Community Informatics as Innovation in Sociotechnical Infrastructures

John M Carroll 1, Patrick C Shih2, Jessica Kropczynski3
  1. Distinguished Professor, College of Information Sciences and Technology, The Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA. E-mail:
  2. Research Associate and Lecturer, College of Information Sciences and Technology, The Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA.
  3. Postdoctoral Researcher and Instructor, College of Information Sciences and Technology, The Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA. E-mail:


Community informatics (CI) is the joining and convergence of community with information sciences and technologies. It integrates the oldest social institution of human kind with the newest frontiers of material society. It is an area of social science and computer science; it is an area of research and understanding, and of activism. It is and should be multifaceted and multivocal. There is not one trajectory for CI, but many.

CI is concerned with the challenges and opportunities for human community in an age increasingly dominated by technology. This includes investigating long-standing technical challenges and approaches, for example, Day's (2014) analysis of inequity in access, and the challenge of deploying better models of public access computing. It includes a commitment to holistic analysis of how information technologies are changing human relationships (de Michelis, 2014). CI includes recently codified technical challenges and approaches, such as Foth's (2014) program for integrating digital and physical activities and concerns, and supporting community interactions beyond mere awareness or approval, and Bødker's (2014) focus on identifying emerging communities and practices in longitudinal studies. It also includes broader and emergent challenges, such as Gurstein's (2014) call for continuing articulation of Internet rights and responsibilities of citizens, or de Cindio's (2014) and Schuler's (2014) agendas for how the Internet can expand the concept and practices of citizenship. CI also includes concerns with broader engineering practices to guide development of community systems and assess their impacts (Simone, 2014), and with the future course of community technologies, such as de Moor's (2014) description of inter-community interactions.

In this paper, we characterize sociotechnical innovation as a trajectory for CI: by this we mean integrated innovations in the information and technology infrastructures of communities that enable innovation in communities themselves as social systems. We frame our work with the observation that this trajectory already has a significant history in CI. In the balance of the paper, we describe recent research emphasizing technology affordances of mobility and hyperlocality, aggregation and suprathresholding, information analytics, local digital currencies, reputation management systems, and crowd-based coordination. Finally, we present "InnovationStarter" an envisionment scenario that enables community innovation infrastructure by incorporating and leveraging each of these technologies made possible through previous work in CI.

Community Networks and Sociotechnical Innovation

Our work grows out of the tradition of community networks, a genre of locally based initiatives in community activism and community development centered in North America during the early 1970s through the early 1980s (e.g. Schuler, 1996; Carroll, 2012). In quite a few cases, innovative information technology infrastructures were developed in community contexts, and were creatively appropriated by community members who benefited from new interactions and co-productions, and new opportunities to learn about technology and to participate in society.

The Berkeley Community Memory (BCM; Rossman, 1975) was a mainframe-based system deployed in 1973. It was presciently focused on enabling member-initiated activities such as arranging ride shares, finding chess partners, and reviewing restaurants. It is often remembered for the member-organized Alameda County Vietnam War memorial. These are interactions and social co-productions we take for granted today. They were unprecedented in 1973. The core functionality of BCM was electronic bulletin boards (so-named because the public access terminal in Leopold's Record shop was right below a physical bulletin board). This functionality became widespread in late 1970s and pervasive through the 1980s.

Santa Monica Public Electronic Network (PEN; Rogers et al., 1994) was a municipal community network, that is, run by local government. It was established in 1989. While the original vision was dissemination of public information, citizens appropriated the network overwhelmingly for discussion (as in BCM, all citizens could participate or even initiate forums) and local email (PEN was a closed network, not integrated with the Internet). The city established public access terminals in libraries and other public space, and usage was far less demographically skewed toward wealth, youth, higher education, and males than was, or still is, typical. For example, one third of users were female (versus a norm of about 10% at that time). The system was so widely used that in the local elections of 1990 all 30 local candidates organized and campaigned online. PEN is remembered for the PENFEMME women's group which, among other things publicly confronted anti-female online behavior, and for an episode in which homeless citizens publicly and successfully lobbied the local government for improved showers and lockers.

The Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV; Cohill & Kavanaugh, 2000) was a web-based community network deployed in 1993. It was focused on community education about the web, and on community development through the web. The BEV was an early adopter of the web; the first specifications of hypertext markup language (HTML), the foundation of the World-Wide Web, were published as the BEV was being planned. Nevertheless, the BEV was quickly appropriated. In 1994, Blacksburg's schools were connected to the Internet. The public library and the Blacksburg Seniors, among others, began offering courses and tutoring on Internet and web skills. Between April 1994 and April 1996, accesses to BEV web pages increased by a factor of 1000 to about 50 accesses per month per capita. By 2001, citizen access to the BEV (and the Internet) was nearly 90%, greater than it is today for citizens of the United States. Also by the time, more than 700 community groups and local businesses had established websites (80% of the total), including dozens of web-based businesses. (For more detailed discussion and discussion of other cases, see Schuler, 1996; Carroll, 2012).

In their times, community electronic bulletin boards (1973), municipal networks (1989) and open, web-based community systems (1993) were new technology infrastructures. In these cases, the new infrastructures were widely and creatively appropriated for civic purposes (sharing rides, remembering local war dead, enhancing the visibility of marginalized citizens, regulating misogynistic behavior, developing community capacity). We see these projects as concrete demonstrations of sociotechnical innovation, the possibility of creating new infrastructures for innovations in community itself.

In the balance of this paper, we frame a contemporary example of community informatics as innovation in sociotechnical infrastructures. In the next six sections, we describe recent research emphasizing technology affordances of mobility and hyperlocality, aggregation and suprathresholding, information analytics, local digital currencies, reputation management systems, and crowd-based coordination. Finally, we present an envisionment scenario for a community innovation infrastructure incorporating and leveraging these technologies.

Mobility and Location (Hyperlocality)

Contemporary web and mobile networking enables hyperlocality, people can share or access content pertaining to the geographical locale they work and live in as they move through and carry out activities in that very locale. Hyperlocality raises new and transformative affordances for community information infrastructures; members can create, share and comment on community information when and where it is of interest. They can leverage interstitial time, the time between major goals and activities, for civic activity. They can civically capitalize on ephemeral social opportunities, such as passing someone in the street. They use the physical community itself as an information index for information and interactions pertaining to the community (Carroll et al., 2015a).

The affordances of mobility and location are illustrated by a community heritage app Lost State College (Han et al., 2014b). The app allows people to browse photos and descriptions of local landmarks and upload their own images related to local history with a brief description (Figure 1). The image, its location in the community space, and the description are logged for other users. Thus, the functionality is analogous to generic social media photo sharing (e.g., Instagram), but hyperlocated: The images and descriptions are contributed by and viewed by neighbors, and are drawn from places and events in the local community, celebrating the memorable moments that happen around us in the local community.

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Figure 1. Lost State College allows people to capture and share images and stories related to local historical landmarks

Lost State College exploits affordances of mobility and location for reflection and local heritage construction. A subsequent app, Community Animator (Carroll et al., 2014), allowed citizens to characterize their interests and make themselves available for discussions with others while they are in public places (Figure 2). When the user signs on, the app pinged proximal other users with compatible community interests.

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Figure 2. (Left) Login to Community Animator (Center) Select Interest Areas (Right) Nearby Citizen Conversation In-Progress

Aggregation (Suprathresholding)

Suprathresholding discounts the attention burden of establishing and maintaining awareness of what is going on, easing one's ability to retrieve from and contribute to community information, a prerequisite for generalized participation in community activity. Local community information, when examined source-by-source, is very sparse. Local newspapers, nonprofit groups, businesses, bloggers and forums each generate relatively few news items or posts. Analogously, local community interactions online, examined site-by-site or service-by-service, often fail to exceed the threshold of community perception - few posts and even fewer comments. Web 2.0 infrastructures can suprathreshold inherently sparse information and interaction by aggregating various information feeds (Carroll et al., 2015a).

