VICNET and the Web in the wider Victorian Community


Gary Hardy Email:garyh@vicnet.net.au. Stuart Hall Email:stuarth@vicnet.net.au. Adrian Bates Email:adrianb@vicnet.net.au. Indra Kurzeme Email:indrak@vicnet.net.au. VICNET,State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston Street, Melbourne 3000, Australia. Phone +61 3 6699710 Fax +61 3 669805
Keywords: WorldWideWeb, Community Networking, VICNET, Civic Networks, Government Information

Introduction

VICNET is a joint project of RMIT Libraries and the State Library of Victoria. The project has been established by a grant from the Community Support Fund, which is administered by the Victorian State Government Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. The project will be officially launched late April 1995.

VICNET has two aims;

To achieve these aims we are pursuing a number of complementary strategies as follows;

Funding

At present, as well as VICNET's link to the Internet through AARNet, ISDN links have been established to Box Hill-Doncaster Regional Library, Eastern Regional Libraries and the North East Telecentre at Wangaratta. We are in the process of linking up the Braille and Talking Book Library and the RVIB Talking Book Library; and a variety of proposals are in train for funding to connect up a range of other libraries across the State.

In most cases the funding for the library connections comes from a combination of existing and proposed Victorian Libraries Board grants and local Public Library budgets, plus the original VICNET establishment grant (during the pilot period).

As an example, the Box Hill-Doncaster Regional Library Authority in Melbourne's Eastern suburbs had a grant to establish a CivicNet for their area called the Whitehorse Electronic Village and they were able to redirect some of the funds to establishing a link through VICNET.

The North East Telecentre (NET), on the other hand, is one of a series of community computing centres established with Federal Government funding around regional Australia, rather than a library service. VICNET has provided funding to establish NET as a regional node in order to explore and demonstrate a funding model which doesn't rely (entirely) on government funding. The idea is that VICNET and NET explore ways in which services through the node could be sold to produce revenue which can be used to offset the cost of providing the equipment and communications.

The VICNET objectives in this arrangement simply relate back to our aims. We want a link to the local public library (paid for on a cost recovery basis), we want a say in the individual charges for dial-in access (commercial but reasonable) and we want to establish a community information server with a link on to the VICNET Web server.

There are other models. We are actively pursuing a proposal where a TAFE college funds part of the cost in exchange for Internet access, and another where a commercial organisation with an existing network makes it available for VICNET use in exchange for Internet access and the right to offset some of its costs by running regional nodes. There are undoubtedly many variations on these themes, but we have already discovered some approaches which don't seem as though they are going to be very productive despite appearing to be an obvious solution. We believe, for example, that various State Government Departments and instrumentalities run about thirty different networks to various areas around Victoria and yet those that we have approached, while positive about VICNET, are generally cautious about making any commitment to sharing of communications facilities. There are probably very sound reasons for this; they are private networks designed for specific purposes and the security and traffic implications of operating across a public Internet connected network are real enough.

It may make more sense for VICNET to adopt an approach where it develops a State sponsored, but self-funding public network and let Government Departments decide for themselves what traffic they could reasonably send via a shared network and what they need to restrict to private networks.

We don't know what the best model is, or even if there is a best model. It may be that a variety of different approaches will be used, but it does seem likely that the great reservoir of goodwill and enthusiasm we have uncovered will lead us to find ways to keep the project healthy and growing.

To connect remote nodes we are currently establishing mainly ISDN links, using JTEC terminal adapters, Telebit Netblazer remote access routers and Dataplex AccessPoint rack modems. This has worked very well so far and we have had terrific support from Dataplex, but it is unclear what will happen as the network gets more complex and the traffic increases. We have a growing need for Network Engineering expertise.

Installing free public access terminals in public libraries throughout Victoria

Once we had the central site at the State Library set up, all public library services in the State (at least all we could identify; they were in a state of flux due to Council amalgamations) were invited to become VICNET pilot users. Some took up the offer and, apart from those already mentioned, most elected to try dial-in on a reserved line first, which was only sensible given the cost involved in a permanent link. A number of these libraries are now regularly dialling while staff get used to using the Internet prior to putting out terminals for the public.

The first library to go live with a public access terminal was the Mornington Peninsula Regional Library Service, in the last week of March. The other participating libraries are gearing up, and by the time of the Conference we expect that most of the pilot libraries will have put their terminals out in the public areas. (There are a host of issues surrounding this aspect of the venture, but that is another paper.)

Our intention is that all public library services will have a permanent link to the Internet (through VICNET or some other path; we don't care which) within two years, but many will be connected sooner than that. A number of library services have already started to move in this direction by applying for grants for funding.

At the moment, the pilot users have been using a package of shareware/freeware/alpha and beta test versions (for Windows and Mac) which has been packaged to be (relatively) simple to install. For the public terminals, we are probably going to have to do some work on producing a custom software environment, but this has yet to happen.

