I drafted some slides for a tech talk I did recently, based on something that I have been thinking about for a number of years.
It has always frustrated me to see how much people waste in talking about and working on things that never come to fruition. It is my hope that the topic of this post can help to frame how we all work together and understand each others’ roles and focus
I have also undertaken a study of community networks, which to my surprise has been an academic topic since the 1960s, which I will do a separate post about.
What sets community networks apart?
In a nutshell, what sets Community Networks apart from Internet Service Providers, is that instead of driving a busy schedule and trying to connect as many people as possible in as short a time as possible, Community Networks function on a “social timescale” - ie. Community Networks do things only on an as-possible, as-convenient or as-needed or basis.
Community Networks Ecosystem
While there are many aspects to the work each of us do, I think that it can be useful to class it under a minimum number of easy to remember areas. I have played with various categorizations over the years, and after a lot of contemplation I would like to propose the following, in no particular order, as they are each of paramount importance in the long run: Social, Technical, Administrative, Advocacy
When unpacked, it should be clear that these aspects are each equally important to attend to inside a community network for it to thrive. Similarly, they all seem catered for in the ecosystem as a whole with relevant organizations that has one of these as a primary focus areas. Note that I use the word primary, as some have a strong secondary focus in one of the other areas. On the whole, some ecosystem areas are very strong, well funded and well represented - and some are still poorly coordinated, documented and structured.
These aspects form the legs, so to speak, of the Community Networks Table - both of a Community Network as I know it, and of the Community Networks ecosystem as a whole.
These are organizations such as Internet Society and their chapters, APC as well as industry associations and other organizations and individuals that advocate for- and research our work and share our stories. This website, as a place for us to share our knowledge and experiences on the open internet, also falls under this banner.
Advocacy organizations are the ones responsible for learning from the Social- and Technical organizations, and carrying those messages in the appropriate format to the Administrative organizations. The people who work for them are mostly academics or well educated people, proficient in research and paperwork, and the kinds of people who will find this ecosystem overview too simplistic.
At their worst, they ignore you, or do nothing, or do or just say what whoever pays them, tells them to. At their best they spend time with you and and listen to you and repeat back to the Administrative organizations, your issues, concerns and needs, and connects you with others, such as on this website. You being literally you - everyone who is working on and has experienced things inside a Community Network.
These are organizations responsible for coordinating various parts of society, including public, private and civil society, and at all levels - international, national, regional and local - eg. Governments and Municipalities. And while individual research projects fall under the other categories, I class the Universities and research organizations that make those research projects possible, as well as every Funding Organization, and Infrastructure Fund, under the Administrative banner too, by virtue of their coordinating and enabling role. Similarly industry bodies that play a coordinating role, such as the UN, EU, IEEE as well as ICANN and the NICs, such as LatNIC and AfriNIC, and many more organizations, also fall under this category. So too Legal- and Regulatory Organizations and bodies.
Administrative organizations do not do the work of Community Networks directly, but their work provides the administrative structure and records within which that work can take place in a fair and equitable way.
At their worst they empower and fund things, or people, that are unaccountable and do nothing, or makes everything worse - such as enforcing the letter of unfair laws, or forcing you to do paperwork about your work, instead of letting you focus on on your actual work. At their best they do their own paperwork. I say that tongue in cheek - but at their best they learn from the Advocacy organizations (who in turn learn from the Social and Technical organizations, Advocacy and Technical organizations that and can also measure and translate the impact for them) and they support the ecosystem with coordination, tenders and funding that makes everyone’s lives easier, if not in the short term, definitely in the long term.
These are organizations that focus primarily on making the technology available and invisible ie. “makes it just work”. These are Internet Service Providers, Mobile Network operators, Engineers, Fiber and infrastructure companies, Equipment suppliers, Technical NGO’s like Basic Internet, Wish.org.za, Research Projects and Community Networks who are run mostly by technically proficient people (like many of the Wireless User Groups and some Community Networks, especially the European, American and Latin American ones).
At their worst, they are extractive, profit-seeking, or their networks don’t work, or you constantly hear about the network and they are fixing the same things over and over, or providing equipment that is difficult to use, or just doesn’t work, or really old equipment that they just can’t get rid of any other way. At their best, you hardly even know they exist because they tend to things, and plan and provision things way ahead of time, they use the right tools for the right jobs, and the network is always stable, affordable and fast, so good that you almost forget that someone even built it or that someone is maintaining it, or that you are even using it, it is just there, like the air you breathe. If your network is good, you can be sure there is someone that is and has been working very hard to make it so. It is an art, like playing a difficult musical instrument - and it requires a whole team of people working together, just like an orchestra - and also like an orchestra, it is not something that can be practiced on the job without it becoming immediately obvious, except that they are contending with natural elements too. This is of course true for all the other aspects here, but the difference is that if someone makes a mistake in one of the other aspects, it can take months or years to show - whereas in technical the problem will show up in seconds or minutes or days.