Local News Chatter (LNC; Figure 3) is a smartphone application that aggregates local news articles and tweets from local Twitter accounts, based on term frequency in the articles and tweets. The analysis updates hourly, presenting the index terms through a tag cloud (Han et al., 2014a). Local news and local tweets are both relatively sparse information channels when viewed topic by topic, but aggregating the two channels in one display, and presenting a collection of news story-tweet aggregates suprathresholds the local news space, making it more animated and more interesting. Formal and non-formal news sources are continually contrasted, and local tweets suggest potential neighborhood contacts. LNC leverages existing Twitter infrastructure and practices, and repurposes existing news content and tweets. Thus, it requires little learning for users, and no new content creation.

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Figure 3. Screenshots of LNC. Tag cloud presented with different tag sizes (left) and corresponding local news article (right).

LNC addresses community news generally, but the design concept can be extended to more specific community news concerns. Community Incident Chatter (CIC; Figure 4) aggregates local news articles and social media information for local emergencies (Shih et al., 2014a). In this case, information aggregation supports not only awareness, but mobilization and coordination of helping throughout the community.

Figure 4. Left: A Tag cloud that presents current local incidents (left); local news article about the fire incident (right).

Analytics: Quantifying Digital Traces

Beyond integrating geographical places with information and interaction pertaining to those places, and aggregating information feeds across the community, social media content can also quantify digital traces of users in the local community. In the Community Poll application, we used a sentiment analysis algorithm to extract polarity of public opinions from tweets about local news topics (CP, Figure 5). This was embodied as an add-on to Local New Chatter called "Public Attitude Meter" that displays the average sentiment scores in a bar graph (Shih et al., 2014b). If the meter score is positive, a thumbs-up icon will be displayed next to the text, whereas a thumbs-down icon will be shown if the meter score is negative. Moreover, each individual tweet also has a positive or a negative attitude indicator in which a positive tweet shows a green bar whereas a negative tweet shows a red bar next to the user profile image.

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Figure 5. Screenshots of the Community Poll application. A tag cloud displayed depending on the time window (left) and corresponding local news articles, tweets, and a result of Public Attitude Meter based on the sentiment analysis (right).

The goal of Community Poll is not to accurately calculate sentiment, but to present a data-grounded artifact for reflection and discussion. Based on user self-reports, the Public Attitude Meter evoked curiosity about the sentiment score and drove people toward local news topics they would not otherwise have pursued. It encouraged people to more actively participate in discussions on social media by voicing their opinions and concerns.

With an interest in identifying locations of community interest, the Arts Festival application supported a four-day community summer arts festival (ArtsFest), including check-ins, photo sharing, identification of favorites, and integration with data on prior years of the festival (Shih et al, 2015c). Figure 6 presents a heatmap visualization of geotagged photos taken throughout the festival. The irregular distribution of photos indicates places that attracted more photo taking in some areas of the festival over others. This kind of analytic suggests places of popular interest for other festival attendees, as well as less visited places that might need more exploration. These analytics revealed interest patterns that would be otherwise costly to uncover by survey methods.

Figure 6. Heatmap of GeoTagged Photos at ArtsFest

In addition to geolocational data, we also analyzed the structure of social media metadata such as temporal patterns to triangulate crisis activities. Community Incident Report (CIR; Figure 7), is a novel emergency planning system that integrates police reports, local crisis information, and social multimedia content to foster citizens' awareness of local emergency information and to assist emergency planners in planning for recurring and cyclical events (Shih et al., 2015b ). CIR retrieves police reports, local news articles, tweets, and photos during a timeframe related to specific incident tags selected by the user. The locations of the police station and the hospital are also presented on the map so that the emergency planners could easily estimate the response time to the incidents. Neither police reports nor social media alone is able to fully capture the rich context surrounding all the local incidents during a large festival of this scale. CIR can be used by local emergency planners as a way to alert citizens of crisis, gauge citizen perception on local crisis events, and involve citizens in the deliberation and planning process.

