Steve Cisler on Tue, 3 Sep 96 03:17 METDST

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nettime: Telecommunities Canada 96 (trip report

Trip Report: Telecommunities Canada Conference, August 16-20, 1996
Edmonton, Alberta

copyright Steve Cisler, Network Outreach, Apple Computer, Inc.

This report may reside on non-profit, educational, and
hobbyist BBSes, ftp servers, web sites, listservs, and (if any are left
out there) gopher servers. For all other uses, please contact the author.
Notable URLs are at the end of the document.

The Canadian community networking conference in 1993 had been an
inspiration for the first conference I planned (Ties That Bind, 1994), so
I was glad to finally attend their 1996 annual meeting this year and spend
three rewarding days in Edmonton, Alberta.

Besides being curious about the activities taking place in Canada (both
technical, political, and social), I was worried about  attempts to form
an International Association of Community Networking which began this year
in online fora as well as meetings in Virginia and Taos, New Mexico. Some
money had been collected, and a core organizing team has been chosen in
Taos after a long meeting, but no strong consensus had been reached once
we broke up and went back to our jobs and communities, even though all of
us are fairly adept at expressing our views in electronic mail.

I felt that the Canadians might offer some advice and examples for IACN to
proceed beyond the embryonic stage it was in as of May 1996. So I went to
listen and learn and not, for once, to present my own views.

Friday night: opening session

The host this year was the Edmonton FreeNet, and they did a good job,
though they never received my registration or followup email about it.
Their main hard drive failed just as the conference was starting, so they
had to devote a lot of time and resources to deal with a big crisis as
well as the conference. My plane arrived late, and I registered on the
spot, dropped my bags in the college gymnasium where the opening session
was being held and took my seat  in the audience of about 75 to hear Garth
Graham, TC board of directors, go into a lengthy discussion of the place
of community in a knowledge society. From his postings and from talking
with him, itUs clear he is one of the main theorists about Canadian
community networking. He questioned what happens when you mix the real and
virtual communities, and he stressed the need for the most participation
possible. He showed a strong faith in self-organizing systems and the
efficacy of grass roots democracy (not everyone agreed, as will be evident
later in this report).

Other speakers included Peter de Jager, an expert on technological change,
and Jon Gerrard, Sec. of State for Science, Research, and Development, and
for Western Economic Diversification.

The attendees included speakers, registrants, and volunteers. The first
two categories totaled about 80 people including a few Americans and, I
believe, someone from Korea. Most of the others worked in existing
FreeNets or community networks. Many of the former have changed their name
because of trademark issues, but some have done so because of the negative
connotation of the word "free" when a fee was being charged to many users.
TC has been working on an agreement with the new NPTN for the use of
"Free-Net" again. There were also people from the Community Access
Program, an Industry Canada project, to provide matching funds to small
communities around the country for the establishment of public access
sites.  359 were funded this year, and more will be chosen by regional
teams after an October 1996 filing date. The TC board sees these CAP sites
as potential community networks, and the attendees I spoke with from Rocky
Mountain House, AB, and Lumby, BC, were enthusiastic and even more
inspired after the conference was ending. Jody Konynenbelt of Rocky CIA,
said their grant money would be running out, but she hoped to train some
volunteers before she went back to cutting horses on a ranch to earn some
money. I wish there were easy ways for small communities to continue to
support smooth-running projects such as this. As everywhere else the
problem of continuing projects without the continuous infusion of grant
money is serious.

Saturday plenary session

The Saturday plenary session featured Doug Schuler present "How to kill
community networks" which was slightly modified from the talk he did in
Taos. The first part of the annual general meeting for TC took place at
this time. Community networks are voting members of TC, not individuals.
TC has no paid staff but hopes to later this year. They received some
funds from Industry Canada, but it was clear from the continuing comments
and discussion that the relationship between TC and Industry Canada was
not all that it could be. Industry Canada people I met at the Internet
Society in Montreal said they probably would not attend because they had
been beaten on pretty badly.  A TC representative said part of it was
because Industry Canada reps had come to last yearUs conference as if they
owned it, and yet had just donated $5000. The 1996 conference saw both
sides being more diplomatic and conciliatory toward each other. I think
the TC people wanted the government people to refer newcomers to them and
to recognize the experience they were acquiring. It also seemed that
cooperation between the two was better in some regions than in others, and
this might be due to personalities and not policy.

The conference was divided into  four tracks: get the spirit going; keep
the spirit growing; leading the spirit; and spirit of technology. I jumped
around and attended sessions in all but the technology track.

