Toward a Digital Public Infrastructure:
Pervasiveness of a Designing Concept
the ideas of social and technological pervasiveness relating to
local cases of digital infrastructure. To conceptualize an idea
of pervasiveness, I examine the social and technological pervasiveness
in reference to the processes of institutionalization. I develop
a theoretical model of social pervasiveness to analyze the relation
between social structure and the social construction of public
information networks. Research questions of this research are:
How does social milieu shape a digital public infrastructure?
What are the problems for narrowly pervasive networks? How can
the idea of pervasiveness be realized socially and technologically?
I argue that social pervasiveness, as a feature of digital public
infrastructure, is an essential concept, as it offers a normative
perspective on development: a pervasive public information network
should address public needs. I argue that public information networks
develop in a socio-political environment, and to understand the
particular developmental context is to understand the network
itself. Public information networks in this paper refer to physical
networks of advanced telecommunication infrastructure providing
advanced telecommunication services like broadband and multimedia
Public information infrastructures refer to “uneven overlaying of new, customized, high performance
urban infrastructures onto the apparently immanent, universal and
(usually) public monopoly networks” (Graham, 2000, p.192). While
this concept is very similar to the National Information
Infrastructure being developed, this study sees public
information infrastructure in a more local focus: refer to technological
networks of advanced telecommunication infrastructure for local
communities providing them with advanced telecommunication services
like broadband and multimedia applications. Such public information
infrastructures allow the public to access data and information,
share local resources, and forge a shared identity. Public information
infrastructures streamline internal operations of municipal government,
improve delivery of town services to citizens and businesses, reduce
traffic congestion and air pollution, bring new educational opportunities
to local schools, and help local businesses prosper in a global
marketplace (Fidelman, 1994). Public information infrastructures
have been building electronic cities to link homes, schools, libraries,
hospitals, and small businesses to this ever-growing information
superhighway. Just as electricity, streets, and sewers are core
infrastructures that serve residents, businesses, and government
alike, so too is the information infrastructure a community-wide
need. Today, public information networking extends to digital cities in
a world where many countries have energetically embarked on digital
city projects in different forms, such as the Digital Media City of Korea,
Digital Park of Ireland, the Multimedia
Super Corridor of Malaysia, and the Cyberport
of Hong Kong. What makes these emerging digital cities different
from other IT industrial clusters are social pervasiveness as well
as technological ubiquitous networking.
In this paper,
I focus on public information
networks that have been developed primarily to connect public
institutions. The network serves as an inter-organizational system,
linking large and public institutions and small businesses in the
local community to support the sharing of resources and information,
provide services to community residents, and help forge common ground
to develop the community socially and economically. In terms of
public information network initiative, the New York State Public
Service Commission and the state’s incumbent telephone company committed
$100 million to deploy advanced telecommunications services in economically
disadvantaged areas in the state. In order to build public information
networks, a program was set up to fund the development of advanced
telecommunications networks in such areas. I refer to these networks
as public information networks in the present research. The Program established a competitive request for proposals process to solicit
proposals from eligible consortia of public institutions (such as
city and county government agencies, K-12 schools, colleges, healthcare
organizations), community organizations such as social sector non-profits,
and small business entities. Subscribers had to be located in or
provide services to Program-approved low-income and underserved
areas to be eligible for the subsidized telecommunications services
charges sanctioned under the Program. State and federal government
agencies could not participate in the Program, nor could individual
residents. Two rounds of grants were awarded before the Program
concluded in 2000. In all, 22 projects were funded 14 urban/suburban,
6 rural, with 2 qualifying as urban/suburban/rural combination projects.
formal objective was to bring “advanced telecommunications services
to economically disadvantaged areas of New York State that would
not be available in the near future on account of limitations in
the advanced telecommunications infrastructure and related equipment
Report, 2001, p.35). In other words, these areas would not have
access to advanced services if it were left to market forces. Less
formally but no less important as a goal, Program authorities sought
to promote eligible public institutions, community organizations
and small business entities to come together to meet local needs
and solve local problems. Program selection committee members pointed
to the strengthening of existing institutional ties and forging
of new ones in grantee communities as a Program goal.
This idea of
diverse institutions and interests was a key theme in their conceptualization
of community. They viewed a Program-funded network as a public information
network, an instrument to further social relationships and cross-sectoral
connectivity where, for example, a city’s public schools could,
through the public information network, connect not just to other
schools but to community organizations and the local zoo as well
as to serve a broad cross-section of the local population. The social
benefits of such a network were described as “community networking,”
forging of “coalitions and partnerships,” and “finding common ground.”
and non-evaluative characterizations of the term community start with locality: a community, in its most simplistic term, is
physically definable and tied to a particular geographical location
(Aurigi & Graham, 1998). A geographically-defined locale is
also a social entity if it supports human residents and their day-to-day
needs. Sociologists have tended to view community in this dual sense
as a physical location with the necessary support structures to
sustain “ordinary social life” (Selznick, 1996). Consistent with
explicit and implicit Program goals, I view Program-funded networks
as public information networks given their presumptive focus
on a geophysical locality and local user and support base.
At the individual
level, social pervasiveness refers to the connections that a person
has to “significant others in the social environment” (Barrera,
1986, p.46). Social pervasiveness can contribute to the sense of
community experienced by the individual. In applying the notion
to a public information network, I start with essentially the same
premise: a network that is well and broadly pervasive or connected
in its local community would be a beneficiary of, participant in
and contributor to more aspects of community life than one which
is more narrowly pervasive. Insofar as social communities themselves
may be seen as collectivities with the necessary means to support
a broad range of activities and the expression of a broad range
of interests and are, thereby, able to “implicate whole persons
rather than segmented interests or activities” (Selznick, 1996,
p. 195), networks that is designed to serve such collectivities
cannot be narrowly segmented in their connections. They must be
broadly pervasive in the local community’s social structure. If
they are not, or choose not to be, then their character as “community”
resources must be appropriately qualified.
