The logistical difficulties of the York/Habitat Networking Initiative were considerable. A great deal of time, effort and money went into drawing dozens of people from different disciplines and locales to face-to-face meetings. In order for such meetings to be effective at producing active, working groups, the participants would have had to have met on a much more frequent basis. More resources for co-ordination would also have been needed. The schedules of busy people make it extremely difficult to arrange to have the people all show up at the same time. Different people attending subsequent meetings have to be brought up to date in proceedings. Such difficulties as these could be overcome to a large extent through the use of computer communications.
The Native Computer Communications Network Project established links between computers but wasn't very successful in creating an interpersonal network. The major hurdles overcome by that project were ones that had to do with use of the technology. The user interface was developed to be very simple and easy-to-use as was the manual. The emphasis on training was important in ensuring that frustrations were kept to minimum. Though the capabilities were there for communicating via computer, the reasons for doing so were not. More emphasis on mutual goal setting in face-to-face meetings would have been helpful.
Habnet was conceived to make use of the strengths of these two projects in order to overcome their weaknesses. Using computer communications to facilitate the formation of a human settlements network seemed a way to keep the resources required by the face-to-face meetings to a minimum.
The following were the main objectives of the Habnet project:
For Habitat - to get important information out to educators, researchers, and field workers in a timely fashion, and to receive immediate feedback from them on their activities.
For York - to facilitate the present networking initiative undertaken in collaboration with the Habitat information office there, and to explore the use of computer networking as a research tool.
For the Human Settlements Field - to allow for more grass-roots participation in issues, to assist in the co-ordination of projects, and to raise awareness of the complex, multi-disciplinary relationships surrounding human settlements problems.
Equipment and Access to Web
After creating the concept of Habnet and describing it to the Habgroup, it was necessary that the members of the team be able to access Habnet on the Web system. This meant ensuring they had the appropriate equipment, their accounts had been created, and the Habnet conference established online.
Making sure the equipment was available meant a number of things. Of the seven members of the group, five had their own personal computers (PCs) at home or in the office, one being an Apple MacIntosh and the others IBM compatibles. A modem had to be purchased for one of these, another had to have a special data line installed to be able to dial out of the office at the university (which was on a local area telephone network which didn't permit data transfer). That same person had also to acquire an electrical adapter to allow his European-made computer to use the North American power standard.
For those without their own equipment, there was the computer room of FES. Of the dozen or so terminals and PCs, one was set aside for accessing Web. Its internal software had to be configured to match the Web protocol, and instructions on the proper procedure to dial out were typed out and tacked up nearby.
To get accounts online was a matter of calling the co-ordinator of Web, giving him a list of the names and addresses of the team members, and making the payment for a group account and a private conference for six months. The cost of this was less than $300. In turn, each of us received an individual 'userID' and password, a personal online 'mailbox' and the capability to participate in any of the 125 public 'conferences' on the system. The private conference was called Habnet and required another password to get into.
The next step was to obtain the proper communications software. This software allowed the 'user' to automate the 'logging in' procedure (dialling Web) as well as 'upload and download' (transfer messages and files to and from Web). There are many kinds of such software, with each major type of computer being incompatible with any other. We used Procomm for the IBM compatibles, and Red Ryder for the MacIntosh, because they were not only good products and among the most commonly used, but they were also 'shareware' (you pay a nominal amount to the creator if you like it but you can take a long time to evaluate it).
The contacts database was established to provide a quick and easy way of accessing information on those people that were affiliated with the York Habitat Networking Initiative. During the Habnet project period, the Habgroup members were encouraged to add data on the contacts they were making to it. The aim of this information, besides being valuable for general interpersonal networking purposes, was to provide a basis for evaluating how best to approach these contacts in order to get them to join Habnet.
The Notebook software allowed for the tailor-making of the field design for each record [a record is all the information on a single person, and contains a number of fields, each of which is a discrete kind of information]. The fields included: name, position, organization, telephone number, address, computer network address(es), personal information, and organizational information. The records could be viewed one to a screen with all fields exhibited for revision, or 24 to a screen with each record showing only the name, organization and telephone number fields on one line for easy reference.
