Community Informatics: What’s in a Name

Michael Gurstein

Editor-in-chief: The Journal of Community Informatics


When several of us, around 2000-2001 started using the term “Community Informatics” to describe the type of activity that many of us were both doing and researching, the use of the terminology of “informatics” was rather more limited (at least in the English speaking world) than it is today.

The Wikipedia entry on “Informatics” currently lists some 25 “informatics’s” including Health Informatics, Business Informatics and Community Informatics, but also “Urdu Informatics”(?)—perhaps only 2 or 3 on this list would have been in more general use before 2000.

But going through this list it is clearly more incomplete than not (it doesn’t include either “Urban Informatics” or “Development Informatics” for example nor does it include such things as “Security Informatics”, “Nursing Informatics”, or “Emergency Informatics”). All of these latter subject areas appear in the top 100 items in my recent Google search on “Informatics” and on all which I’ve seen conference and/or book announcements pass across my horizon sometime within the last year or so.

In fact, one might look at this and say that the terminology at least of “informatics” is proliferating as fast as did the academic approach of “area studies” during the 1960’s and 1970’s (at least again in the English speaking world). Area studies in that context was an academic way of trying to catch up with a very rapidly changing intellectual (and activist) world by developing teaching and research programs in such areas as “Women’s studies”, “Latin American studies”, “Canadian studies” and so on and so on.

And to my mind there is a very strong parallel between this former development and the latter one of developing (or at least naming) the study/practice of using Information and Communications Technologies in a particular professional or academic domain as an “Informatics”. Moreover, it might be useful to carry on a bit with examining the parallelism between the two – area studies and informatics.

In most domains in which “area studies” were developed, the naming really consisted of carving out a (topical) area of interest, using this carving out at the experienced (empirical?) or problem-defined level as the subject matter for research/pedagogy. This carved out area however was approached for part from (a generally unexamined) quite conventional disciplinary—conceptual and methodological—set of frameworks. Thus for example “Canadian studies” was concerned (for the most part) with looking at Canada and Canadian phenomena from whatever disciplinary (or other) frameworks that seemed most pertinent to the problem area being examined (or to be somewhat cynical from the disciplinary background of the primary researcher promoting the subject area).

The practical result of these approaches has been that as times have gotten rather leaner in university research contexts many if not most of these area studies programs have lost out in the competition for scarce resources and have been absorbed back into the main-stream disciplines and academic formations. Those that have survived from an academic perspective (issues of short term tactical funding for transient areas of say geo-political strategic interest aside) have been those such as gender/women’s or development studies which have not only been concerned at the topical level but have attempted with more or less success to develop (in each area) a deeper conceptual/theoretical underpinning for the specific way in which those involved are carving out the academic/research world which represents some deeper (and generally critical) insight on how these topic/issue areas are (or have been) approached within the context of traditional disciplines.

In the case of gender/women’s studies this has meant linking into the immensely valuable deep critique of conventional epistemology to retrieve “a woman’s way of knowing” (which in turn has opened up a very liberating set of approaches to “knowing” for a range of other emergent epistemological groups--gays/queers, aboriginals and so on). In the case of development studies the link has been into the on-going critique(s) of conventional economics (and other disciplinary areas) from the world of the practical (and problematic) experience of “development”.

I think that the same process is likely to hold sway in the area of “informatics” as well. Many of those research/teaching areas identified as “informatics” will, once the hype around the term (and of the use of ICT in general) dies down, be as they say in UN jargon “mainstreamed” i.e. more or less disappear as a separable item within the broad naming and description of the separate areas under examination—Urdu or Veterinary informatics for example.

Community Informatics is rather interesting from this perspective. From the beginning of the use of the term, CI referred not only to the research area but also to the practice of enabling communities with ICTs (and many of the early proponents were active in one way or another in both). The fact that so many of the early proponents were both researchers and practitioners/activists with and in communities meant that in their research there was a depth of understanding and engagement with the phenomena being studied which went well beyond simply treating it as an interesting topic area for study.

There was a clear recognition of the deeper (community, developmental, community development, etc.) processes at work below the surface phenomena which required integration and interpretation in the context of the research but also gave the researchers access to a very rich set of concepts, theoretical constructs and theory overall in which to embed their analysis and understanding of what they were observing.

It is probably too soon to say that there is Community Informatics theory, but certainly not too soon to say that there is a vibrant discussion towards Community Informatics theory and that alone distinguishes Community Informatics from many of the other “Informatics’s” that have proliferated in the last decade or so. This alone suggests that CI might have a longevity significantly greater than other of these more recent informatics developments and even survive once the academic/research zeitgeist moves to another interest area.

This current issue of JoCI provides some useful support for the above argument.

Starting with the very interesting article by Williams and Durance we see an attempt to place Community Informatics into a broader (but not discipline focused) theoretical framework in this case network and social capital theory.

The Jarvis-Selinger et al paper examines the interplay between technology and local indigenous communities and without problematizing either the reality or the concept of community gives some practical insight into how (at least these particular) communities adapt to and integrate ICTs.

Sylvie Albert takes for granted the notion of community while attempting to layer on top of this a statistical analysis of how individual organizations come to self-define one feature of communities, their “smartness” in terms of formal indicators.

The paper by as-Saber and Hossein while something of an outlier in the above context provides some interesting and provocative challenges in thinking about the overall linkages between a Community Informatics, a Development Informatics and a Business Informatics.

The two notes from the field—the tragically posthumous paper from Guido Sohne and that of Yusaku Fujii and his colleagues both in their way strongly re-affirm the independence and validity of a specifically “community” informatics in that in each case they base their system design on the pre-existence of an active and self-organized community capable of appropriating and using technology in support of collaboratively decided upon objectives.

Finally we have Ricardo Ramirez’s fascinating discussion on the nature and techniques for “meaningful participation” provide an essential link from CI (or at least ICT) into the extremely rich literature and practice of community participation and governance.