Editorial: K-Net, Community Informatics and Service Delivery: An Evolving Paradigm

Michael Gurstein

Editor in Chief, The Journal of Community Informatics

Keewaytinook Okimakanak, the Council of Chiefs serving communities in Northern Ontario, (KO) and its telecommunications arm—the Kuhkenah Network (K-Net) has been a global leader in the development of approaches to electronically-enabled community-based service delivery for remote and rural areas including in health care, education and governance among others.

This special issue of JoCI presents a range of research and other discussion concerning the KO approach to community-based Information and Communications Technologies (ICT)-enabled services. It is the intention of this special issue to begin a more general discussion on ICT and services in remote and rural, indigenous and other communities and how the new opportunities presented by ICT can transform this towards more efficient and effective services in currently under-serviced communities and overall towards community empowerment.

Service provision in indigenous communities particularly for those in rural and remote locations has suffered from a range of financial difficulties and inappropriate design penalizing residents because of their choice of residence. ICT and particularly broadband internet can overcome the challenges of remoteness and ensure equity of service access; an appropriate level of service quality; effectiveness and efficiency in service delivery; opportunities for participation in service design, delivery and implementation; as well as providing opportunities for communities to more directly benefit from service provision through local employment.

K-Net has been responsible for some of the most advanced applications (from a Community Informatics (CI) perspective) of any comparable organization in the world. This does not mean that K-Net has been using the most advanced ICT although in a number of areas particularly telecommunications it has been a significant pioneer (reflecting the crucial role that telecommunications plays in otherwise physically isolated and remote Northern First Nations communities); rather it suggests that K-Net has been among the most advanced in linking a deep understanding of community processes and the requirements for community-owned applications with effective and intelligent use of existing ICT systems to create an advanced ICT-enabled infrastructure.

This has been combined with a clear understanding (and vision) of how this infrastructure could be used to support service delivery in the region as a supplement to (and even in some cases replacement for) existing services and service delivery approaches. In this K-Net has been moving against the dominant tide of electronically-enabled service delivery and particularly e-government services which, while focusing on a perceived “efficiency of service delivery”, have shifted control over service management and deployment increasingly to the centre and away from the local community.

In addition, this approach to e-government services has tended to de-emphasize the (citizen) “participation” element in service design and delivery in favour of “e-government” rather than “e-governance” as the organizing principle. K-Net’s efforts on the other hand, focus on empowering the communities and their members to own and utilize IT resources for local economic and social benefit.

The “one service fits all customers” approach doesn’t work for remote and rural communities when it comes to meeting local needs. People in these environments have had to find ways of taking the provision of service into their own hands or consign themselves to doing without. In these instances, having access to electronic means for obtaining otherwise unavailable services (as for example remote access to banking services or training programs) has begun to change the service landscape in potentially significant ways. However, while this remote access may assist in resolving the availability issue these services may be inappropriate, overly expensive, or otherwise unsuitable. Of course, communities have always provided a very large range of services for themselves (and the more isolated the community the more they have been self-sufficient in a range of areas). What is new is that ICT has now begun to enable local communities to provide for themselves a range of more sophisticated and technology intensive services which previously had been denied to them while also adapting and re-engineering those services so as to be appropriate to the specific resources and needs of these local communities.

K-Net has developed within the “community informatics” paradigm. K-Net’s efforts and initiatives have focused on the use of the technology as a means to enable and empower local communities to realize benefits and exert a degree of control over the range of services being provided. In high school education, rather than relying on centrally developed materials distributed electronically as the paradigm for the use of the infrastructure, K-Net has enabled communities to provide locally-based education using significant components of locally developed curriculum with digital linkages between highly dispersed local sites for their young people rather than having them being forced to relocate to a central location for post-primary education.