The ability to do sorting of records by having the computer search for shared words in particular fields meant that lists could be easily generated of people in certain locations, such as Ottawa or York University, or with certain organizational affiliations, such as academic or government. This made it simpler to prioritize the contacting of individuals to talk about Habnet, saved time when actually making the calls, and was a handy way of keeping track of each person's capability and willingness to participate in Habnet.
After the conference and accounts had been set up on Web, it was time to begin training the Habgroup to use Habnet. In addition to developing both an understanding of the concepts behind computer communications and an overview of the various kinds of computer networks in existence, the group had to learn to use four software programs: communications software, the Web environment, the Emacs text editor, and the contacts database.
Training sessions were scheduled for the group as a whole and for each individual over a two month period. All documentation was provided in 'hardcopy' (i.e., printed on paper), with both full manuals as well as shorter easy-reference guides.
The results of the training were that two of the seven members of the Habgroup did not make use of any of the software programs and one other only used the contacts database. These three really did not actively participate in the online interaction, while the other four were doing so within a month of initiating the training sessions. The reasons given for lack of participation included: being too busy with other work, slight technophobia (and therefore not much interest), and being out of the country during that period.
The promotion of Habnet began with its introduction at the various constituency meetings of the York/Habitat networking initiative. At the end of each meeting, the concept of using computers to enhance communications among the network of involved in human settlements was presented along with an overview of the history and nature of such a new medium. In addition, a one-page description of Habnet was handed out along with a Web brochure and a listing of the benefits of computer conferencing. Generally the idea was well received, though there were a few who expressed concern that the expense of the equipment would preclude many of the smaller 'grassroots' organizations from participating, especially in the Third World. As these meetings took place many months prior to the creation of Habnet on Web, no attempt was made to recruit anyone at that time.
Articles were written and placed in the weekly FES newsletter and the Faculty's International Development Newsletter (both in-house publications) explaining what Habnet was. Other short articles were sent to two 'umbrella' organizations (academic and NGO) for inclusion in their newsletters, though no responses were ever received as a result.
The main method chosen to promote Habnet was to personally visit with potential members. This also had the advantage of being a survey of their interest and capability. A total of 18 people were interviewed in Toronto and Ottawa, including 8 academics, 5 NGOs, 3 governmental organizations, 1 private sector person, and one non-affiliated individual. These people were chosen on the basis of the likelihood of their not only having the necessary equipment to join Habnet, but also the desire to participate.
The information obtained from these meetings was very enlightening and somewhat discouraging. Only one training session was scheduled as a result of this effort and even that did not result in active participation.
The reasons why people couldn't or wouldn't join Habnet were quite varied. The main reason given by five of them was that they were too busy - their office was understaffed, they had papers to write, they already had too much too do. The next reason was related in that four of them were already preoccupied with other computer networks - and just starting to use them, for the most part. Three did not have the proper equipment, and three were leaving the country for quite a while. The staff of one government office had no experience with computers. One person couldn't see the benefit in relation to the time invested, and another wanted to wait until more people were on Habnet.
Some other concerns were raised too. Information overload was one worry, as was the financial viability of Habnet. Not knowing other participants and fear of lack of security for Third World members were mentioned. Finally, links to other networks and ability to access relevant databases were raised as potential factors to growth.
The ways that Habnet might have been used by the individuals or organizations visited, according to them, was interesting, too. Many just saw it as a way to exchange messages with colleagues, relating it to a mail function. Others were keen on using it to distribute their information, having that as their office's mandate. Only four of the eighteen had any previous experience with computer conferencing, and that was not extensive, so the concept was generally a new one for most of these people.
The general response was very supportive. They thought the idea was a good one and many hoped to be able to join sometime in the future. Some very helpful suggestions were given, including the names of other potential members. Though more than half said they would be in touch about joining in the fall of that year, none ever did. Followup contact was made with five of them that fall but did not result in participation, mainly for similar reasons to those originally given.
