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Community Computing

--by Kevin Mullet

Overview, Definition, and History

New technology has always prompted the growth of communities. From the first gatherings of early man around campfires to later encampments around radios and televisions, technology has frequently influenced human community.

Nowadays, communities are sparked by a new kind of campfire—the difference being that such communities aren't bound by temporal or geographical restrictions. Most residents of such communities are rarely sure of the race, religion, age or even gender of many of their neighbors. As communities go, community computer networks are probably the most egalitarian.

Freenets and the NPTN

In the mid-eighties, just about the time the Internet had just crossed the 1000-host threshold, Dr. Tom Grundner pressed an Apple ][+ into service as a BBS to link Case Western Reserve University's Family Medicine department to a number of remote clinical units. Somehow, the telephone number for this tiny departmental BBS got loose, and today's community computing movement was born. Like other movements, the community computing movement also had several birthplaces and sets of parents, but the events leading from this humble Apple ][+ are particularly significant because they would eventually lead to an international Freenet movement.

Once the dialup number for the Apple ][+ system was discovered by folks in the local community of Cleveland, Ohio, the BBS started receiving a variety of medical questions, in the hopes that they would be answered by one of the local physicians. Prompted by the intrepid sense of community of this situation, Grundner wrote a BBS system named Saint Silicon's Hospital and Information Dispensory, put it online, and wrote the experience up in The New England Journal of Medicine. The article and the success of the system attracted the attention and money of AT&T, Ohio Bell, and University Hospitals of Cleveland. These institutions supported an expansion of the system to an AT&T 3B2/400 with a ten-line dialup rotor and an expanded scope that included forums on government, arts, science, and education, as well as an e-mail platform for all users (see Figure 14.1). In the summer of 1986, the first Freenet was born.

Figure 14.1. The Cleveland Freenet: The original Freenet is still running today.

By 1989, Freenet II, as it was then called, consisted of multiple hosts sharing common storage and dialup facilities, which served well over 2000 logins per day, with many times that in registered userids.

Well, you can't keep a good idea down—not that anyone tried. The idea of a freely available community computing system was too good to pass up for Youngstown, which opened their Freenet one year after the Cleveland system came online. 1990 saw three additional Freenets: Cincinnati's Tri-State Online, Peoria's Heartland Freenet, and the Medina County Freenet.

Soon, the National Public Telecomputing Network was formed as an umbrella organization for all Freenets, and by July of 1994, there were 37 Freenets online and 117 organizing committees in 41 U.S. states and 8 countries, either running existing systems or gearing up to do the same. No modest feat.

Other Communities

Just as there are communities not bounded by a formal government, or categories like "city," "township," or "country," there are certainly online communities that are not Freenets. NPTN-affiliated Freenets get so much attention because they are perhaps the best organized of the lot, but a community computing system need not be affiliated with any other organization to make a meaningful contribution to its host community.

As long as there are computers and telephones, there will likely be dialup BBS systems. The fact that little Johnny or Judy can run one of a number of freely available programs on their new personal computer, pull the RJ/11 jack out of their phone and into their computer, and be information providers on the Infobahn is overwhelmingly attractive to kids of all ages. The medium really is the message.

The Cleveland Freenet got its start as a simple dialup BBS, much like the one in Figure 14.2. Before local-area networks were as prevalent as they are today, systems like this were most people's introduction to computer communications—which, for many people, soon led to stronger coffee, Jolt Cola, or other methods of trading an evening of sleep for one of downloading, chatting, or sending and reading e-mail.

Figure 14.2. The humblest of community computing systems remains the single-line BBS.

Many dialup BBS systems are joined in a network called FidoNet. While the Internet uses fairly upscale technologies, FidoNet nodes throughout the world are linked by telephone calls between systems and the (usual) cooperation of BBS sysops within any given local calling area. While FidoNet now has links to other wide-area networks, the mainstay of Fido traffic is still mail messages that are exchanged through modem calls from the sending to the receiving system—wherever in the world it happens to be, as well as an information superh. . .well, maybe an information farm road of Fido echoes that conceptually resemble Usenet news groups.