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Figure 7. The CIR interface.

Local Currencies: New Frameworks for Economic Exchange/Cooperation

Various alternative currency and exchange paradigms have emerged through the past couple of decades, enabled by information technologies (Carroll & Bellotti, 2015). These paradigms attenuate the supervision of large institutional actors; for example, crypto-currencies do not require banks, and peer-to-peer micro-enterprises, like AirBnB, do not involve centralized hotel corporations. They often strengthen economic interactions within local communities, for example, local currencies, like Berkshares, and the Bristol Pound. They also strengthen co-production (Carroll, 2013), reciprocal value exchanges, for example, voluntary service exchanges, as in time-based currencies/timebanks, require cooperation to succeed at all (for example, services involving learning), and nearly all dyadic service exchanges produce mutual well-being as an outcome.

Timebanks are an interesting example. A core principle of timebanking is equity: everyone has time, and everyone's time is worth the same. This principle is somewhat ideal, but it enables an exchange framework in which people marginalized by the mainstream economy can participate on an equal footing with other community members. Participants earn time credits by providing services to one another, while at the same time building social capital and a sense of personal worth (Carroll, 2013). Doctors in the National Health Service of the United Kingdom can prescribe participation in a timebank for patients with depression and feelings of isolation. In the timebank, members receive credit for services such as accompanying elderly members who are shopping or visiting elderly people in their homes, making it more possible for the elderly to live on their own (Ryan-Collins et al., 2008). The timebank is innovatively conflating the traditional roles of recipient and provider of health services.

The Mobile Timebank (MTB; Figure 8) application enables finer grain service requests and offers, and has the capability for location-based requests (Han et al., 2015). This allows people to participate in timebanking exchanges more opportunistically, and with less planning overhead. Thus voluntary service exchanges can become a part of everyday activity. This directly addresses one of the known limitations of current timebanking, namely, the relatively limited range of services on offer (Bellotti et al., 2014; Shih et al., 2015a).

Figure 8: Screenshots of the timebanking smartphone app. Add task view (left); task list view (right).

Reputation Management Systems

While timebanking and other non-profit systems are steadily growing, similar commercial peer-to-peer businesses that match service or goods requestors to providers are positively exploding. Examples include AirBnB for accommodation, Lyft for transportation, TaskRabbit for odd jobs and Yerdle for giving stuff away. As these commercial services are successfully challenging conventional economic models, we seek to help their non-profit cousins such as timebanking to also realize their potential for significant growth, economic impact and societal benefits, particularly for those who are poorly served by the conventional economy.

One of the incentives for volunteer participation is establishing reputation and building social capital (Carroll et al., 2014). To establish a reputation in the timebank system, we designed a reputation management system that shows additional information on member's profile page that contains a full summary of one's personal information, specialties, and timebanking activities (Figure 9). Thisinformation can also be used for matching services or making recommendations when members are requesting or looking for services. The reputation management system could be leveraged to help users build trust and social capital within a local community. As with many introductions and exchanges hosted by online services, the users of these services often feel more comfortable engaging with strangers when the exchange is supported by reputation-based systems. This is typical of sales on sites such as eBay or Amazon or professional networking service sites such as LinkedIn. Identifying local stakeholders when it comes to a particular issue has always been a challenging task due to the difficulty in externalizing tacit knowledge from recent institutional memory. Incorporating reputation-building mechanisms in future timebanking, volunteering, and peer-to-peer systems is essential to easing the coordination of local community projects.