Presentation at York University
In mid-October 1988, a one and a half hour presentation on computer networking and the Web system, using Habnet as the illustration, took place in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University. About 35 students and professors attended the session. A 'PC Viewer' was used to project the computer image onto the wall screen so everyone could easily see an actual walk-through of the online environment. Though such a demonstration is best performed 'live', in this case there was no direct telephone connection from that lecture room. A 'canned demo' on a floppy disk, consisting of screen pages taken from a previously recorded online session, was therefore used instead.
While there seemed to be a lot of interest in the concept, this presentation did not generate any more participants in Habnet, nor did two similar demonstrations to the general student body a few months later.
Habnet Conferences on Web
Habnet began as a private conference on Web, which meant that only people selected by the conference facilitator (sometimes referred to as moderator, host, chair or fairwitness) could have access to it. The Habgroup originally thought that they and other 'insiders' would use Habnet to discuss strategy in developing the human settlements network. Since this would entail revealing personal information about contacts, it would be best not to solicit participation from the general public.
The Habgroup decided that the initial topics of discussion were to be the following:
1. Document abstracts - a collection of abstracts of books, journals, magazines, newsletters, reports, and other documentary sources of information having to do with human settlements
2. Technical problems - for discussing problems encountered in trying to access and use Web.
3. Projects of student assistants (a topic for each)
4. Networking strategy and development - for the discussion of the York/Habitat networking initiative - who to invite into Habnet, when to invite them, how to encourage their participation, etc.
The following is an index of the Habnet topics of discussion that evolved throughout the active period of the conference, from May 1988 to January 1989.
# Topic (Lines, Responses)
2 Welcome to Habnet! (50, 0)
3 Report on Electronic Networking Association Conference May 12-15,1988 (91, 3)
4 HABGROUP MEETING MAY 19, 1988 - MINUTES (41, 0)
5 TECHNICAL PROBLEMS - difficulties in accessing and using the Web (35, 1)
6 Networking and Habnet - Major Project of Rory O'Brien (Summer '88) (233, 2)
8 Housing Developments and Planning in Africa - Richard Stren lecture (211, 0)
9 Meeting of Habgroup Mon. June 13th, 2 p.m., in the Habitat office (22, 1)
12 Garbage disposal research (17, 1)
13 Waste and unemployment documentation query (11, 0)
14 World Habitat Day - ideas needed (12, 2)
15 Development Workshop telephone number needed (4, 0)
16 Idea - architecture students and low-cost housing projects (19, 6)
17 Idea - Canadian meeting re 1989 Habitat Commission theme? (14, 0)
18 Readership test ;-) (13, 1)
19 MINUTES - Habgroup meeting June 13, 1988 (48, 2)
20 Emacs now the default editor for present Habnet members (17, 0)
21 Peacenet - Nairobi connection (65, 7)
22 ELC - Environmental Liaison Centre (86, 0)
23 ANEN - African NGOs Environment Network (48, 3)
24 Packet radio demonstration - Dakar, Senegal (169, 0)
26 INTEGRATED URBAN MANAGMENT (25, 7)
27 Martha Stewart's Village Video Network (54, 0)
29 Greening the City (85, 3)
30 Report on recent efforts to expand Habnet (64, 5)
31 April 87 Guest Editorial in FES' Int'l Development Newsletter (97, 0)
32 greening info request (5, 0)
33 Web Participation (3, 3)
34 People to meet with in Ottawa (35, 1)
35 meetings in Ottawa (5, 0)
36 BENEFITS AND DRAWBACKS OF HABNET (73, 0)
37 Outline for CIDA proposal for expanding Habnet (67, 1)
38 Report 2 on Attempts to Propagate Habnet (92, 2)
39 FCMNET (16, 1)
40 OISE Meeting on Latin American networking July 13, 1988 (86, 0)
41 Report on Ottawa trip - Rory O'Brien - July 18 to 21, 1988 (253, 1)
42 CIDA's policy on urban issues (18, 0)
43 The Calcutta Social Project - Urban Waste Recycling (96, 0)
44 Rural and Small Town Research and Studies COnference (11, 0)
45 Human settlements publications listing (27, 0)
46 New publ. on construction industry (60, 0)
There was a total of six people who actually took part in the habnet conference, four from the Habgroup and two others already on Web who were invited to join because they were working in the human settlements field. Efforts to bring more contacts online were not successful, as discussed in the above section on Promotion of Habnet. The members of the Habgroup who were working on their own individual projects did not feel that Habnet was sufficiently advanced to warrant encouraging the contacts they were making to join.