As noted earlier,
Program guidelines emphasized cross-sectoral connectivity in the
locality. This emphasis was reinforced through the preferential
factors used by Program authorities in grading proposals:
Whether a project,
through collaborative partnership(s), broadly meets an array of
advanced telecommunications needs of a community and/or region.
(Example: A project might be constructed around a recognized regional
need for telecommunications links between its county social service
agency and local schools, clinics, shelters, food banks and hospitals).
(Program First Round RFP, 1996, p.48).
As is evident
in the example, proposals linking organizations across functional
sectors in a community or region were preferred for awards;
proposals that focused on linkages within a sector were discouraged.
The importance of cross-sectoral connections among local organizations
over the network was a common motif in program selection committee
members’ understanding of Program goals. The common motif reflects
some implicit normative sense of community itself as a centripetal
force that Program-funded public information networks were expected
to promote and strengthen. Projects representing a narrow base of
interests were apt to be denied Program funding. For instance, a
proposal in the Program’s First Round was rejected because it represented
the interests of a single sector.
I define pervasiveness
with reference to the number and diversity of organizations (in
terms of sectoral representation) that participated (in any capacity)
in the public information network planning and design process, and
as I read it are currently subscribers. The greater such diversity,
the more likely it is that the network will serve a broad cross-section
of interests in the community. If, for example, K-12 schools are
over-represented on a public information network, the chances that
it will serve this sector’s needs versus those of an under-represented
sector are greater. I assume that a network will be shaped by its
stakeholders to serve their interests. In the normative sense, a
public information network, as a product of the local community,
should serve as an arena for the expression of a plurality of interests.
Yet whether this occurs or not will depend on dominant power relations
in the community. I consider three related ideas: social structure,
structural differentiation, and the nature of prevailing power relations
among organizations in communities.
To the extent
that certain relations and interests are more influential than others
in the community, chances are that the network will be shaped by
these more than it is by the others. Pervasiveness starts with social
structure, which may be described as an aggregate network
of inter-organizational relations (Laumann, Galaskiewicz
& Marsden, 1978, p. 455). Normally, the pattern of relations
is to persist over time. Community structure has been more broadly
characterized as a network of relations among its various constituents
such as individual residents and formal and informal organizational
entities (see Nelson, Ramsey & Verner, 1962). In the present
research, I use the term social structure in the restricted sense
to refer to relations between organizational entities in
a community for two reasons: such relations tend to be more stable
relative to group or individual-level relations (Laumann et al.,
1978), and second, recall that the Program conceived of a public
information network as an inter-organizational network that
linked formal organizational entities in the local community. Only
eligible organizations could subscribe to Program-funded networks.
Individuals could access the network through subscribing organizations
but could not themselves be subscribers.
relations can be defined in two ways. Two institutions may be connected
through ongoing interaction or transactions. DiMaggio and Powell
(1991) describe “By connectedness…mean the existence of transactions
bringing organizations together: such transactions might include
formal contractual relationships, participation of personnel in
common enterprises such as professional associations, labor unions
or boards of directors, or informal organizational-level ties like
personnel flows” (p. 81). In the second definition, the term might
refer simply to organizations’ awareness of the presence of other
institutionalized interests in their operating context. Mercer (1978)
uses the term in the second definition with reference to individuals:
a social relationship, according to Mercer, denotes “the behavior
of a plurality of actors in so far as, in its meaningful content,
the action of each takes account of that of the others and is oriented
in those terms” (p. 78). I used this definition to analyze inter-organizational
relations in the present research. With this definition, I highlight
the mutual awareness of organizational entities occupying positions
on the social structure of relevant other entities in
their operating environment. Both structural power and contextual
influence are relevant to this view of social relations.
and Alford (1960), I characterize a public information network’s structural differentiation as reflected by the number of
organizations of different functional types who participated in
any role and capacity in its planning and design, and/or are currently
subscribed to the network. Using a functional classification scheme
developed by the project steering committee, I grouped eligible
organizations into sectors, with functionally similar entities
assigned to the same sector. For example, entities providing instruction
at the K-12 level were grouped together under “K-12 schools”. Entities
within a sector may be (and frequently are) different from one another.
Public schools differ in substantive ways from private and local
schools, and urban public schools are often very different from
rural public schools. However, these entities all share a family
resemblance that, as a group, differentiates them functionally from,
say, social service or healthcare agencies. The idea of sector used
here is equivalent to the idea of “societal sector” in Scott and
Meyer (1991): “A societal sector is defined as…a collection of organizations
operating in the same domain, as identified by the similarity of
their services, products or functions…” (p. 117).
two dimensions of social pervasiveness: the number of organizations
represented, and their sectoral diversity. The first provides an
overall estimate of participation and of within-sector variety.
Organizational members of a sector, while functionally similar,
may yet have different interests. Private nursing homes, for example,
have very different institutional goals and interests relative to
public hospitals, which are in turn very different from community
participation, I counted the number of entities within each sector
by organizational type. I differentiated between public institutions
smaller not for profit entities employing 99 or fewer staff in all
of their locations. I defined the types drawing on Program restrictions
on organizational eligibility for subsidies. For-profit small business
entities were also eligible for subsidies but their representation
on the projects profiled was so small that I dropped the category
from the analysis. Counting the number of organizational types represented,
as I do here, is a rough and summary measure of within-sector diversity.
The classification could be improved, for example, to differentiate
among community organizations based on relative size and location
(e.g., urban versus rural).