Promoting the establishment of community information servers

There seems to be enthusiasm all over Victoria for the concept of mounting information about local communities on the Internet.

Our belief is that community information servers are like virtual public libraries; Libraries are obviously information resources for their communities, but they are also a recreational resource, an education centre and a community meeting place. A well set up server can provide virtual analogues of those functions through the Web supplemented by mail, news groups, and other Internet services. The library is an established focus for a local community. Many groups meet there, they have heavily used bulletin boards where local people and groups put up information, they provide many services to the local community. VICNET and the local libraries aim to have public access terminals logged into VICNETs web server defaulting to a local home page filled with local information provided by the community. VICNET will be setting up these services on its own server and will encourage local communities to do the same. The VICNET server at the State Library runs on a Sun SPARCstation 20 running Solaris 2.3. We use the CERN Web Server.

The web offers a huge opportunity for local communities and community groups. These can range from the local Citizens Advice Bureau and Neighbourhood Houses, to ethnic groups, elderly resource centers, special interest groups and so on. These groups have a wealth of information they regularly make available to the community via help lines, leaflets, newsletters and a myriad of other ways. These publications and services are great local information for the local community. This information can be put up on a web site like VICNET and made available through local libraries and other free public access terminals to the communities these groups serve.

It is our experience that many community groups can not afford Internet connections - let alone reasonable computer equipment. Many are not aware of the possibilities that stem from publishing their information on the Web. For a variety of reasons, many currently feel that they lack the skills to publish their information on the web.

We have been experimenting with a number of approaches to overcome these problems. Using a community directory VICNET has contacted a number of community groups and encouraged them to provide literature for conversion to hypertext markup language (HTML) to be put up on VICNET. The amount of information which we can publish for community groups is limited, and there are some information management problems which the "let us do it for you" approach brings in its wake. Issues of currency, accuracy, and ownership of the undertaking have each manifested themselves with our efforts to date. Simply keeping what we have got tidy could easily begin to consume a large percentage of our available energy.

Our experience suggests that it is preferrable to outsource the effort of conversion and maintenance, either onto the groups concerned or onto willing volunteers who will "adopt" a group or groups. To get groups and individuals creating their own html, we have been running some introduction to html sessions and have beenexperimenting with the provision of "Publishing Packs" to groups which include a very simple introductory exercise plus some good sample html documents plus utilities and a browser. The FreeNet movement in North America offers a number of examples which incorporate a large input from a volunteer group The Chebucto FreeNet of Canada has a very structured and well organised Information Providers/Volunteer's group. Chebucto FreeNet[href 1] works very closely with the community. Their original information providers have become their volunteers. Their goal is:

"to supply the Chebucto FreeNet with Information Providers significant to our community and help them in their efforts to produce up-to-date and relevant information."

VICNET has followed the example, and has established a fledgling but active Friends of VICNET[href 2] group. At the first meeting a wide cross section of people turned up, including a representative from the Disability Resource Centre, a genealogist who has already had three jobs as a result of writing a piece for our newsletter, an author who works with the Victorian Writers Centre, two secondary school teachers, an aerospace industry employee, a medical software developer, and as we later found out, a notorious hacker.

The growing number of high quality documents created either by the groups themselves or by our volunteers Community pages[HREF 3] and in the Clubs, societies and Associations pages[HREF 4] suggest that these strategies are indeed paying off. We like to think that VICNET is a vibrant and interesting site because it is harnessing the creativity and energy of wide range of people. We hope in the near future that more groups can work togther and share resources enabling anybody in the local community time to work on a computer preparing their HTML pages if they do not have access to their own computer. Again the library is ideally placed for sharing of this kind and we envisage that this will help to generate a sense of community. A similar venture in North America noted that the libraries which were providing network access took on a new importance within their communities, being "increasingly seen as a community resource rather than just a place for fiction and arts and crafts books."(McClure et al 1994)

Empowering the community

The potential for this community based publishing is far reaching. The world wide web offers the chance for the one-way information flow from the established media to be challenged by a wide diversity of other groups and we can see this with the emergence of web sites for Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and so on. It is our experience that once groups gain a little skill in the use of HTML they can prepare equally striking pages of information as the big media sites. With the Web being such an open network it enables even the smallest organization running its own web site to compete on an equal footing with the large media organisations. This compares favourably with the traditional small group broadcast publishing methods, practices like handing out newsletters at on street corners, or at festivals and markets. Through the web the small group can reach an expanding user base all over the world with professional and striking web pages backed up with quality content.