The articles placed as topics in the conference were generally of three types: information bulletins, reports on activities, and discussion forums. The information bulletins were by far the majority, but these elicited very few responses, perhaps because of their general 'background' nature. The activity reports were also not very evocative of responses, primarily because they were made verbally in Habgroup meetings prior to their posting online. The few discussion forums that evolved often centred around questions or requests for information. It seemed that if the question was placed online because either it was a spur of the moment thing (such as a technical difficulty) or it was submitted by the two non-Habgroup members (who lived in Nova Scotia), and therefore not likely to be discussed in a face-to-face meeting, it was more likely to result in more interaction online.
Most of the postings were done by two people, the facilitator of the conference (the author of this report) and the Habitat Information Officer. The other participants, while not as active, did all contribute at least some postings, generally as responses in discussion forums.
When the Habgroup realized that the habnet conference was not expanding in its number of participants, it was decided to create a similarly focused public conference called 'humset'. The hope was that by allowing any interested people on Web to participate, a wider range of viewpoints and more interaction would occur.
The humset conference was created in September 1988, and an announcement made on Web advertising it to all 250 users with accounts on the system at that time. The first topic posted in humset outlined the purpose of the conference. Subsequent postings made by the facilitator were re-postings of material for public consumption already contained in the habnet conference.
To avoid information overload and to convey to users that the conference was an active one, the re-postings were placed in the conference in a staggered manner. With three or four such new items a week, new participants would be notified by the system on a frequent enough basis for them to develop a recognition and an affinity for humset. This would help encourage their participation, it was surmised.
Whether such a strategy worked or not is hard to say. Though there were half a dozen or so newcomers, one of whom was active in a few new discussion forums, the conference as a whole did not really become very popular. Though it continued to elicit some infrequent postings after the habnet conference material had all been re-posted, the last entry was put on the system in May 1989.
One of the unexpected results of creating humset was that it caused the original participants to stop posting items in the private habnet conference. It was assumed that, although other factors were involved, Habnet members preferred to interact in only one 'place' rather than divide their time and attention between two.
The amount of use of e-mail between Habnet members showed it to be the preferred method of communication, far outweighing the use of the online conferences. It was much more informal in style and much more personal, of course. The familiarity of sending single messages to one person (and sending 'carbon copies' to others) via regular mail made it the first thing learned by new Habnet users. It actually took a while before participants could be convinced it was more convenient to use the habnet conference for messages that were to go to the whole Habgroup rather than using e-mail to send them to one person and cc'ing the others.
One of the main uses of e-mail was for the requesting and receiving of technical support. Problems that Habnet members had with editing postings or up and downloading made them likely to write brief messages to the Habnet facilitator or the Web system administrator. Another main use made of e-mail was for the scheduling of meetings among members of the Habgroup. Other types of messages were work related insofar as information was shared about overlap in projects and advice given on project development. Finally, many messages were just banter between participants.
The Web system allowed two users to 'chat' with each other when both were online at the same time. This chatting took the form of a written dialogue carried out in the same way a verbal dialogue takes place over a CB radio. One person would write their piece, indicate they were finished with an 'o' (for over), and the other person would respond in a similar fashion, with both people being able to see both sets of writings on their screen.
This was a very popular, though limited, means of communication. It evoked the feeling of a telephone conversation with its immediacy of interaction. Generally, these conversations were fairly short ones. If the 'conversation' became interesting and looked like it would take a long time, the users would exit from Web and use the telephone. None of the chats were scheduled in advance and it was not often that one would find another Habgroup member online at the same time. While it was considered 'fun', it was not used very frequently.
This capability was used only twice during the project period, each time for reports either too lengthy to be put into a conference or formatted for a word processor (which would make it unreadable as a mail or conference message). There seemed to be two reasons why it was not used more often: the procedure was badly documented in the Web manual, and there was not much demand for yet more lengthy readings (of which the Habnet members already had plenty).