The second dimension
is sensitive to diversity across sectors and reflects the
assumption that the greater the diversity evident in participation
and/or network subscription, the more likely it is that the public
information network will serve a broad range of interests. High
diversity allows for the possibility that the network will be shaped
by a broad cross-section of interests. Diversity in representation
can also improve coverage. For example, the community within which
the City-net is located registered an increase in the population
of seniors between the 2000 and 2005 US census. The county social
services department reported on its website in 2001 that the senior
population viewed access to transportation as a major issue in the
region. Computer networks with public access points can improve
access to services and resources, thus reducing seniors’ reliance
on transportation. Yet, the City-net currently has no plans to develop
end-user applications aimed at the senior population, due in part
to lack of representation and advocacy of the needs of this growing
segment of the community.
differentiation may also increase the possibility that the public
information network would be open to social innovation such as socially
progressive uses. A high degree of structural differentiation in
a community tends to be positively correlated with social innovations
like urban renewal programs (Aiken and Alford, 1960). The greater
the variety of viewpoints represented in community decisions, the
greater is its innovative capacity. They note:
…the more differentiated
the organizational structure of a city, the more innovative it will
be. A more direct measure of organizational complexity than simply
city size would be a count of the number of organizations of various
types which play some role in community life (p. 660).
Aiken and Alford
advance a number of possible reasons for the linkage between high
differentiation and a community’s capacity to innovate. Highly differentiated
structures are also usually functionally specialized structures.
Such structures have the knowledge and financial resources to devote
to specific areas of inquiry and decision-making. A highly differentiated
public information network will have the resources to evaluate proposed
new uses of the network. For example, if there was a need for telemedicine
services in communities and the network was requested to support
such services, having healthcare providers on the list of network
subscribers can help in several ways: as potential providers of
telemedicine services, their endorsement and participation would
be important to supporting this particular use of the network. Second,
the expertise of their staff could be used to define the “how” and
“what” of telemedicine services. A diverse network would have “wider
latitude in selecting organizations for…critical coalitions” (Aiken
& Alford, 1960, p. 662) for implementing decisions. Diverse
environments, besides enabling expression of a broad range of ideas
for consideration, may also have access to functionally specialized
sub-groups to champion and help implement innovation.
differentiation is useful for community networking, its practical
efficacy will depend on the relative power of vested interests to
shape outcomes. In this regard Aiken and Alford (1960) emphasize
the importance of resources and refer to technology-rich organizations
as power centers in a community. These power centers organizations
have the catalytic powers to effect change that form coalitions
to make and implement decisions in functionally specialized areas
of activity. In social structural terms, technology robust organizations
occupy positions of advantage and are able to influence the actions
of other actors. Power relations may manifest themselves in an organization’s
ability to intervene directly to influence its relations with others.
For example, a powerful supplier is typically in a position to impose
conditions on a sub-contractor to the extent that the latter is
dependent on the former for custom. In the case studies analyzed
here, I found few instances of such power. The public institutions
were technology-rich relative to the community organizations (it
must be pointed out however that there were variations in access
to resources even within these classifications, as there were within
sectoral groupings), but I found no examples of resource-rich subscribers directly or overtly determining outcomes during the
planning and design processes or at any time thereafter. Their influence
over outcomes was more subtle and stemmed from their desirability,
in the eyes of the telephone company, as potential customers. They
represented lucrative commercial services contracts (and thus defined
an opportunity field for the telephone company), and the telephone
company was vying with rival providers for these contracts.
may influence others’ actions even without direct intervention.
This is an example of structural power (which stems from
an entity’s location on the social structure) and is denoted by
an entity’s capacity “to influence the actions of other institutions
in the absence of any direct intervention” (Brint & Karabel,
1991, p. 347). Brint and Karabel cite business organizations as
examples of structural power holders. In the present research, the
telephone company’s power stemmed from the role assigned to it under
the Program. As the sole provider of telecommunications services
authorized under the Program, its power and influence stemmed not
so much from its ability to affect service charges (although it
had this ability) as much as from its potential to make or break
a project. One of the 22 projects funded under the Program (not
one of the ones included in the present analysis) could not resolve
its differences with the provider and decided to give up the grant
instead. The project leadership did not have the latitude under
the Program to talk to a rival provider who might have been more
sympathetic to their problems.
As Brint and
Karabel (1991) observe, “A distinction may be drawn between direct
resource influences and what might be termed contextual influences.
Even if an organization is not dependent on another for vital material
resources, it may be dependent on it if the latter…defines an important
context in which the former operates” (p. 359). Contextual influence exercised by structurally powerful actors was clearly evident in
the City-net case. As noted earlier, the public institutions were
structurally powerful actors in that they defined a key context
within which the telephone company operated: their lucrative customers
were coveted by area telecommunications services providers, and
the telephone company was understandably interested in securing
these contracts over its rivals. The community organizations represented
less lucrative contracts and were thus less of a target for the
telephone company’s marketing attentions.
steering committee regarded the public institutions as powerful
ones for a similar reason. Late in the design process, Program authorities
warned the project of possible revoke of the grant if adequate progress
in signing up large subscribers was not evident to Program authorities.
The public institutions, as a group, had the resources and the interest
to subscribe. The community organizations, in general, were not
ready at that point to sign. The public institutions were, and they
thus held the power to rescue the grant. The public institutions’
private-related motive in subscribing reducing their telecommunications
costs consequently gained in legitimacy and urgency and was promoted
over the public-regarding values the project had started out with.
The rational in the steering committee was that the project had
to start first without any hazard to the grant.
The idea of
contextual influence expands that of inter-organizational relations
by suggesting that an entity may have influence over another even
if the two are currently not connected through exchange of material
or symbolic resources such as moral support. In the first case,
I analyze relations between the public institutions, the community
organizations, the project steering committee and the telephone
company from the point of view of structural power and contextual
influence. Some of these entities were indeed inter-linked through
transactional relationships. The telephone company was connected
to public institutions and to the community organizations through
service relationships, mainly for standard telephone service. Some
community organizations were connected to public institutions in
service networks. However, such connections are not examined here
in this study: I am more interested here in the influence each these
entities wielded in terms of their relative importance to the others
in their operating context.
information networks tend to develop out of preexisting technologies
like other technological artifacts. They rarely occur in nothingness,
but emerge instead from “existing technology, by a process of gradual
change to, and new combinations of, that…technology” (Mackenzie
& Wajcman, 1985, p. 10). To the provider of telecommunications
services, a public information network is simply one specified extension
of their pre-existing infrastructure. As such, a public information
network would have to be compatible with pre-existing technological
resources and relevant control structures, such as financial budgets,
operating procedures, and staff skills sets. As I found, proposed
extensions that depart too radically from preexisting infrastructures
are not likely to be supported unless the payoff is significant.