VICNET represents an interesting case study in this regard, as, together with a rapidly expanding and already quite extensive collection of community information we currently host the first tentative experiment in Web publishing byThe AGE[HREF 5], Melbourne's major daily newspaper. The arrival of The Age has more than doubled the amount of traffic on our server. The Age pages dominate the VICNET top twenty[HREF 6] pages retrieved each week listing. As might be expected, the large media organisations will continue to attract large audiences on the network. Control of mass distribution channels is not the only advantage of the large media organisations. They also have an identifiable "brand name" which attracts the web browsing audience, and they have the resources to gather and organise content which the small group will find difficult to match. We leave it to the reader to estimate how The Age pages compare to the VICNET pages in terms of content, and to draw his or her conclusions from the usage patterns. There are extensive discussions of the promise and the pitfalls of the net for community empowerment, and it is clear that the networked utopia has some way to go. (Wark 1994,Rheingold 1994)

Our experience certainly suggests that there are a significant number of Victorians who are eager to adopt this communications media to create their own vision of areas of experience about which they feel passionate, and that there is a growing audience for the material created. The eagerness with which some of Australia's telecottages and telecentres[HREF 7] have taken to the network, and the entrepreneurial energy they are displaying in offering network related services to their local communities suggests that the the Web offers considerable potential for economic empowerment as well.

Actively seeking Victorian information resources and finding ways to mount them on the Internet

From a technical point of view, most of what VICNET is doing at the moment is standard Web practice, however one of the challenges will be to provide interfaces to some of the many databases of public interest produced by community groups, local councils and by the Victorian Government. The State Library itself maintains a number of databases of interest, the most spectacular of which is Pictoria[HREF 8], a database of (currently) 107,000 historical images. This held on a Windows NT server and accessible through public workstations within the State Library. We aim to make it available via the Web. Plans are in hand to provide access to the Victorian Government Publications database, the Victorian Parliament Hansard and the Victorian Law Printer database.

We are creating a rich virtual information environment, with the hope that we gain the critical mass to begin attracting still more information. As well as community information, we are actively working with Local Government and with Victorian State Government agencies to encourage them to publish information and to establish a presence on the Internet to enable communication between government and constituency.

There are a number of challenging issues which are emerging as our site grows and as it gains popularity. What are the limitations on the sorts of information we will publish? Should we let the school boy entrepreneur who emailed me recently advertise his email order condom business? What standards should we impose on documents before we publish them? To what extent should we fix documents up - or should we let them stew in their own typos and go-nowhere links? Can we put links into someone else's document without asking them? What are the best ways to organize our growing data collection?

Conclusion

By luck or good management, VICNET seems to have anticipated some of the key recommendations of the Federal Goverment's Broadband experts group(Final Report 1995), and the Creative Nation statement:
In line with its access and equity objectives, the Goverment will ensure the maximum public access to the information services becoming available. The Government is aware of the potential of networked information services to improve the quality of life both in cities and in remote areas of Australia. It is clear that it will be some years before all Australian homes have the interactive facilites needed to receive many electronic services. The Government will work with the States to form local access points to enable Australians to participate fully in open learning opportunities, government services, small business support, electronic communications, community networks and other opportunities for personal development. In particular, the 1,400 public library service points throughout Australia provide a major opportunity for linking communities to network services, such as those available through the Internet. The Government will work with the States to deliver an effective program of community access. Creative Nation, 1994[HREF 9]

References

Charles R. McClure, Waldo C. Babcock, Karen A. Nelson, Jean Amour Polly, Stephen R. Kankus. The Project GAIN Report: Connnecting Rural Public Libraries to the Internet. 1995. p. 17.

Sandy Kyrish. "Here comes the revolution - again." Media Information Australia, No. 74, November 1994, pp 5-15

Howard Rheingold. The Virtual Community:finding connection in a computerized world. Secker and Warburg , London 1994. pp 276-300

Hypertext References

HREF 1
http://www.cfn.cs.dal.ca/ - Chebucto FreeNet
HREF 2
http://www.vicnet.net.au/vicnet/vicfrend.htm - Friends of VICNET
HREF 3
http://www.vicnet.net.au/vicnet/COM.HTM - Community pages
HREF 4
http://www.vicnet.net.au/vicnet/club.html - Clubs, societies and Associations pages
HREF 5
http://www.vicnet.net.au/vicnet/theage.html - The AGE
HREF 6
http://www.vicnet.net.au/log/getstats.report.html - VICNET top twenty
HREF 7
http://www.vicnet.net.au/~garyh/telecent.htm - telecottages and telecentres
HREF 8
http://www.vicnet.net.au/vicnet/slv/pic.html - Pictoria
HREF 9
http://www.nla.gov.au/creative.nation/contents.html - Creative Nation, 1994

Copyright

© Southern Cross University and VICNET, 1995. Permission is hereby granted to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction at educational institutions provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. Permission is also given to mirror this document on WorldWideWeb servers. Any other usage is expressly prohibited without the express permission of Southern Cross University and the authors.
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