is oninteractional components such as civic participation and engagement. In this, too often the approach to community data analysis has remained one of collection and presentation rather than integrated into the very participatory processes that are hallmarks of most other aspects of community development.
Similar to Pinkett (2003), the approach suggested here is to use building internet access to relevant secondary data needed for local analysis as an integrated part of the community engagement process. In contrast to a technology access approach or one that focuses on building a "third place" for communication abstracted from the local community, this approach starts with community development principles such as broad participation and then incorporates the technology to serve these goals. In the case of increasing access to secondary data, both the process as well as the product are used in the community development process--increasing community members' access to secondary data and their understanding of the trends affecting their community while at the same time building partnerships and ease with internet technology.
As Pinkett found in his asset mapping, building the internet based community resource with maximum community involvement was not the most time-effective, but it was critical in building relationships among the residents (2003, p. 373). This same is true for socio-economic and secondary data access and analysis. Through broad community involvement, residents are able to choose those data most relevant to their community's issues/concerns (Ghose, 2001). For example, rather than sifting through national websites that have nearly every imaginable geography, communities can choose the geographic focus that best fits community needs; be it a single place, county, or multi-county region.
Local organizations, institutions, and agencies often use local program data in their day-to-day operations. Data reported at the state level often begin at the local level. Involving community organizations, institutions, and agencies can increase access to these administrative data. For example, schools track educational progress and outcomes, economic agencies gather employment figures, and social services focus on families at risk where data changes in the usage of a local food bank can signal increased needs for low-income community members.
Involving community organizations, institutions, and agencies in building localized internet-based secondary data access can not only result in increased access, but the process of engaging them can also serve to increase local knowledge and understanding of what they do. Moreover, engagement in the larger process can build stronger relationships with these organizations. Building organizational partnerships need not be limited to the public sector. For example, in order to develop local internet-based access, server space is needed for the website. A partnership with a local internet service provider could further build community relationships.
Designing the website itself can be a part of the community development process. Oftentimes, the youngest community members among us may know the most about computers and the internet. Having grown up with the internet as part of their daily lives, it is not uncommon for youth to be knowledgeable about building websites. Moreover, youth are a segment of the community that can be overlooked in community development. Thus, in addition to serving as awe page designer or developer, local youth can share these skills with other community members, teaching adults about the internet, increasing their facility and comfort with this new tool. Moreover, engaging youth in the larger community development process not only increases their own civic engagement, does so in a way that respects their skills, and opens the opportunity for youth concerns and ideas to be incorporated into the community development process. Other approaches to increasing access to information technology and its effective local use include efforts such as the Alliance for Public Technology (http://www.apt.org), the Digital Divide Network(http://www.digitaldividenetwork.org), and the Public Technology Institute (formerly Public Technology, Inc.) (http://www.pti.org).
Finally, increasing the skill base of community members by using secondary data as a starting point, can lead to increased community use of other aspects of internet technology. Kirschenbaumand Kunamneni found this when it came to community-based organizations (CBOs): "... CBOs tend to adopt simpler applications that lie closest to their core work... then taking on more advanced applications... after building confidence and witnessing the power and potential of IT [internet technology]" (2001, p. 14).
A recent television commercial for IBM used the slogan: "Collecting data is the first step towards wisdom. Sharing data is the first step towards community." So far, this article has focused on incorporating community development processes in the collecting and sharing of secondary data. But we cannot forget the last step, understanding what the numbers mean. Numbers do not speak for themselves. They may help to tell us how much of something there is, but alone they do not tell us the answers to the key questions such as "How much is enough," or" How much is too much?" Questions such as these can help direct community discussions about the resulting data.
Connectivity has been the traditional focus when considering the role of the internet in community building. Treated as something separate unto itself, the object of this inquiry has-been on the internet's ability to be an additional mechanism or avenue for connecting individuals with one another. Through that connectivity, an interactional community is engaged in dialogue that supplements or even supplants communities of place by building a "third" place for communication that transcends locality. In this view, the internet's capacity in building community occurs through creating an additional and different kind of mechanism or avenue for communication that then takes on its potentiality of creating or enhancing participatory engagement and social capital.
We have argued for taking a different relationship to the internet and internet technology. Rather than something additive to community development processes, we see its potential in anintegrative approach--one that uses the Internet in service of specific community development goals--in this case, the role of secondary data. Just as Kirschenbaum and Kunamneni (2001,p.14) found in adoption of internet technology in an organizational context, the same applies for community development. The adoption of the internet and internet technology occurs not when they are seen as a separate, additional activity in competition with other programs. Instead, its adoption and use occurs when it is used as a tool that is integrated and supports all programs.
The internet's innovative potential in community development lies not in its ability to transcend space, but in using it in a way that serves to "reintegrate people within their placed communities" (Doheny-Farina, 1996, p. xiii). Be it used as a tool in asset mapping (Pinkett, 2003) or with secondary data as we have suggested, the point remains the same. Rather than something separate and additive, the key is in integrating the internet as a tool in the service of good community development practices.
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