Tech Report

An investigation into grassroots initiated networked communities as a means of addressing the digital divide

Despite two decades of government and commercial intervention, a digital divide persists in the UK. Access to internet connectivity and the associated tools and services that permit full participation in the information society greatly varies. Researchers argue that a more complex set of insufficiencies must be overcome and continually re-addressed to enable individuals and communities to make meaningful usage of the internet to enhance their activities.

This thesis examines the discourse surrounding the digital divide and investigates one response: the establishment of grassroots initiated networked communities. These initiatives represent local neighbourhoods attempting self-provisioning solutions; appropriating technology within their own communities to connect residents to each other, and the wider world through the internet, often building on an existing set of social relationships and ongoing interaction.

The research consists of a literature review, a survey of grassroots initiated networked communities in the UK, and the collaborative development of software tools to enhance community interaction working alongside two communities. An analysis of the motivations and goals of these initiatives is presented based on the survey and interviews with ten groups, providing evidence of a range of activities and a simple typology of initiatives, which I define as Pioneers, Subcultures and Cooperatives. The thesis provides recommendations to practitioners and policy makers on how best to support such initiatives, and indicates useful areas of further research.

The collaborative development of software tools alongside two initiatives reveals the challenges of undertaking a participatory research approach and identifies barriers to social software adoption. I identify that grassroots community responses to the digital divide face challenges, including achieving critical mass, sponsorship, and sustainability. The research concludes by establishing that grassroots initiated networked communities are a valid response to overcoming the digital divide, and that a community approach offers shared motivation, social support, and knowledge sharing.

ID: kmi-11-04

Date: 2011

Author(s): Mark Gaved

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