Another source of communal computing are the commercial providers such as America Online (see Figure 14.3) and CompuServe. One difference between these providers and a Freenet or raw Internet service is that these forums are highly structured affairs that may be quite reassuring to some users, and not to others. A downside of communing on such a system, though, is that because of the structure, the participants have somewhat less control over their environment than do the users of other systems. The flip side of that argument, though, is that the interface is usually reliable, and doesn't hold any surprises—letting you get right down to business once you log on.

Figure 14.3. Commercial providers like America Online may provide a reassuring sense of structure.

Mission, Content, and Scope

Although such infotainment communities might seem to be marauding bands of Gopher, Web and Archie servers, depleting your free time and mind, most of them do actually have a rhyme and reason. The mission, content, and scope of a community computer system is what separates a profoundly meaningful communal experience from the trivialized subversive fad portrayed in the popular press.

A Truckstop on the Information Superhighway

On the Information Superhighway, in a world of megamedia on demand and virtual theme parks, a community computer system is a kind of community diner. It's the kind of place where you can fill up on sweets just as easily as you can get legitimate nourishment—and you can catch up on all the local news and gossip and even learn something while you do so.

Strictly speaking, a community computer system is a computer system that is available for use by, and closely resembles in content, the community in which it is used. "Big deal," a curmudgeon might say. "The last thing I need to do is to play on a computer to find out about where I live." Actually, the idea's not as preposterous as it might sound.

Along with questionable air and water, vending-machine food that will still be fresh when the national debt is paid off, and ten-lane freeways that permit us the pleasure of driving home from work for two hours at ten miles an hour, another one of those nasty little side effects of the industrial revolution is that so many of us are packed into huge metropolitan areas where we spend more time contending for scarce resources than we spend getting to know each other. Community computing systems give us the ability to leverage opportunities to do so from online networks, as well as equally valuable opportunities to participate in democratic exchanges with our elected officials and exchange expertise with folks we might never otherwise meet or talk to.


There are essentially two approaches to organizing the content of a system like this. One is to organize by the source of the information; another is to organize by topic.

The advantage of organizing a system by source is that it scales very well. As long as you can find somewhere to pigeon-hole a new information provider, adding new information is very much a follow-the-recipe kind of task. With the exception of the occasional arguments about who gets space at the top level of the hierarchy, source-sorted systems are easy to manage. The downside is that like with most systems, the easier it is for the sysadmin, the harder it is for the user. Joe regular user will be able to find organizationally related information easily enough, but the real strength of such a system lies not just in the ease of use, but in the ease of browsing. The test is whether or not someone can come in off the street and quickly find some information they want—and do so in an intuitive manner.

Conversely, the advantage of organizing by topic is that users are much more likely to be able to find something when they want to. The difficulty in keeping up with such organization increases exponentially, though, as more information providers are added.

One possible compromise may be to organize by source, but index the contents of the system well enough that, armed with a few appropriate keywords, the user can go quickly to anything they want. An added feature of personal bookmarks or hotlists will further ease the user's journey by permitting them to keep a personalized list of their frequent haunts on the system.

A Few Applications

The possible applications that would fit into a community computing system are much too numerous to list here. There are a few that stand out, though:

The arts. Arts events calendars, discussions of visual and performing art forms, virtual art galleries, exchanges of musical compositions through MIDI files or collaborative composition online.

Civic organizations. Everyone from the Lion's Club to the Shriners, from the Red Cross to the United Way, has services and information they have a vested interest in getting out to the public.

Consumer information. Recalls, discussions of personal consumer experiences, gateways to state and national consumer watchdog groups, and information clearinghouses.

Distance education. Taking any variety of courses online; contributing to the communication channels of existing schools; students turning in homework or getting tutoring online; students in different states or countries collaborating on class projects; adult study material for civil service, LSAT, SAT, ACT, GRE, or other entrance exams; adult literacy assistance in the most anonymous and private of environments.

Electronic mail and messaging. Members can exchange electronic messages in both letter format and in real-time conversational format with other members of the community network, as well as with persons throughout the world on such platforms as SMTP mail or Internet Relay Chat.

