Toward a Digital Public Infrastructure:
Pervasiveness of a Designing Concept

Dong-Hee Shin (bio)



I discuss 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 applications.

1. Introduction

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.

The Program’s 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 marketplace” (Evaluation 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.”

Descriptive 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.

2. Social pervasiveness

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.

Inter-organizational 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.

Following Aiken 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).

I investigate 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 health centers.

In estimating 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.

High structural 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.

While structural 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.

Powerful organizations 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.

The project 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.

3. Technological pervasiveness

Public 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.

Telecommunications 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 well.

The 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.

Such 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.

Technological 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).

The 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 processes.

An institution, 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 institutionalization:

  • Social 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 contextual influence.
  • Technological 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 studies

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.

Sampling 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 were gathered.

For 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 the interviews.

Assessing 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.

Technological 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.

To 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.

Relying 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).

5.1.            City-net

Social pervasiveness: 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.

Openness: 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.

5.2.            Municipal-net

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.

5.3.            Rural-net

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).

               5.4. Urban-net

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:

“Because 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).

The document also states:

“The 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).

Importantly, 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 pervasiveness.

7. Conclusion

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 artifacts.

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” model.

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.

Many 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 the future.




Context Tier

Management/policy Layer:

This layer consists of higher-order operations and policy functions.


Functional Layer:

The 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.

Application Layer

This layer encompasses users’ uses, software and advanced consumer electronic hardware needed to access and distribute telecommunications services.

User Layer:

The 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.

Tech Tier


Data link Layer:

All 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.

Network Layer

Thousands of existing legacy and new networks including all the LANs, WANs, that are connected to form the Intranet, and Internet

Physical Infrastructure Layer

The combination of every form of advanced telecommunications medium (i.e., ubiquitous terminals)

Figure 1. Multi-Layered Architecture for Public Network Design

The 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.

The 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.

I 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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