Freely accessible online, with a wide set of authors and a wider readership, First Monday can be seen as striving for global knowledge on the social aspects of the Internet. In a meta–analysis now underway, we found First Monday to be the third most prolific journal on a particular subject: local communities’ uses of information technology. Our study also sheds some light on what constitutes global knowledge. The data suggests that a synthesis of English–language published knowledge is a first step. It points to a bigger agenda: reaching into the world’s local settings in a proportionate and representative way. That would mean publishers outside the U.S. and U.K.; scholars in other countries; and, studies in other languages. This is what it would take to learn from all our cultures and countries.
The case of community informatics
This research note examines a few early findings from a study of the empirical literature regarding local communities using information technologies. Particularly because First Monday is prominent in this literature, we want to share these findings with First Monday’s audience. Our study’s objective is to measure and assess the globalization of knowledge on this subject. We have early answers regarding what constitutes global knowledge.
In short, the globalization of knowledge is not complete, but is underway. The studies published in the English–language scholarly literature study primarily the English–speaking world. The authors are disproportionately at institutions in the English–speaking world, primarily the U.S. Their institutions are overrepresented in the literature relative to their countries’ populations, but also relative to the global distribution of top–ranked universities. Moreover, the scholars tend to study communities in their own country. To move closer to global knowledge, we must reach beyond U.S. and U.K. publishers, to scholars elsewhere, and outside the English language, for a representative picture of such a global phenomenon as our subject, the adoption of information technology by local communities. Below we explain and illustrate this reality. We are completing a full analysis, will report that separately, and also hope to publish a public use dataset including our coding. Even if this literature is only a step, we can still learn a great deal from it and help everything move forward faster.
The case of community informatics
In the past quarter century, the world has witnessed an explosion of virtual communities  and of research on them. People have begun to think of many social phenomena as communities. For example, conceptualizing workgroups as communities of practice brought to light social processes in work groups .
The place–based community is where most people in every society are born, grow up, and lead their lives. While individuals and even entire social strata do move in or out, this is where local culture is transmitted through social networks and institutions and accretes over multiple generations. Such communities experience shocks of rapid change (urban renewal, for example ) and yet they persist. Transgenerational continuity of local communities has been normal up to now. The permanent destruction of local communities is extremely disruptive, even life–threatening, for their residents. The main causes of this destruction include war and other disasters, such as the March 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan or plant closings in the Rust Belt of the U.S.
Community informatics (CI) is one field that has attended to local community, specifically, local community in the digital age, as it adopts information technology or adapts to a technologically transformed society. CI was first named in the U.K. and North America ; . The term was subsequently defined and elaborated ; ; ; ; .
We have defined and described community informatics elsewhere ; ; . But summing up the earliest definitions is useful. Community informatics enables us
to connect cyber–space to community–place: to investigate how ICTs can be geographically embedded and developed by community groups to support networks of people who already know and care about each other .
CI is concerned with:
those who are being excluded from this ongoing [technology] rush, and enabling these individuals and communities to take advantage of some of the opportunities which the technology is providing. It is also concerned with enhancing civil society and strengthening local communities for self management and for environmental and economically sustainable development .
CI is anchored in questions of social and digital inequalities, and poorer or working class people tend to be more place-bound than middle classes and elites, even if migration patterns separate them from their original homes. Joining the “space of flows” (which means, in part, the daily and adept use of digital technologies) and leaving behind the “space of place”  tends to require money and privilege.
Community informatics is “an extension from ‘organizations’ to ‘communities’ of the ‘sociotechnical’ approach to systems design” . And elsewhere: “Research in CI brings together theories of information and communication technologies with the pragmatic field of community development” . And the object of analysis is quite specific:
Inherent in CI is the need to understand how knowledge is shaped and shared in communities, to investigate the underlying information phenomena and processes we find when we take “community” as our unit of analysis .
Close to a decade after these definitions, a great many people have carried out research in this area. Technology has spread to where it was previously unknown. We need to update our definition of the field based on empirical knowledge. As society experiences the disruptions of the information revolution, CI asks questions that are fundamental to social cohesion and the sustainability of what we have thought of as normal social life. Because of this, scholars need a comprehensive, global, and current picture of the field.
What is the empirical literature and what does it tell us? Where are the agreements, the disagreements, and the gaps? These are our overarching research questions. To find answers, we made a systematic collection of the empirical literature and we are beginning to code and analyze it. The first coding included several measures for place. This presented us with interesting answers as to what extent this literature provides a global picture. As the title of this note puts it, we have a measure of the current globalization of published knowledge on a particular subject.