K-Net has taken on the difficult task of undertaking a critique of the structure and to a degree the content of existing services from an ICT-aware perspective. That is, it looked at existing services not as necessary elements in their resource landscape but as something contingent on certain approaches and assumptions, many of which could be challenged or even discarded in an ICT-enabled environment. The notion for example, that skilled teaching or learning resources are scarce commodities which requires that students be aggregated centrally for access, is directly challenged by electronically-enabled distance teaching and infinitely reproducible and distributable electronically-formatted learning resources.

K-Net can further be regarded as a Research and Development agency undertaking leading edge research and most especially service development and redevelopment on behalf of and in association and collaboration with its constituencies. K-Net stands between two worlds, the traditional world of top-down centralized hierarchical institutions – and the new world of peer-to-peer relations, of networks where the intelligence lies at the periphery and where community-based processes and the power to manage and direct the network is distributed through the network as the norm rather than the exception.

This difference in approach is not simply the traditional one of local control vs. central control which is an on-going theme in First Nations interactions with the Federal Government, although there are elements of this. K-Net is deeply informed by an advanced understanding of what is possible through the use of ICT in service design and delivery; how the use of ICT can transform the nature of the services which can be made available; how ICT impacts on the potential benefits and effectiveness which can be gained from these services; and the overall significance of ICT in the efficient use of resources in support of service delivery.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity for K-Net is to move forward and to begin to extend and re-develop the Community Informatics paradigm which it has so well articulated. This would, in this instance begin to take the form of challenging the current funding/administrative/management/development structures of the services in which it is engaged; extending the range of services in which it is active; and moving subtly from the “supply” side to becoming involved with and supportive of development in the “demand” side for ICT in its local context.

K-Net has focused on developing the supply side of the overall “development” equation. It has obtained funding for the development and provision of end user services—in education and training programs; in health care; in ICT and community development activities. In conjunction with this, numbers of Northern residents and particularly young people have received training in the use of ICT and job-related ICT skills; and overall there has been ICT sensitization through the development of its youth-focused social networking infrastructure (MyKNet).

A significant (and in the context of the limited population base of the region, highly significant) number of particularly, young people, have been made job-ready for ICT based jobs. However, in the context of the current North, with the exception of the limited opportunities available either directly or indirectly through K-Net and the service delivery infrastructure it is providing, there are relatively few employment or business related opportunities to use these skills in a financially productive way and still retain residence in Northern communities. Thus while the “supply” of “human resources” in support of ICT-related economic activity is available in the North, the “demand” for such a resource has not yet developed to the same level.

K-Net has only to a limited degree worked to develop the “demand” side except in relation to the specific requirements of its various service support programs such as the K-Net high school or the tele-health programs. The broad range of economic activity throughout the North appears to not have been addressed by K-Net as yet as for example towards up-dating local IT systems and approaches, or in influencing how these activities might be restructured so as to take advantage of the human resource potential which K-Net is working to provide in the North.

There is thus an opportunity to re-examine existing operations and practices both in the public and private sectors from a “K-Net/CI” perspective to determine whether there are additional opportunities for new ICT-enabled economically beneficial goods or services. Areas such as mapping, road maintenance, environmental testing and management, public administration at the band level and so on, all lend themselves to being ICT-enabled and not incidentally to providing employment to ICT-savvy Northerners.

What, for example, might a CI oriented retail store look like in its sourcing of products; utilization of local purchasing power for collaborative purchasing; restructuring of logistics so as to support local development (something of considerable potential significance in rural and remote areas); and so on. Equally, what might the effect be if for example, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs redesigned its sourcing of ICT activities toward ICT-enabled communities with the ICT savvy human resources now available in rural and remote First Nations communities.i

K-Net as a leading edge organization in the area of Community Informatics has an opportunity to move the CI paradigm forward into new areas. These new areas would include incorporating leading edge ICT-enabled business models and practices which can provide the basis for a further challenge to models for ICT-enabled services and enterprises and away from the current default position of increased centralization and top-down decision making.

i Why for example, should the INAC website be designed and maintained out of Ottawa when resources are available in the North to provide equal or better service and moreover one that would be both adapted to local requirements and have the additional advantage of contributing to the local economy and employment base in the North.