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COLLABORATING
FOR THE SOCIAL IMPACT OF THE INTERNET
IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
HTTP://FUNREDES.ORG/MISTICA
Daniel Pimienta, pimienta@funredes.org
Networks and Development Foundation (FUNREDES) - http://funredes.org
May 2000
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Within the framework of the "MISTICA" project, more than 200 researchers and activists of 30 countries share and organize, in the Internet, their reflections about how Information and Communication technologies can have a Positive Social Impact in Latin America and the Caribbean. They try to perform Distance Collaboration and to transform themselves into a group acting on their community, local, national or regional environments. They design and experiment collectively new democratic paths to bring original proposals of what should be the Information Society in their region.

Beyond the social topic, MISTICA (Methodology and Social Impact of ICT in America) experiments with the building of new communication methods targeting communities. How to put in communication at distance people with different languages, cultures and access levels to technology? How to belong to several virtual communities without being drowned under the information overload? How to integrate the radio with the Internet to serve communities without telephone?

Mistica main objective is to strengthen the social players of ICT in LA&C, through a human network for research and appropriation of new technologies, supported by advanced ICT tools together with field applications. The conception of the project is based on the premise that in social movements, the process is as important as the objective.

The "MISTICA virtual community" (VC) received a set of instruments to get strengthened individually and collectively from that experience in order to become empowered to impact their social reality. The basic stones of the project

  • The process is as important as the objective
  • The experimentation protocols should not be changed before completion of each single experiment.
  • The Virtual Community shall dynamically influence the design of the process
  • The coherence of the project is expressed in the use of ICT and in the network culture.

Coordination

The group coordinating the project integrates dynamically members of the VC for specific actions (agents). Coordination has various representations: overall coordination, list moderation, animation and management, methodology team, webmaster.

Its responsibilities are:

  • To define the ingredients required to reach the goal
  • To define the first protocols for experimentation
  • To propose the first set of rules for the VC management
  • To facilitate the whole process.

Virtual Community:

Academics or activists, specialist of ICT interested in social matters or specialists of social issues interested in ICT ready to participate in the think tank, share experience and intent to collaborate at distance constitute the VC. The VC is the kernel, at the same time the end and the means of the project.

ts responsibilities are:

  • to think and act collectively on social impact of ICT
  • to express itself to the coordination, via the discussion list, directly or via evaluation questionnaires so to influence the incremental design of the process and experimental protocols.

Ingredients:

They belong to three categories: communication, information and action.

Communication: The various communication channels, inside the VC and/or between the VC and the coordination

This includes a mailing list which debates are facilitated by the coordination, direct communication with the coordination, direct communication flow between members outside the list and two face to face meetings. The first meeting, was realized in Samaná after the first weeks of virtual discussions about social impact of the ICT. Its purpose was to finalize the discussions held in the mailing list and document. This experimental meeting also aimed at establishing the conditions for a collaborative work between participants of the project. One of many singularities was the process of having the non-invited people be informed via the list and asynchronously involved in the discussions. The second meeting will be held at the end of the project, November 2000 to present an overall evaluation and discuss the future paths.

Information: The presentation section of the web, the reflection documents, documents shared on the VC and a clearinghouse about social impact of ICT in LA&C.

The presentation page offers various level and type of access to the project understanding, from a very academic paper, to a Flash based animation, including short paper, project outline and project formal documents. Several published documents reflect the level of collective thinking on social impact of the ICT in Latin America and the Caribbean and remain a definitive result of this collaborative research work in LA&C. The document after the Samaná meeting is the only one that does not have the traditional format of a research document: it is like a novel and multimedia document and convey, in a pedagogic and pleasant manner, the spirit of the project. The clearinghouse is supported by a data base system with seven index fields for six record types it also offers a la Argus evaluations.

Action: pilot applications, collective recommendations and local actions generated by the VC.

The VC selected, with collectively agreed procedures, some concrete proposals for experiment, being based on the ideas arisen, which could serve as model of possible use of the Internet. Two indigenous groups are getting ready to use the Internet to defend their rights. Poor youths of the city of Valera, in Venezuela, have their Internet access organized in community centers where, besides an affordable access, they receive the required training. In Nicaragua, a system is developed on the Internet to inform and to give capacity to the citizens about the public services, with the purpose of channeling their voices toward the responsible institutions. In Argentina, the movement that acts regionally in the defense and promotion of the children's rights is strengthened. In Brazil, Health?s professionals organized themselves collectively with the Internet. All those efforts focus the social impact of the Internet and work collaboration. Academics from Spain and Mexico collaborate to understand the role of ICT in the building of alternative development options within the context of globalization.

All of those field ICT experiments share the vision that unites research and action within a frame of participative democracy where the Internet is an instrument of social progress.

Meta-ingredients: web site, Efficient Management of Electronic Conference (EMEC), Distance Participation (PAD) and evaluations.

The web site of the project is the faithful mirror of each component, nothing being left aside. This "active transparency" requirement lifts complex requirements on information structuring and access to prevent that abundance would not finally turn opaque the transparency! The web is also the main device to articulate the pieces of the puzzle. It holds 50MB of information in some 500 pages with an average 3000 visits per day. Part of it is organized with the help of a data base system (Posgre-SQL under Linux).

The EMEC methodology is a central piece of the project. The goal is to remove barriers preventing participation on electronic conferences (information overload, linguistic barrier, loss of focus, lack of training) and to reduce the time required to a subscribed person to decide if it is worth knowing details about a contribution. In a way, a small group offers his time and knowledge to reduce the amount of information received and to add value. It is expected that this first experiment will lead to the construction of an efficient method to manage virtual communities in other environments as well.

