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.

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.