Project Proposal
TechShop Madison TechShop people

History
Resources

Creating an Information Technology Science Shop for Greater Madison :


A Proposal to the National Community-Based Research Networking Initiative

Randy Stoecker, Dept. of Rural Sociology, University of Wisconsin
Eric Howland, Director, DANEnet
Katherine Loving, Civic Engagement Coordinator, University Health Services, University of Wisconsin

We propose to create an information technology science shop that can engage community organizations in a four-step process to meet their information and communication management needs. Using a participatory action research model that engages the organization in guiding the research process, the first step is to conduct diagnostic research to help the organization understand its information and communication needs and challenges, as well as its current technology capacity. The second step is to conduct prescriptive research so the organization can understand the options for filling those needs and meeting those challenges. The third step is to provide a network of solutions at no or low cost for the organizations to implement their prescriptions. The final step is to evaluate the success of those solutions. The result will be that increasing numbers of Madison community organizations will have better information technology solutions, will make better use of those solutions, and will become smarter about information technology.

Description of the Model

One of the biggest challenges facing many nonprofit organizations is managing information[1]. And the technology solutions that can help them use information to its greatest impact are often unknown to the groups. They lack the knowledge to choose, manage, and troubleshoot their own technology, which often makes the technology itself a problem rather than a solution[2].

If higher education is going to help nonprofits meet their challenge, it must first meet its own challenge--finding enough students with enough skills on a regular enough basis for community organizations to feel confident that the civic engagement program will serve the community as much as the students[3]. Such programs never have the wide ranging expertise required to serve the diverse needs and challenges facing nonprofits. Thus, they have difficulty sustaining both the services they provide and even their own existence.

This project addresses those two challenges through the perspective of community informatics.[4] The goal in community informatics is to work collaboratively with communities and community organizations to use participatory action research to discover ways of using information technology to achieve power and self-sufficiency, and then implementing what they discover. Our specific strategy for using the community informatics approach will be to adapt the European "science shop"[5] model to information technology issues. European science shops are different from U.S. civic engagement offices in two important ways. First, they adopt relatively narrow agendas, focusing on a single area of expertise rather than trying to provide relatively unskilled generalist services. Second, they are organized to respond specifically to community-identified needs rather than being driven by curricular-defined offerings.

We will create an information technology science shop in collaboration with Madison's premier nonprofit information technology provider, DANEnet.[6] DANEnet already provides information technology services to Madison's nonprofits, but does not have the capacity to do more than meet a fraction of the needs presented to it. We can expand DANEnet's capacity by creating pipelines to other skill resources, including skilled students and faculty. By working with students, DANEnet can leverage their expertise with volunteer time to drive down the cost of providing technology support to nonprofits, since even DANEnet's low cost services are out of reach for smaller nonprofits.

We can also expand the pool of skilled students through two strategies. One strategy is to use a service learning developmental model, drawing on the work of the Bonner Foundation[7] and Mars Hill College[8]. Such a model will use entry-level students to conduct initial diagnoses with organizations, using a process piloted in Madison in the fall of 2006. In that pilot, students without significant information technology knowledge were trained to conduct a comprehensive assessment of community organization communication and technology practices and needs, using an interview guide and diagnostic software to understand community. Those students, with assistance from DANEnet staff and university tech support staff, then researched options for each organization that could help meet the identified community and information issues. That pilot also identified on-campus training opportunities whereby those students can develop specific technology expertise. After receiving such training, students will be able to help community organizations fill those needs. That process will help overcome the main problem identified in the pilot project—the lack of resources to help community organizations fill the identified needs.[9]

The main task of this project will be to build that pipeline of students with technology skills, which we are currently lacking, to fully implement this science shop model. We will use an established participatory action research process to diagnose their information and communication technology issues of community organizations to support participation of students who may not have technology skills, but do have an interest in technology to start making a contribution while getting training both from within our program and from other University programs. Those students will then be able to also serve at the next level of the program—helping community organizations fill their identified technology needs. That can involve helping community organizations network their computers, develop and/or improve websites, create databases, build electronic communication networks, and many other things. It can also involve next step participatory action research projects such as evaluating the impacts of new technology choices.

We expect it will take three years to produce a self-sustaining pool of students with reliable technology skills who are willing to serve organizations. In the interim, we will need strong human resources to identify, recruit, and coordinate skilled student assistance, and we are requesting funds to serve that purpose.