Employment. Access to the plethora of job databases available on the Net, as well as the growing number of employers who are looking to the Net for their next employees.

Fun and games. Let us not forget the real reason we bought our first PC so many years ago. Games are actually one of the best ways to acclimate new initiates to computers; why not use them to encourage new community network users as well?

Missing and abducted children. This is a lot more effective than posters in grocery store windows. If you need to get the word out about a missing person, how about getting it out to the millions of people throughout the country who use the Internet every day?

News from the source. Many newswire services are already available on the Net. Many more original sources of news are available. During the Russian White House revolt, the full text of speeches made by Boris Yeltsin from the top of a tank were transcribed and posted to the Net in both Russian and English within minutes of their delivery.

Political debate. The core beliefs of today's mainstream were the beliefs of the radical fringe not all that long ago. Online political debate can bring the best of that process to your living room without the placards and bullhorns.

Public health education. Outside the Beltway, the president's plan was known to the Internet community first. The nitty-gritty of the human genetic-mapping project is taking place on the Net—it's not practical to do so in any other way. The ounce of prevention that's worth a pound of cure would fit nicely on a community networking sytem.

Religious forums. Usenet News: where the crusades are fought and refought every day. On the flip side, there are probably few better ways to assemble a group of persons who have beliefs exactly like yours. Meditation and fellowship, or proselytizing the unwashed masses. . .take your pick.

Research on everything from schoolwork to geneology. One of the original design goals of the Net. It's no surprise that research is still a primary preoccupation of the Net.

Special interest groups. One of the nice things about large community networks is that you're likely to find other people who actually share your passion for The Donna Reed Show.

Teledemocracy. Every major constitutional document in full text; majority and minority supreme court opinions within minutes of their release to the public; every possible spin on every discussible issue; transcripts of every presidential and many cabinet-level press conferences; photo ops and the like; direct 1:1 interaction with each of your local representatives; minutes and agenda for precinct, school district, and city council meetings.

Weather information. Where is that hurricane and where is it headed? Exactly where did that quake in California hit, and how big was it? Should I take my umbrella today? Do I need to wrap my pipes?


An important distinguishing feature of civic networks is their choice of front-end software. The best choice depends on who the intended audience is and what services are offered. Three good candidates for front-end platforms for a community networking system are Freeport, from Case Western Reserve University, and Gopher or WWW platforms freely available from numerous sites on the Internet.

Figure 14.4 shows the Freeport software being used on the Buffalo Freenet. With its text-based menu-oriented approach, Freeport offers an easy, consistent interface and is well known, used, and supported throughout the Freenet community. An ongoing concern of community computing sysops is that they support a "lowest common denominator" interface, which usually equates to anything usable from a terminal or terminal emulator that supports DEC VT-100 without any of the niceties like double-width or double-height characters or alternate character sets—and Freeport is a champ at doing just that. A probable reason why so many Freenets use the Freeport software is that there's little (if any) risk associated with using it for community computing applications. With all the systems out there using it, Freeport can easily be regarded as a robust and battle-tested front-end solution.

Figure 14.4. The Buffalo, New York, Freenet through the CWRU Freeport software interface.

Community computing is about more than accessing local resources, though—and access to regional and global resources is becoming increasingly important to local community system operators who want to offer their users citizenship in the larger global virtual village. Freeport does offer access to Gopher and Usenet news resources, as well as nearly anything else a creative sysadmin is able to leverage into the Freeport platform, but the real strength of Freeport is in managing local discussions, not presenting Internet-wide resources.

Gopher-based systems are an interesting alternative to the traditional Freeport approach. As of this writing, Gopher servers are available for MS Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX systems, although the most robust and scaleable servers are usually run using the University of Minnesota UNIX Gopher server and browsed using one of the many clients available. An advantage of Gopher is that while it is certainly doable to associate a UNIX text VT100-compatible client with a special-purpose userid, as done in many Freeport installations, users with IP-layer access to the Internet on UNIX Curses, X Window System, Macintosh, DOS, DOS w/MS Windows, NeXTstep, VM/CMS, OS/2, or MVS/XA platforms can all enjoy full access to any available Gopher in the world, using a client in their native operating environment.