Our data is a collection of 563 items: journal articles, book chapters, and conference presentations. It spans eight disciplines and 22 years, 1990–2011. Each item reports empirical research about a specific local community or communities and its (or their) use of information technology. Information technology is defined as digital technologies of all kinds, including mobile phones. This is our operationalization of the category “empirical community informatics research.”
We collected the published papers, chapters, and presentations from a set of journals, edited books, and conference proceedings. To select the journals, we identified eight disciplines either that we knew or that we expected to be producing relevant research about local communities using information technology, based on an informal survey of our colleagues. Our team includes people with research foci in the fields of archives, ITD (information technology for development), library and information science, museums/public history, and the two linked fields of social informatics and community informatics.
We also examined management information science (MIS) and sociology. MIS is a field that began earlier, when the private sector began to adopt computer technology, and we expected that they would publish studies of communities as well as businesses. Sociologists are among those who have formulated and debated theories of the information society. They were also the leaders in community studies some decades ago, and we hoped to find relevant articles there as well.
We identified the three top journals in each field, using published rankings and the assessments of librarians and other colleagues. We identified the five top journals from the two closely related fields of community informatics and social informatics. In total we reviewed 24 journals.
The edited books and conference proceedings are those that we have used in research and teaching for the last 15 years. They stand out as early and consistent efforts to organize CI scholarship.
The edited volumes and conferences suggested the starting year of 1990 for the journal scan. While community technology was in place as early as the 1960s (e.g., PLATO) and 1970s (e.g., Berkeley Community Memory) and there were two conferences of record before then, DIAC 1987 and 1988, those two conferences did not include any empirical research on local communities. The year 1990, four years before the graphical web and the popularization of the Internet, seemed to mark the rise of relevant empirical work in edited books and conferences.
We searched the tables of contents, abstracts if any, and full texts of the journals, books, and conference proceedings to identify empirical work on local communities using information technology. The result was a collection of 563 items: 367 articles and 196 chapters or conference presentations published from 1990 to 2011. The journal articles are detailed in Table 1.
Table 1: Collection of empirical research on local communities using information technology. Discipline Journals Dates scanned Articles scanned Articles collected Collected as percent of scanned Social Informatics/Community Informatics
New Media & Society 1999–2011,
546 62 11% Journal of Community Informatics 2004–2010,
214 54 25% First Monday 1996–2011,
992 45 5% Information, Communication & Society 1998–2011,
633 35 6% The Information Society 1990–2011,
246 28 11% Information Technology and Development
Information Technologies and International Development 2003–2011,
219 33 15% Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries 2000–2012,
360 27 8% Information Technology for Development 1990–2011,
338 11 3% Library and Information Science
Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 1990–2011,
3,537 21 1% Public Library Quarterly 1990–2011,
336 13 4% Library Trends 1990–2011,
880 6 1% Library Quarterly 1990–2011,
836 4 0.4% Management Information Science
Information Systems Research 1990–2011,
496 4 1% Journal of Management Information Systems 1990–2011,
209 3 1% MIS Quarterly 1990–2011,
344 3 1% Museums/Public History
International Journal of Heritage Studies 1994–2011,
351 8 2% Museum Management and Curatorship 1990–2011,
315 4 1% Public Historian 1990–2011,
264 1 0.4% Archives
Archival Science/Archives and Museum Informatics 1990–2011,
294 4 1% American Archivist 1990–2011,
310 1 0.3% Archivaria 1990–2011,
258 0 0% Sociology
Social Problems 1990–2011,
602 0 0% American Journal of Sociology 1990–2011,
774 0 0% American Sociological Review 1990–2011,
756 0 0% All journals 14,110 367 3% Edited books and conference proceedings 1987–2012 914 196 21% All 15,024 563 4%
The edited books and conference proceedings are detailed in Table 2, and full citations are also provided in the bibliography.
Table 2: CI’s key edited books and conference proceedings.
Note: For full citations see bibliography.