Chebutco software for Unix machines

David Trueman of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, discussed the
CSuite community network software for Unix machines. It's running on 12
Canadian community networks and won a Canadian Internet award in 1995. I
hope some of the features Ken Klingenstein showed at Taos from the Boulder
Community Network system can be integrated into CSuite. I have urged both
systems to contact the other for some cross pollination.

Defining the community network board of directors

Carol Humphries of Learning Link in Edmonton provides office space as
in-kind support for the local FreeNet. She is also chairman of the board,
and she ran a good session on her view of the way boards should be set up.
Her board is a governing board, and they hire an executive director who
hires the rest of the staff. They make policy; they don't count paper
clips and deal with registrations. The founding sponsors include a mix of
public (libraries) and private organizations (IBM-Canada, Learning Link,
Software Alberta Society, Edmonton Telephones, Edmonton Journal and they
are entitled to sit on the board. The board does not post minutes or
encourage members to attend the board meetings. Recently they have begun a
"bulletin board" for interaction between members and the board, but it
seems the digital tools they are promoting with Edmonton FreeNet, with the
exception of email, are not really being used by the board itself to
facilitate better communications. Nevertheless, her presentation pointed
out how many governance issues any organization has to deal with,
especially one that usually is techie-driven at first, but needs to change
as the organization membership grows.

Ms. Humphries clearly stated the limits of her interest in participatory
democracy several times during the presentation. Others in the audience
thought this would isolate the board from the digital masses, but she said
that the board should probably perpetuate itself by vetting candidates for
new board positions, yet she did see a pendulum swing from more control
(which she espoused) to one that was more open. Jon Hall of NTNet Society
in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories (which has 60,000 people in an area
1/3 the size of Canada!) talked about the problems of running a meeting
where off-the-wall candidates or positions were suggested by members from
the floor. Garth Graham said that National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa had
open elections where each account holder could vote (or change her vote)
over a two week period. Even with the ease of electronic voting, only 2000
members vote from a membership of 57,000.

I went into some detail because this is the kind of topic not covered in
any American community networking conference, and because the level of
discussion was such a major part of the session. Having 90 minutes for
each one allowed most speakers to have their say and still entertain a
substantive exchange with the audiences. This was to be the way most of
the other sessions were as well.


Ian Allen of National Capital FreeNet in Ottawa detailed the kinds of
information a system operator can get from monitoring the software and
charting the results. He charts unique IDs using the system per week,
Usenet traffic for local groups and even the number of articles posted in
different groups. There was a long discussion of what these stats meant,
and how you needed to weigh different ones before coming to any simple
conclusion about user needs or trends.

Shawn Henry also had a good session on different sort of stats: from a
survey of Calgary FreeNet users. Henry is with the Canada West Foundation
and is writing up a report on what they found from their survey. Since
there have been inquiries from American community networks about users
stats, contact him about the report and where it will be published.
< One interesting stat that I report without
comment: 99.5% of the users thought Internet access was a right!

Time Out for Fun

The Edmonton organizing committee also allowed time to visit the surreal
mall that houses hundreds of shops, an ice rink, a Spanish Galleon
(sponsored by Kodak), a nine acre water park with bungee jumping,
treacherous slides to take years off your life--or push you over the edge,
and a big wave machine.  I had been swimming in Santa Cruz, California,
two weeks before, and it was quite weird to be in the northern Canadian
plains body surfing along with a thousand other people. At the same time a
theater/street fair event was underway (the Fringe), so we had two very
good breaks from all the network related sessions.

Edmonton Public Access

After the Edmonton FreeNet started up again with substitute hard drives, I
visited a local public access site to try it out. Since I'm a librarian by
training, I visited the main library in downtown Edmonton. At the cluster
of terminals and PCs they had posted a sign about the FreeNet problems,
but I was able to log in as 'guest' on their machine. The first page
displayed in lynx was a registration page, and I was unable to view
anything else. The elderly woman at the help desk was friendly and
supportive but she said she was not a member of FreeNet and did not own a
computer. She tried to log in using a special password. When she could not
get past the registration screen, she consulted a younger helper. I said
I'd contact the system administrator who was at the conference. When I
logged on again a couple of days later, it was fixed. However, it is clear
that computers are still hard to use, and not everyone can easily help
people solve problems with an interface or system error. This makes the
user experience a negative one, and the support staff gets frustrated with
something outside of its control. Once these barriers are surmounted, more
people will enjoy or at least make use of our systems. In Edmonton there
are over 11,000 users in a metro population of 850,000. It is clear that
not everyone is going to use our community networks, but what will the
magic application be to attract more than one or two percent of the
population to our sites?