Demise of Habnet
The last posting of an item in the habnet private conference was January 31, 1989, and in the humset public conference was May 26, 1989. Electronic mail messages were exchanged with decreasing frequency by the members until August 1989, paralleling the drop-off of participation as members stopped using the system.
There were a number of factors in Habnet's eventual stagnation, many of which, being interactive, were both cause and effect of one another.
For an online network to be successful one needs to get a 'critical mass' of people interacting on the system. This means a sufficient number of people to ensure that the appropriate contacts are available online when one wants to get information from them or initiate a collaborative project. Enough people also means that a greater depth and breadth of information is being posted to the conferences such that one can keep up with the latest news in a particular field of interest. Having more participants generally leads to more frequent messages being available so that each member can have the option of 'taking it easy' and adding to the discussions in a much more leisurely way, without feeling a pressure to make frequent contributions in order to keep the conference alive and active.
Habnet never grew much beyond the original Habgroup. The main reason for this had to do with a lack of resources. It took a considerable effort on the part of the instigator and facilitator of Habnet to bring online even a few people who were very supportive of the idea. In August 1988, this person took on the full-time position as Web co-ordinator, an extremely demanding job. While it still allowed him to continue with Habnet, it did reduce it in his list of priorities. This meant that the time and energy necessary for seeking continued funding for promoting the network, training new users and facilitating their online interaction was not there in sufficient quantities.
One of the original plans of the Habnet project was to write a proposal to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for continued funding for the project. Several outlines for the proposal were drawn up at different times but it was thought best to hold off submitting it until Habnet grew a little larger and it was clear that it was a worthwhile initiative to fund. The final proposal was never written, there being little indication that the funding needed would ever be approved.
The York/Habitat networking initiative was also not providing any new members of Habnet. This is because of two related reasons:
1. the members of the Habgroup who were working on their individual projects were not encouraging their contacts to join Habnet, and
2. there was very little immediate need for any of the contacts to enter into ongoing communication with the Habgroup or each other via Habnet.
The graduate students' networking projects were generally for the purpose of gathering information on who was doing what in specialized areas of human settlements and not for the coordinating of any particular activities. Though creating some kind of collaborative effort to serve as a focus of the whole networking initiative had been discussed early on, it never materialized.
There were several reasons why the few members of Habnet ceased to use it. One left the country for a six-month period, and one (who lived in Nova Scotia) could not afford to use Web any more. Of the others, their participation decreased and stopped as their enthusiasm waned, because they were not getting any real benefit out of Habnet. Without some sort of payoff for putting information online, there is very little incentive to continue. Having only a couple of active members, most of whom were more easily communicated with by telephone or face-to-face-meetings, meant that Habnet was increasingly a waste of valuable time, especially since there ceased to be even a common venture keeping the Habgroup together.
Enthusiasm levels dropped and frustration levels rose due to technical difficulties at three different times, leading to markedly diminished interaction. The first was in mid-January, 1989, when thieves stole the Web computer and its backup tapes. Though luckily an old backup tape was located off-site and the Web system replaced and running within three days, it meant that all mail and conference postings from mid-November had been lost.
Though it was disheartening, members rallied and made an effort to re-upload whatever postings they had available on their own computers. Three weeks later, Web experienced a hard disk crash that wiped out all postings entered into the system since the theft, and since replacement backup tapes had not been purchased, these also were irretrievably lost. Some were re-uploaded again, but not many.
To cap off this 'time of troubles', in mid-April there was a complete change of the Web system to software identical to that used by The Institute for Global Communications (IGC) in the United States and GreenNet in Britain in order to allow for fully integrated conferencing among the three networks. It not only meant a great deal of confusion as users tried to familiarize themselves with the new structure and commands, but it also brought with it over 600 new conferences, making it even less likely for Web members to become active in Habnet conferences.
Lessons Learned From Habnet
Many of the lessons learned from the Habnet project seem, in retrospect, to be very obvious ones. At the time of implementing Habnet, however, they were not so apparent. The following are some of the more important points to keep in mind when attempting to create an on-line network.
