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<nettime> Texas Community Network conference report
cisler on Mon, 21 Dec 1998 17:23:54 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Texas Community Network conference report


Texas Community Network Conference, "A Creators Conference" December
14-15, 1998. Austin, Texas. 

Notes copyright by Steve Cisler, <cisler {AT} pobox.com> Non-profits,
educational institutions, and government sites may reprint or serve this
document, as long as the pages are not cluttered with banner ads.
Commercial sites must contact the author. 

Texas is at the center of more community networking activity than most
other areas of the world. The Texas Community Networking Coalition, made
up of people from government, non-profits and high tech worked more than a
year to put this conference together. Gene Crick and Shana Jones seemed to
have been most involved in planning and running the conference, but there
were a lot of volunteers from University of Texas, Austin, and other
organizations around town and around state. 

They attracted a heavy lineup of CN practitioners and theorists from
out-of-state as well as local stars to fill up two days of panels and
plenaries with enough ideas and contact pointers to overwhelm most of the
people who attended. Because Texas has a lot of small towns in rural
areas, that seemed to be the main clientele, but certainly there were
attendees from schools and libraries in Houston, Austin, and San Antonio. 

I spoked early on the first morning and after asking for a show of hands,
it seemed that most people were from schools, then libraries, non-profits,
business, government, and health sectors, with one person from the arts
and nobody from law enforcement. 

In my remarks I said that the main functions of a community network were
1. convening face to face meetings, events, and conferences 2. providing
low or no-cost dialup service to the network, the model of the Free-Nets
of the early 90's 3. provision of local information and discussion on a
community server, and 4. maintaining public spaces for access to these
computers and networks. This is the role of the library, school,
telecenter, community club lab, and I think it is one that will persist. 

Satellite Access

I spent much of my time the first day listening to people interested in
access to high speed connections in rural areas. Tachyon, Inc, a two-way
Internet services carrier that uses satellite for transport
<www.tachyon.net> had its very first public demo at this conference. I
have been working on a Tachyon-supported community networking site that
annotates CN projects around the world. Texas has parts of the state that
are as vast and sparsely populated at Mali or Mongolia, and they showed a
strong interest in the service which provides 40 mb/sec downstream and 256
kb/sec return path. 

During the conference there were 19 breakout panels each with 3-4
speakers: everything from digital copyright to video conferencing to
alternative technologies. Ken Pigg of Missouri talked about evaluating
Missouri Express, a pioneering state CN project. There was a panel on
special assistive technologies, on building partnerships and how to work
with telcos and ISPs. There were numerous people talking about GIS
projects. The Telecommunication Infrastructure Fund Board (which will be
making millions in grants this year and for some time to come) has a very
cool Java applet for viewing all the network information about the
connections and nodes around Texas. It is a very powerful conceptual tool
that can be very persuasive with administrators, journalists, and
legislators to show progress, where the inequity in service is, and what
each grantee has in the way of connectivity and hardware. It will be
online in January and is recommended to anyone engaged in large scale
projects. Canada, South Africa, Egypt, Turkey, and Australia come to mind. 

Sue Beckwith and Ana Sissnett have helped make Austin Free-Net a big
success. I told Sue we had recently profiled the Austin Learning
Academy<www.alaweb.org> in a report on successful technology centers, and
I said I would send her a copy when it was issued. It seems that Austin
Free-Net is frequently described or used as an example without anyone
talking to Sue or Ana. This includes an article in Technology Review, a
Markle Foundation study of community networks, and a presentation by City
Search, one of the for-profit local web directory services. 

There was so much to absorb (or just skim) at this conference that a
typical attendee was going to need a sort of decompression chamber to
avoid getting the bends when she surfaces at the end of the two days. For
anyone, whether they are from a school in Del Rio, Texas, or the SW Bell
offices in Houston have the challenge of translating the messages for
those back home. This is especially true if the kick start for a project
depends on the one person who attended. The eternal challenge is how to
transfer the excitement of such a gathering to make it meaningful to the
troops back home. 

My own feeling, which I'd even call Cisler's Rule is: there is usually
more talent in an audience than on a stage, and it's the speakers' job to
maximize the total impact. And it talking to people with little experience
and from very remote areas, I could tell that some had a lot to offer, and
others were overwhelmed. I only met one who did not find the conference
useful. 

She had been sent to show off a GIS application, and she did not feel the
rest of the conference applied to her. Surprisingly, she had not seen any
of the other GIS projects at the conference. By chance, Sue Beckwith
showed up and talked to her about Austin's GIS project online. So perhaps
it was useful after all. 

AFCN

Susan Myrland had worked on some of the conference organizing, and on the
last day the Association For Community Networking distributed the
proceedings which she edited for the first annual AFCN conference in July
1998, in San Josť, California. This will be available online in 1999, and
a print version will be sent to AFCN members. 

The sessions on the last day shifted because of a few equipment problems,
and after a telemedicine general session, Professor Sharn Strover, Univ.
of Texas-at Austin, gave an overall look at the issues before the
audience. Placing all of the panels and technical sessions and demos into
context was helpful. I can also recommend a publication that Strover
edited: The Texas Telecommunications Review: Building a Networked Texas.
It included a series of short pieces on community networking, public
services, education, policy issues and a telecommunications overview. Phil
Doty from the U.T. School of Library and Information Science, had a good
chapter on Internet filtering in public libraries, a hot issue here and
many other parts of the U.S. Contact the Institute for more information on
this print publication: www.utexas.edu/research/tipi/. 

I was on a panel about libraries and community networks. About two-thirds
of the audience worked in libraries, and many of them wanted to talk about
Internet filtering. Mark Smith of the Texas Library Association, gave one
of the most balanced presentations on the topic . I made the point that
the filtering issue is part of a much bigger issue of how the public
library and other public spaces are being redefined by the technology, by
the public, by legislators and by the staff in ways that will be
far-reaching. 

During the Tuesday lunch, Molly Ivens, the syndicated columnist gave a
brief talk to us "geeks" as she referred to us, about the First Amendment,
whereas it would have been more interesting to hear about her cruise with
a group of fellow leftists from which she said she had returned. 

Then Steve Snow, director of Charlotte's Web gave a talk on his struggles
to keep his community network running but out of the clutches of other
groups in the community. It's clear that one of our most famous community
networks works closely with some groups but is alienated from other
influential players. The talk was humorous in some ways but I could not
help wondering whether groups considering starting a CN would feel
encouraged and want to proceed. One person commented to me that
Charlotte's Web should just become a for-profit ISP and stop trying to be
a non-profit. Snow's talk was sobering, and it made me realize that CNs
emerge out of conflict as much as collaboration--especially if outsiders
begin to value the network. Snow and Frank Odasz and Kevin Tharp all
contributed enormously by sharing their bruises, battle ribbons, and
knowledge to many of the sessions over the two days. 

The conference ended with Arny Viramontes of the TIFB taking a large group
through a business planning process. Before running TIFB he had been a
successful businessman and is interested in helping non-profit
organizations manage the state grant money and begin to build healthy
community networks. 

For a complete program see the conference web site at: www.txcomm.net as
well as the Telecommunications Infrastructure Fund Board:
www.tifb.state.tx.us

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