Until recently, a valid complaint about Gopher was that it was read-only, which greatly restricted the number of applications Gopher could be used for in a community computing system. An extension to the Gopher protocol, Gopher+, does include more complex objects such as forms, and support for alternate character sets. Gopher, however, does have the characteristic that it presents everything as a menu. Some people like this; others prefer more flexibility. Perhaps a World Wide Web solution would be the ticket here (see Figure 14.5).

Figure 14.5. The Twin Cities Freenet viewed through the graphical NCSA Mosaic World Wide Web browser.

Although the initial World Wide Web systems were brought online at about the same time as the initial Gopher systems, the growth of Gopherspace greatly outstripped the World Wide Web until the release of a critically-hailed WWW browser, from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, called NCSA Mosaic (see Figure 14.5). The added usability and downright fun that Mosaic incorporated into the WWW infused new lifeblood into the Web, providing the stimulus for an explosion of new clients, servers, and standards. It is now difficult to say with certainty whether Gopher or the WWW are responsible for more Internet use and growth.

One of most distinguishing features of a WWW browser is that it is not constrained by the paradigm of a text menu. A Web page can be a scrollable document consisting of text or graphics which is "anchored" to other resources on the Net such as additional documents, Gophers, FTP sites, databases, audio, and video. Much of this requires a sizable bit of bandwidth, but there are alternate WWW browsers (such as Lynx, from the University of Kansas) that are perfectly suitable text-mode clients and can adequately meet the requirement for a lowest-common-denominator interface (see Figure 14.6). More complete information about what the World Wide Web and Gopher have to offer can be found in Chapters 10 and 18, respectively.

Figure 14.6. An alternative view of the Twin Cities Freenet through the University of Kansas' WWW client, Lynx.

The Problems of Reaching Everyone

It probably seems obvious that the larger a community gets, the more diverse it becomes. One of the responsibilities of administering a large system is seeing to it that appropriate interfaces exist for all your users. Once you understand the belief system implied in community networking, you'll do this not because it's politically correct, but because it's just plain correct.

Networking in the Hood: Is Inner-City Networking Appropriate?

Most people would say that it's more than a little pretentious to suggest that inner-city neighborhoods are an appropriate place for computer networking. After all, the National Information Infrastructure is known in some circles as the country club network. Perhaps, though, such an embattled environment is one of the most important places to put access to a community networking system.

There is unlikely to be a larger group of systematically disenfranchised persons in the U.S. than those in the hearts of its inner cities. The vacuum of hope that such situations present could potentially be affected by generating pockets of enthusiasm for activities that would keep kids in schools or neighborhood centers longer; activities that would permit single parents to receive training for new jobs without leaving their home, and enable them to have as much access to their representatives as their more advantaged counterparts; activities that would make the world beyond the neighborhood more visible, accessible and attainable. It's a hell of a row to hoe, but it's possible with an appropriately implemented community network—one that reflects and reinforces the good network that already exists in the neighborhood, and begins to displace the dysfunctional one.

Accomodations for Differently-Abled Persons

Any community would be incomplete if all its members had 20/20 vision, comparable hearing, equal physical abilities, and the same learning abilities. To accurately reflect the host community or civic networking system, the system should provide access to all members of the community. In addition to the users already discussed, a few classes of users would benefit from specific accommodations.

Blind and visually disabled users could make better use of the system if an interface were available that did little or no full-screen updating so that it could be better used with a screen-driven speech device. It would be useful to think of a way to offer a class of terminal emulation such as "dumb tty" with whatever text-mode interface is offered, so that persons who use supplemental equipment with their displays can get the most out of their login sessions.

Consideration may also be given to an interactive voice-response interface to the system. Although such a system would probably offer read-only access, it would be beneficial to offer this means of access to persons who are unable to use a computer or terminal either because of economic reasons or because of difficulty with English literacy. As the price drops and ease of management rises, it won't be long before interactive voice response systems are as common as e-mail is today. It's not uncommon today for a multiline IVR system to fit into a single PC-class machine, and be no more difficult to run than a PC with about five or six application packages loaded on its hard drive.