Figure 9. Screenshots of the profile page. Profile page for a member (left); a review page (middle); profile page for an institution (right).

Crowd-based Coordination

A key challenge in solving complex tasks is to bring enough interested bodies together. Crowd based coordination efforts have been shown to help users organize mass participation efforts as well as handing off intermediate work through microtask management. Experimental platforms such as Catalyst (Cheng & Bernstein, 2014) and Foundry (Retelny et al, 2014) have been developed to aid the coordination of mass participation events. We developed Future State College (FSC; Figure 10), a smartphone app that supports the municipal planning processes through enhanced citizen awareness. The municipal government of State College, like many municipalities, develops a decadal master plan to guide local development. The master plan includes many detailed sketches and other images of future streetscapes. A user of FSC can access plans and images from the community master plan based on location through their personal mobile device. Our design rationale is that situating the planning materials in the physical places to which they refer will make planning more vivid and concrete, and thereby more accessible to citizens, removing the participation "costs" of attending formal planning reviews, and helping bridge the gap between municipal planners and community residents (Carroll et al., 2014).

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Figure 10. Screenshots of FSC. Local master plan (left) displayed on a map (right).

Envisionment Scenario

The aforementioned section demonstrated how hyperlocality, suprathresholding, smart analytics, peer-to-peer currencies, reputation management systems, and crowd-based coordination could be leveraged as sociotechnical infrastructures to facilitate community activities. We envision a platform that acts as a clearinghouse for calls to action from local governments and organizations by designing these affordances into future community platforms. Even in a small community, local groups and initiatives can be siloed, a community hub that integrates information presented by hyperlocality, suprathresholding, and smart analytics mechanisms may increase visibility for these groups and projects and allow for new avenues of community participation. Timebanking implemented with reputation management features can be used to incentivize action and participation through equity hours rather than relying on community funding. We propose InnovationStarter (Figure 11), a crowd-based coordination that incentivizes crowd-based community participation by rewarding citizens with timebank hours in exchange for participating in community tasks. InnovationStarter capitalizes upon hours to not only incentivize action, but organize tasks at hand. Hours committed to a future project can be used as a threshold to organize action and will only be deducted from a timebank users' account if the activity takes place. Furthermore, a particular number of hours needed for specific tasks may be used to acquire volunteers with specific skill sets or necessary tools to carry out a task.

Figure 11. InnovationStarter

Imagine a local news story about a nation-wide increase in community vegetable gardens. The story appears on InnovationStarter and a large number of citizens begin discussing the desire for a community vegetable garden, and a few reference locations in town that are otherwise unused lots that may be ideal locations for such a project. The city notes the attention that this issue has received, identifies a location that is suitable for a community garden, and posts a call to action on InnovationStarter. A local government planner creates a map of the proposed project, given the space available, she estimates necessary labor for the activity. She posts the activation threshold for the activity as 2 persons with ground tillers for 2 hours of work, 10 people (each with one packet of 20 vegetable seeds and a trowel) for 3 hours of work to arrive 2 hours after the start of the activity and spend 2 hours planting. Future activities are scheduled to water, weed, and harvest vegetables on a regular basis.

The citizens that participate in the activity receive online testimonials regarding their attitude and work ethic to complete the project which make them more reputable community members to engage in prestigious projects, or when posting their own requests. While citizens that invest in hiring an outside company to create and maintain a community garden may feel a sense of pride as they pass the garden, we believe that a citizen created garden will instill a deeper sense of community among those that participated and citizens that are aware of the initiative.

Innovating with Sociotechnical Infrastructures in Community Informatics

The concept of smart cities is widely referenced, though the idea is often limited to management of fairly low-level service infrastructures (electricity, water, sewage, etc.; Harrison et al., 2010). The concept of smart cities is exciting, and could be more exciting if extended to innovative sociotechnical infrastructures and civically smart cities (Campbell, 2012; Schuler, 2014). Naturally, smart cities, like any other smart ideas of humans, are likely to be dystopian in some unanticipated respects. We are not arguing for sociotechnical innovation as a singular trajectory or paradigm for community informatics. Rather, we want to include this trajectory, which we trace back to the community networks of the 1970s and subsequent decades, among approaches in the future of community informatics.