Edited books and conference proceedings Dates scanned Articles scanned Articles collected Directions and Implications of Advanced Computing/Conferences 1998–2008 191 5 Emerging Communities/ed. Bishop 1993 26 4 Ties That Bind/Conferences 1994–1995 41 13 Public Access to the Internet/eds. Kahin, Keller 1995 17 1 Public Libraries and the Information Society/eds. Thorhauge, Segbert 1996 23 5 Public Libraries, Communities, and Technology: Twelve Case Studies/pub. Council on Library Resources 1996 12 12 Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community/eds. Agre, Schuler 1997 16 1 The social shaping of information superhighways/eds. Kubicek, Dutton, Williams 1997 19 0 Cyberspace Divide/ed. Loader 1998 12 1 High Technology and Low–Income Communities/eds. Schön, Sanyal, Mitchell 1998 16 2 Communities in Cyberspace/eds. Kollock, Smith 1999 12 1 Community Informatics: Enabling Communities/ed. Gurstein 2000 26 15 Digital Divide Doctoral Student Workshop/Conference 2001 23 1 Community Informatics: Shaping Computer–Mediated Social Relations/eds. Keeble, Loader 2001 19 8 Communities and Technologies/Conferences 2003–2011 115 27 Social capital and information technology/eds. Huysman, Wulf 2004 14 1 The Network Society: A Cross Cultural Perspective/ed. Castells 2004 19 2 Community Practice in the Network Society/eds. Day, Schuler 2004 15 4 Shaping the Network Society: The New Role of Civil Society in Cyberspace/eds. Schuler, Day 2004 16 1 Networked Neighbourhoods/ed. Purcell 2006 16 2 ICTD/Conferences 2006–2012 204 71 Constructing and Sharing Memory/eds. Stillman, Johanson 2007 29 13 eChicago/Conferences 2007–2009 33 6 All edited books and conference proceedings 914 196
In studying community, scholars often decide to gather measures of community residents (individuals) and then to infer about the larger social organization (community). This is often useful but not ideal, because a community is more than the sum of its individuals. Network logic tells us that groups and organizations in communities represent central social nodes. So community organizations are often involved in community studies and in CI. Following this reasoning, we began our analysis of the content of the literature we collected by coding for local institutions as well as for place. Initial questions included:
Place: What places in the world have been studied for their local community use of information technology? What institutions are carrying out this research? Where are the publications?
Community organizations: What studies involve a local organization as a research partner, a study setting, or a program site or partner?
This section starts with a measure of research growth and then reports three findings regarding place, measuring the place studied, the institution of the first author, and the publication itself. It also reports findings regarding local organizations.
1. First, the data suggests that community informatics, that is, empirical research on local communities using information technology, continues to grow. The 1990s yielded an average of six studies per year; since then the figure is 36 studies per year.
2. Place (community studied). The communities that were studied are not representative of the world’s population. Rather, studies carried out in English–speaking countries dominate (71 percent), primarily the U.S.
Table 3: Across the 563 studies of local communities using information technology, the communities being examined were disproportionately in English–speaking countries (with asterisk; 71 percent of all). Place studied Articles As percent U.S.* 175 31% India* 78 14% U.K.* 39 7% Australia* 27 5% Canada* 25 4% South Africa* 21 4% Netherlands 9 2% Singapore* 8 1% Uganda* 7 1% Hong Kong* 6 1% China 6 1% Finland 5 1% Ireland* 5 1% Italy 5 1% Malaysia* 5 1% Ghana* 5 1% All other single countries 113 20% Multiple or anonymized countries 24 4% All 563 100%
What’s more, some areas within countries are much examined, most of all South India (53 studies) and California (27 studies). That likely reflects Silicon Valley and the IT cities of Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad. South India is home to just 22 percent of the population of India but the setting for 67 percent of the articles that examine India. So CI projects in IT–oriented local economies have attracted a disproportionate share of research interest so far. Similar imbalances are seen across the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Researchers could explicitly go elsewhere, or could take a moment to sum up all the studies in one area.
One additional measure of place is to compare the presence of rural and urban communities in the set. By 2008 just over half of humanity lived in cities. But only 23 percent of the studies focus solely on rural communities. If more research would focus on rural areas at they get better connected, it could help them sustain their residents.
3. Place (first author’s institution). U.S. universities provide 40 percent of the articles, the U.K. and its other former colonies another 31 percent. See Table 4.
Table 4: Across the 536 empirical studies of local communities using information technology, the first authors’ institutional affiliations were disproportionately in English–speaking countries (with asterisk; 67 percent of all). Institutional affiliation of first author Articles As percent U.S.* 224 40% U.K.* 54 10% India* 40 7% Australia* 28 5% Canada* 21 4% South Africa* 16 3% Norway 14 2% Netherlands 13 2% Hong Kong* 11 2% Singapore* 8 1% All other countries 83 15% Unknown 51 9% All 563 100%
Ten institutions provided seven or more articles:
- Microsoft Research India, 18 articles
- University of Washington, 16
- University of California, Berkeley, 10
- Georgia Institute of Technology, eight
- University of Oslo, eight
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology, eight
- Monash University, eight
- University of Michigan, seven
- University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, seven
Five of these institutions are schools of information. One single private research institute, Microsoft Research India, is a top provider of articles. A total of 61 percent of the studies are carried out in the country of the first author’s institution and there is more to learn regarding the transnational patterns of scholarship in this field.