Deaf and hearing-impared users are not likely to encounter much difficulty using a community computing system because of the inherently visual nature of the medium. In fact, many deaf users find that the online world enables them to have interactions with hearing users, pleasantly unencumbered by common attitudes toward the deaf—frequently because it's not apparent that the person on the other side of the CRT is deaf.

Learning-disabled users would be likely to benefit either from an IVR system (as discussed earlier), or from a system in which any given part is available at more than one location in the hierarchy. For numerous reasons in addition to accommodating learning-disabled users, it's a sound idea to make the structure simple and feasible.

Users that have physical challenges necessitating a change in how they use a keyboard (or whether they do at all) would benefit from interfaces with a minimum of keystrokes. Reconciling this goal with the goal of minimum screen updates for visually-impared users probably amounts to giving users an opportunity to select from two or more terminal types before the main interface is started.

The desirability of numerous terminal types for a single piece of software plays up to one of the great strengths of UNIX. UNIX uses a terminal-capability database with a standardized description language (a set of macros, actually) to divorce any UNIX-based text application from the requirement to deal with the nitty-gritty escape-code escapades usually associated with full-screen text applications. The ease with which numerous terminal types can be accommodated is quite a strong argument in favor of using a UNIX-based solution for a community computing system.

The "F" Word: Funding

Nothing can prohibit the existence of a community computing system faster than a lack of money. Everybody wants to know: How much does it cost? Bear in mind that any estimate is wrong unless it's based on your own research for your own requirements. Given that, some ballpark numbers are safe to throw out just as a conversation piece.

At the low end of the scale would be a Gopher or WWW server running in the background on someone's PC or Macintosh, somewhere where there was preexisting Internet access. Such a system would have negligible cost and equally negligible usability. It could probably support two or three users at the most and be able to offer consistency only when the owner of the PC or Mac wasn't using it for something else.

Further up on the ladder of cost is a medium-sized system. Such a system might be able to serve a population somewhat smaller than any large metro area. It would have at least one UNIX host to use as a server, around seventy to a hundred dialup telephone lines, and maybe 1.5 full-time equivalent employees in addition to the bevy of volunteers critical to any community system. Count on around $120,000.00 per year.

For a larger system that would serve a community the size of a large metropolitan area, double the dialup lines, add another FTE, and start thinking in terms of around $200,000.00.

Assuming you've done your own research and actually come up with realistic numbers, and that you've put together an advisory committee to come up with ideas on content and mission, and provided you haven't won Lotto recently, the next step is to think about funding. Three approaches to this are commercial support, grantsmanship, and self-sufficiency.

Commercial support usually comes in the form of loans or gifts of money, equipment, or services. Sometimes donations of office space or even just advice are possible. If nothing else, at least keep in periodic contact with a company that has refused all other means of support; they may one day decide to fund you after you've established yourself.

The most usable support you can probably get from a corporate sponsor is a cash gift. Corporate sponsors who give this type of support are usually doing so with the expectation that they will be able to do it in a fairly public manner, thus enhancing their public image. Equipment and service donations are also profitable to the donor in that they are frequently able to get more profit in terms of PR mileage out of last year's model of computer, modem, or terminal server than they could by selling it outright.

The fund-raising for a community computing system is never complete. One way to approach fund-raising would be to recruit enough qualified volunteers to ensure that someone is always researching, applying for, and getting grants to fund the system. It's definitely worth the while of anyone starting a community computer system to cultivate working relationships with the local grant-writing talent and convince them to sign on as volunteers.

Another option for funding is to try the make the system as self-sufficient as possible. This could involve splitting available userids on the system into several tiers. Free or low-cost userids would still be available to the general community, but commercial-use userids, from which businesses could put a shingle and do business on the main street of your virtual community, would also be available for a price that would go toward funding the system. If such users agreed to certain commonly-acknowledged ground rules about commercial practices on the Net—like refraining from unsolicited mailings—they could be a valuable part of the system, in more respects than the obvious financial one. Few communities, after all, exist without a business sector, and if the system is to truly reflect its host community, the business sector must be represented as well.