Workplan

Year 1 will be spent on a community-based research project, led by DANEnet, to find and document the available information technology technical assistance resources in the Madison area. Many of those services will be located in the city's higher education institutions, but others will come from informal groups, nonprofit organizations, community-based user groups, and even individuals. There is no directory of such services that community organizations can draw on to meet their information technology technical assistance needs. We will include training resources in this directory, so that we can meet student skill development needs and community organization technical assistance needs. We will also include professors willing to sponsor students with credit-based independent studies for students with technology skills. This CBR project will be conducted by a special seminar of students, led by Randy Stoecker. It will also identify an initial pool of skilled students who can provide immediate technical assistance to community organizations, and who will be coordinated by a VISTA worker placed with DANEnet. We will also explore the use of work study students in this process and bring in other on- and off-campus partners.

Year 2, with our resource directory in hand, we will begin the formal process of engaging students in conducting participatory action research assessments with organizations on their information technology needs, using the two-step process of first researching the organization's existing information and communication processes and technology and second researching options that can meet their identified issues. We will also pilot one or two courses of students with advanced technology skills who can accomplish the third step of filling the identified needs, and have commitments of interest from two faculty to provide those students with course credit. We will establish a referral website and phone number. The DANEnet VISTA will again coordinate this process, but this year we will also start implementing a technology leadership training program so that the third year we can have a team of student coordinators/trainers. We hope to have a pipeline of work study students as coordinators and trainers for this process as well. We will put in place ongoing evaluation research that will report semester by semester on the lessons we are learning, and adjusting the program based on those lessons.

Year 3 will put the entire program in place, with two cohorts of work study student coordinators, student technology assessors, and student technology implementation, with a core of faculty providing credit for students. The second year cohort will take over some of the supervision and training functions previously provided by DANEnet. Developing student trainers/supervisors will move toward sustainability of the overall program. We will also be working hard to achieve sustainable funding to support DANEnet's overall coordination of this service.

Resources to be Generated

This project will generate a number of useful tools for groups wishing to work with community organizations around information and communication technology issues. The first is the interview tool we used in the pilot project this past fall and are developing further. The tool is used in a one hour interview with the organization's executive director or IT director to learn of the organization's information and communication practices and issues. We couple this with NPower's free TechAtlas tool, which quickly assesses the organization's computer technology. This project combines those tools and we will produce a guide for others who wish to use such a process. We will also be writing up the model we are using, since a science shop focusing on information and communication technology using student assessors and tech support providers is currently very rare. Course syllabi will be placed on line also.


[1] See Stoecker, Randy. 2005. "Are We Making a Change: The Data and Research Needs of Toledo Area Non-Profit Organizations." American Sociological Society Annual Meetings, Philadelphia.

[2] See Stillman, Larry, and Randy Stoecker. 2005. "Structuration, ICTs, and Community Work." Journal of Community Informatics, Vol. 1, no. 3.. http://ci-journal.net/viewarticle.php?id=54&layout=abstract.

[3] See Sandy, Marie. 2006. "Different Worlds and Common Ground: Community Partner Perspectives in Campus-Community Partnerships. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Vol. 13, no. 1. Also see Stoecker, Randy. 2006. Community Organizations and Service Learning. http://comm-org.wisc.edu/sl/news.php

[4] Michael Gurstein. 2003. Community Informatics.http://www.communities.org.ru/ci-text/ci-v2.doc

[5] See Living Knowledge: The International Science Shop Network. http://www.scienceshops.org/

[6] http://danenet.wicip.org/

[7] See The Bonner Foundation. n.d. "Bonner Program Student Development." http://www.bonner.org/resources/overview/studentdevelop.htm

[8] See Center for Assessment and Research Alliances, Mars Hill College, http://www.mhc.edu/its/administration/cara/index.asp. For a description of their student development model, see Stoecker, Randy. 2002. Community-University Collaborations: Future Choices. A keynote address prepared for The University of Texas El Paso Center for Civic Engagement's 4th Annual Retreat. http://comm-org.wisc.edu/drafts/cbrutep2.htm

[9] The pilot project in Madison in fall of 2006 worked with eight Madison organizations through the diagnosis and prescription process with a seminar of students. Each student partnered with one organization to conduct the diagnoses and prescriptions. But since the students did not have advanced technology skills, we were unable to implement the prescriptions.




 

TechShop was funded by:

The Corporation for National and Community Service

The University of Wisconsin Division of Information Technology

University of Wisconsin University Health Services

University of Wisconsin Morgridge Center for Public Service

The taxpayers who support UW faculty and staff salaries and some student tuition

 

Our Partners

University Health Services

DANEnet

UWUW Division of Information Technology

UW Morgridge Center for Pubic Service