Alvin Schrader of the U. of Alberta  School of Library and Information
Studies spoke about censorship on the Internet, from the perspective of a
librarian who has studied this ever popular pastime in libraries of all
sorts. There was a very good discussion about how to set limits. Generally
libraries have a greater tolerance for controversial materials than do
other institutions (government, industry, law enforcement, schools) and I
wondered if any Canadian libraries felt they had to compromise when they
partnered with others to form a community network. Neither Schrader nor
Penelope McKee (head of Edmonton Public Library and a member of the board)
knew of any such compromise. Schrader recommended getting a board approved
mission statement and having it reviewed regularly.  Have a complaint
policy and procedure.  Edmonton PL has a strong freedom of expression
statement.  There should be a national statement for handling due process
for complaints, and support for network officials who are being threatened
should be provided (as it is for librarians in the U.S.). Dr. S.M Padsha
of Edmonton FreeNet said setting a policy on controversial material has
been problematic. A small number of users want some "special" Usenet
groups, and nobody knows how to decide this: not the users, the board, nor
the staff. Nobody had an answer for him at the session, but having a
strong mission and goals statement can help. Parts of Edmonton's statement
are ambiguous (you can't put up material that is _objectionable_) and they
are searching for a way to resolve this.

The Canadian Government's message

Andrew Siman, director of communications development in the Department of
Industry,  gave a talk on insights about the "information highway" a term
still quite popular in Canadian government and industry. He hopes to
extend the CAP program and fund 100 community networks for  $60K over
three years (for a total of $6 million),  establish a Canadian studies
institute to assess the social impact of the IH, and hold regular
conferences on public information and networking issues. He compared the
funding of the CAP program with that of CANARIE, the public/private
consortium that has received over $100 million in federal funds. At the
end of this report you can find a URL for the most recent report on the IH
(May 1996) that was being handed out by Industry Canada. Siman's talk
seemed to be a very conciliatory overture to the TC membership, but he
could not distribute the talk until it was translated into French.

Unlike the Internet Society conference in Montreal in June, there seemed
to be no tension over Quebec and Canada; French and English. The whole
conference was in English. However, there seemed to be just one Quebecois
present, and I wished I had had time to talk with him about these issues
as they are manifested in his new system in Montreal that came online
earlier this summer.

The Next TC conference

There were many other sessions I did not attend, but check the TC 96 web
pages for more info on the speakers and sessions. The next conference will
be in Halifax, Nova Scotia 15-18, 1996, sponsored by Chebutco Community
Net <> The theme is partnerships, and the
organizing board is interested in ideas for keynote speakers and

My quick impression of the Canadian community networks is that they have
more features in common with each other than American ones do, but each is
run differently. The subject matter for the conference had less evangelizing
and cheerleading than we had at our meetings. This indicates a
practicality and perhaps more advanced stage of development than the
American scene as a whole. However, many are struggling with ways of
supporting themselves in the wake of ISPs growth, grants running out, and
a growing mass of users who want new services and static fees. One Freenet
vice president said he wished his group had paid more attention to content
and less to phone lines. Many still place more emphasis on basic dialup
access to serve those with older or slower machines than they do on
improving services for people with more capable equipment.

Many community systems do not want to compete with ISPs, and if the role
of the Freenet is to serve mainly the underserved, they will have to
secure funding from sources other than users who can afford to pay very
little if anything. Some of the Calgary stats showed a sizable portion of
middle and upper-middle income people using the system when they could
afford to pay quite a bit more for Internet service.  I worry that many of
the community net members are like Price Club or Costco customers: they
will stick with the service as long as it's free or cheap, and even a good
cadre of volunteers (as most Canadian systems seem to have) will not keep
such a system financially solvent in the medium or long run.  This is not
so different from many public libraries where most of the users are
well-educated and middle class but who draw a great deal of value out of
proportion to the taxes they pay. The FreeNet does not draw on the whole
tax base, as a library does, and that makes their support less reliable. I
think that the skillful use of statistics to show the way CNs are serving
the populace and are helping to further the government goals of equitable
access may be one of the best ways to show the impact these systems are
having in many communities. I'd recommend deciding on a measure of stats
taken from log files and surveys that are common to each system and coming
up with a picture of CN activity by province and nationally.

URLs of note:

Telecommunities Canada Conference 1996:

Neil GuyUs thesis on community networks: or (both links are quite slow)

Doug SchulerUs "How to kill community networks" :

Community Access Program:

Lumby, BC, Community Access:

Building the Information Society: Moving Canada into the 21st Century

Articles on CSuite, community network software:

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