I was delighted today to read Mike Gurstein's blog Thoughts on Research as an Element in Telecentre Community Informatics Practice and so I commented on it. I was encouraged because I am always looking for opportunites to close the gaps between academics and practitioners - and he is keen to do that too.
In his blog Mike Gurstein writes about Community Informatics research and makes a plea for researchers to link more closely with practitioners in a genuinely collaborative way. He points out that they should recognising the value of local knowledge and networks in academic research - just as for commercial market research. This is something dear to my heart, not just for Community Informatics, but for all kinds of research related to community development.
I believe that, from an early stage of research planning, local people should be involved with researchers in a genuine collaborative way. Now that we have better communications technologies to hand this is getting easier and easier - even if it does mean new and more imaginative approaches, rather than business and usual.
Mike's emphasis is on telecentres and local phone networks, but his excellent arguments have wider relevance. He explains how and why researchers should engage with the grass-roots. This is something that I tend to get on my soap box about. I agree with him fervently - and know it is some thing Dadamac is eager and able to facilitate.
Crossing the culture gap
In fact one of the reasons John and I set up Dadamac was to help cross the culture gap between practiioners and academics. We decided we should not keep criticising researchers for their top-down, disconnected approach, and lack of relevance, unliess we were reaching up to them from "the bottom" and making it easier for them to connect with "real life". However reaching up is not easy, it takes a lot of time and effort, and after that, actually finding ways to collaborate on research projects is another big challenge.
I feel there is more chance of researchers taking notice, and deciding to engage with people like us, when an academic like Mike Gurstein is emphasising the benefits and importance of such collaboration. As Mike says, in his example of Community Informatics and telecentres
"Research (and researchers) which are not so embedded run the very real risk either of irrelevancy, of inappropriate distancing and detachment, or even of competing for those scarce resources required for network survival."
Community Informatics research differs from conventional social science research in a number of ways:
1. it is future oriented rather than retrospective i.e. it looks towards what could (should) be done rather than what has been done in the past
2. it is iterative i.e. it builds from research (and practical) result to research (and practical) result
3. its desired outcome is practical success rather than explanatory models with explanatory models being inputs to practice rather than vice versa
4. it operates in a highly volatile environment where basic conditions such as the underlying technology platforms, service offerings and cost structures, and policy contexts may be in rapid and unpredictably evolution
What is notable in my various travels and equally in reflecting on the experience elsewhere is how little actual useful research has been conducted or is being conducted into the community use of ICTs particularly from a perspective which attempts to understand the current in order to inform the future.
Reconnecting with Community Informatics
It is some years since Mike Gurstein and I have been in regular contact, as I do not read and contribute to discussion lists as actively now as I did a few years back. I am happy to find our paths crossing again, and to discover how similar our thinking is after all this time, despite our very different personal reference points and practical experiences. I am glad to be connecting again with Community Informatics and hope researchers will act on his advice to their own advantage and to help those of us who do practical work and could benefit from their investigations.