Canadian Journal of Communication Vol 38 (2013)
©2013 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation


Reviews

Wendy Isobel Young
Island Health


bookConnecting Canadians: Investigations in Community Informatics. Edited by Andrew Clement, Michael Gurstein, Graham Longford, Marita Moll, & Leslie Regan Shade. Edmonton, AB: AU Press, 2013. 520 pp. ISBN 9781926836041 (pbk).


This book arises out of research conducted by the Canadian Research Alliance for Community Innovation and Networking (CRACIN). This alliance received funding from the Initiative on the New Economy (INE) Research Alliances program of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Generally, the book documents the CRACIN evaluation of the Canadian community-based programs that were introduced to promote and develop information and communications technologies (ICTs). Collectively, the programs funded by the Canadian government were known as Connecting Canadians.

The book is about people and is not about technology per se. It is about how technology has the potential to enrich lives, communities, and our democratic country; and it is about how community networks (CNs) can help Canadians realize that potential.  Based on extensive evidence, the editors make the following assertions:

• Information and communication technologies are important.

• Canada had a serious problem because ICTs were not universally accessed and used.

• Poor access and usage may add to existing sources of inequality and social exclusion.

• The Canadian government recognized the policy significance of the problem and launched initiatives through community networks to reduce or eliminate barriers to access and use.

• The evaluation of these initiatives documented many important lessons relevant to individuals, community organizations, policymakers, and academics. These lessons can be applied to future initiatives to promote the development and use of ICTs.

• More action needs to be taken before the potential of ICTs is fully realized.

In the opening chapters of Connecting Canadians: Investigations in Community Informatics, we learn of the importance of ICTs to individuals, to communities, and to the Canadian government. ICT usage is an important hallmark of participation in an information society. Individuals engaged with ICTs are provided with opportunities for social interaction and education. Young and old people use ICTs for a variety of reasons: to communicate with family and friends; to get news and information, including medical advice; to play games; to shop and to bank. For communities, the use of ICTs is essential to their economic, social, political, and cultural development. And for the government, ICTs may reduce the cost of providing individuals with access to key services.

Although ICTs are critically important, the book reveals that not all Canadians have not been optimally connected or benefiting from ICTs. Previously published quantitative evidence from research conducted by Professor Middleton, Canada Research Chair in Communication Technologies in the Information Society at Ryerson University, strongly supports these editors’ claim of demographic differences between those who had access to and used ICTs, and those who did not (see http://broadbandresearch.ca for a list of Dr. Middleton’s publications). Readers of this book learn about the individual-level characteristics associated with access and use. For example, individuals with low income levels and older adults had low Internet use rates. In addition, we learn about community-level characteristics associated with access and use. For example, people living in rural communities had broadband access.

This evidence on who is not engaged with ICTs is followed logically by the assertion that poor access and usage may add to existing sources of inequality and social exclusion. Individuals with the greatest need, such as low-income individuals looking for job training or seniors looking for information on benefits, may be disadvantaged if (1) they have no Internet access and, importantly, (2) they have do not have the skills and the supportive social environment to effectively use the ICTs. Even individuals who have access may not be able to use ICTs. The book’s discussion on the effective use of ICTs reinforces Gurstein’s earlier very important contribution to our understanding of the prerequisites to ICT engagement. Gurstein (2003) presented a nuanced understanding of the digital divide and asserted that access to ICTs does not denote use of ICTs. The rich literature on the digital divide has frequently tended to view it as dichotomous; one is either connected or not connected. This book presents a richer view and uses effective use as the conceptual framework for the evaluation.

To reduce inequalities in ICT access and use, the federal government allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to community networks (CNs), to the provision of broadband access to rural communities, and to the support of free access to Internet services at public libraries and community centres. Yet little is known about the impact of CNs. Were the dollars allocated to CNs well spent? Was the digital divide reduced or closed as a result of CN funding? Did CNs contribute to the economic, social, political, and cultural development of communities? What lessons were learned, and can any of these lessons be applied to current initiatives designed to promote the development and use of ICTs?

Answers to these important questions about CNs and Connecting Canadians are provided in this book. And the answers are based on research conducted by an outstanding interdisciplinary and international team of leaders in the field using exemplary methods. These leaders chose a participatory action research (PAR) approach to the evaluation, an approach that is appropriate for the subject matter. A case study method is used, with cases chosen from across Canada.

The evidence, coherently presented in this book, persuades me that the provision of broadband access is a precondition for the effective use of ICTs. But more importantly, the evidence convinces me that much more needs to be done to help Canadians take advantage of ICTs. It reinforces the standpoint that access to ICTs does not denote use of ICTs.

The findings are personally relevant. At the time of writing this review I was the lead investigator of a CIHR-funded research project called Sus-IT, short for Sustaining IT use by older adults to promote autonomy and independence. Sus-IT began in the U.K. under the leadership of Leela Damodaran and Wendy Olphert at Loughborough University. We are committed to helping older adults with chronic pain and/or reduced mobility sustain their use of ICTs. Our goal is not to promote the use of technology as such, but rather to help people continue to use ICT comfortably and sustain their quality of life. The documented lessons learned about CNs will be helpful to us when we report our research that is designed to help older adults remain digitally engaged.

In closing, I believe that readers of Connecting Canadians: Investigations in Community Informatics will conclude that the book has achieved its goal of systematically documenting the CRACIN evaluation of the community-based programs that were introduced to promote and develop information and communications technologies. I recommend it to individuals, community organizations, policymakers, and academics.

Reference

Gurstein, M. (2003). Effective use: A community informatics strategy beyond the digital divide. First Monday, 8(12).




  •  Announcements
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Current Issue
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo
  •  Thesis Abstracts
    Atom logo
    RSS2 logo
    RSS1 logo

We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

SSHRC LOGO