We identified a set of contemporary technologies that present new affordances for the design of community information infrastructures, mobility and hyperlocality, aggregation and suprathresholding, information analytics, local digital currencies, reputation management systems, and crowd-based coordination. Various app development projects, in our group and others, are exploring how these affordances can be utilized in community systems, and how they can be integrated in information and technology infrastructures of communities to better enable innovation in communities themselves as social systems.

A research challenge in smart cities is to understand complex urban systems through formal and informal channels of information so that innovative adaptation strategies can be available not only for emergency management, but for routine local development.

Smarter infrastructure is one of the primary goals of smart cities. The idea of the smart city often alludes to capitalizing upon opportunities to aggregate and manage big data in a way that benefits the growth and development of a city (Celino, 2013). Urban performance depends not only on the hard infrastructure, or physical capital of a city, but it is increasingly linked to the availability and quality of knowledge, communication, and social infrastructure through social capital and awareness (Coe et al., 2001). Social capital connects communities to themselves and aids in the urban competitiveness to adapt, learn and innovate (Campbell, 2012).

Social infrastructure can be a great deal of work to maintain, especially given the amount of information generated by a city. Crowd-based coordination aids in the process of activation thresholds, roles, and building reputation systems in a local community to create new forms of collective community engagement. Our envisionment scenario describes how several themes of community informatics may come together in one platform.

A moral challenge for smart cities (and for smart societies) is ensuring that everyone can participate in and benefit from innovation, and that community infrastructures incorporate and innovate with current technologies. This not a simple matter of providing access to smartphones, a technology our proposals in this paper depends upon. Thus, while overall access to smartphones is still lower in sub-Saharan Africa than in Europe,for example, some African countries had tenfold growth in mobile telephony in the past decade; in South Africa and Nigeria nine in ten people own mobile phones; 34% of South Africans own smartphones (Poushter & Oates, 2015).

The Berkeley Community Memory and the Blacksburg Electronic Village innovated at the leading edge of information infrastructures, but in both cases, the leading edge of technology quickly became mundane. What seems more significant from the vantage point of 2015 are the sociotechnical innovations of electronic bulletin boards and web-based community systems that were enabled, and that were eventually emulated across the world. There may always be emerging technologies within the grasp of a few and beyond the grasp of many others. We do not have to support or agree with this, if we choose to deal with it. Innovative community infrastructures of the past made emerging technologies more available more quickly, driving creative appropriations for civic purposes. This success pattern can and should be continued and developed.

In this paper we have examined a range of separate sociotechnical innovations that can be composed into an innovation infrastructure for communities, InnovationStarter. However, we know that separate sociotechnical innovations also have a linear-historical relationship: technology-in-use tends to evoke further problematization and ideation in designers, and further creative appropriations in users (the task-artifact cycle; Carroll et al. 1991). Sociologists have come to a similar view extending ideas of structuration of organizations and communities, that technologies are open to new uses that are not embodied in the technology itself but in situated practice (Orlikowski, 2000). Challenges of adoption and deployment are central to CI, but through partnerships with community organizations we have found environments in which relatively simple systems have grown and developed into more robust projects. These systems cannot only provide hyperlocal awareness, information aggregation, and regular analytics, but can also be used to support partnerships and collaboration strategies among community stakeholders. A further direction in sociotechnical innovation as an approach to community informatics is better understanding this historical co-evolution.

Communities today face complex challenges to improve quality of life for citizens while nurturing economic- and socio-economic development. Designs that experiment with open and user-driven innovation for interacting with urban landscapes and adapt community sentiment can act a valuable common resource for citizens in smart cities.


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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441