The logic of technological pervasiveness applies also to subscriber
sites: extensions or uses that are compatible with preexisting infrastructures
are likely to be supported more readily than radically new departures.
infrastructures are a good example of technology forming technology.
Telecommunications infrastructures usually involve major financial
investments and are pervasive they directly affect all uses of
them. Any proposed new use of this infrastructure would have to
be within the scope of its material affordances Infrastructures
tend to be durable, long-lived structures and may not be changed
inexpensively or easily. Once in place, infrastructures constrain
future possibilities. In the first case, such material considerations
formed a backdrop to most design and services pricing/contracting
decisions made by the telephone company. The influence of infrastructure
was pervasive and relatively non-negotiable, shaping not just the
provider’s design decisions but those at the subscriber sites as
support environment that develops around technological infrastructure
can also shape technology change. Technology budget allocations,
skilled personnel to maintain the technology and support user groups
such elements are critical to sustaining computing as a social practice
in organizations. As such, they are relatively durable aspects of
the computing environment and may not be changed easily. They tend
to be open to new artifacts that are backward compatible; they may
block those that are not.
elements comprise the “social web of computing” (Kling, 1987). The
idea emphasizes the social structures the social arrangements,
institutional relationships that exist between and among providers
and consumers of technology in organizations. Over time, this support
environment tends to anneal in its contents and social structures,
and around certain technologies. It comes to embody historical commitments.
Technological change cannot occur without taking into account the
“interests…served in the past, their organizing ideologies, and
the worldviews that bind the participants together” (Iacono &
Kling, 1988, p. 105). I see new artifacts as pervasive in pre-existing
technological infrastructures, as such, they are liable to influence
from the social supports that develop around these infrastructures.
pervasiveness argues for the historicity of emergence of new uses
of existing infrastructure. I differentiate between two levels of
organization primary and secondary. Extensions of existing infrastructure
are examples of the primary level. Infrastructure extensions involve
augmenting the technological substrate to enable new capabilities.
A telephone company may have to augment and/or modify its electronics,
its wiring plant, and its suite of software programs to support
a public information network. Network subscribers may have to similarly
augment their computing and networking infrastructures. End-user
applications such as browser and email are examples of the secondary
level: they are operated “on top of” the infrastructure. For example,
a word processing application needs an operating system to be useful
in this case, the operating system is part of the infrastructure.
This distinction between infrastructure extension and application
is crucial to an understanding of the pervasive nature of technological
artifacts. For reasons I elaborate below, I view an artifact’s technological
pervasiveness as largely a function of how it is interpreted and
appropriated by relevant social groups. It would tend to be heavily
pervasive and resistant to change if it is viewed or used primarily
as an extension of their infrastructure by users. It would be lightly
pervasive in pre-existing infrastructures and therefore relatively
amenable to change if it is viewed or used primarily as an end-user
application. The networks below were open to interpretation in terms
emphasizing primary and/or secondary levels of organization. Yet
as I show with the City-net project, the influential interpretation
emphasized its utility as infrastructure extension. Whether a public
information network is viewed primarily as an infrastructure extension
or application has serious implications for its developmental trajectory
and for its stabilization and institutionalization in a community.
4. Open access
A public information
network’s openness how open it is to influence by the constituents
of the community it is located in is a defining aspect of its
character. Indeed, public information networks and open access have
agreeable features with each other. Public information networks
should reflect a diversity of open access strategies, which contrast
to those of private networks. Due to concern of unfair or inefficient
public sector competition, a number of cases have passed laws prohibiting
or limiting public participation in communication services. The
fact that municipal utilities that offer telecommunication services
typically have not adopted open access policies suggests
that such legislation when it exists is very important in influencing
the networks’ strategies. The public information networks can reflect
an interesting diversity in open access approaches which promote
service competition where it would otherwise not be possible because
of institutionalization in the underlying facilities.
In terms of
citizens, expression of citizens’ voice ranging from “complaint,
organized protest, lobbying, and participation in decision-making
and product delivery” (Goetz & Gaventa, 2001, p. 5) is key
to a functioning polity. By enabling, amplifying, constituting and
mobilizing citizens’ voice, an open network forms a basis for critical
oversight of community institutions for socializing citizens and
for participative self-determination and purposive action. It is
interesting that community development itself is depending on a
similar notion: “one way of describing community development is
to say that it is a process of helping community people to analyze
their problems, to exercise as large a measure of autonomy as possible
and feasible, and to promote a greater identification of the individual
citizen and the individual organization with the community as a
whole” (Warren, 1978, p. 19).
premise is essentially democratic. An open network can help fashion
a collectivity of conscious citizens (Schuler, 1996), where
citizenship is seen as a social right that enables right holders
to act as reflexive agents on their own and others’ behalf. Such
a community is healthy because it is balanced and self-regulating:
competing viewpoints can be aired in an environment supportive of
autonomy and identity as well as commitment to a negotiated social
order. Openness as a criterion is especially important in the projects
below due to Program restrictions against individual subscribers.
Individuals could not themselves subscribe to a Program-funded public
information network; they could only access the network and its
resources via organizational entry points. The critical question
here is what types of connectivity are supported for resident interaction?
