Collaboration Patterns as Building Blocks for Community Informatics

From 4-6 November 2009, the 6th CIRN Community Informatics Conference was held in Prato, Italy. As in previous years, the conference brought together an interesting mix of researchers and practitioners from North and South, discussing ways to effectively use information and communication technologies to foster community building. This year’s theme was “Empowering Communities: Learning from Community Informatics Practice”.

I gave a keynote address at the conference. Title of my talk and the accompanying paper was “Collaboration Patters as Building Blocks for Community Informatics”. Below the slides of the presentation and the abstract of the paper.


Community Informatics is a wide-ranging field of inquiry and practice, with many paradigms, disciplines, and perspectives intersecting. Community informatics research and practice build on several methodological pillars: contexts/values, cases, process/methodology, and systems. Socio-technical patterns and pattern languages are the glue that help connect these pillars. Patterns define relatively stable solutions to recurring problems at the right level of abstraction, which means that they are concrete enough to be useful, while also sufficiently abstract to be reusable. The goal of this paper is to outline a practical approach to improve CI research and practice through collaboration patterns. This approach should help to strengthen the analysis, design, implementation, and evaluation of socio-technical community systems. The methodology is illustrated with examples from the ESSENCE (E-Science/Sensemaking/Climate Change) community.

Libraries and Collaborative Research Communities

091001_TicerAlready a while ago, but still worth a post: on August 5, I was an invited speaker at  the Ticer Digital Libraries a la Carte 2009 summer school. In 2008, I attended their fascinating keynote summer school lecture by Stephen Abram. It was a privilege to be on the other side this year! Ticer stands for Tilburg Innovation Centre for Electronic Resources, and is a business unit of Tilburg University’s Library and IT Services. Every year, they organize a summer school, which is well attended by librarians, publishers, researchers, lecturers, and IT specialists interested in the latest developments in (digital) libraries.

My module concerned the Libraries and Collaborative Research Communities track. My co-speakers were John Butler (University of Minnesota), Judith Wusteman (University College Dublin), and Gary Olson (University of California, Irvine). We had a very stimulating day – with lots of questions from the audience -  in which we explored this lively and quickly evolving field from many different angles, including topics like virtual communities as catalysts for advancing scholarship, the role of librarians in virtual research environments, and critical success factors for science collaboratories.

My own talk was about how to activate research collaboratories with collaboration patterns. I really enjoyed discussing  this for me quite new field. It was good to see that many academic librarians agree  that a technical information retrieval focus by itself does not suffice anymore and that serious efforts need to made to integrate communities, communication, and collaboration in their library processes and systems. The worlds of digital libraries and community informatics are still far apart, but interesting connections are forming. A topic that surely will grow in scope and impact in the years to come.

Presentation at the National Research Council Canada

090321_nrcc3On Monday, I will give another version of the talk “From Inspiration to Activation: Making Online Collaborative Communities Work” that I gave at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, this time at the National Research Council Canada Institute for Information Technology in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It’s good to have another opportunity to present  and get quality feedback on these ideas that have been keeping me busy for such a long time.


Inspiration is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for collaborative communities to work. Such communities often make use of complex Internet-based tool systems. In these systems, work gets distributed over many tools, often leading to the fragmentation of communicative acts. To address this problem, explicit attention needs to be paid to community activation. We outline a conceptual model of online collaborative communities. We introduce the use of collaboration patterns for defining socio-technical design solutions for activation problems. We illustrate the approach by discussing the results from a digital class experiment. Applications ranging from e-government to scientific collaborations are discussed.

The talk will webcast live: Mon March 23, 10:30 am – noon Atlantic Daylight Time:

Distant participants should be able to ask questions via chat.

(The archived version of my talk is available at:

From Inspiration to Activation: Making Online Collaborative Communities Work

Invitation to my UAH lecture, January 21, 2009On January 21, I presented my lecture “From Inspiration to Activation: Making Online Collaborative Communities Work” in the UAHuntsville Distinguished Speaker Series. It was a revised version of the invited talk I gave at the ALOIS 2008 conference in Venice in May 2008. In the lecture I addressed how collaborative communities require not only the sense of purpose and drive provided by inspiration, but also the activation of the community in terms of explicitly supporting the initiation, execution, and evaluation of  goal-oriented (online) communication processes. To this purpose, a socio-technical design process is needed in which the communicative context and tool system are matched.