4. Place (publications). With regard to publications, all the journals are edited and published in North America and the U.K. except for one in Hong Kong. There is a center to empirical research in CI: the five social informatics/community informatics journals published 40 percent of the 563 studies. The journals in information technology and development published the second most (12 percent) and the library and information science journals the third most (8 percent). The most productive journals for empirical research in community informatics are:
- Journal of Community Informatics, 25 percent of their articles met our criteria
- Information Technologies and International Development, 15 percent
- The Information Society, 11 percent
- New Media & Society, 11 percent
- The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, eight percent
- Information, Communication & Society, six percent
- First Monday, five percent
- Public Library Quarterly, four percent
- Information Technology for Development, three percent
- International Journal of Heritage Studies, two percent.
For the remaining journals in our survey, less than two percent of articles met our criteria.
5. The local institution. Table 5 confirms our expectation that CI often attends to local institutions; 99 percent of articles mention local institutions in some significant role. Local governments are highly visible, as are non–profit organizations, that is, the civil sector. These may be the biggest actors in community technology projects, or they may be over–represented in the studies relative to their actual roles.
Table 5: Local institutions examined in 563 empirical community informatics articles.
Note: Sometimes more than one sector is examined in an article.
Local institutions Articles Articles as percent Government 332 59% Non–profit organization 291 52% Commercial 220 39% Higher education 152 27% No local institution 7 1% All 563 100%
These findings support several conclusions. They affirm a growing scholarly focus on local communities using information technologies. They suggest several publications, institutions, and local communities as centers for this work, and a U.S. and English–speaking country focus. This might be qualified by biases in our sample: our own research interests led in selecting the disciplines, and most of all, we searched in the English–language literature. If we could look at second authors, or at nationality of authors, the findings might shift somewhat. We can only commend scholars who carry out work on a modest budget by studying nearby communities.
But for more complete, accurate knowledge about local community in the information society — which is itself a global phenomenon — we must find the rural communities, the go beyond the world’s technopoles, and in the end, rely on other languages. For instance, more than 1,300 research articles were found on community or rural informatization in one of China’s journal databases . But they were in Chinese and could not be included in this study.
One last note: Because of past and continuing global inequalities, scientific research capacity is not evenly distributed around the world. But it is distributed. Table 6 suggests that if we include research from outside U.S. research institutions we can begin to draw on the world’s wisdom, which itself extends so far beyond the world’s universities and research institutes. For instance, what can come out of the top universities in Africa to help us understand African communities using information technology? South Africa dominates the African studies in our set. The rest of the continent is very underrepresented. Yet Africans have embraced open access journal publishing — very likely a storehouse of knowledge on this subject as well as others.
Table 6: Ranking the articles by region (first author’s institution and place studied) as compared to population  and top 1,000 universities . Regions Institution of first author Rank by institution Place studied Rank by place studied World population Rank by population Top 1,000 universities (CSIC) Rank by top universities North America 246 1 200 1 5% 5 394 2 Asia 83 3 134 2 60% 1 113 3 Europe 120 2 93 3 11% 3 413 1 Africa 24 5 66 4 15% 2 5 6 Oceania 32 4 30 5 0.5% 6 35 5 Latin America 7 6 26 6 9% 4 40 4 Multiple/Unknown 51 14 All 563 563 100% 1,000
About the authors
Kate Williams is an assistant professor and a co–director of the Community Informatics Research Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
E–mail: katewill [at] Illinois [dot] edu
Noah Lenstra is a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
E–mail: nlenstr2 [at] Illinois [dot] edu
Shameem Ahmed is a doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
E–mail: ahmed9 [at] Illinois [dot] edu
Qiyuan Liu is a master’s student at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
E–mail: qliu14 [at] Illinois [dot] edu
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Received 22 January 2013; accepted 29 July 2013.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Research note: Measuring the globalization of knowledge: The case of community informatics
by Kate Williams, Noah Lenstra, Shameem Ahmed, and Qiyuan Liu.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 8 - 5 August 2013