The PAD methodology is an attempt to have the whole linked with the parts during face to face meetings. It is a methodology to articulate traditional meetings with electronic conferences and to allow outsiders to know about the meeting progress via ICT, and in some way, bring their contribution.

Even the evaluations are evaluated in Mistica! The nature of experimental research as well as the importance given to the process justify a strong attention given to permanent evaluations, offering the VC an additional channel to influence the course of the project. The same as for transparency, this lifts new requirements so that the learned lessons are gathered in a synthetic, clear and pedagogic way?

Even the evaluations are evaluated in Mistica! The nature of experimental research as well as the importance given to the process justify a strong attention given to permanent evaluations, offering the VC an additional channel to influence the course of the project. The same as for transparency, this lifts new requirements so that the learned lessons are gathered in a synthetic, clear and pedagogic way?

The project dedicates times and energy to transversal subjects, such as the gender component and the plurality of languages and cultures. Maintaining a project in four languages on a web site as well as each contribution on the mailing list is indeed a heavy task but it is justified in the context of a process minded project.

ASSETS AND RESULTS

The most important result, although intangible, is the constitution of a human network, glued by common principles, willing to think in a collective way, showing growing dispositions for collaboration and trying to get organized to find some action leverage. This network produced and documented a collective reflection on social impact of the ICT in the region.

The managing style of this project turned to be the strongest evaluated element, with acknowledgment of the transparent, democratic, creative, and ethical properties.

The participative and experimental characteristic of this project is appropriate for social impact area on the Internet where no proven methodological tools exist. Its effort for integrating various languages together with permanent concern for the aspects of cultural and gender diversity are meaningful and coherent with its objective.

Mistica shows in real life the benefits from collaborationMistica can be synthesized as a comprehensive package of ingredients articulated towards regional objectives in terms of collaboration in the social field of ICT.

DIFFICULTIES AND CONSTRAINTS

The first year has been characterized by some difficulties to get the project idea across to the participants. This has been solved only on the second period with an intense effort on creating pedagogical supports.

The insufficient participation within the CV (less than 30% post; less than 20% answer evaluations) is a prime subject of concern. Although the experience shows that one should not underestimate the impact of discussion on people who do not contribute, a strong proactivity among members was a fixed objective and the current figure cannot be considered satisfactory. It seems that a specific methodology for distance facilitation is required and is a priority line of research for the future.

If the project have achieved its objectives, then a dense collaboration activity must be demonstrated among the members of the VC. . The limited number of answers to the evaluations does not allow to collect this type of information. Determination of what happen behind the list curtain is a must to evaluate the success of the project: beyond web based surveys, a study based on direct interviews needs to be carried out.

Finally, a comprehensive project which gives priority to the process and redefine itself on the way brings about serious management difficulties. In particular, the coordination must establish permanent trade-off between the global articulation of the project and the quality of each of its element. The experience of the first period showed that, the will to keep improving the quality of the web site or a too high quality threshold for the EMEC methodology may have been a threat to the global balance of the project ?

LESSONS LEARNED

In the first place, the enthusiasm shown by active members, the group fidelity as well as direct comments demonstrated that transparent processes are able to involve and motivate social groups to participate to new paradigms experiments for virtual and face to face meetings, or for collective collaboration.

The development of a project limited in the time and characterized by a strong interaction among members is, without any doubt, a terrible challenge in terms of project management. However, it generates much more material to learn than traditional-planned activities. Complexity of social processes must be recognized and experimentation must be accepted to create flexible and error-tolerant models.

The last evaluation teaches that "active transparency", is a necessary condition to convince participants to join processes in which they will be involved in collective action and thinking. Unfortunately, it is not a sufficient condition! Besides moderation, beyond the animation of virtual community and the efficient conduction of the debates, there is a lack of new methodologies to motivate participation at distance. We have to be modest though and accept that a large part of the target population is still learning to use efficiently ICT. Even within the group of ICT specialists the learning curve is not over.

Decentralization of project management could be a key element to improve participation levels? but it is not easily compatible with traditional schemes of project management where the responsibility lies heavily on the shoulders of the executing agency. For the last three months of the operating stage of the project an experiment of decentralization is conducted in relation with the drive of the debates to create an agenda for action.

Whatever the situation is, we can perceive a clear claim, maybe a need, to create innovative environments of this type.

CONCLUSIONS?

When the process is the focus, instead of the result, it is evident that conclusions always remain very open. It would be something coherent that the specialists of the society-ICT relationship be the first group in proposing new social structure, characteristic of the new paradigm of information society.

In this process of building new and unprecedented models, the South in general and LA&C in particular, shall not adapt again models from the North! The MISTICA model is a collective framework, representative of particularities and cultures of this region and as such, it is more valid than any other model developed in another part of the world. Of course, it can and must get improved in the knowledge of other models coming from other places and reciprocally, it can contribute to the creation of new social models that can integrate the ICT as a positive element for a more responsible and just society. However, as all effort of social construction, it is an open road, without any conclusion and nobody knows clearly where or when it stops?

If we do not build it here, others will come and take us through their own ways.
If we do not build it together, some people will impose their ways to us.
The correct way is to collaborate and to determine together our own road
as a community, a country, a sub-region or a region?

"Walker, there is no road! The road is made walking?"
(Antonio Machado, Sevillan Poet, 1875-1893)

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