I differentiate between vertical and horizontal connectivity. Vertical
connectivity is sustained when residents can interact with community
institutions. For example, a website may allow residents to email
an organizational representative or the Webmaster upon request,
complaint, or input of some other kind. Horizontal connectivity
is sustained when residents can interact with other residents over
the website for example, they may be able to set up e-Conferences
or mailing lists and use an interactive chat room and email to keep
social relationships with other residents like themselves. While
support for both types of linkages is important to the idea of openness,
support for horizontal connectivity is foundational to the democratic
ideal. A network that aspires to be truly open should provide interactive,
publicly accessible features to support direct communications between
residents. A network that does not provide a platform (e.g., e-conference,
chat rooms, bulletin boards) to residents in support of horizontal
connectivity is in effect insulating itself from influence by residents.
Support for horizontal connectivity may be common in dial-up public
information networks (such as Freenets) but cannot be taken for
granted in broadband public information networks, as I found out.
A public information
network may be broadly pervasive in the social sense, but if it
is not also open there can be no meaningful assurance that it will
not end up serving the interests of a minority. Despite strong Program
emphasis on the need for projects to be community-oriented,
the networks profiled restrict access to much or some of their content
to subscribers only. Their support for horizontal connectivity is
spotty, which means they are also to an extent protected from outside
pressure to develop into broad-based community resources. The relation
between pervasiveness and openness is complex and implicates institutionalization
in the sociological sense, “represents a social order or pattern
that has attained a certain state or property; institutionalization
denotes the process of such attainment” (Jepperson, 1991, p. 145).
Regarding public information networks, an inquirer may ask, around
what interpretations does the network institutionalize (i.e. stabilize
and become resistant to change) as it develops, and for what reasons?
I tackle this question first by examining the relation between social
and technological pervasiveness and institutionalization processes.
I then look at the principle of openness in particular, support
for horizontal connectivity in relation to the process by which
a network may be de-institutionalized.
As noted earlier,
technological infrastructures take time and financial resources
to develop. They resist change on account of their high fixed costs.
Infrastructures, as example of primary levels of organization
tend to institutionalize earlier than secondary levels of organization
(e.g., desktop applications) (Jepperson, 1991). Infrastructure extensions
are extensions of the primary level and, as such, will tend to institutionalize
in a similar fashion. DiMaggio and Powell (1991) point out “institutionalization
of components spreads by a contagion of legitimacy, as new elements
linked to old institutions themselves become institutionalized”
(p. 29). Similarly, infrastructures tend to favor institutionalized
control structures aimed at assuring their stability. Such control
structures like budgetary provisions themselves tend to become institutionalized
because they are critical for sustaining the technological infrastructure
in an organization.
In the City-net
case, public institutions’ interest in subscribing was motivated
by their interest in cutting their telecommunications infrastructure
costs. They viewed the network primarily as an extension of their
own network infrastructure for intra-organizational connections
(linking branch offices to headquarters), not as a community resource
to which they would be linked. Such a positioning made for a dramatically
different view of their role on the network. At the project’s outset,
public institutions were envisaged as providers of information resources
and services to community constituents. As “owners” of information
and providers of key social/public services, they were seen as critical
suppliers of resources to community organizations and community
residents. However, as the design process of technical specification
went on and the technological options acquired definition, the “technical
professionals” who began representing the public institutions from
this point onwards saw themselves exclusively as consumers of bandwidth
provided at subsidized rates by the project. Note that the earlier
role would actually have cost public institutions in financial terms;
in order to be resource providers, they would first have to spend
money developing appropriate technology support, work procedures
and access controls. The latter role meant they would actually save
money on infrastructure costs. By being interpreted as an opportunity
for infrastructure cost-cutting, the network faces the danger of
being institutionalized around entrenched infrastructures and related
control structures of structurally potent entities in the community.
The emphasis on the public institutions’ latter role meant that intra-organizational use had taken precedence over the project’s
original goal of cross-sectoral, inter-organizational connectivity
and, second, that a homogenous interest infrastructure
costs saving of a homogenous social group had taken precedence
over the project’s original goal of fostering a broad spectrum of
interests in the community.
From the present
research, I describe the following three as provisional propositions
on the connection of social and technological pervasiveness and
pervasiveness: A narrowly pervasive public information network
is more likely to institutionalize around a homogeneous set of
interests than a broadly pervasive network. The assumption here
is that a relatively broadly pervasive network, by representing
a more heterogeneous set of interests, would be less likely to
stabilize around the interests of a sub-set. However,
- A broadly
pervasive public information network is more likely to institutionalize
around a homogeneous set of interests when structurally powerful
actors are able to prevail over structurally less powerful actors.
The assumption is one of differential power relations and relative
pervasiveness: Whether it is broadly or narrowly pervasive,
a public information network is more likely to institutionalize
around the interests of structurally powerful actors to the extent
that these interests are linked to pre-existing institutionalized
elements. The reference here is to the powerful contagion effect
exerted by entrenched infrastructures and control structures in
influential organizations. The assumption here is that infrastructures,
as examples of first level organization, tend to be more entrenched
relative to end-user applications. Interests that center on first
level organization are accordingly usually more stable and obdurate
than the latter.
In short, I
see open access as a key enabler of action against institutionalization.
Public information networks should no longer present a technical
bottleneck that limits the participation from public or the range
of service bundles that may be supported. Public information networks,
in economic terms, are related to a bottleneck facility which there
is no economically viable alternative source of supply to universal
service or good for. In most cases, public networks are jointly
owned by incumbent telecom companies and public entities, but exclusively
operated by telecom companies. Adopting open access decouples network
ownership and operation that may offer the best way to reduce the
structural barrier of public participation. With technologies in
general, and especially with technologies that are complex and costly
to sustain, structurally powerful and resource-rich entities are
in a significantly better position to shape outcomes to suit their
interests. The structurally weak and resource-poor are at a serious
disadvantage. This inherent asymmetry implies that such artifacts,
once biased in their “shape,” will continue to stay biased and serve
certain interests and not others to the extent that they are closed.
The principle of openness relies on collective, and persistent,
action to resist institutionalization around such a bias and correct
it in favor of under-represented interests.
