The DoingIT Better project is a three-year social justice and action research partnership with the Victorian Council of Social Service, generously funded by a donor. It is led by Dr Larry Stillman of CCNR.
In 2004, with Randy Stoecker, a small scale participatory research project identified many of the information, training, and support needs of Neighbourhood Houses, the archetypical neighbourhood centre, in a deprived part of Melbourne. Knowledge and information links were weak between members of the service network, despite the availability of ICTs. Something else was missing-group understanding of the issues and a capacity to move forward. The centres, on the basis of a draft report prepared through an interactive, and participatory research methodology, were able to use it as an advocacy tool. Public servants and parliamentarians who saw the report were stunned to read peoples' actual words, rather than the bland filtering that occurs in traditional consultants' reports. Evidence was presented to parliamentary committees, and while it cannot proved that the project had a direct causal effect, in 2004, additional funds were provided by government for technology infrastructure and the May 2006 Victorian State budget greatly increased overall support for Neighbourhood Houses .
Continuing interest in working with the community sector led to discussions in 2005-6 with the Victorian Council of Social Service , a lead service organisation with many hundreds of member organisations who work with the most disadvantaged people in the community.
VCOSS organisations have a rich depth of knowledge about social-technological issues, but lack a vehicle and forum to express them (and the needs that they have. They feel that the linkages between many organisations are weak, despite on-the-surface familiarity with the potential linking and sharing effects of ICTs. While government is building large, centralized databases of information, these are of little help to local information and networking needs. Outside assistance-or at least an empathetic partnership-is required to help draw out their own knowledge, build independent capacity, and to help them locate funding for long-term sustainability of such a project.
Another environmental effect on the project has been research in which the Centre for Community Networking Research has been involved on behalf of the Commonwealth Government with other key community sector organisations. The research similarly established a high degree of information, training and support needs across the country.
Three stages are seen as essential to the project:
• A Formative Workshop-to get knowledge from the sector and encourage participation
• A Working Group-to act as a leadership group and ongoing participant base within the community sector, akin to a community of practice in Victoria.
• In-depth case-studies-to provide discrete and detailed knowledge about problems and solutions.
All these stages and strategies could be adapted more widely.
We held the very-well attended formative workshop in April, and the Working Group is getting under way as of June 2007. Early discussions and plans are afoot for the in depth studies with different community organisations.
A key guiding principle is that of ‘Open Knowledge', as distinct from individualistic activity. The idea of Open Knowledge is akin to that found in the Open Source movement, in that strength can only come about through collaboration, information sharing, and information distribution, in a sector that is used to this principle.