A major theme in my lecture was the paradigm-shifting approach of the Obama administration to involve the general public, not only in getting elected, but also in providing ideas for and feedback on the policies proposed. Key priorities are communication, transparency, and participation, which, not coincidentially are also the foundations of the field of community informatics. Only four years ago, this new reality seemed only but a distant dream. It is incredibly exciting to witness community informatics history in the making, right in the heart of our global democratic system!

Although the Obama approach is a unique and most promising experiment on an unprecedented scale, it will need to go beyond current ambitions of soliciting feedback from individual citizens. In order to at least partially address the many highly complex, interlocking wicked problems like the credit crisis, global warming, poverty, environmental degradation and war, it will need to invest heavily in creating and nurturing a multitude of collaborative communities. These communities should bring together representatives of societal stakeholders such as government, science, corporations, NGOs, and so on. These communities should help them work together effectively and efficiently and break through organizational, political, disciplinary and ethnic boundaries. Only in this way can scalable solutions be developed that are workable and acceptable to the majority of people affected.

My presentation given at UAH can be viewed here:

Liberating Voices book published

A while ago, I posted some ideas on the socio-technical infrastructure needed to create a network of “thinking communities”. I was then contacted by Doug Schuler, coordinator of the Public Sphere Project, who asked me to create a Thinking Communities Pattern  for their Liberating Voices: a Pattern Language for Communication Revolution project.

081208_schuler_liberating_voices_front_coverA selection of patterns, including the Thinking Communities Pattern, has now been edited and published as a book by The MIT Press (ISBN 0-262-69366-6). See also the book flyer. To get an idea of how these patterns could be used, see, for instance, the post by Justin Smith, who lists some requirements for a pattern-based knowledge system.

The best way to introduce the book is by using Doug’s own words:

After eight years of work, the book on our information and communication pattern language project, “Liberating Voices: A Pattern Language for Communication Revolution,” is finally available. Liberating Voices brings together a multitude of ideas and suggestions from a variety of perspectives including activism and social change, education, community informatics, governance, media, development, information science, economics, journalism, arts and culture.

We believe that this book can be used by researchers, by practitioners in a variety of fields including teachers in the classroom, by activists, and by citizens and community members throughout the world.

I’m writing to you as a colleague or, in some cases, as a person whom I’ve never met but whose work I admire. In either case I’m hopeful that you’d find this work compelling. If you do, please read this note and send it along to friends and colleagues who might also be interested.

I believe that this book is particularly relevant at this time in history. It is a holistic call to arms for social change based on a revolution in grassroots information and communication. It takes the form of a pattern language that contains 136 patterns. Each pattern is a template for research as well as social critique and action. And each pattern is linked to other patterns into a single coherent whole. We (myself and 85 co-authors) have tried to show that the struggle for liberatory information and communication systems is absolutely critical.

In recent decades we have witnessed the creation of communication systems that promise unparalleled connectedness. Now is the time to unleash our collective creativity—social as well as technological—and develop the communication systems that promote community and civic innovation and engagement to address serious challenges like climate change and environmental degradation.

Inspired by the vision and framework outlined in Christopher Alexander’s classic 1977 book, A Pattern Language, the book presents a pattern language containing 136 patterns designed to meet these challenges. We are proposing a new model of social change that integrates theory and practice by showing how diverse information and communication based approaches can be used to address local as well as global problems.

The pattern language was developed collaboratively with nearly 100 co-authors using an online pattern language management system. The patterns from the book are all online as are approximately 300 other patterns in work. We are treating the publishing of the book as an important milestone rather than the culmination of the project. While we are very enthusiastic about what we’ve produced so far we realize that people and organizations who use the patterns will often need to adapt the pattern language to their specific needs which may even include developing new patterns. For this reason and others we are revamping our web site to encourage collaborative pattern language construction and allow people to readily share ideas and experiences with others.

Our goal was to create an intriguing and informative catalog of intellectual, social, and technological innovations, a practical manual for citizen activism, and a compelling manifesto for creating a more intelligent, sustainable, and equitable world.

ALOIS 2008 conference

VeniceOn May 5-6, I will be attending, as an invited speaker, the ALOIS (Action in Language, Organisations, and Information Systems) conference in Venice. Apart from the wonderful venue, it is going be a very interesting conference, in the best tradition of the Language/Action Perspective and Pragmatic Web conferences.

Here is the abstract of my talk and paper:

Activating Online Collaborative Communities

Collaborative communities often make use of complex tool systems. In these systems, work gets fragmented over many tools, often halting communication. We discuss online community activation in terms of the Language/Action Perspective, and its more recent offshoot, the Pragmatic Web. We propose collaboration patterns for defining high-level socio-technical design solutions for activation problems. We illustrate the approach using examples from a digital tutorial case.