5. The case
I profile four
projects funded by the Program over two rounds of funding. Project
names used are pseudonyms to protect confidentiality of project
staff and participants.
and data collection
The case studies
below are drawn from a much larger convenience sample of Program-funded
public information network projects I continue to track as part
of a research program. Cases two through three were funded in the
first round. In picking the projects to be profiled in the present
paper, I ensured that both urban and rural projects were included.
An earlier survey
of the thirteen projects funded in the first round showed that only
three of the thirteen currently had a publicly accessible website.
I focus on these three in the present paper; the existence of a
publicly accessible website is essential for assessing network openness.
The fact that the rest have no public website is notable in and
of itself: these “public information networks” are, by definition,
closed. They are invisible to the public.
A variety of
data collection methods were used in developing the case studies.
Multiple methods were used to gather data on the design process.
I had access to a rich store of archival data on the Program and
on the projects funded through it. The materials included materials
published by the Program, technical and design documentation produced
by the professional designers for the second round projects, planning
reports prepared by second round project leaders, and evaluation
reports produced by third party consultants to the Program. Complementing
the survey, interview, participant and archival information data
case studies two through four, I surveyed the project leadership
two times during a 12-month period: the first survey was administered
in mid-2002 and solicited information on network status (number
and types of subscribers and end-user applications) and future plans.
I followed up with a brief survey for clarification. I conducted
scheduled face-to-face one-on-one interviews with project leaders
on site to complement the surveys. I surveyed and interviewed relevant
community development and/or urban planning officials. I also used
project documentation and other relevant archival data. Unlike with
the Urban-net case, I was unable to collect longitudinal process
data on these cases. However, I was able to elicit retrospective
reconstructions of a network’s developmental trajectory through
social pervasiveness entailed six steps. First, I used zip code
areas identified by the Program as constituting economically disadvantaged
tracts to define the project’s geographical boundary. Program subsidies
were only available to public institutions, community organizations
and small business entities located in or providing services in
these approved zip code areas. Second, I identified all eligible
organizations located in these areas; I did not include organizations
that provide services to residents of these areas due to the difficulty
in collecting such data; my estimates of these networks’ social
pervasiveness, consequently, underestimate the denominator. Third,
from my surveys and interviews of project personnel, I identified
eligible entities that were involved in any way in the network planning
and design processes. Step four, I identified organizational entities
currently subscribed to the public information network. Step five,
I selected a random sample of organizations that played no part
in network planning and design, and a random sample of non-subscribers
(the overlap between these two lists was very high) to survey on
their reasons for not participating or subscribing. Step six, I
surveyed and interviewed third groups for their input, if any, into
the public information networking planning and design processes.
pervasiveness was assessed explicitly only in the first case, through
interviews of telephone company design staff, the planning surveys
and design process meeting notes and follow-up interviews.
assess network openness, I analyzed the content of publicly accessible
project web sites by modifying a typology described in Aurigi and
Graham (2000), augmented from Nunn and Rubleske (1997), and from
Rosenbaum (1998). Aurigi and Graham identify three desired features
of public web sites: informativeness, participativeness,
and groundedness. The first concerns availability of local
information. The second looks for interactive capabilities such
as email, listservs, and chat rooms etc., while the third groundedness
is concerned with the extent to which the site’s overall orientation
is local. By “local” we refer, at a minimum, to the delimited geographical
area described by the approved zip code areas under the Program.
on the typology, I began to systematically examine the City-net,
Municipal-net and Rural-net web sites. I tracked these sites at
four points in time to record changes if any: December 2002, February
2003, April 2003, and May 2003. My analysis focused on the sites’
contents and interactive features. Interactive features were classified
into email, listservs, Webcasts,
or interactive chat (via chat rooms).
The project received approximately $1.5 million in the Program’s
first round. The zip codes covered by the project define a densely
populated area in a metropolitan city. Out of 496 eligible organizations
located in these zip codes, 48 participated in the planning/design
process (9.7%) and 89 are currently subscribers (18%). Public institutions
dominate the subscription list; community organizations and small
business entities are poorly represented. Seven out of eight sectors
are currently represented on the subscription list.
The City-net public website is informative, listing local social events
and happenings. It offers users the services of a local search engine
for locating local information. As well, the site lists all services
provided through the network. A publicly accessible Internet chat
room is supported. Overall, the site is locally grounded while being
connected globally over the Internet.
Social pervasiveness: The project received
$2 million in the first round and an additional $4 million in the
Program’s second round. The area covered by the grant includes civic,
suburban and rural zip codes. I included both projects in the present
analysis. Out of 528 eligible organizations located in these zip
codes, 23 participated in the network planning/design process (4.3%)
and 21 are currently subscribers (4%).
Public institutions dominate
the subscription list. Four out of eight sectors are currently represented
on the subscription list.
Openness: The Municipal-net public website has
links to the official City Hall website for information on local
government services, tourist places, news, and a calendar on city
events. The site provides interactive video conferencing services,
some of which are available to members only. However, the site does
not support a publicly accessible chat room.
Social pervasiveness: The project received
$1 million in the Program’s first round and was designated a rural
project. The area covered by the project is relatively large and
thinly populated. Out of the 1,130 eligible organizations located
in the zip codes covered by the project, 75 participated in the
planning and design process (6.6%), and 42 are currently subscribed
to the network (3.7%). As with the other projects, public institutions
dominate the subscription list. Three out of eight sectors are currently
represented on the subscriber list.
Openness: Like the others, the Rural-net
public website lists local social events, happening and news of
local interest. The site offers access to video streams; however,
access to these resources is restricted. The website’s video resources
are divided into public and “members only”. The publicly accessible
content is generic and informational in nature (such as recordings
public meetings). Content restricted to “members only” is more specific
in focus and tends to be service-oriented (such as healthcare services).