Getting Organizations Online
Larger organizations, with more offices and people, have more 'inertia' and can't get online as easily as smaller organizations. Being responsible for more operations and having to coordinate more people means that decisions to adopt new policies or procedures, especially ones that could have wide-ranging impacts, are not made without a great deal of thought. This means it can take a long time for such groups to decide to join a computer network.
What seems to be the strategy chosen by many of them is to have a carefully planned and carefully budgeted 'pilot' project. Many, however, will only consider a pilot after they have seen other organizations are using the innovation to their advantage. Their pilot will not be an exploration of general potential social uses as much as it will be a study of the cost/benefits for themselves and the best way to implement the new technology for their entire group.
Time is more important than money for most organizations, as far as investing resources in computer networking is concerned. Any proposals to get them online must have training as a major focus. Manuals are generally only read as a last resort.
Not having the proper equipment at hand to do computer networking is a barrier for organizations, since it often means quite a delay in getting it budgeted for, i.e., committees have to assess the situation.
It is best not to give people too high expectations regarding the potential benefits of computer networking. Although some 'hype' is needed to get people to be interested enough to try it, if they experience difficulty due to unexpected problems or lack of desired response, their initial reactions will be frustration and discouragement. They should be made to realize that this medium is approximately at the same stage of development as the telephone was at the turn of the century. If they are told they are pioneers who will experience 'hardships' but that the eventual satisfactions will be there, they will possibly be more likely to remain participants. Common frustrations include: technical problems, lack of knowledge about commands and procedures, and disrupted online communications. Murphy's Laws are always being encountered.
Interconnections with other computer networks is vital if the participants want to include other people in their network. The special interest, interpersonal network is not the machine, nor even the host system, but rather the web of connections established between people. There are so many people getting online with dozens of computer networks, it is very likely that some potential participants will already be using a different system and not want to 'move' to another.
Most of the major networks such as BITNET, the INTERNET, and UUCP/USENET, are 'gatewayed' into each other for electronic mail. Special interest network facilitators must become familiar with the correct methods for exchanging messages between their own system and these other systems, if their participants are going to be able to communicate while 'residing' on different computer networks.
It's easy to get people interested in an idea, but difficult to get them to follow through in assisting to implement that idea.
Everyone has their own agendas and goals, such that some people, despite their good intentions, never make the time to get online, or contribute to online discussions. The network facilitator, after providing the necessary support, should not be frustrated at this phenomenon. It is more important to concentrate on those who are able to participate.
Hands-on training saves the novice a lot of time in trial and error learning. Immediate answers to questions can help the new user quickly learn to navigate around the system. It is wise to find out what capabilities the user will be using most and develop the training process accordingly.
Macintosh / Apple users and those used to an mouse and icon based graphics interface have difficulty adjusting to command line interfaces. This may be because recognition is easier than remembering without prompts. User of an online service should have several options of interfaces, each allowing more detail to be given as prompts and explanations. The choice of which level to choose will depend on how quickly the user develops a 'memory map' of the system.
Having people already know each other helps facilitate online interaction. Seeing a familiar 'face' in a computer conference is as welcome and enjoyable as seeing them at a face-to-face conference. It provides an opportunity for the new user to make use of all the system's communications capabilities, thereby learning a wider variety of commands and procedures.
E-mail is the most used feature of a computer network. Perhaps this is because it is something that is readily identifiable with regular mail. The concept and procedure being relatively familiar means there is less fear of making mistakes or 'disobeying' norms as there might be in the case of online conferencing, which is very much an unknown entity. Marshall McLuhan may have had a point when he said we enter the future looking in the rear view mirror.
One of the best uses made of the system was the scheduling of meetings of the Habgroup. Exchanges of e-mail successfully avoided 'telephone tag' in letting the others know when was going to be available.
One of the reasons why there was little interaction online was that the Habgroup members were meeting face-to-face on a fairly frequent basis. This meant they could share information with each other without having to put it in a computer conference. Direct interpersonal communication, because of the emotional content of non-verbal cues, and the ability to get immediate, interactive feedback, is still preferable to computer-mediated communication.
Return to home page