These are the organizations that use the technology to improve and monitor the things communities want improved. They focus on the purpose of the technology and it is their responsibility to make sure that it is fit for purpose and that it does not cause disruption or upset. These include social NGOs, Community Radio, many Community Networks Researchers and Research Projects and could arguably also include Schools and Healthcare.
At their worst they can also appear extractive and focused only getting funding for research or their own monitoring work. At their best they can make the technology useful to you and also share useful knowledge about making things work better or easier, or freeing up time for you to spend on different things, or helping you understand what has happened elsewhere and what could happen in future, and how to prepare for it or how to preserve your way of life.
Each organization that you get to work with, would have a focus in one of each of these areas. It is important for you to understand where your Community Network has strengths, and where it has weaknesses, and to reach out within this ecosystem so as to find the expertise to make sure that you are well looked after in each four of these areas.
I like to compare it to a table, and these are the legs. They are each equally important - each has many sub items that are important, but to explain all of those it will become too much to remember easily, that is why I think that this is a good starting point. Once you notice these spheres of expertise, then it becomes easier to understand how to ask for help, and from who, and what to look for and who to approach for the details. If you are having problems it is likely because you have neglected one of these spheres.
My hope is that this can save you time when you are engaging with different people or organizations, and that it can also make you aware of what to look out for, in order to diagnose where a project might be lacking.
Using the analogy of a road
Social is the people, stories, houses and items transported on the road, and the reason for it all.
Technical is the planning, building and maintenance of the road.
Advocacy is how others learn about your road and how you learn about theirs and what is possible.
Administrative manages who gets to build the road and what the traffic rules are.
What can you expect from each type of organization?
You can expect Social organizations to do research, or manage funding for research, and to share useful apps, plans, and knowledge.
You can expect Technical organizations to to spend a lot of time talking about equipment and software, and you can expect them to provide a better, faster service for cheaper (after reaching a certain scale), as time goes on.
You can expect the Advocacy people to say and ask for what the Social and Technical people are saying and asking, and saying it in a measured way that the Administrative people can use.
From the Administrative people and organizations, you can expect the wheel to turn slowly, and you can expect them to demand a lot of paperwork, and to eventually fund who the Advocacy people (and researchers) said they should.
In even simpler terms.
Social is the people and their way of living. The use of the technology and it is up to them to figure out how.
If it is neglected, then there is people fighting, or not welcoming or appreciating the technology.
Technical is the technology itself, a new tool for you to use - and the work of the people building and maintaining it.
If it is neglected, then everything is more difficult, and there are constant network problems.
Advocacy is the work of the people who listen to and research the Social and Technical people and the work of of putting it in documents and speeches and presentations that advises the Administrative people on how things can work more effectively.
If it is neglected, then it might be more difficult to find administrative or legal support, or to find outsiders who do similar work and with whom you can exchange knowledge on how to do things more effectively.
Administrative is the work of the people who do the most paperwork and who ensure that all the laws are complied with and that everything is done accountably and equitably. (assuming that the law is equitable, which sometimes it is not, then this is the people whom the Advocacy people work with to make changes.)
If it is neglected, then there might be officials who are threatening to stop your project.
Please do reach out to me, or comment here what you think about these categories - do you think it is too simplistic? Or do you think it is too ambiguous? Or do you think it is an effective way to classify things in a simple to remember way?
What other categorizations or ecosystem overviews have you come across, that could be helpful - and could you fit those under these banners with the explanations given here? Can you translate these categories adequately into your language? If this seems too simplistic, or not relevant, does it perhaps need to go with an even bigger overview of how our industries and countries function?
I am really eager to know, and I would like to improve this so that I can continue to use it to help those who have not spent a lot of time here, to understand how the parts of the ecosystem fit together, and what the value is in what each part is doing.
I believe that our work is too important for us to talk past each other, or to ignore or not appreciate the work that somebody else in this field is doing, that could be of benefit to more people, if they understood how it fit into the world and the greater industry.
Which of these areas do you think our movement is the strongest in, and which do you think are the most difficult or least well catered for? Personally, I think it’s the social organizations - and I would love to see more knowledge about how to find and partner with them, and how to support them, and how a Community Network can work with them.