Social Pervasiveness: Out of a total of 300
eligible organizations in the approved zip codes, 85 had participated
in the planning and design process in some way (responding to planning
surveys, participating in proposal development, attending design
meetings). Overall, representation in the planning/design process
was 28% (85/300), with public institutions slightly over-represented
at 52%. Representation on the subscription list is considerably
lower at 4% (12/300); community organizations, as noted above, are
absent from the list. In terms of structural differentiation, five
out of eight functional sectors are currently represented on the
subscription list. The Civic-net website offers little to the visitor
except project updates.
Openness: There are provisions within the
website (“ePayments”) for interactive communication by requesting
online services through forms. Some of the service requests need
you to be a registered user in order to login and request for permits
and other services. You can register as a user by providing some
basic personal information like your name, address, phone number
and e-mail address. A user name and a password would then be e-mailed
to your e-mail address that you provide. This interactive feature
available serves as an effective channel of communication between
the people and the officials working for the local government.
Information regarding the council meetings and the
calendar of events are updated on a regular basis. This encourages
the local community to participate in the everyday activities of
the city and be an active citizen of the Buffalo community. Though
there are possibilities for use of advanced technology for effective
and interactive communication (like video-conferencing, IP-TV, and
Internet telephony), efforts should be taken by the government to
make these features available to the community that they support.
6. Limitations of the research
The present research takes a first step at applying
the social pervasiveness concept to public information networks.
At this early stage, I offer a descriptive narrative of four public
information network projects in terms of these two measures. For
the social pervasiveness appraisal, I relied on the number of organizational
entities that participated in network planning/design and/or are
currently subscribed to the network, and on the structural diversity
represented therein. I defined structural diversity or differentiation
with reference to the functional sectors represented in the network
subscription list. Across the four projects, I show that participation
in planning/design ranged from a high of 28% to a low of 4.3%, while
subscription ranges from a high of 18% to a low of under 4%.
In the best case, more than two-thirds of eligible
organizations did not participate in planning/design, and over 80%
of eligible entities presently do not subscribe to the network.
In the worst case, non-participation was as high as 95%, and non-subscription,
as high as 96%. At the very least, such figures help qualify the
term “public information network” and suggest that, at present,
these projects serve a small to minuscule number of eligible organizational
entities in their host community.
In terms of structural differentiation, the range
is between seven sectors represented to a low of three. The Civic-net
project is the most structurally diverse (7 out of 8 sectors) in
its subscription, with 18% of eligible organizations currently subscribed
to the network. The least diverse is the Rural-net (3 out of 8 sectors),
with less than 4% of eligible organizations currently subscribed
to the network. Civic-net and the Communal-net show some evidence
of cross-sectoral linkages in terms of their end-user applications
portfolio. Municipal-net, in contrast, is sectorally more segmented.
For example, it offers educational content for the K-12 sector and
healthcare-related content for the health services sector. The sectorally
segmented use (as with the Municipal-net) and the intra-organizational
use offer interesting variations on the vertical relational pattern
identified by Warren (1978). Such linkages run counter to Program
goals, which stressed horizontal relational pattern, wherein
local organizations are linked to other organizations in the locality.
If one were to factor in the organizational type dominant on the subscription list, the projects at this point represent
public institutional interests disproportionately. Community organizations
are either absent altogether from the list or are seriously under-represented
on it. Representation from small business units across all four
projects was so small that I had to drop them from the analysis.
The more the use of a network “depends on social organization and
mobilization of significant resources, the more it will tend to
be controlled by those who are already organized and well-off” (Calhoun,
1996). A recent report by an independent consultant, which reviewed
all 22 projects funded under the Program, reached a similar conclusion:
“those institutions already involved in technology and advanced
technology such as…community colleges and hospitals were predisposed
to or ready to take full advantage of the program” (Evaluation Report,
2000, p. 29). A proposal to continue Program subsidies to address
needs of community organizations was presented recently before the
Public Service Commission of New York State:
of the funding constraints which they experience…community service
organizations in low income areas are often unable to incorporate…advanced
technologies into their operations…By focusing the available rate
reductions on this sector of service providers in low income communities
…(the continuance of the program) will help bring these customers
more directly into the digital economy and…bridge the digital divide”.
(Comments, 2000, p. 3).
document also states:
non-profit organizations eligible for the reduced rates would include
community action agencies, day care centers…community centers, community
health care clinics, legal aid offices, and other service providers
located within low income communities. By reducing broadband rates
for these organizations, real assistance is provided to the organizations
which create the social infrastructure on which low income communities
depend and, therefore, to the low income families and households
which make up that community” (Comments, 2000, p. 3).
besides subsidized network access charges, the proposal seeks assistance
to provide technical support and technology resources for such organizations.
My findings on the social pervasiveness of the networks
highlight the bleak dimensions of a different kind of digital divide:
that between relatively resource-rich public institutions and community
organizations. The divide is just as pronounced in the other Program-funded
public information networking projects I am tracking but do not
report here. As the above proposal notes, organizations that operate
closest to a community’s grassroots are often the ones who cannot
afford broadband. Their loss is that of their clientele as well.
I evaluated the projects’ openness by examining
their websites. Rural-net offers video resources to the public,
but it is not interactive; in other words, two residents could not
use these resources or the video feature to converse. Similarly,
Metro-net offers canned resources but does not support interactive
features such as a public chat room. The communication model emergent
here would appear to be point-to-multipoint broadcast, where users
“tune in” to a centralized resource for access to broadcast content.
The broadcast model views users as passive consumers of content.
A different model, advanced by advocates of citizen empowerment,
views citizens as active producers of content. Support for vertical
and horizontal connectivity, especially the latter, are the means
by which a public information network can invite citizen-generated
content. Due to the closed nature of four of these sites (City-net,
Metro-net, Urban-net and Rural-net), I could not get a clear sense
of their openness. At this point in the assessment, these networks
appear to offer limited support for vertical and horizontal connectivity.
