From the Milano Community Network, to the Association of Civic Networking in Lombardia

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4. CNs in Lombardia.

One of the original goals of RCM was, among others, the capacity to implement a successful experience that could be imported in other cities, smaller than Milano and lacking the particular backgrouns provided by the DSI. Actually the project, and its related results, quickly led to a series of "clone" of RCM.

ONDE (ON-line DEsenzano) was launched in December '94; RCB (Rete Civica della Bergamasca) in September 1995; others followed soon. At the same time, RCM gave birth to several "special purpose networks" (a definition stolen to the Morino Institute): Telematica&Scuola (with a server hosted at the ITSOS in Cernusco s.n., nearby Milano); RCR, the Rete Culturale della Regione Lombardia (promoted by the Settore Trasparenza e Cultura of the Lombardia Regional Administration); the USSL (Azienda di Servizi Socio-Sanitari) BBS in Lodi.

The most important filiation is doubtless RCR Lombardia, promoted by the Lombardia Regional Administration with the goal to "provide both private and public cultural operators in Lombardia not only with an infrastructure to enable an efficient communication system but also information services related to cultural areas" [STC96a]. This experience was able to make room within the Regional Administration for a clear awareness of the potentiality involved in CNs. Something which takes relevance in the context of a broad project outlined by the Settore Trasparenza e Cultura [RL96], whose strategic objectives include:

  • building a reference framework of its general goals based upon knowing and listening to social subjects;

  • setting up of such goals through the active involvement of all social actors.

In a short while, the experience of RCR Lombardia has achieved important results:

  • first, it has been extended to other sectors of the Regional Administration;

  • secondly, it has been included in the Regional Development Program as a priority pilot-project;

  • finally, it inspired important acts supporting initiatives of CNs already in progress in the surrounding areas [STC96b] and in December '96 it led to the constitution of the A.I.Re.C. (Associazione Informatica e Reti Civiche) Lombardia, founded by the Consorzio Milano Ricerche and by the association of the Civic Networking Lab's researchers, and promoted by Regione Lombardia itself.

A.I.Re.C. main goals are the promotion, support and inter-connection of community networks as a appropriate tool for:

  • exploitation of local participation instances;

  • learning and distribution of common initiatives and concerns;

  • transparency of Public Administration and of local autonomies;

  • increasing of public debate;

  • rooting and exploitation of local and community-based identities;

  • development of a Computer Mediated Communication culture;

  • introduction classes to computer science and electronic networks.

Central focus of the Regione Lombardia approach, which is divergent from the one usually adopted by other Administrations, is the willingness to never impose a single model for a CN, but instead to highlight those "minimal" and peculiar common features (cf. section 2). This approach also points out that any spontaneous initiative should be directed toward such common directions, so to build up a sort of 'circuit' of CNs connected at the regional level (and beyond), with full respect for choices and peculiarities of each initiative and its rooting in the local community.

A.I.Re.C. aims to help the strengthening of CNs already active, the launch of those currently in a design stage and the organization of new projects as well, and the creation of a netwrok among them. These purposes can be reached through the availability of various services: the organization of public meeting addressing "hot" issues; the possibility for the associate CNs to access on line "experts" opinions concerning important topics, the first one being an expert in judicial matters; the implementation of supporting initiatives "ad hoc". Examples are making space for the Regional "authority" as a contact link between specific Institutions and companies, like in the telecom area, or helping to create a closer relationship between the volunteer people who launched a CN and local Institutions, that sometimes lack the cultural tools to understand the importance of such experiences in their own area. Such initiatives are preferred to the mere financial aids, because it is supposed that each CNs should be supported directly by the local community.

The first A.I.Re.C. event was a study held in February/March '97 about the current well-being of community networks in Lombardia. The study concerned both systems already operational and those still in a designing stage or in their first steps, and promoted by Public Institutions (City and County Administrations, schools and universities, Chambers of Commerce, etc.) as well as by private entrepreneurs (generally hardware re-sellers and local ISP), citizens associations, or by any combination of those groups of the local community. The study surveyed 18 initiatives which seemed to be suitable to the features of a community network, not too strictly intended in order to widen the research. Those ones already well implementing such features promptly replied to our survey: the outcomes of our study are summarized in the Table of Fig. 3.

In the first column, we have the CN name and promoters; the second one shows the date of its launching; the third one says whether or not all users must be identified (something which generally implies the acceptance of certain guide-lines for on-line behavior) and whether or not all users are entitled to a full Internet mailbox; the fourth column provides the number of members and of local discussion areas available; the fifth one indicates which kind of platform has been used for the net, that is, the community server (BBS, First Class or WorldGroup, Intranet) and whether or not a Web site has been set up; the sixth one shows whether or not the community net offers services (essentially, information services with first experiments of interactive services) provided by Public Agencies (shorthands are left in italian) and business companies; the last column offers an estimate of the general costs of the specific project. The symbol "^" has been used to indicate a service still unavailable, but scheduled to start in the near future. For the nets which also have set up a Web site, the relative URLs can be found in the References.

The study has also confirmed some of the preliminary assumptions upon which A.I.Re.C. was founded.

(1) The initial cost to implement a CN is quite affordable in the current scenario both related to money restriction for public budget and to reduced availability of promotional investment by local companies. The range span goes from a couple million Italian Lira (for initiatives promoted by citizens associations) to a few dozen million (for medium size cities/counties) and in any case a big city like Milano has a budget below 100 million per year.

(2) The basic principles of a CN are generally pursued even when different technical platforms are chosen; when such principles get poorer, it seems due to a delay in the project more than to a clear diversity in designing the net.

(3) In general CNs in Lombardia, in contrast with the North-American experiences (at least in the initial steps of the movement, while currently new approaches are being defined [Sch96]), are open and interested in any form of collaboration with local entrepreneurs.

(4) About the relationship with Public Administrations, CNs seems able to force them to open up to external influences and to refocus them on providing services for all citizens, thus pushing for a shift in their own internal structure. It is the same fact of "being connected in a network" and the consequent spur from interested people which really opens up the road, which urges for a change and pushes for the necessity of rethinking organization and functionality of any public agency -- the same scenario currently underway in North America (i.e., [Gor95] ).
Fig. 3 Operational CNs in Lombardia
In such a prospective, A.I.Re.C. intends to verify a simple assumption, apparently confirmed by active CNs in Lombardia: when politicians, public administrators and citizens met on the CN, a positive alliance springs up, among those who are "outside" and "inside" such large bureaucratic structures. An alliance capable of giving room and voice to the best which exists within Public Administrations, too often "frozen" by obstacles such as an incompetent politician , a city official inattentive, an obsolete piece of legislation. The best scenario includes a first-grade role of CNs as a tool that actually helps the italian Public Administration in cutting down its size without reducing, may be even increasing, the quality of services offered to citizens.

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