National Organizations

All of this is definitely not new territory. Numerous national organizations exist to help with nearly every aspect of community computing, from technical advice to social consciousness. Here's a sampling of some of them.

Americans Communicating Electronically (ACE). A federally-sponsored project to get all the important players in community computing (government at all layers, civic and arts organizations, job trainers, health care organizations, and so on) talking to each other. ACE seeks to enable access to such electronic resources for persons who do not own a computer or terminal and modem. For more information, send electronic mail to

CAUSE. An international nonprofit organization dedicated to the management and use of technology in higher education. CAUSE provides leadership to information resource managers and strategic decision makers. The membership ranges from librarians to Information Service directors, all of whom have a vested interest in providing high-quality, well-managed network services to their users. For further information, send e-mail to

Center for Civic Networking (CCN). CCN focuses on the use of network in general, and the Internet in particular, for the broad public good. Ideas such as electronic town halls are right up CCN's alley. Their three-pronged mission is to provide public access to critical information regarding local and regional planning issues, to generally expand public access to the Internet, and to cultivate large public dialogs to assist the formation of public policy regarding such issues. For further information, point your Gopher client at the following server:

Name=The Center for Civic Networking

Clearinghouse for Networked Information Discovery and Retrieval (CNIDR). If you've ever felt like you've lost track of all the information retrieval tools on the Internet, you'll appreciate CNIDR, which is a clearinghouse for information about such tools. Founded in 1992 with a grant from the National Science Foundation, CNIDR is a good place to start if you feel lost when confronted with the numerous information retrieval tools on the Net. For more information, try URL gopher://

Commercial Internet Exchange. CIX speaks up for the commercial Internet user. Now that commercial users outnumber other Internet users, CIX has a hefty charge. Internet service providers wishing to join CIX agree to a set of principles regarding Internet commercial traffic and pay a fairly large annual membership fee. For more information about CIX, send e-mail to

Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). Formed after the infamous Internet Worm incident, CERT is not the Internet cops, but they're the first people many sites call when they've got an Internet-related security problem. Their 24-hour emergency hotline (412-268-7090) is a kind of Internet poison control center that sysadmins can call and not only report an ongoing incident, but get expert advice on how they might address it. CERT electronically publishes CERT Advisories to notify the Net community of known security problems and fixes before (and sometimes after) they're exploited. For more information, send electronic mail to

Consortium for School Networking (CoSN). CoSN is a nonprofit organization that serves to help students and educators make better use of the Net. They're also an advocate on national networking policy issues such as school information resources, NREN access, K-12 networking, and development of new resources. For more information, send e-mail to

Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). If you've ever used a modem, surfed the Internet, gotten caught up in an endless cable-TV channel-check and wondered what it all meant, you're in good company—the EFF wonders too, and they've got some pretty good ideas about the impact of electronic communications on our constitutional rights. A nonprofit organization, the EFF champions the cause of new laws that protect the users of networks like the Internet, the establishment of a national network that carries an affordable variety of information, and the basic diversity of the online communities that make up the Internet and networks like it. The EFF is one of the most respectable sources of electronic civil rights information available. To get more information, send e-mail to

Institute for Global Communications (IGC). A division of the the nonprofit Tides foundation in San Francisco, IGC is a consortium of political activist networks including PeaceNet, EcoNet, and ConflictNet. By subscribing to a member network, you automatically get access to resources of the other member networks. For more information, send e-mail to

The Internet Society (ISOC). If it isn't already apparent to you that no one runs the Internet, consider yourself so informed now. (Actually, it's more accurate to say everybody runs the Internet.) The Internet Society doesn't run the Internet, but they have taken up the task of being Internet boosters and engaging in general promotion and education regarding the Internet. ISOC provides forums for discussion of topics ranging from the direction of the Internet and possible new applications to various ways to bring new local and regional networks "into the fold." For more information, check out the URL gopher://