My intention of assessing the social pervasiveness
was to characterize the representation of local interests on the
network. The premise is that the more numerous and broad the subscriber
base, the greater the number and diversity of interests at work
shaping the network. Relative structural power, as I noted, is a
critical factor in the efficacy of influence. Some entities are
more powerful, and more influential, than others. A more refined
approach to power and influence than the one adopted here would
be to examine subscriber representation on instruments of network
control (such as board of directors) and their voting patterns on
issues of broad relevance to the community. Similarly, openness
might be assessed in-depth by examining responsiveness to different
forms of social pressure. I assessed openness as a categorical variable:
a site was open or it was not. It is possible to characterize degrees
of openness by assigning weights, for example, to website features
based on their support for vertical versus horizontal connectivity.
My goal in the present paper was to outline a theoretical framework
around such variables. As a preliminary investigation, this research
relied on simple counts and broad characterizations. I plan to refine
the measures used in future research.
With these cases, I showed how institutionalized
interests and technological infrastructure drive interpretations
of an artifact and affect its technological pervasiveness. The public
institutions’ pre-existing infrastructures on-site, and their interest
in cost cutting, influenced their construal of the network as an
infrastructure extension. Interpreted this way, it became heavily
pervasive in those infrastructures and, as such, resistant to change.
Insofar as subscribers view it as infrastructure and not as end-user
applications, as implicated in primary versus secondary level of
organization, it is relatively less vulnerable to outside intervention
despite being broadly pervasive. In other words, an artifact’s social
pervasiveness must be interpreted with reference to its technological
This paper has made
several observations on where the public information networks are
going, what the opportunities are, what the needs are, and several
ways to best meet the needs. What is clear is that there is a clear
and unambiguous need for some entity to provide broadband services
to municipalities. The provider must be able to do so in a fully
open network fashion, in a manner socially pervasive, as well as
in a technologically pervasive way.
In terms of analysis of such networks, public information
networks must be analyzed within the social structures and processes
in which and through which they develop, and their development and
stabilization cannot be analyzed without reference to institutionalization
processes as they pertain to their social and technological environments.
Accordingly, theories of institutional origins and change are as
relevant to such analysis as are theories of social shaping of technological
A situated analysis of public information network
development would start with an understanding of context. A situated
analysis can be underlying design concept in building public information
networks. That is, a situated analysis relates to a question of
how to make use of context in system. Understanding
context is not something cookie-cutter or plug-play, and incorporating
technology into context is even more difficult. Reflecting such
difficult tasks, existing public information network developments
show predominant infrastructure oriented with a “build and fix”
When social and technological
pervasiveness are well addressed, public information networks can
be grounded in a context aware design principle. The term “context-aware
computing” is commonly understood by those working in ubiquitous/pervasive
computing, where it is felt that context is a key in their efforts
to disperse and diffuse computation into our lives. What I propose
here is an underlying concept of context aware principle in design
process. Context-awareness is a conceptual abstract term and the
issue is to find how to bring the conceptual term down to earth
in order to operationalize it. This is not an easy task as many
computing designs fail to address context-awareness. It is notable
that the observation of Attewell (1992) still has explanatory power
in recent computing. Attewell (1992) notes the existence of knowledge
barriers lack of generalized and contextualized understandings
in the development of computing.
cases in the present study show gaps between physical and contextual
aspect. Given such inherent gaps, a realistic approach to a future
digital city will be a Layered Approach. A future intelligent
community will be truly a multi-layered information infrastructure
moving progressively from physical to contextual environments. The
following eight layers can help in understanding the context and
the evolution of an intelligent community activity today and into
layer consists of higher-order operations and policy functions.
layer where real value is created. New software, multi-media
programs and other new and value-added services result from
the combination of all previous layers.
layer encompasses users’ uses, software and advanced consumer
electronic hardware needed to access and distribute telecommunications
essential layer, which will create value-added services.
To take advantage of this layer will require that people
(subscriber and individuals) are trained, retrained to support
experimentation and form a new culture of use employing
ever-new technologies and applications.
the relevant databases and electronic library, including
text, images, video and audio. Data is collected and analyzed
to be turned into information i which is sorted, managed,
moved, stored, and manipulated to create value-added content.
of existing legacy and new networks including all the LANs,
WANs, that are connected to form the Intranet, and Internet
combination of every form of advanced telecommunications
medium (i.e., ubiquitous terminals)
1. Multi-Layered Architecture for Public Network Design
process toward digital cities consists of several layers, starting
from a network infrastructure, and including ubiquitous terminals,
digital platforms, content, equipment, and service solution. These
layers cannot be created in big bang approach in the process
of ubiquitous computing. For example, application like GIS will
not spread if a network infrastructure is not available. If the
specifications of GIS are not crystal clear, it is not possible
to design a digital platform (data link layer). Without a digital
platform, content will not be authorized. Without understanding
user demand, it is not possible to come up with application or content.
Digital cities move forward in such a way that the accumulated layers
cause a chain reaction with each other.
two tiers (context and technology) are continuously interacting
to embed technologies into social structure. This is a main point
of context-aware computing (Morgan, 1994; Norman, 1998) to the design
of future digital cities. Context-aware design is not simply referring
to implementing radio frequency identification sensor or some exquisite
equipment in all devices or putting ad-hoc networks to facilitate
personalized computing. Those are only technical aspects of context-aware
computing. What this paper really emphasizes is a user-centered
principle in whole developmental process from planning to evaluation.
Context-aware design starts with close user requirement analysis.
And such user involvement continues throughout the whole iterative
process from planning, design, testing and development.
propose a prototype approach as one example of context-aware design.
An application prototype is a functional approximation of desired
features in a system. A prototype is incomplete by design; users
work with the designer in refining the prototype through an iterative
cycle until a satisfactory fit is achieved between needs and system
features. Through iterative process of prototyping, design teams
are likely to draw a contextual understanding. By being a concrete
(i.e., working) instantiation, a prototype can help users visualize
capabilities. Prototyping can be continued in each stage of planning,
design, testing and implementation. Based on my finding in these
cases, I continue to research on the context aware design as the
digital city project develops.
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