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Someone's got to think up all this cool stuff. The IETF is the body that creates Internet standards and technologies. The IETF is made up of volunteers from all over the world, who periodically meet at various great tourist spots and try to come up with ways to outdo what they did at the last meeting—and usually succeeding. Many of the events at each IETF meeting are now broadcast in live audio and video over the Internet's Multimedia backbone—the MBone. For more information, check out the IETF Gopher at gopher://

The National Public Telecomputing Network (NPTN). All Freenets in the world are affiliated with the NPTN, the organization started by Case Western Reserve University's Dr. Tom Grundner in the mid-eighties; NPTN coordinated the growing number of Freenet community-based computing systems that were springing up, prompted by the success of Grundner's Freenet 1 system in Cleveland, Ohio. Today, the NPTN provides guidance, information "cyber-casting" feeds and structure to the 117 Freenet organizing committees in various parts of the world, 37 of which now have systems online. For more information, contact

Three Examples

Here are three brief examples of community computing systems.

The Rio-Grande Freenet is an example of a system that uses CWRU's Freeport software, presents its system using a standard VT100-compatible user interface, and makes itself available both through dialup access with modems up to 14.400Kbps or directly through telnet access on the Internet.

Figure 14.7.The Rio-Grande Freenet was the first operational Freenet in Texas.

Located in El Paso, Texas, the RGFN is operated completely on a volunteer basis. It first came online in 1993, and offers registered userids to anyone in Texas, New Mexico, and Juarez, Mexico, who cares to go through the online registration process.

Those registered users enjoy relatively unfettered access to the Internet: electronic mail, numerous local discussion groups as well as Usenet, Listserv, Gopher, FTP, and Internet Relay Chat access.

The Delaware Valley's LibertyNet, located in Philadelphia, PA, offers a variety of very creatively packaged community information through graphical user interface World Wide Web browsers like NCSA Mosaic (see Figure 14.8), or through a text-mode WWW like the University of Kansas' Lynx (refer to Figure 14.6). Users who dial LibertyNet through modems or telnet to it through the Internet may also browse the system through Lynx, or use electronic mail programs such as Elm and Pine from a naked UNIX shell prompt.

Figure 14.8. NCSA Mosaic is just one of the ways that users may access The LibertyNet Electronic City.

Users may browser through a database of national legislation as well as other topic areas including medicine, a community center, business and economic development, as well as gateways to Internet resources throughout the world.

In August of 1993, teachers from twelve schools in the Houston Independant School District set out to convince the folks in the state capital that they could teach Texas History better using a combination of textbooks, multimedia materials, and the Internet than through conventional means. A result of that effort is Armadillo (see Figure 14.9).

Figure 14.9. Armadillo, the Texas Studies System, provides materials for Texas middle schools.

Armadillo, the Texas Studies System, is reachable through both Gopher and World Wide Web interfaces. Armadillo is a good example of resources being leveraged from an existing Internet presence to provide a community service. The computer and network necessary for Armadillo to exist actually belong to Rice University in Houston, Texas, which has collaborated with students and teachers in the Houston Independant School District. Their goal is to provide an individualized Internet presence containing information ranging from factoids about armadillos to a variety of "Super Projects" developed by K-12 students in Texas and put on the Internet for international access.

Systems that find it difficult to get startup funding may want to consider what HISD has done with Armadillo—using the resources that are already in place to leverage a community presence on the Net.

For More Information. . .

There is a great deal of information available on the Net with regard to community computing in general and Freenets in particular. A Veronica search with the keyword sequence freenet -m or community is likely to be quite productive. Here are a few URLs to start you off, though.

Gateway to Freenets and Community Computer Networks via World Wide Web

An active list of community computing systems in Canada, the U.S., and Russia, with a short list of references at the end.

The Freenets Home Page

A well-structured list of Freenet resources by Peter Scott of The University of Saskatchewan Libraries.

Community Network Guide

Another well-structured list of community networking in general.

Back Issues of Networks and Community Newsletters
URL: gopher://$root_pub%3a%5bnetcomm%5d

An archive of Networks and Community issues back to issue #1, dated December 6, 1993.

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